The United States on Wednesday crossed an ominous new threshold of 3,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in a single day while public health officials stepped up preparations for a vaccine campaign of historic scope ahead of imminent regulatory approval.
Steady movement toward a vaccine rollout on the eve of a critical review by leading U.S. medical experts comes as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations surged alarmingly higher, straining healthcare 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 on Wednesday, according to state health data analyzed by Reuters.
In the agricultural heartland of the California’s Central Valley, COVID-19 admissions have overwhelmed some individual hospitals altogether. In Fresno County, home to 1 million people, only seven ICU beds remained unfilled on Wednesday.
The number of COVID patients hospitalized nationwide grew to a new all-time high of 105,805 by late Wednesday, up 18% over the previous two weeks.
The United States also has documented an average of 2,259 deaths and 205,661 new infections each day over the past week, a toll that U.S. health officials warn is likely to accelerate in the coming months before a vaccine becomes widely available to the public.
At least 3,112 U.S. patients perished on Wednesday alone, according to a Reuters tally of state-by-state data, surpassing the previous Dec. 3 record of 2,861 deaths and marking the first time the virus has claimed 3,000 American lives or more in a single day.
To date, the highly contagious respiratory illness has killed more than 289,000 Americans, out some 15 million known to have been infected since January.
Medical experts have said the crisis will only worsen in the weeks ahead amid colder weather, especially if Americans continue to disregard warnings to avoid unnecessary travel and large gatherings over the holidays.
Besides the monumental human cost, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy, forcing millions out of work as public health authorities 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 an economic assistance.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives was set to vote on a one-week stopgap funding bill to buy more time to reach a deal on a larger relief package, as a bipartisan group released details of their proposal.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that lawmakers were still “looking for a way forward” on COVID-19 aid, then took to the Senate floor to blast Democratic leaders for rebuffing two Republican offers earlier this week.
Vaccines on the way
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 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 Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a briefing on Wednesday.
A panel of independent medical experts was due meet on Thursday to decide whether to recommend that a vaccine from Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE. 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/BioNTech vaccine after an accelerated review process.
The United States is in dire need of a new mechanism for fighting the pandemic, given that so many Americans have refused to follow guidance for wearing face coverings and keeping their distance for people beyond their own households.
Experts and officials expect yet another surge of infections and hospitalizations following year-end holiday gatherings.
The World Health Organization director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, said on Wednesday that jumps in weekly COVID-19 cases in the United States and Canada were particularly worrisome as winter approaches.
The expected post-holiday surge would be in full force by the time President-elect Joe Biden succeeds President Donald Trump on Jan. 20.
Even though Trump has refused to concede defeat in his bid for a second term, and is attempting to overturn the Nov. 3 election, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar vowed on CNN to ensure a “full, cooperative, professional transition” on pandemic matters.
Azar also told “CBS This Morning” he expected inoculations to be reaching the general public in February, March and April, with enough vaccine supply “for all Americans” during the second quarter of next year.
Still, a sizable percentage of the U.S. population has expressed skepticism about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, creating an additional challenge.
Biden set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people – nearly a third of the U.S. population, within the first 100 days of his administration, or by April 29.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Andrea Shalal, Susan Cornwell, Maria Caspani, Sharon Bernstein, Anurag Maan, Peter Szekely, Lisa Lambert and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Gorman; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Steve Orlofsky, Bill Berkrot and Michael Perry)
© 2020 Reuters