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 the 19th day in a row, with nearly 113,000 coronavirus patients in U.S. medical facilities nationwide on Wednesday, while 3,580 others perished, the highest number in one single day.

The virus has claimed nearly 308,000 lives 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 beds hospitals spill out into the hallways.

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

The United States reported an additional 232,255 cases on Wednesday, the second-highest daily total to date, bringing the number of known infections nationwide to more than 17 million since the start of the pandemic.

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, given 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 health workers are wary of vaccines

Some of the early shots were also aimed at residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Subsequent rounds of immunization will go to other essential workers, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

It will be several months before the vaccines are widely available to the public on demand, and opinion polls have shown 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.

Public health officials have sought to reassure Americans that vaccines are safe and very effective in preventing disease.

But ambivalence has emerged even among pockets of health workers designated as first in line for vaccination.

“Some are on the fence. Some believe that 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 himself injected.

Public service messages about vaccines have been mixed with urgent calls for Americans to remain diligent on social distancing and mask wearing until vaccines become widely available.

They point to data showing that infections continue to spread almost 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 unnecessary travel 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 large stay-at-home orders across much of the state. .

BEDS IN HALLWAYS

“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 all available intensive care space has been taken up, patients newly admitted to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center were lined up in beds in hallways awaiting care, the spokesperson said. Justine Rodriguez at Reuters.

With increasing pressure on medical staff, the race to expand immunizations 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 expensive cold storage requirements than the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, making it a better option for remote and rural areas. Both were about 95% effective in preventing disease in clinical trials.

With millions of Americans laid off as a result of state and local economic restrictions designed to contain the virus, Congress may soon lend a hand.

Leading Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday were closer than they have been in months to approving the first economic relief from the coronavirus since April, negotiating the details of a $ 900 billion package.

The legislation was to include individual stimulus checks of around $ 600, expand unemployment benefits, funds for vaccine distribution and help struggling small businesses.

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 and Grant McCool

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