December 17 coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Adam Renton, Eoin McSweeney, Ed Upright and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 12:04 a.m. ET, December 18, 2020
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8:59 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

US hits record number of Covid-19 hospitalizations

From CNN’s Haley Brink

The United States reported 114,237 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Thursday, the highest number since the pandemic began, according to the Covid Tracking Project (CTP).

This is the 16th consecutive day that the US has remained above 100,000 current hospitalizations. 

The highest number of hospitalizations according to CTP data are: 

  1. Dec. 17: 114,237
  2. Dec. 16: 113,090
  3. Dec. 15: 112,814
  4. Dec. 14: 110,549
  5. Dec. 13: 109,298 
8:37 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Giving all trial participants the vaccine is "ethically correct thing to do," says FDA advisory group member

From CNN Health’s Lauren Mascarenhas

Dr. Paul Offit.
Dr. Paul Offit. Source: CNN via Webex

Participants who received a placebo in Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine trial should get the vaccine, Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the US Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory group, said Thursday.

Moderna told trial participants that if the vaccine is authorized, volunteers who got a placebo in the trial will be offered the vaccine.

“If you got a placebo in that trial, I think you should get this vaccine,” Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNN’s Erin Burnett. 

We know that this vaccine works. We know that it's safe.” 

“If you're in a high-risk condition, like you live or work in a long-term care facility or you're on the front lines in healthcare, I think you should get the vaccine,” he added. “I think that's the ethically correct thing to do.”

8:24 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Mystery cluster in New South Wales grows to 28 as officials say source might be from overseas

From CNN's Paul Devitt in Hong Kong

A new mystery cluster of Covid-19 cases in Australia's New South Wales continues to grow after 10 new cases were added overnight, according to the NSW Health Department.

The total number of cases related to the cluster from Sydney's Northern Beaches is now at 28. Health officials believe the source may have been from overseas.

"NSW Health can now confirm the viral genome sequencing of the Avalon Covid-19 cluster does not match the virus strains seen in recent clusters in Australia. The virus is likely of overseas origin," the health department said in a news release Friday.
"The source of infection is still being investigated."

Health officials are asking Northern Beaches residents to stay home as much as possible Friday and through the weekend.

"This includes working from home where possible, not visiting friends or family in aged care facilities or hospitals unless essential, avoiding unnecessary gatherings and high-risk venues such as clubs, restaurants, places of worships and gyms, and avoiding unnecessary travel outside of or to the Northern Beaches area," the health department said.

What we know: The first cases of the cluster were reported Wednesday -- the first locally-transmitted cases in the state since December 3.

One case identified from Wednesday was a 40-year-old bus driver who took airline crews to and from their hotels. The health department said the driver's strain does not match the strain seen in recent clusters in Australia.

"This virus may be of United States origin and linked to international aircrew, however investigations are continuing. No confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been linked to this case," the health department said.

New South Wales has recorded a total of 4,493 virus cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to NSW Health.

7:30 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Senate majority leader says he will get a Covid-19 vaccine

From CNN's Ted Barrett and Daniella Diaz

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conducts a news conference in the U.S. Capitol after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon on December 15.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conducts a news conference in the U.S. Capitol after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon on December 15. Caroline Brehman-Pool/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he will get a Covid-19 vaccine and urged all Americans to do the same.

“Because of government continuity requirements, I have been informed by the Office of the Attending Physician that I am eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, which I will accept in the coming days," the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.

He also mentioned the hesitancy on the part of some people to get the vaccine.

“I am disappointed to see early public sentiment that shows some hesitation towards receiving a vaccine,” he said. “The only way to beat this pandemic is for us to follow the advice of our nation’s health care professionals: get vaccinated and continue to follow CDC guidelines.

He added, “As a polio survivor, I know both the fear of a disease and the extraordinary promise of hope that vaccines bring. I truly hope all Kentuckians and Americans will heed this advice and accept this safe and effective vaccine.” 

It is unclear if McConnell will get his shot publicly to help generate confidence in the vaccine, as other political leaders are pledging to do.

CNN has reached out to all Hill leadership offices about whether they plan to get the Covid vaccine as well.

8:18 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

FDA advisory committee members say they recommended Moderna Covid-19 vaccine because of safety data

From CNN’s Shelby Lin Erdman

Two members of the US Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee voted in favor of recommending an emergency use authorization for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine because they said the safety data was compelling. 

“I voted yes because the data that was presented to us was very strong, the efficacy was consistent across all the age groups,” FDA advisory committee member Dr. James Hildreth, also the president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday.

“They included people with chronic conditions, which is really important,” Hildreth said. “They also have data on people over 65.”

“I think the safety package that was put in front of us was acceptable, more than acceptable, so given where we are in the pandemic, I felt compelled to vote yes on this, this very strong result from Moderna,” he said. 

Fellow advisory committee member, Dr. Hayley Gans agreed.

“I think this is a very exciting moment,” said Gans, a pediatric disease specialist at Stanford Health Care.

“The data that was presented to us was striking in its efficacy,” Gans said. 

“This was a fairly large study and the safety was mostly in the mild, moderate, and that really compelled us to make this positive vote,” she said.  

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is scheduled to meet on Saturday to recommend who should get the shot and distribution of the vaccine could begin Monday, similar to the way the process worked for the Pfizer vaccine last week.


