Americans Wait in Line for Hours for COVID-19 Tests as Holidays Approach

With coronavirus cases surging across the U.S., more people who want to travel to be with family for the Thanksgiving holiday are getting tested for the virus.  Lines are so long now that people wait for hours to be swabbed, as Mariama Diallo reports.

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Retailers Already Fear US Holiday ‘Shipageddon’; Now Here Come Vaccines

Deliveries of holiday gifts purchased online at major retailers could get delayed by something far more critical — COVID-19 vaccines.Pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Moderna, as early as mid-December could begin sending inoculations to U.S. health care workers and nursing home residents.FedEx and United Parcel Service could make space for those shipments on cargo planes by bumping off packages from Amazon.com, Walmart, Target and other retailers.”FedEx is prioritizing vaccines,” company spokeswoman Bonny Harrison told Reuters.While vaccines could displace some FedEx Express air shipments, they will not affect the separate FedEx Ground network that depends on trucks and delivers the majority of the company’s holiday volume, Harrison said.FILE – An Amazon Prime logo appears on the side of a delivery van as it departs an Amazon Warehouse location, Oct. 1, 2020, in Dedham, Mass.UPS, without elaborating, said it is prepared for holiday and vaccine shipments. UPS and FedEx are transportation providers to the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine project.The additional cargo could cause problems for retailers who were already worried about a year-end “shipageddon” in the United States, where peak holiday demand and a pandemic-fueled surge in online orders of everything from food to furniture risk overwhelming delivery networks.During the peak holiday season, many more products use air versus ground transportation, said Alan Amling, distinguished fellow at the University of Tennessee’s Global Supply Chain Institute.The vaccine is “going to strain the industry, but when it comes to the trade-offs, I’ll take the vaccine,” said Amling, a former UPS executive.”It could not start at any worse time,” said Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a delivery tracking and management firm. He does not expect impatient shoppers to give the carriers a blanket pass for putting the nation’s health before their last-minute holiday gifts.”Seeing how American consumers are handling the recommendations for safety during the pandemic, they will be more upset about their Christmas online orders being delayed,” Jindel said.Retailers like Target and Best Buy launched Christmas promotions before Halloween, the earliest ever, to spread deliveries of online orders across a longer time frame.Those and other projects are designed to prevent networks from buckling when demand spikes.”This would include vaccines that may be approved for distribution during the holiday peak season,” said Mike Parra, chief executive for DHL Express Americas, a UPS and FedEx rival.Melissa Dorko, 41, and her husband are ordering holiday gifts weeks earlier than usual this year.”We are never this buttoned up,” said Dorko, a mother of three who used to be a last-minute Christmas shopper on Amazon.

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Scotland’s COVID-19 Infections Stabilize, Hospitalizations Fall

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Parliament Tuesday that the number of new COVID-19 cases has stabilized and hospitalizations are down, but the COVID-19 alert levels in the country will remain as they are.”We now have grounds for cautious optimism,” Sturgeon told lawmakers.  She said current restrictions would remain in place and unchanged until December 11.Scotland has a five-tiered alert system, with Level 0 being nearly normal and the most restrictions at Level 4. The government reviews the alerts every Tuesday.  Sturgeon said except for East Lothian, which moved from Level 3 to Level 2, the government was not proposing any changes to restrictions that currently apply to each local authority. She said recent developments in vaccines meant there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” but she stressed the importance of continuing to observe restrictions during what was likely to be a “difficult winter ahead.” The first minister said there were plans to extend asymptomatic testing, adding that the government was working with regional authorities to develop and deliver targeted geographical testing to communities in alert Level 4. Meanwhile, Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that Scotland was joining the rest of Britain in allowing a relaxation of some COVID-19 restrictions over the Christmas holiday. From December 23 to December 27, three households will be allowed to gather inside a private home, a place of worship or outdoors to observe the holiday. The first minister was quick to point out that the virus does not take time off and urged people to be cautious. 

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Kenya Doctors Threaten to Strike Over Lack of COVID Protections

Kenyan doctors are threatening to go on strike next month unless the government addresses their concerns about safety, health insurance, and staffing needs to fight COVID-19.  The threat comes after at least 10 doctors died from the virus this month.Speaking to reporters in Nairobi Tuesday, the secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, Chibanzi Mwachonda, said his members plan to go on strike because the government is not giving them medical insurance.  
 
“If these doctors are not covered, then this strike will kick off until the time that they will be covered,” Mwachonda said.
 
