President Joe Biden and health experts are expressing concern after Texas and Mississippi officials announced plans to ease virus restrictions, including ending mask mandates. On Wednesday, the Biden administration warned against coronavirus fatigue and encouraged Americans to continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the nation is “at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” and the next two months are “pivotal” in determining the remaining course of the pandemic.
The U.S. has reported more than 520,000 deaths and 28 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, according to a tally by NBC News.
Here are the latest coronavirus updates from the U.S. and elsewhere:
Delta Will Start Calling 1,300 Pilots Back for Training
Delta Air Lines will start recalling some 1,300 pilots on Friday who haven’t been flying during the pandemic so they can begin training, CNBC reports.
“To provide context, the staffing plans over the past 15 months have swung rapidly from a growth trajectory, to significant contraction, followed by the largest pilot retirement event in airline history, a deal to avoid furloughs and now to recovery,” said Bob Schmelzer, Delta’s director of crew resources, planning, analytics and reporting in a memo to pilots on Thursday.
Because of those retirements, and the fact that many pilots that haven’t recently had FAA-mandated training, aviators may need to be certified on other aircrafts.
After a brutal year for the airline industry, consumers are warming to the idea of traveling again, with bookings picking up steam. Passenger volumes are still less than half 2019 levels but numbers have recently ticked up as more COVID-19 vaccines have rolled out. In response, some airlines have started hiring pilots and flight attendants again.
Alabama Governor Extends Mask Mandate, But Says Restrictions Will Be Lifted in April
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is bucking the Republican trend to extend the state’s mandatory face mask order by a month. With states including Texas and neighboring Mississippi ending masking requirements, Ivey announced Thursday that masks will be required in the state of nearly 5 million people through April 9.
Cases and hospitalizations are on the decline, and Ivey says the order will end next month. But she says businesses need time to come up with policies of their own before it expires. While health leaders have urged Ivey to continue requiring masks, Ivey is facing increasing pressure from fellow Republicans to end it.
Florida Governor Faces Growing Charges of Vaccine Favoritism After Wealthy Enclave Got Shots First
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials came under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid -January, giving ammunition to critics who say the Republican governor is favoring wealthy constituents over ordinary Floridians.
The revelations were the latest example of wealthy Floridians getting earlier access to coronavirus vaccines, even as the state has lagged in efforts to get poorer residents vaccinated.
DeSantis pushed back Thursday, saying a local hospital — not the state — was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, and that the state “wasn't involved in it in any shape or form.”
Officials from Monroe County, home to Key Largo, said the affluent club’s medical center, which is an affiliate of Baptist Health Hospital, received the vaccines through the hospital as part of the governor’s program to vaccinate communities with a populations of people 65 and older. County spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said the allocations were coordinated through Baptist and the state of Florida.
The inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines is becoming a public relations challenge for the governor. Of the 3.2 million people who have received one or two doses of the vaccines, less than 6% have been Black, when they make up about 17% of the total population.
Target, Krogers, Walmart Among Retailers That Will Still Require Masks Despite End of Mandates
Even as Texas and Mississippi roll back mask mandates, some of the nation's largest retailers and grocery chains announced they still won’t allow maskless customers.
Macy’s, Starbucks, Target and Kroger's, which also owns supermarket chains including Ralphs and Dillons, said they will continue to require that customers wear face coverings. Also keeping restrictions in place are CVS, Walgreens and Best Buy.
The announcement by Govs. Greg Abbott and Tate Reeves come as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have fallen rapidly in recent weeks from record levels in January and more Americans get vaccinated. However, health experts say relaxing restrictions now could lead to another surge, especially with variants spreading.
“I don’t think this is the right time,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who also told The Associated Press in an email that he was not consulted before the repeals were announced. “Texas has been making some real progress but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”
US Jobless Claims Tick Up to 745,000 As Layoffs Remain High
The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits edged higher last week to 745,000, a sign that many employers continue to cut jobs despite a drop in confirmed viral infections and evidence that the overall economy is improving.
Thursday's report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims rose by 9,000 from the previous week. Though the pace of layoffs has eased since the year began, they remain high by historical standards. Before the virus flattened the U.S. economy a year ago, applications for unemployment aid had never topped 700,000 in any week, even during the Great Recession.
All told, 4.3 million Americans are receiving traditional state unemployment benefits. Counting supplemental federal unemployment programs that were established to soften the economic damage from the virus, an estimated 18 million people are collecting some form of jobless aid.
Restrictions on businesses and the reluctance of many Americans to shop, travel, dine out or attend mass events have weighed persistently on the job market.
Virus Cases Up 9% in Europe in Significant Shift
COVID-19 cases rose 9% last week over a 53-country region of Europe, snapping a six-week run of declines, the World Health Organization said Thursday as its European chief insisted that countries need to get "back to the basics."
Dr. Hans Kluge says more than 1 million cases were tallied over the last week in the region. He said the resurgence was particularly noticeable in central and eastern Europe, but some Western European countries saw increases as well.
More than half of the region noted increasing numbers of new infections, he said.
Alluding to the “solidarity” shown by some European countries that have taken in patients from hard-hit neighbors, Kluge said “over a year into the pandemic, our health systems should not be in this situation.”
“We need to get back to the basics,” he told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Klug called for measures like increased vigilance to fend off variants, improved testing and isolation of cases, more efforts to counter public “pandemic fatigue” and an accelerated rollout of vaccines.
UK and 4 Nations to Fast-Track Modified COVID-19 Vaccines
Regulators in the U.K. and four other countries plan to fast-track the development of modified COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that drugmakers are able to move swiftly in targeting emerging variants of the disease.
Previously authorized vaccines that are modified to target new variants “will not need a brand new approval or ‘lengthy’ clinical studies,” Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said in a statement.
The new guidance was issued jointly by regulators in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland. The guidelines build on the model already used to modify the flu vaccine in response to continual changes in that virus.
Under the new rules, developers will be required to provide “robust evidence” that modified COVID-19 vaccines produce a strong immune response to the variant, as well as data showing they are safe and meet quality standards.
“Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety,” Dr. Christian Schneider, the MHRA’s chief scientific officer said in a statement. “Should any modifications to authorized COVID-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should do that.”
California to Give 40% of Vaccine Doses to Vulnerable Areas
California will begin setting aside 40% of all vaccine doses for the state’s most vulnerable neighborhoods in an effort to inoculate people most at risk from the coronavirus and get the state’s economy open more quickly, NBC San Diego reports.
Two officials in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration shared details Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
The doses will be spread out among 400 ZIP codes with about 8 million people eligible for shots. Many of the neighborhoods are concentrated in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley. The areas are considered most vulnerable based on metrics such as household income, education level, housing status and access to transportation.
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