POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — The first COVID-19 vaccinations are underway at U.S. nursing homes, where the virus has killed more than 110,000 people, even as the nation struggles to contain a surge so alarming it has spurred California to dispense thousands of body bags and line up refrigerated morgue trucks.

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Nurse Christine Philips administers the Pfizer vaccine Wednesday to Vera Leip, 88, a resident of John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, Fla. Nursing home residents and health care workers in Florida began receiving the Pfizer vaccine this week. Associated Press/Marta Lavandier

With the rollout of shots picking up speed Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington closed in on a long-stalled $900 billion coronavirus relief package that would send direct payments of around $600 to most Americans. Meanwhile, the U.S. appeared to be days away from adding a second vaccine to its arsenal.

Nursing home residents in Florida began receiving shots Wednesday, after nearly 2,000 such vaccinations were administered in West Virginia on Tuesday. Thousands more are scheduled there in the coming days. Other states are expected to follow soon.

The elderly and infirm in long-term care have been among the most vulnerable to the virus and, together with health workers, are first in line to get the limited, initial supplies of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. Nursing home residents and workers account for more than one-third of the nation’s 300,000 or so confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

The U.S. recorded over 3,000 deaths on Tuesday for the third time in less than a week, far eclipsing the peaks seen last spring. New cases are running at over 212,000 a day on average. And the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high Tuesday of about 113,000.

California is distributing 5,000 body bags mostly to the hard-hit Los Angeles and San Diego areas and has 60 refrigerated trailers standing by as makeshift morgues. The state is averaging 163 virus deaths per day, up from 63 just two weeks ago.

Many California hospitals are running out of space in intensive care wards, as the state records an average of about 32,500 new virus cases a day. That is up from about 14,000 a day at the start of the month.

Read the full story here.

Airbnb suspends North Carolina listings over violations of COVID-19 rules

RALEIGH, N.C. — Airbnb has suspended nearly 60 listings across North Carolina for violations of its party guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company said Wednesday.

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Gov. Roy Cooper removes his mask before answering a reporter’s question during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic response at the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center in September in Raleigh, N.C. Airbnb has suspended nearly 60 listings across the state for violations of its COVID-19 rules. Travis Long/The News & Observer via Associated Press

In emails to the Associated Press, the company said 21 listings in the Research Triangle area, which includes Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, were suspended. Also, 17 listings in the Triad, which includes Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, were suspended, and in Charlotte, 20 listings were suspended, the company said.

“Our actions today address the small minority of hosts who have previously received warnings about hosting responsibly or have otherwise violated our policies,” Viviana Jordan, North Carolina public policy manager for Airbnb, said in a news release in reference to Charlotte.

Airbnb said it received complaints of partying at the suspended locations in Charlotte and the Research Triangle. The specific locations were not identified.

The company announced a global ban on “party houses” in 2019, as well as a hotline through which neighbors could call Airbnb to express their concerns.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to rise throughout the state, it’s more important than ever that we all do our part to reduce the number of parties and large gatherings that could spread the virus,” Jordan said.

North Carolina has banned large gatherings for the past several months. Gov. Roy Cooper has limited indoor gatherings to 10 people since early November, and outdoor gatherings have been limited to 50 since early October.

Airbnb suspensions have occurred nationwide. The company suspended 80 listings in New Orleans on Monday, and suspended 25 listings in Cleveland in November.

Brazil’s COVID-19 cases surge past 7 million

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surged past 7 million on Wednesday, with an all-time high of more than 70,000 cases, according to the health ministry’s daily bulletin.

Brazilan President Jair Bolsonaro poses for photos with the mascot of his nation’s vaccination campaign, named “Ze Gotinha,” or Joseph Droplet, during a ceremony to present the National Vaccination Plan Against COVID-19 at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia on Wednesday. Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

The total remains the world’s third highest, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The ministry also reported 936 deaths from the disease. Neither its newly reported deaths nor cases included data from Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous and where the toll has been heaviest. In a text message, the health ministry cited “technical problems,” without elaborating.

The number of cases and deaths in Latin America’s largest nation has rebounded since local leaders eased restrictions and pandemic fatigue set in.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently undermined quarantine measures and downplayed the virus’ severity, said at a public event last week that Brazil is at “the tail end of the pandemic.”

Tyson fires 7 at Iowa pork plant after investigation into COVID betting

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Tyson Foods has fired seven top managers at its largest pork plant after an independent investigation into allegations that they bet on how many workers would test positive for the coronavirus, the company announced Wednesday.

