WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s top infectious-disease doctor, a leading drug regulator and the Health and Human Services secretary are dismissing suggestions that the second shot of authorized coronavirus vaccines could be delayed to make more doses available faster to more people.

In recent days, some public health experts have debated whether it is worth taking a scientific gamble by altering the two-dose regimen that proved highly effective in trials to maximize the number of people partially protected with at least one shot as the pandemic surges.

The debate is playing out as the United States struggles with administering the doses it already has. Nearly 18 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data updated Monday morning; about 5 million have been administered.

Last week, the United Kingdom decided to prioritize giving a first dose of its authorized vaccines – even if it meant there was not enough to give people a booster shot within the recommended three to four weeks. U.K. authorities have said people could wait as long as 12 weeks for a second shot.

Limited data suggests that a single shot affords some protection against the coronavirus-caused disease COVID-19, but it is not known how complete or long the protection lasts. The first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 52% effective in the three-week interval before people received the booster shot. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that while it is worth evaluating whether different dosing regimens make sense, such a strategy is not supported by scientific evidence.

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Vaccination drive enters new phase in the U.S. and Britain

The first Americans inoculated against COVID-19 began rolling up their sleeves for their second and final dose Monday, while Britain introduced another vaccine on the same day it imposed a new nationwide lockdown against the rapidly surging virus.

Brian, 82, Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England, on Monday. Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP

In Southern California, intensive care nurse Helen Cordova got her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center along with other doctors and nurses, who bared their arms the prescribed three weeks after they received their first shot. The second round of shots began in various locations around the country as the U.S. death toll surpassed 352,000.

Over the weekend, U.S. government officials reported that vaccinations had accelerated significantly. As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said nearly 4.6 million shots had been dispensed in the U.S., after a slow and uneven start to the campaign, marked by confusion, logistical hurdles and a patchwork of approaches by state and local authorities.

Britain, meanwhile, became the first nation to start using the COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, ramping up its nationwide inoculation campaign amid soaring infection rates blamed on the new variant. Britain’s vaccination program began Dec. 8 with the shot developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

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Statehouses could prove to be hothouses for virus infection

HELENA, Mont. — As lawmakers around the U.S. convene this winter to deal with the crisis created by the pandemic, statehouses themselves could prove to be hothouses for infection.

Many legislatures will start the year meeting remotely, but some Republican-controlled statehouses, from Montana to Pennsylvania, plan to hold at least part of their sessions in person, without requiring masks. Public health officials say that move endangers the safety of other lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, the public and the journalists responsible for holding politicians accountable.

The risk is more than mere speculation: An ongoing tally by The Associated Press finds that more than 250 state lawmakers across the country have contracted COVID-19, and at least seven have died.

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Legislators from the House of Representatives are sworn in to office at the State Capitol on Monday in Helena, Mont. Democratic lawmakers wore masks, but few Republicans did.  Thom Bridge/Independent Record via Associated Press

The Montana Legislature convened Monday without masking rules. The Republican majority shot down recent Democratic requests to hold the session remotely or delay it until vaccines are more widely available. Failing that, Democrats asked for requirements on masks and virus testing, which were also rejected.

Democratic lawmakers wore masks as they were sworn in. Few Republicans did the same.

“If the session is held without public health precautions, it is highly likely that the virus will spread in that environment, and it’s highly likely that we’ll see serious illness and, God forbid, deaths come from that,” said Drenda Niemann, the health officer in Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capital of Helena.

Rather than address COVID-19 guidelines ahead of the session, Republicans decided to address them after lawmakers convene by creating a panel that will meet regularly to consider updating policies. The Senate president pro tem, Republican Jason Ellsworth, said the panel “allows us to be more fluid with the situation” and “allows for our personal freedoms and our responsibilities.”

The divergent approaches to the virus — with Republican lawmakers mostly rejecting mask mandates and lockdown measures, and Democrats urging a more cautious approach — mirrors that of Americans generally. That contrast was reflected over the holidays, when millions of people hit the roads and airports despite pleas from health officials to avoid travel and family gatherings to help contain the virus, which has claimed more than 350,000 American lives.

Some legislatures are trying to strike a balance between conducting business in person and protecting against the disease.

The 400-member New Hampshire House plans to hold its first session day Wednesday with a drive-in event at the University of New Hampshire in what acting Speaker Sherm Packard called the body’s “most risk-mitigated session” yet during the pandemic.

