US officials say they're "rapidly" working toward issuing emergency authorization for what would be the nation's second COVID-19 vaccine -- even as coronavirus hospitalizations, cases and deaths are piling up in unprecedented ways.
The Food and Drug Administration is widely expected to issue the authorization soon for Moderna's vaccine candidate after the agency's vaccine advisers voted Thursday to recommend this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would need to green-light the vaccine before shots can be administered -- and a CDC advisory panel is meeting this weekend to discuss it.
If all hurdles are cleared, Moderna's vaccine could be given in the US next week -- joining Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine, which rolled out this week, with first doses primarily being given to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
"It's an exciting time, but it's a heartbreaking time," Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN Friday of the vaccines' arrivals. "The numbers (of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations) are almost unspeakable at this point."
In the US, average daily cases, total hospitalizations and average daily deaths are still rising to levels not previously seen, as hospital staff around the country warn they're running out of space and energy to provide sufficient care:
• Cases: The country's average number of daily cases across a week was 216,674 on Thursday -- a record high, John's Hopkins University data show. That's more than three times what the daily case average was during a summer peak in July.
More than 1.51 million new coronavirus cases were reported in the US this past week -- the most ever for one week, according to JHU. That means new infections were reported in roughly 1 in 216 people in the US this week alone.
• Hospitalizations: The number of Covid-19 patients in US hospitals was 114,237 on Thursday -- the most recorded on a given day -- according to the COVID Tracking Project.
• Deaths: The nation averaged 2,633 Covid-19 deaths daily across the last week -- the highest average yet. The total reported Thursday, 3,270, is the third-highest daily total on record.
Assuming the Moderna vaccine is authorized, 5.9 million Moderna doses could be delivered next week, joining 2 million allocated next week from Pfizer, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said earlier this week.
"We still anticipate that every American will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by June," Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, said.
The task at hand now is to tackle skepticism many communities have toward the vaccines, and pass along the facts, according to Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. To that end, public figures including Vice President Mike Pence have received vaccinations on live television this week, hoping in part to inspire confidence.
"I've had the chance to be intimately involved in every step of the way here in the development of these vaccines. There have been no shortcuts taken, there's no hidden information," Collins told CNN Thursday. "This is something you want to do, for yourself, for your family, for the future of our nation."
Model raises prediction for number of deaths by April
An influential coronavirus model at the University of Washington on Friday projected that a total 562,000 people in the US will have died from COVID-19 by April 1 -- up significantly from the prediction it made last week, when it forecast 502,000 deaths by that date.
The increase is due to surges in cases and deaths, with particularly large increases in California, the model from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation says. California is the nation's most populous state.
The US could see more than 3,750 deaths reported daily in mid-January, the IHME predicted. The country so far has reported more than 311,000 total COVID-19 deaths.
VP and surgeon general get vaccines on live TV
On Friday morning, Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams received the Pfizer/BioNTech shots on live television in Washington.
After getting his shot, Pence said history will show this week's vaccine rollout marked the beginning of the end of the pandemic, "but with cases rising across the country ... we have a ways to go."
Also getting the vaccine earlier Friday morning on CNN were Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital.
Montgomery Rice said she hoped her example, as a Black physician who followed the vaccine data and decided to get vaccinated, inspires confidence in others who may be wary of it, including minorities and even undecided health care workers.
"What I hope is that this is showing those health care workers ... that we care about you, and the fact that we're here, getting this live, is to give them confidence, that this is safe -- we believe this is safe, and they must do this to protect themselves," Montgomery Rice said.
Some states see COVID-19 numbers surge, others loosen restrictions
Florida reported the highest number of daily new cases since mid-July. Kentucky's governor announced a record number of new deaths, saying it was "by far the most people that we've lost." Pennsylvania's health officials announced the state's number of hospitalizations is double the peak in the spring, with more than 1,200 COVID-19 patients in the ICU.
"We continue to hear of additional hospitals across the state that have few ICU beds left, or in some cases no ICU beds left," Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday.
Hospitalizations are also up in New York City, the mayor announced, while the average of new cases is a number that "just keeps getting bigger and bigger." And in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said hospitals remain "stretched to their limits" and extended her declaration of a state of emergency for COVID-19 for another two months, adding "these are the darkest days of this pandemic."
But while many states are still battling a ferocious spread, others are loosening restrictions.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said this week that COVID-19 case numbers have gone down in the state and announced she was lifting all curfews for bars and restaurants and removing limitations for social gatherings.
Bars and restaurants will be able to resume normal operations as long as customers are seated when eating or drinking, wear masks when not seated, be seated 6 feet away from other groups and there are no more than eight people per group, the governor said. The governor also announced she was lifting gathering limitations, but a distance of 6 feet is required between groups.
In Utah, where health officials said hospitals across the state are operating at capacity, Gov. Gary Herbert announced he was removing the restriction on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., saying local bars and restaurants have demonstrated a willingness to enforce physical distancing and mask wearing when customers aren't eating or drinking.
"We appreciate the willingness to step up and help enforce protocols that make bars and restaurants a safe environment for the patron to come and participate," the governor said.
'Another couple of dark months ahead of us'
While the country waits for the vaccine impacts to really kick in -- something that won't likely happen until the early summertime, when vaccines will become more widely available -- the tools that could immediately work to help curb the spread of the virus are the ones that have been touted by experts for months: face masks, social distancing and regular hand washing.
"You don't want to just say, 'Oh, well, we're almost there,' because we're not. We have another couple of dark months ahead of us if we don't do something at this point to try to stop this dreadful upward curve of hospitalizations and cases and deaths."
"This is not the moment to be throwing down your guard and gathering for the holidays," he added.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee said that while authorization of vaccines is an important turning point in the pandemic, the sobering reality is that more residents are getting sicker and the decisions people made over the Thanksgiving holiday is having a severe impact on the state's hospital system.
"One thing this vaccine will not solve or cure is selfishness or indifference to what is happening to our neighbors around us," he said.
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