Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed schools and declared a strict national lockdown in England in an attempt to contain a more contagious variant.

A pharmacist at a Wisconsin hospital, an “admitted conspiracy theorist,” destroyed 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine because he thought they weren’t safe, police said.

India approved a locally made vaccine, as well as one made by Oxford-AstraZeneca, for emergency use.

In the United States, over 20.7 million people have tested positive and at least 352,397 have died. Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and news on vaccines in development.

The vaccine blame game

In the week since our last newsletter, U.S. distribution of coronavirus vaccines has descended into turmoil. Now, millions of vaccines could expire before they reach people in need.

The Trump administration predicted 20 million people would receive at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2020. The final figure was about four million. And only 365,294 people in nursing homes and long-term-care centers have been vaccinated, despite more than 2.5 million doses distributed for those facilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Critics say the U.S. government has mismanaged the rollout from top to bottom. Federal, state, and local officials blamed each other for botched logistics and funding shortfalls.

State officials — struggling to handle outbreaks, mass testing campaigns, overflowing intensive care units and uncertain contact tracing — say they need more help from the federal government. And local governments are chafing at state restrictions.

In New York City, only 110,000 people have received a vaccine dose — about a quarter of the total number received by the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the state government — which has limited vaccinations to health care workers and those living and working at nursing homes — to allow older people and essential workers to receive the vaccine.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo asserted that the problem was a local issue, and urging Mr. de Blasio and other local leaders to take “personal responsibility” for their performance. Mr. Cuomo also threatened to fine hospitals if they did not step up the vaccination rate.

The $900 billion federal pandemic relief package will provide an additional $9 billion toward vaccination costs. But funds will arrive long after local health departments have started vaccinating residents. Slowdowns touch almost every part of the country.

In Puerto Rico, a shipment of vaccines did not arrive until the workers who would have administered them had left for the Christmas holiday.

In Houston, the city health department’s phone system crashed on the first day of a free vaccination clinic, after receiving more than 250,000 calls.

In Tennessee, older people lined up on a sidewalk, leaning on walkers and wrapping themselves in blankets while they waited for a county health department to open its free clinic. The clinic exhausted its supply of vaccine before 10 a.m.

In Florida, vaccine rollout sites continue to be overwhelmed in some places, with people waiting for hours. Gov. Ron DeSantis said hospitals may have future supplies of coronavirus vaccine reduced if they do not administer doses quickly enough.

The U.S. is not alone: The Netherlands and France are just two of several countries that have been slow to roll out vaccinations. But the level of disorder in the U.S., as with the virus’s toll, seems unique.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:

    • If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
    • When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
    • If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
    • Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
    • Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

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