U.S. public health officials stepped up preparations for a historic coronavirus vaccine campaign ahead of imminent federal regulatory approval, while lawmakers on Capitol Hill wrangled on Wednesday over the terms of a COVID-19 economic relief package.
The U.S. has seen more than 15.3 million cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with more than 289,000 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracking tool. On Wednesday alone, more than 3,000 lives were lost to the virus — more than any other single day.
Steady movement toward a vaccine rollout and fitful congressional negotiations on a relief bill came as COVID-19 infections surged ominously higher, straining health-care systems in some pandemic hot spots to the breaking point.
Ten mostly rural counties scattered across California reported having no intensive care unit beds available, according to state health data analyzed by Reuters.
In the agricultural heartland of California’s Central Valley, COVID-19 admissions have overwhelmed some individual hospitals altogether. In Fresno County, home to one million people, only seven ICU beds remained unfilled on Wednesday.
Besides the monumental cost in human lives, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy, forcing millions out of work as public health authorities have imposed sweeping restrictions on social and economic life in an effort to tamp down the contagion.
Congress, meanwhile, struggled to end a months-long political stalemate over economic assistance.
Offering a new glimmer of hope, some officials said vaccinations could begin as soon as this weekend, and states have escalated plans for what is likely to be a distribution effort of unprecedented dimensions.
“I can’t think of a government operation that has been commenced that is more difficult and intricate than what governments will be asked to do here,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a briefing on Wednesday.
A panel of independent medical experts was due to meet on Thursday to decide whether to recommend that a vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech should receive emergency use authorization of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In a sign that approval could come swiftly, documents released by the FDA on Tuesday in preparation for the advisory review raised no new red flags over the safety or efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine.
FDA approval could come as early as Friday or Saturday, followed by the first U.S. injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, told Fox News on Tuesday.
Britain became the first Western nation to begin mass inoculations with the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday. Canada on Wednesday approved the Pfizer vaccine after an accelerated review process.
What’s happening across Canada
As of 7:45 a.m. ET on Thursday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 435,330, with 72,336 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 12,983.
Quebec reported 1,728 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 37 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 7,349. Hospitalizations were also on on the rise, with 844 in hospital — including 121 people who were in intensive care units.
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Premier François Legault warned on Wednesday that people who don’t adhere to public health restrictions will face fines.
“We cannot allow a minority of people to put the majority at risk,” he said.
In Ontario, health officials reported 1,890 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 28 additional deaths, bringing the death toll in that province to 3,836. As in Quebec, hospitalizations were on the rise in Ontario, which on Wednesday reported having 811 people in hospital with COVID-19. Of those, 221 were in intensive care units.
In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia reported six new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, while New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador each reported one new case.
There were no new cases reported in Prince Edward Island.
Across the North, there were nine new cases of COVID-19 reported in Nunavut on Wednesday, all of them in Arviat. Health officials said there were 48 active cases in the small community on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
There were no new cases reported in Yukon or the Northwest Territories. But the government of N.W.T. said it has found COVID-19 in wastewater in Yellowknife.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said this means there is likely an undetected case of COVID-19 in the capital. The virus was detected through a wastewater monitoring program, which analyzed samples taken between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2.
As a result, the government asked anyone self-isolating in Yellowknife since Nov. 30 to get a COVID-19 test, even if they don’t have symptoms. Essential workers who have been in Yellowknife since Nov. 30 should also get a test.
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In British Columbia, health officials reported 619 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 16 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 559. The province reported 338 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 75 in intensive care.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Wednesday that the upcoming vaccination rollout will be the “most complex and comprehensive immunization program ever delivered in B.C.” Vaccines will save lives and ease the “immense pressure” on the province’s health-care system, she said.
Alberta reported 1,460 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 13 additional deaths, which brings the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the province to 653. The province reported having 685 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 121 people in intensive care units.
The province imposed tough new restrictions earlier this week, including a mask mandate and a ban on social gatherings, in a bid to get control on rising case numbers.
In Saskatchewan, health officials reported 302 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and five additional deaths, bringing the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the province to 71.
Manitoba health officials reported 280 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 additional deaths on Wednesday. The province — which has now seen 438 deaths since the pandemic began — reported having 300 patients in hospital with COVID-19, including 38 in intensive care.
What’s happening around the world
From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET
As of early Thursday morning, more than 68.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported around the world, with more than 44.4 million of those cases considered resolved or recovered, according to Johns Hopkins. The global death toll stood at more than 1.5 million.
A leading public health official said “it will be extremely terrible to see” rich countries receiving COVID-19 vaccines while African countries go without.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said it will sting, especially as a second surge in cases begins on the continent of 1.3 billion people. He called it a “moral issue” and urged the United Nations to summon a special session to discuss the ethical, fair distribution of vaccines to avoid “this North-South distrust in respect to vaccines, which is a common good.”
In the Asia-Pacific region, the governor of South Korea’s most populous province called for mass testing for coronavirus.
South Korean officials were scrambling to build hospital beds in shipping containers to ease strains on medical facilities stretched by the latest coronavirus wave.
Meanwhile, the number of new coronavirus infections in Japan’s capital topped 600 in a day for the first time. Experts on Tokyo’s virus task force said the surge in infections has placed an added burden on hospitals, making it difficult for many of them to carry out treatment for ordinary patients.
Tokyo reported 602 new cases Thursday, while the daily tally for the entire nation was 2,810. Japan has reported 168,573 infections since the pandemic began, with 2,465 deaths.
In Europe, Germany has reported its highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases, while the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 has climbed above 20,000.
The national disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, said Thursday that 23,679 new cases were confirmed over the previous 24 hours. That’s just above the previous record of 23,648 from Nov. 20.
A partial shutdown that started Nov. 2 has succeeded in keeping the surge from picking up speed, but the number of daily new cases has remained around the same high level in recent weeks rather than falling. Momentum is building for a harder lockdown over Christmas and New Year’s, and some regions already are introducing new restrictions.
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That’s partly because deaths, which have been relatively low in Germany compared with several other European countries, have increased markedly. Another 440 deaths were reported on Thursday, following a single-day record of 590 on Wednesday. That brought the total so far to 20,372. Germany has reported some 1.24 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.
In the Americas, Brazil will “quite likely” begin vaccinations to stem the pandemic in January or February, Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said.
In the U.S., the usually stoic health director of Los Angeles County became emotional while describing “a devastating increase in deaths,” with the total hitting 8,075. Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday that this week the county recorded an average of 43 daily deaths — up from about 12 a day in mid-November.
Ferrer fought back tears as she called the deaths “an incalculable loss to their friends and their family and the community.”
Hospitals in Los Angeles are dealing with a surge in COVID-19 patients, with new admissions running near 500 a day. Officials anticipate that number will increase to 700 a day by next week.
In the Middle East, Israel received its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines on Wednesday and a distributor predicted the country would have enough for about a quarter of the population by the end of the year.
Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, said it will resume economic, tourist and entertainment activity within two weeks, while Oman said it will exempt nationals of 103 counties from needing an entry visa for a stay of up to 10 days.