The Latest: HHS Alex Azar tests negative for COVID-19

WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Alex Azar continues to test negative for COVID-19 after his wife contracted the coronavirus.

Azar told HHS staffers in an email Thursday that his wife Jennifer has mild symptoms, but overall is doing well and self-isolating at home. He and their children have tested negative.

Azar continues to work, after consulting with Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as his own physician.

“I will be carrying out the duties of my office while strictly adhering to CDC guidelines for essential workers, continuing to practice social distancing, wearing a mask, and monitoring for any symptoms,” Azar said in the email. He’ll be retested every day until the incubation period for the virus is over.

Jennifer Azar began isolating after experiencing her first symptoms, a sense of achiness. An initial instant COVID test was negative. But a more precise PCR test came back positive on Thursday.



The FDA is evaluating a coronavirus shot developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health. A decision could clear the way for its use as early as Monday. Extra doses from a second vaccine are urgently needed as U.S. deaths hit all-time highs and some hospitals are running out of beds.

The Pentagon has authorized nearly 50 top civilian and military leaders to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks to prove to the shots are safe and effective. Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others got the vaccine.


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COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina first lady Peggy McMaster has tested positive for the coronavirus.

The governor’s office announced that McMaster, 73, took a “precautionary, routine test” on Thursday afternoon and learned Friday morning the results were positive. Officials said she was not experiencing any symptoms.

Gov. Henry McMaster, 73, was tested at the same time, with a negative result. His office said that the governor would follow official guidelines for “close contacts” and quarantine for a week while testing regularly and continuing his official duties. His wife would isolate for 10 days.

Peggy McMaster is often seen wearing a clear face shield rather than a cloth face covering. In its official recommendations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend face shields to contain the spread of the virus due to the “large gaps below and alongside the face, where your respiratory droplets may escape and reach others around you.”

Both McMasters tested negative for the virus before attending a Christmas event at the White House on Dec. 14, according to the governor’s office. They also had negative tests before a Dec. 10 meeting in Greenville with Vice President Mike Pence, in the state for an update on the pandemic.

The news came on a day that South Carolina set a new record for daily numbers of positive coronavirus tests. Health officials announced Friday that they had confirmed 3,648 new cases of COVID-19 in the state and 28 additional deaths.


O’FALLON, Mo. — Dozens of civil rights advocates, faith leaders and others on Friday urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to extend into next year a law allowing more people to cast their votes by mail to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus through in-person voting.

A letter signed by people representing nearly five dozen organizations asked the Republican governor to use his emergency authority to extend the law he signed in June.

The law set to expire on Dec. 31 allows those considered at high-risk of the virus — people age 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and people with certain pre-existing health conditions — to vote absentee without having their ballot notarized. Anyone else could cast a mail-in ballot but would need it notarized.

Without the special law, Missouri voters must provide an authorized excuse to vote absentee.

“As the pandemic continues to pose significant risks to Missourians, Governor Parson should extend the COVID-19 safe voting provisions to ensure that all Missourians can safely cast ballots in upcoming 2021 municipal elections,” Denise Lieberman, attorney for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said in a news release.

Parson has not said if he will extend the order into next year. An email message left with his spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

Several cities and towns have municipal election in March and April, including St. Louis and Kansas City.


TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly is expressing expressed little concern over a smaller-than-expected second shipment of a coronavirus vaccine for Kansas, adding that she expects the state’s plan for distributing shots in coming months to boost the economy.

Kelly said the reduction in the state’s second shipment of a vaccine made by Pfizer is “more of a smoothing process” by the federal government to make sure health care workers who received the first of two doses this week can get the second in January. At least a dozen states have reported that they will receive fewer doses next week than anticipated.

The governor’s comments came as the state Department of Health and Environment reported that Kansas has surpassed 200,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases for the pandemic, or about one for every 15 of its 2.9 million residents. The state also reported total 2,341 COVID-19 deaths, adding 88 to the tally since Wednesday.

Kansas received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine this week, the first of two doses for 23,750 people, and it focused on distributing them to hospitals so that they could vaccinate health care workers at high-risk of coronavirus exposure. The state had anticipated receiving another 29,000 doses next week but now expects 39% fewer doses, or 17,550.


GENEVA — The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization says a team of international experts looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic will travel to China the first week of January.

