Jorge L. Ortiz
| USA TODAY
COVID-19 virus changes: What you need to know of new variants
The virus that causes COVID-19 changes all the time, but scientific leaders say there’s no reason to panic about known variants yet.
Adults 20-49 are driving the spread of COVID-19 and vaccinating that group could be key to controlling the pace of infections, a study suggests. Researchers at London’s Imperial College estimated that at least 65% of new U.S. infections originate from that age group.
“Targeting interventions – including transmission-blocking vaccines – to adults age 20-49 is an important consideration in halting resurgent epidemics and preventing COVID-19-attributable deaths,” the study’s authors say in the publication Science.
Older adults – currently at or near the front of the line for vaccinations and facing the highest death rate – and children drive very little of the spread, the study says. So should vaccination efforts target young adults first?
“It’s a really good question,” Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor, told USA TODAY. “Do we vaccinate the most vulnerable or the ones most involved in transmission? If you remove the vectors you have a chance” of curbing the spread.
Brownstein said early data indicates vaccines can prevent transmission, “but we don’t know for sure.” So protecting the most vulnerable should remain a priority, he said. “These findings do put additional pressure on getting the vaccines widely rolled out,” he said.
Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University in Indianapolis, agreed, adding that “shifting goal posts” are part of the process in combating a pandemic.
“Mitigating the effects of an infectious agent is like an arms race or a chess game,” Omenka said. “The aim is to take advantage of the opponent’s gaps or vulnerabilities. Our COVID-19 strategies are liable to (include) adjustments, as driven by emerging evidence.”
COVID-19 has killed more than 454,000 Americans, and infections have continued to mount despite the introduction of a pair of vaccines late in 2020. USA TODAY is tracking the news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.
In the headlines:
►Canada has extended its ban on cruise ships in its waters until March 1, 2022.
►The White House is studying a proposal to send masks to all Americans, a notion the Trump administration considered and discarded. “There are a range of options on the table to help protect more Americans from the coronavirus and encourage people to mask up,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding that no decision has been made on the idea.
►Gov. Kate Brown’s office says Oregon will soon begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations to as many as 11,000 inmates in the state’s prisons – which could delay health care workers and others in phase 1A from getting the vaccines. The decision came after a federal magistrate ordered inoculations to begin in response to disproportionately high rates of coronavirus spread and death in the state’s 14 prisons.
►Schools can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated for the coronavirus, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walensky cited CDC data showing that social distancing and wearing a mask significantly reduce the spread of the virus in school settings.
►A study of coronavirus cases in India found 21.4% of adults had already been infected before vaccinations started in January. Nearly one-third of the people living in India’s urban slums were found to have antibodies for the virus.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has 26.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 455,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 104.8 million cases and 2.28 million deaths. More than 55.9 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 33.9 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: Why the lack of racial data around COVID-19 vaccines is a ”massive barrier” to better distribution across the U.S. Read the full story.
FDA says convalescent plasma not helpful
The Food and Drug Administration revised its recommendation for use of convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 therapy Thursday solely “for the treatment of hospitalized patients early in the disease course,” based on studies reported since the treatment was issued Emergency Use Authorization Aug. 2020.
Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood collected from patients who have recovered from COVID-19, according to the FDA. The patients develop antibodies, proteins that might help fight the infection. Congressmen and celebrities have donated plasma after recovering from COVID-19 and urge others to do the same.
But now, the FDA has said that “plasma with low levels of antibodies has not been shown to be helpful in COVID-19.” Still, the organization wrote that the benefits of the treatment are believed to outweigh the risks for patients recently hospitalized or who were just diagnosed, pending additional trials.
Johnson & Johnson, whose single-dose COVID-19 vaccine provided 66% protection against the disease in international trials, requested emergency-use authorization from the FDAon Thursday.
If it gains clearance, the J&J offering could serve as another valuable tool in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic at a time when vaccine demand outstrips supply. The company said it expects to deliver 100 million doses before the end of June.