The House clerk and speaker will conduct business from a heated platform, and members can watch and listen via a screen or through their car radios. Microphones will be brought to their windows for questions and debate, and voting will be conducted via electronic devices.

New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch, a Republican, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 9, a week after being sworn in during an outdoor gathering at UNH. Democrats have pushed for remote gatherings.

TSA screened more than 1.3 million people Sunday, the most during pandemic

More than 1.3 million people moved through U.S. airport security checkpoints Sunday – the most since the beginning of the pandemic, officials with the Transportation Security Administration, announced Monday.

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A traveler waits for her flight in Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in November. Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The number was still far below what it was in 2019 when more than 2.4 million people were screened on the same day.

Despite recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people not travel during the holiday season, December proved to be one of the busiest months at airports across the country, with the number of people screened exceeding 1 million on nine separate days. For the first three days of January, screening volumes exceeded 1 million twice, Saturday and Sunday.

The TSA, as well as airports and airlines, have adopted measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including requiring people to wear masks and practice social distancing. The TSA said it has installed nearly 7,000 acrylic barriers at 384 airports across the country.

Still, since any travel carries risks, health officials are worried about a possible uptick in coronavirus infections tied to holiday travel.

Wisconsin pharmacist who destroyed vaccine vials believed false conspiracy theories

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin pharmacist convinced the world was “crashing down” told police he tried to ruin hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine because he believed the shots would mutate people’s DNA, according to court documents released Monday.

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A vial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is seen at Hartford Hospital in December, in Hartford, Conn. Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Police in Grafton, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, arrested Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist Steven Brandenburg last week following an investigation into the 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, which officials say contained enough doses to inoculate more than 500 people. Charges are pending.

“He’d formed this belief they were unsafe,” Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said during a virtual hearing. He added that Brandenburg was upset because he was in the midst of divorcing his wife, and an Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice.

A detective wrote in a probable cause statement that Brandenburg, 46, is an admitted conspiracy theorist and that he told investigators he intentionally tried to ruin the vaccine because it could hurt people by changing their DNA.

Misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines has surged online with false claims circulating on everything from the vaccines’ ingredients to its possible side effects.

One of the earliest false claims suggested that the vaccines could alter DNA. The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine as well as the Moderna vaccine rely on messenger RNA or mRNA, which is a fairly new technology used in vaccines that experts have been working on for years. MRNA vaccines help train the immune system to identify the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus and create an immune response. Experts have said there is no truth to the claims that the vaccines can genetically modify humans.

Advocate Aurora Health Care Chief Medical Group Officer Jeff Bahr has said Brandenburg admitted that he deliberately removed the vials from refrigeration at the Grafton medical center overnight on Dec. 24 into Dec. 25, returned them, then left them out again on the night of Dec. 25 into Saturday.

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Texas hits new high for COVID-19 hospitalizations

DALLAS — Texas has hit a new record high for COVID-19 hospitalizations as a surge in the disease caused by the coronavirus continued to strain state medical resources following holiday travel and gatherings.

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People who qualify under Phase 1A or Phase 1B of the state’s guidelines wait for their turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday at a Houston Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Houston. The department vaccinated 1,008 people who qualify under Phase 1A or Phase 1B of the state’s guidelines at the clinic’s first day on Saturday. Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Associated Press

State health officials reported 12,563 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals on Sunday, an increase of more than 240 from Saturday. It was the sixth time in seven days that the state reported record-breaking hospitalizations.

Intensive care units in several parts of the state were full or nearly full Sunday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The department reported 14,535 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Sunday, 1,510 more probable cases and 50 fatalities. Texas has seen more than 1.8 million cases and more than 28,000 deaths.

U.S. passes 350,000 virus deaths

BALTIMORE — The COVID-19 death toll in the United States has surpassed 350,000 as experts anticipate another surge in coronavirus cases and deaths stemming from holiday gatherings over Christmas and New Year’s.

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Medical workers prepare to manually prone a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Dec. 22. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows the U.S. passed the threshold early Sunday morning. More than 20 million people in the country have been infected. The U.S. has begun using two coronavirus vaccines to protect health care workers and nursing home residents and staff but the rollout of the inoculation program has been criticized as being slow and chaotic.

Multiple states have reported a record number of cases over the past few days, including North Carolina and Arizona. Mortuary owners in hard-hit Southern California say they’re being inundated with bodies.

The U.S. by far has reported the most deaths from COVID-19 in the world, followed by Brazil, which has reported more than 195,000 deaths.

