COVID-19 outbreak pushes US hospitals to rub shoulders as second vaccine nears approval

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A relentless outbreak of coronavirus in the United States has pushed besieged hospitals even further to the brink as the United States continued its vaccination rollout on Thursday and prepared to ship nearly 6 million doses of a new vaccine on the verge of regulatory approval.

A healthcare worker shoots coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine from a vial at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in southern Los Angeles, California, United States, December 17, 2020 REUTERS / Lucy Nicholson

COVID-19 hospitalizations hit record highs for 19th consecutive day, with nearly 113,000 coronavirus patients in U.S. medical facilities nationwide Wednesday, while 3,580 others perished, the highest number in one single day.

The virus has killed more than 311,000 in the United States to date, and health experts have warned of a worsening crisis this winter as intensive care units (ICUs) fill up and patients hospital beds spill out into the hallways.

“We expect to have more corpses than space for them,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a briefing Thursday, adding that the nation’s second largest city has completely exhausted its intensive care capacity. .

The number of cases in the United States rose by at least 239,018 on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally, the largest increase in one day since the start of the pandemic, bringing the number of known infections nationwide to more than 17 million.

Tolls were mounting as US regulators questioned whether to grant emergency use authorization for a vaccine developed by Moderna Inc, just a week after an earlier vaccine from Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE obtained consent for mass distribution.

A panel of external advisers from the US Food and Drug Administration overwhelmingly approved Moderna’s vaccine candidate for emergency use after a day of meeting Thursday. FDA clearance could come as early as Friday.

Both vaccines require two doses, three or four weeks apart, for each person inoculated.

The initial 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine began shipping on Sunday and still made its way to hospitals across the country and into the arms of doctors, nurses and other frontline health professionals.

Some of the first photos were also sent to residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Other essential workers, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses will be next on the list.

BEDS IN THE CORRIDORS

It will be several months before the vaccines are widely available to the public on demand, and opinion polls have found that many Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated.

Some are wary of vaccinations in general, and some are suspicious of the unprecedented speed with which the first vaccines were developed and implemented – 11 months after the first documented U.S. cases of COVID-19.

Health officials have sought to reassure Americans that large-scale clinical trials and rigorous scientific review have found vaccines to be safe and highly effective in preventing disease.

These messages have been combined with urgent appeals for Americans to remain diligent on social distancing and mask wear until vaccinations become widely available.

Data shows infections continue to spread virtually unabated across much of the country, apparently fueled by increased transmissions of the virus as many Americans have ignored warnings to avoid social gatherings and travel unnecessary during the Thanksgiving holiday last month.

California has been particularly hard hit in recent weeks, with many hospitals reporting intensive care units at or near full capacity, a dire situation that has sparked a renewal of stay-at-home orders across much of the state.

“Hospitals and healthcare workers continue to be pushed to their limits, as we continue to exceed what we expected. And we haven’t even finished the vacation yet, ”said Adam Blackstone, spokesperson for the Southern California Hospital Association.

In San Bernardino County, where available ICU space was reduced to zero, patients newly admitted to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center were lined up in beds in hallways awaiting care, the door told Reuters. lyrics by Justine Rodriguez.

With increasing pressure on medical staff, the race to expand vaccinations is seen as critical to preventing a collapse of health systems.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told CNBC on Thursday that 5.9 million doses of Moderna vaccine have been allocated to state governments and are ready to be distributed nationwide from the weekend. end.

The Moderna vaccine has less onerous cold storage requirements than the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, making it a better option for remote and rural areas.

Nonetheless, ambivalence over the vaccine has emerged even among pockets of healthcare workers designated as first in line for inoculation.

“Some are on the fence. Some believe we have to do it. It’s split in the middle, ”Diego Montes Lopez, 28, a phlebotomist at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles, said of colleagues after getting the injection himself.

But Dr Simon Mates, co-medical director of the intensive care unit at Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles, said doctors and nurses he knows believed the vaccine had arrived. at a crucial time.

“Our biggest concern was, ‘What if one of us gets sick?’ But now, with the vaccine, that worry appears to be diminishing, ”said Mates, who learned Wednesday that he had previously received the vaccine, rather than a placebo, as a participant in the Pfizer trials. “It’s one less thing to fear.”

Reporting by Susan Heavey, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Manas Mishra, Peter Szekely, Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Lucy Nicholson and Anurag Maan; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Gorman; Edited by Steve Orlofsky, Bill Berkrot, Grant McCool and Richard Pullin

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