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Congress Passes Pandemic Economic Relief Package

By Ernie Mundell and Robin Foster HealthDay Reporters

TUESDAY, Dec. 22, 2020 (Healthday News) -- As Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package on Monday, U.S. experts warned that a new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus recently discovered in Britain may already be circulating in this country.

The relief bill will authorize direct payments of $600 to any American who made less than $75,000 in the last tax year, the Washington Post reported, with checks arriving as early as next week. Enhanced unemployment benefits will also be extended, and businesses will benefit from $325 billion in economic relief under the bill.

Seeking to reassure a troubled nation, President-Elect Joe Biden received the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. He did so live on television at ChristianaCare Hospital in Newark, Del.

Biden said, "I'm doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it's available to take the vaccine," the New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, health experts worried that a troubling variant of the coronavirus that has cropped up in Britain may already be in the United States, the Post reported.

"We don't know that for absolutely certain, but it is reasonable to assume that is going on," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday. "It very well might be here for all we know."

Some infectious disease experts said Monday the variant may not have even originated in Britain, the Post reported. Instead, it may have been identified there first because the British government has a strong monitoring system that has tracked tens of thousands of genomic sequences of virus samples. The United States does not have nearly the same level of virus surveillance, the newspaper said.

"It may very well be here. It may have even started here. The sequencing in the U.S. is so sporadic," Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told the Post.

"It makes sense that it was detected first in the U.K. because they have probably the world's best surveillance program. It would not shock me at all to find out that it also is circulating in the U.S.," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, in Washington, D.C.

Even though this variant, officially known as B.1.1.7, will require close monitoring, it is unlikely to undermine the United States' coronavirus vaccination campaign, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

"The vaccine is a pretty thorough thing," Hanage explained. "Whether or not the existing vaccines are less effective against B.1.1.7 is at the moment not known. I think there is good reason to think they will not be severely impacted."

Some U.S. governors aren't waiting to find out.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the three airlines that fly from the U.K. into New York -- British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic -- to require all travelers to test negative before boarding. British Airways and Delta agreed and will begin to do so Tuesday, Cuomo said.

"I believe intuitively [the new variant] is already here, because if it's been flying around the world, it will be here," Cuomo said. "We learned this lesson the hard way, and we're not going to go through it again... I believe my intuition is correct that this is another disaster waiting to happen."

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday that his administration had been in discussion for the past 48 hours with airlines and "stakeholders" in the state about possible new quarantine and testing protocols for travelers arriving from the U.K., the Post reported.

Moderna's COVID vaccine gets FDA's blessing

Moderna's coronavirus vaccine has been granted emergency use approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, joining Pfizer's vaccine in an unprecedented campaign to inoculate enough Americans to stop the pandemic in its tracks.

"With the availability of two vaccines now for the prevention of COVID-19, the FDA has taken another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic that is causing vast numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States each day," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. "Through the FDA's open and transparent scientific review process, two COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized in an expedited timeframe while adhering to the rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization that the American people have come to expect from the FDA."

"To get another very important vaccine into play is just, yet again, another step toward what the ultimate goal is: to get enough people vaccinated so you could essentially end the epidemic as we know it in this country," Fauci told the Post. "I believe that's possible."

The authorization of a second vaccine will double to roughly 20 million the number of Americans who will get a first shot before the end of the year, the Post reported.

Gen. Gustave Perna, who is overseeing the federal effort to distribute vaccines, said the government was preparing to ship almost 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to 3,285 locations in the first week after approval.

"It will be a very similar cadence that was executed this week with Pfizer, where we're hitting initial sites on Monday, [followed] on Tuesday and Wednesday," Perna said, the Post reported.

The Moderna vaccine was developed in partnership with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The federal government invested in the research and development of the vaccine and bought 200 million doses in advance, bringing the government outlay to $4.1 billion, the Post reported.

Moderna's vaccine was shown to be 94 percent effective in its large clinical trial; Pfizer's vaccine was 95 percent effective. The efficacy was similar across age, gender and racial groups.

Poll shows 70% will get COVID vaccine

As the first doses of coronavirus vaccines made their way to the arms of health care workers around the United States, a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 71% of Americans say they will "definitely or probably" get a COVID-19 vaccine.

That's up from 63% in September, and it's a sign that a growing number of Americans are starting to trust the science behind the vaccines as they become more comfortable with the speed in which the vaccines are being developed.

Still, just over a quarter of Americans are hesitant to get a vaccine, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were free and deemed safe by scientists. The greatest reluctance was seen among Black Americans, people living in rural areas and Republicans.

And not everyone wants a shot right away: A third of those surveyed said they want to get a vaccine "as soon as possible," while 39% of those surveyed said they would "wait and see" how initial vaccination efforts go before getting a vaccine themselves. Kaiser polled 1,676 adults for the survey.

U.S. officials said they are on track to meet initial vaccine delivery targets, the Post reported.

An additional 2 million Pfizer doses are scheduled for delivery this week, and 5.9 million Moderna doses will be sent out in the coming days, the Post reported.

Most of the first round of injections were given to high-risk health care workers, The New York Times said. Because the vaccines can cause side effects including fevers and aches, hospitals have said they will stagger vaccinations among their workers.

Residents of nursing homes, who have suffered a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, will begin to get shots this week, the Times reported. A vast majority of Americans will not be eligible for vaccinations until the spring or later.

Azar said the plan is to have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of December, up to 50 million by the end of January and 100 million by the end of February, the Post reported.

A global scourge

By Tuesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 18 million while the death toll neared 320,000, according to a Times tally. By Tuesday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were California with over 1.9 million cases, Texas with more than 1.6 million cases, Florida with over 1.2 million cases; Illinois with nearly 907,000 cases and New York with almost 861,000 cases.

Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.

In India, the coronavirus case count was over 10 million on Tuesday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. More than 146,000 coronavirus patients have died in India, according to the Hopkins tally, but when measured as a proportion of the population, the country has had far fewer deaths than many others. Doctors say this reflects India's younger and leaner population. Still, the country's public health system is severely strained, and some sick patients cannot find hospital beds, the Times said. Only the United States has more coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, Brazil had over 7.2 million cases and over 187,000 deaths as of Tuesday, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 77 million on Tuesday, with over 1.7 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: Washington Post; The New York Times

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