• U.S. case tally climbs to 15 million from 14 million in five days
• Birx and Fauci say Americans must stop gathering in large numbers
• President-elect Joe Biden pledges to deliver 100 million vaccine shots in first 100 days in office
• German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleads with Germans to limit gatherings in emotional speech
The global case tally for the coronavirus illness COVID-19 climbed above 68 million on Wednesday and the U.S. tally rose above 15 million as the virus continued to race across the nation, filling hospitals with record numbers of patients.
The U.S. took just five days to get from 14 million confirmed cases of the virus to 15 million. It took six days to get to 14 million from 13 million. At the start of the outbreak, it took 98 days to go from an initial case on Jan. 21 to 1 million on April 28.
There were 104,600 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals on Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, beating the record set a day earlier. Hospitalizations have topped 100,000 and set fresh records for seven straight days. At the height of the pandemic in spring, hospitalizations remained below 60,000 at peak levels.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Task Force created to manage the U.S. response to the pandemic, said transmission has moved from public spaces to private ones as Americans mingle indoors more, including for the recent Thanksgiving celebration, when millions of people traveled to see family. That has meant that as improvements are seen in states that were overwhelmed in the spring or summer, the virus is spreading fast in other areas, including rural areas with fewer hospitals.
“If we don’t change how we gather, we will continue to have this surge across the country,” Birx told a Wall Street Journal event.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, agreed. The U.S. has not yet seen the full brunt of travel and congregation for Thanksgiving, which should show up in the next week or week and a half in the form of new cases, he said.
“Then we enter Christmas with more gathering, so we’re in for a very challenging period,” Fauci said at the same event. “The only way to counter that is by consistent adherence to public health measures,” he said, meaning frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in public. With a vaccine now appearing close, it’s more important than ever to comply with those measures, he said. If a vaccine is authorized and a distribution program is properly managed, the U.S. could get closer to normalcy by the back end of 2021, he said.
The U.S. added 219,944 new cases on Tuesday and at least 2,597 people died, according to a New York Times tracker. The U.S. has averaged 207,024 cases a day for the last week, up 18% from the average just two weeks ago.
The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases at 15.17 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and fatalities at 286,338.
President-elect Joe Biden pledged on Tuesday to distribute 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office, in one part of a three-pronged strategy to fight the pandemic.
That would mean 50 million Americans would be vaccinated. The vaccines closest to getting emergency-use authorization from the government, the one developed by Pfizer Inc. PFE, -3.01% and German partner BioNTech SE BNTX, -3.29% and one from Moderna Inc. MRNA, -4.19% , require two doses. The Food and Drug Administration will convene a meeting of its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on Thursday, which is made up of a group of independent medical experts, who will discuss the risks and benefits of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine before voting on whether the FDA should authorize the vaccine. A similar meeting to review Modern’s vaccine is scheduled for Dec. 17.
100 Million Shots in 100 Days: Biden’s Plan to Fight Covid-19
Speaking in Wilmington, Del., Biden also said he would look to have as many schools open during his first 100 days as possible, and he repeated a promise for requiring masks where he can, such as in federal buildings.
“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus,” Biden said. “I can’t promise that.” But he said he was “absolutely convinced we can change course.” Biden called on Congress to “fully fund” distribution of vaccines “to all corners of the country.”
Biden said he drew up his goals in consultation with Fauci, who has agreed to become his chief medical adviser. Biden said the U.S. is “at risk of becoming numb to [the virus’s] toll on all of us,” and called on Americans to help by wearing masks.
The federal government has fallen short of its goal of shoring up supplies of personal protective equipment, including respirator masks, the Wall Street Journal reported. The administration of incumbent President Donald Trump had pledged in May to boost emergency supplies of N-95 mask to 300 million in 90 days, but never met that goal. It has also yet to develop a centralized database for distributing medical equipment to all health providers.
The Department of Health and Human Services has not adopted key recommendations to ease supply shortages made in September by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A federal crisis response program hasn’t reached its staffing goals for health responders, the newspaper reported.
The report was greeted with dismay by health experts.
In other news:
• China’s COVID-19 vaccine is proving to be 86% effective, according to health officials in the United Arab Emirates, which has conducted a trial involving 31,000 volunteers, NPR reported. The UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention is now pushing to register the vaccine, developed by Sinopharm, after several health agencies analyzed the trial results. Sinopharm is still conducting late-stage clinical trials of the vaccine in Egypt, Jordan and Argentina.
• Singapore has ended its so-called cruise to nowhere, which was an effort to revive the battered cruise sector with ships unable to sail during the pandemic, after a passenger tested positive for COVID-19, the BBC reported. The ship operated by Royal Caribbean Group RCL, +0.94%, that set off on a four-day round trip as part of a scheme unveiled by the city-state’s tourism board in October, has returned to port. “We identified and isolated all guests and crew who had close contact with this guest, and each of those individuals have subsequently tested negative for the virus,” the company said in a statement. Passengers will be allowed to disembark after a review of contact tracing is completed.
• German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pleading with Germans to comply with public safety measures over the Christmas holiday period, while acknowledging the “roller coaster of emotions” that all are experiencing, local broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported. In an unusually emotional speech, Merkel said the current daily death toll of 590 was “far too high.” She urged Germans to follow the advice of scientists and health experts and to ignore misleading claims being made by far-right groups. “That’s the problem – people say it’s not so bad … but I believe quite simply that the scientific knowledge is real and it is this we should be using to guide us.”