6:36 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Covid-19 death rate three times that of flu, study finds

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid 

New research published Thursday suggests that Covid-19 causes more severe disease than seasonal flu across many metrics.

The death rate for hospitalized Covid-19 patients was three times higher than the death rate for hospitalized flu patients, according to the study. Rates of respiratory failure were also higher in Covid-19 patients than in flu patients.

The research, which appeared in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, examined data from more than 130,000 French patients hospitalized with either Covid-19 or the flu. Data from Covid-19 patients was compared to data collected through the 2018-2019 flu season. 

“Our study is the largest to date to compare the two diseases and confirms that COVID-19 is far more serious than the flu,” said Catherine Quantin from the French research institute INSERM. “The finding that the COVID-19 death rate was three times higher than for seasonal influenza is particularly striking when reminded that the 2018/2019 flu season had been the worst in the past five years in France in terms of number of deaths.”

In addition to differences in health outcomes, hospital stays varied between those with Covid-19 and the flu. More Covid-19 patients than flu patients needed intensive care, and those with Covid-19 spent on average twice as much time in intensive care than flu patients.

Looking at data from children, those under 18 were hospitalized less frequently from Covid-19 than from influenza, but children under five who were hospitalized with Covid-19 needed intensive care at greater rates than those with flu.

Researchers suggested that immunity, either natural immunity or vaccinations, may account for some of the difference, underscoring the need for Covid-19 prevention.

“At a time when no treatment has been shown to be effective at preventing severe disease in COVID-19 patients, this study highlights the importance of all measures of physical prevention and underlines the importance of effective vaccines,” said INSERM’s Dr. Pascale Tubert-Bitter.

8:00 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

US must encourage people to get vaccinated for "the future of our nation," NIH director says

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas and Shelby Lin Erdman

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Source: CNN

As the US authorizes Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use, the task at hand is to encourage people that getting vaccinated against Covid-19 “is something you want to do for yourself, for your family, for the future of our nation,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday.

There has been so much misinformation circulating about vaccines that even health care workers are hesitant to get vaccinated, Collins told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

“I'm a physician. I'm a scientist. I run the NIH. I've had the chance to be intimately involved in every step of the way here in the development of these vaccines,” Collins said. “There have been no shortcuts taken. There's no hidden information. There's no chips from Bill Gates going into it the syringes – all the crazy stuff that you read in social media, but people have been getting barraged by all kinds of crazy information."

Collins warned that if the US does not reach 70 to 80% immunization, “we could lose even more lives and that would be the worst possible kind of tragedy.”

He urged Americans to take the raging coronavirus pandemic seriously.

“Let me plead with Americans,” Collins said, as the number of Covid-19 deaths topped 4,000 on Wednesday and hospitalizations and case numbers continued shattering records.

“Whatever you have come to, as far as the conclusion about your own ability to turn this around, set it aside,” he urged, “and let me talk to you for a minute here.”

“We know that these masks that we are all being asked to wear, they're not political statements, they are life-saving medical devices,” Collins said.

“If we would all right today decided to set aside all of those arguments about politics and invasions of freedom and everything else and simply say, I'm going to wear this when I am outside of my home, I'm going to avoid gathering indoors with other people, especially if they don't have masks on, I'm going to be part of the solution to protect myself but also to protect my neighbors, my grandparents, all those folks who are still out there and could still be the next casualties, we could have a chance to drag this around in the course of the next few months while we're waiting for the vaccine,” he said.

“We have another couple of dark months ahead of us," Collins said. "If we don't do something at this point to try to stop this dreadful upward curve of hospitalizations and cases and deaths. 

More than 310,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 and more than 17.1 million have been infected, according to Johns Hopkins University.


6:05 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Trial to assess if Covid-19 vaccines can prevent people from carrying the virus is under development

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

A trial is being designed to assess whether Covid-19 vaccines can prevent people from carrying the virus, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday.

“There is a trial getting designed right now about how we will assess whether the vaccines actually prevent people from having any virus in their airway, because you want to know that,” Collins told CNN.

Both Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines have shown to prevent some degree of illness from the virus. Moderna said this week that data suggests its vaccine can prevent asymptomatic as well as symptomatic infection.

“Could you still be contagious, even though the vaccine has kept you from getting sick?” Collins asked. “We don't think that's likely to be a big deal, but you got to have the data to find out.”

8:36 p.m. ET, December 17, 2020

Rep. Cedric Richmond tests positive for Covid-19

From CNN's Sarah Mucha

Rep. Cedric Richmond delivers remarks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of H.R. 7120, the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020," on Capitol Hill on June 17 in Washington.
Rep. Cedric Richmond delivers remarks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of H.R. 7120, the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020," on Capitol Hill on June 17 in Washington. Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, incoming White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement, tested positive for Covid-19, Kate Bedingfield, spokesperson for President-elect Joe Biden's transition team, said in a statement.

Richmond traveled to Atlanta Tuesday for campaign event for the Georgia Senate run-off, where Biden was also present. 

According to the transition, his interactions with the President-elect happened in “open air, were masked and totaled less than 15 consecutive minutes, the CDC’s timeframe for close contact.”

Richmond traveled to Georgia on his own and not with the President-elect.