December 22 coronavirus news

By Julia Hollingsworth, Adam Renton, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, December 23, 2020
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10:13 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

"It’s a disaster right now," California nursing officer says

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Nancy Blake, chief nursing officer at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, speaks with CNN's Sara Sidner. 
Nancy Blake, chief nursing officer at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, speaks with CNN's Sara Sidner.  CNN

California hospital workers are sounding the alarm as a coronavirus surge in the state is pushing hospitals to breaking point.

"It's a disaster right now for our staff. The patients are extremely sick; this is a horrible disease. … It's been 10 months of this, and we are inundated," said Nancy Blake, chief nursing officer at Harbor UCLA Medical Center.

Blake said her staff is mentally and physically exhausted. 

"At the very beginning…people were, you know, saying ‘nurses are heroes’ and ‘great job,’ and now they're not listening to us," she told CNN’s Sara Sidner. 

"I’ve been a nurse for 40 years, and it's the worst I’ve ever seen," she added. 

There are no more intensive care unit beds in the hospital, and vast portions of the state are seeing zero ICU bed capacity.

"It really is like a never-ending struggle," nurse Cliff Resurreccion said.

CNN goes inside a California hospital running out of beds:

9:47 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

US stocks open mixed after Congress passes stimulus bill

From CNN's Anneken Tappe 

Noam Galai/Getty Images
Noam Galai/Getty Images

It was a mixed bag for Wall Street Tuesday after Congress passed a long-awaited second pandemic stimulus bill.

However, economists worry that the effort has come too late. Meanwhile, investors are also worried about the new coronavirus variant that shut down UK travel over the past days.

Here's where things stood at opening:

  • The Dow opened down 0.1%, or 40 points.
  • The S&P 500 opened flat.
  • The Nasdaq Composite rose 0.3%.

It is a shortened trading week ahead of Christmas, ending at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday.

9:02 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Nepal bans passengers flying from UK 

From CNN's Sugam Pokharel

Nepal has become the latest country to ban airline passengers originating from or transiting through the UK from entering into the country, its aviation authority announced Tuesday. 

The restriction will go into effect from midnight Wednesday local time and will stay until further notice, according to a statement from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN).

CAAN said that it has issued a circular to all international airlines to ensure that aircraft inbound to Nepal "shall not board the passengers originating from or transit through" the UK "due to the severe contagion of new strain of Covid-19" in the country. 

#UK Variant##

9:20 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

BioNTech CEO tells CNN the vaccine could be adjusted to better combat new Covid-19 variant

From CNN’s Fred Pleitgen

A pharmacist prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for front-line health care workers on December 19 in Torrance, California.
A pharmacist prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for front-line health care workers on December 19 in Torrance, California. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be adjusted to better combat the new variant of the Coronavirus, BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin told CNN’s Fred Pleitgen in an interview on Tuesday.  

"We should not forget that we have still the opportunity, if required, to adjust the vaccine exactly to this new virus variant, if this is needed," Sahin said.

"I don't think that this is needed. But if it would be needed, there's a technical possibility to do that." 

Sahin told CNN that BioNTech is currently evaluating how effective the vaccine is against the recently discovered variant of the virus, which has caused dozens of countries to shut down travel to the United Kingdom. Sahin said he has "scientific confidence" that the vaccine will still work.  

"There's a high likelihood that the vaccine response will be able also to inactivate this virus, because you have to consider that even though nine amino acids are changed in this protein, 99 percent of the protein is not changed," Sahin said, adding that BioNTech has already detected part of the immune response was not affected by the mutation.  

"What we already did is we evaluated the sites where we have observed T cell responses against spike protein, and we see that almost all sites that we have seen T cell responses are still conserved. And so that is a good message. That means at least one component of the immune system will not be affected by this mutation," Sahin added. 

On Monday Pfizer/BioNTech received approval for their vaccine from the EU’s regulatory body, the European Medicines Agency. Sahin told CNN the vaccine would be rolled out ASAP and that the companies are already working on ways to speed up production.  

"We are evaluating if we could intensify the production at the Pfizer sites and intensify the production at the Mainz sites. So there are multiple things, which are ongoing."

Watch CNN's interview with BioNTech CEO:

9:03 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Fauci on new Covid-19 variant: "Assume that it's here already"

From CNN's Andrea Diaz

It's "certainly possible" that the new variant of coronavirus in the UK is already in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci said during an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday.

"That's certainly possible I mean, when you have this amount of spread within a place like the UK, that you really need to assume that it's here already, and certainly is not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it is already here," said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Furthermore, Fauci said that he doesn't think a travel ban is something that we could see happening. 

A travel ban "is really a rather dramatic step so, that's not that's not really in the cards right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the requirement of testing is something that is being actively considered right now," Fauci said, referring to testing travelers before they arrive in the United States.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a scientific brief posted on its website Tuesday the UK coronavirus variant has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States, but only about 51,000 of 17 million US cases it has tallied have been sequenced — less than half a percent.

Here's what we know about the UK coronavirus variant.

Watch Dr. Fauci discuss new variant:

8:47 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Congress approved a long-awaited Covid-19 rescue package last night. Here's what is in the relief bill.  

From CNN's Clare Foran and Manu Raju

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Congress voted Monday evening to approve a far-reaching $900 billion Covid relief package that promises to accelerate vaccine distribution and deliver much-needed aid to small businesses hit hard by the pandemic, Americans who have lost their jobs during the economic upheaval and health care workers on the front lines of the crisis.

The White House has said that President Donald Trump will sign the legislation once it reaches his desk.

