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US on the cusp of 500,000 coronavirus deaths; Britain rolls out plan to ease lockdown despite variant: Latest COVID-19 updates

Elinor Aspegren

Ryan W. Miller
 
| USA TODAY

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The U.S. on Monday was on the cusp of surpassing another somber milestone that was once unthinkable: 500,000 COVID deaths, a threshold reached faster than any other country in the world. 

President Biden will hold a moment of silence and a candle-lighting service Monday evening at the White House to mark the unprecedented loss of life. 

Britain, meanwhile, unveiled its plan Monday for unwinding one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdowns. American public health officials were watching closely as the more transmissible COVID-19 variant originally identified in Britain continues spreading in the U.S.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the slow rollback, beginning March 8 with children in England returning to class and people being allowed to meet a friend outside. Shops and hair dressers, and outdoor eating and drinking at pubs and restaurants will follow on April 12.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that by April, B.1.1.7 – the more transmissible COVID-19 variant originally identified in Britain – is likely to be the dominant one within U.S. borders.

The U.S. is now reporting more than 1,687 cases of coronavirus variants that can spread more easily, dodge some treatments and immunities, or both.

A steady decline in U.S. coronavirus cases that has brought levels back to where they were in late October could be threatened by the “rapid take-off of B.1.1.7.,” said Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, in a Twitter thread Thursday. 

There is evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant “will reach 50% frequency in the U.S. perhaps by late March,” he said. 

There is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that the B.1.1.7 variant is not only more contagious but also more lethal, a possibility initially raised by British scientists, said Simon Clarke, a professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.

Also in the news:

►Congress returns this week to focus on Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Democrats aim to pass the whole package by mid-March, and it currently includes a new round of checks for Americans, renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program and an extension of a federal boost for unemployment benefits.

►United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday that white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements were a “transnational threat” that are “engaged in a feeding frenzy of hate” and have exploited the pandemic to gain support.

►The number of patients in California hospitals with COVID-19 has fallen below 7,000, a drop of more than a third over two weeks, state health officials said. The story is similar in Texas, where state data on Sunday showed the lowest number of hospitalizations (7,146) since mid-November.

►Idaho health officials said Sunday that the state’s seven-day average case numbers have fallen below 250 COVID-19 infections per day – an average last seen in September, the Idaho Statesman reported.

►White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about 2 million of the 6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses delayed by last week’s winter weather were delivered over the weekend. As for the rest, “We expect to rapidly catch up this week,” Psaki said Sunday on ABC.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 499,128 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 111.5 million cases and 2.46 million deaths. More than 75.2 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 63 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Millions of kindergartners have opted out of public school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what happens now.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

A federal program that provides loans to businesses to help them stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic is undergoing some changes to allow more money to be directed at small businesses that need it most.

President Joe Biden will announce several revisions Monday to the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress approved last year as part of a nearly $2 trillion COVID-relief bill.

While the program delivered urgent relief to many businesses across the country, the initial round of loans issued under the program last year left out too many minority-owned and mom-and-pop businesses while larger companies that are better connected got the funds quickly, administration officials said Sunday.

To address those concerns, Biden will announce that only businesses with fewer than 20 employees will be allowed to apply for the program over a 14-day period that begins Wednesday. About 98% of small businesses have fewer than 20 employees, and the 14-day application period will allow lenders to focus on serving them, administration officials said.

– Michael Collins

More than two months after the first coronavirus vaccine shots were distributed in the United States, many states and local governments are providing limited vaccine information in languages other than English. Language and cultural barriers have made it difficult for many people of color, immigrants and non-English speaking communities to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Experts said more targeted outreach – including door knocking, visits to front-line workers at their place of employment, streamlined registration sites and language translation services at vaccination sites – is needed to overcome misinformation and educate communities that long have been plagued by racial injustices in the United States.

Loretta Hsueh’s parents are elderly Taiwanese immigrants with chronic health problems who manage a grocery store. Hsueh has made about 15 vaccination appoints for her parents and their friends in recent weeks.

“We know that people with limited English proficiency are going to have difficulty navigating something that is in English. That is a no-brainer,” Hsueh said.

– Cristina Silva

Marty Makary, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, says the pandemic could be “mostly gone” by April.

Makary, in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, points to the fast-declining rate of infection across the nation and suggests that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. indicate “much broader immunity than recognized.” He also notes that former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb estimates 250 million vaccine doses will have been delivered to about 150 million people by the end of March.

Speeding up vaccine distribution and continuing to wear masks and social distance will be key factors in curbing the “historic” pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s top health adviser, said Sunday.

However, Fauci, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said the country could be “approaching a degree of normality” by the end of the year but that Americans may still need to wear masks in 2022.

The last thing people will want to think about when this pandemic ends is the next one. It’s human nature to move on, to want to put coronaviruses, vaccines and disease surveillance behind us. But a growing chorus of researchers says now is the time to get ready for what is sure to come. 

Some have begun preliminary efforts to develop antivirals and monoclonal antibodies to prevent serious disease and vaccines that could stop a novel virus in its tracks.  

Either we invest now or we pay a lot more later,” said Wayne Koff, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Human Vaccines Project.

– Karen Weintraub

Contributing: The Associated Press




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