NEW YORK (REUTERS) - The US government and two of the nation's largest pharmacy chains on Monday (Dec 21) began inoculating nursing home residents against Covid-19, among the first Americans besides healthcare workers to get the vaccine.
The vaccinations, carried out under a programme led by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and CVS Health Corp is the latest effort to reign in a pandemic that has killed more than 317,000 Americans and strained healthcare systems.
California, which has been hard hit by the latest surge in infections, had no more intensive care unit beds available in the Los Angeles area or in the state's San Joaquin Valley agricultural hub, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.
The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised emergency use of two Covid-19 vaccines, one developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE that was cleared on Dec 11, and one from Moderna Inc that was approved on Friday.
Some 2.9 million shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were distributed last week, mostly to healthcare workers, with more than 500,000 people inoculated as of Sunday afternoon. The first Moderna injections were administered on Monday.
About 7.9 million doses of the two shots are being distributed nationwide this week, including on Christmas Day on Friday if necessary, according to US Army General Gustave Perna, who oversees vaccine distribution through the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed programme.
More than 1,300 long-term care facilities were expected to begin vaccinations on Monday, Gen Perna told a news conference.
About 50 million people in the United States will have had the first of two shots needed for immunisation by the end of January, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
President-elect Joe Biden became one of them on Monday, at a hospital in Newark, Delaware. He received his shot on camera to help boost confidence in its safety. Mr Biden's age, 78, places him in a high-risk category for the highly contagious disease.
With supplies limited, many states have put healthcare workers and nursing home residents first in line for vaccinations, in keeping with recommendations from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Older people in nursing homes have accounted for a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths.
The US death toll has accelerated in recent weeks to 2,627 per day on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.
The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said that US COVID-19 deaths will peak in January, when its widely cited model projects that more than 100,000 people will die as the toll marches to nearly 562,000 by April 1.
Despite pleas from political leaders and health experts to stay home over the Christmas holidays, air travel rose over the weekend, according to Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
More than 1 million people travelled through US airports on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the most since Nov 29, the TSA said.
The latest surge in US hospitalisations and deaths was driven by Thanksgiving gatherings last month against public health recommendations, officials have said.
Nationwide, the number of hospitalised Covid-19 patients stood at nearly 113,400 on Monday, below the record high of over 114,200 set on Friday, according to the Reuters tally.
Walgreens and CVS, in partnership with the federal government, hope to vaccinate some 7 million people in more than 70,000 long-term care facilities. The companies began inoculating some residents with Pfizer's vaccine last week, but their full rollout began on Monday.
Moderna's vaccine is seen as easier to distribute to hard-to-reach rural areas because it does not need to be kept at the ultra-cold temperature required by the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.
Both vaccines were about 95 oer cent effective at preventing illness in large clinical trials.
Walgreens said it planned to vaccinate about 3 million residents and staff at 35,000 long-term care facilities over the coming weeks, while CVS plans to vaccinate around 4 million residents and staff at over 40,000 such facilities.
On Sunday, outside advisers to the CDC recommended that 30 million frontline essential workers should be the next group to receive priority for vaccination, including first responders, teachers, public transit staff and grocery store workers.