Here are key provisions that will be included as part of the agreement, according to summaries of the legislation released by Democratic and GOP leadership:

  • Direct payment checks of up to $600 per adult and child
  • Aid for struggling small businesses, including more than $284 billion for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and $15 billion "in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions"
  • $300 per week for enhanced unemployment insurance benefits
  • $20 billion to buy vaccines and make "the vaccine available at no charge for anyone who needs it" and $8 billion for vaccine distribution
  • $20 billion for coronavirus testing efforts
  • $25 billion for rental assistance and an eviction moratorium extension
  • $82 billion for education providers like schools and colleges, including aid to help reopen classrooms safely and $10 billion for child care assistance
  • The deal will rescind "$429 billion in unused funds provided by the CARES Act for the Federal Reserve's emergency lending facilities"
  • $13 billion in increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and child nutrition benefits
  • $7 billion to bolster broadband access to help Americans connect remotely during the pandemic
  • $45 billion to support transportation services, including $2 billion for airports, $1 billion for Amtrak and $16 billion for "another round of airline employee and contractor payroll support"
  • A tax credit "to support employers offering paid sick leave"
8:27 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Here's what we know — and don't know — about the UK coronavirus variant 

From CNN's Zamira Rahim

The United Kingdom has identified a new, potentially more contagious coronavirus variant linked to a recent surge in cases in England.

The new mutation is being called VUI-202012/01 – the first "Variant Under Investigation" in the UK in December 2020. While scientists hunt for more information about the variant, its impact is already being felt, with dozens of countries imposing restrictions on travelers from the UK.

Here's what you need to know:

What is a variant and why are officials concerned about this one? A variant occurs when the genetic structure of a virus changes. All viruses mutate over time and new variants are common, including for the novel coronavirus.

Like other variants, this one carries a genetic fingerprint that makes it easy to track, and it happens to be one that is now widespread in southeast England. That alone does not necessarily mean a variant is more contagious or dangerous.

But scientists advising the UK government have estimated that this variant could be up to 70% more effective at spreading than others. Peter Horby, chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said Monday that experts "now have high confidence that this variant does have a transmission advantage" over other variants.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that the changes to the variant include 14 key mutations, and that some of them "may influence the transmissibility of the virus in humans," though it added that further laboratory investigations were needed.

Where did the variant originate and how has it taken hold? The new variant is believed to have originated in southeast England, according to the WHO. Public Health England (PHE) says backwards tracing, using genetic evidence, suggests the variant first emerged in England in September. It then circulated in very low levels until mid-November.

Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said Saturday the variant was responsible for 60% of new infections in London, which have nearly doubled in the last week alone.

Multiple experts have also suggested that this new variant could have been amplified because of a superspreader event, meaning the current spike in cases could also have been caused by human behavior.

Which countries are affected? The variant has already spread globally. As well as the UK, the variant has also been detected in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the WHO.

Australia has identified two cases of the variant in a quarantined area in Sydney and Italy has also identified one patient infected with the variant.

A similar but separate variant has also been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading quickly along coastal areas of the country.

Learn more about the UK coronavirus variant here.

8:46 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

CDC says UK coronavirus variant has not been identified in US, but it may be undetected

From CNN’s Jamie Gumbrecht and Michael Nedelman

Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images
Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images

The UK coronavirus variant has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a scientific brief posted on its website Tuesday. 

However, it says, only about 51,000 of 17 million US cases it has tallied have been sequenced — less than half a percent.

 "Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation," the agency says.
"Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

The agency says: "CDC is monitoring the situation in the UK and communicating with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. CDC and state and local health departments are continually monitoring and studying the virus spreading in the United States to quickly detect any changes." 

Last month, the agency launched a "strain surveillance program”" that it expects to be "fully implemented" in January; it will include states sending at least 10 samples biweekly for analysis. 

Infectious disease expert discusses new variant:

8:24 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020

Wales to re-enlist support of UK military to help cope with surge in coronavirus cases

From CNN's Eleanor Pickston in London

A sign reminds people to socially distance to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Cardiff, Wales, on December 19.
A sign reminds people to socially distance to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Cardiff, Wales, on December 19. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

More than 90 soldiers will be deployed on Wednesday to assist Welsh medical services to ease pressure caused by a rise in coronavirus cases, Welsh Ambulance Services said Tuesday. 

The soldiers will offer support in driving ambulances and assisting paramedics after the service warned earlier this month that it was under “acute pressure,” with almost double the amount of calls predicted and a “sharply rising” number of coronavirus cases in the community.

“The extreme pressure on our ambulance service in the last couple of weeks has been well documented, and it’s why we’ve taken the decision to re-enlist the military, who did a superb job of assisting us earlier in the year,” Chief Executive of Welsh Ambulance Services, Jason Killens, said in a statement.

This latest announcement comes after Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford brought forward a planned lockdown on Sunday, moving Wales into Tier 4 -- the highest level of restrictions -- and scrapping plans to ease restrictions over the Christmas period.

Drakeford made the “difficult decision” to impose an early Tier 4 lockdown from Sunday 20 December, rather than after Christmas, closing all non-essential shops and banning household mixing, with the exception of single-person households, which are permitted to form an exclusive support bubble with one other household. However, on Christmas Day, two households will be allowed to meet.

Wales reported 2,761 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday and 24 new deaths from the virus, according to Public Health Wales. 

According to Welsh Ambulance Services, more than 20,000 military personnel have been supporting public services across the UK during the pandemic as part of a "COVID Support Force."