US investing $3.2B to develop treatments; vaccination rates slow: Live COVID-19 updates

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Rates of COVID-19 vaccinations are continuing to slow across the United States, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

In the past week, only six states reported administering first doses at a pace at least a quarter of their peak rate. Another six states reported administering first doses at a pace less than a tenth of their peak rate. Georgia fared the worst. At its peak, Georgia reported administering nearly 500,000 first doses in a week. Last week, the state administered about 5,000.

“We’re headed into a summer of joy, celebration and increasing freedom from the virus. However, for all the progress we’re making as a country, too many communities remain at risk because of low vaccination levels,” Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at a briefing Thursday. “The low vaccination rates in some communities is an even bigger concern now that we face the threat of a new, more dangerous variant, specifically, the delta variant.”

Approximately 44% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, and about 53% has received at least one dose, according to the CDC. An average of about 327,000 adults received their first vaccine each day last week, but to reach Biden’s goal of 70% of adults receiving at least one shot by the Fourth of July, that number will need to increase to about 722,000 adults vaccinated each day.

Also in the news:

►The U.S. Open tennis tournament will allow 100% spectator capacity throughout its entire two weeks in 2021, the U.S. Tennis Association announced Thursday. The decision comes a year after spectators were banned from the Grand Slam event in New York because of the coronavirus pandemic.

►California regulators today are set to approve revised pandemic rules that end mask requirements for fully vaccinated workers, thus giving them the same freedoms as when they are off the job.

►The Taj Mahal in India reopened its doors to visitors this week. The move was part of a broad easing of restrictions by India’s local governments to revive a battered tourism industry despite a devastating infection surge that has killed hundreds of thousands. 

►Data from swab tests carried out across England suggests COVID-19 cases are doubling there every 11 days, the Guardian reports. Health officials blame the surge on the delta variant, now the U.K.’s most prevalent.

►California’s Santa Clara County, the nation’s first county to institute a stay-at-home order, is collaborating with the SAP Center, the Golden State Warriors and the City of San Jose to raffle off more than 100 tickets to upcoming events to everyone who gets vaccinated. 70% of eligible residents in the county have one dose. 

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 33.50 million confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 600,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 177.1 million cases and more than 3.83 million deaths. More than 147.75 million Americans have been fully vaccinated — 44.5% of the population, according to the CDC

📘What we’re reading: Across America, employers have shied from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Houston Methodist hospitals took a different tact.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Michigan to roll back major COVID-19 restrictions ahead of schedule

Michigan is rescinding the vast majority of its remaining COVID-19 health and safety orders effective June 22, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state officials announced Thursday. .

That means there are no longer sweeping state-issued mask mandates, restrictions on gathering sizes or limits on the number of people who can be in a restaurant, store or other venue. 

A handful of specific rules remain, especially for  “vulnerable populations in corrections, long-term care and agriculture,” according to a news release. The state also will issue additional guidance on safety protocols for schools next week. Private businesses may also still require masks, social distancing or other safety precautions.

The decision by state officials comes as pandemic trends continue to improve and days ahead of July 1, the date previously set to roll back rules.

– Dave Boucher and Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press

COVID-19 surge in Afghanistan hits US embassy, prompting lockdown

A dangerous surge in COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan has gripped the U.S. embassy in Kabul, forcing an immediate lockdown and the creation of temporary, on-site COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients, according to an internal memo.

“COVID-19 is surging in the Mission. 114 of our colleagues now have COVID and are in isolation; one has died, and several have been medevaced,” reads the notice from Shane Pierce, an employee in the embassy’s health unit. His memo says that intensive care units at a U.S. military hospital “are at full capacity,” prompting the need to set up temporary on-site units for staff who need oxygen. 

Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, noted the surge in cases coincides with “an intense third wave of COIVD-19 cases” across Afghanistan. Infection rates have surged in Afghanistan by 2,400% over the past month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross. Read more.

– Deirdre Shesgreen

CDC lowers cruise risk assessment for unvaccinated travelers

Almost 15 months after the CDC shuttered the U.S. cruise industry with a no-sail order, the agency has lowered the risk level associated with cruising during COVID-19 from “Very High” to “High” specifically for unvaccinated passengers.

“In preparation for the restart of cruise ships, the travel health notice was updated based on modeling estimates and to align with CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated travelers,” Caitlin Shockey, CDC spokesperson, told USA TODAY Thursday.

