December 15 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung, Adam Renton, Kara Fox, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, December 16, 2020
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9:15 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

FDA panel document confirms Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine's efficacy ahead of Thursday meeting 

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

A participant receives an injection as part of a Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial sponsored by Moderna on August 4 in DeLand, Florida.
A participant receives an injection as part of a Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial sponsored by Moderna on August 4 in DeLand, Florida. Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images

An advisory committee to the US Food and Drug Administration released a briefing document on Tuesday morning detailing data on Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine candidate, which will be considered this week for emergency use authorization (EUA) in the United States among adults age 18 and older.

What's in the document: The document confirms that the vaccine's efficacy against Covid-19 was 94.5%, occurring at least 14 days after the second dose – an efficacy that had been previously reported by Moderna – and that the vaccine has a "favorable" safety profile. The proposed dosing regimen is to administer two 100-microgram doses of vaccine one month apart. 

The document also describes the components of the vaccine, which include mRNA – genetic information about the novel coronavirus called messenger RNA. The vaccine contains a synthetic mRNA that codes for a structure called the "pre-fusion stabilized spike glycoprotein" of the virus, or the part of the virus that it uses to attach to cells.

Among its other ingredients, the vaccine also contains fatty materials called lipids, tromethamine, tromethamine hydrochloride, acetic acid, sodium acetate and sucrose. 

The document goes on to note that the mRNA-1273 vaccine has "a favorable safety profile, with no specific safety concerns identified that would preclude issuance of an EUA." The most common adverse reactions to the vaccine have been injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain and chills, according to the document. Swollen lymph nodes have also been reported. 

There also have been reports of facial paralysis or Bell's Palsy, but the document notes "currently available information is insufficient to determine a causal relationship with the vaccine."

Overall, "the frequency of non-fatal serious adverse events was low and without meaningful imbalances between study arms (1% in the mRNA-1273 group and 1% in the placebo group)." 

As of December 3, the document notes that 13 deaths had been reported; six were among people given the vaccine and seven among those given a placebo. "These deaths represent events and rates that occur in the general population of individuals in these age groups," according to the document, as some were due to pre-existing cardiac disease and other causes.

About this week's meeting: The document will be discussed in a meeting this Thursday, during which the FDA's Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will review and provide recommendations on whether the benefits of the mRNA-1273 vaccine outweigh its risks for use in adults age 18 and older.

The committee will also discuss what additional studies should be conducted by the vaccine manufacturer following issuance of the EUA, to gather further data on safety and effectiveness.

8:34 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Do you have questions and concerns about the Covid-19 vaccine? CNN wants to hear them.

The Covid-19 vaccine has arrived in the United States, but it has been greeted with some public skepticism. Although the percentage of Americans willing to take the vaccine is rising, health officials are still struggling to combat distrust — especially among the Black community.

Do you have questions about the vaccine? International correspondents and experts will join CNN's town hall on Friday to discuss the vaccine and why some in the Black community are reluctant to receive it. 

Submit your questions and concerns here:

12:29 p.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Here's Fauci's message to people concerned about vaccine's safety when it was developed so quickly

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House on November 19 in Washington, DC.
Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House on November 19 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appearing on ABC this morning, was asked how people can be sure the Covid-19 vaccine is safe when it was developed so quickly.

“The speed was not at all at the sacrifice of safety. The speed was the reflection of extraordinary advances in the science of vaccine platform technology,” Fauci told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. 

Fauci said there was “extraordinary investment” in getting the vaccine ready to be distributed as soon as it was proven to be safe and effective. 

“So, people understandably are skeptical about the speed, but we have to keep emphasizing speed means the science was extraordinary that got us here,” he said. 

8:19 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Here’s the problem with skipping the line for the Covid-19 vaccine

A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid -19 vaccine is seen at Hartford Hospital on December 14 in Hartford, Connecticut.
A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid -19 vaccine is seen at Hartford Hospital on December 14 in Hartford, Connecticut. Jessica Hill/AP

Dr. Leana Wen breaks down the consequences of taking the coronavirus vaccine before priority groups, like health care and other essential workers.

7:53 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Structural inequalities have contributed to England's record Covid-19 death rate

From CNN's Mia Albert and Amy Cassidy

England has among the highest Covid-19 mortality rates in Europe not only because of the government's mishandling of the pandemic, but also as a result of its prior deteriorating health situation, especially among minorities, according to a new report.

"Pre-existing inequalities in health, employment, housing, and access to Universal Credit created a ‘perfect storm’ of factors which exacerbated the impact of coronavirus on BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] people," the Institute of Health Equity at University College London report, which was published today, said.

The mortality rate from Covid-19 in the most deprived areas was almost double that in the least deprived areas between March and July 2020, according to the report.

The document argues that the Covid-19 death rate has been higher in deprived neighborhoods that coincide with minority populations because they are more likely to be home to key workers "such as those working in health and social care and public transport."

As such, those key workers are more likely than white workers to be working outside their homes during lockdowns and "if they logged a safety complaint, they were more likely to be ignored than white British workers," the report said.

