UK strain continues US spread; California vaccine rollout

John Bacon

Elinor Aspegren


COVID-19 has killed nearly 430,000 Americans, and infections have continued to mount despite the introduction of a pair of vaccines late in 2020. USA TODAY is tracking the news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

New U.S cases of the coronavirus have fallen 35% from their Jan. 11 peak, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. The average number of daily cases has fallen to about 162,000, from 249,000. 

And there are positive signs for hospitalization: The COVID Tracking Project said Wednesday that “the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is decreasing in every major US region.” About 107,000 Americans were hospitalized because of the virus Tuesday, down from a peak of more than 130,000 three weeks ago.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the improvement in numbers appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.

Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University in Indianapolis, called the decline in new cases encouraging but warned that it might not be permanent.

The daily death toll remains close to the record highs set earlier this month: The United States is still averaging about 23,000 deaths per week. Recorded deaths lag the infection rate. But the CDC says it expects deaths to decline over the next four weeks.

“This is the time to take advantage of the window and strive even harder to sustain the downward trend as we gradually tap into the supporting act of vaccines,” Omenka said. “It is still possible for the increase in new cases to return if we prematurely let go of the public health efforts that have been helping us all along.”

Mike Stucka

In the headlines:

►The South Africa variant of COVID-19 has reached the U.S., with two cases identified in South Carolina. There is no evidence infections from the  variant cause more severe disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement, adding that “preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.”

►Pro Football Hall of Famer and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan has tested positive for COVID-19 and is self-quarantining, the Associated Press reported, citing people familiar with the situation. Strahan is not experiencing severe symptoms, AP says.

►The Sinclair Broadcast Group says it is ending its “America This Week” show with Eric Bolling, which has been criticized for pandemic misstatements. One episode of “America This Week” pulled last July included a conspiracy theorist who suggested Dr. Anthony Fauci manufactured the virus and shipped it to China. There is no evidence to back up that theory.

►California will turn over its coronavirus vaccine distribution to health insurance giant Blue Shield. Blue Shield will take over a vaccine delivery that has been one of the slowest in the nation, the state health agency told San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday.

►Vaccine coverage is twice as high among white people on average than Black and Latino people, a CNN analysis of data from 14 states found. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 equity task force, said in a CNN town hall Wednesday that she’s seen “a similar pattern already emerging across the country.”

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 429,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 100.9 million cases and 2.17 million deaths. About 47.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 24.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC. 

📘 What we’re reading: $15 minimum wage? Another round of checks? Resistance to key pieces could derail Biden’s COVID relief plan.

Federal prisons in North Carolina and Michigan struggled to contain outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus as staffing shortages and insufficient quarantine space compromised the response, an internal Justice Department review found. At the Bureau of Prisons complex in Butner, North Carolina, where 26 inmates and one staffer have died since June, authorities were unable to fully restrict staff movements to guard against cross-contamination while social distancing measures proved difficult to enforce because of the open design of the housing facilities, the Justice inspector general concluded.

“As Covid-19 spread throughout two of the complex’s institutions, these institutions were not able to quarantine all inmates meeting the criteria for quarantine, largely due to a shortage of space,” the report concluded.

In a written response, federal prison officials disputed the quarantine problems, asserting that “despite the high volume” of infections, authorities met guidelines.

– Kevin Johnson

COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents in New York have been undercounted by about 50% as poor infection-control practices and understaffing fuel the coronavirus crisis, New York’s Attorney General reported Thursday. The investigation found the state Department of Health’s controversial policy to only publicly report COVID-19 deaths of residents inside nursing homes and withhold deaths of residents transferred to hospitals hindered attempts to fully understand the scope of the the crisis and improve conditions inside the facilities. The true COVID-19 death toll of nursing home residents is closer to 13,000, as opposed to the 8,677 reported to date by the Health Department, according to the investigation’s findings.

“As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” Attorney General Letitia James said.

David Robinson

As part of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 strategy, mass vaccination clinics will soon become familiar to millions of Americans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could begin running up to 100 high volume sites nationwide within a month to help reach the administration’s goal of giving 1.5 million shots a day during Biden’s first 100 days in office.

“It’s complicated, it’s challenging but we want to get vaccine out the door and into arms as fast as we possibly can,” Mayor London Breed said. 

A group of Oregon public health officials stranded on a highway in a snowstorm after conducting a vaccination clinic surprised weary fellow travelers with impromptu vaccinations. Josephine County Public Health said on social media that the six vaccines were getting close to expiring so the staffers decided to use them. They walked from car to car, offering people a shot, with a county ambulance on hand for safety. The lucky drivers included a county sheriff’s office employee who had arrived too late for the clinic but ended up stuck with the others on her way back to Grants Pass.

Mike Weber, Josephine County Public Health director, said it was one of the “coolest operations he’d been a part of.”

A World Health Organization team completed a two-week quarantine in Wuhan, China, on Thursday to begin a fact-finding mission on the origins of COVID-19. The researchers are attempting what has become a politically charged mission as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and whom they will be able to talk to. White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concern Wednesday about what she called “misinformation” coming out of China, adding that the U.S. supports a robust international investigation.

“It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China,” she said.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday night that it’s “going to take awhile for us to feel like we’re back to a sense of normalcy.”

“Will we feel as if we have the herd immunity that everybody has been talking about by the end of the first 100 days?” she said during a CNN town hall. “I told you I’d tell you the truth. I don’t think we’ll feel it there.”

A CDC report released late Wednesday shows the U.K. strain of the virus continuing to spread across the United States. The report shows 315 cases, up from 293 Monday and 144 a week earlier. California and Florida are tied for the most cases with 92 each.

The rate of traffic deaths jumped in the first half of 2020, and safety experts blame drivers who sped up on roads left open when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and limited commuting.

The new research also showed that even small increases in speed led to much deadlier outcomes in vehicle crashes. A crash that is easily survivable at 40 mph can be fatal at 50 mph or more, according to the study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“Small changes in speed when you’re involved in a crash can really increase your chances of getting a severe injury,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “It’s a huge problem.”

Nathan Bomey

More than 22 million Americans have been vaccinated and the few reported allergic responses have been treated successfully, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No other serious problems have turned up, the CDC says. 

Although it’s never possible to prove something is completely safe, data from multiple tracking systems suggest the vaccines are not causing large numbers of unusual or dangerous results. Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub

Phoenix-based Banner Health officials hope the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, will help improve outcomes in their most critically-ill COVID-19 patients.

Tocilizumab has had mixed results on COVID-19 patients in numerous trials, and reports conflict about its usefulness in treating people infected with the new coronavirus. The drug has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating COVID-19 patients, nor does it have a government Emergency Use Authorization.

But recent data on the drug’s viability is giving Banner Health leaders some optimism for use with a select group of critically-ill COVID-19 patients at risk of dying.

But not all hospitals and hospital systems in Arizona are treating COVID-19 patients with the arthritis drug right now.

– Stephanie Innes, Arizona Republic

In-person schooling can be safe, U.S. health researchers argue, but it requires schools and their surrounding communities to commit to a slew of public health precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

President Joe Biden and his administration have made a return to in-person instruction a priority, setting out to reopen most schools within his first 100 days. Last week, Biden directed the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidance and resources to reopen schools and child care centers.

On Tuesday, two epidemiologists and a researcher from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, writing that “accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”

As schools in the U.S. and abroad have reopened amid the pandemic, there “has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the scientists said. By taking various public health precautions, it’s possible to prevent transmission in schools, the researchers concluded. Here’s what they want to see happen.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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