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U.S. widens vaccination eligibility as COVID-19 deaths mount

13 Jan 2021 / 05:01 H.

    By Peter Szekely

    NEW YORK, Jan 12 (Reuters) - U.S. federal officials on Tuesday agreed to send states additional coronavirus vaccine doses requested by several governors, as the country tries to ramp up the pace of inoculations with the daily COVID-19 death toll hovering at 3,200.

    Officials also recommended that states broaden vaccination eligibility to people as young as 65 or who have other chronic health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe COVID-19, drawing a mixed reaction from states that have tailored their inoculation priorities differently.

    Releasing additional vaccine was called for last week by President-elect Joe Biden's spokesman and nine Democratic governors, including Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. "Michigan and states across the country remain ready to get more shots in arms, which is why the Trump Administration's decision to grant our request and release millions of doses of the vaccine is so crucial," Whitmer said in a statement.

    Whitmer, who had backed the lower vaccination age, also said she was still awaiting a reply from the administration to her request to allow Michigan to purchase 100,000 vaccine doses directly from its manufacturer, Pfizer Inc.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE and a second vaccine from Moderna Inc for emergency use.

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday the administration would release vaccine doses it was holding back for second shots, and called on states to offer them to all Americans over age 65 or with chronic health conditions.

    That plan relies on enough manufacturing capacity to ensure that all those who got a first vaccine dose get their second shot on schedule, either three or four weeks later depending on which vaccine they received.

    Azar also said the U.S. pace of inoculations has risen to 700,000 shots per day and is expected to rise to 1 million per day within a week to 10 days.

    Cuomo said he would begrudgingly agree to widen vaccination eligibility to include people as young as 65 and those with pre-existing conditions, even though he personally opposes it.

    "The policy and the intelligence of the federal system eludes me," Cuomo told a news briefing.

    Cuomo said including people who are immuno-compromised, a poorly defined category that he said could include smokers and the obese, could have more than 7 million of the state's 19 million residents vying for the 300,000 doses received each week by the state.

    Cuomo initially targeted inoculations for healthcare workers and nursing home residents. Late last week, he agreed to include several groups of essential workers and people over age 75.

    Almost 9 million Americans had been given their first COVID-19 vaccination as of Monday, less than one-third of the 25 million total doses distributed to states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Public health experts have said no U.S. state has so far come close to using up its federal allotments of vaccines.

    Since the onset of the pandemic, the United States has reported 22.5 million COVID-19 cases and 376,188 deaths, the most in the world, according to a Reuters tally. Over the past seven days, there were an average of 245,896 new cases and 3,248 deaths every day.

    A widely cited model has projected that the daily death toll will peak mid-January, and that more than 100,000 people will die of the disease this month, a pandemic record.

    One encouraging sign over the past week is that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization has leveled off, at least temporarily, with 129,105 patients reported on Monday, according to a Reuters tally.

    Health officials have expressed concern that the effects of virus-spreading holiday gatherings have not yet been fully felt.

    Another potential super-spreader event erupted on Monday night in Tuscaloosa, as thousands of University of Alabama football fans jammed the streets to celebrate the team's win over Ohio State University to capture its 18th national title.

    In Washington, two U.S. lawmakers have tested positive for the virus so far after being locked down for hours with other colleagues, including Republicans who refused to wear face masks, to avoid the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday.

    (Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional Reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bangaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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