LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.
As the pandemic enters its 10th month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing. New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August.
“That number is a vast undercount,” said Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex.
Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections around the country. “I still encounter prisons and jails where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested but they don’t receive care. So they get much sicker than need be,” he said.
Now the rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for politicians and policymakers. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can’t social distance and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being.
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Winter travel raises more fears of viral spread
Tens of millions of people are expected to travel to family gatherings or winter vacations over Christmas, despite pleas by public health experts who fear the result could be another surge in COVID-19 cases.
In the U.S., AAA predicts that about 85 million people will travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3, most of them by car. If true, that would be a drop of nearly one-third from a year ago, but still a massive movement of people in the middle of a pandemic.
Jordan Ford, 24, who was laid off as a guest-relations worker at Disneyland in March, said he plans to visit both his and his boyfriend’s families in Virginia and Arkansas over Christmas.
“It is pretty safe — everyone is wearing a mask, they clean the cabin thoroughly,” said Ford, who has traveled almost weekly in recent months from his home in Anaheim, California, and gets tested frequently. “After you get over that first trip since the pandemic started, I think you’ll feel comfortable no matter what.”
Experts worry that Christmas and New Year’s will turn into super-spreader events because many people are letting down their guard — either out of pandemic fatigue or the hopeful news that vaccines are starting to be distributed.
“Early on in the pandemic, people didn’t travel because they didn’t know what was to come,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, “but there is a feeling now that, ‘If I get it, it will be mild, it’s like a cold.’”
The seven-day rolling average of newly reported infections in the U.S. has risen from about 176,000 a day just before Thanksgiving to more than 215,000 a day. It’s too early to calculate how much of that increase is due to travel and gatherings over Thanksgiving, but experts believe they are a factor.
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.” People who insist on travel should consider getting tested for the virus before and after their trip and to limit non-essential activities for seven days after travel with a negative test result and 10 days if they don’t get tested.
Other countries have imposed restrictions ahead of the holidays. Last month, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed to permit a maximum of three households to mix between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place.
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Sweden sees virus cases rise, tightens restrictions
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Sweden is tightening nationwide coronavirus restrictions by requiring many people to work from home and reducing the number who can gather in restaurants, shops and gyms starting next week, but the government decided against ordering the country’s first full lockdown to control a recent spike in virus cases, the prime minister said Friday.
Sweden has stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic. The Scandinavian country has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control infections.
However, the country has seen a rapid increase in confirmed cases that is straining the health care system. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said, “The situation continues to be very serious,” which is why the government is introducing new limits on public activities.
“We believe that a lockdown is a burden for the population,” Lofven said. “We are following our strategy.”
The new restrictions taking effect on Dec. 24 include making face masks mandatory on public transportation and pushing back a nationwide cutoff time for bars and restaurants to sell alcohol to 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m..
Lofven said people with non-essential jobs will be required to work from home, and Education Minister Anna Ekstrom said schools should continue to plan for distance education.
“It is not possible to return to a normal everyday life. The pandemic is about life and death,” deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin said at a news conference with Lofven.
Sweden, which has a population of 10 million, has reported 367,120 confirmed virus cases and 7,993 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest figures.
Since recording the country’s first COVID-19 cases, Swedish authorities have advised people to practice social distancing, but schools, bars and restaurants have remained open.
The government and Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, repeatedly defended the country’s coronavirus strategy while reporting one of the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates. Tegnell said earlier this week that the death toll “is likely to continue to rise in the coming weeks.”
In discussing the new face mask requirement, the head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, Johan Carlson, said Friday that authorities “have never been against” making masks mandatory.
“We do not believe that it will have a very decisive effect, but it can have a positive effect on public transport during certain times,” Carlson said.
He added that they “can be useful in certain environments where you cannot keep your distance.”
WHO says it has access to 2 billion doses of vaccine for all countries in need
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says its program to help get COVID-19 vaccines to all countries in need, whether rich or poor, has gained access to nearly 2 billion doses of several vaccine candidates.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the agreements mean that some 190 countries and economies participating in the COVAX program will have access to vaccines “during the first half of next year.”
The arrangements bring together pharmaceutical makers including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and the Serum Institute of India.
He says the message is “vaccines will complement, not replace, the existing effective tools we have for suppressing transmission and saving lives.”
