Dec 18 (Reuters) - U.S. deaths from COVID-19 topped 3,000 for a third straight day, with a record number of new infections on Thursday, just as the United States prepared to ship out nearly six million doses of a new vaccine upon its expected authorization on Friday.
The United States reported a record 239,903 new cases on Thursday, raising the cumulative number above 17 million since the coronavirus pandemic began nearly a year ago.
The U.S. death toll now exceeds 311,000.
Health experts have warned of a deepening crisis this winter as intensive care units (ICUs) fill up and hospital beds spill over into hallways. U.S. hospitalizations have set a new record on each of the past 20 days, approaching 114,000 on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally.
"We expect to have more dead bodies than we have spaces for them," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a briefing on Thursday, saying the country's second-largest city had fully exhausted its ICU capacity.
To help slow the pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has promised to work rapidly toward granting emergency approval of Moderna Inc's COVID-19 vaccine candidate, a week after authorizing the first vaccine from Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE.
A panel of outside advisers to the FDA overwhelmingly endorsed the emergency use of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine on Thursday. Final authorization could come on Friday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told CNBC on Thursday that 5.9 million Moderna vaccine doses had been allotted for state governments to receive and were ready to distribute nationwide starting this weekend.
Both vaccines require two doses, given three or four weeks apart, for each person inoculated.
Health authorities have sought to reassure Americans that large-scale clinical trials and scientific review found the vaccines to be safe and effective.
Vice President Mike Pence will receive the coronavirus vaccine in public on Friday, becoming the highest-profile recipient to date to receive a the vaccine.
While departing President Donald Trump has yet to embrace messages about social distancing and mask-wearing, he has encouraged people to get vaccinated.
President-elect Joe Biden, set to take office on Jan. 20, will publicly get the vaccine next week, according to transition officials.
(Reporting by Reuters staff Editing by Gareth Jones)
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