Fauci says vaccinate quickly to fight COVID-19 variants

(Reuters) – The best defense against the evolution of COVID-19 and the emergence of variant strains is getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, top U.S. infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci said on a Monday media briefing.

Fauci said while it was reasonable to think about studying the efficacy of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccine as a one-dose regimen in light of supply vaccine constraints, such a study would take months to complete, thus likely making its conclusions moot. Fauci continued to encourage people get two doses of the vaccine.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Fauci says herd immunity could require nearly 90% to get coronavirus vaccine

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – Herd immunity against the novel coronavirus could require vaccination rates approaching as high as 90%, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most prominent U.S. infectious disease expert, said in an interview published on Thursday.

More than 1 million Americans have received a first dose of a vaccine since Dec. 14, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, or only about 0.3% of the population.

Fauci acknowledged that he had incrementally increased his estimates from earlier in the year, when he tended to say only 60% to 70% would need to be inoculated for herd immunity to be reached.

“We need to have some humility here,” Fauci told the New York Times. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”

His comments came as the country marks grim new daily milestones while contending with the world’s deadliest outbreak: it reported more than 3,000 deaths for the second consecutive day on Wednesday. The U.S. death toll reached 326,333 by midnight on Wednesday, according to Reuters data.

That same day, more Americans flew than on any other day since the pandemic emerged in March, with 1,191,123 passengers passing through airport checkpoints, according to data from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

The data suggested many were disregarding public health experts’ advice to avoid traveling to celebrate Christmas Day on Friday. Fauci and other experts say social distancing will be required deep into 2021 as vaccines are slowly rolled out.

The number of travelers was down from 2019, when 1,937,235 flew on Dec. 23. Wednesday’s traffic exceeded the previous pandemic-era high set on Nov. 29, the Sunday after the Thanksgiving holiday, when 1,176,091 people passed through TSA checkpoints, preceding new surges in coronavirus cases in many states.

Health care workers, elderly nursing home residents, elected officials and firefighters are among those receiving the vaccines first. Most Americans have been told it could be six months or more before they are eligible for the shots.

Fauci, who was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984, said in the interview that he had become more willing to reveal his beliefs as polls show Americans were becoming somewhat less skeptical about the new vaccines. The more infectious a disease is, the higher the rate of vaccination is required to reach a threshold of herd immunity, in which its spread is contained.

“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Fauci, who turned 80 on Thursday, told the Times.

“Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.'”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bangalore; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Pence gets COVID shot on TV as U.S. about to approve second vaccine

By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence received his COVID-19 vaccine live on television on Friday, seeking to shore up public support for vaccinations as U.S. regulators were on the cusp of approving a second vaccine for emergency use.

Pence said he “didn’t feel a thing” after he, his wife Karen Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams each rolled up their sleeves and took injections from white-coated medical staff, becoming the highest-profile recipients to receive the vaccine publicly.

After U.S. deaths from the coronavirus topped 3,000 for a third straight day, Pence called the vaccinations a sign of hope, with 20 million doses expected to be distributed nationwide before the end of December and hundreds of millions more going out in the first half of 2021.

“I also believe that history will record that this week was the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic, but with cases rising across the country, hospitalizations rising across the country, we have a ways to go,” said Pence, leader of the White House coronavirus task force.

U.S. hospitalizations have set records on each of the past 20 days, approaching 114,000 on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally.

The United States reported a record 239,903 new cases on Thursday, when the U.S. death toll surpassed 311,000.

The situation was especially dire in California, with more than 50,000 new cases each of the past two days and many hospitals reporting their intensive care units are at or near capacity. That has triggered a renewal of sweeping stay-at-home orders across much of the state.

“We expect to have more dead bodies than we have spaces for them,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a briefing on Thursday.

The Pences and Adams were injected with the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE, which was approved last week. A second vaccine, from Moderna Inc, was expected to win regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday, Pence said.

Those vaccines require two doses, given three or four weeks apart, while others under development may require only a single dose. All have been developed with unprecedented speed in less than a year, thanks to technological advances and the urgency of the global pandemic.

Beyond the logistical challenge of the most ambitious vaccination campaign in decades, health officials must convince a skeptical public they are safe and effective. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found only 61% of Americans were open to getting vaccinated.

Pence and Adams being vaccinated publicly “is symbolic to tell the rest of the country the time is now to step to the plate, and when your time comes, to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Frontline healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents have been given priority, but a parade of high-profile jabs could soon follow. Fauci, who still sees patients, has said he might receive the vaccine within days.

Former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have volunteered for public inoculations, and Joe Biden will get his next week, his aides said.