The company said the investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed troubling behavior that resulted in the firings at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa. An outbreak centered around the plant infected more than 1,000 employees, at least six of whom died.

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Tyson’s Fresh Meat workers file in for a tour of safety measures put into place after the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, had to shut down due to a COVID-19 outbreak in May. Lawyers for the Brandon Pollock/The Courier via AP, File

“We value our people and expect everyone on the team, especially our leaders, to operate with integrity and care in everything we do,” Tyson Foods President and CEO Dean Banks said in a statement. “The behavior exhibited by these individuals does not represent the Tyson core values, which is why we took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth.”

Banks traveled to the Waterloo plant on Wednesday to discuss the actions with employees. The company did not release the names of those fired or detailed findings of the investigation.

Tyson suspended several top officials last month and retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, where Holder is a partner, to conduct the investigation.

Lawyers for the families of four deceased Waterloo workers allege in lawsuits that plant manager Tom Hart organized a buy-in betting pool for supervisors to wager on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.

Hart allegedly organized the pool last spring as the virus spread through the Waterloo plant. It eventually tore through the broader Waterloo community.

The lawsuits also allege plant managers pressured employees to keep working, even through sickness, and that the company waited too long to shut down the plant to stem the outbreak.

Managers told workers they had a responsibility to stay on the job to ensure that Americans didn’t go hungry, even while they started avoiding the plant floor themselves because they were afraid of contracting the virus, the lawsuits allege.

The lawsuits name Hart, managers John Casey and Cody Brustkern, safety manager Bret Tapken and human resources director James Hook as defendants. They have not returned messages seeking comment.

Tyson vowed Wednesday to open more avenues for employees to communicate concerns, to create a working group to strengthen collaborations with community leaders and to reinforce the importance of its values. Banks said Holder’s team would help “look for ways to enhance a trusting and respectful workplace.”

Separately, the family of a Tyson Foods employee is alleging in a lawsuit that he died from COVID-19 after the meat processing giant failed to implement safety protocols to guard against the coronavirus at the plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he worked.

Michael Everhard, 65, of Fonda, died of COVID-19 on June 18, three weeks after being diagnosed with the virus. His family contends he became infected at the Storm Lake plant where he worked for 27 years, The Sioux City Journal reported.

The lawsuit, filed by Everhard’s three children, argues that Tyson and its managers required him and other employees to continue working in an environment “rife with coronavirus” and didn’t implement safety precautions to protect them from contracting the virus, Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton said.

First hiccups seen in U.S. effort to deliver COVID-19 vaccine

The first hiccups in the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. included a holdup in delivering 3,900 shots to two states and the announcement that Pfizer Inc. would deliver almost a million fewer doses next week than are set to ship this week.

Four delivery trays of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were pulled back from delivery to California and Alabama this week and sent back to the company because they were colder than anticipated, according to Gustave Perna, the army general who serves as Operation Warp Speed’s chief operations officer.

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Tami Jeffries, R.N., prepares the first locally-available dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va. on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP

Each of the trays can likely be used to vaccinate 975 people. Pfizer has said its formula needs to be stored at 70 degrees below zero Celsius, the equivalent of negative 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. These trays were found to be much colder, according to Perna.

“We were taking no chances,” he said during a Wednesday news briefing. Pfizer and federal health agencies are working to determine whether the formula can still be used when it reaches such low temperatures, according to Perna.

Meanwhile, about 2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be allocated for the U.S. next week, less than the 2.9 million available this week when the first shots shipped, U.S. officials at the briefing said without explaining why fewer doses were going out.

Alex Azar, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary, acknowledged production challenges that have been previously disclosed by Pfizer.

“As you know, they ended up coming short by half of what they thought they’d be able to produce and what they’d announced they’d be able to produce” in 2020, Azar said.

Pfizer’s vaccine was the first to win emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and immunizations began this week. Operation Warp Speed has said it expects to have enough vaccines between Pfizer and another shot on deck from Moderna Inc. to inoculate 20 million Americans in December.

Operation Warp Speed has contracted for 100 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, which requires two shots per patient. Azar and other officials pushed back on recent reports that the U.S. government declined to purchase more doses from Pfizer, saying the company couldn’t guarantee they’d be ready by mid-2021.

“They’re right now producing at their maximum capacity to deliver on the 100 million that is in the first tranche of the contract with us, and we’re providing manufacturing support,” he said.

Read the full story here.

