‘One-way road to freedom’: Johnson sets out cautious lockdown exit plan

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a map out of lockdown for England on Monday that would keep some businesses shuttered until the summer, saying caution was necessary to ensure there were no reversals on a “one-way road to freedom”.

After imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the western world in January to counter a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus, Johnson said Britain was now in a position to enjoy the fruits of one of the world’s fastest vaccine programs.

Starting in two weeks with the reopening of schools, the phased plan will go through four stages, with at least five weeks in between each stage. The final step, when most restrictions will be lifted, will not start until June 21 at the earliest.

Britain and the world would not eliminate COVID-19 altogether, Johnson said. “And we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children,” Johnson told parliament.

“And that is why it is so crucial that this roadmap is cautious but also irreversible. We’re setting out on, what I hope and believe, is a one-way road to freedom.”

With almost 130,000 fatalities, Britain has suffered the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from the pandemic and its economy has seen its biggest crash in over 300 years.

But in two months it has already managed to provide an initial vaccine dose to more than a quarter of the population, the fastest rollout of any big country, making it a test case for governments worldwide hoping to return life to normal.

Even with encouraging data on the impact of vaccines, the British government’s cautious approach highlights how slow a process it will likely be for many countries.

UNDER PRESSURE

Johnson has come under pressure, including from many in his Conservative Party, to allow more freedoms to millions stuck at home and offer hope to firms forced to close.

Under his plan schools will reopen on March 8, freeing parents who have had to juggle work and home schooling.

However, easing of social mixing bans will initially be limited and the government will ask people to work from home when possible for some weeks until it has completed a review into social distancing at some point before the summer.

At the end of March, a small number of people will be able to mix outdoors, but non-essential shops, and outdoor-only service in restaurants and pubs, will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest.

As the plan unfolds, lawmakers will have a chance to vote on specific steps. Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are responsible for their own public health, will also ease restrictions over the coming months.

There was mixed reaction from business leaders to the plan. The Confederation of British Industry said it offered hope, but the hospitality industry said it would be hard for many businesses to survive until they could reopen.

“Even with the prime minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread,” said Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.

There were widespread calls for finance minister Rishi Sunak to extend support, such as schemes that have paid the salaries of workers sent home because of the pandemic. An announcement will not come until Sunak delivers his budget next month, but Johnson promised not to “pull the rug out”.

“For the duration of the pandemic the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK,” Johnson told parliament.

SPEEDY VACCINE ROLL-OUT

Johnson, who was treated in intensive care for COVID-19 last year, has been forced to juggle pressure from Conservative lawmakers to restart the economy and from scientific advisers who fear a resurgence of the virus if he unlocks too quickly.

“The message that comes out of all of the modelling is … get (infection) numbers down before you start releasing, go slowly, (and) go in blocks that you can measure the effect of after four or five weeks,” the government’s top science adviser Patrick Vallance told reporters.

England’s vaccine campaign is significantly reducing cases, with a drop of around 70% in infections among healthcare workers who have had a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, health officials said on Monday.

Britain moved faster than most countries to secure vaccine supplies and has been inoculating people rapidly since December, a strategy that has driven sterling higher on hopes of an economic rebound. The pound hit a new three-year high of $1.4050 in early London trading on Monday.

Some 17.7 million Britons, over a quarter of the 67 million population, have now received a first dose, behind only Israel and the United Arab Emirates in vaccinations per capita.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, David Milliken, writing by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper, editing by Giles Elgood)

Vaccinations under way, U.S. turns to educating skeptics, economic aid

(Reuters) – The United States extended its rollout of the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, inoculating healthcare workers with an eye toward convincing skeptical Americans to get their shots and contain a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people.

The first Americans outside clinical trials started receiving the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE on Monday, three days after it won U.S. emergency-use authorization.

By day’s end, vaccine shipments had made it to nearly all of the 145 U.S. distribution sites pre-selected to receive the initial batch of doses, with a number of major hospital systems launching immunizations immediately.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses three weeks apart, as does the Moderna vaccine that could also receive emergency-use authorization this week.

In one of many made-for-TV injections, New York City intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay received the first shot in the arm, saying “healing is coming” and that, “I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe.”

