U.S. wants faster vaccinations as pandemic worsens, job market suffers


FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker checks on patients inside an oxygen tent outside the emergency room at the Community Hospital of Huntington Park during a surge in positive coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Huntington Park, California, U.S. December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

(Reuters) -Federal, state and local officials sought to speed up slow-moving vaccinations on Thursday, a day after a record 4,000 Americans died and as employment statistics showed the pandemic and accompanying government lockdowns had slammed the job market.

As of Thursday roughly 6 million people across the United States had been given the first of two shots, despite the nationwide distribution of more than 21 million doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That number falls far short of the 20 million vaccinations the U.S. government had vowed to administer by the end of 2020 as the pandemic spirals to record numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

A closely watched Labor Department report set for release on Friday was expected to show that the U.S. economy in December created the fewest jobs since the outbreak of the pandemic in March and may have even shed workers.

More than 250,000 new infections were reported on Wednesday and COVID-19 hospitalizations stood at 132,051, according to a Reuters tally, setting a record for the fourth day in a row as of late Wednesday night.

The latest surge has been compounded by the spread of a new, more infectious coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom that has now been found in at least eight U.S. states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut and New York.

Pennsylvania on Thursday announced the first confirmed case of the variant, an individual in Dauphin County who tested positive after known international exposure.

The variant was also identified in Texas on Thursday, contracted by a Harris County resident with no history of travel, according to state health officials.

RAMPING UP VACCINATIONS

With the pressure on healthcare systems growing by the day, political leaders announced steps to speed the sluggish pace of inoculations.

On Wednesday, top health officials announced plans to start distributing COVID-19 vaccines through pharmacies around the country earlier than expected this week as states have struggled to administer supplies they have received.

The partnership with 19 pharmacy chains will eventually allow the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed program to deliver vaccines to as many as 40,000 locations around the country, U.S. officials said at a news conference on Wednesday.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also told governors to not let vaccines go unused due to policies requiring healthcare workers get the shots first.

If states are struggling to distribute the vaccine, "then by all means you want to be opening up to people 70 and over or 65 and over," he said.

Public health officials say that about 25 percent of healthcare workers are declining the vaccine.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have bickered over the best vaccination plan in the state, which has recorded more than 38,000 COVID-19 deaths, by far the most of any U.S. state.

On Thursday, de Blasio sharply criticized Cuomo for shutting down the mayor's plan to start vaccinating a second group of people in the state, which includes people 75 or older and frontline "essential" workers.

De Blasio said New York City's public hospitals have thousands of available shots due in part to healthcare workers declining vaccinations. Cuomo argues that all healthcare workers should be vaccinated first before the state opens up inoculations to other residents.

In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy said on Wednesday that vaccinations are being offered to police, firefighters and other essential workers.

"It is not necessary to vaccinate all individuals in one phase before moving on to the next phase," Judy Persichilli, the state's health commissioner, said at a news briefing alongside the governor.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Barbara Goldberg and Michael Erman in New York, Lucia Mutikani in Washington, Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Berkot, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

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