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President Joe Biden signed a pair of executive actions Friday that aim to provide economic relief for Americans feeling the financial strains of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Biden is calling for Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, he also moved to expand access to federal nutrition and food assistance programs and start the process for requiring federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum wage of $15 per hour and give them emergency paid leave.
The executive orders come a day after Biden laid out his plans for a federal COVID-19 strategy and declared it “a wartime undertaking.” The plan rests on using the Defense Production Act to strengthen the supply chain and make vaccines – but experts say the plan will need time.
Meanwhile over the past few days, authorities in California, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and Hawaii warned that their vaccine supplies were running out. New York City began canceling or postponing shots or stopped making new appointments because of the shortages.
Also Friday: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the new U.K. coronavirus variant may be deadlier than the previous dominant variant, in addition to being more contagious. The U.K. is currently in a lockdown, and people are required to stay largely at home.
In the headlines:
►January is already the second-deadliest month during the pandemic for the United States, with 64,147 deaths reported so far, Johns Hopkins University data shows. The country has averaged about 3,055 deaths per day so far this month, a daily toll worse than the human cost of the 9/11 attacks. At this pace, by Tuesday, January will have become the deadliest month so far of the pandemic.
►Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday on CNN that the lack of candor and facts around the U.S. pandemic’s response over the last year “very likely did” cost lives. Asked Thursday about his experience working on the pandemic response for two different administrations, Fauci also said being able to share science was “liberating.” Fauci said he did not enjoy having to correct information provided by former President Donald Trump during briefings.
►Michigan will allow indoor dining on a limited basis starting Feb. 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday.
►After weeks of railing against “vaccine tourism,” Florida officials will limit the scant supply of COVID-19 vaccine to residents only. Surgeon General Scott Rivkees issued an executive order requiring people seeking an appointment to get the vaccine to provide proof of residency, or proof of being a health care provider directly involved with patients. Until now, a person only needed to prove they were 65 or older.
►National Guard members who were in Washington, D.C., have tested positive for COVID-19, the Washington Post and Politico reported. The Post, citing unnamed Maryland soldiers, reported that “the coronavirus is raging among National Guard members” without specifying the extend of the outbreak. Three unnamed Guard sources told Politico that hundreds of members have tested positive.
►Nearly 2,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were spoiled at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston after a contractor accidentally unplugged a freezer, hospital officials said Thursday. An investigation was underway into why a monitoring alarm system did not work.
►Comedian Dave Chappelle tested positive for COVID-19 just before his comedy show scheduled in Austin for Thursday, forcing his upcoming appearances to be canceled, a spokeswoman said. Chappelle had been performing socially-distanced shows in Ohio since June, and he moved his shows to Austin during the winter.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 24.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 412,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 97.9 million cases and 2.1 million deaths.
📘 What we’re reading: COVID-19 could kill 100,000 more people in the U.S. in coming month. Will we face this as “one nation”? USA TODAY’s editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll speaks with health and politics reporters on where we are and where we’re heading in the battle against COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on vaccinations Friday to say the second dose of a two-shot vaccine can be administered up to 6 weeks after the first.
The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require two doses, given three weeks and one month apart, respectively. But second shots can still be administered beyond that timeframe, up to 42 days after the first, the CDC said Friday. There’s no data on doses administered after that time.
The agency also said a person may receive a different vaccine for the second shot only in “exceptional situations” where the first-dose vaccine is unknown or unavailable. Clinical trials did not evaluate the safety or effectiveness of interchanging vaccines.
Dave Chappelle tested positive for the coronavirus just before a comedy show scheduled for Thursday, forcing his upcoming appearances to be canceled, a spokeswoman said.
Chappelle was expected to perform Thursday through Sunday at Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater in Austin, Texas. Those shows have been canceled and Chappelle is quarantining, his representative Carla Sims said in a statement. The comedian is asymptomatic.
Chappelle had been performing socially-distanced shows in Ohio since June, and moved his shows to Austin during the winter, Sims said. Rapid testing for the audience and daily tests for Chappelle and his team were implemented.
– The Associated Press
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed Friday that a coronavirus variant that was first detected in the country in September may be around 30% more deadly than the previous dominant strain.
British scientists had already concluded that the variant, known as B117, spread between 30%-70% faster than the previous dominant coronavirus strain in the UK.
Johnson’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance explained that, for someone in the UK who is 60 years old, the average previous risk for 1,000 people who got infected with the old dominant coronavirus variant was that approximately 10 people would be expected to die.
With the new variant, roughly 13 or 14 out of 1,000 infected people might be expected to die, he said.
“I want to stress there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is a concern that this (variant, B117) has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility,” Vallance said.
The British government so far believes that the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines work against the new variant in the UK.
– Kim Hjelmgaard
A new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, among states that have reported vaccination data by race and ethnicity, populations that have been the most affected by the virus’ deadly impacts are not receiving vaccines at a proportionate rate.
More than a dozen states have made that data public, and the share of Black and Hispanic people getting vaccinated is smaller than their share of many of the states’ case and death counts, the Kaiser Family Foundation found.