TSA scrambling for vaccine access for its own employees
The Transportation Security Administration’s chief medical officer instructed field managers this week to plead with local health departments and airport authorities to give the agency’s employees priority access to coronavirus vaccines since the Department of Homeland Security was not included in plans to give shots to federal employees under Operation Warp Speed.
Fabrice Czarnecki, the medical officer, said in a memo that the managers, called federal security directors, should underscore that the agency’s security officers process thousands of travelers each day and that officers needed vaccines “as soon as possible after front line health care workers.”
Czarnecki said the security directors should also encourage officers who are veterans, military reservists or members of the National Guard to try to get vaccinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Defense Department.
“My goal is [to] leverage all options to get vaccine access to TSA’s front line employees as TSA continues to pursue other avenues for vaccine access,” he said in the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
The virus has taken a heavy toll on the agency, with more than 4,000 employees testing positive and more than 800 of its staff currently sick. Eleven employees have died, including the Saturday death of a security officer in Honolulu who had worked at the agency since 2002.
Despite the number of cases and the urgency Czarnecki conveyed in the memo, agency officials say that in most cases the virus appears to be spreading to TSA employees outside of work.
Nonetheless, the memo shows how the agency is scrambling to get access to the vaccine for a group of employees who have continued to work at airports throughout the pandemic. Relying on local health agencies to prioritize TSA officers could lead to a patchy rollout of vaccinations.
Three TSA officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, said field leaders are effectively on their own to navigate a patchwork of health departments and airport authorities to get front-line workers vaccinated, rather than any centralized and coordinated federal effort.
In a letter Thursday to acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, questioned whether the department had done enough to make testing and vaccines available to front-line workers.
“I first wrote to you in July after DHS reached a record high number of employees that had tested positive or were in quarantine since the Department began regularly reporting such data to the Committee,” Thompson wrote. “Unfortunately, these numbers have continued to increase at an alarming rate.”
Thompson asked Wolf for an explanation of how the department and its agencies would secure vaccines “including an explanation for how vaccinations will be prioritized based on job description or location.”
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Pence, wife Karen, get COVID-19 vaccine injections
WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence was vaccinated for COVID-19 on Friday in a live-television event aimed at reassuring Americans the vaccine is safe.
Pence’s wife Karen and Surgeon General Jerome Adams also received shots.
President Donald Trump’s administration helped deliver vaccinations against the coronavirus earlier than even some in his administration thought possible, launching Operation Warp Speed — the government campaign to help swiftly develop and distribute vaccines — this spring with great fanfare in the White House Rose Garden.
But five days into the largest vaccination campaign in the nation’s history, Trump has held no public events to trumpet the rollout. He hasn’t been inoculated himself. He has tweeted only twice about the shot. Pence, meanwhile, has taken center stage — touring a vaccine production facility this week and receiving a dose himself on live television Friday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both said Thursday that they will get vaccinated in the next few days.
Pence, along with his wife, Karen, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, received their shots Friday morning in an office suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building from three medical technicians from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Trump’s relative silence comes as he continues to stew about his defeat in the Nov. 3 election and embraces increasingly extreme efforts to overturn the people’s will. He’s pushed aside the plans of aides who wanted him to be the public face of the vaccination campaign, eschewing visits to labs and production facilities to thank workers, or hosting efforts to build public confidence in the shot, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The sheepish approach has been surprising, especially for a president rarely shy to take credit, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who focuses on public health.
“The President’s relatively low profile on the COVID response since the election is curious and counter to Mr. Trump’s own interests,” he said. Gostin, who has criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic in the past, said that he “deserves a great deal of credit” for Operation Warp Speed and placing a bet on two vaccines that use groundbreaking mRNA technology.
“Having exhibited leadership in the vaccines’ development, he should take great pride in publicly demonstrating his trust in COVID vaccines,” he said.
Trump did appear at a White House “summit” ahead of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine last week. That event included an introductory video highlighting the past comments of those — including top government infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci — who doubted a shot would be ready this year.
But many Trump aides are puzzled by his low profile now that the vaccine is actually being injected. They see it as a missed opportunity for the president, who leaves office at noon on Jan. 20, to claim credit for helping oversee the speedy development and deployment of the vaccine that is expected to finally contain the virus that has killed more than 310,000 Americans.
