J&J adds to COVID-19 vaccine armory with 66% efficacy in global trial

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson said on Friday that its single-dose vaccine was 66% effective in preventing COVID-19 in a large global trial against multiple variants which will give health officials another weapon to tackle the coronavirus.

In the trial of nearly 44,000 volunteers, the level of protection against moderate and severe COVID-19 varied from 72% in the United States, to 66% in Latin America and just 57% in South Africa, from where a worrying variant has spread.

A high bar has been set by two authorized vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which were around 95% effective in preventing symptomatic illness in pivotal trials when given in two doses.

Those trials, however, were conducted mainly in the United States and before new variants emerged.

The top U.S. infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said the variations in effectiveness around the world underlined the need to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to prevent new variants from emerging.

“It’s really a wake up call for us to be nimble and to be able to adjust as this virus will continue for certain to evolve,” Fauci said.

J&J’s main goal was the prevention of moderate to severe COVID-19, and the vaccine was 85% effective in stopping severe disease and preventing hospitalization across all geographies and against multiple variants 28 days after immunization.

That “will potentially protect hundreds of millions of people from serious and fatal outcomes of COVID-19,” Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, said of the results, which were based on 468 symptomatic cases.

SEEKING APPROVAL

J&J plans to seek emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next week. It has said it plans to deliver 1 billion doses in 2021 and will produce the vaccine in the United States, Europe, South Africa and India.

Public health officials are counting on the J&J vaccine to increase much-needed supply and simplify immunization in the United States, which has a deal to buy 100 million doses of J&J’s vaccine and an option for an additional 200 million.

J&J said the vaccine would be ready immediately upon emergency approval, but Stoffels declined to say how many doses.

“Right now, any protection and additional vaccine is great. The key is not only overall efficacy but specifically efficacy against severe disease, hospitalization, and death,” Walid Gellad, a health policy associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said.

Michael Breen, Director of Infectious Diseases and Ophthalmology at research firm GlobalData said “Most countries are still desperate to get their hands on doses, regardless of whether or not the vaccine is considered highly effective. Moderately effective will do just fine for now.”

None of the vaccine recipients in the J&J trial died from COVID-19, compared with 5 in the placebo group, the National Institutes of Health said. Three deaths in the vaccine group overall, but none were determined to be from the virus. That compares with 16 deaths overall in the placebo arm, it added.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, J&J’s does not require a second shot weeks after the first or need to be kept frozen, making it a strong candidate for use in parts of the world where transportation and cold storage are an issue.

SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT

Several studies have emerged this month showing that a South African variant has mutated in areas of the virus that are key targets of vaccines, reducing their efficacy.

“What we are learning is there is different efficacy in different parts of the world,” Stoffels told Reuters.

In a sub-study of 6,000 volunteers in South Africa, Stoffels said, the J&J vaccine was 89% effective at preventing severe disease. In the South Africa portion of the trial, 95% of cases were infections with the South African variant.

“I am overwhelmed by the fact that this vaccine protected against severe disease even in South Africa,” said Glenda Gray, the joint lead investigator of the South African vaccine trial.

Gray, who is the chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council, said this is by far the best vaccine for South Africa to fight the mutant strain and can prevent a large number of hospitalizations and deaths.

A mid-stage trial of a Novovax coronavirus vaccine in South Africa also showed lower efficacy, proving to be 60% effective among volunteers who didn’t have HIV. In a separate, late-stage trial in Britain it was 89.3% effective.

In the J&J trial, which was conducted in eight countries, 44% of participants were from the United States, 41% from Central and South America and 15% from South Africa. Slightly more than a third of the volunteers were over 60.

J&J’s vaccine uses a common cold virus to introduce coronavirus proteins into cells in the body and trigger an immune response, whereas the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a new technology called messenger RNA (mRNA).

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Manas Mishra, Dania Nadeem and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengalaru and Rebecca Spalding and Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Caroline Humer, Peter Henderson, Edwina Gibbs and Keith Weir)

France’s new COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU treatments rise sharply

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people hospitalized in France for COVID-19 rose by more than a 1,000 over the last two days, a trend unseen since Nov 16, and the number of patients in intensive care units for the disease exceeded 3,000 for the first time since Dec 9.

A growing number of medical experts have called for a third lockdown in France but French media report that President Emmanuel Macron is trying to avoid such a measure.

