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Health Officials Work to Speed Up U.S. COVID Vaccine Rollout

MONDAY, Jan. 11, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials raced to ramp up the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines across the country as both coronavirus case counts and death tallies continued to hit record highs.

"We really need to get this vaccine out more quickly, because this is really our only tool," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

"If we can get a lot of people vaccinated quickly, we might be able to get enough protective immunity into the population that this stops spreading at the rate that it is," Gottlieb said. "So, we need to acknowledge that it's not working. We need to hit the reset and adopt a new strategy in trying to get [vaccines] out to patients."

"Right now, there's 40 million doses sitting on a shelf somewhere. So the feds say it's with the states. The states say it's with the feds. It really doesn't matter to the patient who's not getting access to the injection," he noted. "You have 40 million on the shelf. We have 50 million Americans above the age of 65. So, we have supply to push it out to that population more aggressively."

So far, at least 22.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been distributed and nearly 6.7 million have made their way into patients' arms, CNN reported. Health officials had hoped to get 20 million people vaccinated by Jan. 1, but the national rollout has faced delays and roadblocks.

California, where the total number of cases in the state has now hit 2.7 million, will boost its vaccine rollout to now include health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, as well as those living in congregate settings such as assisted living or shelters. So far, the state's vaccination efforts have struggled, and only about a third of the more than 2.1 million doses received have made it into the arms of residents, CNN reported.

In New York City, officials are hoping to expand access by adding vaccination sites. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that three additional 24/7 vaccination sites would open this week, CNN reported. De Blasio said that the city hopes to reach 100,000 vaccinations by this week, with 1 million vaccinations completed by the end of the month, CNN reported.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Department of Public Health has launched a COVID vaccine locator website in hopes of increasing access in the state that has administered the least vaccines per capita, CNN reported.

In some good news, Pfizer Inc. announced last week that early testing shows its vaccine still works against the more infectious COVID-19 variants first found in Britain and South Africa, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said Thursday that his company was about to confirm that its vaccine would also work against the new variants, Reuters said.

More infectious COVID variant now seen in eight states

The more contagious coronavirus variant that has brought Britain to its knees in recent weeks is showing signs that it is spreading widely throughout the United States, health officials and experts said last week.

Texas, Pennsylvania and Connecticut joined California, Florida, New York, Georgia and Colorado on Thursday with reports of variant cases. There are now at least 63 confirmed cases in the country, CBS News reported.

"I would be surprised if that [number] doesn't grow pretty rapidly," Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, told the Washington Post last week.

An official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed.

"Here at the CDC, we're definitely taking this seriously, and we're assuming for now that this variant is more transmissible," said Greg Armstrong, the leader of the CDC's strain surveillance program. The British variant "is probably not in every state at this point, but I think in a lot of states."

Armstrong told the Post that the CDC hopes to more than double the number of genomic sequences of the virus posted on public websites within the next two weeks.

"We're not sequencing enough yet, and we need to continue to build what we're doing," Armstrong said.

While the variant shows no signs of being more deadly than the original version of the virus, it could send more people into hospitals, up the number of COVID-19 deaths, and prolong the effort to reach herd immunity in this country, the Post reported.

Herd immunity will be reached when the virus encounters enough people with immunity that it dies out. Unfortunately, the percentage of people who need to be immune for a population to achieve herd immunity is higher for more infectious pathogens.

"We are in a race against time," said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. "We need to increase our speed in which we act so that we don't allow this virus to spread further and allow this variant to become the dominant one in circulation. The clock is ticking."

The need to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible has become more urgent, and some scientists have argued that cutting doses in half or delaying the second dose might be necessary to reach that goal. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week said it would stick with the two-shot dose backed by randomized clinical trials.

"The data are really concerning. All signs right now are pointing to the fact that this [the new variant] is something we should be worried about," Mary Kathryn Grabowski, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told the Post. Even a seemingly modest increase in transmissibility, she said, "can mean huge, huge numbers of cases."

A global scourge

By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 22.4 million while the death toll passed 374,000, according to a New York Times tally. On Monday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with over 2.7 million cases; Texas with over 1.9 million cases; Florida with over 1.4 million cases; New York with over 1.1 million cases; and Illinois with more than 1 million cases.

Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.

In India, the coronavirus case count was more than 10.4 million Monday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had over 8.1 million cases and over 203,000 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 90.3 million on Monday, with over 1.9 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: CNN; CBS News; Washington Post; New York Times; Reuters

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