The still-raging coronavirus pandemic reached another grim milestone Wednesday, with the U.S. death toll surging past 250,000.

The quarter-million milestone, confirmed by Johns Hopkins University, is higher than the number of American military deaths in every conflict since the Korean War as well as those recorded during the U.S. Civil War.

The once-unthinkable tally follows a series of alarming records across the nation as the number of new cases and severe infections continues to skyrocket. The number of coronavirus hospitalizations topped 76,000 on Tuesday, the highest figure since the pandemic began. Also on Tuesday, nearly 160,000 more Americans tested positive for the virus and at least 1,707 deaths were confirmed, the highest daily death toll since May 14.

“We are in a war right now, and the virus is winning,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said at a news conference Tuesday while announcing new restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

Many other states across the country have announced their own restrictions in recent days, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned private gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered a statewide 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants, bars and gyms. In New York City, public schools will temporarily shut down starting Thursday amid a surge of new cases in the Big Apple.

The nationwide COVID-19 resurgence will likely disrupt most Americans’ holiday plans, but officials worry that many people will still violate health guidelines over Thanksgiving next week, potentially spreading the virus even further. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, urged the public to “think twice” about traveling and hosting indoor gatherings in the weeks ahead.

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‘Tired to the bone’: U.S. hospitals overwhelmed with virus cases

Overwhelmed hospitals are converting chapels, cafeterias, waiting rooms, hallways, even a parking garage into patient treatment areas. Staff members are desperately calling around to other medical centers in search of open beds. Fatigue and frustration are setting in among front-line workers.

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Medical staff attending to patients with COVID-19 wear protective equipment in a unit dedicated to treatment of the coronavirus at UW Health in Madison, Wis., this month. Conditions inside the nation’s hospitals are deteriorating by the day as the coronavirus rages through the country at an unrelenting pace. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via Associated Press

Conditions inside the nation’s hospitals are deteriorating by the day as the coronavirus rages across the U.S. at an unrelenting pace and the confirmed death toll surpasses 250,000.

“We are depressed, disheartened and tired to the bone,” said Alison Johnson, director of critical care at Johnson City Medical Center in Tennessee, adding that she drives to and from work some days in tears.

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 in the U.S. has doubled in the past month and set new records every day this week. As of Tuesday, nearly 77,000 were hospitalized with the virus.

Newly confirmed infections per day in the U.S. have exploded more than 80 percent over the past two weeks to the highest levels on record, with the daily count running at close to 160,000 on average. Cases are on the rise in all 50 states. Deaths are averaging more than 1,155 per day, the highest in months.

Texas is rushing thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide accelerates toward 8,000 for the first time since a deadly summer outbreak.

In the worsening rural Panhandle, roughly half of the admitted patients in Lubbock’s two main hospitals had COVID-19, and a dozen people with the virus were waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up Tuesday night, said Dr. Ron Cook, the Lubbock County health authority.

“We’re in trouble,” Cook said.

In the Texas border city of El Paso, overwhelmed morgues have begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help transport the bodies of virus victims. The crush of patients is forcing the city to send its non-COVID-19 cases to hospitals elsewhere in the state.

More than 5,400 extra medical personnel have been deployed around Texas by the state alone, said Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. And that doesn’t include the help surging into Texas from the military and volunteer organizations.

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Hunting licenses soar as virus-weary Americans head outdoors

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Hunting was a big part of Zane Goucher’s youth, when he pursued whitetail deer and ruffed grouse in the Maine woods with his father. He eventually drifted away from the sport but has returned after a 22-year absence, inspired by the coronavirus outbreak.

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Zane Goucher and daughter Annabelle Goucher go bow hunting for deer near Dansville, Mich., in October. Goucher says he hadn’t gone hunting in 22 years but took up the sport again because the coronavirus outbreak provided incentive to spend more time outdoors with his children. Zane Goucher via Associated Press

Many Americans appear to be doing likewise, as sales of hunting and fishing licenses are spiking in much of the U.S. Weary of being cooped up at home — and of masking and social distancing when they go elsewhere — they’re taking refuge in outdoor sports that offer safety and solitude.

The trend has abruptly reversed a steady decline in hunting’s popularity that once appeared permanent and provided a potential new source of food for families and food banks pressed by the pandemic.

“I’d been meaning to get back into it and just never did,” said Goucher, now a resident of Grand Ledge, Michigan, who headed into the field Sunday with 12-year-old daughter Annabelle as the state’s firearm deer hunting season opened. Lifestyle changes forced by the pandemic, especially online schooling for his four children, “gave me that boost to make it happen.”

“They were getting a lot more screen time than normal, so this was a way to get them outside,” he said. For his part, “it’s a reawakening, kinda gets me back to my roots.”