Germany sees record number of virus deaths as weekslong lockdown begins

BERLIN — A record number of deaths was reported in Germany on Wednesday due to the coronavirus as the country entered a nationwide lockdown in a bid to break a sustained second wave of infections.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s national agency for disease control, said 952 people had died over a 24-hour period after catching the virus.

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People walk in a pedestrian zone during the usual shop opening hours in Mainz, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 16. Germany has entered a harder lockdown, closing shops and schools in an effort to bring down stubbornly high new cases of the coronavirus. Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP

However, it also noted that the eastern state of Saxony — currently one of the country’s worst-hit regions in the pandemic — was delayed in passing on its data earlier in the week, which could in some part explain the surge in deaths.

Germany’s last record death toll in the pandemic was 598, reported last Friday.

The RKI also added another 27,728 new infections to the country’s total caseload so far.

Close to 1.4 million people are known to have caught the virus in Germany, over 23,400 of whom had died as of Wednesday.

Germany introduced sweeping closures and restrictions from Wednesday after a partial lockdown initiated in early November failed to reverse the rising trend in infections.

Under the tougher lockdown, the majority of shops have been forced to close until Jan. 10 at the earliest, with only those deemed essential allowed to stay open. Schools are largely returning to remote learning.

An existing limit on group gatherings remains, with a maximum of five people from two households allowed to meet.

That rule is however to be relaxed from Dec. 24-26 to allow close families to celebrate Christmas together.

Under the partial lockdown, restaurants and bars had closed but many adapted during the advent season to offer snacks and mulled wine to go.

While restaurants can still serve food for customers to take away and eat at home, alcohol has now been banned in public, putting an end to the popular makeshift mulled wine stalls.

The rules are particularly strict on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when all gatherings are banned. The use of fireworks is also being heavily restricted, in part to lighten the load on hospitals, which are already filling up with COVID-19 patients.

America’s biggest companies are flourishing during the pandemic, putting thousands out of work

As the coronavirus pandemic devastated small businesses and plunged millions of Americans into poverty this summer and fall, executives at some of the country’s largest corporations sounded surprisingly upbeat.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been more excited or energized about our prospects,” PayPal finance chief John Rainey said on a November conference call.

“These are times when the strong can get stronger,” Nike chief John Donahoe told analysts in September.

Gary Walker was laid off from Salesforce in August after 12 years with the company. Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

“With all that’s happening around the world, it’s really unfortunate,” said Jensen Huang, chief executive of graphics chip maker Nvidia, during an August earnings call. “But it’s made gaming the largest entertainment medium in the world.”

With few exceptions, big businesses are having a very different year from most of the country. Between April and September, one of the most tumultuous economic stretches in modern history, 45 of the 50 most valuable publicly traded U.S. companies turned a profit, a Washington Post analysis found.

Despite their success, at least 27 of the 50 largest firms held layoffs this year, collectively cutting more than 100,000 workers, The Post found.

The data reveals a split screen inside many big companies this year. On one side, corporate leaders are touting their success and casting themselves as leaders on the road to economic recovery. On the other, many of their firms have put Americans out of work and used their profits to increase the wealth of shareholders.

When the coronavirus struck, big companies promised to help battle the crisis. Dozens of prominent chief executives, who last year signed a public pledge to focus less on shareholders and more on the well-being of their employees and broader communities, appeared eager to make good on that promise. Many suspended payments to investors and vowed not to hold layoffs.

Then, 21 big firms that were profitable during the pandemic laid off workers anyway. Berkshire Hathaway raked in profits of $56 billion during the first six months of the pandemic while one of its subsidiary companies laid off more than 13,000 workers. Salesforce, Cisco Systems and PayPal cut staff even after their chief executives vowed not to do so.

Companies sent thousands of employees packing while sending billions of dollars to shareholders. Walmart, whose CEO spent the past year championing the idea that businesses “should not just serve shareholders,” nonetheless distributed more than $10 billion to its investors during the pandemic while laying off 1,200 corporate office employees.

Kirk Hanson, an author and longtime professor of business ethics, says it’s incumbent upon America’s top corporations to help pull the country through the worst recession in decades, particularly given the outsized profits they’re enjoying.

“There is an obligation on the part of the largest and most successful businesses to help buffer the human impact of the crisis,” said Hanson, now a senior fellow at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Instead, Hanson said, they have contributed to the country’s growing economic divide.

Read the full story here.

