Coronavirus Pandemic

Virus Updates: Brazil Variant Reported in Minn.; Biden Reinstates Travel Restrictions

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On Monday, President Joe Biden reinstated travel rules to help slow the spread of the virus. The restrictions will be on non-American travelers from Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries, as well as South Africa.

Meanwhile, top aides to the president began talks with a group of moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats on Sunday over a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as Biden faces increasing headwinds in his effort to win bipartisan backing for the initial legislative effort of his presidency.

The U.S. surpassed 25 million confirmed coronavirus cases over the weekend, according to a tally by NBC News. The nation has also seen more than 422,000 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Here are the latest coronavirus updates from the U.S. and elsewhere:

Minnesota Reports First Known Case of Brazil Coronavirus Variant in the US

Minnesota public health officials announced what appears to be the first known case of the coronavirus' Brazil P.1 variant in the nation. 

The patient with variant is a resident of Minneapolis/St. Paul who became ill after traveling to Brazil, the Minnesota Department of Health said. 

The strain was found among the 50 random samples analyzed every week as part of the state's variant surveillance program, according to the health department. The Brazil variant is a distinct variation from those seen in Britain and South Africa and thought to be more transmissible than the coronavirus strain that was prevalent at the beginning of the pandemic. 

"The good news is that we can slow the spread of this variant and all COVID-19 variants by using the tried-and-true prevention methods of wearing masks, keeping social distance, staying home when sick, and getting tested when appropriate," Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said Monday.

Biden Says US Needs Testing Capacity for Schools

President Joe Biden said schools should be made “safe and secure” for students and teachers as states look to ramp up in-person learning.

But Biden speaking to reporters on Monday sidestepped a question about whether school districts should wait until teachers are vaccinated before requiring them to return to the classroom.

That issue is at the heart of a standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to defy an order to return to the classroom to begin in-person learning in one of the nation’s largest public school districts.

While negotiations are ongoing, school district officials say the teachers’ absence would amount to an illegal strike.

“We need testing for teachers as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that the circumstance of the school is safe and secure for everyone,” said Biden, when asked about Chicago school district standoff.

Also in Chicago, Lightfoot says the city will focus outreach on 15 largely Black and Latino neighborhoods after early data showed racial disparities among who have received vaccines so far. Lightfoot received her first dose Monday at a hospital on the city’s South Side with other Black leaders who said it was important to show people the vaccine is safe.

US Virus Numbers Drop, But Race Against New Strains Heats Up

Coronavirus deaths and cases in the U.S. have dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels. And the effort to snuff out COVID-19 is becoming an ever more urgent race between the vaccine and the mutating virus.

Deaths are running at an average of just under 3,100 a day, down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago. New cases are averaging about 170,000 a day after peaking at almost 250,000 on Jan. 11. The number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital in the U.S. has fallen to about 110,000 from a high of 132,000 on Jan. 7.

The country’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the improvements appear to be the result of a natural plateau after the holiday surge — not the effect of the vaccine. And he urges continued vigilance. Fauci also warned that the U.S. shouldn’t let its guard down as variants that are more contagious take hold.

Health experts have warned that the variant sweeping through Britain will probably become the dominant source of infection in the U.S. by March. It has been reported in over 20 states so far. Another mutant version is circulating in South Africa.

To guard against the new variants, President Joe Biden planned to add South Africa to a list of more than two dozen countries under coronavirus-related travel restrictions, two White House officials said.

White House to Resume Public COVID-19 Briefings

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration will provide public briefings on the coronavirus pandemic starting Wednesday.

The briefings will feature public health officials. Psaki says they will occur three times a week and provide details on the government’s response to addressing the pandemic.

That’s a stark contrast to the Trump administration, which kept Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-diseases expert, and other top health officials on a short leash, with the West Wing press shop tightly controlling Fauci’s media appearances and offering few public briefings as the virus raged in recent months.

Delta Plans to Return 400 Pilots to Active Flying by Summer

Delta plans to bring back 400 pilots who have been idled because of the travel slump caused by the pandemic. Delta says the pilots will return to regular flying duties by this summer.

