COVID-19 Updates: Concerns Grow Over Restriction Relaxation

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The United States currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths in the world.More than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.COVID-19…

Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images
  • The United States currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths in the world.
  • More than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.
  • COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in the United States, but many eligible people are having difficulty making appointments.

Update on COVID-19 numbers

  • Globally, there have been more than 115 million confirmed cases and more than 2.5 million associated deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
  • The United States has reported more than 28.8 million confirmed cases.
  • More than 520,000 people in the United States have died from the disease.
  • More than 54 million people in the United States have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the CDC.

Healthline updates this page on weekdays. For up-to-date information about the virus, go here.

3/5/21 10:52 a.m. — Moves to reopen may lead to new COVID surge, says Fauci

Newly reported COVID-19 cases are stalling at high levels after weeks of decline with fewer Americans getting tested.

Now, health experts warn that pandemic fatigue in the United States might jeopardize hard-won progress against COVID-19.

Earlier this week, governors of Texas and Mississippi announced they were lifting mask mandates and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity immediately or within days.

These announcements come as health experts warn the spread of more-transmissible COVID-19 variants could produce a new surge in cases.

According to CNN, a person with the B.1.1.7 variant (first identified in the United Kingdom) can infect 43 to 90 percent more people than other versions of the virus, according to evidence published Wednesday by researchers at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you're only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines, particularly when we're dealing with anywhere from 55 (thousand) to 70,000 infections per day in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's leading infectious disease expert, told CNN's Erin Burnett on Wednesday.

B.1.526 variant spreading through New York City

A new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.526, is spreading across New York City, after being discovered in February in the Washington Heights area in upper Manhattan, reported Yahoo News.

“I am concerned about its immune escape,” Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, told Yahoo News.

He noted the new variant’s increased ability to evade the body’s immune protections, including a vaccine.

According to Yahoo News, vaccines remain broadly effective against the coronavirus, including B.1.526, but the emergence of new varieties will require constant vigilance from virologists. 

3/4/21 2:08 p.m. PST — COVID-19 death rates higher in countries with more overweight population

The risk of death from COVID-19 is roughly 10 times higher in countries where most of the population is overweight, according to a report released by the World Obesity Forum.

Researchers analyzed mortality data from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization (WHO).

They reported that of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is overweight.

“We now know that an overweight population is the next pandemic waiting to happen,” Tim Lobstein, PhD, study author and senior policy adviser to the World Obesity Federation, told the Independent.

“Look at countries like Japan and South Korea where they have very low levels of COVID-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity,” he said.

5 states roll back mask mandates, more may follow

So far, five states have announced that they’re rolling back mask mandates.

The move has caused some experts to wonder whether other states will join them, which would alter how the United States will deal with the pandemic at a crucial moment in the fight against the disease, reported USA Today.

Dr. Eric Rubin, an infectious disease specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts, told the newspaper that “what they do in Texas matters to everybody else in the country.”

He noted the state's status as the second most populated in the country and as second highest with COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

According to USA Today, mixed messaging is confusing populations in different regions.

Some local mayors and businesses continue to insist on mask use and other disease prevention measures while governors are saying those measures are no longer required.

3/3/21 4:00 p.m. PST — Sweden may lock down for COVID-19 surge

Swedish officials warn that the country may need to implement its first lockdown of the pandemic as the number of COVID-19 cases surged 100 percent in Stockholm over the last 3 weeks, reported the New York Post.

The Swedish capital recorded 6,336 new cases of COVID-19 last week, compared with only 3,225 reported the first week of February, according to data compiled by the region.

According to Bloomberg, the surge in COVID-19 cases follows a warning from the government by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven that the Scandinavian nation might need to implement its first lockdown since the pandemic was declared last year.

“We have a third wave of transmissions — it’s here now,” Johan Bratt, the acting health and medical care director for the Stockholm region, said at a press briefing on March 3, Bloomberg reported.

Over 200,000 people sign up for health insurance after ACA marketplaces reopen

In just 2 weeks, more than 200,000 people have signed up for healthcare coverage on the reopened healthcare marketplaces, according to the Associated Press.

President Joe Biden directed that the marketplaces be reopened last month in order to help people get healthcare coverage during the pandemic.

Many people have been at risk of losing their health insurance due to job loss stemming from the pandemic.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Texas, other states ease COVID-19 measures amid warnings

On March 2, Texas became the biggest state to remove masking mandates and joined a rapidly growing movement by governors and other leaders across the nation to loosen COVID-19 restrictions.

This happened despite the pleas from health officials not to let their guard down — yet, reported the Associated Press.

Texas will also remove limits on the number of diners who can be served indoors, said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, making the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock, reported US News.

“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many of those surrounding him were not wearing masks. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed.”

3/2/21 2:31 p.m. PST — Merck and Johnson & Johnson will work together to make one-shot vaccine

President Biden plans to announce today that pharmaceutical company Merck will help produce Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, as his administration pushes to get the shot distributed to the public, reported The Wall Street Journal.

President Biden is expected to make this announcement today while he gives an update on the pandemic.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the assistance from Merck, a competitor of Johnson & Johnson, will help speed production following the one-shot vaccine’s authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Feb. 27.

Facing questions about the company’s slipping delivery schedule, Johnson & Johnson Vice President Richard Nettles told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week that the drugmaker had faced “significant challenges” because of the vaccine candidate’s “highly complex” manufacturing process, reported the Associated Press (AP).

The AP also reported that the Biden administration now expects to have enough supply of the three approved vaccines to inoculate all eligible U.S. adults by June, although actually delivering the injections could take longer.

Experts worry as states reopen, Texas stops mask mandate

CNN reported that in California, Los Angeles County health officials announced the daily test positivity rate is the lowest it's ever been.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped to the lowest levels since Dec. 12.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said the state's mask mandate would end on Tuesday and that businesses could fully reopen.

But experty s told CNN this doesn't mean we're in the clear.

“We should not ease up, allow indoor dining, big groups… getting rid of mask mandates. We have to hold on for another two or three months in this condition,” Dr. Zeke Emanuel, who was a health adviser for the Obama White House and a member of the Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, told CNN. “We're still having on average 2,000 deaths a day. We cannot become inured to that.”

Emmanuel added that if people relax too early, COVID-19 numbers are “going to reverse and go up” in the United States.

