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US awaits vaccine approval as daily national deaths top 3,000

US awaits vaccine approval as daily national deaths top 3,000

A patient is wheeled into a hospital during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, on Dec 4, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday (Dec 9) 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 US medical experts comes as COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations 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 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.

READ: Hackers steal Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine data in Europe, companies say

The number of COVID patients hospitalised nationwide grew to a new all-time high of 105,805 by late Wednesday, up 18 per cent 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 US health officials warn is likely to accelerate in the coming months before a vaccine becomes widely available to the public.

At least 3,112 US patients died 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, and about 15 million are 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.

READ: Rich countries have bought too many COVID-19 vaccines: Amnesty International

Congress, meanwhile, struggled to end a months-long political stalemate over economic assistance.

The Democratic-controlled US 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.

US 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 to meet on Thursday to decide whether to recommend that a vaccine from Pfizer and German partner BioNTech should receive emergency use authorisation of the US 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 US injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed vaccine development programme, 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.

READ: Canada approves Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, first shots expected next week

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 US population has expressed scepticism about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, creating an additional challenge.

Biden set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people - nearly a third of the US population, within the first 100 days of his administration, or by Apr 29.

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Source: Reuters

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