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Winter Storm Slows U.S. COVID Vaccine Rollout

By Ernie Mundell and Robin Foster HealthDay Reporters

TUESDAY, Feb. 16, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- A massive winter storm that has crippled much of the United States has also brought much of the country's coronavirus vaccination campaign to a halt.

Clinics have closed and vaccine shipments have been stalled as snow, ice and frigid temperatures have grounded planes and made major roadways impassable, The New York Times reported.

The cancellations are just the latest hurdle in the vaccine rollout, which had finally been ramping up in recent weeks. An average of about 1.7 million people have been getting a shot each day, the Times reported.

Many of the closures and cancellations have been in the South, where the storm sent temperatures plummeting to record-breaking lows. The South is also where several states are lagging in COVID-19 vaccinations. On Monday, vaccine appointments were rescheduled or canceled from Texas to Alabama to Kentucky, the Times reported.

The storm's impact stretched beyond the South, however. Health officials in Washington State, where the storm has come and gone, said they are dialing down vaccination plans for later this week because they expect delays in delivery of doses, the Times reported. And Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Monday that vaccine distributions run by the state would be canceled for the rest of the week.

"Missouri is experiencing severe winter weather that makes driving dangerous and threatens the health and safety of anyone exposed to the cold," he said in a statement. "These conditions will also likely delay some vaccine shipments. We want to protect the safety of everyone involved in the mass vaccination events, from the patients being vaccinated to the volunteers who generously support these events."

The vaccination delays are likely to grow as the storm continues to move across the country. Power outages have affected millions of people in Texas, Oregon, Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere, the Times reported.

In Alabama, hospitals have closed vaccination clinics, as have more than two dozen county health departments. In New Hampshire, state officials said all Tuesday vaccination appointments would be canceled or rescheduled.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it had secured enough vaccine doses to inoculate every American adult, with an additional 200 million more doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines lined up by the end of summer for a total of 600 million. Both require two doses per person.

Many Americans still won't have been vaccinated by then, Biden said, because of logistical hurdles such as overburdened local health departments. Now, health officials can add bad weather to that list of hurdles.

More evidence that British COVID variant may be more deadly

Even as efforts to vaccinate Americans gain steam, more evidence has emerged that suggests a coronavirus variant already known to spread faster is also likely to be more deadly.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which is thought to have originated in Britain, is already firmly entrenched in America and could soon become the dominant strain, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Speaking Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," she said "we know now that, or we estimate now that about 4% of disease in this country is related to B.1.1.7," she said. "And we have projections that it may be the dominant strain by the end of March."

As of Tuesday, there were 1,173 cases of the British variant found in 40 U.S. states, according to the CDC.

Walensky's warning came on the heels of research released by British scientists that shows B.1.1.7 might be more likely to trigger more lethal cases of COVID-19.

The new study was posted Friday on a U.K. government website. The scientists stressed that, as has always been the case, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are not fatal, and their new research is based on only a small proportion of deaths in Britain.

Still, "the overall picture is one of something like a 40 to 60 percent increase in hospitalization risk, and risk of death," Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and scientific adviser to the British government, told the Times on Saturday.

B.1.1.7 is known to have spread to at least 82 countries and is thought to be transmitted between 35 and 45 percent more easily than other variants of coronavirus already found in the United States, the Times said.

Newer data

The British team first signaled more than a month ago that they thought there was a "realistic possibility" that B.1.1.7 might also be more lethal, based on a small amount of preliminary data. With more data now in hand, they say they have a 55 to 75 percent degree of confidence in the latest finding.

Exactly why the variant causes more death isn't clear. It could cause higher viral loads within the body, making treatment tougher. Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government, told the Times the variant may also "transmit disproportionately in settings with frailer people," such as nursing homes, because it is more transmissible.

Vaccines already being distributed in the United States are believed to be effective against B.1.1.7, so Walensky said it's imperative that the massive rollout already underway continues. At the same time, and in the face of other new variants, other steps are underway, she told CBS.

Pharmaceutical companies are tweaking their research to fight the B.1.1.7 variant, she said, and the CDC is monitoring how people who've already gotten the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are faring.

"But we're not waiting for that," she said. "We're doing the science to scale up different vaccines in case we either need bivalent vaccines, that is a vaccine that has two different strains, or booster vaccines. Both are happening."

By Tuesday, nearly 52.9 million Americans have been vaccinated, with 70 million doses distributed. More than 14 million people have gotten their second shot, according to the CDC.

In the meantime, she said, Americans need to continue with tried-and-true ways of curbing viral spread such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

"So what I would say is now is the time to not let up our guard. Now is the time to double down, still with 100,000 cases a day, still with over two and a half times the cases we had over the summer," Walensky said.

A global scourge

By Tuesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 27.7 million while the death toll passed 486,000, according to a Times tally. On Tuesday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with nearly 3.5 million cases; Texas with more than 2.5 million cases; Florida with over 1.8 million cases; New York with more than 1.5 million cases; and Illinois with over 1.1 million cases.

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

In India, the coronavirus case count was nearly 10.9 million by Tuesday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had over 9.8 million cases and more than 239,700 deaths as of Tuesday, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 109.2 million on Tuesday, with more than 2.4 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.

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