Jan. 7 Coronavirus updates: Over half of virus spread may come from people without symptoms

About 17.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed to states, while 5.3 million people have received an initial dose, according to the CDC.

Gravediggers bury a Covid-19 coronavirus victim amid pouring rain at Keputih cemetery in Surabaya, Indonesia on Jan. 7, 2021.Juni Kriswanto / AFP - Getty Images

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The U.K. variant of Covid-19, which scientists say spreads more easily, has been detected across the U.S., including Texas, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

That news came as the U.S. marked 4,000 deaths Thursday, according to an NBC News tally — the highest national daily total since the pandemic began.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said Wednesday that he is advising states to begin vaccinating lower-priority groups against Covid-19 if the doses they have on hand would otherwise be sitting in freezers.

Pfizer study suggests vaccine works against virus variant

New research suggests that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against a mutation found in two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus that erupted in Britain and South Africa.

Most of the vaccines being rolled out around the world train the body to recognize that spike protein and fight it. Pfizer teamed with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for laboratory tests to see if the mutation affected its vaccine's ability to do so.

They used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, during a large study of the shots. Antibodies from those vaccine recipients successfully fended off the virus in lab dishes, according to the study posted late Thursday on an online site for researchers.

The study is preliminary and has not yet been reviewed by experts, a key step for medical research.

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U.S. records more than 4,000 deaths in a single day

The U.S. reported more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths Thursday, the most in a single day, according to an NBC News tally.

The exact number was 4,110 deaths, and there were 268,883 cases reported, breaking the record for both for the second consecutive day.

On Wednesday, the country set a near identical record of 268,840 cases and posted 3,920 deaths, the highest daily total before Thursday.

This week alone, 1,614,756 new cases and 19,230 deaths were logged.


California virus deaths climb as ICU space tightens

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and the state’s hospital association are at odds over how best to create space for critically ill coronavirus patients at already strained medical facilities that soon could be overwhelmed by the expected surge of new cases from holiday gatherings.

A surge following Halloween and Thanksgiving produced record hospitalizations, and now the most seriously ill of those patients are dying in unprecedented numbers. California health authorities reported 583 new deaths Thursday and a record two-day total of 1,042.

The state has deployed 88 refrigerated trailers, up from 60 a few weeks ago, for use as makeshift morgues, mostly in hard-hit Southern California.

Hospitalizations are nearing 22,000 and state models project the number could reach 30,000 by Feb 1.  State health officials caught hospitals off guard earlier this week with new orders limiting nonessential surgeries and requiring hospitals that have scarce ICU space to accept patients from those that have run out, an order that may require transferring patients hundreds of miles.


California administers over 530,000 vaccine doses

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s epidemiologist, Dr. Erica Pan, said more than 2 million vaccine doses have shipped to the state and well over 530,000 doses administered, although she expects the numbers are several days out of date. She said like other states, California needs to ramp up distribution and expects to do so as more doses arrive and more pharmacy, dental and medical field staff made available to administer the doses.

“Having the vaccine come in the middle of our worst surge of all has been a real stress on our health care system and on our public health departments,” said Pan at a Thursday webinar hosted by San Francisco area’s business association Bay Area Council. 

Pan said momentum for vaccinations is building as more frontline workers receive the vaccine but said how quickly regular people get the doses will depend on local conditions. About 3 million people are expected to be in the current phase.


U.K. extends England entry ban to travelers from 11 African countries

The United Kingdom said on Thursday it would extend a ban on travelers entering England to southern African countries in a measure to prevent the spread of a new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa.

The restriction will take effect on Saturday and remain in place for two weeks, the government said in a statement.

"Entry into England will be banned to those who have travelled from or through any southern African country in the last 10 days," the country's Department for Transport said.

The nations include Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola.


Two cases of U.K.'s Covid-19 variant detected in Connecticut

Connecticut on Thursday afternoon became the latest state to confirm at least one case of the Covid-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom last fall.

Gov. Ned Lamont said two people in New Haven County, ages 15 and 25, were found to have the new strain after they were tested earlier this month. One of the patients had recently traveled to Ireland and the other to New York state, and both developed symptoms within three to four days of returning to Connecticut, Lamont added.