More than 545,000 hunters in Michigan had bought licenses through Nov. 11, nearly 10 percent more than at the same point in 2019, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Significantly, the number getting licenses for the first time in at least five years — if ever — has jumped 80 percent, to nearly 84,500.

The state’s total is up 20 percent for female hunters and 18 percent for those ages 9 and younger.

Read the full story here.

New York City schools to close again because of rising COVID-19 rates

NEW YORK — New York City is shuttering schools to try to stop the renewed spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday in a painful about-face for one of the first big U.S. school systems to bring students back to classrooms this fall.

The nation’s largest public school system will halt in-person learning Thursday, the mayor said.

At an afternoon news conference, the Democrat said plans were being made to bring in-person learning back as quickly as possible if the infection rate drops, though he cautioned that the bar to return would be higher than it was to close down.

“We’re going to fight this back. This is a setback but it’s a setback we will overcome,” de Blasio said.

Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza stressed that school would still be in session remotely.

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Students at West Brooklyn Community High School listen to questions posed by their principal during a current events-trivia quiz and pizza party in the school’s cafeteria in New York in October. Kathy Willen/Associated Press

The city had said since summer that school buildings would close if 3 percent of all the coronavirus tests performed citywide over a seven-day period came back positive. As the rate neared that point last week, de Blasio advised parents to prepare for a possible shutdown.

The mayor said the rate equaled that mark as of Tuesday.

The city’s more than 1 million public school students will now be taught entirely online, as most already are. As of the end of October, only about 25 percent of students had gone to class in school this fall, far fewer than officials had expected.

The city’s announcement came just as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has frequently overruled the mayor on major decisions related to the pandemic, was finishing a news conference in which he said the city had the authority to shut things down if it wished to do so.

Cuomo predicted a “tremendous spike” in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving as he pleaded with people not to be lulled into a false sense of safety over the holiday.

“Your family sounds safe, doesn’t it? Your home sounds safe. Your dining room table at Thanksgiving sounds safe,” Cuomo said at a state Capitol briefing. “No, you won’t be safe. It’s an illusion.”

Parts of western New York that have been under the least onerous “yellow zone” restrictions are now under more restrictive “orange zone” restrictions, in which schools go remote and “high-risk” businesses such as gyms are closed, Cuomo said.

Read the full story here.

Has Sweden’s coronavirus strategy failed?

Even Sweden appears to be abandoning the Swedish model. On Monday, the country’s authorities banned gatherings of more than eight people as they grappled with the second coronavirus wave surging through much of Europe. The new restrictions followed other protocols coming into effect this week, including protective measures around nursing homes and bans on alcohol sales at restaurants and bars after 10 p.m.

The shift in tone is noteworthy given Sweden’s notorious light-touch approach to the pandemic. “It is a clear and sharp signal to every person in our country as to what applies in the future,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said during a news conference Monday. “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel!”

Sweden had set itself apart from its Nordic neighbors in its laissez-faire policies, joining only autocratic Belarus as the two European nations that eschewed major coronavirus lockdowns when the continent was hit by the first wave. The country’s nursing homes were ravaged by the virus, but life went on largely as usual in much of the rest of the country: Most schools and business remained open, while Swedish health authorities have even counseled against the widespread wearing of masks.

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Students celebrate their high school graduation in Stockholm in June. Sweden had a relatively low-key approach to coronavirus lockdowns which captured the world’s attention when the pandemic first hit Europe. Jessica Gow/TT via Associated Press

While right-wing politicians in the United States hailed the “Swedish model,” Swedish officials insisted their methods might not be replicable elsewhere. In an interview with Today’s WorldView earlier this year, Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador in Washington, stressed that widespread trust in the country’s public agencies meant that most Swedes would voluntarily heed social distancing guidelines. Sweden’s robust social safety net and enhanced paid sick leave, she argued, would help ensure more Swedes would stay home if they felt symptoms or feared contracting the virus at their workplaces.

“The virus is going to be around for a long time, so we have to have something we can live with,” Olofsdotter said then, adding that the country could change course if its approach were proven to be ineffective.

That moment may now have arrived. On Friday, Sweden recorded almost 6,000 new daily coronavirus cases. The total number of infections is nearing 200,000 in a country of 10 million people. In Stockholm, the capital, 1 in 5 people getting tested are testing positive, and the official number of positive cases could be much higher with more widespread testing. Hospitalizations are rising faster in Sweden than any other European country, and Sweden’s per capita death rate is several times higher than those of its Nordic neighbors Finland, Denmark and Norway.

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State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden in July. SStina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via Associated Press

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been the stoic face of the country’s strategy. In the summer, he told skeptics to wait till fall before placing judgment on Sweden’s handling of the crisis. He predicted that Sweden would have accrued a higher level of immunity than its neighbors and that the impact of a second wave would “probably be quite low.” Though Tegnell claimed “herd immunity” was never a goal for Sweden, he appeared to believe that the country’s relative laxity would help it weather the worst of the pandemic in the long run.

