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Coronavirus Update: U.S. tops 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 as Biden pledges $10 billion investment to expand vaccine access

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The U.S. case tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 30 million on Thursday, as President Joe Biden unveiled a $10 billion program that aims to ensure vaccine access for the hardest-hit and most-at-risk communities across the U.S.

“With funding in large part from the American Rescue Plan, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will invest nearly $10 billion to expand access to vaccines and better serve communities of color, rural areas, low-income populations, and other underserved communities in the COVID-19 response,” the White House said in a statement.

In a push to ramp up the U.S. vaccine drive, the Biden administration has already sent vaccine directly to drug store chains and Community Health Centers that serve vulnerable populations. This latest drive will seek to get jabs into the arms of the people at risk of developing serious disease or death and who have historically had less access to health care than wealthier communities.

The government will invest $3 billion in a program that aims to boost confidence in vaccines and overcome the skepticism and anti-science sentiment that is undermining the biggest public health exercise in decades. It will also launch a program to vaccinate patients undergoing dialysis. Kidney disease disproportionately affects minorities and those patients often have severe outcomes if they become infected with the virus.

Don’t miss: Fewer people take a ‘wait and see’ approach to COVID-19 vaccine — here’s what changed their minds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Wednesday, 169.2 million doses had been delivered to states, 130.5 million doses had been administered and 85.5 million Americans had received at least one dose, equal to 26.7% of the population. By now, 46.4 million Americans have received two doses and are fully vaccinated, equal to 14% of the population.

A full 70% of Americans aged 65 and older have received at least one dose and dozens of states are now prepping to open their programs to all adults, the Associated Press reported. More than 43% of that same group have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday he isn’t ready to declare victory.

“I’m often asked, are we turning the corner?” Fauci said at a White House briefing. “My response is really more like we are at the corner. Whether or not we’re going to be turning that corner still remains to be seen.”

The U.S. added at least 79,440 new cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,591 people died. The U.S. has averaged 57,322 cases a day over the last week, more or less the same as two weeks ago. Those persistently high numbers are what’s giving Fauci pause, and he and other experts are urging Americans to continue to comply with public safety measures — frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in public.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, sees red flags in states lifting mask mandates, air travel roaring back and spring break crowds partying out of control in Florida.

“We’re getting closer to the exit ramp,” Topol told the AP. “All we’re doing by having reopenings is jeopardizing our shot to get, finally, for the first time in the American pandemic, containment of the virus.”

Don’t miss: The new B.1.1.7 is a ‘super-spreader’ strain. Here’s how the U.S. can control it, says Dr. Eric Topol

As promised, AstraZeneca PLC
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which has been under fire for the accuracy of its data, on Wednesday night announced updated Phase 3 trial data of its coronavirus vaccine, saying it’s 76% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, as MarketWatch’s Mike Murphy reported. AstraZeneca also said its vaccine had 100% efficacy against severe disease and hospitalizations, and that for patients older than 65, it had 85% efficacy against the virus.

Earlier data suggested the vaccine was 79% effective, but those data were challenged by U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said it was concerned that AstraZeneca had released “outdated information,” and the company was accused of cherry-picking data.

Fauci said at Wednesday’s briefing that he was confident the AstraZeneca vaccine is good, even if the efficacy rate is lower than originally claimed.  “At the end of the day, you know, when you look at the data, this is going to turn out to be a good vaccine,” Fauci said during Wednesday’s White House COVID-19 briefing

AstraZeneca’s vaccine has also been the subject of worry over possible blood clots that were detected in a very small number of patients in Europe. But an EU regulator last week declared the drug “safe and effective,” and in its announcement Wednesday night, the company said, “The vaccine was well tolerated, and no safety concerns related to the vaccine were identified.”

That’s good news is the company is planning to submit an application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization. If approved, that would add a fourth vaccine to the U.S. program, alongside the vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc.
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and German partner BioNTech SE
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by Moderna Inc.
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and by Johnson & Johnson
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However, the EU has failed to secure sufficient supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and on Wednesday moved to curb vaccine exports.

Don’t miss: Vaccines are here. That’s no reason to call off the hunt for effective COVID-19 treatments.