Minnesota to keep indoor restaurants closed

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz plans to keep bars and restaurants in Minnesota closed for indoor service through the holidays.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Associated Press

Walz is expected to make the announcement Wednesday on extending the restrictions he imposed last month for a four-week “pause” that was due to expire Friday. The governor’s order also closed fitness centers and other places where people gather, as well as high school and other organized sports.

Walz’s spokesman Teddy Tschann says the governor will lay out a strategy that prioritizes in-person learning for elementary students.

Also, the governor is expected to sign the state COVID-19 relief package into law this week. Up to $88 million will be distributed by the state revenue officials to establishments that have seen at least a 30% drop in sales revenue from last year.

Checks ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 will be sent to those businesses by the end of December or early January. The Department of Revenue estimates that 5,800 businesses in the state will qualify for relief.

Americans empty their checking accounts as virus aid cutoff looms

Americans’ cash cushions have been declining for months, most acutely among low-income households, underscoring the already-precarious financial situation of the millions of people who may soon lose their jobless benefits.

The median household checking account balance surged by 65% after the arrival of stimulus checks in April, formally known as Economic Impact Payments, but balances have steadily declined since May, according to a report published Wednesday by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Because lower-income families started with smaller balances, the initial boost from government aid in April had a bigger impact for them. But those balances have also fallen by the most in percent terms, indicating that if the trend continues, the lowest earners will deplete their gains faster than higher earners, the report showed.

While the typical checking account balance is still above where it was at the same time a year ago, the data provide a more nuanced picture than other national aggregate figures that suggest Americans’ wallets are in better shape. The analysis reflects the Chase checking account balances of 1.8 million families through October.

Job losses have also disproportionately impacted lower-income workers, and the expiration of a handful of pandemic aid programs at the end of the year may further exacerbate financial strain.

“With liquid assets falling across the board for American families, it’s evident that low-income families and jobless workers may become even more financially vulnerable should relief programs expire,” Fiona Greig, co-president of the Institute, said in a statement.

JPMorgan Chase Institute, part of the biggest U.S. bank, estimates 9.4 million people are on track to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the month without congressional action. The vast majority of those people are receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program that offers jobless benefits to those not traditionally eligible like gig workers.

And when families’ jobless benefits run out, their spending is expected to “drop sharply,” and they may fall behind on their mortgage payments, according to the institute.

Kansas mayor resigns after being threatened over mask mandate

KANSAS — A western Kansas mayor announced Tuesday that she is resigning, effective immediately, because of threats she has received after she publicly supported a mask mandate.

Dodge City Mayor Joyce Warshaw said she was concerned about her safety after being met with aggression, including threats via phone and email, after she was quoted on a USA Today article on Friday supporting the mandate, The Dodge City Globe reported.

“I understand people are under a lot of pressure from various things that are happening around society like the pandemic, the politics, the economy, so on and so forth, but I also believe that during these times people are acting not as they normally would,” Warshaw said.

The commission voted 4-1 on Nov. 16 to impose a mask mandate, with several exceptions.

Ford County, where Dodge City is located, has recorded 4,914 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the state health department. The county has about 33,600 residents.

Protesters shut down proposal to require masks in Boise, Idaho

BOISE, Idaho — A proposed public health order that would have included a mask mandate for Idaho’s most populated region was voted down on Tuesday as hundreds of protesters again gathered outside the Central District Health building in Boise.

A previous attempt to vote on the order was abruptly halted last week after Boise city police asked the board to end the meeting early amid protest-related safety fears.

During Tuesday’s meeting, three board members from Elmore, Valley and Boise counties — the more rural counties in the region — all voted against the mask mandate, saying they’d heard from constituents who were deeply opposed to the rule. But three board members from Ada County — the most populated county in the state — were in favor of the mask mandate, noting that Boise-area hospitals are reaching capacity because of an influx of COVID-19 patients, including many who are coming from neighboring counties.

The order lacked the required majority to pass.

Quebec closes all non-essential businesses until January

MONTREAL — Quebec’s premier is closing all non-essential businesses across the Canadian province from Christmas until at least Jan. 11.

Premier Francois Legault says that big box stores will be prohibited from selling any goods that are deemed non-essential. The premier is also forcing all office towers to empty starting Thursday and requiring employees to work from home until at least Jan. 11.

Legault says elementary and secondary schools will close Dec. 17 and can reopen at the earliest on Jan. 11. He says hospitals across the province are under too much pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow non-essential businesses to stay open during the holidays.

Quebec reported 1,741 COVID-19 infections on Tuesday.


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