But just as large numbers of Americans have called the pandemic a hoax and rejected public health guidelines to wear face masks and avoid crowds, only 61% of respondents in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they were open to getting vaccinated.

“The communication of public health is the No. 1 issue,” Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician in Michigan and director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, told MSNBC television on Tuesday.

“We’re really hopeful in this next phase that we can all come together with one voice to convince people this is important,” Davidson said.

COVID-19 has killed 301,085 people in the United States and infected 16.5 million, overwhelming the healthcare system with a record 110,163 patients hospitalized as of Monday, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

The pandemic has also inflicted economic pain as states and localities imposed stay-at-home orders and closed businesses, putting millions out of work.

The U.S. Congress on Monday inched toward passing the first COVID-19 relief bill since April, possibly extending aid to the unemployed, small businesses, and vaccine distribution. The COVID-19 aid could be attached to a critical spending measure that must be passed by Friday to avoid a federal government shutdown.

The process of shipping the first 2.9 million doses of vaccine began on Sunday, 11 months after the United States documented its first case of COVID-19.

Moncef Slaoui, top adviser to the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, has said the plan is to have about 40 million vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna – enough for 20 million people – distributed by year’s end.

It will take months before vaccines become widely available to the public at large.

“This is the most difficult vaccine rollout in history,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News on Monday.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. prepares for first COVID-19 shots as another vaccine candidate emerges

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – U.S. officials expect to begin inoculating Americans against the novel coronavirus by mid-December as another global drug company on Monday unveiled promising trial results on a vaccine candidate, providing hope as the pace of infections accelerated.

The head of the U.S. campaign to rapidly deploy a vaccine that U.S. healthcare workers and other high-risk people could start getting shots produced by Pfizer Inc within a day or two of regulatory consent next month.

“I would expect, maybe on day two after approval on the 11th or 12th of December, hopefully the first people will be immunized across the United States,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser for “Operation Warp Speed,” told CNN on Sunday.

With many Americans traveling and potentially increasing their risk ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, the United States has surpassed 12 million infections and the death toll has climbed to more than 255,000 since the pandemic began.

Coronavirus hospitalizations have surged nearly 50% over the past two weeks as the pace of new infections quickened, and the average number of new COVID-19 deaths reported in United States has been increasing for 12 days.

The latest vaccine breakthrough came on Monday as British company AstraZeneca said its vaccine could be 90% effective without any serious side effects. The vaccine would give the world another important tool against the pandemic and one that is potentially cheaper to make, easier to distribute and faster to scale up than those of rivals.

The vaccine was 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 when administered in two different doses a month apart, late-stage trials showed.

The British drugmaker said it would have as many as 200 million doses by the end of 2020 and 700 million doses could be ready globally as soon as the end of the first quarter of 2021.

Pfizer, working with German partner BioNTech, says its vaccine was 95% effective against infection from the highly contagious respiratory virus.

Other pharmaceutical companies making progress include Moderna Inc, which is expected to seek separate approval later in December, and Johnson & Johnson, which is working on a single-dose vaccine.

In the United States, the first people to receive the Pfizer vaccine would likely include doctors, nurses and front-line emergency medical personnel, as well as those at the highest risk of severe illness and death from the virus, Slaoui said.

But U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams expressed concern that Americans who are dismissive of science and skeptical about vaccines may discourage people from getting their jabs.

“What I’d hate is for us to have a vaccine that could end this pandemic but people don’t trust it,” Adams told the ABC News show “Good Morning America” on Monday.

“I’m just excited we now have three vaccines out there because when you’re trying to immunize the entire planet we want to have as many different tools in our arsenal as possible,” Adams said.

Adams warned Americans that holiday parties “can be super-spreader events,” while New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy urged people to scale back or cancel Thanksgiving plans.

“We’ve pleading with people: Please, God, do the right thing,” Murphy told “Good Morning America.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom said late Sunday he would quarantine for 14 days after three of his children were exposed to a California Highway Patrol officer who tested positive for the virus.

