Coronavirus Update: President Joe Biden seeks to assuage concerns about pace of vaccination

United States

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 edged toward 110 million on Wednesday and the U.S. death toll rose above 488,000, as President Joe Biden said he expects vaccine supply to be sufficient to inoculate all Americans by end-July and for the nation to be close to normalcy by Christmas.

Speaking at a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee, Biden emphasized the need for lawmakers to fund his $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, and discussed everything from protections for small businesses to the administration’s vaccination plans. Biden said that by the end of July there would be 600 million doses of the vaccine available, enough to vaccinate every American.

His upbeat comments come as the number of new COVID cases and hospitalizations are steadily declining, although experts remain wary about new variants of the virus that are far more infectious.

The U.S. recorded 64,375 new COVID cases on Tuesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,703 people died. The U.S. has averaged 81,200 cases a day over the past week, down 43% from the average two weeks ago.

There were 64,533 COVID patients in U.S. hospitals on Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, down from 65,455 a day earlier and less than half the more than 132,000 counted during the January peak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. Tuesday, 55.2 million doses of vaccine had been administered, 39.7 million people had received one or more doses and 71.7 million had been delivered to states. The White House said Tuesday it was increasing dose deliveries to 13.5 million a week, up from an earlier plan for 11 million a week, in an effort to speed up the process and get more jabs into arms.

The move comes after the government secured more supplies from Moderna Inc. MRNA, -2.28% and Pfizer Inc.  PFE, +0.25% and its German partner BioNTech SE BNTX, -2.71%.  

Meanwhile, the severe winter storm that has caused power outages in Texas, Oregon and other states continued to disrupt the vaccine program in some areas. Local officials reported canceling or rescheduling appointments from Texas to Kentucky, according to local and national media.

In other news:

• New York’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against Inc. that accuses the online retailer of not doing enough to protect workers in the state from the coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reported. Last week, Amazon  AMZN, +0.72% sued New York’s attorney general to prevent the state from taking legal action against the company over its handling of worker safety during the pandemic and the firing of one of its warehouse workers last year. “Throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers from the spread of the virus in its New York City facilities,” New York state Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a complaint filed in the state Supreme Court.

See also:Just 0.5% of U.S. companies mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all employees

• Japan’s first coronavirus shots were given to health workers Wednesday, beginning the vaccination campaign considered crucial to holding the already delayed Tokyo Olympics, the Associated Press reported. The government gave its belated first approval for shots developed and supplied by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE, that have been used in many other countries since December. Supplies of imported vaccines are a major concern because of supply shortages and restrictions in Europe, where many are manufactured.

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• European Union industry commissioner Thierry Breton said COVID-19 vaccine production capacity at a facility in Belgium has “drastically” increased, the Guardian reported. The factory, now owned by the U.S. firm Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. TMO, -0.11%, had been seen as the main cause of a large cut in supplies by the Anglo-Swedish firm to the EU in the first quarter of this year. A delay in AstraZeneca PLC’s AZN, +0.99% AZN, +1.40% vaccine deliveries to the bloc prompted an intense row between the company and the EU, with France and Germany threatening legal action.

• Croatia is in talks with Moscow on the possibility of importing the Russian vaccine named Sputnik V and the government has asked its drug regulator to consider approving the jab without waiting for the EU regulator, Reuters reported. EU countries are largely lagging vaccination efforts elsewhere due to shortages of vaccines. “We are thinking about securing that vaccine earlier for us. Now it is up to (our) experts to acquire information on the efficiency and safety of the vaccine and on necessary regulatory requirements,” Health Minister Vili Beros said in an interview with state radio.

• The first COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to residents of the Gaza Strip with at least 1,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V serum crossing into the enclave of almost 2 million Palestinians, the Washington Post reported. The shipment landed after officials accused Israel of blocking it for political purposes after an initial delivery attempt failed on Monday when it was sent back at a military checkpoint. Gaza has counted almost 54,000 positive cases of COVID and at least 538 deaths.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed above 109.6 million on Wednesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and the death toll climbed above 2.42 million. Almost 62 million people have recovered form the illness, the data show.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 27.8 million, or a quarter of the globally tally, and the highest death toll at 488,103, or about a fifth of the global number.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 240,940 and is third by cases at 9.9 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 10.9 million, and now fourth in deaths at 155,913.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 175,986 and 13th highest case tally at 2 million.

The U.K. has 4.1 million cases and 118,421 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 100,639 confirmed cases and 4,831 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

Sales at U.S. retailers surged in January and posted the first increase in four months, adding to evidence of a rebound in the economy after fresh government financial aid and a waning number of coronavirus cases, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Retail sales leaped 5.3% last month, the government said Wednesday. It was the largest increase in eight months.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast a smaller 1% increase.

 Sales were strong in every category. Department store chains, internet retailers, electronic stores and home-furnishing outlets all recorded double digit gains in percentage terms.

Bars and restaurants also registered a nearly 7% increase in sales after receipts had fallen three months in a row. Cold weather and new business restrictions, imposed after a record increase in coronavirus cases, slammed restaurants toward the end of 2020, but states started to lift restrictions early in the new year as the pandemic began to wane again.

“With additional fiscal stimulus on the way, new COVID cases trending lower, and many states moving to relax social distancing measures, the worst looks to be in the rear view mirror, with spending on services in particular poised to benefit in the months ahead,” said economist Katherine Judge of CIBC Economics.

Separately, U.S. wholesale prices rose sharply in January and returned close to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting inflation is rising modestly again as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

The producer-price index jumped by 1.3% last month, the government said Wednesday. That’s the largest increase since the index underwent a major overhaul in 2009.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal had forecast a 0.5% gain.

The rate of wholesale inflation in the past 12 months climbed to 1.7% in January from 0.8% at the end of 2020 — not far from the pre-pandemic level of 2%.

Most of the increase in wholesale prices last month was tied to higher costs of gasoline, healthcare and financial advice and planning. Energy prices have risen in the past several months owing to more people traveling, cooler weather and tighter supplies. Prices are expected to continue to increase, though they are still below year-ago levels.

U.S. industrial production, meanwhile, rose 0.9% in January, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday, for the fourth straight monthly gain.

The gain was above Wall Street expectations of a 0.5% gain, according to a survey by the Wall Street Journal.

Production rose a revised 1.3% in December, down slightly from the prior estimate of a 1.6% gain.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.17% and S&P 500 SPX, -0.63% were down Wednesday.