Macron hopes a 6 p.m. curfew put in place 10 days ago will be enough to rein in the surge in new infections prompted by the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.

Getting the number of patients treated in ICUs for COVID-19 below the 3,000 limit was the main justification for replacing the second lockdown with the national curfew on Dec 15.

At 3,041, the ICU total is less than half its all time high of 7,148 on April 4, but has grown almost every day since Jan 7.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Bloomberg Television that a new lockdown would make it very difficult for the country to reach its 2021 target of 6% economic growth.

The government had also aimed to bring the average new daily cases below 5,000 before lifting the second lockdown. After a 54,440 high on Nov 7, the seven-day moving average of daily new infections, which averages out reporting irregularities, fell to 10,348 on Dec 4 but is now at a two-month high of 20,447.

The daily tally of new COVID infections was 4,240 on Monday, down from Sunday’s 18,346 but higher than last Monday’s 3,736. France’s cumulative total of cases now stands at 3,057,857, the sixth-highest in the world.

The country’s COVID-19 death toll was up by 445, at 73,494, the world’s seventh highest, versus a rise of 172 on Sunday. The seven-day moving average of new fatalities increased to 401, the highest since Dec. 9.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Philippa Fletcher)

Spaniards becoming numb to coronavirus deaths, nurse warns

By Luis Felipe Castilleja

BARCELONA (Reuters) – The senior nurse in the intensive care unit of Barcelona’s Sant Pau Hospital is anxiously watching the wards fill up and fears that Spaniards are letting their guard down against the coronavirus, numbed by the daily litany of deaths.

Staff at the unit kept up a fast pace on Thursday. Wearing double masks, goggles and gowns, they fitted patients with tubes to assist their breathing or helped them into comfortable positions.

Spain has the world’s fourth-highest number of new daily infections in a seven-day average, with 2.4 million confirmed total cases, according to a Reuters tally. It reported 41,576 new cases on Wednesday, while deaths rose by 464 to a total of 54,637.

“In the news they keep saying 300, 400 (deaths each day) and it looks like if they were talking about nothing,” ICU supervisor Mar Vega told Reuters.

“I believe people are becoming numb to these figures. They hear them but it’s like nothing is happening. People are not truly conscious of what we are going through.”

Vega said the increase in hospitalizations reminded her of the pandemic’s start last March and that medical staff risked burning out.

“It’s been many months. We are very tired.”

About 120 patients are currently hospitalized in Sant Pau for coronavirus, with 35 in the ICU, out of about 500 available beds, its director of intensive medicine, Dr. Jordi Mancebo, said. These were the worst figures since after the first wave in the spring.

Catalonia region has the highest number of accumulated hospitalizations in Spain. New admissions have doubled in the past three weeks to 600, Mancebo said.

“It’s very frustrating that there are people who minimize the importance of the pandemic,” he said.

(Reporting by Luis Felipe Castilleja, additional reporting and writing by Joan Faus,; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Angus MacSwan)

In deadliest week so far, U.S. loses more than 18,400 lives to COVID-19

(Reuters) – December was the deadliest month of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States with nearly 78,000 deaths, and health officials warned that even more people will likely die in January despite the rollout of vaccines.

In the week ended Jan. 3, more than 18,400 people died from COVID-19, bringing the pandemic’s total to over 351,000 deaths, or one in every 930 U.S. residents, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

The country reported nearly 1.5 million new infections last week, up 16.5% from the previous seven days.

Many testing centers were closed for the year-end holiday, likely reducing the number of cases reported last week. Health officials have warned that figures this week may be abnormally high due to a backlog of data.

More than 126,000 COVID-19 patients are currently in hospitals, up 25% from one month ago. The rise in hospitalizations, which have hit new records almost every day in recent weeks, is the main reason health experts predict further increases in deaths in coming weeks.

Despite pleas to avoid traveling for the holidays, U.S. airports screened 1.3 million people on Sunday, the highest since mid-March.

Arizona, Tennessee and South Carolina reported the most new cases per capita last week, according to the Reuters analysis. In terms of deaths per capita, Kansas, Wyoming and New Mexico were the hardest hit last week.

Across the United States, 13.6% of tests came back positive for the virus, up from 10.3% the prior week, according to data from the volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project. The highest rates were in Iowa at 64%, Idaho at 56% and Alabama at 47%.

