Vaccinations move to nursing homes as pandemic rages in California

A man takes a coronavirus test at a Los Angeles Mission homeless shelter Thanksgiving meal giveaway, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S.

The U.S. government and two of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains on Monday began inoculating nursing home residents against COVID-19, among the first Americans besides healthcare workers to get the vaccine.

The vaccinations, carried out under a program led by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and CVS Health Corp, are the latest effort to rein in a pandemic that has killed more than 317,000 Americans and strained healthcare systems.

California, an epicenter in the latest surge in infections, had no more intensive care unit beds available in the heavily populated Los Angeles area or in the state’s San Joaquin Valley agricultural hub, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

Newsom said California had so far not seen any cases of the highly infectious new strain of the virus that has emerged in Britain, prompting dozens of countries to close their borders to the UK.

The United States has not imposed travel restrictions from Britain in the face of the mutant strain. Three airlines, acting at the request of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have agreed to screen passengers flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized emergency use of two COVID-19 vaccines, one developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE and the second from Moderna Inc.

Some 2.9 million shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were distributed last week, mostly to healthcare workers, with more than 500,000 people inoculated as of Sunday afternoon. The first Moderna injections were administered on Monday.

About 7.9 million doses of the two shots are being distributed nationwide this week, including on Christmas Day if necessary, said U.S. Army General Gustave Perna, who oversees vaccine distribution through the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed program.

More than 1,300 long-term care facilities were expected to begin vaccinations on Monday, Perna told a news conference.

About 50 million people in the United States will have had the first of two shots needed for immunization by the end of January, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

President-elect Joe Biden became one of them on Monday, at a hospital in Newark, Delaware. He received his shot on camera in an effort to boost confidence in its safety. Biden’s age, 78, places him in a high-risk category for the highly contagious respiratory disease.

With supplies limited, many states have put healthcare workers and nursing home residents first in line for vaccinations, in keeping with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Older people in nursing homes have accounted for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths.

The U.S. death toll has accelerated in recent weeks to 2,627 per day on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said that U.S. COVID-19 deaths will peak in January, when its widely cited model projects that more than 100,000 people will die. The model predicts 562,000 deaths by April 1.

Air travel rose over the weekend as Americans visited family members for Christmas in defiance of political leaders who urged them to stay home. More than 1 million people traveled through U.S. airports on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the most since Nov. 29, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Health experts say the latest surge in U.S. hospitalizations and deaths was driven by Thanksgiving gatherings last month.

Nationwide, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients stood at nearly 113,400 on Monday after setting a record high of over 114,200 on Friday, according to the Reuters tally.

Walgreens and CVS, in partnership with the federal government, hope to vaccinate some 7 million people in more than 70,000 long-term care facilities. The companies began inoculating some residents with Pfizer’s vaccine last week, but their full rollout began on Monday.

Moderna’s vaccine is seen as easier to distribute to hard-to-reach rural areas because it does not need to be kept at the ultra-cold temperature required by the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.

Both vaccines were about 95% effective at preventing illness in large clinical trials.

Walgreens said it planned to vaccinate about 3 million residents and staff at 35,000 long-term care facilities over the coming weeks, while CVS plans to vaccinate around 4 million residents and staff at over 40,000 such facilities.

On Sunday, outside advisers to the CDC recommended that 30 million frontline essential workers should be the next group to receive priority for vaccination, including first responders, teachers, public transit staff and grocery store workers.

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