The United States on Wednesday widened its network for administering COVID-19 vaccines to doctors and nurses on the frontlines of a pandemic that has killed more than 307,000 people in the country, even as a major storm threatened to slow progress on the East Coast.
While medical professionals at a growing number of hospitals rolled up their sleeves, lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were nearing a long-elusive bipartisan deal on $900 billion US in economic relief to pandemic-hit U.S. workers and businesses.
The aid package, to be attached to a massive spending bill that must pass by Friday to avert a federal shutdown, was not expected to include COVID-relief funds for state and local governments, as Democrats wanted, or protections for companies from pandemic-related lawsuits, as sought by Republicans.
Rollout of the first tranche of 2.9 million doses of a newly authorized vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech SE was in its third full day, with shipments headed to 66 more U.S. distribution hubs nationwide.
A second vaccine from Moderna could win emergency-use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week.
Express delivery companies FedEx and United Parcel Service, sharing a leading role in vaccine shipments, said they were monitoring potential impacts of heavy ice and snow that began to disrupt transport along the Eastern Seaboard.
U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, overseeing the government’s Operation Warp Speed campaign, said FedEx and UPS have developed contingency plans to keep any delayed vaccine shipments secure until they can be “delivered the next day.”
“We are on track with all the deliveries we said we were doing,” Perna told reporters at a briefing. He cited a minor glitch involving four trays of vaccine — two sent to California and two to Alabama — that arrived at temperatures lower than prescribed. The trays in question were shipped back to Pfizer and later replaced, Perna said.
Some 570 other vaccine distribution centres received the bulk of the initial batch of shipments on Monday and Tuesday, and an even larger wave was due for delivery to 886 additional locations on Friday, Perna said.
From each distribution site, vaccine doses were divided up among area hospitals and administered to health-care workers, designated as first in line to be immunized. Some were also going to residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Later vaccine rounds will go to other essential workers, senior citizens and people with chronic health conditions.
U.S. president-elect Joe Biden, who has said he would get the vaccine publicly to help instill confidence in its safety, is expected to receive his first injection as soon as next week, according to his transition team. Biden, 78, is in a high-risk category for the coronavirus due to his age.
‘It’s not over yet’
Political leaders and medical authorities in the meantime have launched a media blitz assuring Americans that the vaccines are safe while urging them to avoid growing weary of social distancing and mask-wearing while the pandemic rages on.
“It is not over yet,” Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told CBS News. “Public health measures are the bridge to get to the vaccine, which is going to get us out of this.”
With hospitalizations setting a record for the 19th day in a row — nearly 113,000 patients under treatment on Wednesday — health experts warn that fatalities will rise higher still in the weeks ahead, even as the vaccine campaign steadily expands.
Canadian officials have had a similar message, urging people to follow all local public health rules and keep up mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene as the vaccine effort gets underway.
What’s happening across Canada
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As of 7:30 a.m ET on Thursday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 481,630, with 75,885 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 13,799.
Ontario reported 2,139 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday with 43 additional deaths, bringing the death toll in the province to 4,035. Hospitalizations also climbed, hitting 932 — with 256 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.
Toronto Mayor John Tory on Wednesday urged people to stay home and said he thinks there’s a need for broader restrictions.
“People are finding it too easy to move back and forth and do things we’re discouraging them from doing,” Tory said.
WATCH | Ontario hospitals prepare for emergency surge capacity during pandemic:
In Quebec, schools are closed and most office workers will be working form home from Thursday until at least Jan. 11 as new public health restrictions kick in.
Health officials in the province reported 1,897 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 43 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 7,613. Hospitalizations in Quebec increased to 975, with 128 people in intensive care units.
In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick reported eight new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, Newfoundland and Labrador reported five new cases and Nova Scotia reported four new cases. There were no new cases reported in Prince Edward Island.
COVID-19 vaccination efforts got underway Wednesday in all the Atlantic provinces except for New Brunswick, which is set to begin its campaign on the weekend.
Health officials in Manitoba reported 292 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 15 additional deaths, bringing the death toll in the province to 523.