The report further says people from BAME backgrounds more often live in overcrowded households in deprived urban areas with higher rates of air pollution and are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions.

"Structural racism means that some ethnic groups are more likely to be exposed to adverse social and economic conditions, in addition to the everyday experiences of discrimination -- causing a robbery of resilience," it said.

"The cumulative occupational, living and environmental conditions and low-income risks experienced by many BAME groups are largely responsible for the disproportionately high mortality rates from COVID-19 among these groups," it adds.

The report argues that existing inequalities prior to the pandemic create a cyclic unequal system, in which the same factors that contributed to a higher death rate among BAME groups will also result in higher rates of post-Covid health complications, as well as deeper social and educational inequalities in the future.

Caroline Nokes, who chairs the UK Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee, called for more than a dozen structural changes -- including improvements to housing conditions, resources to break down digital and language barriers, and changes to sick pay eligibility -- in response to the report.

The impact of coronavirus has sharpened the focus and highlighted the need for systemic changes in all these areas. With the vaccine being disseminated, we are at a turning point in the pandemic and we can begin to rebuild. Now is the time for the government to act and make this a turning point to tackle systemic inequalities and rebuild society in an equal, fairer way," Nokes said.

Ethnic groups across the UK also "experienced a worsening of their self-reported mental health" during the pandemic, according to a separate report by the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS).

"Financial resilience was lower among Black African or Other Black households before the pandemic, for example, which would explain why these groups found it harder to manage financially during lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mental health deteriorated across most ethnic groups during lockdown but was most marked in the Indian group," said Glenn Everett, Deputy Director of ONS' Sustainability and Inequalities Division.

A separate report published in The Lancet Regional Health Europe journal on Tuesday, also linked poverty in Scotland to higher Covid-19 death rates in the country. The study found that 25% of patients admitted to care units across Scotland between March and June came from deprived areas, a higher proportion than those who came from the least deprived areas (13.6%).

7:28 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

The "last responders" of morgues and funeral homes are battling a surge of US deaths

From Cindy Loose, Kaiser Health News

Acela Truck Co. has already sold hundreds of pull-behind refrigerated morgues created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Acela Truck Co. has already sold hundreds of pull-behind refrigerated morgues created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Amelia Anne Photography

As Covid-19 has spread from big cities to rural communities in the United States, it has stressed not only hospitals, but also what some euphemistically call "last responders."

The crush has overwhelmed morgues, funeral homes and religious leaders across the US, and has changed the rituals of honoring the dead.

Chad Towner, CEO of St. Joseph Health System, which has two hospitals in northern Indiana, said that there were recently four deaths in an afternoon.

"A priest approached me to say he'd been asked to provide last rites to three patients in one hour," Towner said, adding that moving bodies from the hospital morgue has been a slower process than usual.

Morticians and funeral homes are overflowing as well. Families that are sick or quarantined at the time of the loved one's death often can't work with us on a transfer, meaning bodies are here longer. The entire system is stressed to the tipping point," Towner said.

In Montana, the Billings Clinic -- which has just two morgue spaces -- has dealt with 80 Covid-19 deaths, including seven on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Chief Nursing Officer Laurie Smith said the hospital is at capacity, despite adding beds by converting office space and building an addition. The hospital, which currently has 335 beds, so far has handled the additional deaths through what she calls a "sad partnership," with funeral homes, which have been quickly picking up bodies the hospital cannot store.

The hospital does its best to allow relatives to say goodbye, but that often involves family members standing at an interior window outside the patient's room, using a computer tablet to communicate their last words.

Typical congregational hymns are pretty much gone, as are choirs. "We are using mostly recordings, sometimes a soloist," said Spitzer.

Funeral home directors who pride themselves on spending time comforting grieving families say they are so busy that some days they have to rush out from one funeral to begin the next one.

Families are being robbed of the whole funeral rite experience and losing the support of having friends and family around them," said Shauna Kjos-Miotke of Fiksdal Funeral Home in Webster, South Dakota.

Native communities have not only been among the hardest hit with Covid-19 illnesses and deaths, but their grieving rituals have been among the most seriously disrupted.

"Normally a funeral is a two- or three-day process with hundreds of people," said Josiah Hugs, a Crow tribal member who is the outreach coordinator for Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center.

"Now there is no time to tell stories about the person, not a lot of singing and praying. I've been to three recent Covid-19 funerals, and everything was at the burial site, with maybe 30 people sitting in their cars and not getting out."

Read the full story here.

7:02 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Medical journals urge the UK not to relax rules at Christmas

From CNN's Amy Cassidy, Luke McGee and Kara Fox

A woman walks past a sign showing Covid-19 precautions on December 14 in Cardiff, Wales.
A woman walks past a sign showing Covid-19 precautions on December 14 in Cardiff, Wales. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The UK government should reverse its decision to relax Covid-19 restrictions over Christmas according to health experts, who warn hospitalizations at New Year could match that of the pandemic’s peak in April unless tighter measures are brought in. 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) issued a rare joint plea -- only the second in more than 100 years -- on Tuesday, calling on the government to scrap its "rash decision" to allow household mixing for five days.

Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard."

Authors Alastair McLellan (HSJ) and Fiona Godlee (BMJ), said it was imperative that the government stops households from socializing in order to bring down infections and spare the UK's National Health Service (NHS) from struggling to cope with a third wave.  

"When government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing. But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy," it said.

They advised that rather than lifting restrictions over Christmas as currently planned, the UK should follow the more cautious examples of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

Tiered restrictions should also be reviewed and strengthened as they are currently doing little to suppress the virus, the authors added.

Despite most of the country under Tier 2 "high alert" or the "very high" Tier 3 restrictions, numbers of inpatients have started to rise again.

On Monday, Covid-19 bed occupancy at hospitals in England had climbed to 15,053.

The authors predict that hospitals in England will have just short of 19,000 coronavirus patients on New Year’s Eve, almost exactly the same as the 18,974 peak of the first wave of the pandemic on April 12.

At least 64,500 people in the UK have now died after contracting coronavirus.

6:16 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

Socially distanced Santa could be the best thing to happen to Christmas

From CNN's Allison Hope

(From left) Mateo Johnson, 6, and Neah Johnson, 3, visit with Santa, who holds court in a snow globe December 6 in Seattle. Covid-19 safety measures have opened the door for rethinking how kids physically interact with Santa.
(From left) Mateo Johnson, 6, and Neah Johnson, 3, visit with Santa, who holds court in a snow globe December 6 in Seattle. Covid-19 safety measures have opened the door for rethinking how kids physically interact with Santa. David Ryder/Getty Images

We've long made light of the trauma that kids may face when placed on Santa's lap, turning their tear-stained faces into Christmas cards and jokes, even click-bait slideshows of upset children.

But the pandemic is giving us a time to rethink the counterintuitive and potentially traumatic practice of allowing strangers to touch our children for the sake of a laugh or the snap of a photo.

We reinforce all throughout our kid's childhoods to stay away from strangers and then we counterintuitively tell them it's OK to let this one stranger -- Santa -- touch you.

After all, 93% of sexual abuse perpetrators are people who are familiar to the child

Oliver Sindall, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents says that how traumatized a child might be when forced to sit on Santa's lap against their will depends on the child's emotional security, which is largely contingent on whether the parents have secured a safe environment for their child.

Still, "being forced to do something they are frightened of can often be traumatic, or impact their understanding of consent, even if it is just sitting with Santa," Sindall said.

A virtual or socially distanced Santa visit can be the "first step in showing us that this new normal can be just as good or fun as the traditional sitting in Santa's lap," according to Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Jeglic, who studies child sexual abuse and trauma, underscores the importance of child bodily autonomy and the pitfalls of teaching them that it's OK for strangers to touch them even when it makes them uncomfortable.

This year "has changed a lot of our behaviors, there is no reason why sitting in Santa's lap cannot also change -- and probably for the better," she said.

With the new socially distanced Santa, a child can sit a safe distance from the stranger dressed in red and talk about their hopes and dreams and present-filled wish lists without fear of stranger danger.

Consent is magic. Distance is safer.

Read the full article here.

5:24 a.m. ET, December 15, 2020

A man who pretended to have Covid-19 pleads guilty to defrauding his employer

From CNN's Artemis Moshtaghian

Santwon Antonio Davis has been charged with defrauding his employer by allegedly faking a positive Covid-19 medical excuse letter.
Santwon Antonio Davis has been charged with defrauding his employer by allegedly faking a positive Covid-19 medical excuse letter. Fulton County Sheriff

A man pleaded guilty to defrauding his employer in May by falsely claiming he was infected with Covid-19, according to statement released by the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia on Monday.

Santwon Antonio Davis, 35, of Atlanta, falsely claimed to have contracted the virus and submitted a falsified medical record to his employer, the statement reads.

“In concern for its employees and customers, the corporation closed its facility for cleaning and paid its employees during the shutdown,” it continues.

That cost the corporation more than $100,000 and forced the unnecessary quarantine of several other employees, according to the US attorney's office.

“The defendant caused unnecessary economic loss to his employer and distress to his coworkers and their families,” said US Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “We will take quick action through the Georgia COVID-19 Task Force to put a stop to Coronavirus-related fraud schemes.”

During the Covid-19 fraud investigation, agents uncovered a previous incident in which Davis submitted fraudulent paperwork to obtain bereavement benefits from his employer for the death of his child -- a child that didn’t exist. Additionally, while on pretrial release in the original Covid-19 case against him, Davis submitted a mortgage application with numerous fraudulent statements, including a falsified earnings and employment history, the statement reads. The mortgage company discovered the fraud, in part, after seeing the news stories related to his original coronavirus charge.

Davis pleaded guilty to falsely representing he had Covid-19 and also to other fraud offenses that were uncovered during the investigation.

His case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of the Inspector General. 

CNN is attempting to determine whether Davis has legal representation. His sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

Read our previous coverage of this story here.