About 1 million Americans a day packed airports and planes over the weekend even as coronavirus deaths surged across the U.S. and public health experts begged people to stay home and avoid big Thanksgiving gatherings.

And the crowds are only expected to grow. Next Sunday is likely to be the busiest day of the holiday period.

To be sure, the number of people flying for Thanksgiving is down by more than half from last year because of the rapidly worsening outbreak. However, the 3 million who went through U.S. airport checkpoints from Friday through Sunday marked the biggest crowds since mid-March, when the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the United States.

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Travelers leave the AirTrain at JKF International Airport in New York on Friday. Associated Press/Frank Franklin II

Many travelers are unwilling to miss out on seeing family and are convinced they can do it safely. Also, many colleges have ended their in-person classes, propelling students to return home.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel or spend the holiday with people outside their household.

Read the full story here.

Federal prisons to prioritize staff, not inmates, to receive virus vaccine

WASHINGTON — The federal prison system will be among the first government agencies to receive the coronavirus vaccine, though initial allotments of the vaccine will be given to staff and not to inmates, even though sickened prisoners vastly outnumber sickened staff, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

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Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons have been instructing wardens and other staff members of federal prisons such as this one in Terre Haute, Indiana, to prepare to receive a coronavirus vaccine within weeks. Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons have been instructing wardens and other staff members to prepare to receive the vaccine within weeks, according to people familiar with the matter. The people could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The internal Bureau of Prisons documents, obtained by the AP, say initial allotments of the vaccine “will be reserved for staff.” It was not immediately clear how many doses would be made available to the Bureau of Prisons.

As of Monday, there were 3,624 federal inmates and 1,225 Bureau of Prisons staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Since the first case was reported in March, 18,467 inmates and 1,736 staff have recovered from the virus. So far, 141 federal inmates and two staff members have died.

There have been more than 12 million cases in the U.S. and over 257,000 deaths. But prisons are a particular concern because social distancing is virtually nonexistent behind bars, inmates sleep in close quarters and share bathrooms with strangers. In the early days of the pandemic, prisoners and staff members said the Bureau of Prisons had run short of even the most basic supplies, like soap.

The internal Bureau of Prisons records obtained by the AP also detail how the agency has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Trump administration’s vaccine program, known as “Operation Warp Speed,” to secure the vaccines. The documents say the administration’s initial distribution will include the federal prison system.

Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of epidemics for those incarcerated.

Nearly 25 percent of all inmate cases and 30 percent of the staff cases have been reported within just the last month. Some staff members said they are apprehensive about receiving the vaccine because of what they feared was a lack of long-term testing and possible side effects.

Though the virus is also rising in state prisons nationwide, any plans for administering doses in those prisons would be handled by the states.

White House still planning holiday parties, despite previous super-spreading events

WASHINGTON — Public health officials are sounding alarms and urging Americans not to travel and limit gatherings this holiday season amid a new surge in coronavirus cases.

But that isn’t stopping the White House from planning a host of festivities, including holiday parties, which kicked off Monday with the arrival of the White House Christmas tree.

“Attending the parties will be a very personal choice,” said Stephanie Grisham, First Lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and chief of staff. “It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic décor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”

The decision to move forward with indoor events and other gatherings comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, top White House advisers and public health professionals across the nation have been pleading with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or spend the holiday with people from outside of their households.

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First lady Melania Trump looks at the 2020 official White House Christmas tree as it is presented on the North Portico of the White House on Monday in Washington. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

As the weather has cooled, the virus has been spreading out of control, with cases and hospitalizations surging across the nation and more than 250,000 people dead.

The White House has already been the site of several suspected “super-spreader” events and dozens of staff — along with the president, the first lady and their son — have been infected, along with a long list of campaign aides and other advisers.

Grisham said the White House would be taking precautions to provide “the safest environment possible” for attendees at events. That includes smaller guest lists, requiring masks, encouraging social distancing on the White House grounds and hand sanitizer stations placed throughout the State Floor.

