Covid updates: Pharmacist accused of purposely spoiling 570 vaccine doses arrested

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The U.S. has identified its second case of the new and more infectious Covid strain that was initially discovered in the United Kingdom. Colorado health officials on Tuesday announced that they detected the country's first known case and California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said the new strain was detected in a 30-year-old man in San Diego County. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the circulation of the new Covid-19 strain in the U.S. could further stress hospitals that are already overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

The U.S. is recording at least 181,998 new Covid-19 cases and at least 2,313 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data.

Here are some of the biggest headlines Thursday:

The following data was compiled by Johns Hopkins University:

  • Global cases: More than 83.31 million
  • Global deaths: At least 1.81 million
  • U.S. cases: More than 19.94 million
  • U.S. deaths: At least 345,015

Police arrest pharmacist accused of destroying about 570 Covid vaccine doses

A Wisconsin pharmacist was arrested Thursday afternoon, accused of intentionally spoiling approximately 570 doses of Covid vaccine, local police said in a press release Thursday.

Police were called to investigate the incident at Advocate Aurora Health Hospital in Grafton on Wednesday after a former employee allegedly admitted to deliberately leaving 57 vials of Moderna coronavirus vaccine unrefrigerated, knowing that doing so would render the vaccine ineffective.

Aurora Health said in a press release Wednesday that the situation was a "violation of our core values" and that the pharmacist had been fired.

"We continue to believe that vaccination is our way out of the pandemic. We are more than disappointed that this individual's actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving their vaccine," the medical center said Wednesday.

The unrefrigerated doses of vaccine were distributed to patients, Grafton Police found, but officials at Aurora health said the spoiled vaccine posed no health concerns. Police estimated the value of the destroyed vaccine doses to be between $8,000 and $11,000.

According to a Grafton Police press release Wednesday, the department had been investigating the incident along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Food & Drug Administration.

Hannah Miao

Doctors criticize UK health officials for changing Pfizer vaccine plan

Doctors in the United Kingdom are pushing back on health officials' decision to change the vaccine schedule on Pfizer's Covid-19 immunizations.

U.K. health regulators on Wednesday said they would prioritize giving as many people their first dose of vaccine as quickly as possible, which could delay providing those who have already been inoculated their second dose by up to 12 weeks versus the recommended three weeks.

"We have real and grave concerns about these sudden changes to the Pfizer vaccine regime," the Doctors' Association UK, a non-profit advocacy group of volunteer medical professionals, said in a tweet Thursday. "It undermines the consent process, as well as completely failing to follow the science."

The organization said in a statement that they recognize the decision to change the regime was likely difficult considering the pressure the nation's hospitals are facing from Covid-19 patients. However, the protection shown after only one dose is "considerably lower" than if they were given two shots.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

GOP Sen. David Perdue quarantines days before Georgia runoff election

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) attends a rally with Vice President Mike Pence in support of both he and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) on December 04, 2020 in Savannah, Georgia.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Republican Sen. David Perdue is in quarantine after having contact with someone who tested positive for Covid, just days before his Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia, CNBC's Hannah Miao reports.

"Both Senator Perdue and his wife tested negative today, but following his doctor's recommendations and in accordance with CDC guidelines, they will quarantine," his campaign said in a statement.

Perdue's race against Democrat Jon Ossoff is one of two runoffs for the Senate in Georgia, which will determine whether Republicans or Democrats have majority control over the U.S. Senate in 2021.

The senator was slated to appear with GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler at a New Year's Eve campaign rally and concert in Gainesville, Georgia, Thursday afternoon. Loeffler faces Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock in her own runoff.

—Melodie Warner 

McConnell and Schumer spar over $2,000 checks to Americans

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor as he and the rest of the U.S. Senate face a decision over approving $2,000 stimulus checks on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 30, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to budge on the issue of $2,000 direct payments to Americans despite a push from his Democratic counterpart to hold a separate vote on increasing the Covid-19 relief.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told McConnell on the Senate floor that if the majority leader allowed an up-or-down vote on the checks, Democrats would not stand in the way of holding votes to establish a commission to look into alleged improprieties in the 2020 election and to increase the liability of internet platforms via the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

"Just give us a vote on the House-passed bill, and we can vote on whatever right-wing conspiracy theory you like," Schumer said.

Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a bill on Monday increasing the amount of the direct payments included in the $900 billion coronavirus rescue package from $600 to $2,000. The House vote came after President Donald Trump demanded that the checks be made larger.

McConnell, who had rebuffed earlier efforts to get an up-or-down vote on the House bill, did so again on Thursday after Schumer attempted to get the Senate to consider the measure via unanimous consent.

"Socialism for rich people is a terrible way to get help to families who actually need it," McConnell said.

Tucker Higgins

Airlines banned more than 1,400 travelers for refusing to wear face masks this year

The U.S. government declined to mandate masks on airplanes during the pandemic this year so airlines came up with their own rules: Wear a face covering or you don't fly.

In total, more than 1,400 travelers were banned by airlines for failing to comply.

Delta Air Lines put 700 customers on a no-fly list for failing to follow the procedure, while United Airlines said it banned more than 500 travelers and Alaska Airlines banned some 265 travelers.

The banned travelers list represent a minuscule percentage of the more than 200 million people screened by the Transportation Security Administration at U.S. airports since March 1.

—Leslie Josephs

Israel outpaces others in vaccination campaign

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as Israel continues its national vaccination drive, during a third national COVID lockdown, at a Maccabi Healthcare Services branch in Ashdod, Israel December 29, 2020.
Amir Cohen | Reuters

Israel has already immunized about 647,000 people against Covid-19, a whopping 7% of its more than 9.2 million residents — more than any other country in the world per capita, according to the Israeli Ministry of Health.

"Israel is the world champion in vaccines, in first place by a lot," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted Tuesday, as he campaigned for reelection. "My mission now is to ensure that we will continue at this pace and we are working on it together."

In stark contrast, the U.S. has vaccinated roughly 0.8% of its population of 331 million against Covid-19 as of Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Israel's population is just slightly larger than New Jersey's, the nation's success in rapidly rolling out the first doses to a large portion of its population could hold lessons for countries like the U.S.

—Will Feuer

42 people given treatment instead of vaccine in West Virginia

Dozens of people in West Virginia were mistakenly given Regeneron's Covid-19 antibody treatment instead of the Moderna vaccine, the West Virginia National Guard said.

The 42 people who received the antibody treatment instead of the vaccine have been contacted, Julie Miller, an administrator for the Boone County Health Department, told CNBC by email. She added that "we do not believe there is any risk of harm."

The mix-up occurred at a clinic in the Boone County Health Department, Miller said.

"It has been determined that this was an isolated incident," Miller said, but did not provide details on how the mistake occurred. "All of the affected individuals will be offered the COVID-19 vaccine today."

—Will Feuer

Half of college students say Covid will impact their ability to graduate

Gallup and the Lumina Foundation recently surveyed over 6,000 college students and found that half of students say the coronavirus pandemic will impact their ability to graduate.

Black students, Hispanic students and associate degree students were among those most likely to say they will be unable to complete their program because of Covid-19.

Figures such as these concern experts who fear that the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities in higher education.

Courtesy of Gallup

—Abigail Hess

Holidays boost air travel to highest since start of pandemic

Passengers at the Miami International Airport
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

The Transportation Security Administration has screened more than 1 million people a day at U.S. airports for each of last five days, putting the industry on track for its best week since mid-March.

On Wednesday, TSA screened 1.16 million people, about 55% of last year's levels.

Airline executives have warned that holiday spike, which comes even after health officials recommended avoiding travel to curb the spread of the virus, is expected to wane in the coming weeks as a surge in infections and new travel restrictions weigh on demand.

American Airlines President Robert Isom on Tuesday said the airline is flying about 45% of its December 2019 capacity this month and that it will likely continue at those levels through February.

Leslie Josephs

Fauci calls vaccine rollout 'disappointing'

The slower-than-expected Covid vaccine rollout in the United States has been "disappointing," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Officials from Operation Warp Speed, President Donald Trump's vaccine program, had previously said the country would immunize 20 million people with the first of two-dose Covid-19 vaccine regimens in December. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of more than 12.4 million doses distributed, just under 2.8 million have actually been administered.

