WHO team says virus likely jumped to humans from animals; California set to pass New York in death toll: Latest COVID-19 updates

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About 20,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated for COVID-19 with no “red flags” so far, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.

Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, said pregnant women and children were not included in initial clinical trials, but that trials involving them are underway with the focus on ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for these groups.

The White House also announced three new mass vaccination sites at sports stadiums in Texas that could deliver a total of 10,000 shots per day. The sites in Dallas, Arlington and Houston will be operated by local health officials supported by federal troops starting Feb. 22. The action comes days after the National Football League said it was working with public health officials to allow use of its stadiums for mass vaccinations.

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the administration plans to open similar sites in more states in the coming weeks.

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In the headlines:

►Two-thirds of Americans still believe that returning to a pre-COVID life represents a moderate or large risk, according to the Axios-Ipsos poll. That’s the lowest percentage since October. One in three Americans, 34%, now know someone who has died from COVID-19, according to the survey.

►A new CDC report highlights how the fit of your mask affects the spread of COVID-19. In lab tests with dummies, exposure to potentially infectious aerosols decreased by about 95% when tightly fitted masks were used, the CDC said. Wearing a tight-fitting mask is more important than ever with the emergence of new variants, the CDC said.

►A French nun who is Europe’s oldest person has survived COVID-19, just days before her 117th birthday. Lucile Randon, or Sister Andre, tested positive for the coronavirus Jan. 16 in Toulon but didn’t develop symptoms, telling local media she “didn’t even realize I had it.” She isolated separately from other residents in her retirement home in Toulon, southern France but is now considered fully recovered.

►The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 therapy from Eli Lilly that combines two monoclonal antibody drugs, giving doctors another option to help high-risk patients.

►Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said 14 counties, including the Portland tri-county area, will be moving to a lower risk category as COVID-19 cases decrease in the state – allowing restaurants to open for indoor dining and gyms to increase capacity.

►After weeks of vaccine distribution being largely limited to hospitals, health systems and local health departments, COVID-19 vaccines will roll out Friday at major pharmacies, including the nation’s two largest chains, CVS and Walgreens.

►Greece’s prime minister says a new lockdown in the greater Athens region will close all schools and most shops beginning Thursday through the end of February.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 468,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 107 million cases and 2.34 million deaths. More than 62 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 43.2 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: How much rent relief will you get? You’re more likely to get help if you’re white and live in rural America.

South Africa to use J&J vaccine while it’s still being tested

South Africa’s health minister says the country will begin administering the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to its front-line health workers next week. The workers will be monitored to see what protection the J&J shot provides from COVID-19, particularly against the variant dominant in the country. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said Wednesday that South Africa scrapped its plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because it “does not prevent mild to moderate disease” of the variant dominant in South Africa. In the U.S., Johnson & Johnson has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization for its vaccine.

Chicago teachers vote to return to classrooms

The Chicago teachers union grudgingly approved a deal Wednesday that will let the nation’s third-largest school district return to classrooms amid the pandemic. The major issues included widespread vaccinations for the district’s 25,000 educators, metrics to gauge school infections and accommodations for teachers who have a person in their household who’s more susceptible to the coronavirus.

“We did not get what we wanted or what we deserved,” union President Jesse Sharkey said. “The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace.”

Pre-K and special education programs could return as soon as Thursday under the plan. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade would go back to school March 1 and middle schoolers a week later. No return date has been set for high schoolers. The union and district have been arguing for months over a plan to gradually reopen the roughly 340,000-student district.

British transport secretary issues ominous travel warning

Britons may not be allowed to vacation abroad until “everybody” in the country has been vaccinated, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Wednesday. Shapps said about 13 million of the U.K’s 67 million people have been vaccinated so far. Shapps also told BBC Radio 4’s Today show that “people shouldn’t be booking holidays right now – not domestically or internationally.” That drew sharp responses from the travel industry.

“Airlines are drowning, but rather than throwing us a life raft, @grantshapps has just thrown a bucket of cold water at us,” the British Airline Pilots’ Association tweeted. “The UK aviation sector cannot survive another summer with hardly any flying.”

California to surge past New York in deaths – but situation is improving

California will soon overtake New York as the state with the most coronavirus-related deaths. The most populous state in the nation’s COVID-19 death toll was at 44,494 late Tuesday, closing in on New York’s 44,969 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The news comes as California health officials lift regional stay-at-home orders across the state, even as most counties have a widespread risk of infection and transmission. It also comes as the Golden State struggles with its vaccine plan and contends with a new variant that appears to have originated in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But hope is on the horizon: The numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients have steadily declined since early January. More mass vaccination sites are opening, including Levi’s Stadium near San Francisco on Tuesday, and California has put insurance giant Blue Shield in charge of a more streamlined vaccine rollout.

WHO says virus likely jumped to humans from animals

World Health Organization investigators said Tuesday that they would no longer pursue research into whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety and animal diseases expert, said the WHO stood by its previous determination that COVID-19 most likely entered the human population through an intermediate animal. Embarek announced the decision during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of WHO experts to the city where COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019. Embarek said there was not enough evidence to support a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a Chinese biosafety laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The WHO team has spent several weeks on a fact-finding mission in Wuhan. Experts from 10 nations have visited hospitals, research institutes and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak. However, WHO’s field work and other activities in Wuhan have been closely monitored by Chinese officials and security officers, and Beijing has repeatedly resisted called for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

– Kim Hjelmgaard

Variant cases in US spike by 73%; Florida leads the way

The number of known coronavirus variant cases in the U.S. has surged 73% in the last week alone, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country now reports 944 cases of variants that spread more easily, bypass treatments and immunities, or both. Nowhere has the increase been more noticeable than in Florida, which now has 343 cases of a fast-spreading variant – up from 201 cases reported during Sunday’s Super Bowl, which was hosted in Tampa. Florida now has more than twice as many known variant cases as any other state; California is a distant second.

The vast majority of the country’s known variant cases, and all of Florida’s, are of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and has run rampant there. The CDC has said it may become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. Last month, U.K. researchers said there’s evidence the variant may be more deadly than others, and it’s also considered at least 50% more transmissible than the original strain.

– Mike Stucka

Biden administration pledges 1M doses for community health centers

The Biden administration will begin sending coronavirus vaccines directly to community health centers as it boosts distribution and reaches out to underserved communities, the White House announced. At least one center in every state and territory will get vaccines as the program ramps up to include 250 of the more than 1,300 such facilities in the country. The participating centers will receive a combined 1 million doses, starting as soon as next week. In later phases, vaccines will become available to all community health centers. The majority of the patients served by the centers are living at or below the federal poverty line. Most are also minorities, according to the administration.

“This effort … really is about connecting with those hard-to-reach populations across the country,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, who heads the COVID-19 health equity task force.

– Maureen Groppe

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Pregnant women; vaccinations; CDC; masks; French nun

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