WHO says hydroxychloroquine should not be used as COVID-19 treatment

In a paper published today, the World Health Organization strongly advises medical providers not to use hydroxychloroquine to treat people with COVID-19.

The drug was originally developed to treat malaria. It had been touted by former President Donald Trump as a way to treat COVID-19 last year, but subsequent tests found the drug to be ineffective as a treatment for COVID-19.

3/1/21 2:11 p.m. PST — U.S. begins distribution of third COVID-19 vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this weekend added a third vaccine to the nation's arsenal against COVID-19 — the Johnson & Johnson single-dose candidate.

The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) on Feb. 27 for the vaccine, which is being shipped out on March 1 and administered this week.

“The emergency use authorization of a third vaccine against COVID-19 in the United States today, just over a year since the virus was identified, demonstrates extraordinary scientific commitment and progress,” the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) said in an emailed statement.

“The availability of another safe and effective vaccine that requires only one dose and that can be stored with only basic refrigeration opens new opportunities for delivery and expanded access for millions of people,” the IDSA added.

After an independent advisory panel voted to recommend that the FDA issue an EUA for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the FDA director signed off on that recommendation almost immediately, clearing the final hurdle before the drug can be distributed.

“There's a kind of new urgency to it,” Dr. Eric Rubin, a member of the FDA vaccine advisory committee and a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN on Sunday. “Because there are new viral variants coming out right now, with some chance that some of them could eventually become somewhat resistant to the protection provided by vaccines, it's really important to get it out there fast.”

Finland declares a state of emergency

With COVID-19 cases rising, the government of Finland has declared a state of emergency, according to Yahoo News.

Finland has seen a sharp rise in cases due in part to new coronavirus variants that spread so rapidly. Since the beginning of the outbreak, there have been more than 58,000 infections in the country and 742 recorded deaths.

Downtrend in COVID infections stalls

The steady decline in new COVID-19 cases across the nation appears to have stalled, according to public health officials. They warn that this might be because new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants are taking hold, reported The Washington Post.

According to the Post, the number of new infections remains critically high, with more than 125,000 cases reported over the weekend, even as COVID-related hospitalizations continue to go down.

However, this past weekend also saw promising developments regarding the pandemic.

USA Today reported Feb. 27 that the United States administered the most vaccines in a day on Feb. 26, with nearly 2.4 million shots given, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

USA Today also reported that the House approved President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package early Feb. 27. This is a key step that would provide millions of Americans $1,400 stimulus payments, ramp up vaccine distribution, and extend unemployment aid through the summer.

2/26/21 3:31 p.m. PST—Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is recommended by key FDA panel

An advisory group recommended Friday, Feb. 26, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue emergency authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine for people 18 and older.

The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory CommitteeTrusted Source voted unanimously 22-0 in favor of the emergency use authorization (EUA).

COVID-19 vaccines might end pandemic, expert says

The U.S. COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 28.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than a half-million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 94 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the United States, with only about 70 million administered so far.

While the numbers may seem daunting, The Harvard Gazette reported that current vaccines seem effective enough to end the pandemic. This is despite global concerns about new COVID-19 variants.

Galit Alter, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a group leader at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, told The Gazette that while the U.K. variant seems able to evade some vaccine protection, and the South African variant appears able to skirt even more, none have completely escaped the body’s post-vaccination immune responses.

“What we’re seeing is that these variants don’t seem to affect T-cell immunity all that much, and they [the T-cells] seem to be as effective in recognizing these variants as they do the original virus,” Alter told The Gazette. “What that means is that we actually have very important backup mechanisms built into our vaccines that will continue to provide protection against these newly emerging variants.”

Jon Cherry/Getty Images

COVID cases may be falling – but don’t underestimate virus, experts say

Across the United States, and the world, COVID-19 seems to be losing its grip — cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rapidly and steeply plunging, reported the New York Times.

However, researchers told the Times that they are worried Americans, so close to the end of the pandemic, might begin underestimating the virus.

According to a New York Times database, hospitalizations are down 30 percent, and deaths have fallen by 22 percent, but these numbers are still high.

“Very, very high case numbers are not a good thing, even if the trend is downward,” Marc Lipsitch, D.Phil., an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told The Times. “Taking the first hint of a downward trend as a reason to reopen is how you get to even higher numbers.”

Critically, the new COVID-19 variants might mean, “We’re essentially facing a pandemic within a pandemic,” Adam Kucharski, PhD, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told The Times.

2/25/21 1:37 p.m. PST — Influenza cases ‘disappear’ during pandemic

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), February is typically the peak of flu season, but this year is different.

Influenza cases have nearly disappeared from the United States, with reports coming in at far lower levels than has been seen in decades.

PBS News Hour reported that experts said measures to prevent virus spread, such as mask-wearing, physical or social distancing, and virtual schooling, were strong factors preventing a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19. Also, increased efforts to get more people vaccinated against flu and fewer people traveling likely played a role.

Dr. Nathan Mick, head of the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in Portland, the state’s largest hospital, told the Associated Press (AP), “I have seen zero documented flu cases this winter.”

Dr. Arnold Monto, a flu expert at the University of Michigan, told the AP that another possible explanation is that the coronavirus has “muscled aside” flu and other bugs that are more common in the fall and winter. He added that although scientists don’t fully understand this mechanism, it would be consistent with patterns seen when certain flu strains predominate over others.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pfizer studying third booster shot against COVID-19

Even with the Pfizer vaccine’s 95 percent effectiveness at preventing coronavirus infection after two doses, the drugmaker is looking at the effectiveness of a third dose, reported NBC News.

Pfizer is trying to understand the effect of a booster shot on immunity against COVID-19 caused by circulating and any newly emerging COVID-19 variants.

“The study will draw upon participants from the Phase 1 study in the United States who will be offered the opportunity to receive a 30 µg booster of the current vaccine 6 to 12 months after receiving their initial two-dose regimen,” Pfizer said in a statement. “The study is part of the Companies’ clinical development strategy to determine the effectiveness of a third dose against evolving variants.”

FDA says that Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures

The Food and Drug Administration said today that the Pfizer vaccine can be stored in conventional freezers instead of specialized freezers capable of ultra-low temperatures.

Previously the vaccine has only been allowed to be transferred and stored at temperatures between -80ºC to -60ºC (-112ºF to -76ºF). This meant using specialized freezers that are not widely available.

Being able to use conventional freezers may make it far easier to transport and store the vaccine.