(Additionl reporting by Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Kate Holton, Josephine Mason and Kate Kelland; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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)

Pandemic ‘hero’ Filipino nurses struggle to leave home

By Karen Lema and Clare Baldwin

MANILA (Reuters) – From across the Philippines, they gathered to pray by Zoom.

They were praying to be allowed to leave: To be allowed to take up nursing jobs in countries where the coronavirus is killing thousands in hospitals and care homes. In recent months, these care workers have taken to calling themselves “priso-nurses.”

With infections also surging in the Philippines, the government in April banned healthcare workers from leaving the country. They were needed, it said, to fight the pandemic at home.

But many of the nurses on the two-hour Zoom call on Aug. 20, organised by a union and attended by nearly 200 health workers both in the Philippines and abroad, were unwilling to work at home. They said they felt underpaid, unappreciated and unprotected.

Nurses have been leaving the Philippines for decades, encouraged by the government to join other workers who send back billions of dollars each year.

With COVID-19 sweeping the globalized economy, the Philippine ban squeezed a supply line that has sent hundreds of thousands of staff to hospitals in the United States, the Gulf and Britain, where some commentators have called the nurses “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.

The Philippines’ healthcare system is already short-handed. In Germany there are 430 doctors and nurses per 10,000 people, in the United States 337 and in Britain 254, International Labor Organization data shows.

The Philippines – where the coronavirus death rate is one of the highest in Southeast Asia – has 65.

The April ban has stopped more than 1,000 nurses from leaving the country. Of those, only 25 have applied to work in local hospitals, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told journalists late last month. The Department of Health did not reply to a request for an updated figure.

The government has since partially eased the restrictions, but sometimes also tightens them, so nurses are still clamoring to get out.

On the Zoom call in August, someone played a recording of the Philippine national anthem. A Catholic priest prayed and a man with a soft voice crooned a song about passing off your burdens to God.

One nurse, 34-year-old April Glory, had already spent years away from her young son and had been about to leave again when the ban kicked in. Even before the pandemic, she told Reuters separately, she was better off in a war zone in the Middle East than at home.

Soon after she arrived in Yemen in 2011, a bullet pierced the wall of her private hospital, she said. Staff moved patients to safety.

Still, she said, “we were insured, we had free lodging so my salary was intact and I could send more to my family.” Abroad, there was no need to do any work outside her job description: “You are not expected to sweep the floor.”

SIMPLE MATH

It’s mainly money that drives the Filipinos abroad.

A nurse in the United States can earn as much as $5,000 per month; in the Middle East it’s $2,000 per month, tax free. In Germany, nurses can earn up to $2,800 per month, and get language training, labor organizers, recruiters and the Philippine government’s overseas employment agency say.

Even with its emergency hiring efforts, the Philippine Department of Health is only offering nurses a starting salary of $650 per month. It says it will pay another $10 per day as COVID-19 hazard allowance.

Private nurses sometimes make just $100 per month.

“I felt that I was not earning enough,” said Glory, explaining why she left. Her son, now 11, was a year and a half old at the time. “My mother told me: Better to leave now because my child will not really remember.”

Abroad, Glory’s shifts were a standard eight hours and she only looked after one or two patients at a time in intensive care. Working in Yemen and then Saudi Arabia, she said she bought a house and a car.

Nurses have recently left faster than they are trained. Last year, 12,083 new nurses graduated in the Philippines. That same year, 16,711 signed contracts to go abroad, data from the Commission on Higher Education and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration shows. Those renewing foreign contracts are counted separately. So far this year there have been 46,000 such renewals.

The Philippine government wasn’t able to provide figures for the total number of nurses overseas, or say which countries they are working in.

Filipinos are the biggest group of foreign nurses in the United States. In 2018, there were 348,000, an analysis of U.S. government data by Washington D.C.-based think tank Migration Policy Institute showed. Even with the pandemic, another 3,260 Filipinos have passed the U.S. nurse licensing exam this year.

A report to Britain’s House of Commons Library in May said more than 15,000 of the National Health Service nursing jobs held by foreigners went to Filipinos – nearly a third of the total and more than any other nationality. The NHS employs a further 6,600 Filipinos in other healthcare jobs.

