COVID-19 surges stretch health systems in US, elsewhere

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States continue to climb, with some declines seen in some Upper Midwest states, but surging activity in states such as California.

In Europe, some countries are struggling with slowing their activity in the final days leading up to Christmas, and several Americas countries are experiencing steady rises.

US hot spots expand

California is now reporting more than 32,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and Gov. Gavin Newsom said yesterday that officials ordered thousands of body bags and has refrigerated trucks on hand to expand morgue capacity, due to a spike in deaths due to the recent surge, according to NBC.

As case climb nationally and stay high in most of the Midwest, states in the Upper Midwest that were hit hard earlier this fall such as Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska are starting to see a drop in new cases, according to the Associated Press.

The number of Americans currently hospitalized rose to 112,816 yesterday, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Yesterday, the nation reported 198,357 new cases and 3,019 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Moderna vaccine considered

Tomorrow, independent vaccine advisors for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) meet to discuss emergency use authorization (EUA) for Moderna's mRNA vaccine, which if approved would clear the way for a second vaccine to be distributed.

Also, a separate vaccine advisory group for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will have an emergency meeting on Dec 19 to discuss a recommendation for Moderna's vaccine, plus an emergency session on Dec 20 to discuss on vote on the next groups that should be prioritized the receive the vaccine.

Yesterday during the second day of the vaccine rollout, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the CDC will award nearly $227 million to target COVID-19 vaccine preparedness and response activities.

In a statement, the HHS said some of the money is from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, and $140 million earmarked for vaccine preparedness will help support to existing groups that participate in the Immunizations and Vaccines for Children cooperative agreement. Nearly $87 million will go toward tracking and testing in 64 jurisdictions, including all 50 states.

President-elect Joe Biden said yesterday that he will get the COVID-19 vaccine publicly, according to NPR. Vice president Mike Pence and his aides are also discussing options for when and how to be vaccinated. Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, urged Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In other US developments:

  • The FDA yesterday issued an EUA for the first nonprescription over-the-counter at-home diagnostic test for COVID-19. The rapid, lateral flow antigen test detects fragments of SARS-CoV-2 and gives a result in as little as 20 minutes.

  • Congress is nearing a coronavirus relief deal, a $900 billion package that would provide a second stimulus check and extend unemployment benefits, but would leave out state and local funding and a liability shield, according to Politico.

  • Two political appointees who worked at the CDC described how the White House took over messaging about the pandemic during summer months and how it undercut the agency's authority and demoralized its scientists, according to the New York Times.

  • The US COVID-19 total has risen to 16,885,623 cases with 306,363 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

Parts of Europe struggle ahead of Christmas

Though cases have declined in some European countries in the region's second surge, some are still experiencing stubbornly high levels of cases and deaths. For example, Germany entered a strict lockdown today as deaths hit a single day high, and in Northern Ireland, brisk COVID-19 activity is overwhelming hospitals amid reports of ambulances lined up outside of hospitals and doctors treating patients in parking lots.

In Russia, COVID-19 activity in St Petersburg has resulted in the city's hospitals running short on beds. Though the country's cases are surging, the level of testing has declined by 10%, according to Reuters. Deliveries of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine have begun across the country, and an estimated 200,000 people have already received it.

Activity accelerates in many Americas countries

Meanwhile, in the Americas, nearly 5 million cases were added to the region's  total last week, with the United States and Canada as the main drivers of new infections, Carissa Etienne, MBBS, MSc, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said today at a briefing.

Other countries in the region seeing surges include Panama and Belize, and some hospitals in Belize are already over capacity, raising concerns about availability of care, she said. Popular tourism destinations in the Caribbean such as Bermuda are reporting a rise in cases, as are Colombia and Brazil, with the rise in Brazil's southeastern regions especially worrisome. Border areas in Paraguay and Uruguay are also reporting accelerating cases against the backdrop of a general rise in cases in both countries, Etienne said.

She emphasized that the pandemic has put a spotlight on inequalities and underinvestment in health systems, and warned that the arrival of vaccines won't offer an easy and quick fix.

In other global headlines:

  • Internal documents prepared by GAVI the Vaccine Alliance ahead of its board meeting and reviewed by Reuters suggest that the COVAX initiative to provide lower income countries with COVID-19 is at high risk of failure, and due to a host of factors, some of those countries may not have access to vaccines until 2024. The World Health Organization (WHO)-led program has a goal of delivering at least 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, enough to cover 20% of vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries.

  • South Korea today reported another record daily high of more than 1,000 cases, with the area around Seoul as the main hot spot, but with cluster activity also reported in other cities, Yonhap News reported.

  • Costa Rica yesterday became the latest country to issue an EUA for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, CNN reported.

  • Australia reported its first local case in 2 weeks, an airport shuttle driver from New South Wales, Reuters reported.

  • The global total today approached 74 million cases and currently stands at 73,969,003 with 1,644,589 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

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