“Guests will enjoy food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations. All passed beverages will be covered. All service staff will wear masks and gloves to comply with food safety guidelines,” she said.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Monday repeatedly evaded questions about indoor holiday parties scheduled at the White House while calling other Americans’ indoor gatherings potential “super-spreader” events.

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus, by any measure: cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths,” he said on on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “So I’m asking Americans — I’m begging you — hold on just a little bit longer. Keep Thanksgiving and the celebrations small and smart this year … do it outdoors if you can, keep it small, ideally less than 10, and prepare beforehand.”

“These apply to the White House, they apply to the American people, they apply to everyone. We want you to stay safe so we can get to a vaccine,” he said.

On Tuesday, the events will continue as President Trump participates in the annual pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey at a ceremony in the Rose Garden.

Trump has remained largely behind closed doors since he lost his bid for reelection. He has refused to concede, lodging baseless allegations of voter fraud in an attempt to subvert the results and undermine one of the basic tenants of democracy.

Retail trade group sees solid holiday sales despite pandemic

NEW YORK  — The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, expects that holiday sales could actually exceed growth seen in prior seasons, despite all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

The reason? Shoppers are looking for opportunities to spend and celebrate the holidays during tough times.

The trade group said Monday that it predicts that sales for the November and December period will increase between 3.6 percent and 5.2 percent over 2019 to a total ranging between $755.3 billion and $766.7 billion.

The numbers, which exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, compare with a gain of 4 percent to $729.1 billion last year. Holiday sales have averaged gains of 3.5 percent over the past five years.

“After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz in a statement. “There are risks to the economy if the virus continues to spread, but as long as consumers remain confident and upbeat, they will spend for the holiday season.”

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Mannequins stand on display Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, at the Ann Taylor store with an online pickup sign on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The accelerating surge of coronavirus cases across the U.S. is causing an existential crisis for America’s retailers and spooking their customers just as the critically important holiday shopping season nears. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Kleinhenz cited that households have strong balance sheets buoyed by a strong stock market, rising home values and record savings boosted by government stimulus payments issued earlier this year. Jobs and wages are increasing, energy costs are low and reduced spending on personal services, travel and entertainment because of the virus has freed up money for retail spending, he added.

NRF expects that online and other non-store sales, which are included in the total, will increase between 20 percent and 30 percent to between $202.5 billion and $218.4 billion, up from $168.7 billion last year. Not included in total sales figure are sales from restaurants, gas stations and auto dealers.

The National Retail Federation delayed the release of its forecast by about a month, citing the uncertainty around the pandemic.

Still, the group warns any further shutdowns of stores as virus cases surge could derail sales. And it emphasized that any renewal of a government stimulus package would help the holidays.

When the pandemic was declared in mid-March, essential retailers like Target and Walmart were able to stay open while non-essential stores like department stores were forced to close. That further increased the dominance of big box stores, while malls based clothing stores faced further peril. The temporary closures accelerated bankruptcy filings of a slew of chains like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus that were already struggling.

Many mall-based stores and other small and mid-sized businesses are still struggling to recover heading into the heart of the holiday season.

When non-essential retailers are forced to shut down, their e-commerce business can’t expand enough to keep them whole, according to Nick Mangiapane, chief marketing officer at Verisk Financial’s Commerce Signals unit, which captures credit and debit spending from 40 million U.S. households.

In the first wave of COVID-induced shutdowns, the gap in year-over-year sales trends was 57 percentage points between essential and non-essential with essential store sales posting a 6.4 percent gain while the rest suffered a 51.3 percent drop. During the second spike, which took place during the summer, the gap was smaller with few shutdowns, but it was still substantial.

So far, in this third wave, the sales performance gap is still sizable but any shutdowns will hurt sales for non-essential businesses dramatically, according to Mangiapane.

AstraZeneca: COVID-19 vaccine ‘highly effective’ prevention

LONDON — AstraZeneca said Monday that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90 percent effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is easier to distribute than some of its rivals.

The results are based on interim analysis of trials in the U.K. and Brazil of a vaccine developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca. No hospitalizations or severe cases of COVID-19 were reported in those receiving the vaccine.

