The US recorded another 1,389 deaths from Covid-19 on Sunday, pushing the toll closer to 300,000 as hospitalisations continued to hit new heights. There was a ray of hope on Monday morning, however, as the first vaccinations were carried out using the Food and Drug Administration-approved Pfizer vaccine.
“I feel hopeful today. Relieved,” said critical case nurse Sandra Lindsay after getting a shot at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York.
Watching via video, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “This is the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s a long tunnel.”
From Washington, Donald Trump tweeted: “First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!”
Earlier, responding to a New York Times report that senior administration staffers would be among those vaccinated first, Trump rowed back, tweeting: “People working in the White House should receive the vaccine somewhat later in the programme, unless specifically necessary. I have asked that this adjustment be made.”
According to Johns Hopkins University, the US death toll stood at 298,949 out of a caseload of 16,242,953, itself up by 190,920 on Sunday. Deaths were down from a daily peak of more than 3,000 last week but according to the Covid Tracking Project 109,331 people were hospitalised, a record. A record 21,231 people were in intensive care.
States across the US are under increasing strain, healthcare systems creaking and economies, already battered, close to damaging collapse.
In California, where large parts of the state are under lockdown until after Christmas, Alan Auerbach, director of the Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Guardian an eventual recovery could look more like a “K” than a “V”, as high earners thrive and the most vulnerable plunge.
“We have lacked a coherent national strategy for dealing with the pandemic and 2021 is probably going to be a pretty tough year for California,” he said.
In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators was due to unveil a $908bn stimulus package, though it was reported to have little chance of success. Agreement between House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell remains elusive.
Though the vaccination effort just beginning will be the biggest public health push in US history, it will take some time for the vaccine to reach most of the population. On Monday, health secretary Alex Azar told NBC the vaccine will be available to the broader public “by late February going into March”. By that time, he said, vaccine distribution will be “like a flu vaccination campaign” at local pharmacies.
That timeline is ambitious, especially in light of news that the administration did not expand its order for the Pfizer vaccination, sparking concerns there will be a shortage after initial doses. Vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which is expected to be approved by the FDA for emergency use this week, require two doses.
According to the Times, the Trump administration is “rushing to roll out a $250m public education campaign to encourage Americans to take the coronavirus vaccine”. Former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W Bush are among famous names who have said they are willing to be vaccinated in public and an ABC News poll released on Monday said 80% of respondents said they would take the vaccine.
Speaking to Fox News Sunday, however, Dr Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser to the federal effort to speed vaccine development, said he was “very concerned” about skepticism about the vaccine in some circles.
“Unfortunately ... there’s been a confusion between how thorough and scientific and factual the work that has been done is, and the perception that people are thinking that we cut corners,” Slaoui said. “I can guarantee you that no such things have happened, that we follow the science.”
Trump, who recovered from Covid-19 in October, said he would not initially be taking the shot and was reversing an administration directive to vaccinate top officials while public distribution is limited to frontline health workers and people in nursing homes and long-term care.
Trump made the announcement hours after his administration confirmed that senior officials, including some aides who work in close proximity to Trump and Mike Pence, would be offered vaccines as soon as this week.
“I am not scheduled to take the vaccine,” Trump tweeted, “but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time.”
It was not immediately clear what effect Trump’s tweet would have on efforts to protect top leadership, two people briefed on the matter told the Associated Press.
News that White House staff would receive the vaccine early drew criticism on social media. Trump and his aides have flouted Covid-19 guidelines issued by his own administration, including hosting large holiday parties with maskless attendees this month.
Officials said earlier on Sunday doses of the Pfizer vaccine would be made available to those who work in close quarters with the nation’s leaders, to prevent Covid-19 spreading in the White House and other critical facilities. The move would be consistent with the rollout of rapid testing machines, which were reserved to protect the White House and other facilities.
According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is not yet enough information to determine whether those who have had Covid-19 should also get the vaccine.
Pence has not come down with the virus, and his aides have been discussing when and how he should receive the shot. Aides to the president-elect, Joe Biden, have been discussing how he should receive the vaccine and working to establish plans to boost virus safeguards in the West Wing.