California lifts stay at home orders; Brazil variant


Without masks and a vaccine, we could reach Herd Immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We break down the science of it.


COVID-19 has killed more than 420,000 Americans in a year, 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 newsletterfor updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

California health officials lifted regional stay-at-home orders across the state Monday, citing a decline in the numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients. 

The stay-at-home order had included most of the state’s counties, including the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The change will allow restaurants to resume outdoor dining in many areas, though local officials could choose to continue stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

The restrictions had fueled an angry outcry from many small-business owners. California will now return to its four-tiered, color-coded system of county-by-county restrictions, state health officials announced. The state is also considering extending eviction protections through the end of June because of the pandemic.

“Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, California Department of Public Health director and state public health officer.

– Amanda Ulrich and Julie Makinen, Palm Springs Desert Sun

In the headlines:

►The first case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant initially discovered in Brazil has been detected in the U.S. Minnesota officials said Monday a state resident who recently traveled to Brazil has been confirmed as having contracted that strain.

►President Joe Biden on Monday reinstated a ban on travel to the U.S. from South Africa for most non-U.S. citizens, in addition to restrictions on travel from Brazil, the U.K., Ireland and 26 countries in Europe.

►With the backing of eight Arizona mayors, baseball’s Cactus League is pushing for a delay to the start of spring training. MLB has endorsed a one-month postponement till mid-March but the players’ union is opposed.

►Merck dropped out of the COVID-19 vaccine race, citing “inferior” immune responses. That’s proof safety systems are working, experts say.

? Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 420,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 99.6 million cases and 2.1 million deaths.

? What we’re reading: President Joe Biden is seeking to reset the nation’s inconsistent coronavirus testing efforts with a $50 billion plan and more federal oversight. Read more here.

Moderna: Vaccine as effective vs. UK variant, less so vs. South African strain

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine protects against two variants of the coronavirus that have emerged from Britain and South Africa, though not as strongly against the second one, according to a company study.

The biotechnology firm said in a statement released Monday that its vaccine produced an immune response to “all key emerging variants tested” and no significant reduction in neutralizing antibodies against the variant first identified in the U.K., which the CDC said may become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. 

The immune response to the South African variant did show a six-fold decrease in neutralizing antibodies, which Moderna said were still “above levels that are expected to be protective.”

Nonetheless, the company is developing a booster dose that could combat the South African variant and future emerging ones.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., called the South African variant “different and more ominous than the one in the UK.”

– Adrianna Rodriguez

COVID-19 test requirement to fly into US goes into effect Tuesday

Starting Tuesday, travelers flying into the U.S. from foreign countries will be required to present proof of a recent coronavirus test with a negative result. 

 The new rule has already impacted the travel industry, leading to a rash of cancelations and a decline in bookings to Mexican beach resorts.

Here are seven things you need to know about the test requirement.

— Dawn Gilbert

CDC: NFL study finds transmission without 15 minutes of close contact

A study of NFL players found that coronavirus transmission is still possible even if exposure didn’t surpass 15 total minutes within six feet, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, published Monday in the agency’s Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, tracked 20 players from Oct. 15 to Nov. 21 who were identified as high-risk contacts of a COVID-19 patient. Researchers determined through contact tracing that seven of them “had no interactions exceeding 15 cumulative minutes per day within (six feet).”

The findings put into question the CDC’s guidance on community exposure, which it defines as having close contact with an individual who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19. According to the agency, close contact is defined as within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more. The CDC also noted most of the cases came from community exposure and not from the field or other work-related environments.

Adrianna Rodriguez

Google to provide vaccination sites, improve vaccine searches online

Google said it will open up select facilities for use as vaccination sites and bolster search results to provide better information on where to find a vaccine for COVID-19. 

In a blog post Monday, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and parent company Alphabet, said the company will partner with a medical provider and public health authorities to open up sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. The company plans to expand the initiative nationally.

“Getting vaccines to billions of people won’t be easy, but it’s one of the most important problems we’ll solve in our lifetimes,” Pichai said in his post. “Google will continue to support in whatever way we can.”

Japan scrambling for ‘herd immunity’ as Tokyo Olympics draw near

Japan’s vaccine effort is falling short and could imperil the Tokyo Olympics, at least one expert warns. 

Japan probably won’t achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 through mass inoculations until months after the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to begin July 23, Rasmus Bech Hansen, the founder of British research firm Airfinity, told Reuters. 

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough shots for the populace by the middle of 2021. Hansen, however, said Japan will not reach a 75% inoculation rate, a benchmark for herd immunity, until around October.

“Japan looks to be quite late in the game,” Hansen said. “They’re dependent on importing many (vaccines) from the U.S. And at the moment, it doesn’t seem very likely they will get very large quantities.”

In rural Pennsylvania, COVID-19 is making a tragic mark

The pandemic hasn’t bypassed rural America, and it’s not going away.

In the Pennsylvania town of Beaver, 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, vaccine shots are nearly impossible to get. Nurses at Heritage Valley Beaver had to open a second COVID-19 unit to treat all of the critically ill patients. The community-based health system recently treated 115 patients simultaneously with COVID-19.

“The struggle to just breathe. It sounds like a small thing, you just keep breathing, it is not a small thing,” said Rebecca Register, 40, of Beaver, a seven-year veteran nurse who works on the COVID-19 unit. “Watching someone struggle with that, and they’re on the highest amount of oxygen that I can give them at any time and it’s ripping your heart out.” Read more here.

Daveen Rae Kurutz, Beaver County Times

2 in 5 Americans live where COVID-19 strains hospital ICUs

Straining to handle record numbers of COVID-19 patients, hundreds of the nation’s intensive care units are running out of space and supplies and competing to hire temporary traveling nurses at soaring rates. Many of the facilities are clustered in the South and West.

An Associated Press analysis of federal hospital data shows that since November, the share of U.S. hospitals nearing the breaking point has doubled. More than 40% of Americans now live in areas running out of ICU space, and only 15% of beds are still available.

Intensive care units are the final defense for the sickest of the sick, patients who are nearly suffocating or facing organ failure. Nurses who work in the most stressed ICUs, changing IV bags and monitoring patients on breathing machines, are exhausted.

Contributing: The Associated Press


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