“These findings show that we have an effective vaccine that will save many lives,” Oxford University Professor Andrew Pollard, chief investigator for the trial, said in a statement. “Excitingly, we’ve found that one of our dosing regimens may be around 90 percent effective.’’

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A view of AstraZeneca offices and the corporate logo in Cambridge, England. AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File

AstraZeneca is the third major drug company to report late-stage results for its potential COVID-19 vaccine as the world anxiously waits for vaccines that will end the pandemic that has killed almost 1.4 million people. Pfizer and Moderna last week reported preliminary results from late-stage trials showing their vaccines were almost 95 percent effective.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate doesn’t have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, making it easier to distribute, especially in developing countries. All three vaccines must be approved by regulators before they can be widely distributed.

“The Oxford vaccine can be stored in the fridge, as opposed to the freezer like the other two vaccines, which means it is a more practical solution for use worldwide,” said Peter Horby, professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at Oxford.

The results come as a second wave of COVID-19 hits many countries, once again shutting businesses, restricting social interaction and pummeling the world economy.

AstraZeneca said it will immediately apply for early approval of the vaccine where possible, and it will seek an emergency use listing from the World Health Organization, so it can make the vaccine available in low-income countries.

Read the full story here.

Washington state sees record hospitalizations

SEATTLE — Health officials in Washington state said the number of people who were hospitalized to receive treatment for the coronavirus has reached a record high.

KOMO-TV reports there were 762 people receiving hospital care for the virus in Washington as of Saturday.

At the Swedish First Hill campus of Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, 10 coronavirus patients were admitted within a span of five hours Wednesday.

Leaders from hospitals statewide met last week to consider strategies to ensure they have room to care for COVID-19 patients as the hospitalization rate climbs.

Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer says the cancellations of elective procedures under consideration to make room for coronavirus patients include joint and heart valve replacements and some cancer surgeries.

Oregon virus cases reach another record high

PORTLAND, Ore. — New confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 have reached a record high for the third straight day in Oregon.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 1,517 new infections Sunday, bringing the state total to 65,170.

The state reported one additional death from COVID-19 on Sunday, a 65-year-old man in Multnomah County who tested positive Nov. 15 and died the same day. That brings the state’s death toll to 820.

The director of the state health department urged residents to cancel indoor Thanksgiving plans and those that involve large groups of family and friends.

Los Angeles closes in-person dining for three weeks

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County officials have announced new coronavirus-related restrictions that will prohibit in-person dining for at least three weeks as cases rise throughout the holiday season.

The new rules will take effect Wednesday at 10 p.m.

Restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars will only be able to offer take-out, drive-through and delivery services.

Officials had warned that these restrictions could come into play if the county’s five-day average of new cases was above 4,000. Sunday’s five-day average was 4,097 cases.

Most of California, including Los Angeles County, has been under a curfew since Saturday night at 10 p.m.

Hundreds of bodies storied in freezer trucks in NYC

NEW YORK — Hundreds of bodies are still stored in freezer trucks at a disaster morgue set up during New York City’s coronavirus surge in the spring, according to the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Many of the 650 bodies at the disaster morgue on the Brooklyn waterfront are of people whose families can’t be located or can’t afford a proper burial, officials told The Wall Street Journal.

Normally, the deceased would have been buried within a few weeks in a gravesite for the indigent on Hart Island in the Long Island Sound. But as COVID-19 deaths surged in New York in April, with as many as 800 deaths in one day, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged that mass burials in temporary graves wouldn’t take place.

The medical examiner’s office is having trouble finding relatives of about 230 deceased people, officials said. When next of kin have been contacted, many bodies haven’t been collected because families haven’t arranged burial for financial reasons, nor have they requested free burial on Hart Island.

The city is slowly reducing the number of bodies in storage, with the number declining from 698 to 650 since mid-September, according to Dina Maniotis, the chief medical examiner’s office’s executive deputy commissioner. New York state has reported at least 34,187 deaths of people due to COVID-19, according to data from John Hopkins University.


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