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The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

Rollout issues dampen Covid-19 vaccine optimism

What you need to know

  • New Year’s Eve celebrations across the globe will be different, downscaled or canceled due to Covid-19 precautions.
  • The US reported a record Covid-19 death toll for a second straight day. The CDC’s ensemble forecast now projects there will be up to 424,000 US deaths by Jan. 23.
  • The new Covid-19 variant, first identified in the UK, has been found in Southern California and Colorado.

Our live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has ended for the day.

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US hits record number of Covid-19 hospitalizations

The United States reported 125,379 current Covid-19 hospitalizations on Thursday, setting a new record high since the pandemic began, according to the Covid Tracking Project (CTP).

This is the 13th consecutive day that the US has remained above 100,000 current hospitalizations. 

The highest hospitalization numbers, according to CTP data, are:

  • Dec. 31: 125,379 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 30: 125,220 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 29: 124,686 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 28: 121,235 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 24: 120,151 people hospitalized
  • Dec. 23: 119,463 people hospitalized

UK and South African Covid-19 variant are "warning shots," vaccine expert says

Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccines advisory committee, called the new coronavirus variants discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa “warning shots,” saying scientists need to be better at sequencing these viruses and identifying mutations.

Offit explained that the coronavirus is an RNA virus, meaning it is expected that it will mutate and create variants. For example, other RNA viruses like influenza and measles also mutate.

He said the difference between these two other well-known RNA viruses is that influenza changes so much within 12 months that the vaccine from the previous year doesn’t offer protection. Unlike influenza, the measles virus has never mutated away from the vaccine.

“We need to really pay attention to this – the UK variant and South African variants are warning shots,” he said.

Offit said it’s important to catch any Covid-19 mutations early so that scientists can quickly determine if the vaccine is still offering protection. He said it is too early to tell if coronavirus will behave like either the influenza or measles viruses.

“When we have identified these variants, we need to – within a week, and we can do that quickly determine whether or not the virus has drifted away from recognition by the vaccine, because that would be a problem,” Offit said.

He added that while the new variants are believed to be more contagious, they are still spread the same way, which means social distancing and masks still work.

“It’s contagious in the same manner that the non-variant strain is, which is to say it’s spread by small droplets so masking and social distancing still works, but were this to mutate away from the vaccine, that would be a problem,” he said.

Record day of Covid-19 deaths in Los Angeles

The ongoing Covid-19 surge is pushing all hospitals in Los Angeles, California, to the “brink of catastrophe,” L.A. County Department of Health Services (DHS) Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said during a news conference on Thursday.

Some DHS primary care clinics have had to close or reduce their hours because the county’s hospitals are “so incredibly taxed,” Ghaly said.

Over 700 nurses have been reassigned to fulfill duties within the inpatient units, the emergency department, as well as the quarantine and isolation beds provided by DHS.

“We are in the midst of a disaster,” said Cathy Chidester, the director of Emergency Medical Services Agency.

The amount of oxygen required for each coronavirus patient is causing extreme pressure on the hospital, Chidester said. They are also running out of ambulances and response times to 911 calls are getting longer and longer, she said. 

Chidester also added that a lot of these hospitals are older and not intended to house this many patients at one time.

All types of health care staff are being utilized and the county is requesting additional help from the state. Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and teams from the US Department of Defense have been deployed in the county.

Supreme Court chief justice praises "unsung heroes" of pandemic in annual report

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives to the Senate chamber for impeachment proceedings at the U.S. Capitol on January 16, in Washington.

Chief Justice John Roberts sidestepped the roiling controversy over election results on Thursday instead using his annual report to recall the nation’s early history combating pandemics and to praise the “unsung heroes” in the judicial branch as they confronted Covid-19.

Roberts’ report reflects a clear desire to keep the court and its work out of the headlines at a fraught time while carefully and deliberately ignoring attacks from President Trump, who recently tweeted that the Supreme Court has been “totally incompetent and weak” for failing to act on his erroneous claims of massive election fraud.