The J&J vaccine demonstrated higher effectiveness in U.S. trials (72%) than in overall testing, though it didn’t perform as well as the vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna (both above 94%). But the J&J product has two distinct advantages: It requires only one shot — the company is exploring whether a second one would improve protection — and it can be stored at refrigerator temperatures. The other two vaccines need to be frozen.
The race to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before coronavirus variants spread widely across the nation is hampered by a worrisome factor: The U.S. screens less than 1% of positive cases to search for variants.
By contrast, Britain sequences about 10%, and the information from such testing provides greater opportunity to slow or stop the problem, whether through more targeted contact tracing, possible adjustments to the vaccine or public warnings.
That hasn’t prevented a more-contagious and potentially deadlier variant first identified in the U.K. from running rampant there, and there are growing concerns about the impact it could have in America just as infections are starting to taper off. U.S. scientists have detected more than 500 cases of the British variant and expect it to become the leading strain by March.
CDC officials say variants did not drive the post-holiday surges in U.S. infections, but experts say the country should have conducted more sequencing earlier in the pandemic. “If we had evidence it was changing, maybe people would’ve acted differently,” Ohio State molecular biologist Dan Jones said.
Public school students did not return to classrooms this week in the nation’s third-largest school district. Chicago Public Schools initially planned for 70,000 K-8 students to return this past Monday, but classes have remained online amid ongoing negotiations between the teachers union and City Hall. Negotiations lasted through the evening each day, and the district did not inform parents that school would be online Thursday until 9:30 p.m. CT Wednesday night.
“We are working as hard as we possibly can to get a deal done,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday. “This has been frustrating.”
– Grace Hauck
The U.S. has recorded more than 454,000 COVID-19 deaths — double the number of fatalities in Brazil, which ranks second in the world in that category — arriving at that figure less than two months after reaching 300,000 deaths in December. That’s a 50% increase in that time. By comparison, the first 150,000 U.S. deaths took six months.
Weekly new infections continued to fall Wednesday: The seven-day total dipped to 958,965. That’s down 45% from the peak just a few weeks ago. But the U.S. reported 21,602 deaths in the week ending Wednesday, still averaging a human toll worse than that of 9/11 every day.
— Mike Stucka
The most common injury from errant vaccine shots might no longer be paid through a federal program because of a rule change ushered in during the final days of the Trump administration. More than 2,200 Americans since 2017 have filed shoulder-injury claims to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. But a rule change signed last month by former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar would remove shoulder injuries from the program. The move comes as more than 1 million Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 every day at nursing homes, clinics and stadium-style mass immunization sites to curb a once-in-a-century virus.
“Of all times to give less protections to the vaccine injured, now’s not the time,” said Anne Carrión Toale, a Florida attorney who specializes in vaccine-injury cases.
– Ken Alltucker
Since schools shut down in spring, districts have scrambled to distribute laptops and provide internet access so students can engage in schooling from home. But millions of students still lack the basic tools to participate in live lessons from home. As of December, at least 11 of the 25 largest districts in the U.S. were still distributing devices to facilitate internet access to students or could not define the extent of lingering connectivity needs, a USA TODAY survey showed.
“Kids without internet access are more likely to suffer and not even be in contact with their teachers,” said Laura Stelitano, an associate policy researcher for RAND Corp., a global research firm that has studied the issue. Read more here.
Bribing doctors. Circulating vaccination appointment codes. Chartering planes and impersonating essential workers. More than a month since the U.S. first began administering COVID-19 vaccines, many people who were not supposed to be first in line have received vaccinations. Anecdotal reports suggest some people have deliberately leveraged widespread vulnerabilities in the distribution process to acquire vaccine. Others were just in the right place at the right time.
“There’s dozens and dozens of these stories, and they really show that the rollout was a complete disaster in terms of selling fairness,” said Arthur Caplan, who heads the medical ethics division at the NYU School of Medicine. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have consensus (on who should go first). We didn’t pay attention to logistics, and that drove distribution, not rules.” Read more here.
Contributing: The Associated Press