New York’s governor threatened to fine hospitals if they don’t use their allotment of COVID-19 vaccine fast enough. His South Carolina counterpart warned health care workers they have until Jan. 15 to get a shot or move to the back of the line. California’s governor wants to use dentists to vaccinate people.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles last month. Jae C. Hong/Associated Press, file

With frustration rising over the sluggish rollout of the vaccine, state leaders and other politicians around the U.S. are turning up the pressure, improvising and seeking to bend the rules to get shots in arms more quickly.

Meanwhile, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that the government will allow more drugstores to start giving vaccinations to speed up the process. If health workers aren’t lining up fast enough, he said, it is OK to expand eligibility to lower-priority groups.

As of Wednesday, more than three weeks into the U.S. vaccination campaign, 5.3 million people had gotten their first shot out of the 17 million doses distributed so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that is believed to an undercount because of a lag in reporting, health officials are still well behind where they wanted to be.

The slow rollout has been blamed on a multitude of problems, including a lack of funding and direction from Washington, mismatches between supply and demand, a patchwork of approaches by state and local governments, distrust of the vaccine, and disarray created by the holidays.

Read the full story here.

L.A. is running out of oxygen for patients as COVID hospitalizations hit record highs nationwide

The United States has entered the new year with record numbers of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus, straining a health-care system bracing for a post-holidays surge that has the potential to further stress hospitals.

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An ambulance outside of the emergency entrance to PIH Health Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez

More than 131,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized nationwide as of Tuesday, eclipsing the record set in the last week of 2020. Facilities across the West and South are especially burdened.

Los Angeles County has been so overwhelmed it is running out of oxygen, with ambulance crews instructed to use oxygen only for their worst-case patients. Crews were told not to bring patients to the hospital if they have little hope of survival and to treat and declare such patients dead on the scene to preserve hospital capacity. Several Los Angeles hospitals have turned away ambulance traffic in recent days because they can’t provide the airflow needed to treat patients.

Arizona now has the nation’s highest rate of coronavirus hospitalizations. In the Atlanta area, nearly every major hospital is almost full, prompting state officials to reopen a field hospital for the third time.

The optimism that came with new vaccines and a new year is colliding with a grim reality: The United States has reached the worst stage of the pandemic to date, with the deadly results of holiday gatherings yet to arrive. Vaccine distribution is also off to a slow start, with at least 4.6 million inoculated, far short of the 20 million the Trump administration vowed to vaccinate by the end of 2020.

Drugstores will be allowed to give shots to speed coronavirus vaccinations

WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says the government will begin allowing more drugstores to start giving shots to speed coronavirus vaccinations.

Pharmacies from 19 chains had been on standby until vaccine supplies increased. Azar says allowing them to help with vaccinations would ease pressure on hospitals that have been the main vaccine providers.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22. Associated Press/Patrick Semansky

Pharmacies would need to follow state plans for who gets in line first, and governors would decide how to divide supplies between the drugstores and other vaccination sites.

Azar says if health workers aren’t lining up fast enough, it’s OK to mix in other priority groups, and urged governors to make that clear.

The drugstore program is in addition to work by CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate nursing home residents and staff. Azar says eventually more than 40,000 pharmacy locations will be involved

Citing coronavirus, Scotland advises against potential nonessential Trump visit

LONDON – The speculation began with curious activity by U.S. military aircraft reported circling President Donald Trump’s Turnberry golf resort in western Scotland in November.

Then The Sunday Post in Scotland reported that Glasgow Prestwick Airport “has been told to expect the arrival of a US military Boeing 757 aircraft, that is occasionally used by Trump, on January 19.”

Could the American president, on his last full day in office, wing his way to his ancestral Scotland to hit the links at his shuttered resort, possibly missing the inauguration?

Donald Trump leaves the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland in 2015. Associated Press

On Tuesday, the leader of Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was asked if Trump was headed her way and what might be her message to him?

At her daily news briefing, Sturgeon said, “I have no idea what Donald Trump’s travel plans are, you’ll be glad to know.”

Then she added, “I hope and expect that his immediate travel plan is to exit the White House, but beyond that I don’t know.”

Sturgeon warned Trump that he might break the law if he comes: “We are not allowing people to come into Scotland now without an essential purpose, which would apply to him, just as it applies to everybody else. Coming to play golf is not what I would consider an essential purpose.”

Scotland, alongside Northern Ireland, Wales and England, are in lockdown, with stay-home orders, allowing people only to venture out for essential work or shopping, and to get a bit of exercise and attend medical appointments. Hospitals here are filling rapidly as infections surge, driven by a new variant of the virus, which is 50% to 70% more transmissible.

Nebraska governor says citizens, legal residents to get vaccine priority over undocumented immigrants

After briefing reporters Monday on plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Nebraska meatpacking plants, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) was asked whether undocumented workers would be included.

