The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Jessie Yeung, Kara Fox, Kareem Khadder, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 8:06 PM ET, Mon March 1, 2021
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6:29 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Biden and Senate Democrats discussed “targeting” Covid-19 relief package in variety of ways

From CNN's Manu Raju, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox

President Biden and Senate Democrats talked about “targeting” the Covid relief package today but not reducing the overall price tag of the $1.9 trillion plan, according to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester who attended the virtual meeting Monday on the legislation's next steps.

The House passed a version of the Covid-19 stimulus bill early Saturday morning, and it is now set to move to the Senate.

Tester said that Biden was mainly in listening mode as Democrats proposed certain changes that could be made through the amendment process.

Tester ultimately predicted there would be “modest” changes made.

One of the items moderate Democrats are looking at to “target” in the coronavirus relief bill is limiting federal unemployment benefits from $400 a week to $300 in an effort to save money and extend the program longer.

The House bill’s federal unemployment program runs through August, but Democratic moderates are arguing the benefit could go longer if the weekly benefit was less. The goal would be to run it to the end of the year, according to one aide familiar with the discussions.

That could face pushback from the rest of the caucus. It’s still unknown on whether it’s really an option, but it’s a sign of moderates trying to reshape pieces of this bill.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Finance Committee, also told CNN that he’s pushing to include in the bill an extension of jobless benefits for an additional month so they can expire in September rather than in August when senators and House members are on their summer recess.

And as CNN's Ryan Nobles reported earlier, more money for broadband is also something Democrats are pushing for.

6:05 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Covid-19 has created momentum for 200 casinos to go smoke-free, CDC official says

From CNN’s Christopher Rios

More than 200 commercial and tribal casinos have reopened smoke free during the pandemic, including every casino in New Jersey, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday.

Before Covid-19, this kind of public health momentum in casinos would not have been possible, Brian King of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health said during the CDC’s weekly partner call.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in smoke-free casino adoption, which is certainly a silver lining in the context of the pandemic,” King said.

All casinos in New Jersey, which includes Atlantic City, have adopted smoke-free policies, King said.

“Seeing that implementation of a broad public health policy in this environment at the state level of a major hub for gambling and casinos is very important,” King said. “It’s definitely a public health win and shows an added benefit of not only protecting workers but also patrons.”

The benefits of smoke-free policies go beyond reducing secondhand smoke exposure, which has been shown to increase risk of stroke, lung cancer and heart attack in adults. Smoke-free policies also encourage more people to stop smoking and keep people from starting at all, King said.

The question remains if these casinos will remain smoke-free when other restrictions ease and more people become vaccinated.

“If all these casinos remain smoke free even post Covid-19, this could have an immeasurable in terms of not only protecting the public who attend these venues, but also workers who are working eight hours or more per day in these environments” King said.

 

5:27 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Covid-19 testing in the US cut by a quarter since peak in mid-January, data shows

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

A pop-up Covid-19 testing site is shown in a neighborhood among those that have seen some of the highest number of city deaths on February 23, in the Queens borough of New York City.
A pop-up Covid-19 testing site is shown in a neighborhood among those that have seen some of the highest number of city deaths on February 23, in the Queens borough of New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The US has recorded an average of about 1.5 million Covid-19 tests per day over the past week, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project.

That’s about 26% fewer than the average in mid-January, when the US hit a peak seven-day average of more than 2 million tests reported on Jan. 15.

The decline in new tests reported nationally had been rather consistent since hitting that peak. But over the past seven days, the number of new tests reported has started to tick back up.

The average of about 1.5 million tests per day over the past week is a 14% increase over the average of about 1.3 million tests per day the week before.

Even as case rates drop, experts have stressed the importance of testing as a way to stay ahead of outbreaks, particularly with the new variants in the mix.

Contract tracing, which requires sufficient testing, is also one of five key mitigation strategies outlined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in school reopening guidance.

More on the testing data: Reported test counts are estimates. Also, states do not all report tests consistently. Some include both viral (PCR) and antigen tests, and some report based on the number of people tested as opposed to the number of specimens tested.

