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Hospitals on high alert for new, more contagious COVID-19 strain

Officials brace for post-holiday COVID surge
Officials brace for post-holiday COVID surge 03:15

Hospitals in the United States are on high alert for the new, more contagious COVID-19 strain that first surfaced in the United Kingdom and has since shown up in Colorado, California and now Florida. 

Florida health officials announced this week they have evidence of the first identified case of the strain in Martin County. In a Twitter post Thursday night, the state's health department said the man is in his 20s with no history of travel.

The fast-moving virus arrives as cases continue to rise at an unrelenting pace, CBS News' Tom Hanson reports. More than 160,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the country on Friday, pushing the total number of cases above 20 million on the first day of 2021. 

Nearly 350,000 Americans have died from the disease. In California alone, the virus took 585 lives on New Years Day — the same day 47,000 new cases were reported in the state, swelling caseloads in hospitals.

"It's like treading water from 100 feet below the surface," said Scott Brickner, a nurse at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. "You're already drowning but you just have to keep trying because that's what you can do."

COVID-19 is killing one person every ten minutes in Los Angeles County.

Nationally, 40% of new cases are in southern states. Texas hospitalization broke records for five days straight, a 36% increase in the last month.

Against the grim backdrop, defiant crowds danced in Philadelphia to protest the cancellation of the New Year's Day Parade, and religious worshippers protested California's limits on indoor gatherings. 

"There's a greater good than being here than there is in being afraid of a virus," one person said.

Meanwhile, the best hope to thwart the virus — vaccines — was sullied in Wisconsin when a pharmacist admitted to tampering with vials at an Aurora Heath Center.

Jeff Blair, president of Aurora Health, said the individual was "suspended and admitted to intentionally removing the vaccine from refrigeration." The person is in police custody, and the matter is now under a criminal investigation. 

"The 57 recipients of those vaccines have been notified. At this time, there is no evidence that the vaccinations pose any harm to them," Blair said.

Even under the best of circumstances, however, inoculating the nation has been difficult so far. This week, 20 million first doses were supposed to be in people's arms this week, but just 12.5 million have been distributed and less than 3 million have actually been administered. 

Army General Gus Perna, who is in charge of vaccine distribution, expressed optimism over the rollout.

"It's been just 12 days, there's two holidays, there's been three major snowstorms, and I believe that uptake will increase significantly," he said.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the goal is to vaccinate one million residents by the end of January. The city has received 360,000 doses and administered about 98,000. Vaccine hubs will be launched in an effort to speed up distribution. 

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