Please Note

The Washington Post is providing this important information about the coronavirus for free. For more free coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, sign up for our Coronavirus Updates newsletter where all stories are free to read.

Wealthy donors to one Florida nursing home received coronavirus vaccines that were supposed to be reserved for staff members and residents — prompting frustration and outrage as less-affluent senior citizens camp out in long lines to be immunized.

Here are some significant developments:
  • National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins acknowledged that the distribution of coronavirus vaccines got off to a “rocky beginning” but said he wasn’t surprised.
  • Students on the campus of the University of California at San Diego can now access free, self-administered coronavirus tests at vending machines.
  • Private payrolls unexpectedly contracted in December for the first time in seven months, a signal that the economic recovery is stalling.
  • The World Bank has downgraded its global economic forecast for the coming decade, saying Tuesday that a “decade of growth disappointments” could be on the way if policymakers don’t take swift action.
  • An already scaled-back Grammy Awards ceremony has been postponed because of the “deteriorating COVID situation” in Los Angeles, where intensive care units are at capacity and ambulances are being told to ration oxygen.
  • The tiny island nation of Palau could be one of the first countries to vaccinate nearly its entire population against the coronavirus.

Sign up for our coronavirus newsletter | Mapping the spread of the coronavirus: Across the U.S. | Worldwide | Vaccine tracker | Has someone close to you died of covid-19? Share your story with The Washington Post.

9:30 p.m.
Link copied

7 key California school superintendents blast governor’s new school reopening plan

The superintendents of seven of California’s largest school districts on Wednesday blasted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) new school reopening plan, saying that it fails to address key factors keeping schools closed and does nothing to end the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting on low-income communities of color.

The letter sent Wednesday to Newsom makes clear that the superintendents don’t think the state is doing enough to reduce covid-19 rates in low-income communities and that the governor’s intention to initially give $450 per student to schools with in-person learning could wind up helping wealthier communities and punishing poorer ones.

“Our schools stand ready to resume in-person instruction as soon as health conditions are safe and appropriate,” the letter says. “But we cannot do it alone.”

8:50 p.m.
Link copied

Saudi Arabia advises Hajj, Umrah pilgrims to vaccinate first

Saudi Arabia is urging Muslims to receive a coronavirus vaccine before performing Hajj or Umrah, religious pilgrimages to the country’s holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of Hajj and Umrah, Muhammad Saleh Benten, made the recommendation during an interview Tuesday with Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya.

In a typical year, millions of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the religious rites. But in March, Hajj, a pilgrimage that occurs once a year, and Umrah, a smaller year-round pilgrimage, were both suspended as the global pandemic hit.

In September, authorities began to allow a reduced number of citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. Masks and social distancing are now required, and pilgrims can only be between the ages of 18 and 50.

In November, Saudi Arabia resumed entry for 10,000 foreign pilgrims who followed various virus restrictions, including an initial quarantine and testing period.

Still, policies remain in flux. In late December, Saudi authorities temporarily suspended international flights in an effort to prevent the spread of a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus first detected in Britain. They have since resumed flights with some new restrictions.

Last month, Saudi Arabia began providing an initial batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine free to all citizens and residents.

While covid-19 has upended religious traditions worldwide, Saudi Arabia previously grappled with a different coronavirus outbreak. Beginning in 2012, health authorities began recording cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) traced to the Arabian Peninsula. The Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, during which people from all over the world are in close quarters, was one vector for the virus to spread.

8:42 p.m.
Link copied

Perspective: It’s a new year, but we’re in the ‘messy middle’ of the pandemic. Here are 5 ways to cope.

Goodbye, 2020! What a year! But as we settle into a hard winter, I can’t help wondering: Will 2021 be much better?

With vaccines coming and other changes on the horizon, many people are optimistic. But we are not at the end of the pandemic. We are in the “messy middle,” a phrase I first heard from Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Everything looks like a failure in the middle.

This messy middle is hard, and 2021 is not going to be anything close to normal. Instead of just waiting for it all to be over, we’ll do better to reengage with the things that bring us meaning. So put down that cookie (I’m talking to myself here) and use this checklist to set your mid-pandemic course correction on the best possible path.

