U.S. sets record for COVID deaths, and California confirms second case of highly infectious new strain

The U.S. set fresh one-day records for fatalities from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 and number of patients hospitalized on Thursday, as California became the second state after Colorado to find a case of the new COVID-19 variant that is racing across the U.K. A day after a man in his […]

The U.S. set fresh one-day records for fatalities from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 and number of patients hospitalized on Thursday, as California became the second state after Colorado to find a case of the new COVID-19 variant that is racing across the U.K.

A day after a man in his 20s from Colorado was reported to have the first confirmed case of the new variant, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the Golden State had also detected a case. Newsom announced the news during an online call with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd,” Fauci said. “It’s to be expected.”

The new variant is understood be more infectious than the original virus but it does not seem to make people sicker. But with hospitals already at full capacity in parts of California and elsewhere, there are growing concerns that more rapid transmission could totally overwhelm health-care systems and workers.

California set a record of 432 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to the state health department, boosting the total since the start of the outbreak to 25,000.

Already, hospitals are turning ambulances away in Los Angeles, and EMT workers are being directed not to transport patients who do not have a pulse, while hospitals have started to ration care to prioritize patients with the best chances of survival.

Officials from Operation Warp Speed, the federal government program created to accelerate the development of COVID vaccines and therapies, acknowledged that vaccine distribution and administration was lagging early targets.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 2.79 million people had been dosed as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, and 12.4 million doses had been distributed. That’s well below the early promise for 100 million doses to be delivered by year-end, which was later reduced to 40 million and then 20 million.

“We agree that that number is lower than what we hoped for,” said Moncef Slaoui, scientific adviser of Operation Warp Speed, said at a press briefing. “We know that it should be better, and we’re working hard to make it better.”

See now: Biden joins public health experts in expressing dismay as early days of COVID vaccine rollout in U.S. fall far short of expectations

Gen. Gustave Perna, who is heading logistics for Operation Warp Speed, said winter weather and lags in reporting during the holiday season had slowed the program. And hospitals and other centers that will handle the administering of vaccines are dealing with the challenge of the need to store vaccines at ultralow temperatures.

The vaccines that have been granted emergency-use authorization in the U.S. — one developed by Pfizer Inc.
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with German partner BioNTech SE
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and one developed by the biotech company Moderna Inc.
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 — both need to be deeply refrigerated, and both are two-dose regimens.

But critics say the bigger problem is the lack of a national distribution plan with the administration of President Donald Trump leaving it to individual states to deal with the actual work of dosing residents. States are already struggling with budget deficits after the pandemic slammed revenue. Health departments, overburdened by nine months of managing testing, data analysis, advising businesses and schools, and running public information campaigns, are now on the hook for creating vaccine infrastructure.

Dr. William Haseltine, chairman and president of ACCESS Health International Inc., and a former Harvard Medical School professor who is known for his work on HIV/AIDs and cancer, criticized the government response.

“Science will save us, but it’s sad it’s had to come to that,” he said in an interview on MSNBC. “It’s good that we have our science, but our government hasn’t done what other governments have done. Even today, our government isn’t doing what it needs to do. We ourselves aren’t doing what we need to do. Science will come to our rescue and put this thing in a manageable place. It may not eliminate it, but it will put it in a manageable place. But we can help, and we should help.”

See: How many people have to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity? ‘The faster we do it, the faster we get back to life’

Fauci told NBC’s “Today” show that the low rate of vaccination so far is “disappointing” but said momentum should pick up heading into January. Fauci agreed that the federal government should allocate more resources to states. “You have to support the local groups, the states and the cities, to help them to get this task done, which is a very prodigious task.”

The U.S. recorded a record 3,903 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the most since the start of the outbreak, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Another 226,000 cases were counted, and hospitalizations set a record of 125,220.

The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 19.7 million, and deaths, at 342,450, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, or about a fifth of the global tally for each.

