US on cusp of COVID-19 vaccine as deaths surpass 3,000 in a day

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States prepared to roll out a coronavirus vaccine within days as the country’s daily death toll surpassed 3,000 for the first time, exceeding the number of lives lost from the attacks of September 11, 2001.

COVID-19 deaths reached 3,253 on Wednesday, pushing up the US total since the start of the pandemic to 289,740, with a record 106,219 people hospitalized with the highly infectious respiratory disease.

Healthcare professionals and support staff, exhausted by the demands of the pandemic, have been watching patients die alone as millions of Americans refuse to follow medical advice to wear masks and avoid crowds in order to curb the virus’ spread.

Potentially helping to rein in the outbreak, a vaccine could start reaching healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents as soon as Sunday, though more likely early next week, according to Trump administration officials.

US Army General Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, said all the vaccine doses remained in the hands of the pharmaceutical companies.

“But we’ve worked many rehearsals and planning cycles … and that’s why I’m confident that as soon as EUA (emergency use authorization) comes aboard, we’ll start packing to the final destinations and distribution will begin within 24 hours,” Perna said.

A panel of independent medical experts was due to decide on Thursday whether to recommend a vaccine from Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE for emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration.

FDA consent could come as early as Friday or Saturday, followed by the first US injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp, told Fox News.

A second vaccine developed by Moderna is a week behind.

Widespread inoculations, however, could take months.

In the meantime, intensive care units at hundreds of hospitals across the country were at or near capacity, data from the US Department of Health and Human Services showed.

Ten mostly rural counties in California reported having no ICU beds on Wednesday, according to state health figures analyzed by Reuters.

Besides the human cost, the pandemic has forced millions out of work as state and local officials impose restrictions on social and economic life to contain the outbreak.

Congress, meanwhile, has struggled to end a months-long stalemate over economic assistance.

Disagreements remain over business liability protections demanded by Republicans and aid to state and local governments sought by Democrats before a final deal is reached on pandemic assistance.

Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bernadette Baum

FILE PHOTO: A patient is wheeled across a bridge connecting buildings inside Mount Sinai Hospital during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Manhattan in New York City, New York, US, December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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