While You Were Sleeping: Coronavirus updates for December 8

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UK vaccine distribution. British health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval.

The first shot was given to Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, at University Hospital Coventry, one of several hospitals around the country that are handling the initial phase of the program on what has been dubbed “V-Day.”

“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” said the former jewelry shop assistant, who wore a surgical mask and a blue Merry Christmas T-shirt decorated with a cartoon penguin wearing a Santa hat and red scarf. “It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

The first 800,000 doses are going to people over 80 who are either hospitalized or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers. Others will have to wait their turn.

Kansas hospital runs out of space. The radiology technician slept in an RV in the parking lot of his rural Kansas hospital for more than a week because his co-workers were out sick with COVID-19 and no one else was available to take X-rays.

A doctor and physician assistant tested positive on the same day in November, briefly leaving the hospital without anyone who could write prescriptions or oversee patient care. The hospital is full, but diverting patients isn’t an option because surrounding medical centers are overwhelmed.

The situation at Rush County Memorial Hospital in La Crosse illustrates the depths of the COVID-19 crisis in rural America at a time when the virus is killing more than 2,000 people a day and inundating hospitals.

The virus is sidelining nurses, doctors and medical staff nationwide, but the problem is particularly dire in rural communities like La Crosse because they don’t have much of a bullpen – or many places to send patients with regional hospitals full.

Top epidemiologist warns of a “dark” mid-January. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, joined New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for a coronavirus briefing Monday as hospitals across the state were ordered to add 25% more beds to handle growing numbers of coronavirus patients.

Cuomo and public health experts expect hospitalization rates to continue rising until at least mid-January.

“You’d expect the effect of the Thanksgiving surge would probably be another week or a week-and-a-half from now,” said Dr. Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, who joined Cuomo’s briefing by livestream Monday.

The health director said that increased viral spread around the holidays could make for a “dark” period of time in mid-January.

Years of research behind COVID-19 vaccines. How could scientists race out COVID-19 vaccines so fast without cutting corners? A head start helped — over a decade of behind-the-scenes research that had new vaccine technology poised for a challenge just as the coronavirus erupted.

“The speed is a reflection of years of work that went before,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press. “That’s what the public has to understand.”

Creating vaccines and having results from rigorous studies less than a year after the world discovered a never-before-seen disease is incredible, cutting years off normal development. But the two U.S. frontrunners are made in a way that promises speedier development may become the norm — especially if they prove to work long-term as well as early testing suggests.

“Abject giddiness,” is how Dr. C. Buddy Creech, a Vanderbilt University vaccine expert, described scientists’ reactions when separate studies showed the two candidates were about 95% effective.

“I think we enter into a golden age of vaccinology by having these types of new technologies,” Creech said at a briefing of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Both shots — one made by Pfizer and BioNTech, the other by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health — are so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines, a brand-new technology. U.S. regulators are set to decide this month whether to allow emergency use, paving the way for rationed shots that will start with health workers and nursing home residents.

Billions in company and government funding certainly sped up vaccine development — and the unfortunately huge number of infections meant scientists didn’t have to wait long to learn the shots appeared to be working.

But long before COVID-19 was on the radar, the groundwork was laid in large part by two different streams of research, one at the NIH and the other at the University of Pennsylvania — and because scientists had learned a bit about other coronaviruses from prior SARS and MERS outbreaks.

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