Trump and his allies have suffered blistering losses in the courts, but continue to petition for the justices to overrule election results. This week, the Trump campaign launched two appeals targeting returns in battleground state of Wisconsin, even though the justices have sent a clear signal that they are uninterested in attempts to overturn the election.

Roberts, who submits an annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, chose to begin his 2021 edition by describing how more than 200 years ago John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, traveled the country during a deadly spread of the flu. 

In 1790, Jay wrote from Connecticut that “almost every Family here is down with the Influenza” and later told his wife that “the Whole Country has been sick,” including President George Washington. 

Three years later it was Jay who had to adjourn the court due to the yellow fever epidemic that killed 5,000 of Philadelphia’s 50,000 residents. In 1918, the court was once again closed with an outbreak of the influenza pandemic.

Roberts said that advancements in medicine have diminished pandemic threats — until now.

“For the past ten months, it has been all hands on deck for the courts, as our branch of government confronted the COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote.

He noted that while most courts worked remotely, they managed to hold oral arguments by teleconference, made video and audio conferences available for certain criminal proceedings and carried out critical court functions “from their home offices – or their kitchen tables.”

He said that courts in Michigan and Florida held drive-thru naturalization ceremonies, while San Francisco courts held proceedings outdoors when possible. 

Roberts’ message is a departure from last year, when he said Americans in the modern era have come to “take democracy for granted,” and lamented that civic education has “fallen by the wayside.”

Booze makers won't face hefty fine for helping out during pandemic

Distilleries that helped out in the beginning of the pandemic by making alcohol-based hand sanitizer won’t have to pay a hefty fee the government charged them this week by mistake. 

When hand sanitizer was in short supply in March, hundreds of distilleries jumped in and made it themselves. 

To do so, they had to register as drug makers, which have to pay user fees every year to the government. Earlier this week the US Food and Drug Administration, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, charged each of the distilleries a $15,000 fine, according to a senior HHS official. 

HHS rescinded that fine on Thursday.

“Small businesses who stepped up to fight COVID-19 should be applauded by their government, not taxed for doing so. I’m pleased to announce we have directed FDA to cease enforcement of these arbitrary, surprise user fees. Happy New Year, distilleries, and cheers to you for helping keep us safe!” Brian Harrison, HHS chief of staff, said in a statement. 

Harrison said the distilleries were charged “by mistake” and that the fees were not cleared by HHS leadership. 

“Many of these are rather small business, craft distilleries, and their business and livelihoods were damaged when restaurants closed down,” Harrison said. “But they jumped into the fray and joined the fight against Covid. It was nothing short of heroic. They are American heroes.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong last name for Brian Harrison, HHS chief of staff.

Wisconsin pharmacist removed vials of Moderna vaccine twice over the course of 2 days

Aurora Health Care Medical Group said the person who took the vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine from the refrigerator was a pharmacist for the hospital. 

The president of the medical group, Dr. Jeff Bahr, said during a news conference on Thursday that the vials of the vaccine were removed twice from the refrigerator over the course of two days. 

He said that a pharmacy tech found the 57 vials in the early morning hours on Dec. 26, and returned them to the refrigerator before reporting the incident. Hospital officials spoke to the now-former pharmacist who said it was an inadvertent error while trying to get other items from the refrigerator. 

“Based on information available, [we] determined that the vaccine was still able to be administered on the morning of Dec. 26, given the 12-hour period of viability after removal of refrigeration,” Bahr said today.

He told reporters that they were able to vaccinate 57 individuals before having to discard the rest of the doses due to them having been rendered ineffective. 

During the course of the internal investigation, Bahr said the former pharmacist admitted to officials on Wednesday to removing the vaccines on purpose. The pharmacist also said the vaccines were removed for a period of time in the overnight hours of Dec. 24 and 25 and then returned to the refrigerator. He is no longer employed at the hospital. 