Kenya has lost 32 medical workers to COVID-19, at least 10 of them in the last two weeks. The deaths have angered medical workers.
 
Watende Andrew lost his younger brother to the disease. His late brother, a doctor, worked at the University of Nairobi. After seven days in the hospital, he died.
 
“I think because of other comorbidities he was in the category of severe disease, he got the best attention he could but I think still because of comorbidities he developed hypoxia with saturation which were low. Then when they were trying to intubate he passed on,” Andrew said.
 
Doctors also complain about not receiving adequate personal protective gear. The union says all their requests are met with silence.
 
Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta opened a new health facility with 100 beds for United Nations staffers and the diplomatic community.
 
Meanwhile, some Kenyans say they were turned away at health facilities and advised to take care of themselves at home.
 
Mwachonda is calling on the government to employ at least 2,350 doctors and medical workers to attend to the sick in various hospitals across the country.
 
“There is an acute shortage of doctors in this country in each and every county and our demand that each county must employ at least 50 doctors to cover for COVID and for the other services. If this is not addressed equally, we shall be on strike come on the 6th of December,” Mwachonda said.
 
The Kenya Nurses Union has also issued a 14-day strike notice. The union is demanding compensation for the families of 18 nurses who died from COVID-19 and salaries for some nurses, who have not been paid for months.
 
The head of the National Assembly Health Committee, Sabina Chege, said Kenya cannot afford to see doctors not working during this challenging period.
 
“It’s not a unique situation where doctors are feeling that they are not taken care of by the government. At what point do you say it’s optimal or enough? It can never be enough but people can try, and we can’t manage everything. Let’s look at what is the priority, what can we be able to do for now, what can wait for a month or two then we can have an agreement.  I don’t think the strike will solve anything. We’ll lose more life and nobody is safe,” Chege said.
 
Kenya has recorded 77,800 coronavirus cases and 1,400 deaths since March.
 
A parliamentary committee will meet Wednesday with county governors and other officials to discuss ways to avert the strike.
 

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Here’s How the Three COVID-19 Vaccines Compare

With pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s announcement Monday that its vaccine successfully prevented coronavirus infection, three candidates appear to be promising vital tools to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic.  Biotech firm Moderna and drug company partners Pfizer and BioNTech announced last week that their vaccines were ready to submit to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization.  They are signs of hope as the global death toll from COVID-19 nears 1.4 million people, according to Johns Hopkins University.  However, scientists caution that all they know about these vaccines is what the companies have said in press releases.  Like movie trailers, “They provide some exciting scenes but leave a lot unsaid. You have to go see the whole movie,” said Vanderbilt University infectious diseases professor William Schaffner. More data will be available in the coming weeks, when the companies take their applications to the FDA. Until then, here is how the vaccines compare, based on the limited information presented in company press releases.FILE – Biotechnology company Moderna protocol files for COVID-19 vaccinations are kept at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, Aug. 13, 2020.Efficacy All three vaccines appear extremely effective.  The FDA told companies their products would have to be better than 50% effective to get emergency approval. All three far surpassed that mark while requiring two doses for maximum effectiveness.  Pfizer and Moderna both reported about 95% efficacy in their clinical trials.  The AstraZeneca vaccine was up to 90% effective, although one dosing regimen was less effective and reached only 62%. However, the companies have not yet released all the data on how well the vaccine works in different age or ethnic groups, Schaffner notes, or for people with different medical conditions. The studies may be too small to answer those questions fully.  “The question is, effective in whom?” said Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Studies have not yet been done on children or pregnant women, Schaffner noted.  The studies also will not determine how long protection lasts.  And they will not say whether the vaccine prevents infection, or just lowers the amount of virus enough to keep a person from getting sick.  If vaccinated people still can carry and spread the virus, “you still have to maintain mask wearing and social distancing et cetera,” Schaffner said, “which will make many people grumpy.” Safety None of the vaccine companies have reported any major safety problems.  For Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, the most common side effects were sore arms lasting more than a day, fevers and fatigue. “They’re not at all what we call serious, but they’re notable,” Schaffner said. “That’s much more than you get with flu vaccine.” AstraZeneca said no serious safety problems have been identified but has not released details.  The company paused the trial twice because two study participants developed serious neurological problems.  The study’s safety board said they were coincidental and not because of the vaccine, but outside experts have not yet seen the data.  “You’d like to see all that information, and we don’t have that information,” Offit said. Availability AstraZeneca may have the most doses available early.  CEO Pascal Soriot did not specify exact numbers but said the company will have “hundreds of millions of doses on approval.” The company has agreements to produce 1.7 billion doses worldwide, including a deal with the Serum Institute of India to produce 1 billion doses mainly for low- and middle-income countries.  Pfizer says it will produce 50 million doses worldwide by the end of this year and up to 1.3 billion doses next year. Moderna aims to ship 20 million doses in the United States this year and 500 million to 1 billion doses globally in 2021. All three companies have taken the extremely unusual step of scaling up manufacturing before the results of their clinical trials were in. That means doses can start being distributed as soon as regulators give the green light.  Moderna and AstraZeneca did so with government funding. Pfizer had government purchase guarantees.Vials and medical syringe are seen in front of AstraZeneca logo in this illustration.Distribution AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the easiest to ship and store. It lasts for at least 6 months in the refrigerator.  Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines need to be frozen for long-term storage. Moderna’s lasts at least a month in the refrigerator. Pfizer’s needs special ultra-cold freezers that are not commonly available outside academic medical centers and lasts up to five days in the refrigerator.  Cost AstraZeneca’s is cheapest.  The company has pledged not to make a profit on the vaccine during the pandemic. Shots are expected to cost under $5 each, compared with around $20 to $40 for the other vaccines, according to news reports. Since governments will be the main buyers, cost will be a factor mainly in low- and middle-income countries, and with nonprofit and public-private groups who will be purchasing and distributing the vaccines.  