Labor brokers say that, besides the UK and US, Filipino nurses are sought-after in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

36-HOUR SHIFTS

Nine months into the pandemic in the Philippines, reported coronavirus infections in the Philippines have soared to around 270,000. Not all hospitals allow family members to visit, so nurses must feed and clean patients as well as giving health care, said Filipino Nurses United President Maristela Abenojar.

Some nurses are working up to 36-hour shifts because relief staff are calling in sick or not reporting for duty, she said, and sometimes nurses are issued just one set of protective gear per shift. Nurses can’t get tested regularly and if they get sick, there aren’t always hospital beds reserved for them, she said.

At least 56 healthcare workers have died in the Philippines, Department of Health data shows.

“It seems they don’t really value our contributions,” said Jordan Jugo, who works at a private hospital in the Philippines. “It hurts.” He had a contract to work in Britain, but the ban prevented him from leaving.

He said he could sometimes only eat two meals a day and could no longer support his siblings.

The Philippine Department of Health said its healthcare workers work long hours and “it is natural for them to feel tired and overwhelmed with their immense responsibilities.” It said it had arranged for “substitution teams” in some areas.

It said hospitals should provide sufficient protective gear and that healthcare workers should not go on duty without it. Healthcare workers should be prioritized for regular COVID-19 testing, it said, and the Department would ensure there are enough beds for everyone.

Health Secretary Duque has said previously that the government was appealing to the nurses’ “sense of nation, sense of people and sense of service.”

“I DON’T WANT TO BE A HERO”

Foreign countries have gone all-out to show Filipino nurses they are valued.

Saudi Arabia sent chartered planes to help them return to work, and only partly filled them so the nurses could maintain social distance.

British ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce went on an 11-minute segment on Philippine television to praise the “incredible commitment and dedication” of Filipino healthcare workers in Britain.

When nurse Aileen Amoncio, 36, got trapped by a lockdown and then the travel ban during a vacation to the Philippines in March, Britain’s NHS granted her a special “COVID leave” and kept paying her, she said. The NHS said staff stuck abroad due to COVID-19 could qualify for such leave.

Amoncio got out of the Philippines in June, after the government eased the ban slightly.

Working at an NHS neurological rehabilitation hospital in the UK, she said she sympathized with the nurses back home, where she once handled as many as 80 patients on a surgical ward at a small hospital. Now she looks after no more than 10 at a time.

Not only are the pay and conditions better in Britain, she said, but she also hopes her daughter will one day be able to join her and get free treatment on the NHS. The hearing implant she needs would cost $20,000 in the Philippines.

“I’ve served my country already,” said Amoncio. “I don’t want to be a hero again. I am looking out for the future of my children.”

On the Zoom call, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III dialed in with an update: Some of those who had existing contracts could leave, he announced. Cheers went up.

Nurse Glory was one of them. She wept.

“I hope the government will not take it against us that we are leaving,” she said. “We are looking forward to helping the government with this fight in other ways. When we are able, when we’ve risen out of poverty, we will.”

Hours later, on the pavement outside the airport, she quickly hugged her son, then raced to board her flight in case the government changed its mind.

(Additional reporting by Eloisa Lopez; Edited by Matthew Tostevin and Sara Ledwith)

New York pushes ahead with more reopenings as COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest

By Maria Caspani and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced more reopenings in New York state as new coronavirus infections remained low in what was once the U.S. hot spot of the pandemic.

Next Wednesday, New York City malls will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and casinos statewide can reopen at 25% capacity, Cuomo said.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols,” Cuomo said. “Masks, enhanced air ventilation systems, and social distancing will be mandatory.”

The governor also waded into the hotly debated issue of indoor dining in New York City, saying during a conference call with reporters that the final decision rested with the state.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out on Wednesday in favor of allowing indoor dining in the city, which is home to a thriving restaurant industry that was battered by the pandemic.

“It’s time to allow indoor dining in New York City with reduced capacity and clear guidance to ensure social distancing and safety,” Johnson said in a statement.

Cuomo said he would like to see restaurants reopen for indoor dining in the city but that compliance and enforcement remained a major hurdle in doing so.

“We open restaurants, that’s going to complicate by the hundreds if not thousands the number of establishments that need to be monitored,” he said.