Bahr said that the 57 vaccinations that were given on Dec. 26 are now either less effective or ineffective, based on the new information provided by the pharmacist. He said that all individuals were notified and that based on conversations with Moderna, the vaccine does not pose any harm to those who received it. 

He said that they are partnering with Moderna and the Food and Drug Administration to figure out a strategy for those who received the vaccine on Dec. 26.

Some context: Grafton Police said they arrested the former pharmacist and charged him with three felonies. Police said in the news release that he “intentionally removed the vaccine knowing that if it was not properly stored it would be ineffective.”

The police are working with the FBI and FDA on the investigation.

CNN has reached out to the FBI Milwaukee for a comment.

Covid-19 vaccine is safe for those with food and drug allergies, allergist group says

A pharmacist dilutes the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine while preparing it to administer to staff and residents at the Goodwin House Bailey's Crossroads, a senior living community in Falls Church, Virginia, on December 30.

Most people with common allergies can safely get the coronavirus vaccine, allergists said Thursday.

“Patients with severe allergies to foods, oral drugs, latex, or venom can safely receive the Covid-19 vaccines,” Dr. Aleena Banerji, clinical director of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues wrote.

The two ingredients in both the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine that are mostly likely to cause allergic reaction are polyethylene glycol and polysorbate, they said. But people can easily be watched and treated for such allergic reactions, which are rare, they noted.

“As allergists, we want to encourage vaccination by reassuring the public that both FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe,” Banerji said in a statement. “Our guidelines are built upon the recommendations of U.S. regulatory agencies and provide clear steps to the medical community on how to safely administer both doses of the vaccine in individuals with allergic histories.” 

The report also offers guidance as to how physicians can make sure patients are informed about the safety of the vaccine, but also prepared for adverse reactions.

Patients who have an adverse reaction to the vaccine should “have the requisite information and support needed to decide if and how to receive the second dose,” they said. There is not much data yet on what happens to people who get a second dose of vaccine after suffering an allergic reaction to the first.

“To provide reassurance and support during widespread vaccination across America, allergists must offer clear guidance to patients based on the best information available,” they wrote in in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

Allergists are advised by the report to prepare to keep people with severe allergies informed and supported throughout the process of getting a Covid-19 vaccine. 

Things won't change at midnight. Here are some tips to managing stress and anxiety in 2021.

Even though 2020 is ending in a few hours, things won’t change overnight. For many people this year has been filled with challenges and loss, while others have found silver linings.

Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Georgetown University, said there are things you can do to manage the stress and anxiety of the pandemic as we enter the new year.

Here are some tips:

Understand that grief can co-exist with silver linings

From realizing the importance of family, to creating a closer connection with your loved ones or accomplishing things you never previously had time to do, some people were able to find silver linings in 2020. But, at the risk of being insensitive to other people who are grieving losses, Bonior said there is a way for both of those to exist at the same time.

“We can also be grateful and also mourn losses at the same time. I think that’s truly engaging with life,” she said. “That’s the ability to say there are bright spots here, but there’s also darkness.”

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help

“If you have experienced severe loss, please reach out. There are people who care. There are people who love you,” Bonior said, adding that no matter the size of your loss, it’s important to reach out for support.

If you’re spending the holidays alone, thank you

For the first time, many people are spending the holiday season alone and away from their families, but Bonior said it’s an action that is saving lives.

“It hurts. There’s no substitute for being away from family when you don’t want to be,” she said. “And yet hopefully when we’re all out of this, you can have pride in the fact that you did your effort and keep people from dying.”

Listen to your kids

As parents, we all want to say the perfect thing, but sometimes all our kids need is someone who listens to how they are feeling.

Bonior said its important to hear what their concerns are, validate their feelings and help them understand that there are baby steps you can take moving forward.

Watch Bonior’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:


Los Angeles mayor: "We are still going to have our toughest and darkest days"

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

As Los Angeles County continues to experience a surge of coronavirus cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the situation dire and “what we all feared.” 