The World Health Organization considers positive test rates above 5% concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

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

U.S. officials worry about holiday spike as coronavirus surges

By Brendan O’Brien and Maria Caspani

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. health authorities braced for further increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on Friday, capping a week in which the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerated ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases reached more than 165,000 on Thursday, while the seven-day average for deaths climbed to 1,359, more than any day since late May, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

With hospitalizations rising across much of the nation, straining already exhausted medical staff, officials in more than 20 states have imposed restrictions to curtail the spread of the virus.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the virus is spreading at a high rate across more than half the country and that Thanksgiving gatherings should be limited to immediate family members rather than a maximum number of people.

“I don’t like it to be any number… if you say it can be 10, and it’s eight people from four different families, then that probably is not the same degree of safe as 10 people from your immediate household,” Birx told CNN on Friday.

In a positive sign for combating the pandemic, Pfizer Inc. said it will apply to U.S. health regulators on Friday for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine, the first such application in a major step toward providing protection against the virus.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE this week reported final trial results that showed the vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 with no major safety concerns.

If the data is solid, “we literally could be weeks away from the authorization of a 95% effective vaccine,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said on CBS’ “This Morning.”

California’s governor on Thursday imposed some of the most stringent restrictions on the vast majority of the state’s population, with a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities that will start on Saturday night and end on the morning of Dec. 21.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Similar restrictions took effect in Ohio this week, while Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were stretched to capacity.

In Illinois, where the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was at an alarmingly high 20% and new restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining, took effect on Friday, long lines appeared again at testing sites.

In Chicago’s metro area, Emily Randall had no luck finding an opening to get tested after she woke up with a throbbing headache on Thursday.

“It’s very frustrating because I’m trying to be a responsible citizen,” said the 43-year-old research analyst. “My head feels a lot better but I am still worried because I have read stories of people who got better and then, all of a sudden, got worse.”

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

Daily COVID-19 deaths surpassed the 2,000 mark for the first time since late June on Thursday.

THANKSGIVING FEARS

U.S. officials have pleaded with the public to avoid unnecessary travel and exercise caution as the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

Although COVID-19 restrictions have received more bipartisan support from state leaders in recent weeks, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, refused to limit gatherings on Thanksgiving.

“In South Dakota, we won’t stop or discourage you from thanking God and spending time together this Thanksgiving,” Noem said in a statement on Friday.

With cases and deaths increasing steadily in most states, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its widely cited model.

It now projects 471,000 coronavirus deaths by March 1, up from less than 440,000 in its previous forecast.

In hard-hit Wisconsin, the state’s hospital association implored lawmakers to address the growing crisis by providing more resources to health care workers and facilities.

“With few tools available right now to curb spread other than increasingly urgent public appeals, our COVID numbers are growing rapidly and predict, quite accurately so far, a health care crisis in Wisconsin that without significant, swift, and unified action will become a catastrophe,” Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding wrote in a letter to legislators and the governor on Thursday.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, California; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. disease experts: Don’t travel for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca Spalding and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

The travel advice is a “strong recommendation,” not a requirement, CDC official Henry Walke said on a call with reporters. The federal agency said it was making the recommendation after many states across the country experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“We’re alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Walke said.

The CDC advised against gathering with anyone who has not lived in the same household for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Officials said they were also posting recommendations on their website on how to stay safe during the holidays for those Americans who do choose to travel.

“It is the right advice. We are in a major surge in the U.S. with hospitals inundated,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said at a Reuters forum. “There are some that will travel nonetheless, but, hopefully, they will put in place some common-sense measures to limit the damage the virus can cause.”

While the CDC recommended virtual gatherings, for those who do gather in person, guests should bring their own food and utensils and celebrate outdoors if possible, it said.

If celebrating indoors, it recommends that Americans open windows and put fans in front of open windows to pull fresh air into the room where guests are sitting. It also suggests limiting the number of people near where food is being prepared.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as Americans gather with friends and family around the country. Shares in airlines and hotel companies have plummeted since the outbreak began as government officials have advised against unnecessary travel.

The AAA travel agency has said it anticipates at least a 10 percent drop in the number of travelers this Thanksgiving, the largest single-year drop since 2008. Based on its October models, it forecasts 50 million Americans will travel for the holiday, compared with 55 million in 2019.