2/24/21 2:43 p.m. PST—Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine found safe

A recently released Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis finds the single-dose vaccine candidate produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is safe for use.

Johnson & Johnson says the company has 4 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine ready to ship as soon as it receives an emergency use authorization (EUA), which could happen this week, reported CNN.

The FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet Friday to review data on the vaccine candidate and decide whether to issue an EUA for adults age 18 and older.

According to CNN, upon authorization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) makes recommendations to the CDC on how the vaccine should be used, including age groups and what type of schedule.

An emergency meeting of ACIP will be held Feb. 28 and March 1.

“We're hoping that ACIP will provide some guidance on the most effective use of the J&J one dose vaccine,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, wrote in an email to CNN on Feb. 23.

COVID-19 variants will likely cause new surge in cases

COVID-19 infections across the U.S. are continuing to fall, with more Americans being vaccinated, but coronavirus variants may soon cause complications.

Experts think that several experts have predicted the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant would likely fuel another surge of cases in the coming weeks, according to CNN.

The U.K. variant is roughly 50 percent more infectious than versions of the coronavirus that dominated for most of the pandemic, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

This anticipated surge is why many experts highlight the need to maintain safety measures, such as mask use, social distancing, and avoiding crowded areas.

Biden administration plans to send 25 million masks to health centers and food banks

The Biden administration plans to send out 25 million masks this week to promote wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The masks will be sent to community health centers and food pantries to provide low-income areas with supplies. The reusable masks will be made of cloth and fitted for both adults and children, according to USA Today.

2/23/21 2:50 p.m. PST — You still need a mask after vaccination

Even after you get vaccinated against COVID-19, you'll still need to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing, USA Today reported.

However, “people are interested in taking the vaccine,” White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response, Andy Slavitt, said at a news conference Monday, Feb. 22, “[because] they don't want to be sick and they don't want to die.”

Two shots of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can reduce someone’s risk of developing symptomatic COVID-19 by about 95 percent, according to the findings of large research trials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told USA Today that life wouldn’t get back to normal until national infection rates are reduced further.

“There are things, even if you're vaccinated, that you're not going to be able to do in society, for example, indoor dining, theaters, places where people congregate,” Fauci said.

Walensky added that vaccination will eliminate the need to quarantine after exposure.

She said the CDC has concluded that, “if you've been exposed and you've been fully vaccinated — two doses — there is no longer the need to quarantine after you've been exposed.”

Biden on track for 100 million doses in first 100 days

President Joe Biden's administration is on track to deliver over 100 million doses within his first 100 days in office.

Biden made the promise during his transition, and later said they would aim for 150 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Currently 49.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been released in Biden's first 34 days in office.

Nearly 100 New Yorkers need to be revaccinated due to error

Dozens of people in New York were asked to get revaccinated for COVID-19 after their past dose was stored at an improper temperature, the New York Post reported.

This error affected 81 of 1,379 doses distributed at the Jones Beach, New York, vaccination site on Long Island last Monday, Feb. 15, a state department of health spokesperson told NBC New York.

New York state officials told the network that some vials warmed up too much in transit to the vaccination site, and that the affected people have been assured that “there will be no extra vaccine-related risks from revaccination.”

2/22/21 2:14 p.m. PST — U.S. to hit 500,000 deaths from COVID-19

The nation has reached a milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins.

At 499,000, the present death toll is more than six average NFL stadiums worth of victims, according to CNN.

“It’s really horrible. It's something that is historic. It's nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told CNN. “People decades from now are going to be talking about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country, to have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection.”

Fauci emphasized that this is why health officials keep insisting the public continue with public health measures.

“Because we don't want this to get much worse than it already is,” concluded Fauci.

COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa found in New York

The variant, known as B.1.351, was detected in a Nassau County, New York resident, and announced one week after the tri-state area’s first case was discovered in a Connecticut resident hospitalized in New York City, reported NBC News. State and county officials didn’t provide additional details regarding ongoing contact tracing or exposure risk in the Nassau County case.

According to the CDC, this strain of the virus was first detected in South Africa in October 2020 and was first found in the United States at the end of January.

The CDC also cautioned that the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine used in the United States “may be less effective” against this COVID-19 variant.

Physicians report first case of COVID-19 from organ transplant

For the first time, a person developed COVID-19 after receiving an organ transplant from a donor who had SARS-CoV-2.

A woman in Michigan developed COVID-19 and later died after undergoing a double lung transplant. Officials said the case appeared to be isolated with no other transplant-related coronavirus transmissions being documented, according to U.S. News and World Reports.

2/19/21 12:53 p.m. PST — Pfizer vaccine can be stored at standard freezer temperatures

In a new press release, drugmaker Pfizer reported that their COVID-19 vaccine can now be stored at standard freezer temperatures.

The company is submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to show that their vaccine can remain stable when stored at t -25°C to -15°C (-13°F to 5°F).

Previously the vaccine had to be stored at -80ºC and -60ºC (-112ºF to ‑76ºF), which necessitated the use of special freezers. If the FDA approves the new storage it could make it easier to ship and store the vaccine.

“We have been continuously performing stability studies to support the production of the vaccine at commercial scale, with the goal of making the vaccine as accessible as possible for healthcare providers and people across the U.S. and around the world,” said Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, in the statement. “If approved, this new storage option would offer pharmacies and vaccination centers greater flexibility in how they manage their vaccine supply.”

Additionally, a new study published in The Lancet, found that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine may be as much as 85 percent effective after 15 to 28 days.

Florida women disguised themselves to get vaccinated

According to Florida health officials, two women disguised themselves as senior citizens in an effort to receive their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, reported ABC News.

The story says that the women showed up at the Orange County Convention Center wearing bonnets, gloves, and glasses in an effort to appear older, but are in their 30s and 40s, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Office. This made them ineligible to receive vaccination outside of a healthcare or long-term care facility setting.

“So yesterday, we realized a couple of young ladies came dressed up as grannies to get vaccinated for the second time,” said Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, during a Thursday press briefing. “So I don't know how they escaped the first time.”

The couple had valid vaccination cards from their first shot, but on their second attempt, there were issues with their identification, explained Pino.

ABC News also reported that deputies gave both women trespass warnings after their dates of birth didn’t match those previously used to register for the vaccines.

“This is the hottest commodity that is out there right now,” said Pino. “We have to be very careful with the funds and the resources that we are provided.”