On Wednesday, Los Angeles County surpassed a total of 10,000 coronavirus deaths and reported 274 new deaths, the highest number of deaths in a single day. One person is dying from the virus every 10 minutes, according to the county. 

He urged people to make their New Year’s resolution to stay home to stop the spread of the virus.

While the new coronavirus variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, has not yet been reported in Los Angeles, Garcetti said it’s “reasonable to assume someone has it” in the city.

Watch Mayor Garcetti’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper below:


Dow and S&P 500 end 2020 at record highs despite pandemic challenges

The Dow and the S&P 500 started and ended this unprecedented year at all-time highs — with a lot of volatility along the way.

All three major indexes ended Thursday, the final trading day of the year, higher.

Here’s where things closed today:

  • The Dow closed 0.7%, or 197 points, higher.
  • The broader S&P 500 rose 0.6%.
  • The Nasdaq Composite climbed 0.1%, falling just short of its Monday record.

While the economy is nowhere near its pre-pandemic strength, the stock market rally tells a different story. All three benchmarks ended the year with gains for a second year in a row. 

Here’s a look at the year:

  • The Dow climbed 7.3% this year.
  • The S&P rose 16.3%.
  • For the Nasdaq, it was best year since 2009 with a 43.6% gain.

At the start of 2020, investors worried the market might have less tailwind as the Fed stopped cutting interest rates and the economic jolt from President Trump’s tax cuts ran out.

But in the months that followed, as the economic pain from the pandemic continued, the stock market recovered faster than many expected, helped greatly by unprecedented intervention from the Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates and launched a slew of lending facilities to backstop markets and the economy.

Researchers don't know if South African Covid-19 variant poses a challenge to the vaccine, virologist says

A mutation of the novel coronavirus found in South Africa is spreading quickly, and researchers don’t know if it poses a challenge to the vaccine, according to the scientist who discovered the variation. 

“At the moment our assumption is that the vaccine will be effective,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. “Potentially it could effect vaccine efficacy, but it has to be tested appropriately.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s Today Show on Thursday that a different variant of the virus, first identified in the UK, “does not seem to evade the protection that’s afforded by vaccines that are currently being used.”

De Oliveira said the South African mutation does not appear to cause more severe disease, but it is spreading fast. 

“The more we study this variant, the more worried we get,” said de Oliveira who is a virologist and an affiliate professor of global health at the University of Washington. “Our main worry is just the speed of transmission and how this variant has dominated so quickly.” 

He said out of samples taken from some 400 people with Covid-19 who were treated at over 100 different clinics in South Africa since mid-November, 350 had this new variant. That’s 90% of the samples.

Some context: The South African variant has been found in seven other countries: the UK, Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Australia, Zambia and France.

The variant has 22 significant changes from previous strains of the coronavirus, an unusually high number of mutations. The UK strain only has 17 mutations. Several of the mutations are related to the spike proteins found on top of the virus, which is the target for antibodies generated by the vaccines. 

“What concerns us most is that three of those mutations are in the receptor binding domain, and that’s the most important region of the virus, and a main target of antibodies generated by the immune system and the vaccines,” he said. 

Pope Francis praises health care workers, teachers and public servants in New Year's Eve address

Pope Francis praised the work of health care professionals, teachers and public servants during the coronavirus pandemic in his New Year’s Eve address, according to a message from the Pope read by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re on Thursday.

The Pope praised the “daily commitment” of people who have tried to make the weight of the pandemic “more bearable” for others.

“Healthcare workers – doctors, nurses, volunteers ­– are at the forefront, and for this they are always in our prayers and deserve our gratitude,” the Pope wrote in the homily. 

“We are thinking in particular of school administrators and teachers, who play an essential role in social life and who have to face a very complex situation,” he added. 

The Pope also said that public servants who prioritized the neediest also deserved thanks. 

“We also think with gratitude of the public administrators who know how to value all the good resources present in the city and in the territory, who are detached from private interests and also from those of their party, who truly seek the good of all, starting from the most disadvantaged,” he wrote in the homily.

