December 15 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung, Adam Renton, Kara Fox, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, December 16, 2020
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9:01 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

California activates "mass fatality" program and buys more body bags as cases surge

From CNN's Cheri Mossburg

The day after California began its Covid-19 vaccination rollout, the state activated its "mass fatality" program, including the purchase of 5,000 body bags.

In a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the activation of the program, which coordinates mutual aid activity between state and local agencies in a crisis, is in direct response to the surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

A total of 60 refrigerated storage units, each more than 50 feet long, will be used throughout the state for emergency overflow for coroners and morgues.

Newsom said the program addresses what he called "sobering realities" in the state's battle against the pandemic.

"I don't want people to scare folks, but this is a deadly disease. And we need to be mindful of where we are in this current journey together, to the vaccine. We are not at the finish line," he said.

Rising infections: On Tuesday, California reported its fifth consecutive day of more than 30,000 new infections.

The state's death toll stands at 21,188. Nationally, the death toll for the pandemic surpassed 300,000 on Monday as health officials warn of no immediate sign of abating.

8:09 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

There are fewer than 100 ICU beds remaining in L.A. County

From CNN's Sarah Moon

Los Angeles County reported fewer than 100 intensive care unit beds remaining on Monday, an alarming new low as hospitals in the nation’s most populous county see a record number of patients with coronavirus infections that officials warn could soon overwhelm capacity. 

Data from Los Angeles County Health Services, which operates 26 health centers and four acute care hospitals in the county, reported just 95 beds remaining on Monday, rising slightly on Tuesday to 115.

Health officials reported 4,403 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the county, about 21% of whom were being treated in intensive care. Hospitalizations in the county have increased four-fold since Nov. 16, rising from 1,049 to more than 4,400 today.

The number of remaining beds available for Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents reached critical lows as the county reported 86 new deaths Tuesday, the highest number since the summer, when the region last saw a surge in new cases and prompted a new round of restrictions.

Overall ICU bed capacity for the Southern California region has also plunged to just 1.7% as the state continued to report more than 30,000 new cases of the coronavirus for a fifth consecutive day.

The L.A. County Department of Health Services “has worked very hard to address the capacity issues by bringing in new staff, canceling procedures and shifting nurses from outpatient areas the hospitals,” a county spokesperson told CNN. “In addition, DHS has transitioned additional space to care for COVID-19 patients.”

Neighboring counties like Riverside and Ventura County are also reporting their current ICU bed capacity at 0% or 1%.

According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the number of ICU patients has doubled in the state and is putting a strain on the health care system.

“Our reality is frightening at the moment with over 4,200 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and almost half of our ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients,” L.A. County's Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “By next weekend, there are likely to be over 5,000 patients hospitalized and more than 50% of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.”

The ICU bed capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is also hovering at a dangerously low 1.6%, according to the California Department of Public Health. 

To date, California has reported a total of 1,617,370 confirmed cases of the virus and 21,188 deaths.  

Note: These numbers were released by the California Department of Public Health and may not line up exactly in real time with CNN’s database drawn from Johns Hopkins University and the Covid Tracking Project. 

7:59 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine appears to be "very promising," FDA advisory group member says

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

Tony Potts, a 69-year-old retiree living in Ormond Beach, receives his first injection as a participant in a Phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial sponsored by Moderna at Accel Research Sites on August 4 in DeLand, Florida.
Tony Potts, a 69-year-old retiree living in Ormond Beach, receives his first injection as a participant in a Phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial sponsored by Moderna at Accel Research Sites on August 4 in DeLand, Florida. Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine appears to be “very promising,” Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the US Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory group, said Tuesday.

“It looks to be roughly 95% effective at preventing disease, including 100% effective at severe disease, about 95% effective in preventing disease in people who are over 65, across different ethnic backgrounds, racial backgrounds,” Offit, who is director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital  of Philadelphia, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is set to meet Thursday to review Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use authorization.

Offit said it’s heartening to see that the new mRNA technology works in both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, which use different formulations and slightly different dosing schedules. 

He said that in terms of safety and protection, both vaccines appear to be “roughly indistinguishable.”

Even after emergency use authorization, there will be questions left to answer about both vaccines. 

“These two studies have shown that these vaccines can prevent disease – mild, moderate, severe disease – but the other question is, does it prevent infection, where you don't have symptoms but you still can be contagious?” he said. “Neither of those studies address that.” 

In fact, Moderna filed extra data with the FDA Tuesday that it says indicates its vaccine does prevent infection. 

