U.S. has a plan to start Pfizer vaccine shots in December: Health Secretary Azar

By Doina Chiacu and Deena Beasley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If Pfizer Inc. submits the positive initial data from its COVID-19 vaccine trial to health regulators as quickly as expected, the U.S. government plans to begin vaccinating Americans in December, Health Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday.

Pfizer on Monday said the vaccine it has been developing with German partner BioNTech SE was 90% effective against COVID-19, based on an early look at results from its large, late-stage trial.

The U.S. drugmaker said it expects to have safety data as soon as next week that it needs to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Upon FDA authorization, the United States would receive about 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine per month, Azar said on a call with reporters, noting that HHS could being procuring supplies at the end of this month.

The United States has a $1.95 billion contract for 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough to inoculate 50 million people – with an option to acquire 500 million more.

Earlier on Tuesday, Azar said on CNBC that final decisions are subject to a close look at the vaccine efficacy data.

Based on recommendations to the government, it will likely start with inoculations of the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, healthcare workers and first responders, with a goal to complete those shots by the end of January.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci also said in an interview with MSNBC that he expects the doses of the vaccine to be available for certain high priority groups in December.

Azar said he anticipates there will soon be more vaccines to protect against COVID-19 from other companies, including Moderna Inc <MRNA.O>, which is expected to announce interim results of a large trial of its experimental vaccine at the end of the month.

“By the end of March, early April, we expect to have enough for every American who would like to be vaccinated,” Azar told CBNC.

ANTIBODY DRUG DISTRIBUTION

Azar also said the U.S. government would begin distribution of Eli Lilly and Co’s antibody treatment this week, starting first in areas with the highest numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and overall cases.

The treatment, which is administered by infusion, received an EUA on Monday.

“We’ll ensure equitable distribution, and we’ll work tightly with our governors,” Azar said. He said the government will use the same process employed to distribute remdesivir, an antiviral drug from Gilead Sciences Inc used to treat people hospitalized with COVID-19.

According to the Health and Human Services website, the agency will ship more than 79,000 doses of the antibody therapy this week, with the largest number going to Wisconsin, Texas, California, and Illinois.

The United States has purchased 300,000 doses of the treatment for this year and has an option to buy an additional 650,000 doses next year.

Azar said health officials and Eli Lilly were exploring ways to provide the treatment outside of hospitals, including through outpatient infusion centers.

Fauci described the Lilly treatment as “an important first step in the development and distribution of interventions that are given early in the course of disease.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Caroline Humer and Carl O’Donnell in New York, Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alexandra Hudson and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. to send millions of rapid COVID-19 tests to states to support school reopening, other tasks

By Carl O’Donnell and Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – The U.S. government will send an “overwhelming majority” of the rapid COVID-19 tests it purchased from Abbott Laboratories last week to governors of states and territories to support school re-openings and other critical tasks, an administration official said at a press briefing.

Other top priorities for the newly purchased tests include day care centers, first responders, and “critical infrastructure,” said Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. government purchased 150 million rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 from Abbott in a roughly $750 million deal.

The portable tests can deliver results within 15 minutes and will sell for $5. They require no additional equipment, and can use a less invasive nasal swab than traditional lab tests.

Antigen tests are cheaper and faster than molecular diagnostic tests, but somewhat more likely to fail to identify positive cases of the virus than lab-based diagnostic tests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for schools to reopen, but most of the country’s largest school districts have said they would start the school year with online classes, as states across the country have battled a spike in cases over the summer.

Girior also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still supports testing asymptomatic individuals for COVID-19 who are prioritized by local health officials or in high risk populations. Last week, the CDC sparked outcry among many public health officials when it said testing some asymptomatic people may not be necessary.

The U.S. government has conducted 85 million COVID-19 tests so far with a positivity rate of just over 5%, Girior said. The mean turnaround time is 2.27 days.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

9/11 We will not forget!

By Kami Klein

On September 11th, 2001, we witnessed the worst of humanity; an evil we could not imagine. Over 3000 lost their lives that day when a group of terrorists shook our nation to its core. The loss of so many rippled throughout the world.  Families were torn apart within a few hours. The grief was unimaginable and America’s heart was broken. 