The Month Coronavirus Unraveled American Business – A WSJ Documentary

In other news:

• The U.K. National Health Service has pushed back the window for people to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech — to a duration the companies tested on only a small percentage of patients, MarketWatch’s Steve Goldstein reported. The NHS wrote a letter to hospitals saying those who are scheduled to receive their second dose after Jan. 4 should be rescheduled from three weeks’ time to 12, with most recipients booked in the last week of that time frame. Pfizer said the safety and efficacy of the vaccine hasn’t been tested at the new interval. “Pfizer and BioNTech’s Phase 3 study for the COVID-19 vaccine was designed to evaluate the vaccine’s safety and efficacy following a 2-dose schedule, separated by 21 days. The safety and efficacy of the vaccine has not been evaluated on different dosing schedules as the majority of trial participants received the second dose within the window specified in the study design,” the company said. It also noted there are no data to demonstrate that protection is sustained after 21 days from receiving the first dose.

Read: A cruel winter: New York City restaurants struggle for survival amid second indoor dining ban

• A Wisconsin health system said 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine that had to be discarded after they were left unrefrigerated now appear to have been deliberately spoiled by an employee, the AP reported. Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, north of Milwaukee, first reported on the spoiled doses on Saturday, and said they had been accidentally left out overnight by an employee at the medical center. In a statement late Wednesday, Aurora said the employee involved “today acknowledged that they intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration.” Nonprofit parent organization Aurora Health Care is headquartered in Milwaukee and operates 15 hospitals in Wisconsin. The employee has been fired and the matter turned over to the authorities for further investigation.

• Chinese health regulators have given conditional approval to a coronavirus vaccine developed by state-owned Sinopharm, the AP reported. The inactivated, two-dose vaccine is the first one approved for general use in China. The go-ahead comes as the country carries out a campaign to vaccinate 50 million people before a major holiday for the Lunar New Year in February. The vaccine was developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of Sinopharm. The company
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 announced Wednesday that preliminary data from late-stage trials had shown it to be 79.3% effective.

• Moderna Inc. confirmed that it has agreed to supply the South Korean government with 40 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine. Deliveries are expected to start in May 2021. The vaccine is not currently approved by Seoul, so the company will work with regulators to seek approval before distribution.

Latest tallies

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 82.8 million on Thursday, the Johns Hopkins data show, and the death toll rose to 1.8 million. At least 4.8 million people have recovered from COVID-19.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 193,875 and is third by cases at 7.6 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 10.3 million and third in deaths at 148,738.

Mexico has the fourth highest death toll at 124,897 and 13th highest case tally at 1.4 million.

Italy has had 73,604 fatalities, the highest in Europe, and 2.1 million cases. The U.K. has had 2.4 million cases, the most in Europe, and 72,657 deaths, second highest in Europe and sixth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 95,944 confirmed cases and 4,782 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

New applications for state unemployment benefits fell slightly around Christmas and dipped below 800,000 for the first time in a month, but the record coronavirus outbreak is still weighing heavily on the labor market and throwing more people out of work, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states slipped by 17,000 to 787,000 in the seven days ended Dec. 26, the government said Thursday.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast initial jobless claims to total a seasonally adjusted 835,000.

It’s possible the decline stemmed from people waiting to apply for benefits until after the holiday. Uncertainty over whether Congress would approved extended jobless benefits before they ran out at the end of the year might have also played a role.

See:Stimulus checks are on their way — economists give one important reason why it bodes well to wait

Whatever the case, job losses each week are still extremely high. Another 308,262 applications for benefits were filed last week through a temporary federal relief program created during the pandemic, putting the total number of new claims last week at 1.15 million. Combined claims have yet to fall below 1 million a week.

Trump signed legislation last week that extends unemployment benefits for jobless Americans and increases payments by up to $300 a week. Benefits could have been cut off for millions of people had Washington failed to act, and some might still face delays in payments.

Read: When will jobless Americans get their extra $300 in benefits

“Initial jobless claims dropped a bit, but at levels this high and with margins of error this big, they’re essentially stuck at a painful, inflated level due to the coronavirus surge,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union. “And as long as that surge continues, even with stimulus, we can expect more than 1 million Americans will lose their jobs weekly, based on state and federal measures.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
US:DJIA
 and S&P 500
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were flat on Thursday, the last trading day of the year. Trading volume was expected to be light.

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