“I hoped he was right. It would have been great. But he wasn’t,” Annika Linde, Tegnell’s predecessor, told the Daily Telegraph. “Now we have a high death rate, and we have not escaped a second wave: immunity makes a little difference maybe, but not much difference.”

“So far Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist and vocal opponent of its strategy, told the Financial Times last week. “Four days ago we had eight times higher cases per capita than Finland and three and a half times more than Norway. They were supposed to have it worse off than us in the autumn because we were going to have immunity.”

Biden promises to prioritize state virus funding

President-elect Joe Biden says he’s hopeful that Republicans in Congress will be more willing to send money to state and local governments after President Donald Trump leaves office. He’s promising to make such funding a priority when he takes office in January.

Biden suggested Wednesday that Republicans have resisted Democrats’ demand for local funding as part of a pandemic-relief package “because of their fear of retribution from the president.”

Biden says, “Hopefully, when he’s gone, they’ll be more willing to do what they know should be done, has to be done, in order to save the communities they live in.”

The comments came as part of a virtual discussion Biden hosted with front-line health care workers from across the country.

States are facing massive financial shortfalls as a result of lost tax revenue related to the pandemic that may threaten local health care systems, law enforcement and education.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans generally say a new stimulus bill is needed, but they disagree on how much money should go to local governments.

More than 3 million people in U.S. estimated to be contagious with the coronavirus

More than 3 million people in the United States have active coronavirus infections and are potentially contagious, according to a new estimate from infectious-disease experts tracking the pandemic. That number is significantly larger than the official case count, which is based solely on those who have tested positive for the virus.

The vast – and rapidly growing – pool of coronavirus-infected people poses a daunting challenge to governors and mayors in hard-hit communities who are trying to arrest the surge in cases. Traditional efforts such as testing, isolation of the sick and contact tracing can be overwhelmed when a virus spreads at an exponential rate, especially when large numbers of asymptomatic people may be walking around without even knowing they are infectious.

To put the 3 million-plus figure in perspective: It is close to 1% of the population. It is about equal to the number of public school teachers in the country, or the number of truck drivers. If the University of Michigan’s football stadium were packed with a random selection of Americans, about a thousand of them would be contagious right now.

Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said his team’s model estimated that 3.6 million people are infected and shedding enough virus to infect others. That’s a 34 percent week-to-week increase that followed a 36% increase in the previous seven-day average, he said.

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A medical worker stands at a COVID-19 state drive-thru testing site at UTEP, in El Paso, Texas in October. The U.S. has recorded about 10.3 million confirmed infections, with new cases soaring to all-time highs of well over 120,000 per day over the past week. Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times via AP, File

The estimate does not include an approximately equal number of latent infections among people who caught the virus in recent days and can’t pass it on yet because it is still incubating.

“It’s bad; it’s really, really bad,” Shaman said. “We’re running into Thanksgiving now and that’s only going to make it worse. We’re going to go through a lot of people being infected between now and the end of the year, unfortunately.”

Separately, modelers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated Tuesday that approximately 3.2 million people have been infected just since Election Day, Nov. 3, a figure significantly larger than the approximately 1.95 million official cases tracked over the same period by The Washington Post through reports from state health departments.

The IHME model forecasts continued daily increases for a month and a half, estimating that 245,000 people would become newly infected on Tuesday alone.

“When do you want to hit the brakes? That’s the question,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at IHME who is among many scientists and doctors urging action by the government and general public to reverse the trend lines. “When you have a fire, you send the firetruck. You don’t wait and say, ‘Okay, let me wait a little bit, maybe that fire isn’t going to spread that much’ . . . We already moved into exponential growth. Just hit the brakes as soon as you can.”

Read the full story here.

Massachusetts governor urges people not to gather together at Thanksgiving

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is urging residents to refrain from gathering with extended family and friends during the Thanksgiving holiday, saying casual indoor gatherings are helping fuel the new surge in cases in Massachusetts.

Holiday dinners and festivities should be limited to members of an individual’s immediate household, Baker said, adding that the state has limited private indoor gatherings to 10 people.

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks as officials formally launched the $51 million Elm Street Redevelopment and Preservation Economic Project in Court Square in Springfield, Mass., Thursday, Aug. 27. Don Treeger/Yhe Republican via AP

Baker acknowledged that the choice to avoid large family gatherings is difficult for many but said the state is continuing to see more spread of the virus. He said cases have increased by eight times since Labor Day, while there have been four times as many hospitalizations in the same period.

“This second surge is dangerous for all of us,” he said.

Recent developments regarding potential vaccines is welcome news, but it’s no reason for people to let their guard down, he added.