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

Oregon infant is youngest to die with COVID-19

On Thursday the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported 466 new coronavirus cases and six deaths, including the state’s youngest victim, an infant from Umatilla County who died last month, reported The Oregonian.

“Today’s update on the number of COVID-19 related deaths includes an infant who had tested positive for COVID-19 and died the same day,” the OHA posted to social media. “Every death from COVID-19 is a tragedy, even more so the death of a child.”

According to KOMO News, the child also had significant underlying medical conditions.

Dr. Bukhosi Dube, a senior health adviser for OHA, told KOMO News they cannot release more details about the baby's death because of HIPAA laws, but he did confirm the infant had underlying conditions.

Dr. Anne Vestergaard, a Portland pediatrician, told KOMO News that underlying conditions put babies at risk for many illnesses, including influenza and RSV (a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms).

She emphasized that she doesn’t want this news to panic parents.

“If you have a healthy baby, who doesn’t have underlying conditions, the likelihood of this occurring to your baby is very low,” said Vestergaard.

2/18/21 2:53 p.m. PST — U.S. life expectancy falls during pandemic, Blacks and Hispanics most affected

Health officials say life expectancy in the United States dropped by one year during the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, reported the Associated Press (AP).

The CDC’s preliminary data shows life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population declining from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years for January through June 2020. These figures were released on Feb. 18 by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

According to the AP, marginalized groups experienced the biggest impact, with Black people's life expectancy falling by nearly three years and Hispanics by about two years.

“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year … I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco told AP.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines effective against British COVID-19 variant

The two COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna appear to be highly effective against the more transmissible variant of the virus first detected in Britain, according to newly published studies in the New England Journal of Medicine. The finding is a potential boost to vaccination efforts around the globe, reported The Washington Post.

However, the vaccines also show a decreased ability to protect against the South African strain of the virus — pushing both drugmakers to develop an updated vaccine or booster shot.

According to the Post, the new findings add to concerns about this variant, which has shown significant resistance to the AstraZeneca vaccine in a small-scale trial. Those results caused South Africa’s government to scrap that vaccine in favor of the single-dose candidate produced by Johnson & Johnson.

2/17/21 2:03 p.m. PST — U.K. to conduct COVID-19 ‘human challenge’

The United Kingdom will be the first country in the world to conduct a COVID-19 “human challenge” study, following approval by the country’s clinical trials ethics body.

According to a statement from the British government, this first-of-its-kind COVID-19 study will try to discover the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection.

Once the initial study has taken place, a small number of volunteers exposed to the virus might be given vaccine candidates already proven safe to help identify the most effective vaccines and accelerate their development.

The findings will give doctors greater understanding of COVID-19 and help the pandemic response by providing important information for vaccine and treatment development.

According to CNBC, the human challenge trial will take place in the next few weeks within the Royal Free Hospital’s specialist and secure clinical research facilities in London.

Biden cautiously optimistic about pandemic

During President Joe Biden’s first televised town hall on Feb. 16, he answered questions focusing primarily on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccinations, school reopenings, and how he planned to turn around the economy.

“As my mother would say, ‘with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors,' that by next Christmas, I think we'll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today,” Biden said during the CNN town hall. “A year from now, I think that there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, having to wear a mask, but we don't know. So I don't want to overpromise anything here.”

Biden also said his administration expects to have over 600 million vaccine doses available by the end of July, which will be enough to vaccinate every single person in the United States.

2/16/21 2:18 p.m. PST — Unique COVID-19 variants found in U.S., study finds

A study published Sunday identifies seven new COVID-19 variants unique to the United States, and all have a mutation that can make them more contagious.

Yahoo News also reported that researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics in Los Angeles have identified another new variant, named CAL.20C, which became detectable over the summer and currently accounts for almost half of all COVID-19 cases in Southern California.

“CAL.20C shows that we are the carriers,” Jasmine Plummer, PhD, one of the Cedars-Sinai molecular geneticists who discovered CAL.20C, told Yahoo. “We are the way by which SARS-CoV-2 is moving. It’s a reflection of our behavior. If we don’t give it the opportunity to move, then we can curb it right now.”

Plummer emphasized that, so far, the California variant hasn’t resulted in more severe illness.

“With the very small numbers we have right now, the outcomes don’t seem to be more severe,” she said.

Vaccinations are picking up in the United States. Boston Globe/Getty Images

WHO gives OK to AstraZeneca vaccine

The World Health Organization has given emergency use authorization for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The vaccine will be rolled out via the COVAX initiative to give poorer countries access.

A trial using the AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa was stopped after it failed to be effective against a form of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine was not effective against mild and moderate COVID-19 cases.

Israel reports a 94 percent drop in COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people

In a major study, authorities in Israel have reported a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 cases among 600,000 people who were fully vaccinated, according to Reuters.

Clalit, Israel's largest Health Maintenance Organization, found that people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine had a major drop in the risk of developing COVID-19.

They were also 92 percent less likely to develop severe disease.

U.S. will surpass goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, Biden says

President Joe Biden was optimistic Tuesday about the U.S. vaccine rollout, saying it would surpass forecasts, although a massive winter storm was slowing efforts to deliver shots this week, reported USA Today.

“Before I took office, I set a big goal of administering 100 million shots in the first 100 days,” Biden posted on social media. “With the progress we’re making, I believe we’ll not only reach that, we’ll break it.”

The White House announced Tuesday that it expects to send out 13.5 million vaccine doses every week to states, a 57 percent increase since Biden's inauguration.

According to USA Today, the winter storm that has caused icy roads, power outages, and dangerously low temperatures across much of the nation has snarled traffic. It is delaying vaccine shipments to Florida and Texas.

2/12/21 2:14 p.m. PST — COVID-19 booster shots could become routine

Future checkups at the doctor's office might include a COVID-19 booster shot, reported NBC News.

Infectious disease experts have warned COVID-19 is likely to be an endemic disease, which means the disease will stick around like the flu, though not at present levels.

“I think a big question on this coronavirus is, is it something that we’re gonna have forever,” Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News. “This virus is showing an incredible ability to mutate, to change, to adapt, in a sense, to everything we’re putting against it.”

COVID-19 has undergone thousands of mutations since it was first detected in humans. Although most ended up being inconsequential, experts are concerned about alterations that could make this coronavirus more contagious or available vaccines less effective.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Moderna to add more vaccine doses to vials

The lack of available COVID-19 vaccine has been the main stumbling block to getting Americans vaccinated.

