The White House was bullish on vaccines, masks and its stimulus bill Wednesday as the Senate tackled the $1.9 trillion package that could start putting $1,400 in the pockets of most Americans – although fewer than the House version allowed – within two weeks.
What the White House is not keen on is states lifting pandemic restrictions at a time when experts warn the nation is till susceptible to a major surge in infections driven by coronavirus variants.
President Joe Biden slammed those decisions Wednesday, a day after the Texas and Mississippi governors said they’re discarding masking mandates, and said they’re “a big mistake.” Only about 8% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it,” Biden said. “It still matters.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will invest $100 million to prep Merck Co. factories to produce COVID-19 vaccine developed by rival Johnson & Johnson. The White House says sufficient vaccine should be available for all adults by the end of May.
Far outside Washington’s political beltway, governors were preparing to return some semblance of normalcy to their states. Texas and Mississippi dropped all mask mandates. New York state was testing a high-tech “Excelsior Pass” allowing participants to confirm vaccinations or recent negative COVID-19 tests and gain entry to events at theaters and arenas.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has warned that “now is not the time to release all restrictions.”
The Senate was expected to begin debating the pandemic stimulus bill Wednesday. Under the plan, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations not authorized to speak on the record, the stimulus checks would start to phase out for Americans earning $75,000 a year and phase out entirely at $80,000 of income for individuals. The House bill had capped income at $100,000.
The bill also includes funding for state and local governments, tax credits for families and bigger unemployment checks.
Also in the news:
►NYC Health + Hospitals announced a partnership with the City University of New York that will provide almost 1,000 nursing students to 11 hospitals and clinics to support with the system’s vaccination program. Responsibilities include vaccine administration, clerical tasks, appointment logistics and monitoring patients who receive an injection.
►Sparsely populated North Dakota has reported its 100,000th coronavirus case. With about 762,000 people, more than 1 of every 8 residents in the state has tested positive. That’s about 13.1 percent, the worst rate of any state. The best-performing state is Hawaii, where about 1 in every 51 people has tested positive.
►Saudi Arabia’s health ministry will only allow vaccinated people to attend the Hajj this July, Saudi newspapers reported. The annual religious pilgrimage draws millions of Muslims from around the world to Islam’s holiest cities. Last year only about 1,000 Saudi worshippers were allowed to participate due to COVID concerns.
►A report by the Geneva-based Insecurity Insight and the University of California-Berkeley’s Human Rights Center identified more than 1,100 threats or acts of violence against health care workers and facilities last year. Researchers found that about 400 of those attacks were related to COVID-19.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 518,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 114.9 million cases and 2.55 million deaths. More than 102.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 78.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: More COVID-19 variants are emerging closer to home: What to know about the ones discovered in Brazil, New York, California.
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Vaccine-related crime burgeoning, Interpol says
The scarcity of a potentially life-saving product amid a pandemic that has led to more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide was bound to result in counterfeits, and Interpol has confirmed that COVID-19 vaccines are the target of organized crime networks.
The global police agency has broken up a smuggling operation that involved shipping at least 2,400 fake vaccine doses from China to South Africa, according to Time magazine, and that’s merely one of what figure to be many such attempts.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine related crime,” said Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general, said in a statement Wednesday.
Health insurers to arrange vaccinations for 2 million elderly
The White House on Wednesday unveiled plans by large health insurers to accelerate vaccination of 2 million people 65 and older “as soon as possible.” The insurers will reach out to vulnerable seniors with information on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and also help schedule and arrange transportation to the vaccination site, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said.
Obamacare enrollment draws 206,000 in two weeks
More than 206,000 Americans signed up for health insurance through the federally run HealthCare.gov in the first two weeks of the three-month special enrollment period created by President Joe Biden, the administration said Wednesday. That compares with about 76,000 who enrolled during the same period last year, when people could only pick a plan if they had a special circumstance, such as a job loss. But it’s still a small fraction of the estimated 9 million Americans who lack insurance coverage. Biden, in a statement, called the initial enrollment numbers “an encouraging sign.”
“But we can’t slow down until every American has the security and peace of mind that quality, affordable health coverage provides,” he said.
– Maureen Groppe
Dolly Parton, who helped fund vaccine, gets ‘dose of her own medicine’
Exhale, country music lovers. Dolly Parton has received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. The country music legend – who helped fund the Moderna vaccine with a $1 million donation to Vanderbilt researchers – received her shot Tuesday in Nashville, Tennessee, per an Instagram post. Her caption simply reads: “Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine.”
In a video published Tuesday, Parton, 75, encouraged viewers to get vaccinated because “the sooner we get to feelin’ better, the sooner we are gonna get back to being normal.”
Fed’s high-tech vaccine tracker is too complicated for many states
Operation Warp Speed spent $16 million on Tiberius, a high-tech system meant to track shipments of vaccines and guide local decisions of where to send them. Tiberius – also the name of a tyrannical, moody Roman emperor and the middle name of Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk – would allow “granular planning” all the way down to the doctor’s office, provide “a ZIP code-by-ZIP code view of priority populations” and “ease the burden” on public health officials, the federal government said.
But for many states, Tiberius proved either irrelevant or too complicated. That has contributed to a patchy vaccine rollout, where access depends mostly on where you live and how Internet savvy you are.
Even if local officials opted to use Tiberius, “they would be giving us data that they got from us,” said Dr. Bela Matyas, deputy director of public health for Solano County, California. “Local public health officials have an immense amount of data and know their communities well.
– Aleszu Bajak and David Heath
Texas, Mississippi governors defy health officials, end mask mandates
Defying warnings from federal health officials about the need to stay vigilant against the coronavirus, the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi said Tuesday they’re lifting COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he’s moving to “open Texas 100%” and will issue an executive order to take effect March 10 rescinding most of his earlier orders, including restrictions on business occupancy and the July 2 statewide mask order.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Tuesday that, starting Wednesday, all county mask mandates would be lifted and businesses allowed to operate at full capacity. Hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed, he said: “We are getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do.”
COVID-19 can affect immune system in complex ways, research shows
In some COVID-19 patients, scientists say unprepared immune cells appear to be responding to the coronavirus with a devastating release of chemicals, inflicting damage that may endure long after the threat has been eliminated.
“If you have a brand-new virus and the virus is winning, the immune system may go into an ‘all hands on deck’ response,” said Dr. Nina Luning Prak, co-author of a January study on COVID-19 and the immune system. “Things that are normally kept in close check are relaxed. The body may say, ‘Who cares. Give me all you’ve got.’”
While all viruses find ways to evade the body’s defenses, a growing field of research suggests that the coronavirus unhinges the immune system more profoundly than previously realized.
– Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News
Contributing: Mike Stucka, Nicholas Wu and Ledyard King, USA TODAY, The Associated Press