By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch
The U.S. set yet another record for the number of fatalities from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 and recorded the highest number of new cases since the start of the outbreak, with the latest numbers exceeding even the worst case scenario forecasts of health experts.
More than 4,000 Americans died of COVID-19 on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 280,292 new cases were recorded. In the past week, the country has averaged 237,635 cases a day.
Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had warned in December that the U.S. would suffer more deaths every day for the following two to three months than the almost 3,000 who died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or the 2,400 who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 21.7 million, or more than double the next worst tally, India with 10.4 million, and by deaths, at 366,664, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. With 4% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for about 20% of reported fatalities.
Experts continued to fret that Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. by a mob of Trump supporters has created a superspreader event, as the televised footage showed that many were not wearing face masks.
Lawmakers are equally concerned that their confinement in tight conference rooms during the siege has created yet another superspreader event. Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told CBS that some members of Congress — mostly Republicans, including freshman Republican congressmen — refused to don masks while sheltering in place.
The news is especially alarming given the new variant of the virus that appeared to originate in the U.K. that is 40% to 70% more infectious than the original virus.
“In the first week of 2021, US states and territories reported more cases of COVID-19 than at any point in the pandemic so far, and the second-highest number of deaths,” the COVID Tracking Project wrote in its weekly update on the pandemic.
“Holiday data reporting slowdowns from Christmas and New Year’s are likely still affecting most metrics — most notably reported tests, which remain well below pre-holiday levels. Hospitalizations, our most stable metric through the holidays, continue to march upward.”
There are more than 132,000 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals, straining systems in California and the South. In Alabama, December’s case surge has translated into a higher per capita hospitalization rate than any state saw during the summer’s surge, said the update.
“Alabama now has the third-highest per capita hospitalizations in the country, trailing only Arizona and Nevada. Staffing shortages in Alabama hospitals, coupled with very low availability of ICU beds, have public health officials in the state bracing for a coming crisis as holiday exposures send more COVID-19 patients to the hospital,” said the update.
Los Angeles County is recording a COVID-19 death every 10 minutes and is rationing oxygen and care.
The U.S. vaccination program continued to stumble also. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker shows that as of 9.00 a.m. ET on Thursday, just 5.9 million Americans had been vaccinated, way below the 20 million that was the most recent revision to targets promised by the federal government. Just 21.4 million doses had been distributed. In December, when the first emergency use authorizations were granted to the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. (NYS:PFE) and German partner BioNTech SE (NAS:BNTX) and later by Moderna Inc., the government initially promised 100 million doses would be delivered by year-end.
President Donald Trump has left it to states to administer the vaccine program — tweeting that it was “up to the states to administer” and then calling some states “very slow” — meaning that stressed state health departments, which have already had to deal with testing, contact tracing, public information campaigns and deciding when or whether schools or businesses should be open or closed, are now tasked with handling the biggest public health effort in decades.
In other news:
• Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech said an in vitro study found that their COVID-19 vaccine neutralizes the two new highly infectious variants that have emerged in the U.K. and South Africa. The results were published on the preprint service bioRxiv and have not yet been peer-reviewed. “Though these two rapidly spreading viruses are different, they share the N501Y mutation, which is located in the receptor binding site of the spike protein and results in the virus’s spike protein binding more tightly to its receptor.,” the companies said in a joint statement. “It has been shown to infect mice more efficiently.” The trial found the sera of 20 participants in the Phase 3 trials neutralized the virus with the mutation as well as they neutralized the virus without the mutation, said the statement. “Pfizer, BioNTech, and UTMB are encouraged by these early, in vitro study findings,” said the statement, although further research is needed.
• The European Medicines Agency said that the product information for BioNTech and Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine should be updated to say there are six doses in each vial. The authorization granted to the vaccine, which is referred to as Comirnaty in Europe, on Dec. 21 in the European Union says there are five doses in each vial. The EMA, which is the E.U.’s drugs regulator, said health care providers should use low dead-volume syringes or needles to extract what it says is an extra dose. The European Commission must next endorse the EMA’s recommendation for it to move forward into clinical practice.
• Moderna’s (NAS:MRNA) COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized for emergency use by U.K. regulators, bringing a third shot to the country that is battling a surge in coronavirus cases. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, or MHRA, approved the vaccine after a “thorough and rigorous assessment” by the regulator’s teams of scientists, including advice from the independent Commission on Human Medicines, the government said in a statement on Friday. Moderna’s vaccine marks the third to be approved for use by the MHRA and the second that uses the mRNA approach, which sends a message to cells telling them to create proteins that can generate an immune response.
• China has placed 11 million people in the northern city of Shijiazhuang into strict lockdown after an outbreak of COVID-19, CNN reported. The city is based in the province of Hebei, which is suffering the worse flare-up in months. A total of 117 cases, including 67 in patients showing no symptoms, have been detected this week. Residents of the city are barred from leaving withy highways blocked, bus and train stations closed and flights canceled.
• The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has declared an emergency in the English capital as it struggles with a wave of new infections that are overwhelming hospitals, the Guardian reported. Khan declared a “major incident,” in his dual role as mayor and chair of the London Resilience Forum, after discussions with NHS London, local authorities, Public Health England and emergency services in the capital. Covid cases now exceed 1,000 per 100,000 people, he said, forecasting that the city may run out of beds in the next few weeks unless the spread is slowed dramatically. The U.K. has 2.9 million cases and 79,959 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.
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The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 88.4 million on Friday, the Johns Hopkins data show, and the death toll rose above 1.9 million. About 49 million people have recovered from COVID-19.
Brazil has the second highest death toll at 200,498 and is third by cases at 7.9 million.
India is second worldwide in cases with 10.4 million, and third in deaths at 150,570.
Mexico has the fourth highest death toll at 131,031 and 13th highest case tally at 1.5 million.
China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 96,489 confirmed cases and 4,788 deaths, according to its official numbers.
What’s the economy saying?
The U.S. lost jobs in December for the first time in eight months as the coronavirus bore down on the economy again and forced businesses to resort to more layoffs, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.
The government and private sector shed 140,000 jobs last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday.
The decline in employment was the first since last April, when the U.S. lost a gargantuan 20.8 million jobs in that one month alone.
The economy is still missing some 10 million jobs that existed before the onset of the pandemic, with little prospect that they’ll be recovered any time soon.
If there was a glimmer of good news in the report, layoffs were concentrated at restaurants and other businesses that rely on large crowds of customers. Many other segments of the economy actually posted strong employment gains last month.
The official unemployment rate, meanwhile, was unchanged at 6.7%. Yet economists estimate true unemployment is several points higher because the official jobless rate doesn’t include about 4 million people who left the labor force last year.
“People dropping out of the labor force is a big problem,” said Thomas Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DOW:DJIA) fell 0.1% after the report, while the S&P 500 (S&P:SPX) eked out a 0.3% gain.