The Biden administration has arranged to purchase an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine – enough when added to vaccines from other sources to provide the nation with more than enough doses to inoculate every American, the White House said Wednesday.
The actions come as states continue to ease pandemic restrictions; Texas has dropped them all, becoming open “100%,” Gov. Greg Abbott said.
Also Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief bill, which now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature. The stimulus package includes $1,400 checks for most Americans, billions for vaccines and money to reopen schools. Biden has said he’ll sign the legislation “as soon as I get it.”
Biden said the additional doses of the single-shot J&J vaccine are needed for “maximum flexibility. … A lot can happen. A lot can change. And we need to be prepared.”
Biden spoke at a White House event with the heads of Johnson & Johnson and Merck, the pharmaceutical company that is partnering with its competitor to help produce the vaccines.
The new purchase is on top of the 100 million doses J&J pledged to produce by the end of June. It’s also in addition to the 200 million doses of the two-shot vaccines being made by Pfizer and Moderna, which along with the nearly 128 million doses already distributed would be enough to vaccinate every U.S. adult.
The extra 100 million, expected to be delivered mostly in the second half of the year, gives the administration a cushion in case of problems.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed out that it’s not known which of the vaccines will be most effective on children and better at defeating the emerging coronavirus variants.
– Courtney Subramanian
Also in the news:
►The pandemic appears to be easing in North America, with U.S., Canada and Mexico continuing to report a drop in new infections, the Pan American Health Organization said. Brazil, however, is battling rising infections and last week had its deadliest day, with almost 2,000 fatalities reported, the agency said.
►Maryland will ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses starting Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan said, citing improving COVID-19 health metrics and increasing vaccinations.
►In California, Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith said the county won’t participate in a state vaccine delivery program administered by insurer Blue Shield. Smith says it would not improve speed or efficiency. Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped the insurance company to create uniform rules and increase the rate of vaccinations, especially in hard-hit communities, through a centralized online portal.
►The White House said it increased the number of vaccine doses supplied to states and territories from 15.2 million last week to 15.8 million this week, and it also boosted to 2.7 million the allotment distributed through the federal pharmacy plan.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has over 29.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 528,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 117.8 million cases and 2.61 million deaths. More than 127.8 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 95.7 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: In just two months, the United States could be swimming in COVID-19 vaccine. That could bring its own problems. Read more here.
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Guidance on nursing home visits relaxed
The marked decrease in COVID-19 infections in long-term care facilities and the extensive vaccination program in them has led federal health officials to loosen visiting guidelines, allowing for in-person contact with residents.
While noting that outdoor visits are the preferred option, the guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommend that the facilities allow indoor visits “at all times and for all residents” even if neither party has been vaccinated, with some exceptions.
“Visitation can be conducted through various means based on a facility’s’ structure and residents’ needs, including in resident rooms, visitation spaces, and outdoors,” the recommendations say.
Texas ends mask mandate, fully opens for business
Texas formally dropped its mask mandate and businesses shed all restrictions Wednesday as Gov. Greg Abbott followed through on his plan to “open Texas 100%.” Abbott noted that the test positivity rate has dropped for 15 straight days and is down to 6.64%. He tweeted: “Keep up the great work to crush COVID in Texas.”
Some health officials aren’t sold. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine, said the highly infectious U.K. variant is sweeping the state while vaccinations lag.
“None of that is good news,” he told CBS News. “I worry we are in for the perfect storm.”
Los Angeles students, teachers headed back to school. Next month.
The nation’s second-largest public school system is headed back into the classroom. In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the union representing more than 33,000 educators announced a tentative agreement on how to reopen schools for in-person instruction “as soon as possible and in the safest way possible.” The plan prioritizes preschools, elementary schools and services for students with learning differences to reopen by mid-April.
“Conditions finally allow us to resume in-person instruction,” school board President Kelly Gonez said. “With the declines in COVID-19 in our communities, the preparation of all our school sites and the vaccinations of our school staff, we are excited to start safely welcoming students in a hybrid model in the coming weeks.”
All Alaskans over 16 eligible for COVID vaccine, state officials say
Alaska announced it’s expanding eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to include anyone 16 years and older who lives or works in the state. Just last week, Alaska had expanded the list to include those age 55 and older, essential workers and those with preexisting conditions. Alaska is the first state to remove eligibility requirements for the vaccine, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a news release.
“A healthy community means a healthy economy. With widespread vaccinations available to all Alaskans who live or work here, we will no doubt see our economy grow and our businesses thrive,” Dunleavy said.
Los Angeles, other large counties to roll out looser COVID-19 rules
Three of the five largest counties in California could reopen as early as this weekend for indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms at limited capacity under a new metric aimed at getting more vaccine shots to those most vulnerable. For Los Angeles County, this would be its first time out of the state’s most restrictive closure orders since Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted a color-coded system in August. The other counties likely to see more reopenings are Orange and San Bernardino, also in Southern California.
A new equity initiative announced by Newsom last week allows counties to move out of the most restrictive shutdowns once 2 million shots are administered to people living in ZIP codes that the state deems most vulnerable based on household income, access to health care and education levels. Once that threshold is met, state officials will reassess and restrictions could be loosened within two days, said Ali Bay, deputy director of communications for the California public health department.
– Janie Har and Christopher Weber, Palm Springs Desert-Sun
Study: Intellectual disabilities ‘the strongest independent risk factor’
People with intellectual disabilities have a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it, and therefore should be prioritized for vaccination, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine’s digital publication Catalyst. The report, based on a large national sample, calls intellectual disabilities “the strongest independent risk factor” for getting the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the second strongest for dying from it, after age.
While underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity and chronic kidney disease are regarded as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, Down syndrome is the only intellectual disability included on the CDC’s list of higher-risk conditions.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on individuals with intellectual disabilities,” the study says. “Patients with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers should be prioritized for vaccination and health care services.’
Contributing: The Associated Press