Dr. Michael Ryan says there will be quarantine arrangements for the team, which will visit the suspected site of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

“The purpose of the mission is to go to the original point at which human cases were detected and that we fully expect to do that,” he said.

He says the team of international experts will work “with our Chinese colleagues,” and he adds they “will not be … supervised by Chinese officials.”

Ryan says the world should celebrate the arrival of vaccines, but the “next three to six months are going to be tough.”

He seemed to allude the Americas, which is home to roughly three-fourths of the global cases. He says it is likely transmission will intensify in countries already dealing with surges in cases.

The United States leads the world with 17.3 confirmed cases and 312,000 confirmed deaths. Brazils follows with 184,000 reported deaths and Mexico has 116,000 deaths.


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Pentagon has authorized nearly 50 top civilian and military leaders to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks to prove to the shots are safe and effective.

In a memo to senior leaders, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist laid out specific vaccine allowances for the heads of the military services and combatant commands around the world.

“It is critical that leaders play an active role in promoting the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination to ensure maximum voluntary participation in the vaccination effort,” said Norquist in the memo obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

The memo signed Thursday said department leaders may receive what he called “show of confidence” vaccines as a “strategic messaging tool” between now and Jan. 15.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller got his vaccine on Monday, the day it was first rolled out. Frontline healthcare workers at military installations have started getting vaccines. Other senior leaders who will get the vaccine are Norquist, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as his vice chairman, Gen. John Hyten, and Senior Enlisted Advisor Ramón Colón-López.


TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will be getting 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in January.

Vaccinations started this week in Canada, a country among the first to approve and distribute the Pfizer vaccine. Trudeau expects 125,000 doses of the vaccine next week and 249,500 this month.

Trudeau says he also expects to get 168,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine before the end of December, pending approval that is expected soon.

Trudeau says Canada has the most vaccines secured per capita and the most diverse portfolio of vaccine options in the world. But most Canadians are not expected to get the shot until well into 2021.


GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says its program to help get COVID-19 vaccines to all countries in need, whether rich or poor, has gained access to nearly 2 billion doses of several vaccine candidates.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the agreements mean that some 190 countries and economies participating in the COVAX program will have access to vaccines “during the first half of next year.”

The arrangements bring together pharmaceutical makers including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and the Serum Institute of India.

He says the message is “vaccines will complement, not replace, the existing effective tools we have for suppressing transmission and saving lives.”


BERLIN — The German government says the country faces difficult months ahead, despite the upcoming arrival of a coronavirus vaccine.

Official figures Friday show 33,777 newly confirmed cases of coronavirus and 813 additional deaths in the past day.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert says the expected regulatory approval of a vaccine “naturally gives us hope, but obviously it won’t solve the problem.”

He says January and February will be the “hardest that we have in this pandemic.”

Germany had contained the coronavirus early in the pandemic before a recent surge. There have been 1.4 million confirmed cases (12th highest in the world) and more than 25,000 confirmed deaths (14th), according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.


BERN — The Swiss government is ordering the closure of restaurants, bars, cultural venues and sports facilities next week because of increasing coronavirus cases.

The government says the closures, which start Tuesday, are necessary as “hospitals and health care workers have been under extreme pressure for weeks and the festive period increases the risk of an even more rapid rise in cases.”

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Switzerland has risen over the past two weeks from 43 cases per 100,000 people on Dec. 3 to 50 on Thursday.

The government is restricting the number of people who can be in stores, which must close after 7 p.m. and on Sundays and public holidays.

The federal government left it to Switzerland’s 26 cantons (states) to decide whether to close ski facilities. Their operation has raised concerns in some of Switzerland’s neighboring countries.


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s Prime Minister Igor Matovic has tested positive for the coronavirus.

The announcement Friday came a day after French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive. Both leaders attended an EU summit in Brussels last week.

The prime minister’s office says Matovic was tested on Thursday and has cancelled all his events. Members of Matovic’s coalition government are in quarantine after he led the government’s last session on Wednesday.

Slovakia is imposing an around the clock curfew on Saturday to response to a recent surge of coronavirus infections, which reached a record 3,991 cases on Thursday.

The government has urged people to isolate at least seven days or get tested before they see relatives during Christmas holidays.