Offit noted that studies are planned for next year to address that question.

7:47 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

US hits record number of Covid-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

The United States reported 112,816 Covid-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday, setting a new record high since the pandemic began, according to the Covid Tracking Project (CTP).

This is the fourteenth consecutive day that the US has remained above 100,000 hospitalizations.

According to CTP data, these are the days with the highest hospitalization numbers:

  • Dec. 15: 112,816 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 14: 110,549 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 13: 109,298 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 12: 108,461 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 11: 108,108 people hospitalized
7:43 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

CDC will award $227 million to states for Covid-19 vaccine distribution and response

From CNN’s Shelby Lin Erdman

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will award almost $227 million in aid to all 50 states and 64 jurisdictions to help respond to the huge Covid-19 vaccination effort, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The CDC will allocate $140 million for vaccine preparedness and almost $87 million for tracking and testing, HHS said.

“States and other public health jurisdictions are vital partners in the Covid-19 response and especially in the plans for distributing safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

“This new round of funding will help these awardees continue to plan for and implement their Covid-19 vaccine programs, in collaboration with CDC, Operation Warp Speed, and the private-sector distribution and administration partners that we have enlisted,” Azar said.

This latest funding is in addition to $200 million provided in September from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, for critical infrastructure support and Covid-19 distribution, HHS said.

The CDC’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Prevention and Control of Emerging and Infectious Diseases Cooperative Agreement will also “provide critical support” through the Paycheck Protection and Health Care Enhancement Act, HHS said.

HHS said the efforts will focus on three areas: “Increasing the use of advanced molecular detection technologies, such as whole genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2; strengthening public health laboratory preparedness; and ensuring safe travel through optimized data sharing and communication with international travelers.”

“These are critical investments at a critical time in the Covid-19 pandemic,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement.

“Vaccine is being distributed now, and this additional funding is an important step along the road to restoring some normalcy to our lives and to our country. These investments will also have lasting effects on our nation’s public health infrastructure, including strengthened capabilities for public health labs across the country,” Redfield added.

But even including the $200 million allocated in September, this latest round of investment doesn’t even come close to what’s needed, James Blumenstock, the senior vice president for pandemic response and recovery at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), told reporters back in October.

“As it stands now, we do not have any capability to fund the imminent implementation of the plan,” Blumenstock said at the time.

ASTHO has asked Congress for $8.4 billion to help with state’s Covid-19 vaccine distribution and administration efforts.

6:52 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Covid vaccines may not reach a quarter of the world's people until 2022, study finds

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

Dr. Victoria Adams, Infectious Diseases Clinical Pharmacist, holds one of the first Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine doses in the vaccination pod at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, on Tuesday, December 15.
Dr. Victoria Adams, Infectious Diseases Clinical Pharmacist, holds one of the first Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine doses in the vaccination pod at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, on Tuesday, December 15. Victor J. Blue for CNN

Just over half of all planned doses of coronavirus vaccines have been bought up by high-income countries such as the US, Japan and Australia, which means as much as a quarter of the world’s population will be unable to get vaccinated until 2022, researchers reported Tuesday.

These rich countries have pre-ordered close to 7.5 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines, enough to vaccinate 3.76 billion people, Anthony So of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and colleagues found.

“Just over half (51%) of these doses will go to high income countries, which represent 14% of the world’s population,” they wrote in their report, published in the BMJ.

At the time the report was written, the US accounted for one-fifth of all global Covid-19 cases but had reserved 800 million doses of vaccine. Japan, Australia, and accounted for fewer than 1% of cases but had options on 1 billion doses.

The researchers projected that the 13 major vaccine manufacturers working on coronavirus vaccines had the potential capacity for close to 6 billion courses of vaccine by the end of 2021. 

“High income countries have reserved just over half of these vaccine doses from 13 leading vaccine manufacturers. Low and middle income countries have the remainder, despite these countries comprising more than 85% of the world’s population,” they wrote.

“Even if all 13 of these vaccine manufacturers were to succeed in reaching their maximum production capacity, at least a fifth of the world’s population would not have access to vaccines until 2022.”

There’s one effort that is trying to get around this – COVAX, coordinated by the World Health Organization, global vaccines initiative Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The group is trying to build manufacturing capacity for 2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine. 

“The COVAX Facility could play a key role in ensuring access to Covid-19 vaccines. However, its target of two billion doses by the end of 2021 is still short on premarket vaccine commitments and financing to deliver on this goal,” So’s team noted.