President Donald Trump has encouraged people to get vaccinated and championed his administration’s Operation Warp Speed program to promote the development and distribution of vaccines.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, Idrees Ali and Anurag |Maan; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Gareth Jones, Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)

California bans private gatherings, New York expands hospitals to battle coronavirus surge

By Dan Whitcomb and Maria Caspani

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) -California compelled much of the state to close shop and stay home on Monday and New York ordered hospitals to increase bed capacity by 25 percent, as the United States braced for yet another coronavirus surge during the upcoming holidays.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s order came into effect one day after the state set a record with more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases, triggered in areas of Southern California where fewer than 15% of intensive care hospital beds remain available.

In addition, five counties in Northern California surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area have voluntarily imposed the restrictions even before reaching the intensive care unit threshold. Combined, the areas cover about three-quarters of the state’s nearly 40 million people.

Dr. Celine Gounder said California had little choice. “Given how out of control the virus is at this point, we are having to dial up some of those restrictions again,” Gounder told CBS News. “Ideally, we should be more proactive than this.”

In reporting more than 30,000 new cases on Sunday, the state exceeded its previous high of 21,986 set on Dec. 4, and notched a record high for hospitalized COVID-19 patients as well.

Nationwide, COVID-19 infections in United States are at their peak with an average of 193,863 new cases reported each day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

There have been 14.7 million confirmed infections and 282,253 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most in the world.

California has been under a stay-at-home order for all but essential services since March. The new order, which will last at least three weeks, bans private gatherings of any size, shuts all but critical infrastructure and retail operations, and requires everyone to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing.

But the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties have said they will refuse to enforce the order.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said in a videotaped message that his office “will not be blackmailed” into enforcing the governor’s orders, and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement his deputies would not respond to calls to enforce violations of the mask mandate, stay-at-home orders or the ban on social gatherings.

FAUCI SEES ‘BAD TIME’ AHEAD

To avoid a critical shortage of hospital beds, New York state health officials will order hospitals to increase their capacity by 25% and ask retired doctors and nurses to come back to work, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

If the hospitalization rate fails to stabilize over the next five days, indoor dining in New York City will be halted, Cuomo said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the nationwide surge could get worse after the year-end holiday season.

After millions ignored expert advice and traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday in November, Fauci anticipated Americans would once again behave recklessly during Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities.

Spikes in the death toll typically appear about three weeks after surges in infections and hospitalizations.

“Mid-January is probably going to be a bad time,” said Fauci, appearing with Cuomo in his video news conference.

Anticipating U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency authorization of the first vaccine within the coming days, the White House will host a vaccine distribution summit on Tuesday with governors, retail pharmacy chains and shipping companies, Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.

The aim of the meeting was “to be very transparent and show the world how comprehensively we have planned out every aspect of this distribution,” Azar said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Peter Szekely and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. hits highest death toll since May with hospitals already full

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) -Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 for the first time since May and with hospitals across the country already full, portending a surge in mortalities to come as the coronavirus pandemic casts a shadow over the holiday season.

The death toll reached 2,157 on Tuesday – one person every 40 seconds – with another 170,000 people infected, numbers that experts say could grow with millions of Americans disregarding official warnings and traveling for Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The deadliest day in more than six months was still short of the record of 2,806 deaths on April 14, in the early stages of the pandemic, according to a Reuters tally of official data. That one-day figure is sometimes reported higher due to a backlog of deaths that were not compiled until April 14.

With U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 reaching a record high of 87,000 on Tuesday, the nation’s leading infectious diseases official urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the need to “hang in there a bit longer” on wearing masks, maintaining distance and avoiding crowds, especially indoors.

“If we do those things, we’re going to get through it. So that’s my final plea before the holiday,” Fauci told the ABC News program “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.

Families with university students have been forced to evaluate the risk of reuniting for Thanksgiving.

Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington wearing an N95 mask and a face shield and checked into a hotel for 14 days, quarantining to protect her parents and grandparents.

“She was returning to a vulnerable set of people. We didn’t trust that a test was enough,” said her mother, Cynthia Wimer.

Others are just staying put.

Luke Burke, studying at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey until his roommate tested positive last week.

“I’m sorry I can’t be there with my parents, but it’s the right thing to do,” Burke said.

Meanwhile school districts across the United States face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed.

Many parents are balking at online instruction, while others worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely. Teachers say they are not comfortable teaching in person.

“Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it’s the wrong decision,” said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educational services in Chandler, Arizona.

Help may be coming with vaccines showing promise.

Officials from the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program told reporters on Tuesday they plan to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide in an initial distribution after the first one is cleared by regulators for emergency use, which could happen as soon as Dec. 10.

If all goes well, 40 million doses will be distributed by the end of the year, they said.