 After the attacks, countless stories unfolded revealing extraordinary acts of courage, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center in New York City alone over 16.000 people performed rescue, recovery, demolition and debris cleanup.  These amazing men and women did not know or care about the dangers of their task but rose up in tremendous courage to show the best of what America stands for. 

Ground zero contained toxic dust that held heavy metals and asbestos and other dangerous chemicals.  We are seeing the aftermath years later as countless of these heroes of 9/11 have died or are very sick from illnesses related to this tragedy.  Scarring in the lungs has effected hundreds of responders and experts say this is only the beginning.   

So far, 156 New York City police officers have died from 9/11 related illnesses. 182 in the Fire Department. Countless others are facing debilitating lung disease and aggressive cancers. 

We cannot forget those who lost their lives on 9/11.  We cannot forget now, those that are still giving their lives for our country because of that day and the days following 9/11.  

Eighteen years ago, the nation turned to God.  The churches were filled and prayers were said all over the world. We embraced each other no matter what political belief or religious faith. We were not offended by each other because together we were at war with evil. 

We are still at war but somehow we have turned on one another. 

The attack of 9/11 is not over.  Our heroes from that day are the victims now. We must remember those who are still suffering and fill our churches with faith and prayer. We the people of the United States must feel called upon to honor these brave men and women.  May we come together again, as we did on that day when Love won over hate, Good over evil, and all of us remembered that we are Americans and were willing to sacrifice for each other.

The Lord worked through the very best of us that day and continued doing so during the months and years that have passed. In our prayers, in our memories, and in the stories that we must pass on, these are the people and heroes we cannot afford to ever forget!   

 

Trump visits mass shooting victims; protesters shout ‘Do something!’

U.S. President Donald Trump deplanes with first lady Melania Trump arriving aboard Air Force One at El Paso International Airport for a visit with victims and first responders in the wake of last weekend's mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Jeff Mason

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump met victims and first responders from last weekend’s deadly shootings in Texas and Ohio on Wednesday, as chanting protesters accused him of inflaming tensions with anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric.

Trump visited hospitals where victims were treated in El Paso, Texas, on the border with Mexico, and in Dayton, Ohio, after massacres 13 hours apart that shocked the country and reopened a national debate on gun safety.

In both cities, crowds of protesters gathered to confront Trump and condemn his visit. Some held signs reading “Trump is racist,” “Love over hate” and “Send him back!”

Chanting crowds in Dayton urged Trump: “Do something!”

The president and first lady Melania Trump avoided the press on both hospital visits and stayed out of public view.

They visited survivors in their hospital rooms at the University Medical Center in El Paso and Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, and thanked the medical staff and first responders, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.

“It was a warm and wonderful visit,” Trump said on Twitter after leaving Dayton. “Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love.”

A pro-Trump demonstrator holds a placard outside the University Medical Center, where U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting with first responders in the wake of last weekend's mass shootings at a Walmart store, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

A pro-Trump demonstrator holds a placard outside the University Medical Center, where U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting with first responders in the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings at a Walmart store, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Trump also visited law enforcement personnel at an emergency operations center in El Paso to thank them for their response on Saturday, when a man killed 22 people at a Walmart store, apparently after posting an anti-immigrant manifesto online.

In Dayton, nine people and the suspect were killed in a rampage early on Sunday.

“The job you have done is incredible,” Trump told gathered officers and staff. “I wanted to come and thank you.”

Before leaving Washington, Trump said that in the wake of the shootings he wanted to strengthen background checks for gun purchases and make sure mentally ill people did not carry guns. He predicted congressional support for those two measures but not for Democratic efforts to ban assault rifles.

“I can tell you that there is no political appetite for that at this moment,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But I will certainly bring that up … There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both Democrats, accompanied Trump in Dayton and told reporters they urged him to call on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to bring the Senate back from its summer recess to work on a House-passed bill that expands background checks on gun buyers.

