The United States on Wednesday crossed an ominous new threshold of more than 3,250 lives lost to COVID-19 in a single day as public health officials intensified preparations for a historic campaign against vaccines before the final review of the legislation.
Steady movement toward vaccine development ahead of a critical scrutiny by leading US medical experts comes as the COVID-19 case rose alarmingly higher and strained healthcare systems in certain pandemic hotspots to the breaking point.
Intensive care units at hundreds of hospitals in urban and rural communities across the country were reported to have or near capacity, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Ten mostly rural counties spread across California reported that they had no ICU beds at all on Wednesday, according to state health figures analyzed by Reuters. In Fresno County, home to one million people, there were only seven ICU beds left on Wednesday. Mostly agricultural San Joaquin County just north was only five ICU beds.
The number of COVID patients in hospitals nationwide grew to a new record high of 106,217 at the end of Wednesday, an increase of approximately 18% over the previous two weeks.
The United States has also documented an average of 2,259 deaths and 205,661 new infections each day over the past week, a fee that U.S. health officials warn is likely to increase in the coming months before a vaccine becomes widely available to the public.
At least 3,253 US patients died on Wednesday alone, according to Reuters statistics on government data.
The latest figure surpassed the previous December 3 record of 2,861 COVID deaths and marked the first time the virus has claimed 3,000 American lives or more in a single day – exceeding the death toll from September 11, 2001, attacks on America by suicide hijackers.
To date, the highly contagious respiratory disease has killed more than 289,000 Americans, of whom about 15 million are known to have been infected since January.
Medical experts have said the crisis will only worsen in the coming weeks in colder weather, especially if Americans continue to ignore warnings to avoid unnecessary travel and large gatherings during the holidays.
In addition to the monumental human costs, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy and forced millions of unemployed when public health authorities imposed extensive restrictions on social and economic life in an attempt to reduce the spread of the disease.
However, Congress has struggled to end a month-long political stalemate due to financial aid.
The Democratic-run U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a one-week extension of federal state funds, giving lawmakers more time to bargain for a broader spending package with coronavirus assistance.
The Republican-led Senate was expected to vote on the measure as early as Thursday and send it to President Donald Trump in time to avoid a government shutdown.
But disagreements remain over the protection of corporate responsibility required by Republicans and support for state and local governments demanded by Democrats before the final agreement on financial assistance is reached.
Vaccines on the way
With a glimmer of hope, some officials said vaccinations could begin as soon as this weekend, and states have escalated plans for what is likely to be a distribution effort of unprecedented proportions.
“I can not imagine a government operation that has been launched that is more difficult and complicated than governments will be asked to do here,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a review on Wednesday.
A panel of independent medical experts would meet on Thursday to decide whether to recommend a vaccine from Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE. should be authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.
As a sign that approval may be rapid, documents released by the FDA prior to the advisory review did not raise new red flags over the safety or efficacy of Pfizer vaccines.
FDA approval can come as early as Friday or Saturday, followed by the first US injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, told Fox News on Tuesday.
Britain became the first Western nation to begin mass vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday. Canada approved the same vaccine on Wednesday after an accelerated review process.
The United States has a great need for a new mechanism to combat the pandemic, given that so many Americans have refused to follow guidelines for wearing face protection and keeping their distance from people outside their own households.
Medical experts expect another wave of infections and hospital stays after holiday gatherings at the end of the year, even when the first batches of vaccine are administered to high-priority recipients, including healthcare professionals and nursing homes.
US Secretary of Health Alex Azar told “CBS Tomorrow” that he expected vaccinations to reach the public in February, March and April, with enough vaccine supplies “for all Americans” in the second quarter of next year.
Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the US population has expressed skepticism about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, which creates an additional challenge.
Biden set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people – almost a third of the US population – within the first 100 days of his administration, or on April 29.