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks during a news conference in September. Associated Press/Nati Harnik

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” Ricketts replied. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

When his comments quickly went viral, stoking outrage from critics, Nebraska officials rushed to clarify. Immigrants would still qualify for the vaccine, one Ricketts aide said, but those without legal status would have to wait at the back of the line.

“Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants,” the governor’s communications director, Taylor Gage, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Read the full story here.

Native American tribes prioritize vaccinations for speakers of endangered languages

Following decades of concerted attempts to stamp out Native American languages, the number of fluent Cherokee speakers has dwindled to about 2,000 people, most of them tribal elders.

And since the pandemic hit the Cherokee Nation, at least 20 of those last remaining speakers have died of the coronavirus.

So when the Oklahoma-based tribe began deciding who should be first in line to receive the vaccine, Cherokee speakers were at the top of the list.

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Jesse Taken Alive, former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe testifying in 2013. Family members say “Jay” Taken Alive died in December after contracting COVID-19, not long after his wife passed away from the coronavirus. Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via Associated Press

“When all of us first-language speakers are gone, it’s gonna be gone,” John Ross, a Cherokee translator who was among the first to get immunized, told the Tulsa World.

South Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe made a similar decision, prioritizing speakers of the Dakota and Lakota languages after health-care workers. Tribal chairman Mike Faith told KXMB that only about 300 of the 8,000 people on the reservation still speak the languages fluently, and that officials wanted to ensure that they will be able to pass that tradition on.

Other tribes, such as Washington state’s Lummi Nation, are attempting to preserve their languages and traditions by prioritizing all elders. But on many reservations, convincing people to get vaccinated is its own challenge. Tribal leaders and health officials across the country have warned that hundreds of years of government mistreatment has led to widespread mistrust, and fears of being used as an experiment.

Meda Nix, a Cherokee speaker whose brother died of the virus, told the World that she was initially skeptical because the vaccine was developed so quickly. But her mind was swayed after she got more information.

“The more I learned about it, I said, ‘I’m going to do this,’” she said, adding, “This is going to give me some protection, and I’m thankful for that.”

New Montana governor says he will rescind mask mandate 

Newly elected Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) said Tuesday that he plans to rescind the statewide mask mandate put in place by his Democratic predecessor once more vulnerable people have been vaccinated and liability protections exist for businesses that make a “good-faith effort” to shield people from the virus.

That move is likely to come within “weeks, not months,” the governor said.

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Greg Gianforte announcing his bid for Montana governor in 2019. Associated Press

“After we have increased vaccine distribution, and after I have legislation on my desk that protects businesses, schools, places of worship and nonprofit organizations that follow guidelines from lawsuits, then we will rescind the current statewide mask mandate,” Gianforte told reporters.

Former governor Steve Bullock implemented a partial mask mandate in July, requiring face coverings in counties with at least four cases of the virus. The rule expanded to the entire state on Nov. 20.

As vaccinations roll out, Gianforte said the state will shift its plan to prioritize people ages 70 or older, as well as those ages 16 through 69 with specific preexisting conditions.

Montana has administered a first dose of vaccine to at least 23,526 people as of Wednesday morning, putting it behind nine other states — as well as the District, the Mariana Islands and Guam — in inoculations per 100,000 residents.

The percentage of people accepting the vaccine has varied widely among communities, Gianforte said, from 40 percent in some areas to 75 percent in others.

More than half of North Carolina nursing-home workers are refusing vaccine, official estimates

Most nursing-home employees in North Carolina are refusing coronavirus vaccines, the state’s top public health official said Tuesday, while the governor deployed the state’s National Guard to speed distribution.

“I caution it’s anecdotal, but we are definitely hearing that more than half [are] declining, and that is concerning,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the Associated Press. She did not offer a reason for the refusals but compared North Carolina’s situation to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s recent comment that about 60 percent of his state’s long-term care staff have declined to be vaccinated.

A Camp Lejeune, North Carolina nurse is given the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in December. U.S. Marine Corps photo0

North Carolina’s inoculation program is among the slowest in the nation. The state had administered 1,200 vaccine doses per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday morning, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. Only seven states and the Virgin Islands had given fewer.

Cohen attributed the lethargic pace in part to a decentralized system that requires state officials to coordinate with 83 local public-health departments, according to the AP. She also blamed staffing shortages and unfamiliarity among some with the state’s technological systems.

Announcing his decision Tuesday to deploy the state’s National Guard, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) wrote on Twitter that vaccine distribution was his administration’s “top priority” and that it would use all resources available to speed inoculations.

Florida nursing home gave vaccine to wealthy donors

The invitation to affluent Floridians arrived in writing and by telephone.

“He asked me if I wanted to have a vaccine,” said Ryna Greenbaum, 89, recounting the phone message she got last week. “I’m one of the people who has given him some money.”

The call, she said, had come from Keith Myers, chief executive of MorseLife Health System, a high-end nursing home and assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., to members of the board and major donors.