The country of 5.4 million had 146,124 confirmed cases with 1,440 confirmed deaths.


WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence is getting vaccinated for the coronavirus during a White House event aimed at convincing skeptical Americans the vaccines are safe.

Pence’s wife, Karen, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams also got the vaccine on Friday. The pandemic enters it 10th month and has killed more than 310,000 people in the United States.

Pence rolled up his sleeve, received the shot and told the medical personnel “That’s great. Great job.”

He says with hospitalizations rising, the nation still has a way to go to get past the pandemic. He says the second vaccine, made by Moderna, is expected to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration later today.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also are going to be vaccinated in public. It’s unclear when President Donald Trump will be administered the shot.

Since losing the election, Trump has been relatively quiet about the rollout of the vaccines even though he has claimed credit for helping oversee the speedy development and deployment of the vaccine. Pence toured a vaccine production facility earlier this week.


WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says shipments of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine will begin this weekend if the FDA grants emergency use authorization as expected on Friday.

“Trucks will roll, planes will fly this weekend, 5.9 million doses of Moderna vaccine allocated for next week,” Azar told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday.

Azar says the Moderna vaccine is “shockingly effective” and he expected to get vaccinated next week, if the White House doctor cleared him to do so. Azar’s wife has tested positive for the coronavirus and he is in quarantine.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams are getting vaccinated on live TV Friday morning.


WASHINGTON — The congressional negotiators are working on a must-pass, almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package.

A weekend session appears necessary as it hits some snags, and a top lawmaker warned that a government shutdown this weekend can’t be ruled out. All sides appear hopeful the wrangling won’t derail the legislation.

The central elements of the hard-fought aid compromise appear in place: more than $300 billion in aid to businesses; a $300-per-week bonus federal jobless benefit and renewal of soon-to-expire state benefits; $600 direct payments to individuals; vaccine distribution funds; and money for renters, schools, the Postal Service and people needing food aid.


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times higher than the general population.

In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

As the pandemic enters its 10th month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected and more than 1,700 have died.

New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August.


LONDON — Paul McCartney says he’s keen to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In an interview Friday with the BBC, the ex-Beatle also downplayed the likelihood he’d go on tour next year to support his latest album released this week, “McCartney III,” saying it depends on the successful of virus countermeasures.

When asked if he would get a coronavirus vaccine, the 78-year-old McCartney said, “Yeah, I will yeah. And I’d like to encourage people to get it too, because with this it’s much more serious, and yeah, if I’m allowed to get it, I will.”

He says he’d love to play at Britain’s Glastonbury music festival in 2021, though he was skeptical organizers could stage it, noting it would likely involve 100,000 people closely packed together, with no masks. “You know, talk about a super spreader,” he says.


BERLIN — Germany’s health minister urged for patience as the country prepares to start vaccinating people against COVID-19, saying those most at risk should be immunized first.

Jens Spahn says people in nursing homes would be the first to receive shots on Dec. 27, when Germany expects to roll out the vaccine. About half of all Germany’s nearly 25,000 COVID-19 deaths were in people over 80 years of age, many in nursing homes.

Medical staff working in critical care are next in line. Others, including police officers and teachers, won’t receive the vaccine until later.

Spahn says Germany, a country of 83 million, expects to receive 11 to 13 million vaccine doses during the first quarter of 2021. That number may rise if more vaccines are approved by regulators.


MADRID — Spain’s health minster says the country will begin vaccinating for COVID-19 on Dec. 27.

Salvador Illa says the Pfizer vaccines are due to arrive in Spain on Dec. 26. He didn’t say how many doses Spain will receive initially. The country has said it will receive 140 million doses overall.

Spain says it hopes to vaccinate 2.5 million people in the first three months of 2021, starting with elderly people and health workers.

After declining substantially in recent weeks, Spain’s infections numbers are starting to rise again although they are still among the lowest in the European Union.

Illa says the “situation is worrying” and reiterated the need to abide by restrictions over Christmas.


COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norway says it will receive around 50,000 coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech between Christmas and New Year.

The Norwegian government says it will receive a first batch of 10,000 vaccines on Dec. 26 and not Dec. 24 as first announced.

The European Medicines Agency has moved up the assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Dec. 21 and non-European Union member Norway is synchronizing the rollout with the rest of the bloc.


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