Now, experts are hoping a simple change will greatly increase the amount of vaccine available: add more doses to each vial of vaccine.

Moderna will now be allowed by the FDA to put more vaccine in each vial so that it will contain up to 14 doses instead of 10, according to the New York Times.

North Carolina announces first case of South African COVID-19 variant

North Carolina health officials on Thursday announced the state's first case of a concerning coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.

“Viruses change all the time, and NCDHHS expects to see new COVID-19 variants in the state as the pandemic continues,” health officials said in a statement. “Data suggest this variant may be more contagious than other variants but does not suggest that it causes more severe disease. Current COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be effective against this and other new variants.”

According to Fox News, North Carolina joins other states with confirmed cases of the new strain, including Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, California, and Texas.

2/11/21 2:53 p.m. PST — New CDC guidelines say two masks are better than one

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines Wednesday that include wearing well-fitting face masks or two masks at a time to prevent disease spread.

The new guidelines follow a recent CDC study that found two ways to “substantially” reduce wearer exposure to COVID-19 are:

  • Fitting a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask
  • Knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask and then tucking in and flattening the extra material close to the face

“In the breathing experiment, having both the source and the receiver wear masks modified to fit better reduced the receiver’s exposure by more than 95 percent, compared to no mask at all,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing.

The new CDC recommendations also advise Americans to select masks with a nose wire that can be adjusted for a snug fit, and to use a mask fitter or brace to better seal their masks. 

Vaccinated people won’t need to quarantine, says CDC

The CDC has announced that fully vaccinated people who meet specific criteria will no longer be required to quarantine following exposure to someone with COVID-19, reported USA Today.

The eased rules begin 14 days after the final vaccination dose and last three months after that for people showing no symptoms.

The CDC emphasized that vaccinated people should still use a mask, practice social distancing, avoid crowds/poorly ventilated spaces, and follow guidelines for travel and other activities.

2/10/21 2:05 p.m. PST — WHO on how COVID-19 may have started

Peter Ben Embarek, PhD, the leading animal disease expert at the World Health Organization (WHO), said the investigative team looked into four main scenarios about how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, initially spread to humans, according to Reuters.

The first scenario theorizes a single person was exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through direct contact with a horseshoe bat. The virus might have been circulating in humans for some time before infecting people in Wuhan.

The second, and most likely scenario, involves transmission to humans through an unknown intermediary species. Liang Wannian, PhD, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, told CNBC that pangolins were potential candidates but other animals may have also served as reservoirs.

A third possibility is that COVID-19 originated under the first or second scenarios and that the virus was transmitted via frozen foods. Chinese experts associate later COVID-19 clusters to imported frozen food.

However, investigators found that the fourth and least likely scenario is that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is known to have studied captive coronaviruses.

Alcohol use during the pandemic creates wave of hospitalizations

Liver disease related to alcohol use was a growing problem even before the pandemic, with 15 million people diagnosed with the condition around the country, and hospitalizations doubling over the past decade, according to Kaiser Health News (KHN).

However, according to KHN, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly added to the toll.

While national figures aren’t available, Dr. Brian Lee, a transplant hepatologist who treats the disease at Keck Hospital at the University of Southern California, told KHN that admissions were up 30 percent in 2020 compared with 2019.

Specialists at hospitals affiliated with the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Harvard University, and Mount Sinai Health System in New York City have told KHN that rates of admissions for alcoholic liver disease have leapt by up to 50 percent since March.

2/9/21 2:15 p.m. PST — Biden administration considers COVID-19 ‘mobile vaccination centers’

For many, getting a COVID-19 vaccine appointment has been challenging. And, according to Biden’s adviser for COVID-19 response Andy Slavitt, this is because we’re still “in a situation of undersupply” of vaccine, CNN reported.

“I think people are going to have to probably continue to be more patient than they want to be,” Slavitt told NPR. “But in the meantime, they should know that 40 million-plus shots have gone out. And a lot of people, particularly those at highest risk, have been able to get their first vaccines, and many their second.”

He added that in the effort to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19, the Biden administration is considering mobile vaccination centers that travel within communities.

“They can go to workplaces, they can go to churches, they can go to communities,” Slavitt said.

WHO ends Wuhan investigation

World Health Organization (WHO) investigators said Tuesday, Feb. 9, they would cease pursuing research into whether COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, USA Today reported.

The WHO team has spent several weeks on the Wuhan fact-finding mission with experts visiting hospitals, research institutes, and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak.

According to USA Today, the WHO's fieldwork and other activities in Wuhan were conducted under close monitoring by Chinese officials and security officers. Beijing has also resisted calls for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

2/8/21 2:14 p.m. PST — Pandemic increasing number who choose to die at home

Since the pandemic hit, mortuary owner Brian Simmons has been making more trips to homes to pick up bodies for cremation or embalming, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Simmons’ crews regularly visit homes in the Springfield, Kansas, area and remove bodies of people who chose to die at home instead of spending their last days in a nursing home or hospital, where family visitations can be prohibited because of the pandemic.

The AP story emphasized that Simmons understands this sentiment all too well – his 49-year-old daughter died of COVID-19 just before Christmas, and he could be updated on her condition only by phone as her health worsened.

“The separation part is really rough, rough, rough,” Simmons told the AP. “My daughter went to the hospital, and we saw her once through the glass when they put her on the ventilator, and then we never saw her again until after she died.”

Health officials brace for Super Bowl COVID-19 surge

On the same day the state hosted Super Bowl LV, Florida became the first state to report 200 variant COVID-19 cases, USA Today reported.

According to USA Today, this news comes as public health officials across the United States brace for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases due to Americans disregarding warnings to not gather for Super Bowl parties.

Health experts warned in The New York Times that the Super Bowl itself could create a spike in cases.

“Any time you get 25,000 people together yelling and screaming during a pandemic, you’re going to have transmission,” Carl Bergstrom, PhD, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, told the Times.

Coronavirus variant from the U.K. is spreading rapidly in the U.S.

A new study published Sunday found that cases of the U.K. variant of the novel coronavirus are doubling every 10 days in the United States.

While overall U.S. COVID-19 cases are declining, experts worry that the rapidly spreading variant could again lead to another surge of disease.