With the CDC recommendations, it expects that number now to be even lower.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each said on Thursday that bookings were weakening due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, and United said cancellations were rising.

(Reporting by Rebecca Spalding, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson and Lisa Pauline Mattackal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Henderson)

Pfizer ends vaccine trial with 95% success rate, paving way for a shot this year

By Michael Erman and Ludwig Burger

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc and BioNTech could secure emergency U.S. and European authorization for their COVID-19 vaccine next month after final trial results showed it had a 95% success rate and no serious side effects, the drugmakers said on Wednesday.

The efficacy of the shot was found to be consistent across different ages and ethnicities – a promising sign given the disease has disproportionately affected the elderly and certain groups including Black people.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could grant emergency-use approval towards the end of the first half of December or early in the second half, BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Reuters TV. Conditional approval in the European Union could be secured in the second half of December, he added.

“If all goes well I could imagine that we gain approval in the second half of December and start deliveries before Christmas, but really only if all goes positively,” he said.

The success rate of the vaccine developed by U.S. firm Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech is the highest of any candidate in late-stage clinical trials so far, and experts said it was a significant achievement in the race to end the pandemic.

Pfizer said 170 volunteers in its trial involving over 43,000 people contracted COVID-19 but 162 of them had only been given a placebo, meaning the vaccine was 95% effective. Of the 10 people who had severe COVID-19, one had received the vaccine.

“A first in the history of mankind: less than a year from the sequence of the virus to the large-scale clinical trial of a vaccine, moreover based on a whole new technique,” said Enrico Bucci, a biologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Today is a special day.”

BioNTech’s Sahin said the U.S. emergency authorization would be applied for on Friday.

The FDA committee tentatively plans to meet on Dec. 8-10, a source familiar with the situation said, though the dates could still change. The FDA did not respond to requests for comment.

COVID-19 RUNS RAMPANT

The final trial analysis comes a week after initial results showed the vaccine was more than 90% effective. Moderna Inc <MRNA.O> released preliminary data for its vaccine on Monday, showing 94.5% effectiveness.

The better-than-expected results from the two vaccines, both developed with new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, have raised hopes for an end to a pandemic that has killed more than 1.3 million people and wreaked havoc upon economies and daily life.

The Pfizer-BioNTech shot was found to have 94% efficacy in people over 65 years, which experts said was crucial at a time when COVID-19 is running rampant around the world with record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations.

“This is the evidence we needed to ensure that the most vulnerable people are protected,” said Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow at the University of Liverpool’s department of pharmacology.

Global shares rose as the trial results countered concerns around the stubbornly high global infection rate. Pfizer shares were up 1.6% while BioNTech jumped 3.8% in the United States. By contrast, Moderna dropped 4.2%.

Investors have treated vaccine development as a race between companies, although there is likely to be global demand for as much vaccine as can be produced for the foreseeable future.

DISTRIBUTING SHOTS

Pfizer says it expects to make as many as 50 million vaccine doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

While some groups such as healthcare workers will be prioritized in the United States and Britain for vaccinations this year, it will be months before large-scale rollouts begin in either country.

Pfizer also has agreements with the European Union, Germany and Japan where distribution could begin next year.

Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s top emergency expert, said it would be at least 4-6 months before significant levels of vaccination were taking place around the world.

Distribution of a Pfizer-BioNTech shot is complicated by the need to store it at ultra-cold temperatures of -70 degrees Celsius. It can, however, be kept in a normal fridge for up to five days, or up to 15 days in a thermal shipping box.

Moderna’s vaccine can be stored for up to six months at -20C though it is expected to be stable for 30 days at normal fridge temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36°-46°F).

FATIGUE AND HEADACHES

Pfizer said its two-dose vaccine, called BNT162b2, was well-tolerated and that side effects were mostly mild to moderate, and cleared up quickly.

It said the only severe adverse events experienced by volunteers were fatigue and headaches. Out of 8,000 participants, 2% had headaches after the second dose while 3.8% experienced fatigue. Older adults tended to report fewer and milder adverse events.

“These are extraordinary results, and the safety data look good,” said David Spiegelhalter, a professor and expert in risk and evidence communication at the University of Cambridge.

“It would be interesting to see what adverse reactions were reported by the group getting the placebo, since that gives an idea of how much of the adverse effects are due to the vaccination process, and how much is due to the vaccine itself.”

