New COVID steps in California as Biden names CDC, HHS picks

Health workers in COVID-19 protective equipment
Health workers in COVID-19 protective equipment

Asian Development Bank, Eric Sales / Flickr cc

With COVID-19 cases surging, much of California entered a new lockdown period yesterday, as the incoming Biden administration announced its nominees to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

At the global level, the world added about 1.5 million more cases over the weekend, putting the pandemic total past the 67 million mark.

California surge squeezes ICU capacity

As cases surged across much of the nation, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, MD, yesterday on Meet the Press voiced frustration that many governors and local officials are refusing to order the COVID-19 mitigation steps that were successful in the fall. She also urged Americans not to take the same attitude into the upcoming holiday season that they took into Thanksgiving.

Last night, Southern California entered lockdown again to prevent intensive care units (ICUs) from being overrun, KTLA reported. The measure bans all in-person restaurant dining, shutters most businesses, and bars gatherings outside of households. In the Bay Area, five counties will also go on lockdown, KQED reported.

The orders put about 33 million of the state's 39 million residents under the new orders. According to CNN, ICU capacity in Southern California dropped to 10.3%, and ICU capacity in the San Joaquin Valley fell to 6.6%, The state reported a record 30,075 cases yesterday, though it noted that the total includes earlier cases .

On the East Coast, a New Hampshire veterans nursing home over the weekend issued a plea for licensed nurses, nursing assistants, and nonmedical workers as it grappled with a COVID-19 outbreak that killed nearly two dozen residents and depleted staff, ABC News reported.

Biden team names CDC, HHS heads

President-elect Joe Biden today officially announced picks to lead two of the federal agencies that play key roles in the ongoing pandemic battle. Their names were released over the weekend, with both receiving wide praise on social media.

To lead the CDC, Biden named Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and an expert on HIV and AIDS. The Infectious Diseases Society of America and its HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) today welcomed Walensky's selection. "Her contributions to research, policy and practice in understanding, responding to and controlling pandemic threats that include HIV, tuberculosis and now COVID-19 have informed global and domestic efforts that are critical to protecting Americans and advancing global health," the group's leaders said in a statement. Walensky is an HIVMA board member.

Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, dean of the Brown University School of Health, said on Twitter today that running CDC is complicated, especially in a crisis, and that the skill set requires communicating with the American people, running a sprawling organization, and understanding and effectively using public health tools. "Lots of people can do one of those. No one I know can do all 3 as well as @RWalensky," Jha said.

Also on Twitter today, Walensky said she began her career at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and has devoted her career to researching, treating, and fighting infectious diseases. "I'm honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC. We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts," she said.

Also, the transition team named Xavier Becerra, JD, currently serving as California's attorney general, as HHS Secretary. He was a 12-term member of the US House of Representatives, and last month he led the defense of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the Supreme Court.

Lawrence Gostin, JD, of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Georgetown University Law Center, today on Twitter said Becerra is a strong pick for HHS secretary and pushed back against medical groups that call for qualified physicians to serve in key health posts. He added that Becerra brings political heft, experience leading a large organization, and a track record on the ACA and health justice. "Our Best HHS Secs were not doctors," Gostin tweeted.

On Twitter today, Becerra said, "As Secretary of Health and Human Services, I will build on our progress and ensure every American has access to quality, affordable healthcare—through this pandemic and beyond."

In other US developments:

  • President Trump's personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday and is being treated at Georgetown University Medical Center, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

  • A bipartisan lawmaker group is expected to unveil formal text of a $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill today, according to Reuters.

  • Operation Warp Speed's chief science advisor Moncef Slaoui, PhD, said on CNN yesterday that he expects the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will issue an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine after it reviews safety and efficacy data on Dec 10. He projected that most nursing home residents and staff will be vaccinated by the middle of January.

  • With 175,663 new cases reported yesterday and 1,113 more deaths, the US total as of this morning was at 14,764,898 cases, with 282,348 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

International developments

Over the weekend, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shipments began arriving at hospitals in the United Kingdom, and vaccination with the first doses is expected to begin tomorrow, Reuters reported. On Dec 2, regulators in the United Kingdom approved the first emergency use of the vaccine, making it the first western country to clear a vaccine against the pandemic virus.

In Europe, cases are trending downward in some countries that ordered second lockdowns, and some are extending or adding measures as the Christmas holidays approach. Greece extended its measures though Christmas, while Germany—still under partial lockdown—will further tighten steps in Bavaria state to help curb stubbornly high cases.

Denmark has ordered a partial shutdown in some of its hard-hit areas, and Portugal said it will ease some of its restrictions for Christmas, then reimpose them in advance of New Years.

In other global headlines:

  • At a media briefing today, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, announced the appointment Anil Soni as the first chief executive officer of the WHO Foundation. The independent group was launched in May to expand global support for the WHO's activities and to generate funding from sources it hasn't drawn from before. Soni's most recent position was head of global infectious diseases at Viatris, a US-based pharmaceutical company.

  • South Korea's president today called for more contact tracing and testing to battle its latest COVID-19 wave, Reuters reported. The country is expected to tighten distancing measures around Seoul and surrounding areas that would last until the end of December.

  • The global total today climbed to 67,440,864 cases with 1,541,661 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online tracker.

This week's top reads