South Africa halts AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial

A trial of the COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca was halted after it appeared ineffective against a variant of the novel coronavirus found in South Africa.

The country halted the trial this past weekend after finding it failed to protect against mild and moderate forms of COVID-19. New variants of the disease concern health officials because they may render some COVID-19 vaccines less effective.

2/5/21 2:22 p.m. PST — Vaccine passports under consideration

Government and business are considering digital proof of vaccination, The New York Times reported.

One of President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at curbing the pandemic asks government agencies to “assess the feasibility” of linking coronavirus vaccine certificates with other vaccination documents and producing digital versions of them, according to the Times.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is moving forward in that direction with the launch of its IATA Travel Pass. It is a global, standardized solution to authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 travel requirements.

“It’s about trying to digitize a process that happens now and make it into something that allows for more harmony and ease,” Nick Careen, senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security at IATA, told the Times. “Making it easier for people to travel between countries without having to pull out different papers for different countries and different documents at different checkpoints.”

Careen, who leads IATA’s travel pass initiative, added that sporting organizations, concert venues, and tourism agencies have all reached out for identification tech support.

The Times noted that proving vaccination status to participate in activities or to enter certain countries is not a new concept. For decades, travelers to some countries have had to prove they’re vaccinated against certain diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), travelers still need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter certain countries in South America and Africa.

Biden acts to reach goal of 100 million shots in 100 days

COVID-19 vaccine shipments are heading to pharmacies next week under a federal program to get more people vaccinated quickly, CNN reported.

According to a fact sheet from the White House, Biden is taking the following actions:

  • Expanding vaccine supply
  • Launching first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination
  • Increasing reimbursements to states

According to the White House, the new steps will help meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million shots in 100 days and expand access to vaccines in the coming weeks to more Americans.

Daily deaths from COVID-19 top 5,000

While COVID-19 cases are on the decline in the United States, deaths are still reaching new records.

This week, more than 5,000 people died of COVID-19 in a single 24 hour period, according to The Guardian.

Fatalities tend to lag case counts by a few weeks.

Johnson & Johnson applies for FDA authorization

Johnson & Johnson is applying for FDA emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine.

The company's single-dose vaccine was found to be about 85 percent effective against severe COVID-19 symptoms. The decision about authorization could be made as soon as Feb. 26.

2/4/21 2:34 p.m. PST — Mixing COVID-19 vaccine doses to fight new variants

The growing threat from the new coronavirus variants shows the need to make sure available vaccines can continue to protect us. A new trial is looking into something that could speed the process — mixing vaccine shots, NBC News reported. 

According to NBC, patients participating in a clinical trial launched Thursday, Feb. 4, in the United Kingdom will be given different vaccines for their first and second doses. The two vaccines being used are those developed by AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech, and this is the first study of its kind.

This 13-month study “will monitor the impact of the different dosing regimens on patients’ immune responses, which have the potential to be higher or lower than from the same dose regimen,” said the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care in a statement.

The study's initial findings are expected to be released this summer.

“If we do show that these vaccines can be used interchangeably in the same schedule, this will greatly increase the flexibility of vaccine delivery, and could provide clues as to how to increase the breadth of protection against new virus strains,” said the trial’s chief investigator, Dr. Matthew Snape, in a statement.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Pfizer vaccine may be 90% effective after a single dose

Researchers are investigating if a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine can provide high levels of protection against the novel coronavirus.

In a preprint of a study, researchers from the University of East Anglia found evidence that a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine may be 90 percent effective about 3 weeks after it's administered.

The team looked at data from over 500,000 people in Israel who were given the Pfizer vaccine.

The results should be looked at with caution as the paper was not peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal.

2/3/21 2:58 p.m. PST — New vaccines to fight COVID-19 variants being developed

Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced on Feb. 3 that it would work with German biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop new vaccines targeting COVID-19 variants amid concerns some mutations make the virus harder to combat, reported the Associated Press (AP).

According to the AP, this announcement comes as public health officials worldwide raise concerns about new and potentially more contagious or vaccine-resistant COVID variants. Scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern.

“The increase in emerging variants with the potential to reduce the efficacy of first generation COVID-19 vaccines requires acceleration of efforts to develop vaccines against new variants to keep one step ahead of the pandemic,” the companies said in a statement.

Younger Americans are biggest COVID-19 spreaders, study finds

A new study from Imperial College London finds Americans between ages 20 to 49 are the biggest spreader of new coronavirus infection. Researchers recommend prioritizing this age group for vaccination to speed school reopenings.

According to the study’s findings, people in that age range accounted for roughly 72 percent of cases detected after schools reopened in October. However, less than 10 percent came from teens, and children caused less than 5 percent.

“We believe this study is important because we demonstrate that adults aged 20-49 are the only age groups that have consistently sustained COVID-19 spread across the U.S.,” said Oliver Ratmann PhD, from Imperial College London in a statement. “Additional interventions targeting the 20-49 age group could bring resurgent epidemics under control and avert deaths.”

2/2/21 1:28 p.m. PST — Russian COVID-19 vaccine safe and effective, phase 3 trial finds

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine is 91.6 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19 and 100 percent effective against severe and moderate disease, according to an interim analysis of the vaccine's phase 3 trial results, CNN reported.

A commentary on these findings recently published in The Lancet confirmed recipients “generated robust antibody responses to the spike protein,” and “evidence of T-cell responses, consistent with an immune response that should not quickly wane.”

The interim report of phase 3 data included results for over 20,000 participants, 75 percent of whom were assigned to receive the vaccine.

According to CNN, the Sputnik V is a two-dose adenoviral vector vaccine that uses two different adenoviruses for each dose. The doses are administered 21 days apart.

“The outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated,” the authors of the Lancet article wrote. “Which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

If you had COVID-19, one vaccine shot might be enough

A report still in preprint and not yet peer-reviewed finds people who've already experienced COVID-19 may need only one vaccine shot to be protected against the disease.

“Changing the policy to give these individuals only one dose of vaccine would not negatively impact on their antibody titers, spare them from unnecessary pain, and free up many urgently needed vaccine doses,” the study authors wrote.

However, some experts disagree with the findings.

E. John Wherry, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Immunology, told The New York Times that before pushing for a change in policy, he’d like to see data showing those antibodies could stop the virus from replicating.

“Just because an antibody binds to a part of the virus does not mean it’s going to protect you from being infected,” Wherry said.

