Coronavirus updates: FDA authorizes Moderna vaccine; Democrats ask CDC to list educators as critical group; Pence gets vaccinated

USA TODAY is keeping track of the news surrounding COVID-19 as vaccines begin to roll out nationwide. Just this week, the U.S. marked the stark milestone of more than 17 million cases and 300,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates on vaccine distribution, including who is getting the shots and where, as well as other COVID-19 news from across the USA TODAY Network. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates directly to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions for everything you need to know about the coronavirus.

In the headlines:

► A second COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Trucks will begin moving the vaccine this weekend, with the first of 5.9 million already manufactured Moderna shots expected to be given on Monday.

► The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, Dr. Michael Ryan, said a team of international experts looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic will travel to China the first week of January. The team 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,” Ryan said.

► As apprehension about the pandemic intensifies, more Americans – nearly three-quarters – say they wear masks every time they leave the house, according to a poll released Friday by Kaiser Health News. While 87% of Democrats said they always wear a mask out of the house, 71% of independents and 55% of Republicans said the same.

Vice President Mike Pence publicly received a COVID-19 vaccine Friday morning. "I didn't feel a thing. Well done," said Pence, who called the vaccine safe and effective. Also vaccinated were second lady Karen Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who held up a thumbs up after getting the shot.

► House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were both given the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday as part of an effort to show Americans the shots are safe and effective.

California reported 3% intensive care unit bed availability on Thursday. Hospitals in Southern California are facing the brunt of it as ICU capacity dropped to 0%, state data showed..

The two health care workers in Alaska who experienced adverse reactions just 10 minutes after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine were released from Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau on Thursday, according to the Anchorage Daily News. One worker experienced anaphylaxis and was hospitalized for two nights, while the second had a mild reaction and was released after about an hour.

► Johnson & Johnson said Thursday it had completed enrollment for its phase 3 clinical trial for its COVID-19 vaccine with 45,000 participants. The company said it hopes to release interim data by the end of January.

United Airlines officials confirmed Friday that a passenger who fell ill on one of its flights Monday and later died had COVID-19 symptoms. The flight from Orlando to Los Angeles diverted to New Orleans on Monday night for the medical emergency, and United said the passenger died at the hospital.

► Millions of families struggling with COVID-19's economic turmoil are seeking help — many for the first time — from charity organizations for meals and holiday gifts. The Salvation Army is projecting 6.6 million people will come to them for support, up from 2.6 million on a regular holiday season, and officials with the organization said they are worried they won't be able to meet the demand.  

Eight nuns living at a Wisconsin facility for elderly and ill sisters have died from COVID-19 since Dec. 9. The School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province said that there were others who have tested positive among the 88 nuns living at Notre Dame of Elm Grove.

► One in every five state and federal prisoners in the U.S. has tested positive for COVID-19, a rate more than four times higher than the general population, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has 17.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 311,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 75 million cases and 1.6 million deaths. 

Here's a closer look at today's top stories:

Democrats in Congress ask CDC to list eductors as critical group for vaccine

A Friday letter obtained by USA TODAY and signed by 25 Democratic members of Congress urges the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to list K-12 teachers and school personnel among the groups of critical workers who will be prioritized in vaccine distribution. 

Teachers getting sick from COVID-19 or quarantining because of exposure to the virus has been a major hurtle to keeping schools open in recent months. The letter says that vaccinating teachers will make it easier to reopen schools while also protecting educators, who put themselves at a greater risk for contracting the virus when they teach in-person.

"Prioritizing COVID- 19 vaccinations for K-12 educators and school personnel recognizes the essential work of these professionals, enables a safer return to in-person instruction, and provides the means necessary for tens of millions of workers to breathe life into the American economy," the letter says.

The letter, addressed to CDC director Robert Redfield, acknowledges states have the final say in vaccination distribution, but the federal agency's guidance helps shape those policies.

Among the members of Congress who signed the letter: Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (North Carolina), Haley Stevens (Michigan) and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands).

FDA authorizes Moderna vaccine to join US fight against COVID-19

Americans will soon have access to a second COVID-19 vaccine after Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, granted emergency authorization Friday to a vaccine made by Moderna.

The clearance, which is authorization rather than approval because longer-term research is still needed, comes less than a week after the vaccine made by Pfizer and its German collaborator, BioNTech, got a similar OK.

On Thursday, an independent advisory committee reviewed data from human trials of Moderna's mRNA-1273 vaccine, deciding its benefits outweighed its risks. The vaccine, according to a trial that included 30,000 volunteers, protected more than 94% of recipients from active disease, without causing major safety concerns.

Trucks will begin moving the vaccine this weekend, with the first of 5.9 million already manufactured Moderna shots expected to be given on Monday. Moderna says it will be able to deliver 20 million doses of its vaccine by the end of December. Another 80 million will be available in the first few months of 2021, under a contract signed in August that brought the U.S. government's direct financial backing of the company to $2.5 billion.

– Karen Weintraub

Congress rushes to strike deal on COVID-19 stimulus

After months of contentious negotiations and bitter finger-pointing over their failure to reach a deal on a new stimulus package, lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they are close to an agreement to deliver about $900 billion to Americans reeling from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The broad strokes of the package are said to include $300 billion in aid for business,  direct payment of $600 to taxpayers and $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans unable to find work amid the crisis.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump had wanted to issue a statement calling for larger stimulus payments but White House aides talked him out of it over fears that it would derail negotiations.

A final version of the bill was still being hammered out, but both sides seem optimistic a deal is near.

– William Cummings

Restaurants face bleak winter during COVID-19

Restaurants around the country have struggled for months to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, facing layoffs and pay cuts and investing in personal protective equipment and outdoor dining infrastructure.

Now there’s another problem: The start of winter weather portends what could be an even darker few months for the dining industry as restaurants struggle to balance safety measures for their patrons and staff with meeting their bottom lines.

"We need to brace ourselves for an even worse period for the restaurant industry," said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.

Restaurant sales were about $65 billion in the months before the pandemic but plummeted to $30 billion in April, according to Census Bureau data. They peaked in September at $55.7 billion but declined in October and November.

– Ryan W. Miller, Grace Hauck and Kelly Tyko

Supreme Court denies religious challenge to Kentucky COVID limits

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Kentucky can force parochial as well as public schools to close temporarily because of the coronavirus pandemic, but only because those restrictions are set to expire early next year.

Gov. Andrew Beshear ordered all public and private K-12 schools closed for in-person instruction beginning Nov. 23, limiting them to remote or virtual learning. The order allowed elementary schools that are not in hard-hit areas to reopen Dec. 7 but kept middle and high schools closed until Jan. 4.

Because the schools begin a holiday recess Friday, the justices did not insist that religious schools be allowed to open now. Instead, they denied a challenge from the state's Republican attorney general and a religious school that argued the closings violated the Constitution's promise of freedom of religion.

"We deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year," the court said in an unsigned order.

– Richard Wolf

Contributing: The Associated Press