The U.S. and a dozen other countries issued a rare joint statement on Tuesday questioning the validity of a World Health Organization study into the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, and has now killed almost 2.8 million people across the globe.
“We support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, we join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China,” reads the statement, which was issued by the U.S. State Department in coordination with a raft of other governments, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The controversy swirled as the U.S. reported that half of all seniors have now been vaccinated. “Vaccination milestone,” tweeted Andy Slavitt, White House senior COVID adviser. “50% of all seniors have now been fully vaccinated.”
The statement included strong support for the WHO and did not directly blame China for interfering with the scientific probe. But it said health experts were delayed in studying the origins of the virus and that even when granted access, they were denied “complete, original data and samples.”
“The mission of the WHO is critical to advancing global health and health security,” the statement said.”Scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings.”
The WHO’s director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also highlighted China’s lack of cooperation.
“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
– Deirdre Shesgreen
Also in the news:
►German health officials recommended restricting the use of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine in people under 60, amid fresh concern over unusual blood clots reported in a tiny number of those who received the shots. Canada suspended use of the vaccine among people under 55.
►The University of Connecticut football team cut its spring practices short because of positive COVID-19 test results and subsequent contact tracing protocols, the Hartford Courant reported. The Huskies were one of a small number of FBS teams to opt out of the 2020-21 season.
►England had a glimmer of good news: London had no deaths reported for one day. During a spike in cases during January, more than 200 deaths a day linked to the virus were recorded in the capital.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has over 30.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 550,900 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: 128.1 million cases and 2.8 million deaths. More than 180.64 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 145.8 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: As a growing number of states have removed eligibility requirements for getting vaccinated, it’s become less clear why some act faster than others. Read more here.
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US tops 12K known COVID variant cases
The United States has reported more known coronavirus variants in the last week –nearly 4,300 – than it reported through the middle of March, a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data shows.
Tuesday night’s tally reflected more than 1,000 new cases just since Sunday’s report. The U.S. now has 12,053 known cases of variants that can spread COVID-19 more easily, dodge some treatments and immunities, or both.
California alone reported 289 new variant cases Tuesday, bringing it up to 865 known cases. Most of those are of B.1.1.7, a variant first seen in the United Kingdom. But California’s P.1 case count also exploded, moving from seven known cases on Sunday to 33 known cases Tuesday. P.1 was first seen in Brazil.
Massachusetts reported 266 new cases, bringing its total to 732.
Several states that hadn’t had much of a known variant problem suddenly have much larger problems. West Virginia went from just three known variant cases on Sunday to 53 on Tuesday, while Nevada went from 11 cases on Sunday to 63 cases on Tuesday. Idaho jumped from 18 to 32.
Ohio reported its first two cases of the B.1.351 variant first seen in South Africa.
– Mike Stucka
Student loan payments paused for another 1.4 million borrowers
The Education Department announced Tuesday that it was expanding its pause on student loan payments for about 1.4 million borrowers who weren’t previously eligible for relief during the coronavirus pandemic. The newest policy applies to borrowers who had defaulted on their Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), a type of loan made by private parties then backed by the federal government. Typically, those in default hadn’t made payments in more than nine months.
The government ended the FFEL program in 2010, though millions still hold these types of loans. The action is the latest expansion of the government’s loan relief for borrowers struggling economically during the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, it had also offered more relief to borrowers with severe disabilities and those who had proven their colleges had defrauded them.
– Chris Quintana
Baylor basketball coach wants COVID testing to end for Final Four
Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey says the NCAA should stop COVID testing at both the men’s and women’s tournaments ahead of the Final Four so no player runs the risk of testing positive and being ruled out. “Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and you’ve got kids that end up testing positive or something and they don’t get to play in a Final Four?” she said.
Mulkey, whose team was eliminated Monday night, spoke hours after CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned that infections, hospitalizations and deaths are again on the rise across the nation. “Right now I’m scared,” a shaken Walensky said. “I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw over the summer and the winter again.”
‘Skating on a knife’s edge’: Scientists worry US could see fourth surge
As COVID-19 cases creep up again across the country, federal officials and epidemiologists say they’re worried we could hit another tipping point, leading to a fourth significant surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Average daily reported cases are up 10% compared to a week earlier, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, with more than 30 million COVID-19 cases reported since early last year. Hospitalizations and deaths, which usually lag cases by a few weeks, have inched upward as well, after a decline and plateau that began in early January.
“We’re skating on a knife’s edge right now,” said Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Read more here.
– Karen Weintraub
US surpasses 550,000 deaths as vaccine push accelerates
More than 550,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus epidemic, according to Johns Hopkins University data, claiming the lives of 1 in every 600 residents. The nation is still averaging about 1,000 deaths per day. But more than a dozen states will open vaccine eligibility to all adults this week in a major expansion of COVID-19 shots for tens of millions of Americans. According to President Joe Biden, vaccine distribution will increase to a new high of 33 million this week.
It also comes amid a worrisome increase in virus cases and concerns about balancing supply and demand for the vaccines.
“Just please hold on a little while longer,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing. Several Northeastern states and Michigan have seen the biggest increases; some are reporting hundreds or thousands more new cases per day than they were two weeks ago.
California has the second-lowest rate of COVID-19 spread
California reported the second-lowest rate of COVID-19 spread compared to other states in the week ending Sunday, but a top United States public health official on Monday described a “recurring feeling I have of impending doom” as infections once again are on the rise across the nation.
California ranked 49th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Thirty-four states had more cases in the latest week than they did in the week before. The U.S. has surpassed 30 million coronavirus cases.
There was some good news on the vaccine front: The double-shot vaccines sweeping across the nation reduce the risk of infection by 80% after just a single dose two or more weeks after vaccination, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
California ranked 24th among states in share of people receiving at least one shot; 29.3% of its residents are at least partially vaccinated. The national rate is 28.2%, a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data shows.
– Palm Springs Desert Sun
Contributing: The Associated Press