Manitoba got its vaccination effort underway Wednesday and plans to give 900 health-care workers the Pfizer-BioNTech shot this week.
In Saskatchewan, health officials reported 129 new cases of COVID-19 and no additional deaths.
A new restriction stating that people in the province can no longer have guests in their homes goes into effect Thursday, along with several other public-health rules, and will remain in force until at least Jan. 15.
There will be some exceptions to the new household visit rule — for example, those who live alone can socialize with people in another household that has no more than five occupants.
WATCH | Saskatchewan hospitals overloaded even as COVID-19 cases decline:
Alberta reported 1,270 new cases of COVID-19 — one of the province’s lowest daily infection counts in weeks — and 16 additional deaths on Wednesday. Hospitalizations stood at 749, with 139 COVID-19 patients in the province’s intensive care units, according to the province.
The province’s top doctor said an Edmonton arena is being set up as an alternate hospital with help from the Canadian Red Cross. Chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw says Alberta Health Services and the national charity are putting 100 patient beds in the Butterdome arena at the University of Alberta. It will take a few weeks to set up the site, but there is no plan to staff it unless the beds are needed, Hinshaw said
In British Columbia, health officials reported 640 new cases of COVID-19 and 16 additional deaths. There have now been 692 deaths in the province since the pandemic began.
A joint statement from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix says 409 doses of the COVID vaccine were administered on Tuesday and the province expects to see weekly vaccine deliveries starting next week.
Across the North, there were no new cases of COVID-19 reported in Yukon, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut.
What’s happening around the world
From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 9:07 a.m. ET
As of early Thursday morning, more than 74.3 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide with more than 42 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a COVID-19 tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 1.6 million.
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea reported a record number of coronavirus deaths on Thursday as the country’s biggest wave of infections since the start of the pandemic strained hospital resources and sparked panic-buying in anticipation of a harsh new lockdown.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Thursday said the COVID-19 death toll was now at 634 after 22 patients died in the past 24 hours, the deadliest day since the emergence of the pandemic. Among 12,209 active patients, 242 are in serious or critical condition.
The Japanese capital, Tokyo, faced with acute strains on its medical system from the pandemic, raised its alert level to the highest of four stages on Thursday as the number of new COVID-19 cases spiked to a record daily high of 822.
In Africa, Nigeria expects to receive its first doses of a vaccine in January.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has kicked off its COVID-19 inoculation campaign, with the health minister receiving the first dose a week after authorities approved the Pfizer vaccine.
The Gaza Strip has recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus cases in one day for the first time since an outbreak began there, threatening to further overwhelm the territory’s decrepit health system.
In the Americas, health officials in Alaska have reported that a second health-care worker had an adverse reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau said the two workers showed adverse reactions about 10 minutes after receiving the vaccine and were treated. One received the vaccine Tuesday and will remain in the hospital another night under observation while the other, vaccinated Wednesday, has fully recovered.
U.S. health authorities warned doctors to be on the lookout for rare allergic reactions when they rolled out the first vaccine, made by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. Britain had reported a few similar allergic reactions a week earlier.
The Inter-American Development Bank said it would mobilize $1 billion US to help countries in Latin America and the Caribbean acquire and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, adding to some $1.2 billion already committed in 2020.
Brazil registered over 70,000 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, a daily record, bringing the country’s total caseload above 7 million.
In Europe, Denmark is shutting down nationwide, with shopping malls and department stores ordered to close as of Wednesday and small shops — except for food stores and pharmacies — told to shut as of Dec. 25.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the restrictions will apply until Jan. 3. Hairdressers and beauty shops will close as of Dec. 21.
Frederiksen said she was “deeply concerned about how it will go in the coming winter months,” adding that Denmark’s “health-care system is under pressure.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people should exercise extreme caution but he refused to outlaw festive family gatherings as cases soared across swathes of Britain.
Bulgaria’s government is extending a nationwide lockdown until the end of January, as the number of new coronavirus infections and fatalities remain high and is putting pressure on the overloaded health-care system.
The number of infections in the Netherlands, meanwhile, jumped by more than 11,000 in 24 hours, hitting a new record.