A Food and Drug Administration ruling on emergency use for Pfizer Inc’s vaccine is expected on Dec. 10.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Lisa Shumaker, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Kristina Cooke, Benjamin Lesser, M.B. Pell and Simon Lewis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)

Despite COVID-19 travel warnings, many Americans ‘not living in fear’ ahead of Thanksgiving

By Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Millions of Americans appear to be defying health warnings and traveling ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, likely exacerbating a surge in coronavirus infections before a series of promising new vaccines become widely available.

With U.S. COVID-19 infections hitting a record 168,000 per day on average, Americans are flocking to airports against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. surgeon general and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

For Americans, the long holiday weekend, which begins on Thursday, is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year, and 2020 may prove to be no exception.

Some 1 million passengers passed through airport screenings on Sunday, the highest number since March. It was the second time in three days that passengers screened topped 1 million but screenings are down nearly 60% from the same time last year, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths rose for a 12th straight day, reaching 1,500 as of Monday, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

That has further taxed already exhausted medical professionals, as coronavirus hospitalizations have surged nearly 50% over the past two weeks and the United States has surpassed 255,000 deaths and 12 million infections since the pandemic began.

Pleading with residents to stay home and avoid gatherings during the holiday season, Governor Andrew Cuomo reminded New Yorkers of the grim early days of the pandemic when as many as 800 people died in a single day in the state.

Hospitalizations have spiked 122% in New York state over the last three weeks, Cuomo said, prompting the re-opening of an emergency medical facility on Staten Island.

Help could arrive soon. The head of the U.S. campaign to rapidly deploy a vaccine said the first Americans could start receiving vaccinations as early as mid-December, and another global drug company on Monday unveiled promising trial results on a vaccine candidate.

“NOT LIVING IN FEAR”

Still, many Americans are refusing to follow the health advice that could save their lives.

In Pennsylvania, the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was 25% last week, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. On Monday, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine warned that the latest models indicated the state could start to run out of intensive care unit beds within a week.

Linda Lafferty, a nurse and the owner of a bed and breakfast in McConnellsburg, said family and friends gathered on the first Sunday in November to celebrate, as they do every year because she and others often have to work on Thanksgiving Day.

But Lafferty said her family would have assembled if they could.

“We are not living in fear and if we were able to get together on Thanksgiving Day we absolutely would,” said Lafferty, 47. “We would still get together and we wouldn’t limit the number of folks because if you are family you are family.”

To be sure, many Americans said they would do their best to conform with health recommendations.

Donnalie Hope, a 78-year-old resident of Petersburg, West Virginia, is planning to make fresh cranberries, mash potatoes and her famous corn pudding for Thanksgiving, which she will spend with her daughter, who will be visiting, and a neighbor.

Hope said they would social distance as much as possible in her home, and that she planned to ready rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. She acknowledged that her guests might eventually take off their masks in the home.

“I’m trying very hard to comply with the regs because I want this country to get back to where it belongs,” she said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, David Shepardson and Susan Heavey in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Maria Caspani; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)

Fauci not advising Biden, sees no reason to quit Trump now: Reuters interview

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said he has had no contact with President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus transition team and sees no reason to quit to join that effort when there is so much to do now to fight the surging pandemic.

“I stay in my lane. I’m not a politician. I do public health things,” he said in an interview on Thursday ahead of next week’s Reuters Total Health conference.

Since January, Fauci has served on President Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, a position that has frequently put him at odds with the president, who has sought to downplay the pandemic and focused instead on opening the economy.

“There’s absolutely no reason and no sense at all for me to stop doing something in the middle of a pandemic that is playing a major role in helping us get out of the pandemic,” Fauci said.

His advice for the president-elect, he said, is “exactly the same” as what he is recommending now – social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, washing hands. “Public health principles don’t change from one month to another or from one administration to another.”

Fauci has served six administrations and came to prominence fighting the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan.

His “day job” is developing vaccines and therapeutics as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, work that is starting to bear fruit.

On Monday, Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE announced that their experimental coronavirus vaccine was more than 90% effective – significantly higher than most experts had anticipated.

Moderna Inc, a company developing a similar vaccine with support from the White House’s Operation Warp Speed program, is expected to report results from their late-stage vaccine trial in the next week or so.

Both vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, an entirely new rapid vaccine platform that uses synthetic genes to trigger an immune response. Older methods typically use some form of inactivated or killed virus particles.

“It was a home run for the Pfizer product, more than 90% – close to 95% – effective. I have every reason to believe that the Moderna product is going to be similar,” Fauci said.

“It’s an almost identical platform to the Pfizer vaccine, so I would not be surprised at all if it was highly effective,” Fauci added.

The next big question about mRNA technology is safety. Fauci took as a good sign the fact that neither the Pfizer trial, which has enrolled more than 43,000 people so far, nor the Moderna trial, which involves 30,000, had to pause to investigate safety issues.

“That’s really good news,” he said. People in both trials will be followed for two years to make sure there are no long-term side effects. Barring that, “I think that the mRNA platform is here to stay,” he predicted.

