Coronavirus live updates: Fauci says US must ‘assume it’s going to get worse’ in January; stimulus checks delayed to next week?

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USA TODAY is keeping track of the news surrounding COVID-19 as a pair of vaccines join the U.S. fight against a virus that has killed nearly 335,000 Americans since the first reported fatality in February. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates on vaccine distribution, including who is getting the shots and where, as well as other COVID-19 news from across the USA TODAY Network. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates directly to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions for everything you need to know about the coronavirus.

In the headlines:

►The U.S. won’t come close to vaccinating 20 million people by Jan. 1, as many experts had forecast, but Dr. Anthony Fauci believes “an increase in momentum” next month will help the nation draw closer to rollout estimates. But Fauci, in an interview on CNN, said another surge coming off the holidays means “we just have to assume (the pandemic) is going to get worse.”

►The House on Monday voted to increase COVID-19 relief stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000, as President Donald Trump demanded when he signed the relief package into law Sunday. The measure will now head to the GOP-controlled Senate where its future remains highly uncertain. It’s not clear when the first checks will go out, but the bill specifies that checks must be sent no later than Jan. 15.

► Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, are scheduled to receive their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, transition officials said. Harris’ vaccination is expected to be done live on camera, CNN reported.

► Coronavirus hospitalizations are increasing rapidly in Georgia, with health officials reporting more than 4,000 people hospitalized Monday. Georgia is now in the top 20 for most new cases per capita in the last 14 days as infection rates have declined in the Midwest and risen in the South.

►Spain surpassed 50,000 deaths while the country’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 residents has declined. Health Minister Salvador Illa on Monday announced the country plans to collect and share information of residents who decide not to get a COVID-19 vaccine with other European Union nations, the New York Times reported.

►California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly on Tuesday will likely announce that the stay-at-home order will be extended for another three weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 19.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 334,800 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 81.2 million cases and 1.77 million deaths. 

Here’s a closer look at today’s top stories:

Vaccination totals far behind rollout estimates

When the first virus vaccines won emergency authorization this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated that 20 million people – mostly healthcare workers – could be vaccinated by year’s end. The rate would then jump in early 2021 as more vaccines rolled out, Azar and other experts said.

So far, the numbers are far below expectations. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, acknowledged Tuesday that only a few million vaccinations have taken place thus far.

“I believe that, as we get into January, we are going to see an increase in momentum” that allows the nation to catch up to the planned rollout, Fauci said on CNN. He said he still hopes that by spring or summer “anybody and everybody who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated.”

Testing declined despite surge in cases

With many testing centers closed for the holidays, the U.S. conducted 1.5 million fewer COVID-19 tests in the week ending Monday than it did in the previous week, a USA TODAY analysis of COVID Tracking Project data shows. 

In all, 42 states reported less testing. In hard-hit Tennessee, the total number of tests was barely more than half of what it was a week earlier. But the rate of those positive tests increased from about 19.2% to 21.4%. On the other side of the scale, Washington state increased testing by a third from a week earlier, but its rate of positive tests increased anyway.

Mike Stucka

Is SAT is optional for college applications during COVID-19?

Many families believe students who find a way to take standardized tests will have an edge in elite college admissions despite announcements from most schools that they are not needed due to the pandemic. Headline after headline has documented students traveling long distances to take either the SAT or the competitor test, the ACT, as places to take the exams in person become increasingly unavailable. In the Facebook group Paying for College 101, parents have been asking how “optional” the tests actually are.

“I do think parents believe test-optional colleges when they communicate that students without test scores will be competitive applicants,” said Debbie Schwartz, founder and operator of the Facebook group. “But there’s still skepticism whether students with a test score will have an advantage over a student without a test score.” Read more here.

Chris Quintana

US, global stocks hit records after Trump signs $900B aid package

World stocks rose Tuesday, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 benchmark hitting a 30-year high after President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion economic aid package. U.S. stocks began the final week of 2020 with more gains Monday, nudging the major U.S. indexes to record highs. The broad rally came as investors welcomed the package that also includes $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies, averting a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started Tuesday.

The latest gains add to what has been a strong, record-shattering run for the stock market in recent weeks amid cautious optimism that coronavirus vaccinations will pave the way in coming months for the economy to escape from the grip of the pandemic.

December already the deadliest month for COVID-19

Johns Hopkins University data shows Dec. 25 is when reported deaths from the coronavirus passed the April’s death toll of 60,738 people. With several days remaining in December, the record is now 64,953 people through Sunday. On average, that’s equivalent to someone in the United States dying every 36 seconds.

December has already been a record month for new cases, even though November was more than twice as bad as any other month. The U.S. broke November’s record of 4.4 million cases on Dec. 22, and now stands at 5,533,230 cases reported in December so far. From earlier surges the record number of cases was the whole month of July, at 1.9 million; the U.S. blew past that mark in just 10 days.

Mike Stucka

Contributing: The Associated Press

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