The airline says it's increasing its staffing earlier than expected. The pilots' union said Monday it was encouraged. U.S. passenger traffic so far in January is down 61% from a year ago, and Delta and United are forecasting weak travel demand through March.

But airline industry officials expect domestic travel to improve quickly once a critical mass of Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19.

California Lifts Its Stay-at-Home Orders, Curfew Statewide

California lifted regional stay-at-home orders across the state Monday in response to improving coronavirus conditions, returning the state to a system of county-by-county restrictions, state health officials announced.

The order had been in place in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, covering the majority of the state's counties. The change will allow businesses such as restaurants to resume outdoor operations 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.

“Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains. COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner," Dr. Tomas Aragon, the state's public health director, said in a statement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to address the public later Monday.

The announcement comes as hospitals across the Bay Area and in other parts of the state now have more available ICU beds, NBC Bay Area reports. The Bay Area’s ICU capacity is now at 23.4%, a notable improvement compared to just a few weeks ago when it was less than 1%.

However, Southern California continues to have 0% available ICU space, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Fauci: Data Shows New Variants Are More Infectious, Testing of Vaccine Efficacy Underway

Dr. Anthony Fauci says scientists are already preparing to upgrade COVID-19 vaccines to address the variants of the coronavirus now circulating in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, says those variants are not only more infectious but they do not respond as well to the monoclonal antibodies that have been used in treating patients. He said he was especially concerned about the South African variant, which he described as “different and more ominous than the one in the UK.”

”The data has not come out officially, but taking a look at the preliminary data that the UK scientists have analyzed, I’m pretty convinced that there is a degree of increase in seriousness of the actual infection, which we really have to keep an eye on,” Fauci told NBC’s “TODAY” show.

Fauci said there is also “a very slight, modest diminution” of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against those variants but “there’s enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective against both the UK strain and the South Africa strain.”

Fauci also addressed the decline in virus cases and hospitalizations in most of the country, saying the drop cannot yet be attributed to vaccines and was more likely due to a natural plateauing of cases following a spike after the holiday season. But he warned Americans not to be complacent and urged people to be as cautious as possible.

China Pushes Conspiracy Theories on COVID Origin, Vaccines

China is trying to spread doubt about the effectiveness of Western vaccines and the origin of the coronavirus as a World Health Organization-selected team of scientists are in the city where the pandemic began.

Controls imposed on information about the disease by the ruling Communist Party have prompted questions about what the scientists will be allowed to see.

Meanwhile as vaccines roll out worldwide, Beijing appears to be trying to blunt the impact of reports China’s are less effective. Chinese officials, trying to deflect criticism of their response, have also raised and unfounded theory that it came from a U.S. military lab.

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Merck Discontinues Development of COVID Vaccine Candidates

Merck announced Monday morning it will discontinue development of its two coronavirus vaccine candidates.

In a press release, the pharmaceutical giant said its vaccines generated immune responses, but that the responses were "inferior" to those seen following natural infection and to those reported for other COVID-19 vaccines.

Merck will continue to work on its two investigational medicines: MK-7110 and MK-4482 (molnupiravir). MK-7110 is "a potentially first-in-class investigational recombinant fusion protein that modulates the inflammatory response to SARS-CoV-2, principally by targeting a novel immune pathway checkpoint," according to the release. The later is an oral novel investigational antiviral agent being developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Bio.

Birx Says Someone Was Giving Trump 'Parallel Data' About COVID Pandemic

Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a CBS interview released on Sunday that Former President Donald Trump had been reviewing “parallel” data sets on the coronavirus pandemic from someone inside the administration, CNBC reports.

“I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made,” Birx told Margaret Brennan on CBS News’ “Face The Nation.” “Someone inside was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”

Birx, who announced her retirement as President Joe Biden took office last week, said she doesn’t know the identity of the person who gave the president different information. She added that there were Covid-19 deniers within the Trump administration.

“There were people who definitely believed that this was a hoax,” she said. “I think the information was confusing at the beginning. I think because we didn’t talk about the spectrum of the disease, everyone interpreted what they knew.”

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