7:55 p.m.
Link copied

Canada to begin vaccinating some prisoners in pilot program

A pilot program will provide vaccines to some people imprisoned in federal prisons on Ottawa starting Friday, according to Canada’s national prison officer’s union, Canadian media reported.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) said that 600 inmates will each get two doses of vaccine in the first round. Sick and elderly people will be prioritized, in keeping with Canada’s national health guidelines. The union did not specify exactly which federal prisons will be included in the program.

Worldwide, prisons have been hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks. Canada has reported nearly 1,000 infected prisoners and three deaths related to covid-19. One-quarter of people in the country’s prisons are above the age of 50, according to Canada’s Global News.

Erin O’Toole, the Canadian opposition leader and head of the country’s conservative party, took to Twitter on Tuesday to criticize the plans. “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” he wrote.

Mark Gerretsen, a parliament member from the Liberal Party, responded to the tweet late Tuesday. “Here’s a thought,” he wrote, “how about we let health professionals decide who gets a vaccine and when.”

Prison officers and employees will not be included in the pilot program and will have to wait until Canada’s second vaccination phase.

7:18 p.m.
Link copied

U.S. accelerates plan to distribute vaccine through pharmacies

The federal government is accelerating a plan to distribute coronavirus vaccines through retail pharmacies, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.

In a briefing with reporters, Azar and other officials from Operation Warp Speed acknowledged the slow rate of vaccine administration and said the administration is taking “immediate action” for states to speed up getting shots into arms.

The latest figures show that more than 17 million doses of the two authorized vaccines have been distributed, but only about 4.8 million doses had been given as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The partnership with more than 40,000 pharmacy locations from 19 chains will be one way for states to allocate doses of vaccine directly to these locations, Azar said. The original plan had been to ramp up the program over time because there isn’t enough vaccine supply to spread across all the pharmacies.

The CDC sent instructions to state health departments this week to allow states to “turn on” the process. The CDC is recommending that one or two pharmacy partners in each jurisdiction be selected to receive vaccine as part of the program, according to information sent to the states.

Most states are vaccinating the first priority groups of health-care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. But the process has been confusing because each state is deciding how to prioritize residents, how to set up immunization sites and how to train personnel to give the shots. In Florida, seniors have been lining up outside clinics overnight for first-come, first-served opportunities to get vaccinated.

“We would much rather see states move as quickly as possible and use every possible avenue to meet demand as places like Florida are trying to do than to leave vaccines sitting in freezers,” Azar said.

He and other officials said states don’t need to complete vaccinating one priority group before moving to the next.

“It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower-priority people than to let vaccines sit around and states try to micromanage this process,” Azar said.

7:09 p.m.
Link copied

Operation Warp Speed scientist to continue as consultant to Biden administration

Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the federal government initiative to speed vaccine development and distribution, has agreed to resign when the Trump administration ends and will stay on temporarily in a consulting role.

According to an official of the transition team for President-elect Joe Biden, Slaoui has agreed to be available to the incoming administration as a consultant for a period estimated to last four to six weeks. The official, speaking Wednesday on the condition of anonymity about personnel moves that have not been announced publicly, said that Slaoui will remain briefly to ensure continuity.

An individual familiar with the decision, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said part of the reason Slaoui will remain temporarily is that the Biden transition was late starting preparations to inherit responsibility for the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, because Trump held up access to federal agencies by the incoming team.

The transition official also said that Gen. Gustave Perna, Operation Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, will remain in his position.

The transition’s description of their roles differs somewhat from what the two men said at a Warp Speed briefing. Slaoui said Wednesday that he will continue to work as a consultant to the vaccine effort, but he did not mention a resignation or a limited time frame.

Earlier in December, Slaoui said that once two vaccines were authorized, he would consider ending his involvement. He said Wednesday he had decided to extend his involvement to make sure the initiative transitioned smoothly.

“I’ve been contacted by the new administration, and I have been asked to become a consultant after the time comes when the transition happens, which I have accepted to do,” Slaoui said, adding that he anticipated his role would diminish because his ability to add value to the operation would decrease after the transition.

Perna said he had not been informed officially of his role after the transition, but said he would work until the mission was done.

Note: This post has been updated to include information from the Biden transition team.

6:53 p.m.
Link copied

UC-San Diego introduces vending machines with free coronavirus tests

Students on the campus of the University of California at San Diego can now access free, self-administered coronavirus tests at vending machines, in a first-of-its-kind approach that eases the burden on staff and provides more flexibility as the school scales up testing.