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Visitors to Britain Could Shorten Quarantine With Negative Test

Britain announced Tuesday that travelers from abroad could face a shorter isolation period with a negative COVID-19 test days after their arrival.Current rules require 14 days of quarantine.  Starting December 15, travelers will have the option to pay for a test after five days, and if the test comes back negative, they will be free to end their self-isolation.In Germany, officials in 16 states are looking toward next months Christmas holiday and ways to make it safer for families to gather.The states have agreed among themselves on a proposal to tighten restrictions in the weeks ahead of the holiday in order to hold down the spread of the coronavirus, and then relax the rules to allow small gatherings.Officials are due to discuss the plan with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.Here’s How the Three COVID-19 Vaccines Compare Main differences seem to be in cost, storage and number of early doses available, but information is limited Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expressed his own concerns about Christmas, saying Tuesday people should not plan to go on ski trips.Conte said it would not be possible “to allow holidays on the snow.  We cannot afford it.”Italy was one of the hardest-hit nations in the early stages of the pandemic and on Monday became the sixth country in the world to surpass 50,000 deaths.Spain, another early hotspot, has seen a sharp decline in tourism like in many areas.  It’s national statistics office reported Tuesday the number of hotel nights booked in October was down 83% from the same time last year.There are concerns in the United States this week as the country celebrates its Thanksgiving holiday.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people not to travel and hold large family gatherings amid a surge in COVID-19 infections across the country.More than 59 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics.      The United States continues to lead the world in infections with more than 12.4 million cases, followed by India with more than 9.1 million infections and Brazil with 6 million.     The virus has killed about 1.4 million people.  More than 257,000 of those deaths were in the United States.

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Seven Sudanese Doctors Die from COVID-19 in 10 Days

Sudanese health authorities said Sunday that seven medical doctors died from COVID-19 in 10 days, a development that reflects Sudan’s sharp rise in cases in recent weeks. Nearly 100 deaths were recorded in the past month.A statement issued by Sudan’s ministry of health said the seven doctors “worked tirelessly” to treat COVID-19 patients, prevent the spread of the ailment, and protect the lives of the Sudanese people. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.The government called their deaths a huge loss for the country as it continues to fight the pandemic and described the doctors as “true heroes,” who died defending their people.According to the ministry:— Dr. Kamil Mohammad Abdullah, a consultant ophthalmologist, died November 11.— Dr. Iman Ahmed Al Bashir, director of Khartoum state’s Department of Mother and Child Health at the Ministry of Health, died November 13.— Dr. Naeem Abdurrahman, an ophthalmologist in Jazeera state, died November 16.— Dr.Izzeddeen Mahmoud Abdo, a consultant in medical laboratories, died November 18.— Professor Al-Tom Surajaddeen, a medical laboratories consultant, died November 18.— Dr. Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Tahir, a radiologist, died November 19.— Professor Ahmed Ahimer, a World Health Organization immunization expert and former director of child immunization in Blue Nile State, died November 19.Late last week, Sudanese education authorities postponed the reopening of schools for two weeks, due to a steep rise in cases.Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking cases globally, says on its coronavirus dashboard that Sudan currently has 16,052 confirmed cases and 1,197 deaths.Acting Health Minister Dr. Osama Ahmed Abdurrahim told reporters in Khartoum Sunday that the coronavirus is still spreading in communities across Sudan. The minister said everyone, including top government officials, should practice social distancing, wear face masks, and adhere to all other preventive measures.“All levels of government in the country, being the Sovereign Council, councils of ministers, corporations or government institutions, they should show a serious commitment towards following the precautionary measures because the government is [taking] the lead in fighting this pandemic,” said Adurrahim.He said his ministry is still weighing whether to call for a national lockdown.Khartoum state Governor Ayman Khaled Nimer directed all public and private institutions in Khartoum state to operate at 50 percent of their normal workforce, except for essential sectors such as medical facilities.The order bans all large public gatherings, including wedding parties, graduations and other social events.