2/1/21 4:21 p.m. PST — As vaccines roll out, antiviral drugs languish

As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its first anniversary — with widespread vaccination still months away and thousands of patients still dying every day in the United States — doctors have very few ways to fight the virus, reported the New York Times.

According to the Times, while the government poured $18.5 billion into vaccines, resulting in at least five effective products at record-shattering speed, its investment in treatments was far smaller, at about $8.2 billion.

Most of this funding went to few candidates, like monoclonal antibodies, and studies of other drugs were poorly organized.

This resulted in a promising class of drugs called antivirals — which can stop the disease early — being neglected. This was because researchers couldn’t find enough funding or enough patients to participate.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the FDA, told the New York Times the lack of centralized coordination meant many trials for COVID-19 antiviral drugs were doomed from the start, since they were too small and poorly designed to provide useful data.

“I blame myself to some extent,” Woodcock, who has overseen the federal government’s efforts to develop COVID-19 drugs, told the Times.

In the next couple of months, she added, the government plans to start large trials for existing drugs that could be repurposed to fight the pandemic.

‘COVID hurricane’ is coming, expert warns

On Sunday, Jan. 31, on NBC's “Meet the Press,” an epidemiologist warned of a looming wave of cases and said the United States should adjust its vaccination strategy to save lives, reported CNBC.

“The fact is that the surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is going to happen in the next 6 to 14 weeks,” said director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, PhD.

According to CNBC, the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been associated with more rapid transmission, is possibly more deadly, and may be the dominant strain in the United States by March.

“Well, I think it's going to be tough,” Osterholm, who advised President Joe Biden's transition on the COVID-19 crisis, told NBC.

“I mean, imagine where we're at… right now. You and I are sitting on this beach where it's 70 degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze. But I see that hurricane five, category five or higher, 450 miles offshore,” he said. “And, you know, telling people to evacuate on that nice blue sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that hurricane's coming.”

1/29/21 1:45 p.m. PST — CDC: New COVID-19 variant has reached point of community spread

According to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 variant first found in South Africa, and already detected in two people in South Carolina, has reached the point of community spread in the United States, NBC News reported Friday, Jan. 29.

“I think one of the concerning things is that we know these two people did not know one another and that they did not travel to South Africa so the presumption is, at this point, that there has been community spread of this strain,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, told Savannah Guthrie on the “Today” show.

According to NBC, the fact that the B.1.351 variant was first detected on Thursday, Jan. 28, in the United States, doesn't mean it just arrived, because the country has “lagged greatly” behind other nations in tracking changes in COVID-19 by sequencing its genetic code.

In a press release, the CDC said it’s early in its efforts to understand the variant and will continue to provide updates as they learn more.

“At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease. Like the U.K. and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants,” the CDC said.

Johnson & Johnson releases key COVID-19 vaccine data

The pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson released key data from its COVID-19 vaccine.

In phase 3 data, Johnson & Johnson found that the vaccine provided high protection against moderate and severe COVID-19.

The company found in preliminary studies that the vaccine was 66 percent effective against moderate to severe COVID-19.

The effectiveness of the vaccine varied greatly from region to region.

While the vaccine was 72 percent effective in the United States, it was 66 percent effective in Latin America and 57 percent in South Africa, where a new variant has made health experts nervous.

Does COVID-19 affect male fertility?

Severe cases of COVID-19 might influence the quality of sperm, possibly reducing fertility, according to a new study published Thursday, Jan. 28, in the journal Reproduction.

“This report provides the first direct evidence to date that COVID-19 infection impairs semen quality and male reproductive potential,” the study said, according to CNN.

However, experts not involved in the study told the network that they were skeptical about the study’s findings.

“Being ill from any virus such as flu can temporarily drop your sperm count (sometimes to zero) for a few weeks or months,” Channa Jayasena, PhD, a consultant in reproductive endocrinology and andrology at Imperial College London, told CNN in an email.

“This makes it difficult to work out how much of the reductions observed in this study were specific to COVID-19 rather than just from being ill,” he said.

1/28/21 3:43 p.m. PST — Race against time with COVID-19 variants, scientists warn

Experts say the United States is in a “race against time” to vaccinate the largest number of people before other variants of the coronavirus emerge, NBC News reported Jan. 28.

According to NBC, delivery issues, insufficient supply, and vaccine hesitancy have crippled the nation’s vaccination efforts.

To avert another surge of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, scientists told NBC it may be necessary to rethink how the vaccines are distributed to increase the number of shots administered and protect against new strains of SARS-CoV-2.

“We really are in a race against new variants,” Wan Yang, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health told NBC. “We need to prepare as much as possible before things increase to a level that puts more strain on our healthcare systems.”

Biden expands healthcare coverage amid pandemic

President Joe Biden signed two executive actions Thursday, Jan. 28, designed to expand healthcare coverage amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Among his first actions addressing access to healthcare, the president will direct Department of Health and Human Services to open a special enrollment period for HealthCare.gov, the federally run insurance marketplaces, from Feb. 15 to May 15.

This will provide people in the United states who lost their employer-based insurance during the pandemic an opportunity to sign up for coverage.

1/27/21 2:04 p.m. PST — COVID-19 cases surpass 100 million worldwide

Confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 100 million worldwide Jan. 27, according to a Reuters tally, as nations struggle with both new virus variants and vaccine shortages.

According to Reuters data:

  • Nearly 1.3 percent of the world’s population has contracted COVID-19, and over 2 million people have died.
  • On average, 1 person has contracted the virus every 7.7 seconds since the year’s start, and roughly 670,000 confirmed cases were reported each day over the same period, with the global fatality rate standing at 2.15 percent.
  • The worst-affected countries — Brazil, India, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom — make up more than half of all reported COVID-19 cases but represent only 28 percent of the world’s population.

January deadliest month for COVID-19

The month isn’t over yet, but January is now the worst month for deaths from COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic, reported CNN.

According to the network, data from Johns Hopkins University shows more than 79,000 reported fatalities from the novel coronavirus this first month of 2021, topping a previous record set in December by more than 1,000.

Biden plan to battle pandemic

The Biden administration has proposed a wide-ranging $2 trillion plan to turn things around, reported The New Yorker. The effort will rely on stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, a minimum-wage increase, and funding to help schools open safely.

But the plan’s key component is mass vaccination.

