Senate passes stimulus; CDC examine seems to be at masks mandates

After more than 24 hours of debate, the Democratic-controlled Senate Saturday passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

The bill would provide millions of Americans with $1,400 direct payments, billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, and funds to help reopen schools and colleges. It also extends the federal unemployment benefit at $300 per week through the end of August, down from a $400 extension in the original bill.

The stimulus also includes $450 million for domestic violence services, as advocates are warning that survivors continue to be at high risk of intimate partner violence amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile U.S. drugmaker Merck said Saturday that an experimental antiviral treatment it is developing with biotechnology company Ridgeback Biotherapeutics showed a quicker decrease in infectious virus among people with early COVID-19.

The drug, molnupiravir, was tested in more than 200 non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and patients treated with the drug had a quicker decrease in infectious virus than those in the placebo group, according to Merck.

Dr. William Fischer, lead investigator of the study and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said in a press release that the findings “are promising and if supported by additional studies.”

Also in the news:

►The Dalai Lama, the 85-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader, has received the first shot of the coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in the north Indian hill town of Dharmsala.

►The White House announced two new mass vaccination sites will soon be open, in Atlanta and Cleveland, each with the ability to provide 6,000 daily coronavirus shots.

►Albertsons will continue to require Texas shoppers to wear masks in its stores after the state lifts its face covering requirement March 10.

►Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration successfully pressured New York’s health department to strip the full COVID-19 death count attributed to nursing homes from a state report released last July, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported.

►The creator of a viral GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $100,000 is being sued by a California woman who shamed a barista online for asking her to wear a mask inside a Starbucks store in San Diego.

►California officials are allowing people to attend Major League Baseball games and other sports, go to Disneyland and watch live performances in limited capacities starting April 1.

? Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 522,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 116 million cases and 2.57 million deaths. More than 114.1 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 85 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

What we’re reading: The Valdovinos family has lost five family member to COVID-19. Here’s how the tight-knight Massachusetts family is honoring those they lost.

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.

Some states prioritizing obesity patients for vaccine

Patty Nece, 62, hasn’t dared to step inside a retail store since last March, as her obesity puts her at risk for severe COVID-19. Because of her disease, she’s eligible to get the vaccine and has an appointment for her first dose on Wednesday. While she’s looking forward to getting vaccinated, she’s also disappointed some Americans have criticized people with obesity who are prioritized to get the vaccine.

“It displays a misunderstanding … weight isn’t always within your control,” said Nece, who is also the chairwoman of the Obesity Action Coalition. “Like many diseases, there’s personal responsibility involved but that’s not the end. The mantra of eat less and move more – which I’ve heard my entire life – isn’t the answer.”

Roughly 40% of adult Americans have obesity, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2018. Studies have shown people with obesity are more likely to have worse outcomes from COVID-19 than others with a lower body mass index (BMI). Read more.

Study: Intellectual disability second-greatest risk factor for COVID-19 death

People with intellectual disabilities are at “substantially increased risk” of dying from COVID-19, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine Friday.

Researchers with Jefferson Health in Philadelphia reviewed data on nearly 65 million patients – including nearly 130,000 with a recorded diagnosis of intellectual disabilities – across 547 health care organizations and found that having an intellectual disability was the strongest independent risk factor for presenting with a COVID-19 diagnosis and the strongest independent risk factor, other than age, for COVID-19 mortality.

People with intellectual disabilities may face higher risk of COVID-19 exposure for various reasons, researchers said, such as the inability to social distance due to regular contact with support personnel or sensory issues that make it difficult to wear face masks. The pandemic has also made it harder for people with intellectual disabilities to receive the health care support they need, the researchers said.

“We need to understand more about what is happening with these patients,” lead author Dr. Jonathan Gleason said in a statement. “I do believe these patients and their caregivers should be prioritized for vaccination and healthcare services. We should reflect on why we have failed this vulnerable population, and how we can better serve them during this health crisis, and into the future.”

Tennessee panel deemed vaccinating inmates a ‘PR nightmare’

A Tennessee advisory panel tasked with deciding in what order residents should receive the COVID-19 vaccine acknowledged that prison inmates in the state were high-risk, but concluded that prioritizing them for inoculation could be a “public relations nightmare.”

The result: Prisoners are in the last group scheduled for vaccines in the state, even though the Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group concluded that “if untreated they will be a vector of general population transmission,” according to records of the panel’s closed-door meetings obtained by The Associated Press. To date, there is no firm timeline for prison vaccine rollouts.