UK’s Boris Johnson orders new virus lockdown for England

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday a new national lockdown for England until at least mid-February to combat a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus, even as Britain ramped up its vaccination program by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.

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In this image taken from video, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a televised address to the nation from 10 Downing Street, London, on Monday, setting out new emergency measures to control the spread of coronavirus in England. Pool via Associated Press

Johnson said people must stay at home again, as they were ordered to do so in the first wave of the pandemic in March, this time because the new virus variant was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” way.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said.

Under the new rules, which are set to come into effect as soon as possible, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face to face learning except for the children of key workers. University students will not be returning until at least mid-February.

All nonessential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will be closed, and restaurants can only operate takeout services.

As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID patients in hospitals in England, an increase of more than 30 percent from a week ago. That is 40 percent above the highest level of the first wave in the spring.

The U.K. has seen an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks as public health officials struggle to control the spread of a new variant of COVID-19 that is more contagious than previous variants. Authorities have recorded more than 50,000 new infections a day since passing that milestone for the first time on Dec. 29. On Monday, they reported 407 virus-related deaths to push the confirmed death toll total to 75,431, one of the worst in Europe.

The U.K.’s chief medical officers warned that without further action, “there is a material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”

Hours earlier, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon also imposed a lockdown in her nation until the end of January.

Read the full story here.

HHS secretary shoots down idea of giving more Americans 1 vaccine dose instead of 2

WASHINGTON — The U.S. health and human services secretary is shooting down the idea of expanding the number of Americans getting a COVID-19 vaccine by giving them only one dose instead of the two being administered now.

Alex Azar says the U.S. is “holding in reserve that second dose” because that’s what the science says to do.

Some health experts have suggested that, with vaccine supplies short, people might get partial protection from a single dose and that should be considered as a way to reach far more people faster. But Azar says “the data just isn’t there to support that and we’re not going to do that.”

The two vaccines approved in the U.S. so far, one by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech and the other by Moderna, each require double doses.

Azar spoke Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Azar says the U.S. has reported 1.5 million vaccinations in the last 72 hours, a “very rapid uptick” that he predicts will continue.

Merkel defends slower pace of vaccine rollout in Germany

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman says impatience in Germany with what is widely being perceived as a slow start to coronavirus vaccinations is understandable, but things will improve.

Spokesman Steffen Seibert also said Monday that the government stands by its decision last year to have the European Union order vaccines for the whole 27-nation bloc.

Nearly 265,000 vaccinations had been reported to Germany’s national disease control center by Monday, a week after the campaign started. But some critics are pointing to faster clearance of vaccines and inoculation campaigns in other countries including the U.K., the U.S. and Israel and faulting the EU’s strategy in ordering vaccines.

Seibert told reporters that “the impatience and the many questions people are now asking are entirely understandable.” He said that “some things can and will improve.”

Seibert said that choosing to order vaccines along with Germany’s EU partners “was and is the right way” to proceed. He said that for a country in the middle of Europe with many borders, “everyone for themselves cannot be the way.”

Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz said 1.3 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine were delivered to Germany before the end of 2020 and another 670,000 are due on Friday. Germany has 83 million people.

On 1st day post-Brexit, pandemic slows cross-border traffic at border with Spain

LA LÍNEA DE LA CONCEPCIÓN, Spain — Fears of disruptions following Britain’s departure from the European Union were replaced by coronavirus-related restrictions on border traffic between Spain and Gibraltar on Monday, the first working day at the United Kingdom’s only land border with the European mainland.

Only a share of essential workers from an average of 15,000 who cross the fence between Spain’s La Línea de la Concepción and the British territory on a normal day were venturing into Gibraltar, which went into lockdown late Saturday amid a surge in virus cases that is putting under pressure its limited health infrastructure.

Under the new stay-at-home order, the 30,000 residents on the British speck of land on Spain’s southern tip are only permitted to venture out for work, exercise, medical appointments or to buy essential items. Gibraltar authorities have reported more than 1,300 new cases during the last month, more than double from the levels in early December, and are investigating if the surge is linked to the new virus variant that has rapidly spread in Britain.

Only a few hundred people vaccinated in France, spurring anger

PARIS — France’s cautious approach to its virus vaccine rollout appears to have backfired, leaving just a few hundred people vaccinated after the first week and rekindling anger over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Emmanuel Macron is holding a special meeting with top government officials Monday afternoon to address the vaccine strategy and other virus developments.