Pope Francis did not lead the Vatican’s New Year’s Eve celebration due to sciatic pain, according to a statement from the Vatican. While it is the first time the Pope has missed New Year’s Eve or Christmas celebrations, it is not the first time he has skipped an event. 

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions reach new highs in California

Hospital doctors and nurses treat Covid-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing on the West Oeste at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday, December 29 in Torrence, California.

As Covid-19 infections run rampant throughout much of California, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions continue to reach new highs.

Covid-19 hospitalizations in California have increased every day since Nov. 7.

Currently, at least 21,449 Covid-19 patients are in hospital beds throughout the state, with more than 4,500 of those in ICU.

Doctors in Santa Clara are treating some critically ill patients in the emergency room, because there’s just no room in ICU. 

“Often, the only time we can move someone is when a Covid patient dies,” Dr. Marco Randazzo, an emergency room physician, said in a news conference Thursday.

“Despite these conditions, we come to work to do our part,” Randazzo added, pleading with residents to sacrifice this New Year’s Eve “for a lifetime of other experiences yet to come.”

The latest numbers: California added at least 27,237 new cases Thursday, along with 428 more deaths. More than 2.2 million Californians have been infected to date, and more than 25,000 of those have died as a result.

“What we are seeing now, is not normal,” Dr. Ahmad Kamal of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center said. “We are clearly not out of the woods, we are in the thick of the woods.”

WHO lists Pfizer vaccine for emergency use

Dave Lacknauth, Executive Director of Pharmacy Services, Broward Health Medical Center, shows off a bottle containing the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine on December 17, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

The World Health Organization on Thursday listed Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, the organization announced in a statement.

This designation “opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine,” WHO said. “It also enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need.”

WHO conducted its own assessment of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The emergency use listing means that Pfizer will continue to generate data on the vaccine and share it with WHO.

A WHO advisory board will meet on Jan. 5 to outline recommendations for the distribution of the vaccine to populations.

GOP Sen. David Perdue will quarantine ahead of next week's Georgia Senate runoff election

Sen. David Perdue and his wife, Bonnie, address the crowd during a campaign rally at Peachtree Dekalb Airport on December 14, in Atlanta.

GOP Georgia Sen. David Perdue announced he will quarantine ahead of the key Georgia Senate runoff election after coming “into close contact with someone on the campaign who tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a statement from his campaign.

The statement said both Perdue and his wife tested negative today, but will quarantine in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. The statement added that he will also follow his doctor’s recommendations.

Control of the Senate chamber hinges on next week’s Jan. 5 match-ups.

If Democrats win both races, the Senate makeup would be 50-50, positioning Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to serve as the tie-breaking vote and setting up an easier path for President-elect Joe Biden to advance the agenda he promoted during his campaign.

Perdue and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler are facing off against Democratic rivals Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

CNN’s Kyung Lah reports. Watch below:


Antigen testing far less accurate than PCR testing, CDC study finds

Rapid antigen tests for Covid-19 are less accurate than RT-PCR tests for Covid-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday – often even less accurate than advertised. 

The fast tests may be missing many cases of infection, the CDC-led team said. And they are also often telling people they are infected when, in fact, they are not. 

Antigen tests are generally cheaper than polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests, and can return results in as little as 15 minutes. Multiple tests in both categories have gotten Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, but a study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that antigen tests were not only less accurate than PCR tests, but less accurate than what was reported when the FDA gave emergency authorization.

“Among people reporting COVID-19 symptoms at the time the samples were collected, the Sofia antigen test was less accurate than reported in the FDA Emergency Use Authorization,” the CDC-led team wrote. Antigen testing in this study had a sensitivity rate of 80%, compared to a previously reported 97%.

“For people who were asymptomatic at the time samples were collected, the accuracy was significantly lower – only 41% of RT-PCR-positive samples were also positive by antigen test and, in this population, the majority of positive antigen tests were ‘false positives,’ which is when someone tests positive but does not have the virus.”