Contact tracers are helping to identify others who may have come into contact with the individuals in both cases.

"The U.K. variant is widely assumed to be more highly transmissible than other strains of the virus," Dr. Deidre Gifford, the state's acting commissioner of public health, said in a statement. "However, our current vaccines should be effective against this strain, and we continue to urge everyone who is currently eligible to get the vaccine to do so."

Connecticut's Covid-19 positivity rate increased to 8.5 percent on Wednesday from 7.6 percent the day before. At least six other states have logged cases of the U.K. variant: California, Colorado, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, which also announced its first known case on Thursday.


Texas logs first known case of Covid-19 variant from U.K.

Public health officials in Harris County, Texas, said Thursday they have logged the first known case in the state of the Covid-19 variant that was initially discovered in the United Kingdom.

The male patient is between the ages of 30 and 40 with no known travel history, and remains in stable condition, health officials said. Epidemiologists in Harris County, the third-largest county in the nation, said they were conducting a review with state health officials to notify those who may have come into contact with the patient.

Harris County, which is home to Houston, has seen its Covid-19 positivity rate climb above 15 percent in recent days, with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday, according to county data.

The new Covid-19 strain, which was first detected in England in November, is considered to be more contagious, but does not necessarily result in more severe symptoms of the coronavirus. So far, the variant has been discovered in more than a dozen countries and at least five other states, including California, Colorado, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania


'Winning the lottery': How some have lucked into a vaccine

Across the U.S., there are a handful of people who have lucked into access to a Covid-19 vaccine despite not being in one of the priority groups, which are determined by state. From Northern California to Connecticut, there are reports of other individuals getting vaccinated to prevent the vaccines from going to waste.

That's what happened with David MacMillan and a friend, who were at a grocery store in Washington, D.C., on New Year's Day. The 31-year-old law student told TODAY he was passing by the pharmacy section when he noticed a pharmacist speaking to an older woman about whether she wanted to receive the Moderna vaccine that very moment. The customer looked "hesitant" and "confused" and eventually declined, MacMillan said. Then the pharmacist turned to him and his companion.

MacMillan recalled her asking, "Hey, I have two doses of the Moderna vaccine. They're going to expire, and I'm going to throw them out at the end of the day, and we close in 10 minutes. Do you want them?"

MacMillan said he was "ecstatic" at the prospect and agreed.

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More than half of Covid spread comes from people without symptoms

Nearly 60 percent of all Covid-19 spread may come from people with no symptoms, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Thursday in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Using mathematical modeling, CDC researchers estimated that 35 percent of Covid-19 spread is from people who are contagious before they develop symptoms, called presymptomatic transmission. Another 24 percent comes from people who are truly asymptomatic, and never go on to develop symptoms. 

Such widespread asymptomatic transmission means that simply identifying and isolating people who have symptoms of Covid-19 "will not control the ongoing spread of SARS-CoV-2," the virus that causes Covid-19, the study authors wrote. 

Rather, the findings mean that everyday behaviors to mitigate the spread of the virus are even more critical.

"Measures such as wearing masks, hand hygiene, social distancing and strategic testing of people who are not ill will be foundational to slowing the spread," the study authors wrote, "until safe and effective vaccines are available and widely used."


Oxygen is the latest Covid bottleneck as hospitals cope with intense demand

As Los Angeles hospitals give record numbers of Covid patients oxygen, the systems and equipment needed to deliver the life-sustaining gas are faltering.

It’s gotten so bad that Los Angeles County officials are warning paramedics to conserve it. Some hospitals are having to delay releasing patients as they don’t have enough oxygen equipment to send home with them.

“Everybody is worried about what’s going to happen in the next week or so,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Oxygen, which makes up 21 percent of the Earth’s air, isn’t running short. But Covid damages the lungs, and the crush of patients in hot spots such as Los Angeles, the Navajo Nation, El Paso, Texas, and in New York last spring have needed high concentrations of it. That has stressed the infrastructure for delivering the gas to hospitals and their patients.

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