Of the dozens of drugmakers and research groups racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, the next data release will likely be from AstraZeneca Plc with the University of Oxford in November or December. Johnson & Johnson says it is on track to deliver data this year.

Authorization of vaccines for children will take longer. Only Pfizer has started vaccinating volunteers under the age of 18 in trials, giving shots to children as young as 12. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have said they hope to start testing the vaccine in younger patients soon.

(Reporting by Michael Erman in Maplewood, N.J.; Additional reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru, Caroline Humer in New York, Dan Levine in San Francisco, Elizabeth Howcroft, Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Pravin Char)

New York City holds off school closure as U.S. braces for virus-stricken winter

By Gabriella Borter and Anurag Maan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City schools were set to remain open for at least another day despite a rising COVID-19 case count, the mayor said on Tuesday, as surging infections and hospitalizations in the United States from coast to coast prompted new restrictions and predictions of a difficult winter ahead.

New York, home to the nation’s largest school district, reported a 7-day positive COVID-19 test rate of 2.74% on Tuesday – more than double what it was over the summer, but below the 3% threshold that Mayor Bill de Blasio set for keeping schools open.

“Everyone’s been participating in the things that have kept schools safe. Everyone has been wearing their masks … and we need to keep doing that to do our very, very best to keep schools open,” de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday.

“We have some new challenges because of what’s going on around us,” he added.

Beyond New York City, which was the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 crisis in the spring, infections have reached unprecedented levels nationwide.

Forty-one U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases in November, while 20 have seen a record rise in deaths and 26 reported record hospitalizations, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. Twenty-five states reported test positivity rates above 10% for the week ending on Sunday, Nov. 15. The World Health Organization considers a positivity rate above 5% to be concerning.

The Midwest remains the hardest-hit U.S. region. It reported 444,677 cases in the week ending on Monday, Nov. 16, 36% more than the combined cases of the Northeast and West regions.

The number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in the United States hit a record of 73,140 on Monday. Hospitalizations have increased over 46% in past 14 days, according to a Reuters tally.

New York is among several northeast states that had managed to contain the virus fairly well over the summer after a frightening spring wave, but now has one of the highest week-over-week case increases as of Sunday.

Infections have also jumped in neighboring Connecticut by more than 50% in the last week from the week prior.

“Right now we see the storm clouds coming again,” Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, told MSNBC in an interview on Tuesday.

Governors of several states and city officials have imposed new restrictions on indoor gatherings in recent days in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease over the winter, with the prospect of a widely available, effective vaccine still months away.

Several have urged citizens to exercise caution around the Thanksgiving holiday and not travel or socialize with extended family for the traditional indoor feast.

“I know this is difficult & frustrating, especially with the holidays right around the corner,” Vermont Governor Phil Scott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, referring to his ban on multihousehold gatherings. “But it’s necessary & we need your help to get this back under control.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Anurag Maan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Maria Caspani; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Fears of COVID-19 resurgence spread to East Coast as grim U.S. records mount

By Maria Caspani and Anurag Maan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths surge across the United States, more signs emerged that a second wave could engulf areas of the Northeast, which managed to bring the pandemic under control after being battered last spring.

In New Jersey, one of the early U.S. hotspots, a spike in cases in Newark, the state’s largest city, prompted Mayor Ras Baraka to implement aggressive measures, including a mandatory curfew for certain areas, to contain the spread of the virus.

New York state and city officials also reported a worrying rise in the seven-day average infection rate that raised the specter of stricter mitigation measures adopted at the height of the pandemic.

“This is our LAST chance to stop a second wave,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter on Wednesday as he announced the seven-day average positivity rate citywide was 2.52%. The city’s public school system, the largest in the country, would have to shut down if that figure reached 3%.

“We can do it, but we have to act NOW,” he said.

The United States as a whole reported more than 1,450 deaths on Tuesday, the highest single-day count since mid-August, according to a Reuters analysis.

U.S. COVID-19 cases climbed for seven days straight to reach more than 136,000 as of late Tuesday while hospitalizations, a key metric of the pandemic, crossed 60,000 for the first time since the pandemic began.

In Newark, the positivity rate hovered at 19%, more than double the state’s 7.74% seven-day average, Baraka said in a statement released on Tuesday.

