Stimulus deal; Moderna vaccines out; new virus strain

USA TODAY is keeping track of the news surrounding COVID-19 as vaccines begin to roll out nationwide. Just last week, the U.S. marked the stark milestone of more than 17 million cases and 300,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates on vaccine distribution, including who is getting the shots and where, as well as other COVID-19 news from across the USA TODAY Network. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates directly to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions for everything you need to know about the coronavirus.

In the headlines: 

Congressional leaders worked through an impasse and agreed Sunday on a coronavirus relief package worth about $900 billion, averting a government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced the deal, which would provide $600 stimulus checks for most Americans and boost unemployment benefits by up to $300 a week.

Essential workers like police officers and teachers, along with people 75 and older, will be in line to get coronavirus vaccines after the first phase, which is focusing on frontline health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

The nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which has hit California especially hard in recent weeks, has prompted Apple to temporarily shut down all 53 of its stores in the state and about 12 others elsewhere.

The first shipments of the nation’s second COVID-19 vaccine rolled out of a Memphis-area distribution center Sunday. Inoculations with the vaccine developed by Moderna  and the National Institutes of Health are expected to begin Monday, three days after the Food and Drug Administration authorized their emergency rollout.

Italy, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands have banned travel from the U.K. to prevent the spread of a more infectious variant of coronavirus. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered tighter restrictions and scrapped a plan to relax rules for the holidays.

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will get vaccinated Monday, Biden’s office said. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, will receive their doses the following week. Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received their first doses Friday.

►U.S. health officials say they have seen six cases of severe allergic reaction out of more than a quarter million shots of the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 17.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 317,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 76.6 million cases and almost 1.7 million deaths.

Here’s a closer look at today’s top stories: 

New virus strain a concern, but vaccines still expected to be effective

A new variant of the coronavirus that has prompted tighter restrictions in England poses a danger because of its increased level of transmissibility, but it does not appear to be immune to vaccines.

“We should be vigilant, not worried,” said Butler University associate professor Ogbonnaya Omenka, among the public health experts who noted that vaccine makers take into account virus mutations when developing their products.

Vivek Murthy, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, said Americans should not lose confidence in the new COVID-19 vaccines just because the virus has mutated.

– John Bacon

Moderna coronavirus vaccines are on the way

Moderna coronavirus vaccine deliveries should begin to arrive across the nation Monday, just three days after it was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. Initial shipments of the second COVID-19 vaccine authorized in the U.S. left a Memphis-area distribution center Sunday.

The Pfizer vaccine was approved Dec. 11. The first Pfizer and Moderna shots are nearly all going to health care workers and residents of long-term care homes, based on the advice of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The general public is expected to have access to the shots in the spring or summer.

Essential workers will get vaccine next

Key workers regularly exposed to the public, such as police officers, firefighters, teachers and grocery-store employees, will be next in line for a COVID-19 vaccine priority, based on a recommendation Sunday by a CDC panel. They would follow front-line health care workers and staff and residents in long-term care facilities in receiving vaccines, possibly as early as February. The panel also voted in favor of those age 75 and older to be part of that vaccine phase.

“Essential workers are at high risk because of exposure, by virtue of being in contact with others, in performing their duties. Prevention of disease in essential workers may reduce transmission to others,” said Dr. Kathleen Dooling, a CDC physician who is co-lead on the advisory panel.

– Elizabeth Weise

Increased travel may further fuel spike in infections

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” More than 1 million people in the U.S. ignored that advice and took to the skies both Friday and Saturday, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.

Saturday’s total of about 1.07 million air travelers was 57% below last year’s figure at the same time, but still represents the largest surge in daily traffic at U.S. airports since Nov. 22 as people began their Thanksgiving getaways.

That’s raising concerns among public health officials as the country continues to get staggered by the biggest spike in infections, hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began. Some of that dramatic growth has been blamed on Thanksgiving travel and gatherings. Experts note the upcoming holiday period from Christmas to New Year’s Day covers a longer stretch timespan than the Thanksgiving break.

Even prominent health officials struggle to abide by the recommendations to avoid travel and gatherings with people from outside the home. The Associated Press reports that Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, traveled to one of her vacation properties in Delaware the day after Thanksgiving along with three generations of her family from two households.

As vaccine rolls out, undocumented immigrants fear retribution

After years of isolationist and punitive immigration policies from the Trump administration, many immigrants – whose physical and fiscal health has, along with many people of color, been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic –  might be unwilling to come forward and get vaccinated. COVID-19 has been particularly merciless to Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans for reasons that include poverty, preexisting health conditions and front-line jobs. This demographic includes many immigrants; the vast majority of those undocumented are from Mexico and Central America. Many of them are critical to farming and meatpacking, and their illness and death represent both a human tragedy and an economic blow.

“The vaccine must be fully available to undocumented Americans, if not, it will put all of us at risk,” said Manuel Pastor, head of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which uses data and analysis to dissect equity issues. Read more here.

– Marco della Cava, Daniel Gonzalez and Rebecca Plevin, USA TODAY Network

Fast-moving COVID-19 strain in UK blamed for new restrictions

Millions of people must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and most shops have to close in London and much of southern England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday as he imposed a new, stricter level of coronavirus restrictions on the region to curb rapidly spreading infections.

In announcing the more restrictive category, Johnson said a fast-moving new variant of the coronavirus that is more than 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be driving the rapid spread in London and southern England. While London fared relatively well in controlling the virus throughout the fall, the city now has the highest infection rates in England. Officials said the new mutation accounted for about 60% of the capital’s cases.

“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” the prime minister stressed, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the U.K. has alerted the World Health Organization that the new variant identified this week appears to be accelerating the spread of COVID-19. The government’s scientific advisers came to that conclusion based on preliminary modelling figures, and they are continuing to analyze the available data, he said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Stimulus deal; Moderna vaccines out; new virus strain

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