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Coronavirus update: US reaches 100K hospitalization record; federal gov't buys more Eli Lilly antibody doses

Anjalee Khemlani
·Senior Reporter
·5-min read

The U.S. set several grim records Wednesday, marking one of the darkest days of the pandemic in the country this year.

Hospitalizations surpassed 100,000 and daily cases surpassed 200,000 for the second day this year. Double-digit positivity rates can be found across a majority of the U.S., with most states experiencing uncontrolled spread.

Many major cities have enacted some level of increased restriction in the past several weeks, with Los Angeles adding its name to the list Wednesday night.

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced stay-at-home orders, similar to Los Angeles County rules put in place earlier this week. The order prohibits gatherings of people outside immediate households, with some exceptions for religious services and protests.

In his statement, Garcetti encouraged residents to heed the rules, noting the city was “close to a devastating tipping point, beyond which the number of hospitalized patients would start to overwhelm our hospital system, in turn risking needless suffering and death.”

He added, “Even if you believe that the virus does not present a particular threat to you, consider the impact that your choices have on others.”

A COVID testing sign directs drivers waiting in line to get a free COVID-19 self-test at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. California has asked hospitals to ramp up their coronavirus testing amid a surge of new cases, urging them to test health care workers at least once per week while testing all new patients before admitting them. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
A COVID testing sign directs drivers waiting in line to get a free COVID-19 self-test at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. California has asked hospitals to ramp up their coronavirus testing amid a surge of new cases, urging them to test health care workers at least once per week while testing all new patients before admitting them. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department purchased an additional 650,000 courses, after an initial 300,000 course purchase in October, of Eli Lilly’s (LLY) monoclonal antibody therapy Wednesday for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

The additional doses, to be delivered between December and January, will be allocated to states and territories, with the intention of helping curb the surge of hospitalizations currently pressuring the country.

“With COVID-19 cases on the rise, treating people with mild or moderate infections can help prevent hospitalizations, which will reduce that burden on healthcare systems,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Robert Kadlec.

The hope, Kadlec added, is for the individual health departments to properly allocate the doses to the hardest-hit areas. To-date, roughly 250,000 doses have been allocated.

Health experts have said that monoclonal antibody treatments offer a stopgap until vaccines become widely available. They also offer protection for individuals who may not be able to take a vaccine. But others worry about the high price tag associated with monoclonal antibody therapies— even as many insurers extend their waiver of costs for COVID-19 treatments until March 2021.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced it will cover the cost of the infusions for individuals 65 years and older. On Wednesday, CVS (CVS) announced it would administer the courses at long term care facilities as part of an agreement with HHS and Operation Warp Speed.

“These newly available, important COVID-19 treatments can make a difference for patients at high risk for severe illness or complications, but they need to be administered intravenously by health care providers and with the appropriate clinical expertise and oversight,” said Dr. Sree Chaguturu, Chief Medical Officer at CVS Caremark and Senior Vice President at CVS Health.

The announcement increases the health company’s responsibilities in coordination with the federal government. Recently, both CVS and Walgreens (WBA) were tapped by OWS to administer a vaccine, once available, at long term care facilities, like nursing homes, across the country.

Testing woes

The strained testing system is once again a concern as the virus continues to surge throughout the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to approve a variety of rapid or new COVID-19 testing options in order to help alleviate the increased pressure on diagnostic labs. The latest, from Roche (RHHBY) can help identify the level of antibodies in people, but can also help assess who could be a serum or plasma donor to aid in developing COVID-19 treatments.

“Many current candidate vaccines aim to induce an antibody response against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Tests that quantify antibodies to the spike protein could be used to measure the level of that response and track that measurement over time,” the FDA said in its statement.

Meanwhile, experts including Harvard University’s Michael Mina are pushing for greater approval and use of rapid testing. A recent study from Harvard and the University of Colorado Boulder shows that testing half the country’s population weekly could help curb the spread of the virus.

“Within a few weeks we could see this outbreak going from huge numbers of cases to very manageable levels,” Mina said, highlighting that cheap antigen tests are available.

The problem is the wide variety in sensitivity. While PCR tests (nasal swabs) are seen as the gold standard, they take several days to process — a period during which an infectious person could continue to transmit the disease. Even with less accurate tests, at least some answers can come sooner.

Mina recently said he was heartened by comments from the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, both members of the White House coronavirus task force, pushing for rapid antigen tests.

“The message is catching on. The research is certainly there,” he said.

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