By Susan Heavey and Maria Caspani
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The daily U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 3,000 for the first time, prompting pleas for Americans to scale back Christmas plans even with vaccines on the cusp of winning regulatory approval.
COVID-19 deaths reached 3,253 on Wednesday, pushing up the U.S. total since the start of the pandemic to 289,740. A record 106,219 people were hospitalized with the highly infectious respiratory disease.
Healthcare professionals and support staff, exhausted by demands of the pandemic, have been watching patients die alone as millions of Americans refuse to follow medical advice to wear masks and avoid crowds to contain the spread.
Nursing home residents and staff have also felt the burden.
“This is a pandemic that no one has ever experienced in our lifetimes,” Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, told Reuters on Thursday.
The one-day death toll exceeded the number of lives lost from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, underscoring the human toll and the call for Americans to redouble efforts.
“No Christmas parties. There is not a safe Christmas party in this country right now,” Dr. Michael Osterholm told CNN on Thursday.
“It won’t end after that but that is the period right now where we could have a surge upon a surge upon a surge,” Osterholm said.
Potentially helping to rein in the outbreak, a vaccine could start reaching healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents within days in what Hanse called “light at the end of the tunnel.”
A panel of independent medical experts was due to decide on Thursday whether to recommend to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a vaccine from Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE for emergency use authorization.
A vote was expected some time after 3:10 p.m. EST (2010 GMT).
FDA consent could come as early as Friday or Saturday, followed by the first U.S. injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, told Fox News.
A second vaccine developed by Moderna is a week behind.
Biden, who succeeds President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, has set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people within the first 100 days of his administration.
In the meantime, intensive care units at hundreds of hospitals across the country were at or near capacity, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed.
Ten mostly rural counties in California reported having no ICU beds on Wednesday, according to state health figures analyzed by Reuters.
Besides the human cost, the pandemic has forced millions out of work as state and local officials impose restrictions on social and economic life to contain the outbreak.
Congress, meanwhile, has struggled to end a months-long stalemate over economic assistance.
Disagreements remain over business liability protections demanded by Republicans and aid to state and local governments sought by Democrats before a final deal is reached on pandemic assistance.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani, Sharon Bernstein and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Steve Orlofsky and Tom Brown)