The 11 machines were introduced Jan. 2 as the school switches from biweekly to weekly required testing for the 10,000 students on campus (about a quarter of UC-San Diego’s total enrollment.) The school plans to install nine more machines in the coming weeks, a university spokeswoman told The Washington Post.

Students use their school ID cards to obtain tests from the machines, swab their nostrils and drop off their samples. The samples, once collected, would be analyzed at campus labs within 72 hours. Thousands of students and employees have taken advantage of the machines, UC-San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said in an email.

“Providing students with easy access to testing by installing vending machines is just one of many components of UC San Diego’s multilayered, adaptive and data-driven plan to incrementally repopulate our campus as safely as possible,” Khosla said. “By eliminating the need for appointments and health-care staff to administer testing, we have dramatically increased the number of daily tests being performed.”

In addition to vending machines, UC-San Diego claims to have the most sophisticated wastewater coronavirus testing program of any U.S. university. Sewage samples are collected from campus housing and screened daily, allowing the university to track and detect outbreaks as they develop.

6:15 p.m.
Link copied

Politics frustrates WHO mission to search for origins of coronavirus in China

An international team of scientists has spent months preparing for a mission to Wuhan to search for the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Their first challenge: getting into China.

For almost a year, the World Health Organization has been working with Chinese authorities to secure access to the epicenter of the initial outbreak. Terms of reference were drawn up. The team was selected. It expected to arrive in China just after the new year.

By New Year’s Eve, the WHO expert leading the mission did not have a flight booked. On Tuesday, WHO secretary general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed “disappointment” that China had yet to finalize permissions for the trip — his most pointed criticism of China to date. China has said the two sides are “still negotiating” arrangements for the trip.

The delay and the rare rebuke point to the many challenges facing the WHO team tasked with investigating one of the most complex and critical questions of our time. It is a question that has become increasingly politically fraught as the United States and other critics blame China for the pandemic that has now claimed more than 1.8 million lives.

5:41 p.m.
Link copied

NIH director urges patience after ‘rocky beginning’ to vaccine rollout

National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins acknowledged Wednesday that the distribution of coronavirus vaccines got off to a “rocky beginning” but said he wasn’t surprised.

“It’s in the middle of the holidays, so maybe we shouldn’t be too shocked it didn’t just go like clockwork,” Collins said in a Washington Post Live interview with reporter Frances Stead Sellers. “Let’s all be a little patient and not conclude that we’ve got a major challenge … until we have a little bit more time to see how it goes.”

The Trump administration vowed to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020. Instead, federal data shows that about 4.8 million have been vaccinated to date, with delays reported across the nation.

Collins, whose agency worked with Moderna to develop the second federally authorized vaccine, defended the Trump administration’s decision to largely leave distribution up to the states.

“Obviously that has had some bumps,” he said. “I will tell you, there is now a pretty good opportunity for states to learn from each other [on] best practices, and that might be missed if we were trying to do this completely in a top-down fashion.”

Collins also cautioned against steps considered in Britain, and urged by some experts in the United States, to expand vaccine supplies by administering only the first of two doses to many people. The strategy would allow up to twice as many people to receive one initial injection. Collins said the suggestion was unscientific and risked leaving people without adequate protection after their shot.

The NIH is also conducting a study on adverse vaccine reactions, which Collins said shouldn’t dissuade the public from getting a shot.

“When you consider that over 350,000 people have lost their lives to this disease and that we are here in January of 2021, probably in the worst month yet, and it’s not over, the balance between benefits and risks, looking at the data, is so strongly in favor of accepting the vaccine,” he said.

5:07 p.m.
Link copied

New Montana governor aims to lift mask mandate within weeks

Newly elected Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) said Tuesday that he plans to rescind the statewide mask mandate put in place by his Democratic predecessor once more vulnerable people have been vaccinated and liability protections exist for businesses that make a “good-faith effort” to shield people from the virus.

That move is likely to come within “weeks, not months,” the governor said.

“After we have increased vaccine distribution, and after I have legislation on my desk that protects businesses, schools, places of worship and nonprofit organizations that follow guidelines from lawsuits, then we will rescind the current statewide mask mandate,” Gianforte told reporters.

