Sandra Lindsay has spent the Covid-19 pandemic directing an intensive care unit at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. That work has placed Lindsay, a nurse, at the frontlines of a pandemic epicenter: Of the more than 310,800 people in the U.S. who have died from Covid-19, roughly one in 12 lived in New York City. And Covid-19 killed two members of Lindsay’s own extended family.
On Monday, Lindsay made history as the first person in the U.S. — according to state officials — to receive a Food and Drug Administration-approved Covid-19 vaccine, offering a symbolic beginning to what experts hope will be the final phase of the pandemic.
The inoculation begins a race to vaccinate health care workers across the country with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which gained emergency approval from the FDA on Dec. 11 after trials indicating that it is 95 percent effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Another vaccine, produced by Moderna, received near-unanimous approval from an FDA advisory panel on Thursday afternoon, and is soon expected to receive the greenlight from the agency.
Already, hospitals across the country have received vials of the Pfizer shot. The company has said it would distribute 2.9 million doses this week, and enough vaccine to inoculate 12.5 million people by the end of the month. Moderna said it has close to 6 million doses — enough to vaccinate nearly 3 million people, each of which will require two shots — ready to ship, pending final FDA approval.
While some Americans will have to wait for months to receive the vaccine, experts project that the vaccination of highly vulnerable populations, such as residents of nursing homes, could soon help cut the death rate from Covid-19. (Widespread vaccination in nursing homes, after some confusion about the timeline and details of the rollout, will begin next week, although some facilities have already begun receiving doses.)
Key questions remain about the months ahead. Some involve equity: While wealthy countries long-ago secured access to early production runs of leading vaccine candidates, widespread vaccination could take much longer to reach people in low- and middle-income countries. And that total vaccine supply will also depend on whether additional vaccine makers can complete clinical trials and show their candidates’ effectiveness against the virus. Critically, some of those vaccines may be easier to distribute than the current approved immunizations: The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine requires ultracold storage, and both it and Moderna’s require two shots, spaced a few weeks apart.
Questions also remain about whether Americans who are suspicious of the vaccine’s safety will be willing to get the shot. Survey data this summer suggested that many would be hesitant. Vaccination in nursing homes could face particular challenges, with reluctance about the vaccine among some staff, lingering concerns over side effects, and questions about informed consent. But now faced with actual working vaccines — as well as a coming national messaging campaign — more people may embrace vaccination. New survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, released on Tuesday, suggests public confidence in Covid-19 vaccination is already growing.
So far, the rollout has seemed relatively smooth. Hospitals in many states found they could squeeze extra doses of vaccine out of the vials, raising hopes that more people will get the shot sooner (but also, amid initial confusion, wasting some doses). And the prospect of a new tool against the virus sparked jubilation in some hospitals.
Getting the vaccine, one emergency room staffer in Queens said this week, was “like that first bit of sunlight in the morning after a very long, dark, and frightening night.”
Also in the News:
• An explosive surge in Covid-19 cases in California — including more than 50,000 cases and 393 deaths on Wednesday alone — is pushing the state’s health care system to the brink, officials warned this week. By Thursday afternoon, hospitals in southern California were reporting 0 percent capacity in intensive care units due to viral infections. Los Angeles County officials warned that they have 2,500 ICU beds at a time when severe Covid-19 infections are projected to reach up to 3,600 in the coming weeks. The 12 counties in the San Joaquin Valley, running from Bakersfield in the south to Stockton in north, also reported zero percent ICU capacity last Saturday. In the San Francisco Bay area, hospitals reported that less than 15 percent of ICU beds are now open. In an effort to keep those numbers from rising, San Francisco imposed a 10-day quarantine order, starting Friday, on anyone visiting the city. The state is also starting to open temporary field hospitals across California to handle overflow patients. The interim health director of Fresno County warned that things are likely to get worse, describing “a grim set of weeks before and after the new year, just given the trends that we’re seeing.” (The Los Angeles Times)
• The Chinese e-commerce and technology giant Alibaba has come under fire for offering customers the ability to use its facial recognition software to detect the faces of ethnic minorities. Prior to removing webpages following questions from reporters Alibaba’s cloud website outlined how its technology could be used to specifically search for Uighurs, a Muslim minority group concentrated in Northwest China. In recent years, the Chinese government has detained up to 1 million Uighurs in camps and launched an extensive surveillance campaign to track them. While Alibaba told The New York Times that the ethnicity function of its software was only used in testing, the company did not explain why it was examining such tools or why the information on ethnic minorities was included in its official documentation. Reporting by The Washington Post last week also showed that Huawei, another Chinese technology company, tested software that could automatically alert police when it detected Uighur faces. (The New York Times, IPVM)
