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Dec. 31, 2020, 11:45 a.m. EST

U.S. sets record for COVID deaths, and California confirms second case of highly infectious new strain

Operation Warp Speed officials acknowledge delays in distributing vaccines, experts say government must do more to help states

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By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. set fresh one-day records for fatalities from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 and number of patients hospitalized on Thursday, as California became the second state after Colorado to find a case of the new COVID-19 variant that is racing across the U.K.

A day after a man in his 20s from Colorado was reported to have the first confirmed case of the new variant, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the Golden State had also detected a case. Newsom announced the news during an online call with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd,” Fauci said. “It’s to be expected.”

The new variant is understood be more infectious than the original virus but it does not seem to make people sicker. But with hospitals already at full capacity in parts of California and elsewhere, there are growing concerns that more rapid transmission could totally overwhelm health-care systems and workers.

California set a record of 432 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to the state health department, boosting the total since the start of the outbreak to 25,000.

Already, hospitals are turning ambulances away in Los Angeles, and EMT workers are being directed not to transport patients who do not have a pulse, while hospitals have started to ration care to prioritize patients with the best chances of survival.

Officials from Operation Warp Speed, the federal government program created to accelerate the development of COVID vaccines and therapies, acknowledged that vaccine distribution and administration was lagging early targets.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 2.79 million people had been dosed as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, and 12.4 million doses had been distributed. That’s well below the early promise for 100 million doses to be delivered by year-end, which was later reduced to 40 million and then 20 million.

“We agree that that number is lower than what we hoped for,” said Moncef Slaoui, scientific adviser of Operation Warp Speed, said at a press briefing. “We know that it should be better, and we’re working hard to make it better.”

See now: Biden joins public health experts in expressing dismay as early days of COVID vaccine rollout in U.S. fall far short of expectations

Gen. Gustave Perna, who is heading logistics for Operation Warp Speed, said winter weather and lags in reporting during the holiday season had slowed the program. And hospitals and other centers that will handle the administering of vaccines are dealing with the challenge of the need to store vaccines at ultralow temperatures.

The vaccines that have been granted emergency-use authorization in the U.S. — one developed by Pfizer Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.81% with German partner BioNTech SE /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -0.53% and one developed by the biotech company Moderna Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -1.54%  — both need to be deeply refrigerated, and both are two-dose regimens.

But critics say the bigger problem is the lack of a national distribution plan with the administration of President Donald Trump leaving it to individual states to deal with the actual work of dosing residents. States are already struggling with budget deficits after the pandemic slammed revenue. Health departments, overburdened by nine months of managing testing, data analysis, advising businesses and schools, and running public information campaigns, are now on the hook for creating vaccine infrastructure.

Dr. William Haseltine, chairman and president of ACCESS Health International Inc., and a former Harvard Medical School professor who is known for his work on HIV/AIDs and cancer, criticized the government response.

“Science will save us, but it’s sad it’s had to come to that,” he said in an interview on MSNBC. “It’s good that we have our science, but our government hasn’t done what other governments have done. Even today, our government isn’t doing what it needs to do. We ourselves aren’t doing what we need to do. Science will come to our rescue and put this thing in a manageable place. It may not eliminate it, but it will put it in a manageable place. But we can help, and we should help.”

See: How many people have to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity? ‘The faster we do it, the faster we get back to life’

Fauci told NBC’s “Today” show that the low rate of vaccination so far is “disappointing” but said momentum should pick up heading into January. Fauci agreed that the federal government should allocate more resources to states. “You have to support the local groups, the states and the cities, to help them to get this task done, which is a very prodigious task.”

The U.S. recorded a record 3,903 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the most since the start of the outbreak, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Another 226,000 cases were counted, and hospitalizations set a record of 125,220.

The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 19.7 million, and deaths, at 342,450, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, or about a fifth of the global tally for each.

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