Former governor Steve Bullock implemented a partial mask mandate in July, requiring face coverings in counties with at least four cases of the virus. The rule expanded to the entire state on Nov. 20.

As vaccinations roll out, Gianforte said the state will shift its plan to prioritize people ages 70 or older, as well as those ages 16 through 69 with specific preexisting conditions.

Montana has administered a first dose of vaccine to at least 23,526 people as of Wednesday morning, putting it behind nine other states — as well as the District, the Mariana Islands and Guam — in inoculations per 100,000 residents.

The percentage of people accepting the vaccine has varied widely among communities, Gianforte said, from 40 percent in some areas to 75 percent in others.

4:34 p.m.
Link copied

So many pets have been adopted during the pandemic that shelters are running out

Animal shelters in the Washington region are experiencing a unique problem: As the coronavirus pandemic has kept more residents at home, it has created such a high demand for adopting dogs that the supply is increasingly limited.

Some shelters and humane rescue groups are seeing double the typical number of requests from people to adopt dogs since the pandemic hit the United States in early spring. As organizations have switched their in-person adoptions to virtual meet-and-greets, they also are competing with rescue groups in other parts of the country to bring in animals.

“We thought people would stop adopting because they would need to conserve their money,” said Cindy Sharpley, founder and director of Last Chance Animal Rescue, a nonprofit animal shelter in Waldorf, Md. “But that hasn’t happened. It’s been just the opposite. They’re going like hot cakes. We can hardly keep them in stock.”

4:02 p.m.
Link copied

Private payrolls unexpectedly shrank in December, a red flag for a slowing economy

Private payrolls unexpectedly contracted in December for the first time in seven months, the ADP Research Institute reported Wednesday, a signal that the economic recovery is stalling amid a nationwide coronavirus surge.

Analysts had predicted that holiday shopping would boost private payrolls by 60,000 positions in the final month of 2020. Instead, payrolls decreased by 123,000 positions as businesses grappled with renewed restrictions and declining traffic. On the eve of the new year, nearly 20 million Americans remained on unemployment, a jobs crisis worse than during the Great Recession.

The job losses were concentrated in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, ADP Vice President Ahu Yildirmaz said in a news release. Small businesses and the service sector were hit especially hard, but financial pressure also led such giants as Coca-Cola and 3M to announce layoffs. Some job growth was seen in manufacturing and the professional and business services, but the overall picture looked bleak.

“The heart of every recession is job losses and right now the decline in jobs at year end is hinting that the dark days of the labor market last spring have returned,” Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank, said Tuesday in an email to The Washington Post.

Experts are looking toward December’s monthly jobs report, due Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for a more detailed picture of the economy.

3:09 p.m.
Link copied

Nebraska governor says citizens, legal residents will get vaccine priority over undocumented immigrants

After briefing reporters Monday on plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Nebraska meatpacking plants, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) was asked whether undocumented workers would be included.

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” Ricketts replied. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

When his comments quickly went viral, stoking outrage from critics, Nebraska officials rushed to clarify. Immigrants would still qualify for the vaccine, one Ricketts aide said, but those without legal status would have to wait at the back of the line.

“Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants,” the governor’s communications director, Taylor Gage, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

3:00 p.m.
Link copied

More than half of North Carolina nursing-home workers are refusing vaccine, official estimates

Most nursing-home employees in North Carolina are refusing coronavirus vaccines, the state’s top public health official said Tuesday, while the governor deployed the state’s National Guard to speed distribution.

“I caution it’s anecdotal, but we are definitely hearing that more than half [are] declining, and that is concerning,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the Associated Press. She did not offer a reason for the refusals but compared North Carolina’s situation to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s recent comment that about 60 percent of his state’s long-term care staff have declined to be vaccinated.

North Carolina’s inoculation program is among the slowest in the nation. The state had administered 1,200 vaccine doses per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday morning, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. Only seven states and the Virgin Islands had given fewer.

Cohen attributed the lethargic pace in part to a decentralized system that requires state officials to coordinate with 83 local public-health departments, according to the AP. She also blamed staffing shortages and unfamiliarity among some with the state’s technological systems.

Announcing his decision Tuesday to deploy the state’s National Guard, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) wrote on Twitter that vaccine distribution was his administration’s “top priority” and that it would use all resources available to speed inoculations.