In France, a country of 67 million people, just 516 people were vaccinated in the first six days while Germany’s first-week total surpassed 200,000 and Italy’s was over 100,000. Millions, meanwhile, have been vaccinated in the U.S. and China.

The slow vaccine rollout is being blamed on mismanagement and staffing shortages during end-of-year vacations – as well as a complex consent policy designed to accommodate broad vaccine skepticism among the French public.

Doctors and opposition politicians pleaded Monday for speedier access to vaccines.

“It’s a state scandal,” said Jean Rottner, president of the Grand-Est region of eastern France, where infections are surging and some hospitals are overwhelmed. “Getting vaccinated is becoming more complicated than buying a car.”

Belgium steps up vaccinations in nursing homes

BRUSSELS — Belgium is stepping up its coronavirus vaccination campaign in nursing homes, where more than half of of all COVID-19 deaths in the country have been recorded.

Amid strong criticism over its slowness in deploying vaccines, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said Monday that 87,000 shots will be given every week to nursing home residents and staff.

Speaking to RTL radio, Vandenbroucke said Belgium took a cautious approach in rolling out vaccines and made safety a priority, adding that logistical issues due to the super-cold temperatures needed for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine did not help.

Vandenbroucke took satisfaction in the high rate of vaccination so far, with about 85% of the nursing home residents willing to take the shots.

Last month, Amnesty International said Belgium authorities “abandoned” thousands of elderly people who died in nursing homes during the pandemic following an investigation in which the group cited “human rights violations.”

And last week, authorities said 27 elderly people died in an outbreak at a Belgian nursing home from a super-spreading St. Nick party. One of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, Belgium has reported more than 19,700 deaths linked to the virus.

UK ramps up inoculations using AstraZeneca vaccine

LONDON — Britain on Monday took another giant step in the fight against COVID-19, ramping up its immunization program by giving the first shots in the world from the vaccine created by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker, 82, was the first to get the new vaccine shot, administered by the chief nurse at Oxford University Hospital. Pinker said he was so pleased and now he can “really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife Shirley later this year.”

Since Dec. 8, Britain’s National Health Service has been using a vaccine made by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech to inoculate health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine boosts that medical arsenal and is cheaper and easier to use since it does not require the super-cold storage needed by the Pfizer vaccine.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was being administered at a small number of U.K. hospitals for the first few days so authorities can watch out for any adverse reactions. But hundreds of new vaccination sites — at both hospitals as well as local doctors’ offices — will launch this week, joining the more than 700 already in operation, NHS England said.

Russia virus cases hit a new low

MOSCOW — Russia reported Monday that its number of new coronavirus cases hit a six-week low, continuing a steady decline that began in late December.

The national coronavirus taskforce said 23,551 cases were recorded in the previous day, the lowest daily toll since Nov. 18 and substantially lower than the high of 29,335 reported on Dec. 24.

The taskforce reported 482 new deaths from COVID-19, down from 635 on Dec. 24. More than 3.26 million coronavirus infections have been recorded in Russia throughout the pandemic and 58,988 deaths.

Despite a surge in new infections this fall, Russian officials have shied away from imposing a national lockdown in an effort to protect the economy, relying instead on local restrictions. Russia has been inoculating medical workers and other key groups with its own Russian-made coronavirus vaccine called Sputnik V.

About 4 million vaccine doses dispensed in U.S. so far

WASHINGTON — The U.S. has ramped up COVID-19 vaccinations in the past few days after a slower-than-expected start, bringing the number of shots dispensed to about 4 million, government health officials said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, also said on ABC’s “This Week” that President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to administer 100 million shots of the vaccine within his first 100 days in office is achievable.

And he rejected President Donald Trump’s false claim on Twitter that coronavirus deaths and cases in the U.S. have been greatly exaggerated.

“All you need to do … is go into the trenches, go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mask-wearing now mandatory in Sydney

SYDNEY — Wearing masks became mandatory Monday in some circumstances in Australia’s largest city due to the risks of the coronavirus.

People risk a $154 fine in Sydney if they don’t wear masks in shopping malls, on public transit and inside various indoor areas. New South Wales state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant could not say how long the measure would be in place.

The state on Monday reported its first 24-hour period without a new COVID-19 infection being detected since Dec. 15.

A cluster that started in Sydney last month has spread to Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, where masks have been mandatory since July. Three new cases were detected in Melbourne, bringing the national total to 28,504 cases.


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