In other news:

• Denmark’s health authority has extended its hold on using the AstraZeneca vaccine for another three weeks, MarketWatch’s Steve Goldstein reported. “At this time, we believe that our basis for making a final decision on any future use of the COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca is too uncertain. Many studies have been initiated, but we do not yet have any conclusions. Therefore, the hold on using the vaccine remains in effect,” said Director General Søren Brostrøm in a statement.

See also: It’s a ‘question of time’ before another virus jumps from animal to human, says co-inventor of flu treatment Tamiflu. Preventative therapies are needed.

•  An executive at a Chicago hospital that improperly gave COVID-19 vaccinations to people outside the neighborhoods the city asked the hospital to serve resigned, officials said Wednesday night, the AP reported. The board of the Loretto Hospital announced the resignation of Dr. Anosh Ahmed, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer. Ahmed and CEO George Miller were reprimanded last week by the hospital’s board of directors after news reports said hospital executives provided COVID-19 to some people who weren’t qualified to receive it. The executives have drawn recent criticism following revelations that the hospital improperly vaccinated workers at Trump Tower, at a suburban church where Miller is a member and at a luxury watch shop frequented by Ahmed.

•  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker allegedly directed that members of the governor’s family and bigwigs with ties to his administration should get priority coronavirus testing last year, a report said Wednesday, the New York Post reported. Relatives of Cuomo, including his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, one of their sisters and their mom, Matilda Cuomo, were tested several times during the early days of the pandemic, the Albany Times-Union reported. The Cuomo administration denied the allegations of preferential treatment to the newspaper. Cuomo spokesman and adviser Rich Azzopardi called the accusations “insincere efforts to rewrite the past.”

• Germany reported a steep jump in COVID infection rates in the last 24 hours, with 22,657 new cases being detected, the Guardian reported. The news comes after Chancellor Angela Merkel pulled plans for a five-day lockdown over the Easter holiday. Frustration with the slow rollout of the vaccine remains high, with newspaper Tagesspiegel reporting that 100,000 doses of the AstraZeneca jab remain in storage in Berlin after people failed to take up their appointments. Germany has vaccinated just 9.7% of its population to date.

•Brazil has reached a grim milestone of more than 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the second country to do so after the U.S., the AP reported. Brazil’s health ministry reported 2,009 daily COVID-19 deaths, bringing its pandemic total to 300,685. On Tuesday, the country saw a single-day record of 3,251 deaths. President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, insisting the economy must be kept humming to prevent worse hardship, and he has criticized health measures imposed by local leaders.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness rose above 124.8 million on Thursday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, with the U.S. accounting for a quarter of that number at more than 30 million.

The death toll rose above 2.74 million with the U.S. accounting for about a fifth, or 545,272. 

About 71 million people have recovered from COVID-19, the data show.

India is third worldwide in cases after Brazil with 11.7 million and fourth in deaths at 160,692.

Mexico is third by deaths at 199,627and 13th highest by cases at 2.2 million.

The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 126,621 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,612 confirmed cases and 4,840 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

The U.S. economy expanded in the fourth quarter at a revised 4.3% annual pace — a touch higher than previous reported — and even faster growth is expected in the months ahead, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Gross domestic product was raised from the previous reading of 4.1% mostly because of somewhat higher business investment, revised government figures show.

See: Restaurants wait for chance to tap into $28.6 billion relief fund: ‘We will be one of the first ones in line’

The economy appears to be speeding up again after slowing toward the end of the year following a record coronavirus outbreak. Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal predict GDP will increase at a 4.9% clip in the spring and 7% in the summer.

GDP is the sum of all the goods and services produced by the economy and is a scorecard of sorts for how the U.S. is performing.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis updates the GDP report twice after its initial release as more timely information is obtained to give a fuller picture of the how the economy performed.

Read: U.S. economy accelerates in March – and it’s not about to slow down

Separately, the number of new applications for unemployment benefits fell below 700,000 in late March for the first time since the onset of the pandemic as the U.S. economy shifted into a higher gear.

Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states declined by 97,000 to 684,000 in the week ended March 20, the government said Thursday.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 735,000.

Another 241,745 applications for benefits were filed through a temporary federal-relief program. These numbers are unadjusted.

Combined state and federal jobless claims totaled 898,534 last week, marking the first time they’ve dropped below 1 million since the eruption of the pandemic.

Read: Inflation worries are back. Should you worry?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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and S&P 500
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were lower Thursday.

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