4:52 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

France approves use of AstraZeneca vaccine in 65 to 75 year olds with certain health conditions

From CNN’s Pierre Bairin in Paris

Syringes used to administer the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, at the office of a general practitioner in Gragnague, France, on February 26.
Syringes used to administer the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, at the office of a general practitioner in Gragnague, France, on February 26. Fred Scheiber/AFP/Getty Images/FILE

France has extended the upper age limit for use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, now approving use of the vaccine in 65 to 75 year olds with serious health conditions, the country’s health minister announced Monday. 

The decision comes after a previous warning from the government that AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine should only be administered in people under the age of 65, citing a lack of clinical data on its efficacy for older people.

“I can confirm that, from now on, anyone who is 50 years of age and over and who has medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension or a history of cancer can be vaccinated with AstraZeneca,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said during a televised interview, adding that “for people who are 75 years old and over, it is always the Pfizer or Moderna” vaccine that is administered. 

Speaking to France 2 TV, the health minister said the French National health authority now considers all vaccines available in France, including the AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, to “have an effectiveness qualified as ‘remarkable’ in protecting people from the risks of serious forms of coronavirus.” 

While coronavirus restrictions are still in place across the country, Veran also suggested that the government would consider easing measures over the coming weeks. 

"We obviously hope that in four to six weeks, we can have more freedom,” Veran said. 

“We did this last year. Spring is less conducive to the circulation of the virus. We vaccinate, we protect the most vulnerable, we keep our fingers crossed,” he added. 

4:32 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Two doses of vaccine offer better protection from coronavirus variants, CDC says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Two doses of coronavirus vaccine protect people better against coronavirus variants than just one dose, CDC experts said Monday.

The B.1.351 variant first seen in South Africa has the most worrying effects on the ability of vaccines to produce an immune response, the CDC’s Dr. Heather Scobie told a meeting of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

But there are concerns about the B.1.1.7 variant first seen in the UK, as well as a variant common in Brazil known as P2.

She said the CDC has reviewed many of the studies – some published, others released as unreviewed pre-prints – on how the variants allow the virus to evade immune responses.

“Five studies have shown that postponing the second mRNA dose may leave some people less protected against the SARS-Cov-2 variants,” Scobie told the ACIP meeting. The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are mRNA vaccines.

“All of the studies showed improved neutralization of B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 after the second vaccine dose,” she added. “In a few studies, people who had recovered from Covid-19 and received one vaccine dose had moderate protection against B.1.351.”

There are indications that people’s immune responses grow stronger over time after vaccination, Scobie said.

 “Antibody responses to B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 improved slightly by week three,” she said. 

Real-life studies also give some clues about how well the vaccines will protect people from the variants. 

“The Pfizer vaccine was shown to have high real world effectiveness of 86% against symptomatic and asymptomatic disease in the UK and 84% against symptomatic disease in Israel during times when B.1.1.7 was prevalent,” Scobie said.

Protection provided by the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine varied from 74% in the US to 66% in Brazil at a time when most cases were caused by the P2 variant. During clinical trials in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant was almost the only circulating virus, Johnson & Johnson vaccine efficacy was 52%. But that’s against mild to moderate disease. It provided between 73% and 82% efficacy against severe disease no matter which variant was the most common.

“Importantly, the Janssen vaccine demonstrated similar vaccine efficacy against severe, critical disease across all three countries,” Scobie said.

4:15 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

First shipment of COVAX vaccines to Latin America lands in Colombia

From CNN’s Stefano Pozzebon, Tim Lister & Mitchell McCluskey

The first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines sent through the COVAX program to Latin America landed in Colombia on Monday afternoon, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced.

The shipment of 117,000 Pfizer vaccine doses landed at El Dorado Airport in Bogota in the afternoon local time, the Colombian government said in a statement. The doses will be transferred to Ministry of Health warehouses to be stored.

COVAX is an entity run by a coalition that includes the Vaccine Alliance known as Gavi and the World Health Organization (WHO), and is funded by donations from governments, multilateral institutions and foundations.

It aims to buy coronavirus vaccines in bulk and send them to poorer nations that can't compete with wealthy countries in securing contracts with the major drug companies.

Colombia now has at least 409,620 vaccine doses; the country previously received 100,620 doses through a deal with Pfizer and 192,000 doses from Sinovac.

Colombia expects to receive a total of 61.5 million doses of the vaccine, 20 million doses through the deal with COVAX and 41.5 million from various pharmaceutical companies, a government statement said. 

