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Dec. 15 Coronavirus updates: Health care workers among first to receive vaccine

Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts that the U.S. could achieve herd immunity by "the end of the second quarter 2021."
Image: People walk across the almost deserted market square with decorated Christmas tree in Leipzig, eastern Germany
People walk across a nearly deserted market square decorated for Christmas in Leipzig, Germany on Monday.Jens Schlueter / AFP - Getty Images

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Health care workers across the United States were among the first Americans to get the federally approved coronavirus vaccine, marking a critical moment in the fight against Covid-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top disease expert, predicted that after vaccines are more widely deployed the country could achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 by "the end of the second quarter 2021."

The beginning of this new phase in fighting the virus came as the U.S. death toll passed 300,000, and recorded more than 200,000 infections in one day.

FDA authorizes first at-home, over-the-counter Covid test

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday authorized the first test for Covid-19 that can be purchased at drug stores without a prescription and taken at home.

The test, developed by the Australian digital diagnostics company Ellume, received emergency use authorization from the FDA. The test does not require sending samples to a lab, similar to how at-home pregnancy tests work.

The Ellume Covid-19 Home Test is an antigen test, which is designed to detect fragments of viral proteins that trigger an immune response in the body. Results are delivered via a smartphone app in as little as 20 minutes, according to the company.

The test involves collecting a sample with a nasal swab that users then place into a Bluetooth-connected analyzer that syncs with a smartphone app. Results are delivered through the app and can be shared with health care professionals, according to Ellume.

Ellume said it expects to produce more than 3 million of the tests in January with a likely cost of $30 or less. They will be available in pharmacies, drug stores and online, the company told NBC News in an email.

Read the full story here.

Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen's megachurch received $4.4 million in PPP funds

Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen's megachurch received a $4.4 million loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, data released under FOIA shows.

The Lakewood Church, based in Houston, Texas, received the loan in July.

“Lakewood suspended its in-person services for more than seven months...impacting its ability to collect substantial donations during those services,” church spokesperson Andrea Davis told NBC News in an email.

With the PPP loan, the church “has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families,” covering 368 full and part-time workers.

Multimillionaire televangelist Joel Osteen and his pastor wife, Victoria, received no PPP funds and have not taken a salary since 2004, Davis said.

In an April letter to the Small Business Administration, which approved the loans, progressive religious organizations and advocacy groups argued that taxpayer funding of clergy payrolls was unconstitutional.

In total, over 90,000 religious groups received a combined sum of $7.3 billion in PPP loans, according to NBC News analysis, and five of the top 10 U.S. megachurches received PPP loans, including Osteen’s.

“As far as we are aware, this is the first time that the government has backstopped the payrolls of religious groups on this scale,” Maureen O'Leary, spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance, one of the religious organizations that co-signed the letter, told NBC News in an email.

"While SBA does not comment on individual borrowers, SBA publicly announced that faith-based organizations were eligible for PPP and EIDL in April," agency spokesman Jim Billimoria said via email.

20 million Americans could be vaccinated by end of year, according to Operation Warp Speed doctor

If all goes as planned, 20 million Americans could be vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of the this year, Operation Warp Speed’s top scientist said Tuesday.

“Between the two vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, we expect to have immunized 20 million of our American people and keeping 20 million doses for their second immunization a few weeks later,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. 

Slaoui also said the soon-to-be-authorized Moderna vaccine, like the Pfizer vaccine, has been shown to be extremely effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“My expectation is that prevention of disease by these vaccines will last quite long,” he said.

Army Gen. Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, said earlier that after the federal Food and Drug Administration officially authorizes the Moderna vaccine nearly 6 million doses will be shipped to more than 3,000 locations across the country starting Monday.

Sick Santa and Mrs. Claus may have exposed 50 Georgia kids to Covid

A Santa parade and photo-op in Georgia last Thursday may have exposed up to 50 children to Covid-19 after Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus later tested positive for the virus.

Long County Board of Commissioners chairman Robert D. Parker confirmed the positive tests and downplayed the risk of the possibly dozens of exposures in a statement posted on the Board's website.

"While this is cause for concern, I feel that it is important to note that exposures happen every day as we go about our day to day lives, often without any knowledge," the statement said.

Click here for the full story

Over-the-counter home Covid test authorized by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to an over-the-counter Covid-19 test Tuesday. 

The Ellume Covid-19 Home Test is an antigen test that provides results in as little as 20 minutes.

Users collect a sample using a nasal swab. The sample is analyzed with a device that connects to a smartphone, and results are provided on an app.

According to the FDA, the test correctly identified 96 percent of positive samples and 100 percent of negative samples in people with symptoms. The rates were slightly lower in people without symptoms. 

The tests will be available in January. 

Germany imposes new lockdown measures to last through the holidays

The German government is urging its citizens to not go Christmas shopping and to watch midnight mass online instead of going to church on Christmas Eve because of the pandemic.

The recommendation comes as new lockdown measures aimed at slowing the rapidly rising number of new Covid-19 cases were set to go into effect on Wednesday and stay in place through the holidays until at least Jan. 10, the Associated Press reported.

“I wish and I hope that people will only buy what they really need, like groceries,” the country’s Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said. “The faster we get these infections under control, the better it is for everyone.”

Mirroring the pandemic restrictions its neighbor, the Netherlands, has put into place, Germany is closing all the schools and switching to online learning, and shuttering almost all non-grocery stores. Indoor restaurant dining is also banned for the holidays.


Supreme Court blocks New Jersey restrictions on religious institutions

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court issued a second ruling Tuesday, again limiting a state’s application of Covid-19 restrictions that apply to religious settings. 

It granted an injunction, sought by two New Jersey religious institutions — a church in North Caldwell, and a synagogue in Lakewood.

They asked for an injunction allowing them “to host indoor, in-person religious worship for their respective congregations on the same terms and conditions allowed for comparable secular activities. That is, either the 100% of capacity afforded ‘essential’ non-retail businesses or, in the alternative, the 50% of capacity allowed for “essential” retail businesses, with the same health and safety protocols and exemptions applicable to comparable secular activities.”

There were no noted dissents on this one.

Former CDC head warned the vaccine is "not gonna get us through the winter.”

The former head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday the “vaccine is extremely exciting, but it's not gonna get us through the winter.”

“What's gonna help during this winter and what's gonna help get us to the point so people get vaccinated is Congress stepping up and providing resources,” Dr. Richard Besser, who is currently the president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle. “They have let us down as a nation.”

Besser was referring to Congress’ ongoing struggle to hammer together a Covid-19 relief package to aid millions of hard-pressed Americans.

When asked who will get the vaccine after health care workers and nursing home residents, Besser said “each state is gonna have to make tough decisions.”

“We'll be looking to the CDC to make recommendations in terms of which groups are vaccinated first,” Besser said. “But it's gonna be really hard until there's enough vaccine for everybody.”

As for the vaccine refuseniks, Besser said “we're not gonna get there by pressuring people.”

“It's gonna be individual one on one encounters that increase the level of safety and confidence,” he said.

Besser spoke out a day after front line workers became the first in the United States to receive the long-awaited first doses of the new Covid-19 vaccine – and after the U.S. eclipsed more than 300,000 deaths due to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.