In spite of the high bar set by the Pfizer vaccine so far, Fauci said he believes there is still “plenty of room for multiple vaccines, even though there may be a modest degree of difference in total efficacy.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, Editing by Peter Henderson and Bill Berkrot)

Fauci stresses on need for equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines

(Reuters) – U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Thursday vaccine developers should push to make billions of their COVID-19 vaccines to ensure access to all parts of the world, instead of focusing on the rich countries.

Fauci’s comments come days after Pfizer Inc said its COVID-19 vaccine candidate was more than 90% effective based on initial results from a large-scale trial, securing a lead in the race to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the respiratory illness.

Pfizer has a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year, as well as a deal with the European Union to supply up to 300 million doses.

“Now a number of different companies are talking about the ability to make billions of doses. That’s what we need. We don’t need hundreds of millions for the rich countries,” Fauci said at a webinar conducted by British think tank Chatham House.

“We need billions (of vaccine doses), so whether you live in the darkest part of the developing world, or if you live in London, you should have the same access.”

Experts have also raised doubts about access to the vaccine, especially in the developing countries, as it needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below, posing infrastructure challenges.

“Certainly it is not going to be pandemic for a lot longer, because I believe the vaccines are going to turn that around,” Fauci said, while adding that there may be a need to re-vaccinate people intermittently, if COVID-19 becomes endemic.

Fauci said efforts were underway in the United States to push for the development of antivirals and other therapies for early intervention during the course of the COVID-19 respiratory illness.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise in 27 states for two straight weeks

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen for two weeks in a row in 27 out of 50 states, with North Carolina and New Mexico both reporting increases above 50% last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

The United States recorded 316,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 27, up 10% from the previous seven days and the highest in six weeks, according to the analysis of state and county data.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News that the country was “not in a good place.”

“There are states that are starting to show (an) uptick in cases and even some increases in hospitalizations in some states. And, I hope not, but we very well might start seeing increases in deaths,” he said, without naming the states.

North Carolina reported a 60% jump in new cases to 13,799 last week, while New Mexico saw new infections rise 55% to 1,265. Texas also reported a 60% jump in new cases to 49,559, though that included a backlog of several thousand cases.

Deaths from COVID-19 have generally declined for the past six weeks, though still stand at more than 5,000 lives lost a week. Deaths are a lagging indicator and generally rise weeks after a surge in cases.

Testing in the country set a record of over 880,000 tests a day, surpassing the previous high in July of 820,000.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 held steady at about 5%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 28 states have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are 26% in South Dakota, 21% in Idaho and 19% in Wisconsin.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Most Americans to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by July, CDC chief expects

(Reuters) – A top U.S. health official told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that he expects COVID-19 vaccinations to take place over many months and that most Americans could be vaccinated by July of 2021 at the latest.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Robert Redfield said he expects there to be about 700 million doses of vaccines available by late March or April, enough for 350 million people.

“I think that’s going to take us April, May, June, you know, possibly July, to get the entire American public completely vaccinated,” Redfield told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Redfield, U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Stephen Hahn, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci and Health and Human Services official Brett Giroir were testifying on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 200,000 deaths in the United States.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, but there are several in late stage trials here, including from Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson. Companies have begun manufacturing the vaccine in anticipation of a fast regulatory authorization once they are shown to work.

Fauci said he expects 50 million doses to be available in November and 100 million by the end of December. He expects a total of 700 million doses by April.

Health officials and President Donald Trump have presented different views about when the vaccines will be ready for most Americans. The process for deciding how to distribute vaccines falls largely to the CDC.

Redfield said Operation Warp Speed, the government group with officials from the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense, will ultimately decide how to allocate the vaccines.

PLAYING DEFENSE

Senator Patty Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed to some reported examples of Trump administration pressure on the health agencies, including FDA authorizations of hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma as treatments for COVID-19 and changes in the CDC’s guidance on testing for asymptomatic individuals.

“Any of these examples of political pressure would be alarming on their own. But together they paint a clear pattern of interference that is downright terrifying,” she said.

Redfield and Hahn defended their agencies against criticism of their handling of the pandemic, telling the committee they were using science as their guide, not politics.

“FDA will not authorize, or approve, a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families,” Hahn said.

Redfield said the agency’s change to guidance for testing for asymptomatic individuals with close contact to a COVID-19 positive person was poorly written. It has since been updated to make it clear that such individuals should get a test, he said.

The CDC will release new guidance on the role of aerosolized coronavirus in its spread, Redfield said. The agency took down a Sept. 18 update to its transmission guidance that mentioned airborne virus for the first time, as it lacked the needed technical review.

Redfield also said that based on an antibody testing study, about 90 percent of Americans are still vulnerable to the virus.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Manas Mishra in Bengalaru; Writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and Howard Goller)