Indoor dining is allowed in New York state with the exception of New York City, where more than 300 restaurateurs recently filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $2 billion in damages, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, gyms in New York City opened for the first time in months. They must operate at 33% capacity, with floors rearranged so patrons can exercise more than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart.

SHIFTING TRENDS

New York has seen by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any U.S. state, more than 32,000, but its rate of new infections has dropped to among the lowest in the country.

Nationally, new cases of coronavirus have fallen for six weeks in a row, but infections are surging in the Midwest. Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting the highest percentage of positive test results in the country – over 20% in each state.

Iowa, with a population of more than 3.1 million people, saw over 8,300 new cases last week, up 116%. That compared with about 4,400 new cases in New York state, which has more than 19.4 million residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

Cases also rose 27% last week in Minnesota and 34% in Indiana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told state officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as early as October, according to documents made public by the agency on Wednesday.

The vaccines would be given first to healthcare workers, national security personnel and nursing homes, the agency said in the documents.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. CDC tells states to prep for COVID-19 vaccine distribution as soon as late October

By Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked state public health officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine to high-risk groups as soon as late October, documents published by the agency showed on Wednesday.

The timing of a vaccine has taken on political importance as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks re-election in November, after committing billions of federal dollars to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, which has killed more than 180,000 Americans.

“For the purpose of initial planning, CDC provided states with certain planning assumptions as they work on state specific plans for vaccine distribution, including possibly having limited quantities of vaccines in October and November,” a CDC spokeswoman told Reuters.

The New York Times had earlier reported that the CDC had contacted officials in all 50 states and five large cities with the planning information.

The country’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci earlier on Wednesday said on MSNBC that based on the patient enrollment rate in COVID-19 vaccine trials underway, there could be enough clinical data to know by November or December that one of the vaccines is safe and effective.

The documents put online by the New York Times showed the CDC is preparing for one or two vaccines for COVID-19 to be available in limited quantities as soon as late October.

The vaccines would be made available free of cost first to high-risk groups including healthcare workers, national security personnel, and nursing home residents and staff, the agency said in the documents.

Regulators around the world have repeatedly said development speed will not compromise vaccine safety, as quicker results would stem from conducting parallel trials that are usually done in sequence. But such reassurances have not convinced everyone.

Preliminary results of a survey conducted over the last three months in 19 countries showed that only about 70% of British and U.S. respondents would take a COVID-19 vaccine if available, Scott Ratzan, co-leader of a group called Business Partners to Convince, told Reuters in August.

Drug developers including Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and Pfizer Inc. are leading the race to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the respiratory illness.

The CDC documents describe two vaccine candidates that must be stored at temperatures of minus 70 and minus 20 degrees Celsius. Those storage requirements match profiles of candidates from Pfizer and Moderna.

Last month, the U.S. health department said the CDC was executing an existing contract option with McKesson Corp. to support potential vaccine distribution.

CDC Director Robert Redfield has asked state governors to expedite McKesson’s requests for building vaccine distribution centers and to consider waiving requirements that would stop them from becoming fully operational by Nov. 1, according to a recent letter obtained by Reuters.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru and Deena Beasley in Los Angeles; Editing by Maju Samuel, Tom Brown and Subhranshu Sahu)

Ravaged by COVID-19, California’s Central Valley gets 190 federal healthcare workers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Nearly 200 federal healthcare workers have been deployed to California’s Central Valley agricultural breadbasket, where hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and new infection rates are soaring, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Miami medical teams feel helpless as COVID-19 devastates South Florida

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – As the coronavirus ravages Florida, healthcare workers in Miami hospitals are struggling to cope with the emotional and physical impact of treating a crushing wave of COVID-19 patients.

After seeing 10,000 new cases a day become the norm across the state in July, many of those on the front lines are frustrated with the apparent inability of local, state, and federal governments to coordinate an adequate response. They are equally aghast with what appears to be the reluctance or refusal of many Floridians to honor safety precautions to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“I know, and my colleagues know, that we’re putting a Band-Aid on a problem, we’re supporting people as best we can to get them through, but the real fight happens outside,” said Dr. Eric Knott, a pulmonary and critical care fellow working in three of Miami’s largest hospitals. “If you can’t stop the spread, all of my work is for nothing.”