Trump himself has tried to minimize any credit that might go to his successor, President-elect Joe Biden, who will preside over the bulk of the nationwide injection campaign next year. Biden expects to receive his shot as soon as next week.
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Cruise industry expects to delay Maine’s 2021 season
AUGUSTA — The cruise ship industry in Maine is preparing for a delay to the state’s 2021 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. cruise ship business was placed under a “no sail order” from the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March. A framework for resumption of operations replaced that order in October.
CruiseMaine, which is part of the Maine Office of Tourism, met earlier this week to get ready for the coming season. CruiseMaine executive director Sarah Flink said the organization’s goals include helping ports in the state with regulatory compliance amid the pandemic.
Flink said “the beginning of our season is still several months away and may very well be delayed further.”
Flink also said that resumption of cruise operations in the state will mean cooperating with tour operators, medical facilities, shore-side workers and other stakeholders.
Paul McCartney eager to get vaccinated
LONDON — Paul McCartney says he’s keen to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
In an interview Friday with the BBC, the ex-Beatle also downplayed the likelihood he’d go on tour next year to support his latest album released this week, “McCartney III,” saying it depends on how successful virus countermeasures are.
When asked if he would get a coronavirus vaccine, the 78-year-old McCartney said, “Yeah, I will yeah. And I’d like to encourage people to get it too, because with this it’s much more serious, and yeah, if I’m allowed to get it, I will.”
He said he’d love to play at Britain’s Glastonbury music festival in 2021, though he was skeptical organizers could stage it, noting that it would likely involve 100,000 people closely packed together, with no masks. “You know, talk about a superspreader,” he said.
Supreme Court justices to get vaccinated
WASHINGTON — The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are being provided with doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
That is according to a letter by Capitol Physician Brian Monahan, which says the court, along with Congress and executive branch agencies are being given a limited supply of doses “for continuity of government operations.”
The doses are being provided under a directive by President Donald Trump that established continuity of government as a reason for vaccine prioritization. The Supreme Court and the other branches of government are supposed to be treated “in parallel.”
FDA investigating allergic reactions to Pfizer vaccine as rollout continues
WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration reiterated Thursday that the newly authorized Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine should continue to be used with no new restrictions despite several reports of health-care workers who had a severe allergic reaction after receiving the injection.
Two of those incidents happened in the United Kingdom last week, and a third in Alaska on Tuesday. Another Alaska hospital employee had a brief but much less serious reaction on Wednesday.
The FDA said it is closely monitoring these situations and is teaming with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate what incited these responses. While that is being investigated, the FDA is working with Pfizer to update fact sheets and prescribing information to reflect the evolving information. The FDA said that would underscore an existing requirement – that facilities administering the vaccine must be capable of immediately treating any severe allergic reaction.
The vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German company BioNTech passed strict safety reviews during months-long randomized clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people. But three incidents of anaphylaxis – a sudden allergic response that can be reversed quickly with medication – are a complication for officials hoping to gain public acceptance of the vaccine.
They’re also a biochemical mystery. No one knows what component of the vaccine incited the anaphylactic reactions.
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California hospitals buckle under surge in nation’s new hot spot
LOS ANGELES — Hospitals across California have all but run out of intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients, ambulances are backing up outside emergency rooms, and tents for triaging the sick are going up as the nation’s most populous state emerges as the latest epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
On Thursday, the state reported a staggering 52,000 new cases in a single day – equal to what the entire U.S. was averaging in mid-October – and a one-day record of 379 deaths. More than 16,000 people are in the hospital with the coronavirus across California, more than triple the number from a month ago.
While the surging virus has pushed hospitals elsewhere around the country to the breaking point in recent weeks, the crisis is deepening with alarming speed in California, even as the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations this week and the impending release of a second vaccine have boosted hopes of eventually defeating the scourge.
Intensive care unit capacity is at less than 1% in many California counties, and morgue space is also running out, in what is increasingly resembling the disaster last spring in New York City.
At St. Mary Medical Center in Southern California’s Apple Valley, patients are triaged outside in tents, and the hospital put up temporary walls in its lobby to make more room to treat those with COVID-19. Patients are also being treated in the halls on gurneys or chairs, sometimes for days, because there is nowhere else to put them, said Randall Castillo, the hospital’s chief executive.
