Florida on Thursday became the third state to identify a case of the coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom, a reminder that the pandemic remains a formidable foe as infections in the United States cross 20 million.
The latest instance of the variant was found in a man in his 20s with no recent travel history, health officials said. The more transmissible version of the virus has also been reported in California and Colorado, and experts expect it to be identified in additional states.
The virus, spreading largely unchecked in much of the country, forced most people to have quieter New Year’s Eve celebrations. No one was likely to kiss a stranger at the annual ball drop in Manhattan’s Times Square, attended by only a few hundred front-line workers.
A fired Wisconsin pharmacist was arrested Thursday for allegedly deliberately spoiling more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine, which is available in limited supply and being rationed for high-risk people.
At a vaccination clinic in West Virginia, more than 40 people were accidentally given an antibody treatment for the virus, instead of Moderna’s vaccine. The West Virginia National Guard, which is assisting with inoculations, said those people were at no risk of harm.
The number of vaccinations across the United States crossed 3 million Thursday, only about one-seventh of the doses that federal officials had promised to deliver to Americans’ arms by the end of the year. Although authorities insist that lags in reporting mean the official tally is an undercount, the immunization campaign has nevertheless been marred by logistical delays as the nation experiences the most powerful surge of the pandemic so far.
The vaccines’ complicated rollout has relied on coordination between the federal government and beleaguered state and local health-care systems, with communication gaffes and underfunded health departments contributing to the slowdown. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, on Wednesday said federal officials will “continue to make adjustments” to increase vaccinations.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called on the government to increase the pace of vaccination, especially for people in nursing homes. Those long-term care facilities are logging more than 60,000 infections per week, he said, and recording a 20-percent fatality rate.
“I think we need a sense of urgency about this, and the new variant, I think, adds to that risk,” Gottlieb said Thursday on CNBC. “Because if we don’t get control of this epidemic wave more quickly, and the vaccine is a tool to do that, it creates more opportunity for this new variant to start spreading more widely.”
That concern was echoed by Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who on Friday positioned himself as a prominent Republican critic of the Trump administration’s handling of vaccinations. “That comprehensive vaccination plans have not been developed at the federal level and sent to the states as models is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable,” he said in a statement.
Among other ideas, Romney proposed enlisting active and retired health-care workers not currently delivering care — such as veterinarians, combat medics and medical students — to administer vaccinations. Within each category of people used to prioritize inoculations, he suggested scheduling vaccinations according to birthdays.
“Public health professionals will easily point out the errors in this plan — so they should develop better alternatives based on experience, modeling and trial,” Romney added.
The senator’s criticism came as U.S. coronavirus-related hospitalizations set a record of more than 125,300 on Thursday — the fourth straight day that that measure reached a new high. States reported 225,775 new cases of the virus, and deaths topped 3,000 for the third day in a row, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.
The seven-day average of new cases set records in New York and Maine on Friday, while the average number of coronavirus-related deaths hit their highest points in California, Kansas and Virginia. Mississippi’s average death toll tied its record.
In the last week, California reported nearly 20 percent of the country’s new infections, the most by far of any state and a proportion that outstrips its share of the U.S. population.
One day after California Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “Hope is on the horizon,” his state saw perhaps its darkest day yet. On Friday, officials tallied 535 people dead of the coronavirus, a one-day record that trails only those set by New York in mid-April.
California has now reported more than 25,000 deaths, the only state other than New York and Texas to pass that milestone. Experts fear things will only get worse.
The situation remains particularly dire in Los Angeles County, where the Los Angeles Times reports that morgues are overflowing, funeral homes are turning away families and hospitals are reaching their breaking points. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti predicted Thursday that the city’s “toughest and darkest days” lie ahead, as the surrounding county reports an average of more than 12,800 cases and 129 coronavirus-related deaths per day.
“Our health-care workers are stretched to the limit,” Garcetti told CNN. ” … We learned a lot, prepared a lot, have equipment, have a lot of the spaces now available, but we don’t have the people. And that is what’s devastating us.”
Hospitals are also under strain elsewhere in the country, including in Arizona, where the state’s health director said over 90 percent of ICU beds were occupied and more than half of those were housing COVID-19 patients.
“As you take precautions against COVID-19, consider whether you or someone you love might need one of those beds for a heart attack, stroke, serious injury or infection,” the director, Cara Christ, said in a video posted Thursday. “Wearing a mask, keeping your distance, washing your hands and taking other simple steps helps make sure there are beds for any medical emergency that Arizonans may face.”