“Stricter measures are required in the city’s hotspots in order to contain the virus and limit the spread,” he said.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced some restrictions on Monday in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, and outbreaks among bartenders.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release on Tuesday that New York’s positivity rate had climbed above 3% for the first time in weeks.

In Maryland, where the positivity rate stood at 5.6% on Wednesday, officials warned about rising COVID-19 hospitalizations. More than 800 people were being treated for the coronavirus at state hospitals as of Wednesday, according to Mike Ricci, the communications director of Governor Larry Hogan, the highest daily count since April, a Reuters tally showed.

A record number of people died of coronavirus in several Midwest and western states on Tuesday, including in Alaska, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Officials in states hardest-hit by the virus pleaded with residents to stay home as much as possible and heed the advice of experts by wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing.

“It’s not safe to go out, it’s not safe to have others over — it’s just not safe. And it might not be safe for a while yet,” Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers said during a primetime address on Tuesday. “So, please, cancel the happy hours, dinner parties, sleepovers and playdates at your home.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Editing by Nick Macfie)

Alarmed by soaring COVID-19 hospitalizations, some U.S. states tighten curbs

By Sharon Bernstein and Maria Caspani

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – Several U.S. states on Tuesday imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus as hospitalizations soared, straining hospitals and medical resources across much of the country.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in California has risen by 32% over the past two weeks, and intensive-care admissions have spiked by 30%, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, told reporters.

As a result, Ghaly announced that three counties that are home to about 5.5 million people – San Diego, Sacramento and Stanislaus – must reverse their reopening plans and go back to the most restrictive category of regulations under which indoor dining in restaurants is not allowed and gyms and religious institutions are also not permitted to hold indoor activities.

“We anticipate if things stay they way they are … over half of California counties will have moved into a more restrictive tier” by next week, Ghaly said.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz announced new restrictions as the Midwestern state reported a fresh record high in daily COVID-19 hospitalizations, and medical systems in Minnesota expressed concerns about their ability to cope with the surge.

The state reported 1,224 coronavirus hospitalizations on Tuesday, up from 1,084 the previous day and a new daily record, according to a Reuters tally.

Beginning Friday, restaurants and bars in Minnesota must close dine-in services between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and keep the number of patrons below 50% of capacity. The governor’s order also includes private social gatherings, which must be limited to 10 people from three households or less.

“We’ve turned our dials, we’re going to have to turn them back a little bit today,” Walz told a briefing.

In Illinois, which recorded its highest number of daily cases on Tuesday with 12,626 new infections, Governor J.B. Pritzker told reporters the majority of the state’s regions were seeing higher hospitalization rates than last spring.

Faced with rampant coronavirus infections and a strained healthcare system, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds also took steps to curb the disease’s spread by limiting the size of social gatherings and imposing a targeted mask-wearing requirement for certain situations.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar expressed concern about rising hospitalizations that were straining medical facilities in areas hardest hit by the surge, and said health officials will work to set up temporary medical facilities where they might be needed.

“As you get more cases, you get more hospitalizations,” Azar said in an interview with MSNBC. “It’s just simple math.”

There were just over 59,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the United States on Monday, the country’s highest number ever of in-patients being treated for the disease. Daily new infections exceeded 100,000 for the sixth consecutive day.

Hospitalizations are a key metric of how the pandemic is progressing because, unlike case counts, they are not influenced by the number of tests performed.

The harsh statistics tallied by Reuters cemented the United States’ position as the country worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, even as drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Monday provided some hope: successful late-stage tests of its vaccine.

U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci welcomed the Pfizer vaccine announcement but warned the winter months promise to bring more infections as people stay indoors.

Fauci said health officials were reporting more infections from small gatherings, an indication the virus is being spread by asymptomatic people.

“There are people out there, innocently and unwittingly, who are infected, don’t have any symptoms, who are infecting others,” he told MSNBC on Tuesday. “So, much more widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals is going to be very important as we enter, and go into, these months of indoor-type gathering.”

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living warned about a spike in COVID-19 cases in nursing homes.

“As we feared, the sheer volume of rising cases in communities across the U.S., combined with the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of this virus, has unfortunately led to an increase in new COVID cases in nursing homes,” Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement.

Nursing homes in the hard-hit Midwest saw a 120% increase in weekly COVID-19 cases since mid-September, the group said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely and Gabriella Borter in New York; writing by Maria Caspani; editing by Jonathan Oatis)