Coronavirus updates: Dr. Fauci gets vaccinated; $600 stimulus checks to go out next week; 2020 is deadliest year in US history

USA TODAY is keeping track of the news surrounding COVID-19 as a pair of vaccines join the U.S. fight against a virus that has killed more than 319,000 Americans since the first reported fatality in February. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates on vaccine distribution, including who is getting the shots and where, as well as other COVID-19 news from across the USA TODAY Network. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates directly to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions for everything you need to know about the coronavirus.

In the headlines: 

► Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gave two thumbs-up after being vaccinated Tuesday. He and other top health officials received doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. “I want to encourage everyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated so that we can have a veil of protection over this country that will end this pandemic,” Fauci said.

► The COVID-19 relief package was designed to throw a financial lifeline to Americans struggling because of the pandemic. But a break for CEOs is drawing scrutiny: business meal deductions. President Donald Trump says it will help struggling restaurants.

► The lawyer for a U.S. college student serving four months in prison in the Cayman Islands for violating strict COVID-19 measures says he will argue for a less severe sentence this week. Skylar Mack, 18, of Georgia, and boyfriend Vanjae Ramgeet, 24, of the Cayman Islands, have been in jail there for a week.

► An agricultural company in Washington state where two workers died from COVID-19 was fined more than $2 million, accused of repeatedly violating coronavirus virus safety procedures. Gebbers Farms said it disagreed with the findings and that “99.3% of our entire workforce tested negative for the virus, which is better than county, state and national rates to date.”

► Despite COVID-19 threats, hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans are making their annual holiday pilgrimage to Mexico. These visits to parents and family are a sacred ritual that even a global COVID-19 pandemic has been unable to stop.

► The Senate passed a roughly $900 billion COVID-19 relief package Monday night hours after the House voted 359-53 on the measure. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.

► 2020 has been the deadliest year in U.S. history, and deaths are expected to top 3 million for the first time, mainly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Preliminary numbers show the country will have more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 319,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 77.4 million cases and 1.7 million deaths. 

Here’s a closer look at today’s top stories: 

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, prepares to receive his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on Dec. 22, 2020, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Fauci, Azar receive first dose of vaccine

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other top health officials received the first of two doses of the Moderna vaccine on live TV Tuesday. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of NIH, helped develop the vaccine with Moderna, which was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on Friday. A second booster dose is required 28 days after the first dose.

Azar said he made it a priority not to cut corners and final decisions on its safety and effectiveness were made using the “same FDA science” used fo other vaccines.

“I have complete confidence in the safety and efficacy of these vaccines,” Azar said seconds before being inoculated. And after: “Thank you, NIH.”

Some states will lag in getting shots to highest-risk groups

As health care workers and nursing home residents await the first syringes of the scarce COVID-19 vaccine, few realize that exactly when they will get a dose depends a lot on what state they live in. That’s because the vaccine is being allocated according to the number of adults in each state, which doesn’t correlate to the number of high-risk people living or working there. In some places, medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities will be exposed to the coronavirus for weeks or months longer. And they’ll be more vulnerable to sickness and death.

Nevada will be able to vaccinate all front-line health workers and nursing home residents once the federal government distributes 13.6 million doses nationwide. But Massachusetts, which has a lot of medical workers, won’t hit that threshold until 25.5  million doses have been distributed across the country – potentially weeks into the new year.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has touted the per-person formula as fair. “We wanted to keep this simple,” he said. Read more here.

Dennis Wagner, Donovan Slack and Aleszu Bajak

Relief package may be too little, too late for some Black, Latino landlords

Across the country, mom-and-pop landlords are hurting. They oversee the majority of the nation’s 48-million-unit rental stock. Black and Latino landlords are being hit the hardest, turning to forbearance at higher rates during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected their communities as their residents are unable or have refused to pay rent under eviction moratoriums. A report by the Urban Institute found approximately 12% of landlords with a mortgage are in forbearance. Of these, 20% are Black and 14% are Latino, compared with 9% who are white. 

“We’ve been living on credit cards, paper clips and chewing gum,” Miami landlord Hector Alvarez, 62, said. Read more here.

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

More Americans warming to getting vaccinated as soon as possible

Americans’ willingness to take the coronavirus vaccine has jumped since the first two vaccines were authorized by the FDA and health care workers and nursing home residents began to receive the shots. That growing acceptance is a reassuring sign for public health experts who call distribution of the vaccine crucial to controlling the pandemic that has killed more than 318,000 people in the USA. 

In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll Wednesday through Sunday, 46% say they will take the vaccine as soon as they can. That’s close to double the 26% in a USA TODAY poll in late October. In the new poll, 32% say they will wait for others to get the shots before they do so themselves.

“From what I’ve read, it’s going to take about 75% of the nation taking the vaccine in order to create herd immunity,” says Lisa McAlister, 48, a registered nurse from Grove, Oklahoma, who voted for President Donald Trump, “and quite frankly, I don’t want to live in a pandemic the rest of my life.” Read more here.

– Susan Page and Sarah Elbeshbishi

California faces ‘darkest days’ of COVID-19

Across California, a post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 spike is ravaging cities and counties that once had been models for how to keep coronavirus cases low. To date, the state has logged 1.9 million cases and 22,000 deaths, and new records are seemingly set daily.

“I feel like someone at war, it’s chaotic all the time,” said Erin McIntosh, 38, a mother of four who works as a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital southeast of Los Angeles. She said the National Guard is scheduled to help with care soon.

“Nurses do this because it’s their life’s work,” she said. “But many are reaching their breaking point.”

These waning weeks of 2020 have fast become “some of the darkest days of our COVID-19 surge,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in urging residents to heed public health warnings about traveling or gathering in groups over the holidays. Newsom said Monday night that the state’s state-at-home orders, set to expire at the end of the month, would likely be extended.

– Marco della Cava

$600 coronavirus relief checks to go out next week

Starting next week, most Americans will receive a check of up to $600 from the federal government to help ease the financial burden caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The payments are part of a $900 billion pandemic relief package that is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump in the coming days.

The payments will be about half of what millions of Americans received in the spring under a previous relief package designed to get the economy moving. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said during an interview on CNBC that “this is a very, very fast way of getting money into the economy. People go out and spend this money, and that helps small businesses. And that helps getting more people back to work.”

– Michael Collins

Contributing: The Associated Press

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