• A Harvard University group’s long-anticipated experiment in geoengineering, which aims to manipulate earth’s climate, now has a firmer timeline — and a new testing ground. This week, the researchers announced plans to do a dry run of the experiment, known as SCoPEx, in June 2021. Due in part to the pandemic, the trial will take place in Sweden, not the southwestern U.S. as originally planned. The group seeks to test whether calcium carbonate dust, released into the atmosphere, can effectively dim sunlight and offset the warming effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In the initial test run, however, the researchers won’t actually release any particles into the air; rather, they’ll test-drive a propeller-driven balloon, which — if successful — will be used in a follow-up mission to scatter around four pounds of dust in the stratosphere. Geoengineering remains a controversial strategy for addressing global warming, and some scientists are skeptical about the experiment, arguing that the bar for tinkering with the atmosphere should be high and that more strenuous lab tests still need to be performed. (Science)
• A 9-year-long study run by Tavistock’s Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in the U.K. has at last been published. GIDS, based in London, is the only National Health Service gender clinic for children in England. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed and uses a small sample size, concerns the relationship between puberty-blocking treatment — given to kids experiencing gender dysphoria to delay the onset of puberty — and cross-sex hormone therapy, which involves receiving either estrogen or testosterone, depending on the patient’s gender identity. Tavistock leaders have argued that puberty-blocking treatment and cross-sex hormone therapy are entirely separate steps of treatment, and that the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. The data from the study, though, finds that 43 of the 44 adolescents treated with puberty-blocking drugs for gender dysphoria opted to also be treated with cross-sex hormones. The study’s release comes a day after the U.K.’s High Court ruled that children under 16 were likely not able to give informed consent to puberty-blocking treatment. The connection between puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones was a main argument in the case, with the judges ultimately deeming them part of “one clinical pathway.” For now, new referrals for puberty blockers have been paused and the NHS is conducting a review into gender identity services for children and young adults. (BBC News)
• Most of the staff infected in the White House’s ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, including the president, appear to have recovered fully from the virus. Not so, it seems, for Crede Bailey, the director of the White House security office. On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Bailey is recovering from Covid-19 after spending three months in the hospital — and having his lower leg and right foot and a toe on his left foot amputated. The White House had not publicly acknowledged the severity of Bailey’s illness, which, according to Bloomberg, is at least in part due to a request from his family. Although many of the 40-plus Covid-19 cases linked to the White House are associated with a Sept. 26 Rose Garden celebration, ABC News reports that Bailey’s hospitalization occurred before the event. Bailey’s role at the White House includes handling access credentials and working with the Secret Service; Bloomberg describes him as “known on the compound as a strong Trump supporter.” A friend of Bailey’s has helped raise more than $75,000 on GoFundMe to help with medical bills, rehabilitation, home renovations for wheelchair accessibility, and more. The organizer updated the campaign on Monday to request that friends and family ignore media requests. (Bloomberg)
• And finally: China this week became the third nation to bring home a bit of the moon when the return capsule of its Chang’e-5 spacecraft touched down on an icy field in Inner Mongolia. The capsule, which is thimble-shaped and about the size of a bumper car, landed Thursday morning at around 2 a.m. local time, said the China National Space Administration. A recovery crew arrived at the scene within an hour. It may be a few days before the capsule’s cargo — a few pounds of rock scooped from the lunar surface — is transported to Beijing, where it will be unsealed by researchers inside a laboratory designed to minimize contamination. While Chinese officials have agreed to share the samples with foreign scientists, recent diplomatic tensions with the U.S., as well as a 2011 law prohibiting NASA from sharing moon rocks with China, may lead the country to exclude American researchers. Such a ban would disappoint many scholars eager to examine the moon rocks, including Clive R. Neal, a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at the University of Notre Dame. As Neal told The New York Times, the samples “represent a completely different era of lunar history and will definitely help in our quest to understand the evolution of our moon.” (The New York Times, Science)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.