Top health officials in the US have warned Americans that with a Covid-19 vaccine perhaps just days away, and with most of California heading into another lockdown because of a surging outbreak, this is no time to let their guard down.
Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, said on NBC’s Meet The Press: “The vaccine’s critical.
“But it’s not going to save us from this current surge. Only we can save us from this current surge.”
A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel is scheduled to take up a request on Thursday to authorise emergency use of Pfizer’s vaccine.
Vaccinations could begin just days later, though initial supplies will be rationed, and shots are not expected to become widely available until the spring.
With the US facing what could be a catastrophic winter, top government officials warned Americans anew to wear masks, practice social distancing and follow other basic measures — precautions that President Donald Trump and members of the administration have often disdained.
“I hear community members parroting back those situations — parroting back that masks don’t work, parroting back that we should work towards herd immunity, parroting back that gatherings don’t result in super-spreading events,” Dr Birx said.
“And I think our job is to constantly say those are myths, they are wrong and you can see the evidence base.”
The virus is blamed for more than 280,000 deaths and more than 14.6 million confirmed infections in the US. New cases per day have rocketed to an all-time high of more than 190,000 on average.
Deaths per day have surged to an average of more than 2,160, a level last seen during April, when the outbreak was centred around New York. The number of Americans now in hospital with the coronavirus topped 100,000 for the first time over the past few days.
Dr Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, warned that the US death toll could be approaching 400,000 by the end of January.
Speaking on Face The Nation on CBS, Dr Gottlieb said: “As bad as things are right now, they’re going to get a lot worse.”
In California, the first place to enact a state-wide lockdown last spring, new stay-at-home orders were set to take effect on Sunday night in Southern California, much of the San Francisco Bay area and other areas.
The new rules in the state of 40 million people prohibit residents from gathering with those outside their household. Retailers, including supermarkets and shopping centres can operate with 20% capacity, while restaurant dining, hair salons, cinemas, museums and playgrounds must shut down.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. A vaccine is coming. We can do this.— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) December 5, 2020
Hospitals in California are seeing space in intensive care units dwindle amid a surge in infections. California health authorities imposed the order after ICU capacity fell below a 15% threshold in some regions.
But some law enforcement officials said they did not plan to enforce the rules, and some business owners are warning that they could go under after a year of on-and-off closings and other restrictions.
Governor Gavin Newsom said he hoped the new lockdown order was the last one he had to issue, declaring the vaccine offered “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Once vaccines were offered widely, they could offer long-lasting protection against Covid-19, the head of the US vaccine development effort said.
Dr Moncef Slaoui told CNN’s State Of The Union that only time would tell for certain but that the vaccine’s effectiveness could last for “many, many years”, with older people and others who were more vulnerable requiring a booster every three to five years.
He said that one of the hallmarks of immune systems was memory, so the body’s response to the coronavirus would be much faster once vaccinated.
But Dr Slaoui said it was not known whether vaccinated people could spread the virus to others even if protected themselves. He said there might be an initial indication on that sometime in February or March.
Dr Slaoui stressed that the continuing unknowns made it important for people to remain cautious and take safeguards to protect themselves and others against Covid-19.
He said that once 70% to 80% of the population was vaccinated, “the virus will go down”.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that health care workers and nursing home patients get priority when the first shots become available.
Both Pfizer’s vaccine and a Moderna vaccine that will also be reviewed by the FDA later this month require two doses a few weeks apart.
Current estimates project that a combined total of no more than 40 million doses will be available by the end of the year. The plan is to use those to fully vaccinate 20 million people.