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GM Flips to California’s Side in Pollution Fight With Trump

General Motors says it will no longer support the Trump administration in legal efforts to end California’s right to set its own clean-air standards. CEO Mary Barra said in a letter Monday to environmental groups that GM will pull out of the lawsuit, and it urges other automakers to do so. FILE – GM CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 17, 2014.She said the company agrees with President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to expand electric-vehicle use. Last week, GM said it is testing a new battery chemistry that will bring electric-vehicle costs down to those of gas-powered vehicles within five years. Barra sent the letter after a call with California Governor Gavin Newsom, the company said.  “We believe the ambitious electrification goals of the President-elect, California and General Motors are aligned, to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions,” Barra said in the letter. Mary Nichols, head of California’s Air Resources Board, called GM’s announcement “good news,” saying Barra told her about it in a telephone call Monday morning. The board is the state’s air pollution regulator. FILE – California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols, left, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom listens at a press conference in Sacramento, September 23, 2020.”I was pleased to be in communication with Mary Barra again,” she said. “It’s been a while since we had talked.” Dan Becker of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups to whom Barra wrote, said GM was wrong in trying to stop California from protecting its people from auto pollution.  “Now, the other automakers must follow GM and withdraw support for (President Donald) Trump’s attack on clean cars,” he said in an email. The White House had no immediate comment Monday. Last year General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and 10 smaller automakers sided with the Trump administration in a lawsuit over whether California has the right to set its own standards for greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy. The companies said they would intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Fund against the Trump administration, which has rolled back national pollution and gas mileage standards enacted while Barack Obama was president. The group called itself the “Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation” and also included Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Isuzu, Suzuki, Maserati, McLaren, Aston Martin and Ferrari. FILE – Global Automakers CEO John Bozzella attends a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 2, 2015.”With our industry facing the possibility of multiple, overlapping and inconsistent standards that drive up costs and penalize consumers, we had an obligation to intervene,” John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers and spokesman for the coalition, said at the time. Toyota, one of the big automakers in the coalition favoring the Trump standards, said Monday it is reconsidering its position.  In a statement, the company said it has supported year-over-year increases in fuel economy standards, and it joined the coalition because most other automakers agreed there should be a single U.S. standard. “Given the changing circumstances, we are assessing the situation, but remain committed to our goal of a consistent, unitary set of fuel economy standards applicable in all 50 states,” Toyota said.  The initial move put the coalition automakers at odds with five other companies — BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, Volvo and Honda — that backed California and endorsed stricter emissions and fuel economy standards than proposed by the Trump administration. But the coalition’s stance was not so straightforward. For instance, although it opposed California, it still wanted Trump and the state to compromise on one national regulation. In September 2019, Trump announced his administration would seek to revoke California’s congressionally granted authority to set standards that are stricter than those issued by federal regulators. The move came after Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen signed a deal with the California Air Resources Board, which had been at odds with the Trump administration for months. Many automakers have said in the past that they support increasing the standards but not as much as those affirmed in the waning days of the Obama administration in 2016. Under the Obama administration requirements, the fleet of new vehicles would have to average 12.7 kpl (30 mpg) in real-world driving by 2021, rising to 15.3 kpl (36 mpg) in 2025. Those increases would be about 5% per year. The Trump administration’s plan increased fuel economy by 1.5% per year, backing off an earlier proposal to freeze the requirements at 2021 levels. Automakers say that because buyers are switching to larger trucks and SUVs, many companies would not be able to meet the stricter standards. 

