Covid-19 continues to ravage the United States, even as a second coronavirus vaccine received a vote of recommendation from a committee at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization and Practices (ACIP) voted Saturday to recommend Moderna’s vaccine candidate for people 18 and older, following the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision a day earlier to authorize the vaccine for emergency use.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield must accept the group’s recommendation, which would clear the way for vaccines to be administered and add a second vaccine to the country’s arsenal at a crucial moment in the pandemic.
Over the last week, the US averaged more than 219,000 new Covid-19 infections a day, according to a CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. There were more than 249,000 infections reported on Friday alone — another record.
One of the recent cases is Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee. She tested positive for the virus and has mild symptoms, according to a statement Saturday from Gov. Bill Lee, who said he has tested negative and is quarantining.
More than 18,000 Americans died of Covid-19 in the past week, adding to the more than 316,000 Americans that have died during the pandemic. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that more than 237,000 Americans will die of Covid-19 in the next three months.
“We have this great news with vaccines, but we also have to look at where we are, which is that our hospitalizations are nearly double from where they were a month ago,” said emergency medicine physician Dr. Leana Wen. “We have a person dying from coronavirus basically every 30 seconds here in the US.”
“Know that there is just so much virus all around the country,” she added, urging Americans to consider not traveling for the holidays. “The entire US is a coronavirus hot spot.”
Officials and experts try to combat vaccine hesitancy
The ACIP’s recommendation of the Moderna vaccine comes as hundreds of Americans across the country have already received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was authorized for emergency use by the FDA last week.
Leading officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, received the Pfizer vaccine publicly Friday, in an effort to encourage public confidence.
“This is the beginning of the end,” Adams told CNN Friday night. “Make no mistake about it, it’s going to be a hard couple of weeks. We’ve still got work to do to get over this surge, but I want people to be encouraged.”
He chose to get the vaccine on TV because he wanted the American public to “understand I’ve looked at the data, I’ve worked with the companies and I felt safe getting the vaccine,” he said.
The dean at Morehouse School of Medicine was given the vaccine live on CNN Friday morning, saying that while she understands some Black Americans are concerned because of the nation’s history of racism in medical research, she wouldn’t recommend a vaccine she doesn’t trust.
“Really, this is a life and death message for Black people about the coronavirus,” said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice.
In a news conference Saturday, Adams said he was more concerned about vaccine confidence than supply, encouraging people who are hesitant to seek out information on the vaccines.
“It’s OK to ask questions,” he said. “What is not OK is to let misinformation or mistrust cause you to make a decision which is going to be bad for your health, or for your family’s health, or your community’s health.”
“This vaccine is almost 100% certain to prevent you or your loved one from getting severe disease,” he said. “It is the way we end this pandemic.”
Dr. José Romero, the chair of the ACIP and secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, said Saturday that safety has been and will continue to be a focus in the consideration of vaccines.
Following the group’s vote to recommend the Moderna vaccine, Romero emphasized that minority groups were included in the process.
“As a person of color, I do feel that this has been properly addressed, and will continue to be properly addressed as we go forward,” Romero said.
Additionally, Moderna has an ongoing study of its Covid-19 vaccine in adolescents between the ages of 12 to 18. At Saturday’s meeting of the ACIP, the company said it expected results from those trials sometime in 2021.
Moderna said it is also discussing with the National Institutes of Health designing an additional pediatric clinical trial for children between the ages of 6 months to 12 years old.
Moderna vaccine distribution has already started
Distribution of the Moderna vaccine has “already begun,” said Army Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s vaccine initiative.
“Boxes are being packed and loaded today,” he said in a news conference Saturday. “Trucks will begin rolling out tomorrow, from FedEx and UPS, delivering vaccines and kits to the American people across the United States.”
There were 7.9 million doses of vaccines allocated this week, Perna said, and the US is “on track” to allocate 20 million doses by the end of the year.
More than 6 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine will be shipped to more than 3,200 sites where they will be administered — far more than the 636 sites that Pfizer’s vaccines were shipped to.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University said the Moderna vaccine will help extend the reach of Covid-19 vaccines, allowing them to be distributed even more widely. While both vaccines must be kept cold, Pfizer’s requires ultra-cold storage that is usually easier for larger medical centers with more resources.
But Moderna’s vaccine “can go out to many more rural areas, smaller hospitals, local county health departments that can start distributing the vaccine,” Schaffner said, “while the folks dealing with the Pfizer vaccine are vaccinating in large medical centers.”
As of Saturday, more than 272,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have been administered, according to the CDC.
Meanwhile, some states say they’ve been informed they will receive fewer Pfizer vaccine doses next week than initially promised.
Massachusetts health officials said it wasn’t clear why the dose numbers have changed.
“The Department of Public Health now expects to receive … a little bit more than 145,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December — a number that has been reduced from 180,000. That’s about a 20% decline,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said at a news conference.
“At this time, it’s not clear to us why the shipment amounts have been adjusted,” she said.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said officials were “certainly frustrated that we won’t be receiving the amount that we expected in the first wave and are working to get clarity on what this means.”
In Saturday’s news conference, Perna attributed the lower allocations to a “planning error,” and said he was taking “personal responsibility for the miscommunication.”
“To the governors, to the governors’ staff, please accept my personal apology if this was disruptive in your decision making and in your conversations with the people of your great state,” Perna said. “I will work hard to correct it.”
Different states, different measures
As state and federal officials gear up for more vaccine shipments, different parts of the country are reporting different Covid-19 trends.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said hospitals are at “crisis management” mode and capacity has been added at facilities across the state.
“I believe hospitals are going to be able to manage this,” he said. “We learned a lot in the spring.”
In Los Angeles County, hospitals are quickly running out of intensive care unit beds as the region continues to see an overwhelming spike in Covid-19 infections. The county is on the verge of becoming the pandemic’s epicenter, said Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer at LAC + USC Medical Center, on Friday.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this. We are getting crushed,” Spellberg said.
Dr. Thomas Yadegar, the ICU director at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, told CNN Saturday that the situation is “by far the worst that it’s been in the past nine months.” He urged the public to follow the recommendations of public health officials.
“Right now, we need L.A. to turn into a ghost town again,” Yadegar said. “That’s what we need, so that we can try to save as many people and heal as many souls.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced the state will end a “pause” on Sunday that was put in place to curb the spread of the virus, after a downturn in Covid-19 metrics, including positivity rate. Still, residents are encouraged to wear a mask and social distance, officials said.
Michigan’s governor also announced Friday the lifting of some restrictions, which comes after a decrease of Covid-19 markers in the past month, according to health officials.
In-person classes can resume at high schools and indoor venues such as movie theaters can reopen with capacity limits and other safety precautions, the governor said. Outdoor group fitness activities and outdoor non-contact sports can also resume.