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The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

Updated 8:15 PM EST, Thu March 4, 2021
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What you need to know

  • Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose coronavirus vaccine, the third Covid-19 shot authorized for use in the US, is being administered this week.
  • The US House passed a version of President Biden’s massive Covid-19 stimulus bill. The legislation now moves to the Senate. Follow the latest on the bill here.
  • India’s home-grown Covaxin vaccine is 81% effective, early data shows.

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More evidence the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first seen in UK doesn't affect vaccine efficacy

There’s more evidence the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first noticed in the UK poses little threat to the efficacy of vaccines.

Research published Thursday shows while that variant can hide a little bit from the immune system, it’s not enough to decrease the value of vaccines significantly – and it doesn’t threaten to re-infect people who have recovered from the previous dominant variant of the virus. 

“These findings indicate that variant B.1.1.7 is unlikely to be a major concern for current vaccines or for an increased risk of reinfection,” they wrote in their report, published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe.

David Montefiori of the Duke University School of Medicine and colleagues tested the variant against blood taken from people who had received the Moderna vaccine, the experimental vaccine being developed by Novavax, and against blood from people who had recovered from coronavirus infection before the variant started circulating.

While there was a small effect of the mutation, it wasn’t enough to suggest the variant could elude the protection offered by vaccines or the immunity that develops after people recover from infection. 

“While this is encouraging, it is becoming increasingly clear that SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve and that new variants may arise that pose a greater risk for immune escape,” they wrote.

Other new variants that have been flagged for concern include the B.1.351 variant first seen in South Africa, one spreading in California called B.1.429, and one that has spread quickly in Brazil called P.1.

The best way to protect against these is to get people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible, they said. “Receiving the second dose in a timely manner is encouraged for maximum efficacy in regions where the B.1.1.7 variant circulates,” they wrote.

School officials should familiarize themselves with school opening guidance, CDC director says

Unused playground equipment sits outside of Burr Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, on January 25.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Unused playground equipment sits outside of Burr Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, on January 25.

Teachers and school administrators should understand how to take proper measures to open schools, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Opening schools is going to be hard especially if they’ve been closed for a year. So the real question is take a look at the operational guidance that we’ve put out. Take a look at the roadmap,” she said on the podcast “Skimm This.” “Understand what are the best next steps? Is it moving out furniture so you can de-densify classrooms? Is it re-purposing an all-purpose room or your gym so you can have bigger spaces?”

Measures in the CDC’s operational guidance for schools include making sure that there is a mask requirement for schools and keeping children in groups of five or six in instances when six feet of distance isn’t possible. The guidance measures also call for making sure there is plenty of soap available.

“I think Covid is going to be with us for a while, maybe not exactly in the way that we’ve seen it for this past year, but we are going to have to make some changes in our day to day in the months ahead, and it’s so very important to get our children back to school,” she said. “So lean into the guidance and take those steps.”

Pandemic precautions must be lifted in “baby steps,” she explained.

“If you look at the number of people who are fully vaccinated and fully protected, it’s still less than 10%,” she said. “The future will depend on how we behave.”

State governors should encourage everyone to wear masks, CDC director says

Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks during a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 08, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks during a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 08, 2020.

State officials must continue to emphasize the importance of wearing masks for the foreseeable future, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Her advice came as part of two recommendations for state governors on how to control the pandemic in states.

“Encourage your citizens to wear a mask. Encourage everyone to wear a mask, and encourage everyone to roll up their sleeve for the vaccine when it’s available to them,” she said speaking on the podcast “Skimm This.” 

And even though case counts have lowered from record highs this winter, don’t risk it by taking any trips out of the country, she explained.

“Now is not the time to travel. Let’s get this disease under control, let’s get this pandemic under control,” Walensky said. “Now is not the time to travel.”

California governor calls on residents to wear two masks after Texas drops mandate

While Texas and other states have recently dropped mask mandates, Gov. Gavin Newsom urged Californians on Thursday to wear two masks to reduce spread of coronavirus, saying residents should “consider using an additional mask and double masking” while in public. 

“We are encouraging people, basically to double down on mask wearing particularly in light of all of what I would argue is bad information coming from at least four states in this country,” Newsom said at a news conference.

The California Department of Public Health published new masking guidelines Thursday, stating that good, effective masks have both a solid fit and filtration, and double masking can help with both. A cloth mask can be worn on top of a disposable mask, but health officials said it is not recommended to wear two medical masks.

The governor has openly criticized states like Texas and Mississippi that recently lifted mask mandates as “reckless,” insisting California will continue to “use data science, evidence, facts, not ideology” to drive decision-making.

“We will not be walking down their path,” Newsom said. “We’re mindful of your health and our future.”

California’s 14-day Covid-19 positivity rate fell Thursday to 2.5%, tying with an all-time-low rate last October. “This is not the time to spike the ball,” Newsom said as highly-contagious variants threaten a resurgence in new cases.

US shouldn't pull back from Covid restrictions until daily new infections fall below 10,000, Fauci says

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during an interview on March 4.
CNN via Webex Cisco
Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during an interview on March 4.

The US will be able to pull back on coronavirus restrictions – but not until the number of daily new infections falls far below the current number, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday.

Fauci said the US should pull back gradually, after a substantial portion of the population gets vaccinated and the number of new infections has fallen well below the current 60,000 to 70,000 new cases per day.

“I would say less than 10,000 and maybe even considerably less than that,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“We will be pulling back,” Fauci said. “We’re now up to about 2 million vaccinations per day. That means every day that goes by, every week that goes by, you have more and more people protected.”

Some states, including Texas and Mississippi, moved to drop mask and social distancing mandates this week.

“There are so many reasons why you don’t want to pull back just now,” said Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

One of those reasons is the emergence of virus variants, some of which are more contagious and can reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

There will be a time to relax restrictions, “but not at a time when we have circulating variants and when you have what looks like a plateauing of the decline in the cases on a daily basis,” Fauci said.

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Fauci to skeptical Republicans: Follow Trump's lead, get vaccinated

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Republicans who are skeptical of Covid-19 vaccines should follow the lead of former President Donald Trump – who quietly got vaccinated back in January. 

“I hope that Republicans will notice that the former President of the United States did get vaccinated which means he believes in vaccination,” Fauci said on CNN Thursday. 

Trump is a “very popular person among tens of millions of people, so even though he hasn’t come out publicly to endorse in a proactive way… what he’s done by his own example was to endorse vaccination,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert continued. 

“So for the very strong followers of former President Trump, I would say ‘look at what the person who you seem to be following in other areas, he got vaccinated,’” Fauci concluded.

The Biden administration is currently working on an ad campaign billed as an “unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination” to help reduce vaccine hesitancy among some groups of Americans.

The administration says it is committed to supporting the Ad Council’s $52 million, “It’s up to you,” campaign to help “ensure that Americans have accurate and timely information to answer their questions and concerns about vaccine side effects, efficacy, and clinical trials.”


Massachusetts governor says people over 65 will be vaccine eligible next week

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks during a press briefing in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on March 4.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks during a press briefing in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on March 4.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state anticipates administering 250,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine next week, which would be consistent with the current week’s projections.

He said 300,000 to 400,000 new state residents will be eligible for vaccinations next week: those over 65 — down from the age 75 restriction in Massachusetts — and those with two or more high-risk medical conditions.

However, Baker said 150,000 of its available doses next week are first doses, meaning a large swath of those eligible will not immediately receive a vaccine.

Baker also said the state is not expecting a change for the remainder of March to its rate of roughly 150,000 first doses available per week.

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