Federal officials have pointed to a few factors to explain the holdup. Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC said Wednesday, for example, that the holiday season has created a slow initial rollout and that the pace will pick up next month.

"We would've liked to have seen it run smoothly and have 20 million doses into people today, by the end of the (year) 2020, which was the projection. Obviously, it didn't happen and that's disappointing," Fauci said on NBC's "Today" show. "Hopefully, as you get into the first couple of weeks in January, the gaining of momentum will get us to the point where we want to be."

—Will Feuer

NYC aims to vaccinate 1 million people next month

A worker of the New York City Fire Department Bureau of Emergency Medical Services (FDNY EMS) receives a COVID-19 Moderna vaccine, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York, December 23, 2020.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city aims to vaccinate 1 million people in January.

That goal would require a considerable acceleration of current rates, given the city of 8 million people has administered just 78,000 vaccine doses to date, CNBC's Dawn Kopecki reports. De Blasio said he would commission schools, pop-up clinics and "whatever it takes" to assist with the effort.

"New York City is going to show that we can jump-start this and vaccinate people at a record pace. And we want to see the whole country to be a part of this because we need to go faster to fight back the coronavirus if we want to recover," he said.

—Sara Salinas

Vybe Together party promoter app has been taken down

Vybe Together, an app that encouraged users to attend parties despite the pandemic, has apparently been removed from most corners of the internet, NBC News reports.

The app, which billed itself as a way to "find your Vybe" at "speakeasies, jam sessions or beer pong," appeared to promote secret, invitation-only parties, according to an archived version of a now-removed website.

Vybe Together's account has since been removed from TikTok, a TikTok spokesperson told NBC News. The app has also been removed from the Apple App Store. The app had not been made available on Google Play, Google's version of the App Store.

—Melodie Warner 

U.S. initial jobless claims decline for second straight week

The number of people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time declined for the second straight week, CNBC's Fred Imbert reports.

Initial jobless claims declined by 19,000 to 787,000 in the week ending Dec. 26, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Dow Jones expected initial jobless claims of 828,000. The previous week's total for initial claims was revised up by 3,000 to 806,000.

The four-week moving average for first-time filers rose by 17,750 to 836,750, signaling the labor market is still under pressure as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

—Melodie Warner 

Ford, Bryan Cranston launch ad urging U.S. to follow Covid precautions

Ford Motor's new ad campaign is urging Americans to save lives by following Covid-19 protocols.

The "#FinishStrong" initiative includes a new commercial from filmmaker Peter Berg and voiced by actor Bryan Cranston. The spots will launch in early January during college football bowl games on ABC and ESPN and NFL games on Fox.

Ford leaders said on a call Wednesday the company wants to encourage Americans to help prevent tens of thousands of additional deaths as vaccines roll out. 

Megan Graham

China issues conditional approval to its first vaccine

A health worker inoculates a volunteer with a COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese Sinopharm during its trial on December 09, 2020.

Chinese health regulators issued conditional approval to Sinopharm's two-dose regimen, The Associated Press reports. It's the first vaccine to be approved for general use in the country of 1.3 billion people.

Under conditional approval, research will continue, and state-owned Sinopharm will be required to submit further data, the AP reports.

The Beijing Institute of Biological Products, the Sinopharm subsidiary that developed the drug, says it has a 79.3% effectiveness rate based on late-stage trials, according to the report.

—Sara Salinas

U.S. hospitalizations surpass 125,000 for the first time

Gabriel Cervera tries to wake a patient who was extubated in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, December 28, 2020.
Callaghan O'Hare | Reuters

More than 125,000 people were hospitalized around the U.S. as of Wednesday, according to The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, the highest tally of the pandemic and a stark warning as the country heads in 2021.

Dwindling ICU capacity and strained health systems pose a dangerous threat to patients and providers alike. Covid-19 deaths also reached a record on Wednesday, with more than 3,700 people succumbing to the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Cases and hospital stays have continued to rise even as two vaccines, developed by Pfizer and Moderna, ship out for administration.

—Sara Salinas

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