The CDC did not specify a numerical risk level for COVID-related risk for vaccinated passengers. “The level of risk for vaccinated travelers is lower, as they are less likely to get COVID-19 than cruise passengers who are not fully vaccinated,” Shockey said.

Though the health agency updated the risk level from the highest level – a four – to a three for unvaccinated passengers, it still advises against cruise travel for unvaccinated people. “CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide,” the health notice reads.

– Morgan Hines

Lawmakers push for 9/11-style commission to investigate virus in US

There’s a push on Capitol Hill and beyond for a full-blown investigation of the coronavirus outbreak by a national commission like the one that looked into 9/11. The proposal comes amid lingering questions over the government’s response to the crisis and the origin of the virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans. 

A bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine would establish such a commission. 

“The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is more than 200 times that of the 9/11 attacks – but Congress has yet to establish a similar blue ribbon commission to investigate the vulnerabilities of our public health system and issue guidance for how we as a nation can better protect the American people from future pandemics,” Menendez and Collins wrote in an essay this week in The New York Times.

However, the proposal’s prospects are unclear. Many are concerned politics will get in the way of any inquiry, as happened when Republicans came out against a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.

More than 350 Indonesian doctors infected despite vaccination

More than 350 Indonesian doctors and health care workers have contracted COVID-19 and dozens have been hospitalized despite being jabbed with the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, authorities said.

Badai Ismoyo, head of the Kudus district health office in Central Java, told Channel News Asia that most of the infected were asymptomatic and self-isolating at home. But he said dozens were in hospitals with high fevers and declining oxygen saturation levels.

Indonesia, an archipelago of made up of thousands of islands and home to 270 million people, is battling a severe outbreak believed to be driven by the more transmissible delta variant. Indonesian health care workers, designated as a priority group, were among the first to be vaccinated when the inoculation drive started in January.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo on Thursday ordered authorities to speed up the vaccination campaign. The World Health Organization urged leaders of the world’s fourth most populated country to increase social restrictions to combat the surge of infections.

US to spend $3.2 billion to help develop COVID medications

The United States is devoting $3.2 billion to advance development of antiviral treatments for COVID-19, the Biden administration announced Thursday.

Effective oral antiviral medicines that could be taken at home early in the course of infection, similar to treatment for the flu, could save lives and prevent overwhelming surges in hospitalizations, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release.

The plan, called the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, will support research to identify and accelerate the availability of treatment options for COVID-19, as well as build platforms for the discovery and development of antivirals for future viruses, the release said.

“There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have what we call pandemic potential,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing. He said he had no knowledge of what the treatments would cost.

Variants force US to remain vigilant despite access to vaccines

The nation will have to remain vigilant against variants this summer and fall. 

First, there is the alpha variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated made up 66% of U.S. cases in April. The variant, first documented in the UK, is considered more transmissible and perhaps deadlier than the original strain. 

Then, there’s the delta variant, which tore through India last month and delayed the United Kingdom’s reopening plan. Now it accounts for about 6-10% of coronavirus infections in the U.S., according to the CDC. 

But the variant that keeps Washington state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist “up at night?” The gamma variant, which now accounts for 16% of cases in the state and is the fastest-rising, according to the Seattle Times. 

“It’s a race between the vaccines going into people and the current or future variants,” said Kansas Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman.

NYC to move homeless out of hotels as social distancing measures lifted

New York City will move about 8,000 homeless people out of the hotel rooms granted to them at the start of the COVID pandemic to safeguard them against the coronavirus and back into shelters by the end of July so that the hotels can reopen, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

New York state surpassed the first-shot, 70% vaccination threshold for adults, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday, a benchmark that will trigger a pullback on safety precautions such as those still in place for social distancing.

“I don’t want to go back — it’s like I’m going backward,” Andrew Ward, 39, who has been staying at the Williams Hotel in Brownsville, Brooklyn, after nearly two years at a men’s shelter, told the New York Times. “It’s not safe to go back there. You’ve got people bringing in knives.”

Early release programs in Virginia will end, inmate population vaccinated

An inmate early release program aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus in Virginia prisons will end on July 1.

State prison officials have released more than 2,100 inmates early in the past year to reduce the prison population during the pandemic. The program was authorized under a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam and approved by state lawmakers in April 2020. The authorization expires on July 1.

Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said about 70% of the inmate population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. There are no current cases among the population. A total of 56 inmates and five staff members who tested positive for the coronavirus have died during the pandemic.

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.