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Vaccine Breakthrough Raises Hopes of Rapid Global Rollout

A coronavirus vaccine developed by Britain’s University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca has shown successful results in early trials. If it is approved by regulators, the vaccine appears suitable for a fast rollout around the globe. Early analysis of trials involving 20,000 volunteers in Britain and Brazil show the vaccine is at least 62% effective after two doses. In volunteers given a different dosing regimen — a half dose, followed by a full dose — that figure rose to 90%. The average efficacy of the two dosing methods is 70%. None of those given the vaccine developed severe COVID-19 illness. Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the recent successful trials of three different vaccines by Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, represent a scientific breakthrough. “It really feels like a great moment that we’ve got now multiple vaccines. If we can get them rolled out as soon as possible, we’re going to have a big impact,” Pollard said. Differences from other vaccinesAstraZeneca plans to begin supplying hundreds of millions of doses by the end of the year, subject to regulatory approval. Several properties of the vaccine make it suitable for global rollout, according to Peter Drobac, a global health expert at the University of Oxford, who did not work on the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine. “The first is cost,” Drobac said. “So, this vaccine has been priced at about one-fifth to one-tenth of the cost reportedly being sought by Pfizer and Moderna, some of the other leading vaccine candidates.” AstraZeneca has pledged it will not make a profit on the vaccine during the pandemic.  Secondly, “in 10 countries, it’s already being manufactured, including a very large manufacturing partner in India. So, we hope to see very large numbers of doses become available very quickly. And then thirdly, this vaccine only required kind of fridge-temperature storage,” Drobac told VOA. By contrast, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius. Many health systems in developing nations lack refrigeration facilities to store medicines at such ultra-cold temperatures. COVAXSo far, 188 countries have signed up to an initiative called COVAX, where richer countries invest in the development of several vaccines and the infrastructure required for rolling them out across the globe.  “The goal in a perfect world would be that each of the countries that signs up for COVAX would receive enough vaccine for 20% of their populations by the end of 2021,” Drobac said. “Now, that’s an aspiration of course, not a guarantee. But that would allow every country to at least begin to cover the most vulnerable, front-line workers, etc.” The human rights organization Amnesty International praised Oxford University. “However, much more needs to be done to ensure that everyone, everywhere can benefit from these life-saving products, and without further action, vaccine supply for lower-income countries will remain perilously low,” Amnesty said in a statement Monday.  It is possible the leading vaccine candidates will be given emergency approval by regulators in the coming weeks, raising hopes that the world is on the brink of a major breakthrough in the fight against the pandemic.
In the meantime, doctors say it is vital that people follow measures to suppress the transmission of the virus.
 

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British PM Lays Out Post-Lockdown Restrictions   

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled an updated plan for handling Britain’s COVID-19 infection after the country’s partial national lockdown is lifted December 2.In video message to Parliament Monday, Johnson said the lockdown will be lifted next Wednesday as promised. He said although Britain will return to the regional system that was in place prior to the lockdown, he has received scientific advice indicating the tiers need to be tougher to adequately reduce the infection rate.In the new tier 1, people will be required to work from home if they can. In tier 2, pubs will only be able to serve drinks with a “substantial meal.” And in tier 3, indoor entertainment and hotels will close, and restaurants and pubs will only be allowed to open for take-out.As before, Johnson said the tiers will be determined based on the rate of COVID-19 infections in each area, with the toughest measures implemented where the disease is most prevalent. The government will announce which areas will be under which tier later this week.A woman walks through the Burlington Arcade adorned with Christmas decorations, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in London, Nov. 23, 2020.Johnson said more regions will fall, at least temporarily, into higher levels than before. But, he said, with tougher restrictions and more rapid coronavirus testing, it should be possible for areas to move to lower levels of restrictions fairly quickly.The prime minister said people should not expect a normal Christmas holiday this year, saying, “This virus is obviously not going to grant a Christmas truce, it doesn’t know it’s Christmas.” He did say his government was working to develop “a special time-limited Christmas dispensation” plan that would allow families to come together, while minimizing the risk.Britain has recorded 18,662 new cases and 398 deaths in the last 24 hours. Of these, 16,668 are in England, 844 in Scotland, 808 in Wales and 342 in Northern Ireland. There are now more than 1.5 million cases recorded in total, and deaths have crossed 55,000.
 

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