Any college students hoping to go home for the holiday should also be tested at least 72 hours before leaving campus to help reduce the possibility of spreading the virus to their families, Baker said.

While the number of daily confirmed cases is nearing the numbers in the first wave of the disease in the spring, the number of deaths has been lower, according to Baker.

He said that’s in part because testing was more limited in the spring. He said many people who were likely infected but were showing mild or no symptoms were never tested — meaning the disease was likely much more widespread than the number of confirmed positive cases reflected.

Testing is much more widespread now.

The state is also planning to issue an alert to 4.5 million phones in Massachusetts on Thursday to urge residents to remain vigilant against the virus during the holiday.

Dolly Parton helped fund Moderna’s vaccine, starting with a car crash and an unlikely friendship

As Dolly Parton tells it, her first-ever car accident in October 2013 was minor, but left her bruised and sore enough to seek medical advice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

That’s where she met Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery. Abumrad knew next to nothing about the beloved megastar with big, blond hair, but he soon befriended her because he deeply enjoyed their talks about current events and science.

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Dolly Parton performs at her 50th Opry Member Anniversary at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. in October 2019. Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP

Their bond of nearly seven years received worldwide attention Tuesday after it was revealed that Parton’s $1 million donation to Vanderbilt for coronavirus research, made in honor of Abumrad, partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine, which a preliminary analysis released this week foundis nearly 95 percent effective at preventing the illness.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Abumrad recalled how Parton’s curiosity about Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research led to a gift that helped fund the vaccine that could be one of two available in the United States on a limited basis by the end of the year.

Among the agencies and universities listed as funding sources for the Moderna vaccine was “the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund,” which left some on social media joking about singing the refrain of her hit “Jolene” replaced with the word “vaccine.”The doctor said he was elated over his friend’s contribution to the early stages of a vaccine that eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

“Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing,” Abumrad, 76, said on Tuesday night. “Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”

Read the full story here.

Pfizer to seek regulatory review ‘within days’ for vaccine that it says is safe and 95% effective

The coronavirus vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech is 95 percent effective at preventing disease, according to an analysis after the trial reached its endpoint. The vaccine trial also reached a safety milestone, with two months of follow-up on half of the participants, and Pfizer will submit an application for emergency authorization “within days,” according to a news release.

The experimental vaccine had already shown promise at an early analysis announced last week, but the trial sped to completion faster than anticipated due to the spike in coronavirus cases.

In the trial, half the nearly 44,000 participants received the experimental vaccine and half received a placebo. As those people went about their normal lives, they were exposed to the virus in the community, and physicians tracked all cases with symptoms to see if the vaccine had a protective effect.

The data have not yet been published or peer reviewed, but will be closely scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration and an independent advisory committee that makes recommendations to the agency.

Among 170 cases of COVID-19 in the trial, 162 were in the placebo group and eight were in the vaccine group. There were 10 cases of severe disease in the trial, nine of which were in the placebo group and one in the vaccine group.

Among people older than 65, a group at high risk of severe illness, the vaccine was 94 percent effective.

“We continue to move at the speed of science to compile all the data collected thus far and share with regulators around the world,” Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said in a statement.

What you need to know about the Moderna and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines

The news comes days after Moderna, a biotechnology company, announced its vaccine was nearly 95 percent effective at an early analysis.

U.S. government officials anticipate having 40 million doses of both vaccines by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Read the full story here.

WHO logs 4 million new virus cases last week

LONDON — The World Health Organization says nearly 4 million new coronavirus cases were reported globally last week, with Europe accounting for nearly half of all cases.

In its latest epidemiological report on the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N. health agency said for the first time in more than three months, cases in Europe have dropped about 10%, suggesting that recent lockdown measures across the continent are having an effect.

Still, WHO said that the number of deaths in Europe “increased substantially,” with more than 29,000 deaths last week. Significant spikes in cases and deaths were also seen in the Americas; Southeast Asia was the only region that saw a drop in cases and deaths.

In European countries, WHO said the sharpest rise in coronavirus cases was in Austria, which saw a 30% increase compared to the previous week. WHO also noted the U.K. was the first country in the region to record more than 50,000 deaths. Globally, the countries with the biggest number of cases were: the U.S., India, Italy, France, and Brazil.

New Orleans cancels Mardi Gras parades

NEW ORLEANS — The raucous Mardi Gras parades where riders on elaborate floats toss trinkets to adoring throngs have been canceled in New Orleans because the close-packed crowds could spread the coronavirus.

At least for the 2021 season, the pandemic has put an end to the New Orleans Mardi Gras as it has long been celebrated. City spokesman Beau Tidwell said Tuesday that no parades will roll during the weeks leading up to and including Fat Tuesday because they can’t meet restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The cancellation is based largely on a 250-person cap on outdoor crowds. Tidwell says: “You can’t have traditional parades with that small a group.”


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