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U.S. to change allocation to favor states that quickly administer shots

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The federal government is changing the way it allocates coronavirus vaccine doses, now basing it on how quickly states can administer shots and the size of their elderly population, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday.

States will be given two weeks to prepare for the change, Azar told reporters during a news briefing. That should give states enough time to improve their data reporting to the government and ensure all vaccinations are being “promptly” documented, he said.

States aren’t currently reporting vaccinations in a timely matter, Azar said, adding that vaccine doses “are sitting in freezers in hospitals.”

The announcement comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues new guidelines that expand coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older as well as to those with comorbid conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. The states’ focus on vaccinating health-care workers and nursing homes has created a bottleneck, slowing the pace of inoculations, a senior administration official told CNBC.

“States should not be waiting to complete phase 1a prioritization before proceeding to broader categories of eligibility,” Azar said Tuesday, explaining the new guidance. “Think of it like boarding an airplane. You might have a sequential order in which you board people. But you don’t wait till literally every person from a group is boarded before moving on to the next.” 

The Trump administration will also stop holding back millions of doses reserved for the second round of shots of Pfizer‘s and Moderna‘s two-dose vaccines, the official said, adding they’ve released doses that had been held in reserve on Sunday. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced a similar plan Friday.

Some 53 million Americans who are 65 and older and 110 million people between 16 and 64 with comorbid conditions will now be eligible to receive the vaccine if every state adopts the guidelines, according to the CDC.

Vaccine doses were previously allocated based on the number of adults in each state. But U.S. officials are complaining the pace of vaccinations has been too slow as the supply of vaccine doses exceeds demand.

Arkansas and Georgia are the two worst performers, vaccinating 1,355 and 1,346 people, respectively, per 100,000, according to CDC data. Meanwhile, the Dakotas and West Virginia are giving more than 5,000 shots per 100,000 people, according to the agency.

As of Monday morning, more than 25.4 million doses had been distributed across the U.S., but just over 8.9 million shots have been administered, according to CDC data. The number is a far cry from the federal government’s goal of inoculating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 and 50 million Americans by the end of this month.

State and local health officials have said they are strapped for cash. They blame insufficient funding and inconsistent communication from the federal government for the slow rollout.

In an attempt to pick up the pace of vaccinations, Azar and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn urged states last week to begin vaccinating lower-priority groups against Covid-19.

The CDC recommended immunizing health-care workers and nursing homes first, but states can distribute the vaccine as they see fit. Hahn told reporters that states should give shots to groups that “make sense,” such as the elderly, people with preexisting conditions, police, firefighters and other essential workers.

Azar acknowledged Tuesday that the government’s guidelines are new, adding providers usually have a month to report their data instead of days. “That’s a major workflow change for them. There are going to be kinks in the system for them on that data,” he said.


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New York’s Cuomo lifts Covid restrictions but worries about new strains

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wears a protective face mask as he arrives to speak during a daily briefing following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., July 13, 2020.

Mike Segar | Reuters

New York has seen the worst of its post-holiday coronavirus outbreak and will begin lifting restrictions on much of the state, but more contagious strains of the virus that have recently emerged could impede that progress, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

Triggered by dinners with family and friends, the holiday surge appears to have peaked in New York on Jan. 4 when the positivity rate, or the percentage of Covid tests returning positive, reached about 8% across the state. That figure has since dipped to roughly 5.6%, Cuomo said.

“I think at this point it’s safe to say the holiday surge was anticipated, the holiday surge did happen, but the holiday surge is over,” Cuomo said during a press briefing in Albany.

The Democratic governor said the state will lift restrictions on gatherings and some nonessential businesses across most of the state — except in parts of the greater New York City area, including Washington Heights, the Bronx and Queens, and the Newburgh area upstate.

Those areas are still considered “yellow zones” under New York’s micro-cluster strategy, an effort to target economic restrictions to specific areas where the virus is spreading more. New York will lift restrictions on all remaining orange and yellow zones, which will eliminate harsher limits on indoor dining, gathering sizes and businesses such as gyms, barbershops and hair salons.

Existing Zones in New York State

Source: The State of New York

Under the state’s reopening strategy, New York City restaurants are allowed to offer only outdoor dining or takeout and delivery. Cuomo said he plans to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio and health officials to discuss how to reopen indoor dining in the city, and he will provide more details later this week.

However, there is still a looming concern that new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil could take hold and threaten the state’s ability to treat an influx of Covid-19 patients.

“The new strains are a real concern, and the Covid threat is not over,” Cuomo said.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the variant found in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, could become the dominant strain of the virus by March. So far, New York has identified 22 Covid-19 cases with the mutated strain, according to recent data compiled by the CDC.

However, the federal agency warns that figure is based on sampling and doesn’t represent the total number of B.1.1.7 cases that may be circulating.

Cuomo said that expanding the number of available hospital beds isn’t the state’s main concern, but rather the lack of health-care workers to treat a wave of new patients if they were to get infected with the virus themselves.

“Yes, it creates anxiety, and all I can tell you is that we watch it and we adapt,” Cuomo said. “If it changes, we will change.”


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Tilray CEO expects U.S. federal cannabis legalization within two years

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Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Tilray medical cannabis producer, poses in a greenhouse of the Canadian company’s European production site in Cantanhede, on April 24, 2018.

Patricia De Melo Moreira | AFP | Getty Images

Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Canadian cannabis company Tilray, is optimistic that the United States will take steps toward federal legalization of marijuana in the near future, a move that will shake the industry forever.

“I expect that pressure from the North and the South will ultimately lead the U.S. to implement a federal program here at some point in the next 18 to 24 months,” Kennedy said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Mexico published regulations for medical cannabis use and Kennedy is confident that Mexico and Canada’s positive stance on marijuana will put more pressure on the U.S.

Tilray announced Tuesday that it has been chosen as a supplier of medical cannabis for experimentation in France by the country’s National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products.

Since 2017, the company has been selling its cannabis products in Germany. With the French program getting underway in the first quarter, Kennedy is optimistic that other European countries will implement medical marijuana programs as well.

“While we are excited for our opportunities in Germany and France, we expect to see additional opportunities for our European businesses in the coming quarters,” Kennedy told CNBC in an interview.

Tilray has cannabis production licenses in Canada and Portugal, where their main cannabis facility is located.


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Low-cost airlines may be ‘better positioned’ for 2021

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