White House announces 3 new mass vaccination sites in Texas; Feds investigate counterfeit N95 mask operation: Live COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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Wearing a tight-fitting mask or a double mask can dramatically decrease exposure to and spread of COVID-19, a crucial defense against emerging new variations of the virus, the CDC reported Wednesday.

In lab tests with dummies, exposure to potentially infectious aerosols decreased by more than 90% when tight or double masks were used, the CDC said.

“Cases hospitalizations and deaths are still very high,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a White House coronavirus briefing. “Now is not the time to roll back mask requirements.”

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:

►Federal authorities are investigating a massive counterfeit N95 mask operation in which fake 3M masks were sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies. The foreign-made knockoffs are becoming increasingly difficult to spot and could put health care workers at grave risk for the coronavirus. These masks are giving first responders “a false sense of security,” said Steve Francis, who works for the Homeland Security Department’s principal investigative arm. 

►About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new poll that some experts say is discouraging news if the U.S. hopes to achieve herd immunity and vanquish the outbreak. The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while 67% of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already done so, 15% are certain they won’t and 17% say probably not. Many expressed doubts about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

►The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrated their victory Wednesday with a boat parade amid continued concern over the coronavirus pandemic. Mayor Jane Castor emphasized that people attending the parade must wear masks outdoors and observe social distancing rules. It appeared many were abiding by the mask order but many others were not. This follows the controversy that ensued following the game on Sunday, when revelers in Tampa, many maskless and ignoring social distancing guidance, celebrated in the streets.

►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 adviser to President Joe Biden, said pregnant women and children were not included in initial clinical trials. But he said studies involving them are underway with the focus on ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for these groups.

►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 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.

►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.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 471,400 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 107.3 million cases and 2.35 million deaths. More than 65.9 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 44.7 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.

California town OKs controversial ‘hero pay’ for essential workers

A small town in the Southern California desert approved a so-called “hero pay” for certain essential workers Wednesday night.

The emergency ordinance out of Coachella requires certain agricultural operations, grocery stores, retail pharmacy stores and restaurants — to provide a premium pay of an additional $4 per hour to their employees in Coachella for at least 120 days. The regulation applies to those who employ 300 or more workers nationally and more than five employees in the city.

Coachella follows cities like Long Beach, Oakland and Montebello, which have mandated temporary pay increases for essential workers who have risked their health to work during the pandemic and have been sickened with COVID-19 at high rates. Those cities have faced immediate blowback for their actions.

– Rebecca Plevin, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.)

Ohio to add up to 4K previously unreported COVID-19 deaths to tally

Ohio will add as many as 4,000 previously unreported COVID-19 deaths to the state’s tally during the next week after the Ohio Department of Health discovered errors in how coronavirus deaths are confirmed. Most of these deaths occurred in November and December, the agency said in a news release.

State officials were still determining the cause of the problem but released some information Wednesday evening to be transparent, Gov. Mike DeWine’s spokesman Dan Tierney said.

“When there’s been issues, whether it’s spoilage with the vaccine or reporting issues like this, we’ve disclosed it to the public,” Tierney said.

As of Wednesday, Ohio has reported 11,856 deaths due to COVID-19. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts 17,222 deaths in Ohio involving COVID-19.

– Jackie Borchardt and Randy Ludlow, The Cincinnati Enquirer

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.”

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

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