U.S. COVID-19 cases rise for third straight week, hospitalizations also up

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 in the United States rose 5% to more than 450,000 last week, the third week in a row that infections have increased, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals rose 4% to more than 37,000 in the week ended April 4, breaking a streak of 11 weeks of falling admissions.

Health officials have expressed concerns about the increase in travel around the Easter holiday and school spring breaks, at a time when more infectious variants of the coronavirus are circulating.

While flu viruses tend to be seasonal, with cases falling as the weather warms, health officials said they have not seen similar trends with the novel coronavirus, pointing to a surge in COVID-19 cases in some regions last summer.

“I don’t think we should even think about relying on the weather to bail us out of anything we’re in right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said at a news briefing on Monday.

Twenty-seven out of 50 states reported increases in new cases last week compared with the previous seven days, according to the Reuters analysis.

Per 100,000 people, Michigan, New Jersey and New York reported both the highest number of new cases and the highest number of hospitalizations.

Deaths from COVID-19, which tend to lag infections by several weeks, fell 17% to about 5,800 last week, or about 834 per day. Health officials have said the country’s vaccination effort could limit deaths even with rising cases.

For a sixth week, vaccinations set a record, with an average of 3.1 million shots given per day last week. As of Sunday, 32% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose and 19% was fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

Alabama extends mask mandate for a month, breaking with Texas, Mississippi

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – Alabama’s governor said on Thursday she was extending the state’s mask mandate for another month, heeding the advice of health experts and breaking with decisions by neighboring Mississippi and Texas earlier this week to lift their requirements.

Alabama’s mask mandate, due to expire on Friday, will remain in effect to April 9, but no longer, Governor Kay Ivey said.

“After that, it’ll be personal responsibility,” the Republican said at a briefing, adding that she plans to continue wearing her mask beyond that date. “Folks, we’re not there yet, but goodness knows we’re getting closer.”

The contrasting moves on masks in the three Southern states comes at a time when the number of new coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths had been sharply falling in the United States after a surge that followed the holiday season.

About 45,000 COVID-19 patients were being treated in U.S. hospitals as of Wednesday night, compared with a peak of about 132,000 on Jan. 6.

The improving metric in part reflects an acceleration of the drive to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A third authorized vaccine from Johnson & Johnson began going into arms this week.

Even so, health authorities have stressed the need for caution, urging Americans to keep wearing masks, practice social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus amid concerns that declines in new infections was plateauing with highly contagious newer virus variants widely circulating.

“Now is not the time to pull back,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official and President Joe Biden’s COVD-19 medical adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday in an interview.

“We were going in the right direction. Now is the time to keep the foot on the accelerator and not pull off,” he said, referring to the announcements that Texas and Mississippi were lifting mask mandates.

Since the pandemic reached the United States early last year, the country has recorded 28.9 million cases and more than 519,000 deaths, more than any other country in the world.

Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are near the bottom of the list of states in terms of administering vaccines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on the number of people per thousand who have gotten at least one dose. The governors of all three states are Republicans.

The delay in lifting the Alabama mandate will enable more of its 4.9 million residents to be inoculated after the state just administered its 1 millionth dose of vaccine, Ivey said.

Ivey did announce an end to indoor dining restrictions on restaurants and said summer camps can plan to reopen. She is also permitting senior centers to resume outdoor programs and increase the maximum number of visitors from one to two.

Among the improvements she cited was a 77% drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations from its Jan. 11 peak to its lowest level since last June.

“While I’m convinced that a mask mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object, and believe that this was a step too far in government overreach,” she said.

Even as he urged Americans to stay vigilant, Fauci expressed optimism about a gradual return to normalcy by the end of the summer or early fall if the vaccine rollout goes smoothly, the majority of Americans agree to be vaccinated and new virus variants prove to be manageable.

“It’s not going to be a light switch on and off… it’s going to be gradual,” he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Caroline Humer and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

‘When will it end?’: How a changing virus is reshaping scientists’ views on COVID-19

By Julie Steenhuysen and Kate Kelland

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chris Murray, a University of Washington disease expert whose projections on COVID-19 infections and deaths are closely followed worldwide, is changing his assumptions about the course of the pandemic.

Murray had until recently been hopeful that the discovery of several effective vaccines could help countries achieve herd immunity, or nearly eliminate transmission through a combination of inoculation and previous infection. But in the last month, data from a vaccine trial in South Africa showed not only that a rapidly-spreading coronavirus variant could dampen the effect of the vaccine, it could also evade natural immunity in people who had been previously infected.

“I couldn’t sleep” after seeing the data, Murray, director of the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told Reuters. “When will it end?” he asked himself, referring to the pandemic. He is currently updating his model to account for variants’ ability to escape natural immunity and expects to provide new projections as early as this week.

A new consensus is emerging among scientists, according to Reuters interviews with 18 specialists who closely track the pandemic or are working to curb its impact. Many described how the breakthrough late last year of two vaccines with around 95% efficacy against COVID-19 had initially sparked hope that the virus could be largely contained, similar to the way measles has been.