• The U.K. regulator has warned people with a history of “significant allergic reactions” not to have the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, after two health-care workers had adverse reactions on the first day of the rollout, MarketWatch’s Callum Keown reported. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said the advice related to “any person with a history of a significant allergic reaction to a vaccine, medicines or food.” The two National Health Service workers were both recovering well, NHS medical director Stephen Powis said on Wednesday. The U.K. began to roll out a vaccination program on Wednesday after granting emergency use authorization to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 68 million on Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins data show, and the death toll is 1.56 million. At least 44 million people have recovered from COVID-19.
Brazil has the second highest death toll after the U.S. at 178,159 and is third by cases at 6.7 million.
India is second worldwide in cases with 9.7 million, and third in deaths at 141,360.
Mexico has the fourth highest death toll at 110,874 and 12th highest case tally at 1.2 million.
The U.K has 62,130 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world, and 1.8 million cases, or seventh highest in the world.
China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 93,782 confirmed cases and 4,746 deaths, according to its official numbers.
What are companies saying?
• Campbell Soup Co. CPB, -2.09% beat third-quarter earnings estimates but offered guidance that missed Street consensus. Mark Clouse, Campbell’s chief executive, said the company benefited from a number of factors, including strength in the snacks category during the pandemic and retailers that “rebuilt inventory for the holidays and the heart of soup season.” Campbell Soup raised its quarterly dividend to 37 cents per share from 35 cents per share, payable on Feb. 1, 2021 to shareholders of record as of close of business on Jan. 9, 2021. Campbell Soup is guiding for fiscal second-quarter sales growth of 5% to 7%, and adjusted EPS of 81 cents to 83 cents. The FactSet consensus is for sales of $2.30 billion, suggesting growth of 6.5%, and EPS of 84 cents.
• Chewy Inc. CHWY, +1.94% the online pet-products retailer, said sales jumped in its fiscal third quarter and a quarterly loss narrowed. Chewy said it lost $32.8 million, or 8 cents a share, in the quarter, compared with a loss of $79 million, or 20 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Net sales rose 45% to $1.78 billion, and the number of active users rose 40% to 17.8 million people, Chewy said. Analysts polled by FactSet expected the company to report a loss of 13 cents a share on sales of $1.72 billion. Chewy, alongside other online retailers, has benefited from pandemic buying. “Our pace of active customer acquisitions remains well-above pre-pandemic levels,” the company said in a letter to shareholders.
• Encompass Health Corp. EHC, +4.52% is exploring strategic options for its home health and hospice business, including a full or partial spinoff via an initial public offering, merger, sale or other transaction. The company said it has not set a timetable for any potential deal and does not intend to offer further disclosures until a deal has been approved. “Our primary focus this year has been to ensure Encompass Health’s best possible response to this unprecedented global pandemic,” said Chairman of the Encompass Health Board of Directors Lee Higdon. “This notwithstanding, the US health care delivery system continues to change, and we believe the time is appropriate for us to further reassess the corporate structure that may optimize the strategic positioning and growth of our businesses.”
• GameStop Corp. shares GME, -16.41% plunged after the videogame retailer reported fiscal third-quarter results that were dented by the COVID-19 pandemic. GameStop reported a net loss of $18.8 million, or 29 cents a share, compared with a loss of $83.4 million, or $1.02 a share, in the year-ago quarter. Revenue plunged 30% to $1.00 billion from $1.44 billion a year ago. “Our third quarter results were in-line with our muted expectations and reflected operating during the last few months of a seven-year console cycle and a global pandemic, which pressured sales and earnings,” GameStop Chief Executive George Sherman said in a statement announcing the results. Analysts surveyed by FactSet had expected a net loss of 80 cents a share on revenue of $1.09 billion.
• Mattress maker Tempur Sealy International Inc. TPX, +2.44% said demand has remained strong around the world in the fourth quarter, but it continues to suffer from supply constraints that have been greater than expected as the pandemic rages on. The company is now expecting fourth-quarter adjusted EBITDA growth of about 30% and low double-digit sales growth. U.S. e-commerce and international sales are expected to drive the growth. Tempur Sealy is targeting stock buybacks of about $280 million for 2020, including about $100 million in the fourth quarter. It plans to redeem $125 million of $250 million outstanding senior notes due 2023, funded by cheaper debt. It is planning to invest $150 million in the next three years in growth initiatives, including expanding its three foam facilities and opening a new one. That is expected to increase its U.S. pouring capacity for Tempur material and base foam by about 50%.
• Vera Bradley Inc. VRA, -9.05% reported third-quarter revenue that missed expectations. Net income totaled $8.9 million, or 26 cents per share, up from $139,000, or breakeven, a year ago. Adjusted EPS of 30 cents beat the FactSet consensus for 24 cents per share. Revenue of $124.8 million was down from $127.5 million and missed the FactSet consensus for $130.0 million. Gross margins benefited from sales of cotton face masks during the pandemic, according to a statement from Chief Executive Rob Wallstrom. And e-commerce sales, which comprised more than one-third of total revenue, got a boost from Vera Bradley’s acquisition last year of Pura Vida, a digitally-native jewelry company. Vera Bradley will offer bonuses of up to $500 to store, distribution center and customer service associates, bringing the total amount paid over the last two quarters to more than $800,000. Vera Bradley did not give guidance due to uncertainty from the pandemic.