Vaccine, financial relief near as coronavirus ravages US health, economy

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Economic relief and a vaccine drew nearer to reality on Wednesday to counter a coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the U.S. economy and killed 286,487 people with year-end holiday gatherings expected to fuel another surge in infections.

The U.S. House of Representatives was set to vote Wednesday on a one-week stopgap funding bill that will buy more time to reach a deal on COVID-19 relief, with separate aid packages of more than $900 billion on the table.

Help is urgently needed as the United States reported an average of 2,259 deaths and 205,661 new cases each day over the past week.

Part of the congressional debate involves aid to state and local governments. In addition to millions of job losses in the private sector, state and local governments have laid off nearly 700,000 workers this year, according to U.S. government data, equal to 8.4% of the workforce.

Schools alone are facing a shortfall of up to $246 billion, or 18% of projected spending, over the next two years, according to Michael Griffith, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute.

In the former manufacturing hub of Schenectady, New York, the city government raised property taxes and trash-collection fees while the school board laid off 423 teachers, janitors and other workers, even with only 16% of grade-schoolers found to be proficient in math last year.

"These kids are struggling. They were struggling before COVID, and everybody looks past them," social worker Lindsey Esposito said.

Vaccinations could start as soon as this weekend, possibly taking pressure off a healthcare system buckling under a record 104,200 hospitalizations.

Pfizer Inc cleared another hurdle on Tuesday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released documents that raised no new red flags over the safety or efficacy of the vaccine it developed with Germany's BioNTech SE.

"It does look like the vaccine is safe, at least in the short term," said Dr. Daniel Culver, chair of Pulmonary Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.

A panel of outside advisers will meet on Thursday to discuss whether to recommend FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) of the Pfizer vaccine.

The chief advisor to the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program said the first U.S. injection could happen on Sunday or Monday.

"The FDA may approve that vaccine either Friday or Saturday," Moncef Slaoui told Fox News on Tuesday. "Within 24 hours we will be shipping the vaccine, and within maybe 12 hours from arriving into the immunization sites, the first subjects may be immunized, which could happen on Sunday or maybe more likely on Monday."

Britain became the first Western nation to begin mass inoculations with the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday.

The United States badly needs a new tool given that so many Americans refuse to heed expert medical advice and decline to wear masks or avoid crowds.

In Arizona, one of 14 states without a mask mandate, health officials on Tuesday reported over 12,000 new coronavirus cases, eclipsing the previous record of 6,799 on Dec. 5.

Alabama, which together with Arizona is among about half of U.S. states that have not enacted new restrictions during the latest virus surge, also notched a record high number of cases on Tuesday, as did Ohio, according to a Reuters analysis.

Experts and officials have expected a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving holiday when many Americans traveled to be with family and friends. That cycle could be repeated following year-end holiday gatherings.

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