6:30 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Nearly one third of Black Americans remain hesitant to get Covid-19 vaccine, study finds

From CNN's Nicquel Terry Ellis

As the first Covid-19 vaccinations are being administered across the country this week, Black Americans remain among the groups that have the least confidence in the vaccine, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The findings come as the nation's top health leaders urge Black people to trust the vaccine, by hosting live events where Black health professionals are among the first to receive and administer it.

The Kaiser study found that 35% of Black Americans would probably or definitely not get the vaccine if it was determined to be safe by scientists and widely available for free.

Of the Black Americans who are hesitant to get the vaccine, the majority, or 71%, said they were concerned about possible side effects, half were worried they would get Covid-19 from taking the vaccine and 48% said they have a general distrust in vaccines.

Other studies have noted that Black and Latino people cite distrust in the federal government and the nation's history of racism in medical research as key reasons for their hesitancy.

Sandra Lindsay, a Black critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was one of the first Americans to receive the vaccine on Monday. It was delivered by Dr. Michelle Chester, the corporate director of employee health services at Northwell Health, who is also Black.

Lindsay told CNN's Anderson Cooper that she felt fine after taking the vaccine. Lindsay said the shot felt no different than the influenza vaccine she gets annually.

"I have no fear. I trust my profession is deeply rooted in science ..." Lindsay said. "What I don't trust is getting Covid-19 because I don't know how it will affect me and the people around me that I could potentially transfer the virus to."

Nearly 40% of reported Covid-19 cases have been Black and Latino people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many people of color are concerned the vaccine developers haven't take into account the needs of their ethnic group, the Kaiser study shows.

It found that 48% of Black adults said they were not confident the needs of Black people were considered and 36% of Latino adults said the same about the needs of Latino people. 

However, people of color overwhelmingly, or 85%, said they would trust vaccine information from their personal doctor or health care provider at least a fair amount, according to the study.

Black doctors have been at the forefront of efforts to build trust around the vaccine with Black people.

Dr. Yves Duroseau, chair of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, was also among the first to receive the vaccine this week. Duroseau told CNN's Poppy Harlow that he hoped to influence communities that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.

"With the rollout of the vaccination there has been, quite frankly, message that we have to be ethical about this, we have to be fair, we have to protect the vulnerable," Duroseau said.

"And we have to reach out to not just minorities but rural areas, we have to make sure that everyone is included."

Ernest Grant, the president of the American Nurses Association, participated in a vaccine trial this fall to combat fears in the Black community with taking the vaccine.

"At some point there's always that potential that it (Covid-19) could happen to you and if I know there is a cure that could potentially save me from that, I think I would go for the cure," Grant told CNN last month.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently acknowledged Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman and one of the lead scientists who helped develop the vaccine, with hopes that it would convince Black people to trust the process.

"So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you're going to be taking was developed by an African American woman," Fauci said at a National Urban League event earlier this month. "And that is just a fact."

6:24 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Navajo Nation administers its first Covid-19 vaccine

From CNN’s Andy Rose

An Indian Health Service worker in Arizona was the first person to receive the Covid-19 vaccine on the Navajo Nation. Ronald Begay was administered the shot on Monday at the Chinle Comprehensive Health care Facility. 

“Just because this vaccine is here doesn’t mean to stop or put our masks away,” Begay said during a virtual town hall for Navajo residents Tuesday. “People should ask themselves what their priorities are.”

The Navajo Nation has put some of the most stringent rules in the country in place to deal with the virus, including a 24/7 stay-at-home lockdown for the entire reservation until Dec. 28, with exceptions only for emergencies and essential services. 

“We feel like this is the first step toward seeing a return to a normal life,” said Chinle public health director Dr. Jill Moses. “We’ve been working hard for so long.”
5:21 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Navy's top admiral encourages sailors to get the vaccine

From CNN's Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr

The Navy’s top admiral encouraged sailors to get the coronavirus vaccine Tuesday, while adding that he plans to receive it “shortly.”

“I ask that every member of our Navy team strongly consider receiving the vaccine not only for yourself, but for your shipmates, your family, and your fellow citizens,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday wrote in a message to the fleet. 

Because the vaccine has only received emergency use authorization, receiving it is still voluntary for military personnel.

“I will receive the vaccine shortly after it is made available to senior DoD leadership,” Gilday added.

One of the reasons senior leaders were prioritized by the Defense Department in terms of receiving the vaccine was in order to convince military personnel that it was safe and effective.