The researchers investigated the tests at two Wisconsin universities by administering Quidel’s Sofia antigen test and a PCR test to both symptomatic and asymptomatic participants. Antigen tests quickly seek out evidence of the virus, which PCR tests take longer but work by amplifying genetic material from the virus.

“The Sofia rapid antigen test was less accurate than RT-PCR for detecting SARS-CoV-2 infections in students and faculty tested at two universities in Wisconsin,” the researchers wrote. “The antigen test accuracy was lowest among study participants not showing symptoms (asymptomatic),” they added.

Investigators said that antigen tests may still be valuable in tracking infection because they are cheaper and quicker, and may be more accessible than PCR tests. But results from antigen tests should be paired with more accurate testing.

“To account for reduced test accuracy of antigen tests, CDC recommends considering confirmatory testing with an FDA-authorized molecular test, such as RT-PCR, following negative antigen test results in people who have COVID-19 symptoms, and following positive antigen test results in asymptomatic people,” said researchers.

San Francisco extends stay-at-home order and mandatory travel quarantine amid Covid-19 surge

A pedestrian crosses the street in San Francisco on December 29.

The city and county of San Francisco will be extending its stay-at-home order and mandatory 10-day quarantine requirement amid the ongoing coronavirus surge, officials announced in a news release on Thursday.

While the state’s regional stay-at-home order for the Bay Area is set to expire on Jan. 8, San Francisco announced that it does not expect the region to meet the state’s threshold of an intensive care unit bed capacity above 15%.

The current intensive care unit bed capacity for the Bay Area is 7.5%, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. 

 “The extension to the travel quarantine order responds to the significant prevalence of the coronavirus throughout the state and country as well as the need to reduce the exposure and isolate people who may be contagious in order to protect our region’s ability to provide intensive care for critically ill patients,” the news release stated. “The order also protects against the spread of a new variant of the virus detected recently in the United Kingdom, Colorado, and California.”

Anyone visiting, moving to, or returning to San Francisco from anywhere outside the Bay Area is required to quarantine for 10 days. The health order also strongly discourages any non-essential travel within the 10-county Bay Area region. 

According to the release, the health orders appear to have slowed the infections and more than 400 deaths may have been prevented.  

More details: The extension of both health orders will continue until the Bay Area Region is no longer subject to the state’s regional stay at home order. Both health orders, implemented on Dec. 17, were set to expire on Jan. 4.

San Francisco is one of the most densely populated counties in the nation.

UK prime minister: "End of the journey" nearing as new coronavirus vaccines bring hope for 2021

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his New Year's address on December 31.

Speaking during his New Year’s address, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed confidence about 2021, noting that while there is still work to be done to overcome the pandemic, new coronavirus vaccines have brought hope and certainty to the country. 

“We have a hard struggle still ahead of us for weeks and months, because we face a new variant of the disease that requires a new vigilance. But as the sun rises tomorrow on 2021, we have the certainty of those vaccines,” Johnson said. 

“We can see that illuminated sign that marks the end of the journey, and even more important, we can see with growing clarity how we are going to get there,” he added. 

The prime minister acknowledged that the last year has been characterized by “grimness” and expressed regret that families across the country “lost too many loved ones before their time,” but stressed that the government’s mass vaccination program is “changing the odds in favor of humanity and against Covid.”

“I believe 2021 is, above all, the year when we will eventually do those everyday things that now seem lost in the past, bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia – going to the pub, concerts, theaters, restaurants, or simply holding hands with our loved ones in the normal way,” Johnson said. 

The prime minister’s message comes as England prepares for tougher coronavirus regulations to be come into force across the country, with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reaching record highs and pressure on the National Health Service  mounting.

Sen. Graham calls for stand-alone vote on $2,000 stimulus checks in new Congress

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham presides over a hearing on Capitol Hill on November 17 in Washington, DC.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Trump, said Thursday morning that he would like a stand-alone vote on $2,000 stimulus checks in the new session of Congress, which begins this Sunday.