Dr. Nasim Afsar, chief operating officer at UCI Health in Orange County, described an unrelenting churn of patients, many of them left to wait in the ER until a bed elsewhere in the hospital opens up.
“Every day we work through and we discharge the appropriate number of people, and by the next day all of those beds are again filled up,” she said. “Where the bottleneck is is the large number of patients who come to the emergency room and need to be admitted and there’s not a bed for them.”
Dr. Denise Whitfield, an emergency room physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said ambulance crews are left waiting around for patients to be seen.
“Over the last nine months that we’ve been dealing with this COVID pandemic, I can say that it’s been the worst that I’ve seen things in terms of looking at our capacity to care for our patients,” she said.
Authorities plan to erect field hospitals in multiple locations in the state, with three set to go up in Orange County.
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While other states rush to give shots, Tennessee is stockpiling them
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As states rush to inoculate health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, only Tennessee has prioritized building its own emergency reserve of the coveted vaccine.
An Associated Press review of each state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans shows that Tennessee alone has specified it will hold back a small portion in “case of spoilage of vaccine shipped to facilities.” The state’s initial shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that arrived Monday was not distributed for inoculation, so health care workers had to wait until the second shipment arrived days later.
The move has baffled health care leaders, who say medical workers should take priority, especially as the state hits record case numbers.
“Given the extremely high case counts right now, our frontline health care workers are at higher risk than ever, I would personally advocate for those doses being used rather than stockpiled,” said Dr. Isaac Thomsen, who leads the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program Laboratory.
Despite a federal stockpile created so states can use all of their supplies, Tennessee officials maintain that the reserve is necessary because of the risk of damaging the vaccine, which requires ultracold storage.
“If a hospital receives a case of the vaccine and it’s spoiled or broken, we can immediately deploy that (emergency reserve) to them,” state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said.
In contrast, the AP review of vaccine distribution plans across the country shows that other states are stressing the need to quickly distribute every vaccine to those with the highest risk of exposure.
Wisconsin has no mention of an emergency reserve in its distribution plan, and when asked by AP this week, the state health agency responded that it was “not holding any vaccine back.” In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine not only touted the arrival of the state’s first vaccines but also praised the rapid administration of the shots to front-line medical workers.
Idaho health experts have allotted some flexibility in their effort to move doses around quickly to ensure they do not end up sitting on shelves.
“What we do not want is any wasted vaccine,” Sarah Leeds, program manager for the Idaho Immunization Program, said earlier this month during the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee.
In North Carolina, state officials stated in their distribution plan that “no doses will be held back at the jurisdiction or provider level. The federal government will hold back product initially to ensure second doses are available.”
Other states committing to use every dose because the federal government has its own backup supply include Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico, Virginia and Washington.
Yet in Tennessee, the first shipment of 975 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses went into the reserve. The second shipment of 56,500 shots that came in Wednesday was being distributed to more than 70 hospitals across the state.
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Lockdown looms over Christmas in Bethlehem
RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian prime minister on Thursday announced a two-week lockdown in the West Bank that appears certain to curtail Christmas celebrations in the town of Jesus’ birth.
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that with a coronavirus outbreak raging, there will be a nighttime curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. throughout the West Bank. On Fridays and Saturdays, the local weekend, the lockdown will be around the clock.
The restrictions, which are to be in effect through Jan. 2, will greatly restrict travel throughout the West Bank. Most businesses, with the exception of pharmacies and bakeries, will be forced to close during the curfews, Shtayyeh said.
The lockdown appears to mean that public celebrations in Bethlehem, revered by Christians as Jesus’ birthplace, will be greatly scaled back.
Large crowds usually throng the town on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass is celebrated at the Church of the Nativity. But the restrictions will prevent people from reaching Bethlehem from either Israel or other parts of the West Bank, and the nighttime curfew will presumably prevent even local residents from celebrating.
Shtayyeh said that “special protocols” were still being sorted out for public prayers, though he didn’t elaborate.
Local officials have already said celebrations would be scaled back in Bethlehem, with prayers likely limited to religious leaders and local dignitaries. Gift shops and hotels have been closed during the normally busy holiday season.
Palestinian officials on Thursday reported 1,134 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections in Palestinian areas of the West Bank to 86,594. Over 860 Palestinians in the territory have died.