MorseLife has made scarce coronavirus vaccines — provided through a federal program intended for residents and staff of long-term-care facilities — available not just to its residents but to board members and those who made generous donations to the facility, including members of the Palm Beach Country Club, according to multiple people who were offered access, some of whom accepted it. The precise number of invitations, and how many may have also gone to non-donors, could not be learned.

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Seniors stand in line to make an appointment to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine outside the King’s Point clubhouse in Delray Beach, Fla., on December 31. Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via Associated Press

But the arrangement, in appearing to rely on a program run by chain pharmacies for nursing home residents and staff, may have violated national immunization guidelines, as well as state protocols, even though state officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive matters, acknowledged that the rules have not been spelled out clearly enough by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Vaccine doses are allocated to the state by the Trump administration but reserved for people living in long-term care facilities, who are at the highest risk of dying from covid-19.

The MorseLife episode highlights how the country’s patchwork approach to immunization against the coronavirus — leaving decisions about eligibility to state and local authorities as well as to individual providers — is creating opportunities for facilities to provide access to well-connected people while thousands of others wait in line. In Florida, some elderly residents have camped out overnight in hopes of receiving a shot.

Top health personnel in Palm Beach County did not authorize the vaccinations of nonresidents at MorseLife, according to a health official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss the issue. The official was shocked to learn that members of the public, even those of advanced age, were given priority access to immunization at the facility, while others wait in line for appointments at sites set up by the county.

EU approves Moderna vaccine

AMSTERDAM — The European Union’s medicines agency has given approval to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The decision Wednesday gives the 27-nation bloc a second vaccine to use against the coronavirus rampaging across the continent. The approval recommendation by the European Medicines Agency’s human medicines committee, which must be OK’d by the EU’s executive commission, comes amid high rates of infections in many EU countries.

There’s also been strong criticism of the slow pace of vaccinations across the region of some 450 million people.

ROME — Italy’s health minister says coronavirus vaccinations are ramping up to the needed levels following the New Year’s holiday.

Roberto Speranza made the comments with Italy’s regional leaders, who are responsible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rollout. He says: “The needed acceleration in the vaccine campaign is under way. The vast majority of regions have reached significant percentages. The country is ready.”

Italy has administered some 260,000 doses of the vaccine, the majority to health care workers. Overall, the shots administered represent 54% of the 479,700 doses that have been delivered to Italy’s regions, a sign that the rate isn’t terribly out of line with the number of doses Italy ordered.

Italy’s rollout was at least initially slow because of the earlier-than-anticipated delivery of the first batches and the Christmas holiday, which in Italy runs through Wednesday. Local authorities have said they expect inoculations to ramp up significantly in the coming days.

U.S. Navy vaccinating thousands of sailors in Pacific fleet

TOKYO — The U.S. Navy in the Pacific has started administering COVID-19 vaccinations to thousands of sailors.

It comes a week after medical personnel and strategic forces were given their initial shots at Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, the 7th Fleet said.

The fleet includes about 20,000 sailors operating 50-70 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft. The vaccinations are part of a “prioritized, phased approach” adopted by the Department of Defense to “protect our people, maintain readiness, and support the national COVID-19 response,” the fleet said.

Vaccinations are being provided on a voluntary basis. Among those vaccinated were sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, the fleet’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.

Georgia reports first case of virus variant

ATLANTA — Georgia officials say they have confirmed the state’s first case of the coronavirus variant that was first seen in the United Kingdom.

The Georgia Department of Health said Tuesday that lab tests found an 18-year-old Georgia man is infected with the variant. It says he man had no travel history and is in isolation at his home.

Cases of the United Kingdom variant have also been reported in Colorado, California, Florida and New York.

Georgia health officials say preliminary information suggests the variant is significantly more contagious. State health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey urged residents to continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing their hands frequently.

Hawaii to set up online vaccine reservation system

HONOLULU — Hawaii officials plan to have people make online reservations to receive the coronavirus vaccine in order to avoid crowding and long lines at distribution centers.

Health care officials are currently vaccinating health care workers, first responders and those living in long-term care facilities —all people in the highest-priority groups for getting doses.

Next up will be those over age 75, a group estimated to number 109,000 people. The state’s health director says she wants to avoid scenes witnessed in Florida where older adults waited in long lines to receive the vaccine on a first come, first serve basis.

Washington state will ease some restrictions

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says some pandemic restrictions will be eased next week and the state will change its reopening plan to move from a county-based oversight system to one focused on regions.

Inslee said Tuesday that the new guidelines will include “a small resumption of some activities statewide.” He says some live entertainment with very tight capacity restrictions and some fitness programs will be allowed.

Also, instead of having each of Washington’s 39 counties treated separately, the state will be divided into eight geographic regions based on health system resources when considering virus oversight.

Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been more than 256,000 confirmed coronavirus infections in Washington and more than 3,480 deaths related to COVID-19.

 


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