“I’d like a stand-alone vote in the new Congress on the $2,000 check,” Graham said in an interview on Fox News, “We have seven Republicans who already said they would vote for it, we need five more, I think if we had the vote we would get there.”

Graham also called for stand-alone votes on the two other issues Trump has been pushing, a full repeal of online liability protections and an investigation into voter fraud. 

“I am urging Sen. McConnell to give us standalone votes in the new Congress, after Jan. 3rd on all three measures,” the South Carolina senator said.

Graham is expecting to be the top Republican on the Budget Committee next year, CNN’s Ted Barrett notes.

Some background: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday blasted the House bill increasing stimulus payments to $2,000, arguing that giving $2,000 checks to high earning households who haven’t faced job loss is “socialism for rich people”

145 Costco employees test positive for Covid-19 in Washington state

A Covid-19 outbreak has been confirmed at a Costco store in Washington state.

According to a news release from the Yakima Health District, 145 Costco employees have tested positive for Covid-19. Employees who have tested positive have completed their quarantine or isolation period, the release said.

“As Costco continues its site wide testing, we anticipate the number of cases to continue to go up over the next few days as results are received,” Melissa Sixberry, director of Disease Control 3 at Yakima Health, said in the release. 

The release said that based on the number of cases and timeline, the evidence shows that the increase in cases “mimics the type of activity that happens after some sort of superspreader event.” 

“Costco will continue to provide on-going site-wide testing for their employees moving forward to monitor the outbreak,” the release said.

The Yakima Health District said it has not recommended closure for any business in the area, including Costco, due to the Covid-19 infections. 

Costco has required face coverings for all members, guests and employees other than those with medical conditions since May. According to a letter from their CEO, the policy was updated in November to require face coverings for anyone in the store over the age of 2. 

“Our goal is to continue to provide a safe shopping environment for our members and guests, and to provide a safe work environment for our employees,” Costco CEO Craig Jelinek said in a letter posted on the company’s website. 

Shorter quarantines carry some risk for further Covid-19 spread, CDC says

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is seen in Atlanta on December 10.

Earlier this month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance to shorten the 14-day Covid-19 quarantine to seven to 10 days. However, in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC concludes that this move “carries a risk” to further spread the virus, particularly the risk posed by household contacts.

Interim data from a CDC-supported study of household transmission of Covid-19, showed that among 185 people who lived in households with someone who was sick with Covid-19, 109 of them ended up getting Covid-19 themselves.

Of those 109 people, 76% tested positive within seven days after the person they were living with first felt sick, and 86% tested positive within 10 days after the person they were living with first felt sick. This shows that there is a potential for transmission of the virus from household contacts released from quarantine before 14 days, according to the report.

Household contacts who tested negative for the virus and were without symptoms through day seven had an 81% chance of remaining symptom free and testing negative through day 14.

But that means one in five people still became symptomatic or received a positive Covid-19, suggesting that “reducing quarantine to less than 14 days might decrease but not eliminate the risk for spreading” the virus, the report said.

France confirms first case of new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa

A case of the new coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa in mid-December has been identified in France, the French health ministry confirmed Thursday. 

According to a statement, a man living in the area of Haut-Rhin, near the border with Switzerland, tested positive for the new variant of coronavirus “after a stay in South Africa, and following symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 that appeared a few days after his return.”

The health ministry has confirmed that the patient “immediately isolated himself at home” after experiencing symptoms and “has now recovered and is in good health.”

French health authorities proceeded to search for people who may have come into prolonged contact with the patient, but later confirmed that “none were identified,” the health ministry added. 

Following the identification of a new variant of coronavirus in South Africa, the French government announced that laboratories would be required to send all positive coronavirus test results from residents who have recently returned from South Africa to the French National Research Center. 

“A system for the detection and surveillance of possible cases of infection or carrier of the variant has been set up,” the French health ministry added.