But, they say, data in recent weeks on new variants from South Africa and Brazil has undercut that optimism. They now believe that SARS-CoV-2 will not only remain with us as an endemic virus, continuing to circulate in communities, but will likely cause a significant burden of illness and death for years to come.

As a result, the scientists said, people could expect to continue to take measures such as routine mask-wearing and avoiding crowded places during COVID-19 surges, especially for people at high risk.

Even after vaccination, “I still would want to wear a mask if there was a variant out there,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, said in an interview. “All you need is one little flick of a variant (sparking) another surge, and there goes your prediction” about when life gets back to normal.

Some scientists, including Murray, acknowledge that the outlook could improve. The new vaccines, which have been developed at record speed, still appear to prevent hospitalizations and death even when new variants are the cause of infection. Many vaccine developers are working on booster shots and new inoculations that could preserve a high level of efficacy against the variants. And, scientists say there is still much to be learned about the immune system’s ability to combat the virus.

Already, COVID-19 infection rates have declined in many countries since the start of 2021, with some dramatic reductions in severe illness and hospitalizations among the first groups of people to be vaccinated.

WORSE THAN FLU

Murray said if the South African variant, or similar mutants, continue to spread rapidly, the number of COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalization or death this coming winter could be four times higher than the flu. The rough estimate assumes a 65% effective vaccine given to half of a country’s population. In a worst-case scenario, that could represent as many as 200,000 U.S. deaths related to COVID-19 over the winter period, based on federal government estimates of annual flu fatalities.

His institute’s current forecast, which runs to June 1, assumes there will be an additional 62,000 U.S. deaths and 690,000 global deaths from COVID-19 by that point. The model includes assumptions about vaccination rates as well as the transmissibility of the South African and Brazilian variants.

The shift in thinking among scientists has influenced more cautious government statements about when the pandemic will end. Britain last week said it expects a slow emergence from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, despite having one of the fastest vaccination drives.

U.S. government predictions of a return to a more normal lifestyle have been repeatedly pushed back, most recently from late summer to Christmas, and then to March 2022. Israel issues “Green Pass” immunity documents to people who have recovered from COVID-19 or been vaccinated, allowing them back into hotels or theaters. The documents are only valid for six months because it’s not clear how long immunity will last.

“What does it mean to be past the emergency phase of this pandemic?,” said Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. While some experts have asked whether countries could completely eradicate any case of COVID-19 through vaccines and stringent lockdowns, Baral sees the goals as more modest, but still meaningful. “In my mind, it’s that hospitals aren’t full, the ICUs aren’t full, and people aren’t tragically passing,” he said.

“SCIENTIFIC WHIPLASH”

From the beginning, the new coronavirus has been a moving target.

Early in the pandemic, leading scientists warned that the virus could become endemic and “may never go away,” including Dr. Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program.

Yet they had much to learn, including whether it would be possible to develop a vaccine against the virus and how quickly it would mutate. Would it be more like measles, which can be kept almost entirely at bay in communities with high rates of inoculation, or flu, which infects millions globally each year?

For much of 2020, many scientists were surprised and reassured that the coronavirus had not changed significantly enough to become more transmissible, or deadly.

A major breakthrough came in November. Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE as well as Moderna Inc said their vaccines were around 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials, an efficacy rate that is much higher than any flu shot.

At least a few of the scientists Reuters interviewed said even in the wake of those results, they hadn’t expected the vaccines to wipe out the virus. But many told Reuters that the data raised hope within the scientific community that it would be possible to virtually eliminate COVID-19, if only the world could be vaccinated quickly enough.

“We all felt quite optimistic before Christmas with those first vaccines,” said Azra Ghani, chair in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London. “We didn’t necessarily expect such high-efficacy vaccines to be possible in that first generation.”

The optimism proved short-lived. In late December, the UK warned of a new, more transmissible variant that was quickly becoming the dominant form of the coronavirus in the country. Around the same time, researchers learned of the impact of the faster-spreading variants in South Africa and in Brazil.

Phil Dormitzer, a top vaccine scientist at Pfizer, told Reuters in November that the U.S. drugmaker’s vaccine success signaled the virus was “vulnerable to immunization” in what he called “a breakthrough for humanity.” By early January, he acknowledged the variants heralded “a new chapter” in which companies will have to constantly monitor for mutations that could dampen the effect of vaccines.

In late January, the impact on vaccines became even clearer. Novavax’s clinical trial data showed its vaccine was 89% effective in a UK trial, but just 50% effective at preventing COVID-19 in South Africa. That was followed a week later by data showing the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine offered only limited protection from mild disease against the South African variant.

The most recent change of heart was considerable, several of the scientists told Reuters. Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, described it as “scientific whiplash”: In December, he had believed it was plausible to achieve so-called “functional eradication” of the coronavirus, similar to measles.

Now, “getting as many people vaccinated as possible is still the same answer and the same path forward as it was on December 1 or January 1,” Crotty said, “but the expected outcome isn’t the same.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Kate Kelland in London; additional reporting by Michael Erman in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Cassell Bryan-Low)

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)