Merck to team with Johnson & Johnson on vaccine rollout; stimulus cash could start flowing soon: Live COVID-19 updates

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Americans could begin seeing the latest round of stimulus payments within two weeks, and two pharmaceutical giants are teaming up to expedite production of vaccines as the Biden administration on Tuesday continued to press for an escape from the unrelenting pandemic.

But as the Senate prepared to begin debate on the crucial $1.9 billion stimulus package, the number of people expected to cash in was likely to be pared down this week.

Democrats are hoping for a Senate vote Friday so the House can approve changes and President Joe Biden can sign it by March 14. Stimulus money could start rolling out before the ink is dry.

The Biden administration likely will need all 50 Democratic senators to get the legislation passed. Some moderate Democrats led by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin want to lower the threshold for the $1,400 checks, calling for helping “the people that need help the most.” Manchin also opposes the minimum wage measure and wants to continue the current $300 weekly unemployment boost, instead of $400 called for in the legislation.

The measure would also provide hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and colleges, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, mass transit systems, renters and small businesses. Child care, tax breaks for families with children and assistance for states to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents also would get funding.

The administration also turned its attention to hastening the vaccine rollout. Biden is expected to announce Tuesday that Merck & Co. will help make Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine, a historic collaboration that should help J&J catch up after falling behind in its expected vaccine production. Merck, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, abandoned its own effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

“Tune in for the President’s remarks on this — and more — later this afternoon,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted.

Also in the news:

►Known variant cases quintupled from 471 to 2,463 in February, even as total coronavirus infections were dropping from a peak in January.

►Many states prioritized COVID-19 vaccines for people over 75, then moved to those over 65, but they shouldn’t keep stepping down by age, an advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. 

►Apple has reopened all 270 of its stores across the U.S. as the effort to vaccinate more Americans against COVID-19 accelerates.

►Former President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, were quietly vaccinated for COVID-19 in January before their departure from the White House, the New York Times reported. Though other high-level elected officials got vaccinated publicly to emphasize the vaccines’ safety, Trump did not. He did encourage his supporters to get vaccinated during a speech Sunday.

►The number of hospitals reporting full intensive care units has fallen by nearly 50% nationwide since early January, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 514,400 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 114.4 million cases and 2.54 million deaths. More than 96.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 76.8 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Drugstore giants CVS and Walgreens and big-box stores such as Walmart and Kroger received most of the initial allotment of COVID-19 vaccines sent  to retail pharmacies. Community pharmacies want their share. Read the full story.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. 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.

Frontier Airlines accused of antisemitism after canceling flight

Frontier Airlines canceled a flight from Miami to New York on Sunday night, saying a “large group” refused to wear masks as the plane prepared for departure. The group was made up of Hasidic Jews, and the incident drew outrage from the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, which tweeted that even people who were not part of the group were accusing the airline of bigotry. The council posted videos of angry passengers and the confusion on board the plane. The Anti-Defamation League tweeted that “a visibly Jewish family was asked to leave a @FlyFrontier flight allegedly due to lack of mask compliance; while deplaning, apparent #antisemitic comments made by crew or others. @ADL formally calls for a full & transparent investigation.”

The airline said in a statement that members of the group, including adults, refused to wear masks as Flight 2878 was preparing for departure from Miami. “Repeated requests to comply with federal law necessitated their removal from the flight,” the airline said.

Stimulus bill would expand Obamacare

The stimulus package includes measures that would be the first significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, since its 2010 passage. Though temporary, the more generous ACA provisions could lead to permanent – and even bigger – changes to the law that prompted a GOP-led government shutdown in 2013 and that President Donald Trump and Republicans failed to repeal when they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Republicans haven’t made the insurance subsidies a focus of their opposition to the bill they’ve dismissed as a “far-left wish list.” Some experts say the measure is overdue.

“In the U.S., we have done very little to address the underlying cost of health care, which is why health insurance is so expensive,” said Cynthia Cox, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Maureen Groppe and Courtney Subramanian

WHO warns end of 2021 might not mean end of pandemic

Health care experts are warning that it might be too soon to think the COVID-19 pandemic will be over by the end of 2021. The emergencies chief of the World Health Organization said it was “premature” to think that the pandemic might be stopped by the end of the year, but the rollout of vaccines could at least help dramatically reduce hospitalizations and death. Dr. Michael Ryan said at a press briefing Monday that the world’s singular focus right now should be to keep transmission of COVID-19 as low as possible. And President Joe Biden’s top public health officials warned Monday that the U.S. could “lose the hard-earned ground we have gained” if cases plateau at their current level.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she was “deeply concerned” as new case counts stall but states continue their rollbacks of virus-related restrictions.

Amid chaotic vaccine rollout, states work to get shots in arms

States and counties are getting better at the nitty-gritty of what’s required to get COVID-19 vaccine into arms, but distribution still varies because of the nation’s fractured and underfunded health system. It’s led to broad disparities in state vaccination rates. 

“This is really a function of the total chaos of 50 state health systems in an uncoordinated, unresponsive, underreported system to the federal government,” said Barry Bloom, an immunologist and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Crazy as that may be, that’s the American way.”

What’s remarkable, experts said, is how many find ways to make it work. A look at the map of vaccine uptake shows a wide range across the USA. As of Monday, Alaska led at 23% of its population vaccinated with at least one dose, followed by New Mexico at 22%. On the low end were Georgia and Utah at 12% and Alabama, Tennessee and Texas at 13%.

– Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub

Ivory Coast becomes first country to receive COVAX vaccine in UN initiative

Health care workers in the Ivory Coast in Africa became the first to receive a vaccine shipment form the U.N.-backed COVAX initiative. The program is meant to ensure inoculations against COVID-19 for the world’s most vulnerable but has been hampered by limited global supply and logistical problems.

Colombia also received a shipment Monday, becoming the first country in the Americas to receive a vaccine shipment. The arrival of 117,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to the capital city of Bogota came days after the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus case discovered in the region.

COVAX plans to initially deliver more than 330 million vaccine doses in the first half of 2021, covering an average of 3.3% of the total populations of the 145 participating countries. Its full goal is to distribute 2 billion vaccine doses before 2022, distributing enough doses to allow countries to vaccine 20% of their populations.

Twitter works to stop misinformation, labeling COVID vaccine falsehoods

Twitter is bolstering its efforts to point out misinformation on the platform, a long-standing problem across social media that has taken on new urgency amid last year’s election and through the pandemic. 

“Starting today, we will begin applying labels to Tweets that may contain misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to our continued efforts to remove the most harmful COVID-19 misleading information from the service,” Twitter said in a blog post Monday.

Since introducing COVID-19 guidance last spring and announcing it would remove harmful, misleading information about vaccines in December, Twitter has removed more than 8,400 tweets and “challenged” 11.5 million accounts across the globe.

At first, labels will be applied to tweets by Twitter’s team when they determine that the content violates the company’s policy. After a while, those assessments will be used to inform Twitter’s automated tools to label similar content across the social media platform. 

– Morgan Hines

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