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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10:39 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Oregon reports highest single-day death toll since pandemic started

From CNN’s Andy Rose

Oregon reported 54 new coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday -- the highest daily number of deaths so far, according to the state's health authority.

“Today’s record-high death toll tragically reminds us that the pandemic is far from over despite the arrival of vaccines in Oregon,” said state health director Patrick Allen.

The state agency says the death toll is rising following a similar surge of coronavirus cases in November. The previous fatality record was 36, set last week.

Oregon reported 1,214 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday.

11:37 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Leaders on Capitol Hill say they are "close" to a Covid stimulus deal

From CNN's Manu Raju, Ted Barrett and Kristin Wilson

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 15.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Rod Lamkey/Pool via AP

After a 90-minute meeting, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy expressed optimism that they were nearing the end of long negotiations for a Covid stimulus bill.

"I think it's going really well," McCarthy said as he left McConnell's office. "I think we are close." 

"I think we’ve built a lot of trust. I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think there’s a possibility of getting it done finalizing it out if it’s possible," he added. When asked if the deal is less than $1 trillion, he replied, "Let us work it all out."

McConnell echoed his sentiment, saying "significant progress" had been made, but that he wasn't going to reveal the details of the bill.

"I’m optimistic that we are going to be able to complete an understanding sometime soon," he said. "Everybody wants to get a final agreement as soon as possible."

10:18 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Panama authorizes emergency use of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine

From CNN’s Tatiana Arias in Atlanta

Panama authorized the emergency use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday, according to a statement from the country's Health Ministry.

“The worldwide demand for the acquisition of the vaccine against Covid-19 has taken on a great dimension, so the Panamanian State moved ahead in the procedures for its acquisition; taking into account that after receiving the approval from The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for its commercialization, Pfizer will give priority to the countries that are prepared and [do] sign the acquisition agreement,” the statement says.

The vaccine will be rolled out in four phases:

  1. Health authorities will determine who is to be vaccinated initially, including health workers and the elderly
  2. Logistics will be arranged for the proper transportation, storage and distribution of the vaccine
  3. Vaccination will take place
  4. Finally, there will be follow-up virtual visits for those who received the vaccine

A barcode system will be implemented to keep track of who received a vaccine, and when and where it was administered, according to the Health Ministry.

Panama expects to receive its first lot of vaccines by the first trimester of 2021, the statement added. Restrictions to curb the spread of the virus remain in place.

9:57 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Sean Penn on vaccine skepticism: Transparency and "common sense courtesy" are key

From CNN's Rose Brunning 

Transparency is key to changing skepticism toward the coronavirus vaccine among the American public, actor and activist Sean Penn said on Tuesday.

"I think transparency is a really important thing, and I think it’s a two-way street," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "I do understand people having concerns about this, but what those people also have to have communicated to them is they have to look at their lifestyle and what people they're going to come in contact with."

"Are you being diligent with masking and distancing and hand washing? What kind of job do you have that puts you in touch with whom?" he asked. "I have personally very little tolerance with those who don't exercise that common sense courtesy of public health to others."

Penn added that he does not have any hesitation about getting inoculated, but that skepticism deserves some respectful conversation.

"The kind of classic anti-vax movement are just scientific ignoramuses," he said. "But when it comes to a brand new vaccine, you know, a skeptical mind is as healthy as one that's ready to go like I'm ready to go."

Penn's non-profit CORE has launched testing sites across the country, and is now looking ahead to supporting vaccine distribution efforts in the future.   

The first vaccine approved for emergency use was administered in the United States for the first time on Monday. 

Watch the interview:

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.