Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Hospitals across the U.S. and Europe are reaching capacity at a rapid pace.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

In an ominous sign of the strength of latest coronavirus surge, hospitals across the U.S. and Europe are reaching capacity at a rapid pace.

In Idaho, a 99 percent-full hospital warned that it may have to transfer Covid-19 patients out of state. Medical centers in Missouri and North Dakota have turned away patients in recent days because they had no room. In Poland, the government converted the country’s largest stadium into a temporary field hospital with room for 500 patients. Hospitals in France have started to postpone nonemergency surgeries, while others have called back staff on leave.

More than 40,000 people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus in the United States, a number that rose by 40 percent in the last month. In Europe, the rate has been steadily climbing for weeks, and people across much of continent are now more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than those in the United States.

The hospitalization rate is one of the best real-time measurements we have of the pandemic’s severity. While infection numbers depend heavily on an area’s testing capacity, seriously ill people tend to enter hospitals whether they’ve been tested or not.

Currently, hospitalization rates in both the U.S. and E.U. are lower than they were during spring and summer surges. But the sharply rising numbers are concerning because they are hitting areas with smaller hospital systems with fewer resources.

A prime example of this in Europe is the Czech Republic, where the current hospitalization rate is worse than Britain’s at its peak. Physicians across the country are worried about a shortage of staff, and in some regions, they say that 10 percent of the medical staff is in quarantine.

In the U.S., the virus is ravaging rural areas, where residents must rely on hospitals that may have only a handful of beds. Patients are now more broadly spread across the country, and unlike when the virus was largely concentrated in New York, there are few nurses or doctors who are able to leave their jobs to help in other regions.

It’s not just hospitalizations: The death rate has started trending upward as well. And a new study found that nearly 130,000 deaths from the virus could be prevented in the U.S. through next spring if everyone wore a mask.

Once Americans begin taking vaccines for the coronavirus, government researchers will face a monumental task: monitoring the health of millions of Americans to look for potential problems and side effects.

By sheer chance, thousands of vaccinated people will have heart attacks, strokes and other illnesses shortly after being injected. Determining if those ailments were triggered by a vaccine will require a sophisticated, highly coordinated effort by federal and state agencies, hospitals and drug makers. And any issues or problems that arise will need to be clearly communicated to a distrustful public that is awash in disinformation.

Our colleague Carl Zimmer exclusively reports that the National Vaccine Program Office, which was dedicated to monitoring the long-term safety of vaccines, was quietly disbanded by the Trump administration last year. A few dozen technical experts who staffed the office, based in the Health and Human Services Department, were let go or moved to an office focused on H.I.V., not vaccines.

So far, plans to track the different vaccines are fragmented. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Immunization Safety Office will track up to 20 million health care workers and other essential workers who are expected to get the first batch of authorized vaccines. The F.D.A. plans to look at electronic health records and insurance claims for patterns and analyze data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to track people over 65. Other systems to track vaccines also have their limits.

“We’re behind the eight ball,” said Daniel Salmon, who served as the director of vaccine safety in that office from 2007 to 2012, overseeing coordination during the H1N1 flu pandemic. “We don’t even know who’s in charge.”

  • On U.S. college campuses, virus cases keep climbing. Of the more than 214,000 coronavirus cases that have been identified this year, more than 35,000 have been identified since early October.

  • Poland, which has reported 64,783 cases of the coronavirus in the past seven days, will enact a number of new restrictions starting on Saturday. Thirty percent of the country’s 214,686 total cases have come in the past week.

  • Residents of Belgium will not be able to attend sporting events, theme parks will be closed, and cultural events will be limited to 200 people for at least the next three weeks. The restrictions come a week after the country shut all restaurants, bars and cafes, and limited close social contacts to one person outside a household.

  • The health minister of Turkey said that Istanbul now represents 40 percent of the country’s total number of coronavirus cases.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

At 89 years of age I’ve decided to put my papers in order. I’m collecting all the stories I’ve ever told to my family which now reside only in photographs, letters and documents, but mostly in my head. Hell, it’s more fun than doing crossword puzzles. Re-examining nine decades of significant events in my life is a great adventure as well as a healer of sorts. Perhaps I might live long enough to venture out and mingle with people again after we’ve all been injected with a reliable vaccine. However, the Grim Reaper is eyeing me anxiously, one way or the other.

— Melvin Grossgold, Paris

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Jonathan Wolfe