U.S. inches closer to vaccine approval, economic relief as pandemic rages on

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Economic relief and a vaccine drew nearer to reality on Wednesday to counter a coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the U.S. economy and killed 286,487 people, with year-end holiday gatherings expected to fuel another surge in infections.

The U.S. House of Representatives was set to vote on Wednesday on a one-week stopgap funding bill that will buy more time to reach a deal on COVID-19 relief, with a separate aid packages of more than $900 billion on the table.

Help is urgently needed as the United States reported an average of 2,259 deaths and 205,661 new cases each day over the past week, an appalling toll that U.S. health officials warn is likely to accelerate.

Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin said he expected Democrats and Republicans to work out most of the funding bill details on Wednesday. “You’re going to see 90% of the bill today,” Manchin told CNN.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, “We’re still looking for a way forward.” He criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for not accepting two Republican offers this week.

Part of the congressional debate involves aid to state and local governments. In addition to millions of job losses in the private sector, state and local governments have laid off nearly 700,000 workers this year, according to U.S. data, equal to 8.4% of the workforce.

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In the former manufacturing hub of Schenectady, New York, the city government raised property taxes and trash-collection fees while the school board laid off 423 teachers, janitors and other workers, even with only 16% of grade-schoolers found to be proficient in math last year.

“These kids are struggling. They were struggling before COVID, and everybody looks past them,” social worker Lindsey Esposito said.

Some government officials said vaccinations could start as soon as this weekend, possibly easing pressure on a healthcare system buckling under a record 104,200 hospitalizations.

CANADA APPROVES VACCINE

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released documents on Tuesday that raised no new red flags over the safety or efficacy of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE.

The documents were in preparation for a review of the vaccine’s data on Thursday by a panel of outside advisers that will vote on whether to recommend the FDA issue an emergency authorization for its use.

FDA approval could come as soon as Friday or Saturday with the first U.S. injections happening on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, told Fox News on Tuesday.

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Britain became the first Western nation to begin mass inoculations with the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday.

But the country’s medicine regulator, MHRA, has advised people with significant allergies not get the Pfizer vaccine after two people reported adverse reactions on the first day of its rollout. [L8N2IP307]

“As is common with new vaccines, the MHRA have advised on a precautionary basis that people with a significant history of allergic reactions do not receive this vaccination,” National Health Service medical director Stephen Powis said. “Both are recovering well.”

Canada on Wednesday approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after an accelerated review process.

The United States badly needs a new tool given that so many Americans refuse to wear masks or avoid crowds, measures that health officials say will still be needed even after mass vaccination programs begin.

Experts and officials expect another surge of infections and hospitalizations following year-end holiday gatherings.

The World Health Organization director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, said on Wednesday that jumps in weekly COVID-19 cases in the United States and Canada are particularly worrisome as winter approaches.

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The expected post-holiday surge would be in full force by the time President-elect Joe Biden succeeds President Donald Trump on Jan. 20.

Even though Trump has refused to concede defeat and is attempting to overturn the Nov. 3 election, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar vowed on CNN to ensure a “full, cooperative, professional transition” on pandemic matters.

Azar also told “CBS This Morning” he expected most Americans could be vaccinated by April and nearly all of them by June, although a sizable percentage of the U.S. population has expressed skepticism about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, creating an additional challenge.

Biden set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people within the first 100 days of his administration, or by April 29.

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