In Mississippi, Black people have accounted for 38% of cases and 42% of deaths but just 15% of vaccinations, the report says. In Nebraska, 23% of cases and 13% of death were Hispanic people, but they make up only 4% of vaccinations.
The data remains limited and no broad conclusions can be drawn, the report says, but it does “raise some early warning flags about potential racial disparities in access to and uptake of the vaccine.”
Variations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have popped up all over the world – including ones first seen in the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and most recently, California. Now, medical experts are worried.
“If you have a virus that’s more transmissible, you’re going to get more cases,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top disease expert, said Thursday. “When you get more cases, you’re going to get more hospitalizations, and when you get more hospitalizations, you ultimately are going to get more deaths.’
As far as scientists know now, vaccines still work against the variants, as do diagnostic tests and the protective measures we all know so well – masks, social distancing, washing hands, avoiding crowds. What’s less clear is whether targeted drugs developed to help the immune system fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to work, and whether natural infections will provide as much protection.
As long as there is virus circulating widely, it can mutate and cause more trouble. Read more here.
– Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise
College campus leaders hoped the lessons from the fall would better position them for the spring semester. That was before a post-holiday winter surge pushed the number of COVID-19 deaths in America over 400,000. Before more contagious variants of the coronavirus emerged. Before the vaccine rollout proved slower than anticipated.
Now, returning student populations may be at even greater risk than they were in the fall — not to mention their surrounding communities, where research has suggested greater outbreaks in college towns. Some public health experts fear the new semester’s timing could exacerbate the state of the pandemic.
Despite those concerns, colleges are pushing ahead. The stakes are high; enrollment plummeted at most colleges last semester, and the loss of income from in-person services like campus housing and dining could be devastating to schools that depend on that money. College towns would feel the economic pinch as well.
But when administrators talk about the need for reopening, they focus on what went well in the fall — and the advantages of the full university experience.
– Chris Quintana
The NFL announced Friday that 22,000 fans will be in attendance for Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, next month. Of that total, 7,500 will be fully vaccinated health care workers, the majority of whom will hail from hospitals or health care systems in the Tampa or central Florida area.
Tickets will be free for the recipients. Additionally, all 32 clubs will select vaccinated health care workers from their communities to attend the big game.
“These dedicated health care workers continue to put their own lives at risk to serve others, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
– Chris Bumbaca
The scientific community applauded President Joe Biden’s decision to rejoin the World Health Organization and other global efforts designed to stop and prevent COVID-19. The move had both symbolic and practical implications, said Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of Global Health & HIV Policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Practical, because U.S. funding will help the agency balance its budget, fulfill its commitments to boost public health, and protect Americans from new strains of COVID-19 and future disease threats.
And symbolic, because the United States was the agency’s largest funder and has long been a key player on the global health stage.
In the short term, the United States retracting its notice of withdrawal means that it will fulfill its financial obligations to the organization and stop its drawdown of U.S.-provided staff at WHO. In the longer term, U.S. participation means it will help advance pandemic preparedness, reverse the health consequences of climate change, and promote better health globally, the Biden administration said.
– Karen Weintraub
A fired county public health doctor in Texas was charged with taking a vial of COVID-19 vaccine, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced in a Thursday press release.
Dr. Hasan Gokal took a vial that contained nine doses while working at a county vaccination site on Dec. 29, according to the district attorney’s office. He told another employee what he did a week later, and that employee reported him to supervisors.
“He abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there,” Ogg said. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”
Gokal was charged with theft by a public servant, a misdemeanor that “carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine,” according to the district attorney’s office.
Chicago’s school district announced Friday that it plans to start vaccinating teachers for the coronavirus in mid-February, though it remained to be seen if that would be enough to stop the teachers union from voting to defy the district’s order to return to their classrooms next week.
Chicago Public Schools, which is the nation’s third-largest district, said in a statement that its mid-February rollout would be the beginning of a multi-month effort to offer vaccinations to its thousands of teachers and other staff members, who like educators throughout Illinois, will be eligible to receive the shots as of Monday under the state’s plan.
The announcement came a day after the union’s 25,000 members began voting on whether to back its leadership’s resolution to continue teaching from home in defiance of the district’s order for roughly 10,000 K-8 educators to return to school for the first time since March. The union’s vote is set to conclude Saturday.
The Trump administration’s push to have states vastly expand their vaccination drives to the nation’s estimated 54 million people 65 and older has contributed to vaccine shortages, public health experts say.
The push that began over a week ago has not been accompanied by enough doses to meet demand, according to state and local officials, leading to frustration and confusion and limiting states’ ability to attack the outbreak that has killed over 400,000 Americans.
As states have ramped up their distribution chains, authorities in California, New York, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia and Hawaii warned their supplies were running out. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer even inquired about buying vaccines directly from manufacturer Pfizer, but have not been authorized to do so.
Some state and local public health officials have complained of not getting reliable information on the amount of vaccine they can expect, making it difficult to plan the inoculations.
– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
Contributing: The Associated Press