For Miami doctors, concerns about the virus far surpass those stirred up by even the largest hurricanes.

“A hurricane tends to be a sort of finite amount, and this is infinite,” said Dr. Mark Supino, an attending physician in Jackson Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.

Many healthcare workers and union leaders were critical of Miami’s reopening several weeks after the number of cases of the novel coronavirus first began rising in early March.

On Friday, state health officials reported a total of 402,312 cases across Florida, with 135 new deaths bringing the total to more than 5,600.

While the death toll in South Florida has not approached that of New York City, an early epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, hospital beds and intensive care units across the region have filled to capacity, and in some cases surpassed it.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital, the largest facility in the region, officials have called in hundreds of additional medical workers as employees have fallen sick and had to stay home or be hospitalized. An auditorium was sealed and prepared for COVID-positive patients with a negative pressure system to limit the air flow to prevent new infections.

“In 10 years of medicine I never had to put another nurse on life support, I never had to worry about my co-workers dying,” said Kevin Cho Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner who works at one of Miami’s largest public hospitals. “It’s been emotionally very challenging, physically very challenging.”

Among the most difficult and stressful parts of the job are the sheer number of ICU patients.

Healthcare workers must constantly keep tabs on the vital organs of patients on ventilators, and many of the sick have to be flipped over and over again to stave off any complications from lying in one position for a prolonged period. To do so without risking detaching any of the life support systems can take up to six people.

The intensity has overwhelmed some.

Jude Derisme, vice president of Service Employees International Union 1199, which represents 25,000 medical workers across Florida, said the union had to help get one nurse, a 25-year veteran, off a hospital floor after a “break down.”

“My fear is that if we don’t find a way to bring these numbers down over the next two weeks, if they’re worse than these last two weeks, we’re going to be stretched too thin,” said Martha Baker, a registered nurse and president of Service Employees International Union 1991, which represents about 5,600 medical professionals within Miami’s Jackson Health System. “The sad news is that that’s when patients die.”

While her chapter of the union along with others across Florida have advocated for more personal protective equipment, better overtime pay, hazard pay, and worker’s compensation for those waylaid by the virus, they also acknowledged that medical workers can only do so much against the pandemic.

“This is war, and instead of bullets we’ve got viruses,” Baker said. “If we don’t find a way to dampen our curve we just keep chasing our tails.”

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)

Global COVID-19 trial of hydroxychloroquine, which Trump takes, begins

By Kylie MacLellan and Kay Johnson

LONDON/BANGKOK (Reuters) – Healthcare workers in Britain and Thailand have started taking part in a trial to determine whether two anti-malarial drugs can prevent COVID-19, including one that U.S. President Donald Trump says he has been taking.

The study, involving more than 40,000 healthcare workers across Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, seeks to determine whether chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine could play a role in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Demand for hydroxychloroquine surged after Trump touted it in early April. He said this week he was now taking it as a preventive medicine against the virus despite medical warnings about its use.

The lead investigators in Thailand and Britain said their ‘COPCOV’ trial, in the works for several months, would cut through the heated and unhelpful debate.

“We still do not know whether anything is beneficial in COVID-19,” the University of Oxford’s Professor Nicholas White, the study’s co-principal investigator, told Reuters.

“The only way we can find out if things are beneficial overall is to do large, well-conducted clinical trials,” said White, who is based at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok. “These are extremely well-established drugs.”

The COPCOV team said laboratory evidence showed the anti-malarial drugs might be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19 but there was no conclusive proof. Accord Healthcare has donated the hydroxychloroquine and matched placebo.

Medics who have tested positive will not be able to take part. More details can be found here.

Trump said on May 18 that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine and many frontline medical workers were too, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about its use.

“I’m taking it — hydroxychloroquine,” Trump said. “I’ve been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day.”

Professor Martin Llewelyn, the lead UK investigator, said many health workers were relying on social distancing and personal protective equipment but the measures were not perfect.

“Anything that can be done to reduce that risk further would be an enormous breakthrough,” he told Reuters.

(Writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Catherine Evans)