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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. expert on infectious disease, received the Moderna vaccine during a live broadcast.

Tennessee is “ground zero” in the nation’s virus surge, and Christmas could make it worse, the governor warned.

Pulse oximeters, which measure oxygen levels in the blood and have been a useful tool during the coronavirus pandemic, have a higher error rate in Black patients and those with darker skin.

Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and vaccines in development.

What’s in the stimulus package?

Hundreds of dollars in direct payments could begin reaching Americans as early as next week, after Congress overwhelmingly passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package on Monday night.

President Trump has yet to sign the long-sought agreement, which is less than half the size of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March. But few doubt the coming stroke of his pen: Without this bill, as many as 12 million Americans would lose access to expanded and extended unemployment benefits days after Christmas.

Admittedly, there’s a lot in the bill that has nothing to do with the pandemic. Somewhere in its nearly 5,600 pages, the agreement extends tax deductions for corporate meals, bans most surprise medical bills and establishes two Smithsonian museums. But there’s a lot of direct relief, too. Here’s a breakdown of some key points.

One-time stimulus payments. The government will provide $600 in direct payments to millions of adults and children. Adults with an adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 in 2019 will receive $600 and a couple earning up to $150,000 a year would get $1,200. (People with higher salaries will get less money moving up the income bracket.) Some parents get $600 for each dependent child. How quickly the money reaches your pocket will depend on several factors, though.

More unemployment benefits. The agreement revives supplemental federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week for 11 weeks. That’s half the amount provided by the first pandemic relief package.

Funding for virus mitigation. A total of $69 billion will go to vaccine distribution and more than $22 billion will flow to states to conduct testing, tracing and coronavirus mitigation programs.

Extend essential benefits. The package provides $13 billion in increased nutrition assistance, $7 billion for broadband access and $25 billion in rental assistance. It extends an eviction moratorium, which would have expired at the end of the year.

Resources for education. The bill will provide $82 billion for education: about $54 billion for K-12 schools and $22.7 billion for colleges and universities. That falls fall short of what both sectors say they need to blunt the effect of the pandemic, which has crippled school budgets and left their most vulnerable students in dire academic and financial straits.

Small business help. The agreement contains $285 billion for additional loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal loan program for small businesses, after it lapsed over the summer, and extended it to nonprofit organizations, local media and others. It also allocated $15 billion for performance venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions.

The package “has probably spared millions of Americans from a winter of poverty and kept the country from falling back into recession,” our economics reporters wrote in an analysis. Still, there will be lasting effects and damage to many families and businesses.

There are calls for more relief. President-elect Joe Biden said he will urge Congress to pass more aid when he takes office. “Congress did its job this week,” Mr. Biden said. “I can and I must ask them to do it again next year,” he added, referring to more congressional stimulus spending to combat the coronavirus.

A deal for more Pfizer doses

The Trump administration and Pfizer are close to a deal that could bring tens of millions more doses of the vaccine to American adults next year.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:

    • If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
    • When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
    • If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
    • Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
    • Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

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