COVAX shipments are still expected in other Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, among many others.

To achieve herd immunity, the Colombian government hopes to vaccinate 70% of the country’s population, around 35,734,649 people. 

"Colombia, with support from COVAX partners, has worked incredibly hard to be in a position to be able to receive its first wave of vaccines from COVAX, and I pay tribute to all of those who have prepared diligently for this arrival," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, "The arrival means that more health workers and high-risk populations can begin to be vaccinated. The COVID-19 pandemic can only end if vaccination occurs in an equitable way, and I am truly delighted to see vaccine doses in South America and other regions begin to be rolled out this week through COVAX."

Colombia currently has at least 2,251,690 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 59,766 recorded deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

3:53 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Senate Majority Leader says chamber will take up Covid-19 relief "this week" 

From CNN's Ali Zaslav and Lauren Fox

Senate TV
Senate TV

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “this week” the Senate will take up the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

“I expect a hardy debate and some late nights, but the American people sent us here with a job to do,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Monday. “To help the country through his moment of extraordinary challenge. To end through action the greatest health crisis our country has faced in a century, and that’s just what we’re going to do.”

Some context: The House passed their own version of the Covid relief bill early Saturday morning. If the Senate passes their version of the bill by the end of the week, that gives the House time to re-pass the new version in their own chamber.

It also gives President Biden time to sign it and gives states an opportunity to readjust their unemployment benefits with the increased benefit. Biden and Democrats are rushing to meet their deadline of having enacted the bill by March 14 when a weekly federal enhancement in benefits is scheduled to expire.

3:28 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Here's how California lawmakers plan to get most kids back into classrooms

From CNN's Cheri Mossburg

Stools stacked on desks inside an empty classroom at Collins Elementary School in Pinole, California, on December 30, 2020.
Stools stacked on desks inside an empty classroom at Collins Elementary School in Pinole, California, on December 30, 2020. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images/FILE

Lawmakers have reached an agreement to return most California students to classrooms by the end March.

The agreement combines proposals from Gov. Gavin Newsom and from California’s legislature and will provide up to $6.6 billion to return schools to in-person learning.

Of that, $2 billion will be made available to those schools that bring students back by March 30.

Schools will be eligible for their part of the $2 billion incentive once they resume classes for at least those students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. 

The rest of the funding, $4.6 billion, is aimed at helping schools make up for lost learning time, or as Newsom calls it, “reimagining the school year” which could include longer school days and/or summer school. 

Ultimately, the reopening decisions lay with the superintendents of each district, not the state. The funding, which is mainly earmarked for personal protective equipment, improved ventilation, and other safety protocols, may well provide the incentive districts need.

Some teachers unions, including United Teacher Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents educators in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), have balked at resuming classes until teachers have the chance to be vaccinated.

Starting today, the pool of those eligible to receive a vaccine in Los Angeles has expanded to include educators.

LAUSD, the nation’s second largest district, has secured 25,000 vaccine doses for teachers and staff, which will be initially focused on inoculating those already working at school sites, preschool, and elementary teachers, according to Superintendent Austin Beutner.

In the meantime, UTLA’s membership is voting today on whether they will agree to return before staff is provided with full access to vaccinations and safety conditions are in place.

The agreement specifies that districts can resume class regardless of whether the unions sign off.

2:52 p.m. ET, March 1, 2021

Texas FEMA sites expected to receive 24,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses today

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht

The three Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination sites in Texas are expected to receive 24,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday, according to Lara Anton, a press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

It’s not yet clear if the doses will be administered on Tuesday.

“The providers will decide how to use them but are required to stay within the state’s current vaccine allocation priorities of health care workers, long term care facility residents and staff, people 65 years and older, and those over 16 with a chronic medical condition that puts them at higher risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19,” Anton said in an email.

More than 200,000 Johnson & Johnson doses are expected be available to Texas for next week’s allocation, Anton said.

Of the 3.9 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine being distributed by the federal government, the Association of Immunization Managers said Monday that they will be distributed as follows:

  • About 2.8 million doses are headed to state and local territorial public health departments
  • 800,000 doses are being distributed to the federal retail pharmacy program
  • About 70,000 will be released through community vaccination centers run by FEMA
  • About 90,000 doses will be going to Federal Quality Health Centers, community health centers run by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services