Coronavirus updates: Chicago halts in-class learning; Fauci says vaccines can handle virus variants; US could hit 500,000 deaths soon

John Bacon

Elinor Aspegren


COVID-19 has killed more than 426,000 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.

The Biden administration’s White House COVID-19 Task Force held its first virtual briefing Wednesday, promoting its efforts to expedite vaccinations while warning that the nation could surpass 500,000 deaths within weeks.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency predicts 479,000 to 514,000 pandemic deaths will have been reported by Feb. 20. Almost 4,000 deaths and more than 140,000 new infections were reported yesterday alone.

“Our case rates remain extraordinarily high and now is the time to remain vigilant,” she said.

The U.S. has distributed more than 44 million doses of vaccine, more than 23 million doses have been administered, and more than 3 million people have received two doses, according to the CDC. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated that vaccines appear to be effective against emerging variants, adding that the U.S. is working with companies to develop new antibody treatments that will be effective as newer strains evolve.

President Joe Biden said this week he expects the majority of the U.S. population can be vaccinated by summer’s end or early fall. Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, warned that despite ramping up the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, “it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.”

Grace Hauck

In the headlines:

►Some researchers in China say they have found a more accurate way to test for he virus – an anal swab. Li Tongzeng, deputy director of infectious disease at Beijing You’an Hospital, told China’s Global Times that studies show COVID survives longer in the anus or excrement than in upper body tracts, avoid false negative results. 

►Longtime NBA writer Sekou Smith, known for his basketball insight and friendly demeanor, died Tuesday of COVID-19. He was 48 years old.

►Eli Lilly announced that its monoclonal antibody cocktail cuts hospitalizations by 70% for high-risk COVID-19 patients.

►Alaska and Kentucky have detected their states’ first known cases of the coronavirus variant identified last year in the United Kingdom, officials said Tuesday. The diagnoses raise the total of states reporting cases of the variant to 25.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 426,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 100.4 million cases and 2.16 million deaths. 

📘 What we’re reading: Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office is attempting to return $2 million worth of a malaria drug once touted by former President Donald Trump as an effective treatment for COVID-19, a spokesman said Wednesday. Gov. Kevin Stitt defended the purchase last year, saying the pills had shown some promise as a treatment in early March and he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to acquire it. The drug, purchased from California-based FFF Enterprises, has since been shown to have little or no effect on severe cases of COVID-19.

With more and more students going back to school this week, evidence from the U.S. and other countries indicates schools can operate safely with precautions and they should open for in-person instruction as soon as possible, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. In an article published Tuesday in JAMA Network, the researchers wrote that wearing masks and maintaining social distance have proved effective at limiting transmission of the coronavirus in schools, but activities such as indoor sporting events can promote spread and should be diminished.

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the three researchers wrote. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

Chicago Public Schools halted in-person learning for about 3,200 pre-K and special education students who have been in classrooms for two weeks amid an impasse in negotiations between City Hall and the Chicago Teachers Union. 

“We have no other choice but to inform parents that they should not bring their children to school” Wednesday, CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson said.

District officials also had wanted 10,000 K-8 teachers and other staffers to return to school two days ago to prepare for classes that would start Feb. 1 but delayed the return after union members voted not to return. Still, city officials said they would continue bargaining with the union and expected schools to reopen as planned on Feb. 1 for an estimated 71,000 elementary students who indicated that they intend to return. 

Since pre-K and special education students returned Jan. 11, the district has reported about 60 cases of COVID-19. The “great majority” of these cases did not involve transmission at school, Chicago Department of Public Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady said.

Grace Hauck

A Florida county’s reigning Paramedic of the Year has been charged with stealing COVID-19 vaccines meant for first responders. Joshua Colon, 31, was arrested after confessing to intentionally stealing three doses of Moderna vaccine then forging paperwork in attempt to cover his actions, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Grady Judd said Colon told authorities he stole the vaccines earlier this month at the request of his supervisor, Capt. Tony Damiano, who sought the vaccine for his elderly mother. Damiano, who is under investigation, was deployed to California to aid in the pandemic response, Judd said.

“He might as well turn himself in,” Judd said of Damiano. “You can run, but you can’t hide. The deal is over.” 

Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger

While vaccines may help slow the COVID-19 pandemic over the next months, drug company Eli Lilly announced Tuesday that its treatments can help save lives in the meantime. The Indianapolis-based drug giant says its monoclonal antibody cocktail cuts hospitalizations by 70% for high-risk patients. A monoclonal antibody mimics one of the natural antibodies the immune system uses to fight off the virus. Former President Donald Trump as well as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani all received monoclonal antibodies shortly after they were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Karen Weintraub

Many school districts and states holding in-person classes have ignored recommendations from public health officials or written their own questionable safety rules – creating a tinderbox where COVID-19 can sicken and kill. An analysis of federal and state data found more than 780 complaints covering more than 2,000 public and private K-12 schools. Among complaints: Employees reported sick children coming to school, maskless students and teachers less than 6 feet apart and administrators minimizing the dangers of the virus and punishing teachers who spoke out.

“The response to the virus has been politicized,” said Dr. Chandy John, an expert in pediatric infectious diseases at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “There’s a willingness to ignore data and facts and go with whatever you’re hearing from the Internet or from political leaders who don’t have any scientific knowledge.”

Laura Ungar, Kaiser Health News

The 4,087 deaths from COVID-19 reported Tuesday – the fourth-highest day in the history of the pandemic – have already made January the deadliest month of the pandemic, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the first 26 days of January, the United States reported 79,261 deaths. The total number of deaths in December, which had been the most deadly month, was 77,486 deaths in December. At this pace, January could end with about 94,500 reported deaths.

Some states have been ravaged. California’s previous worst month was 6,772 fatalities, in December, but the state has already reported 12,282 dead in January. January is already the deadliest month for another 15 states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

– Mike Stucka

The Oklahoma Health Department in March ordered more than 2 million N95 masks from a Tulsa piano bar owner who promised he could get the coveted PPE from China in large amounts and quickly.

They ordered the masks from Casey Bradford’s brand-new company, PPE Supplies LLC. On the second order, they even paid him half upfront – $2.125 million – after he promised delivery in 10 days.

The Oklahoma Health Department on Tuesday sued Bradford and PPE Supplies LLC in Oklahoma County District Court. Health officials got fewer than 10,000 masks from PPE Supplies and only $300,000 of the deposit back, according to the breach of contract lawsuit. The Health Department is seeking the rest of its money back – $1.825 million, plus interest. It also is seeking punitive damages for “misconduct.”

“Bradford intentionally and willfully misrepresented facts to Plaintiff that induced Plaintiff into entering purchasing orders and advancing a deposit, ” the lawsuit alleges.

– Nolan Clay, The Oklahoman

Double masking was in the spotlight last week during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, where several high-profile officials and celebrities were photographed wearing two masks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, says that it’s likely more effective to prevent spread: “So, if you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Fauci told “NBC News’ TODAY” on Monday. “That’s the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95.”

So does a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Matter in July, which found that wearing two masks could increase protection from virus particles by 50% up to 75%. It not only added an extra layer of protection but also made the mask fit snugger around the face, said study author Dr. Loretta Fernandez.

Americans’ renewed interest in double masking also comes as variants that appear to be more contagious emerge from the U.K, South Africa, Brazil and California.

– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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