(AP) — FEMA opened its first COVID-19 mass vaccination sites Tuesday, setting up in Los Angeles and Oakland as part of an effort by the Biden administration to get shots into arms more quickly and reach minority communities hit hard by the outbreak.
Snowy and icy weather across much of the U.S., meanwhile, forced the cancellation of some vaccination events and threatened to disrupt vaccine deliveries over the next few days. Houston’s public health agency lost power and had to scramble to give out thousands of shots before they spoiled.
The developments came as the vaccination drive ramps up. The U.S. is administering an average of about 1.67 million doses per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, deaths are down sharply over the past six weeks, and new cases have plummeted.
Nearly 39.7 million Americans, or about 12% of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 15 million have gotten both shots, the CDC said.
Deaths are running at about 2,400 per day on average, down by more than 900 from their peak in mid-January. And the average number of new cases per day has dropped to about 85,000, the lowest in 3 1/2 months. That’s down from a peak of almost a quarter-million per day in early January. The overall U.S. death toll is at nearly 490,000.
In the early morning in Los Angeles, several dozen cars were already lined up with people sitting inside reading newspapers and passing the time, a half-hour before the 9 a.m. opening of the country’s first mass vaccination site run with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Troops in camouflage fatigues stood around the sprawling parking lot at California State University, Los Angeles, where some 40 white tents were erected and dozens of orange cones put in place to guide traffic.
The site, set up in heavily Latino East L.A. as part of an effort to reach communities that have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, aims to vaccinate up to 6,000 people a day. Another such site opened at the Oakland Coliseum, near working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Hard-hit California has overtaken New York state for the highest death toll in the nation, at over 47,000.
The Los Angeles vaccination site is “proximate to a community that has been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “The effort here is to address that issue forthrightly.”
The Biden administration intends to establish 100 such federally assisted vaccination sites nationwide in cooperation with state authorities.
Elsewhere around the country, the coronavirus put a big damper on Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The French Quarter’s Bourbon Street, where the rowdiest and bawdiest partying usually takes place, was blocked off with police barricades, and bars were ordered closed.
“It’s hard to wrap my head around it,” New Orleans lawyer Dave Lanser, wearing a luminescent green cape and a black mask with a curved beak, said as he looked up and down a nearly empty Bourbon Street.
“I don’t think there’s a way to safely do it this year,” he said. “So, I support canceling the parades, closing the bars, all that kind of stuff. It’s just kind of the reality of it.”
Mardi Gras crowds last year were blamed for a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in Louisiana.
Snow, ice and bitter cold forced the cancellation of vaccinations in places such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Houston’s Harris County rushed to dispense more than 8,000 doses of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine after a public health facility lost power early Monday and its backup generator also failed, authorities said. The shots were distributed at three hospitals, Rice University and the county jail.
“It feels amazing. I’m very grateful,” said Harry Golen, a 19-year-old sophomore who waited for nearly four hours with his friends, much of it in the frigid cold, and was among the last people to get the shots — which otherwise wouldn’t have reached students until March or April.
More than 400,000 additional vaccine doses due in Texas now won’t arrive until at least Wednesday, officials said.
The Biden administration said the severe weather is expected to disrupt shipments from a FedEx facility in Memphis and a UPS installation in Louisville, Kentucky. Both serve as vaccine shipping hubs for a number of states.
The administration is increasing the amount of vaccine sent to states to 13.5 million doses per week, a 57% increase from when Biden took office nearly a month ago, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced.
Psaki also said the administration is doubling to 2 million doses per week the amount of vaccine being sent to pharmacies across the U.S. as part of a program to improve access in neighborhoods.
Associated Press writers Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.