The Tennessee debate reflects an issue facing states nationwide as they roll out life-saving vaccines: whether to prioritize a population seen by many at best as an afterthought, separate from the public, and at worst as non-deserving. The resistance comes even though medical experts have argued since the beginning of the pandemic that prisoners were at extremely high risk for infection given that they live in extremely close contact with each other and have little ability to social distance.

– The Associated Press

Oregon orders schools to send kids back to the classroom

Oregon’s schools must reopen for in-person or hybrid learning by mid-April, according to an executive order from Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday.

The order, which is forthcoming, will require every district to offer in-person instruction to K-5 students by March 29 and, in areas where counties meet the COVID-19 metrics, students in grades 6-12 by April 19.

“After the weeks of March 29 and April 19, all public schools in Oregon will operate under either a fully on-site or a hybrid instructional model when counties meet or exceed Oregon’s advisory COVID-19 metrics,” the Governor’s Office stated in a news release.  “Individual students or parents who want to remain in comprehensive distance learning, or who have health needs, may do so.”

– Jordyn Brown and Natalie Pate, Register-Guard

Arizona lifts restrictions on occupancy at businesses

Citing expanded vaccine availability and declining COVID-19 case numbers, Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday announced he would relax emergency restrictions previously placed on businesses.

While mask and physical distancing requirements will not change, businesses including bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters and water parks can now operate at full capacity. Spring training and Major League sports can also pick up after submitting and receiving approval for safety plans. 

“We’ve learned a lot over the past year,” Ducey said in a statement accompanying the surprise announcement, which came two days after he ordered schools to return to in-person learning by March 15. 

– Maria Polletta, Arizona Republic

Americans less hesitant about COVID vaccine, survey shows

Only six months ago, nearly half of Americans in a a Pew Research Center survey said they were either adamant or unlikely to get a vaccine against COVID-19. That number has shrunk by double digits over the months with 30% of Americans saying they do not currently plan on getting a vaccine, a new Pew survey found. 

About 69% of Americans say they have already or are planning to get the vaccine, the survey found. 

The number of people hesitant about the vaccine has slowly dropped over the months. In September, a Pew survey found 49% of Americans were unwilling to get a shot at the time. In November, that number dropped to 39%. This latest survey, taken in February, found it dropped to 30%. 

Those opposed to getting a vaccine lay out a variety of reasons, from concerns about side effects and the quick pace of their development, along with wanting to see first how effective they are in combatting the disease. 

– Christal Hayes

All Supreme Court justices have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus

The nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a court spokeswoman said Friday.

The effort took several weeks: The court said in January that the justices were “in the process” of receiving their vaccines and CNN had reported in January that Chief Justice John Roberts had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The news comes almost exactly a year after the court stopped holding in-person oral arguments because of the pandemic. Those arguments are now held over telephone. 

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg confirmed Friday that the vaccinations are now complete for all nine justices. 

– John Fritze 

Cuomo administration recrafted report on nursing homes to conceal COVID-19 death count: reports

The Cuomo administration’s reporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes drew another round of criticism late Thursday after it was revealed the total death count was stripped from a state report last July.

The report released by the Department of Health last summer had long been criticized for not including the number of nursing home deaths that occurred in hospitals, leading to a drastic undercounting.

Now the reason is more clear: The Cuomo administration pressured the health department to not include the full death count attributed to nursing homes in the report, according to The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Instead, the report indicated more than 6,200 nursing home residents had died, instead of nearly 10,000 at the time who were residents of the homes and either died there or at a hospital.

The lower count allowed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to more affirmatively tout the state’s response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 48,000 New Yorkers. He wrote a book in October to burnish his image over lowering the state’s death count and cases through government action.

– Joseph Spector, USA TODAY Network in New York

CDC study: Mask mandates associated with decreases in case and deaths; reopening dining associated with increases 

A new report about the link between face masks and COVID-19 cases and deaths “serves as a warning” about the dangers of lifting mask mandates prematurely, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday. 

A recent report found that mask mandates were associated with decreases in COVID-19 cases and deaths whereas reopening dining was associated with increases. According to the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: 

  • Mandating masks was associated with a drop in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates within 20 days of the order taking effect.
  • Allowing restaurants to reopen for inside or outside dining was associated with an increase in daily case growth rates within 41 to 100 days after lifting a ban and an increase in daily death growth rates 61-100 days after implementation.

The study looked at county-level data on mask and restaurant orders and found mask mandates applied to 73.6% of the 3,142 U.S. counties from March through December 2020, while 97.9% of U.S. counties allowed restaurants to reopen for on-premise dining during the same period.

– Ryan W. Miller and Christal Hayes

Contributing: Jordan Culver, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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