While You Were Sleeping: Coronavirus updates for December 1

Coronavirus

INDIANAPOLIS — There were several developments in the coronavirus pandemic that you may have missed overnight.

Here’s a look:

Surge preparations. Central Indiana hospitals and COVID-19 test sites are bracing for a surge in cases after travel and gatherings for Thanksgiving.

Some health officials believe an uptick is nearly certain.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are at an all-time high in the Hoosier state. Since November 1, the numbers have increased by more than 90%. The state recorded more than 3,400 COVID-19 patients in Indiana hospitals on Monday, the highest hospitalization record since the start of the pandemic.

Now hospitals like Eskenazi Health are preparing for an influx of patients a few weeks after Thanksgiving.

“We are anticipating it,” said Dr. Graham Carlos, chief of internal medicine at Eskenazi Health. “There is not so much of a worry if it is going to come. We really believe based on what we have learned about this virus that in a two to three week period, we will start to see even more of a rise above where we already are in terms of hospitalizations for critical care.”

To increase capacity, Eskenazi Health is creating more rooms that can function as full ICU rooms. That means they can handle a ventilator and are staffed by an ICU nurse. Dr. Carlos also said they are looking into December and January to set schedules for staff so the hospital is prepared for an uptick in cases in the coming weeks.

“Most of all the hospital doctors in ICUs that I know and that I have spoken with say they are running two and three times what they normally would to kick off December in a given year,” said Dr. Carlos.

Eskenazi Health is also training nurses who are ready and willing to learn so they can help address basic needs for ICU patients.

This time of year is usually the busiest for hospitals. On top of an already busy season, doctors now expect an increase from COVID-19 cases.

“We really have not started to see all of the other viruses we typically see in December and January,” added Dr. Carlos.

It is not just hospitals that will be busy. Testing sites will also be in high demand. Christian Walker, public health preparedness coordinator of the Hamilton County Health Department, believes they will anticipate an influx of people requiring tests following the holiday weekend.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the county says there were a record number of daily COVID-19 tests administered. Hamilton County recently increased capacity for testing, and they are also prepared to extend hours.

A testing site at Ivy Tech Noblesville, sponsored through the Indiana State Department of Health, also put on weekend hours. There are now 10 COVID-19 testing sites in Hamilton County.

“Hopefully it creates more access for folks to get tested if they do need it,” said Walker.

Walker worries about the strain on testing labs as more people get tested. He said he is seeing turnaround times up to seven days sometimes.

Aria Diagnostics, an Indianapolis-based reference laboratory, has doubled its client services team, extended lab operating hours and increased drive-thru testing hours in the past month. The company also leased 4,500 square feet of new space to meet demand.

Aria Diagnostics even launched a saliva PCR test this month to offer another option to those who wish to get tested.

Holiday travel. Nearly 1.2 million people passed through U.S. airports Sunday, the largest number since the pandemic gripped the country in March, despite pleas from health experts for Americans to stay home over Thanksgiving.

The Transportation Security Administration screened at least 1 million people on four of the last 10 days through Sunday. That’s still half the crowd recorded last year at airports, when more than 2 million people were counted per day.

With new reported cases of coronavirus spiking across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a warning against Thanksgiving travel just a week before the holiday.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. has climbed to more than 160,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Public-health experts believe others who are infected don’t show signs of carrying the virus.

Previous holidays including Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day were followed by increases in new cases. David O’Connor, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the role of travel in the pandemic, expects the same thing to happen after Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas.

“Travel is going to be contributing to a bigger surge. What we see in the next couple weeks will tell us a lot about what will happen after Christmas,” he said. “We’re in the midst of a catastrophe as it is. You don’t need a surge for it to become horrible. The health care systems are already stretched.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Sunday that the U.S. could see “surge upon a surge” of coronavirus cases, and he does not expect guidelines advising against travel to be relaxed before Christmas.

It’s unclear whether the pleas of experts like Fauci had any effect on travel and large gatherings at Thanksgiving. Some airlines reported a pullback in bookings as virus cases grew in the days before the holiday.

Airlines say the risk of transmission during flights is very low if everyone on board wears a mask. Experts on epidemics say even if that is true, travelers can spread the virus once they get off the plane.

UIndy basketball. The University of Indianapolis Men’s Basketball program is pausing all team activities following a positive COVID-19 test result.

The Greyhounds are postponing two conference games this week against Lewis and McKendree. The team’s Dec. 8 exhibition game against Indiana State is canceled.

The school announced one tier 1 personnel member, which includes student-athletes, coaches, and support staff, tested positive for the virus. The program is temporarily ceasing operations for 14 days.

The program learned of the positive test result after the team conducted rapid testing Monday morning.

Emergency use. Moderna Inc. said it would ask U.S. and European regulators Monday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine as new study results confirm the shots offer strong protection — ramping up the race to begin limited vaccinations as the coronavirus rampage worsens.

Multiple vaccine candidates must succeed for the world to stamp out the pandemic, which has been on the upswing in the U.S. and Europe. U.S. hospitals have been stretched to the limit as the nation has seen more than 160,000 new cases per day and more than 1,400 daily deaths. Since first emerging nearly a year ago in China, the virus has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide.

Moderna is just behind Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech in seeking to begin vaccinations in the U.S. in December. Across the Atlantic, British regulators also are assessing the Pfizer shot and another from AstraZeneca.

Moderna created its shots with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and already had a hint they were working, but said it got the final needed results over the weekend that suggest the vaccine is more than 94% effective.

Of 196 COVID-19 cases so far in its huge U.S. study, 185 were trial participants who received the placebo and 11 who got the real vaccine. The only people who got severely ill — 30 participants, including one who died — had received dummy shots, said Dr. Tal Zaks, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company’s chief medical officer.

When he learned the results, “I allowed myself to cry for the first time,” Zaks told The Associated Press. “We have already, just in the trial, have already saved lives. Just imagine the impact then multiplied to the people who can get this vaccine.”

Moderna said the shots’ effectiveness and a good safety record so far — with only temporary, flu-like side effects — mean they meet requirements set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use before the final-stage testing is complete. The European Medicines Agency, Europe’s version of FDA, has signaled it also is open to faster, emergency clearance.

Moderna will present its case when the FDA meets on Dec. 17.

Adviser steps down. Dr. Scott Atlas, a science adviser to President Donald Trump who was skeptical of measures to control the coronavirus outbreak, is leaving his White House post.

A White House official confirmed that the Stanford University neuroradiologist, who had no formal experience in public health or infectious diseases, resigned at the end of his temporary government assignment. Atlas confirmed the news in a Monday evening tweet.

Atlas joined the White House this summer, where he clashed with top government scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, as he resisted stronger efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 267,000 Americans.

Atlas has broken with government experts and the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community to criticize efforts to encourage face covering to slow the spread of the virus. Just weeks ago on Twitter he responded to Michigan’s latest virus restrictions by encouraging people to “rise up” against the state’s policies.

His views also prompted Stanford to issue a statement distancing itself from the faculty member, saying Atlas “has expressed views that are inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.”

“We support using masks, social distancing, and conducting surveillance and diagnostic testing,” the university said Nov. 16. “We also believe in the importance of strictly following the guidance of local and state health authorities.”

Atlas defended his role in his resignation letter, saying, “I cannot think of a time where safeguarding science and the scientific debate is more urgent.”

Atlas was hired as a “special government employee,” which limited his service to government to 130 days in a calendar year — a deadline he reached this week.

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