Brown said he asked Trump to promise he would sign that bill. “He only said that we will get things done,” Brown said, adding the president had been “comforting” to the victims.

Whaley said she agreed with Trump’s decision not to visit the district where the shooting occurred given the high emotions in the community.

‘NOT INTERESTED’

“A lot of people that own businesses in that district are not interested in the president being there,” she said. “A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton.”

Trump later criticized the two Democrats for their comments, saying on Twitter the news conference they held was “a fraud. It bore no resemblance to what took place.”

Trump told reporters at the El Paso operations center the two Democrats “should not be politicking today.”

Democrats say Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially charged language at rallies and on Twitter has fanned racist, white nationalist sentiments, creating a political climate that is conducive to hate-based violence.

The massacre in the predominantly Hispanic city of El Paso is being investigated as a hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, authorities said. The FBI said the Dayton shooter also explored violent ideologies.

An open letter to Trump on Wednesday in the El Paso Times described the border city as having “a deep tradition of racial harmony” whose people came together after the tragedy. It admonished Trump for calling El Paso one of the country’s most dangerous cities in his February State of the Union address.

“He’s going to make war between us. Racism is starting to pop up more and more. Mexican people are fed up. He’s going to create chaos around here,” said Fernando Montoya, 45, who joined the protesters at a park in El Paso.

On Monday, Trump gave a speech focusing on mental health reforms, tighter internet regulation and wider use of the death penalty. Democrats accused Trump of hiding behind talk of mental illness and the influence of social media rather than committing to laws to restrict gun ownership.

In Iowa, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden said Trump had “fanned the flames” of white supremacy.

“We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism, and division,” the former vice president said.

Former Texas congressman and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, another 2020 presidential contender, said Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and thus “has no place here.”

Asked on MSNBC on Wednesday if Trump is a white supremacist, O’Rourke said: “He is. He’s also made that very clear.”

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes El Paso, declined a White House invitation to join Trump in the city and said that the president “is not welcome here.”

“Members of our community, Hispanics and Mexicans and immigrants, have been dehumanized. That’s the bottom line: we’ve been dehumanized by the president and by his words,” she told the protest rally in El Paso.

Not everyone agreed that Trump should stay away.

“This is not a political visit,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo told reporters. “He is president of the United States. So in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to meet with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community.”

(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Rich McKay, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in New York, Daniel Trotta in El Paso; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Howard Goller, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)

Trump signs measure to permanently extend compensation for Sept. 11 responders

U.S. President Donald Trump pumps his fist during a signing ceremony for the "Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act" in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Calling emergency first responders “heroes,” U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed into law a measure authorizing permanent benefits for police, firefighters and others suffering from illnesses connected to their work reacting to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The legislation, known as the “Never Forget the Heroes Act,” approves federal funding through 2092 for an estimated 18,100 people who are likely to qualify for benefits, according to government estimates.

First responders who rushed to the site of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York following their destruction in the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks, and others who worked for months cleaning up, were exposed to toxic chemicals despite early government statements that the site was safe.

The fund compensates those people, or their relatives if they have since died, for economic and other losses. Trump hailed the men and women who rushed to the site in hopes of rescuing survivors and finding remains of victims.

“Today we come together as one nation to support our September 11 heroes, to care for their families, and to renew our eternal vow: never, ever forget,” Trump told a crowd at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, which he said included more than 60 of the first responders.

Without the legislation, passed in the U.S. Senate last Tuesday, victims would have seen reduced benefits because of a lack of funding.

The attacks on the United States using four hijacked planes killed more than 2,900 people and injured over 6,000. Of those, more than 2,600 people were killed in New York.

Former New York businessman Trump said he visited the World Trade Center site in the aftermath.

“I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder, but I was down there,” Trump said.

The remark drew the ire of some Twitter users who recounted Trump’s comments at the time on the towers’ destruction, including one on WWOR-TV about a 72-story building he said he owned in lower Manhattan – “and now it’s the tallest.”

Lawmakers attended the ceremony along with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was in office at the time of the attacks and was praised for his leadership then. Giuliani is now an attorney for Trump.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; editing by Grant McCool)