According to The New Yorker, Biden has pledged to deliver 150 million shots in his first hundred days in office. The president also announced that his administration is nearing deals with Pfizer and Moderna to secure another 200 million doses by summer’s end.

1/26/21 1:11 p.m. PST — U.S. must prepare for new COVID-19 strain, Moderna CEO warns

News of the Moderna vaccine’s weakened response to the COVID-19 variant known as B.1.351 is raising alarms amid the ongoing pandemic, Yahoo Finance reported Jan. 25.

Experts, who have been closely watching the B.1.351 variant (which hasn’t yet been detected in the United States), warn that we should prepare for the potential spread of the strain.

According to Yahoo Finance, Dr. Anthony Fauci said as much on CBS Jan. 24, and Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told Yahoo Finance Jan. 25 that Fauci agreed with the company’s need to study the strain.

“We met with the team several times between the weekend, talked with the board, and decided this was the prudent thing to do— which Dr. Fauci confirmed to me yesterday as I was engaging with him,” Bancel told Yahoo Finance. “I would definitely tell people, get vaccinated, you need to be protected now.”

New virus strains mean shopping may carry increased infection risk

Health officials are “extremely” worried about the new coronavirus variants being detected in the United States, and what they could mean over the coming months, CNN reported Jan. 26.

“We've seen what happens in other countries that have actually had coronavirus under relatively good control, then these variants took over and they had explosive spread of the virus, and then overwhelmed hospitals,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

According to CNN, this means everyday activities, like shopping, may carry increased risk of contracting the virus.

“If there is something more contagious among us, if we thought that going to the grocery store before was relatively safe, there's actually a higher likelihood of contracting coronavirus through those everyday activities,” Wen cautioned.

She added that wearing a better mask, reducing the number of times that we go out shopping, or are exposed to indoor crowded settings, are helpful.

Gorilla gets COVID-19 antibody treatment

A silverback gorilla at the San Diego Zoo was given a monoclonal antibody treatment after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The gorilla named Winston was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year. He was given the antibody treatment in the hopes that it would lessen his symptoms.

The treatment was from a supply not intended for human use, according to the zoo.

1/25/21 1:41 p.m. PST — Moderna shot protects against virus strains, but it’s developing a booster

Moderna confirmed that its vaccine candidate offers protection against coronavirus variants. However, “out of an abundance of caution,” Moderna is also developing a booster shot against the disease, the drugmaker said in a press release.

“We are encouraged by these new data, which reinforce our confidence that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine should be protective against these newly detected variants,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, in a statement.

“Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective to boost titers against this and potentially future variants,” Bancel said.

COVID-19 variants, known as viruses of concern (VOC), might prove more dangerous than the current pandemic virus.

According to a report from the United Kingdom’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) committee, “based on these analyses, there is a realistic possibility that infection with VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to infection with non-VOC viruses.”

However, NERVTAG noted that the “absolute risk of death per infection remains low.”

Merck to stop developing COVID-19 vaccine

Merck announced Monday, Jan. 25, it will stop developing both formulations of the COVID-19 vaccines the company has been working on.

The drugmaker cited inadequate immune responses to the shots, STAT News reported.

“This decision follows Merck’s review of findings from Phase 1 clinical studies for the vaccines. In these studies, both V590 and V591 were generally well tolerated,” the company said in a statement. “But the immune responses were inferior to those seen following natural infection and those reported for other SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 vaccines.”

1/22/21 1:15 p.m. PST — Pandemic will get worse, Biden warns

President Joe Biden laid out his administration’s plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic on his first full day in office, warning that the worst is yet to come, CBS News reported.

“Let me be clear,” Biden said during the event at the White House. “Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.”

According to CBS, the president signed 10 executive orders to significantly expand testing and vaccine availability, to meet a goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses by the end of April.

He also invoked the Defense Production Act to compel federal agencies and manufacturers to increase key supplies needed to fight the virus. Biden implemented new travel restrictions intended to curb the spread of the disease.

“This is a wartime undertaking,” Biden said, and noted the more than 412,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States, a figure that's higher than the number of Americans who died during World War II.

Biden vaccine goal may not be ambitious enough

President Joe Biden has promised not only a faster COVID-19 vaccine rollout, but also vowed to have 100 million shots administered in his first 100 days in office. But some think this is not enough, according to Vox,

Vox reported Jan. 22 that in the past week, the United States has averaged about 900,000 vaccinations a day, which makes Biden’s goal of 1 million per day a scant improvement from what the nation achieved before he took office Jan. 20.

“The Trump administration was given 36 million doses when they were in office for 38 days. They administered a total of about 17 million shots. That’s about less than 500,000 shots a day,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in briefing. “What we’re proposing is to double that to about 1 million shots per day.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease and vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told Vox that the United States should aim for at least 2 million or more daily vaccinations, which would get some of the most important parts of the vaccination efforts done before summer.

1/21/21 1:01 p.m. PST — Single dose COVID-19 vaccine could be ‘game-changer’

New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has developed a single dose vaccine that doesn’t need to be stored at ultralow temperatures, USA Today reported Jan. 21.

According to USA Today, results from clinical trials of the new vaccine are expected by the end of this month. This single-dose vaccine could soon become the third candidate authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Interim analysis showed that the drugmaker’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate induced an immune response and was “generally well-tolerated” across all study participants.

Also, after a single vaccination, neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19 were detected in over 90 percent of study participants, Johnson & Johnson said in a press release.

“Listen, if Johnson & Johnson comes through, that's a game-changer, period,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in a statement.

Monoclonal antibody treatment may reduce risk of symptomatic COVID

A monoclonal antibody treatment significantly reduced the risk of contracting symptomatic COVID-19 among residents and staff of long-term care facilities, Eli Lilly and Company said Jan. 21 in a press release.

According to the drugmaker, findings from the phase 3 BLAZE-2 COVID-19 prevention trial suggest there was a significantly lower frequency of symptomatic COVID-19 in participants who received the antibody bamlanivimab (LY-CoV555) treatment versus those given a placebo.

“We are exceptionally pleased with these positive results, which showed bamlanivimab was able to help prevent COVID-19, substantially reducing symptomatic disease among nursing home residents, some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Eli Lilly's chief scientific officer in a statement.

“These data provide important additional clinical evidence regarding the use of bamlanivimab to fight COVID-19 and strengthen our conviction that monoclonal antibodies such as bamlanivimab can play a critical role in turning the tide of this pandemic,” he said.