Virus update: Biden administration pushes for more access to COVID-19 therapy

The Biden administration is working to make a leading COVID-19 therapy available to even more Americans.

Dr. Marcela Nunez-Smith, the White House COVID-19 equity task force chair, says the administration is spending $150 million to broaden access to monoclonal antibodies. When administered early in the course of infection, the treatments can dramatically reduce serious illness or hospitalization.

Nunez-Smith says the treatments are available in 5,000 locations across the country already, with more locations — particularly in hard-hit communities to follow in the coming weeks.

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The administration is also increasing its outreach to caregivers to encourage them to utilize the therapies to prevent deaths and hospitalizations.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— EU regulator ‘convinced’ AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits outweigh risk

— Brazil’s Bolsonaro names 4th health minister during pandemic

— Australia gives COVID-19 shots to virus-hit Papua New Guinea

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Alaska Department of Corrections is allowing attorney-client visits to resume within its facilities after a yearlong suspension related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department says visits can resume starting Wednesday, with limits. For example, the person who is imprisoned must be fully vaccinated and attorneys will be subject to screening, including temperature checks.

Face coverings and appointments will be required. Alaska Public Media reports that for the past year, those in the department’s custody have had to rely on phone calls from lawyers to discuss their cases.

One defense attorney who has pushed for greater access called the policy change a “big deal.”

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ATLANTA — A government report suggests the U.S. is falling short of the White House goal of increasing COVID-19 vaccine coverage in poor, struggling communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report, released Wednesday, indicates 31 states are failing to meet the goal. In contrast, Arizona and Montana are achieving equity in vaccine coverage, directing vaccines to counties with more economic and social disadvantages. Three other states – Alaska, Minnesota and West Virginia – are doing fairly well by that measure, the report said.

The CDC looked county-by-county at the proportion of people getting at least one dose of vaccine. Coverage was lower in counties with more economic and social disadvantages as measured by the CDC’s social vulnerability index. That’s a measure combining factors such as poverty, education, crowded housing and racial and ethnic minority population.

The CDC analyzed vaccine coverage through March 1 and included data representing 49.2 million people who had at least one dose. Hawaii did not systematically report county of residence, so the state was omitted from the analysis.

The national average of vaccine coverage 15.1%, the report said. In better-off counties, coverage was 15.8%. In worse-off counties, coverage was 13.9%.

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WASHINGTON — Federal health officials are actively looking at studies on physical distancing in schools and will update its 6-feet guidance when it has “concise and consistent evidence,” the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, said during a congressional hearing that studies looking at distancing of 3 feet in schools got underway after it became clear that the agency’s 6-feet distancing recommendation would be difficult.

“Whenever there are challenges, that’s when science emerges,” she said.

So far, Walensky noted there has only been one published study indicating students with masks can be seated as close as 3 feet apart, without increasing the risk of infection. But she noted other studies have been in progress.

During the hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci also said high school students could start being vaccinated by the beginning of fall, pending results from ongoing studies. He anticipates younger children could start being vaccinated starting by early 2022.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s health minister says that unless at least 200 private doctors volunteer to help the public health service’s battle against COVID-19 in the next 48 hours, he will recommend the prime minister orders the requisitioning of their services.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias made the announcement as Greece announced a new daily record of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, despite lockdown-related measures being in place since early November.

The country announced 3,465 new coronavirus cases and 56 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases to just under 230,000 cases in this country of 11 million. More than 7,200 people have died.

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JOHNSTON, Iowa — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday that all Iowa residents will be eligible for coronavirus vaccinations on April 5 as long as supply projections are met.

Reynolds said the federal government is promising a surge in supply in late March that will enable enough vaccinations to meet much larger demand. Until then, vaccinations are only available to adults in certain occupations, people older than 65 or those who have qualifying health conditions.

Reynolds said the state doesn’t plan to offer new ways to help people sign up for vaccinations, but she argued the main issue was adequate supply and not issues around scheduling.

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DETROIT — A woman whom city officials described as a nurse has been charged in the theft of COVID-19 vaccines from a downtown Detroit convention center where mass vaccinations are taking place.

Saeedeh Elahi, 41, of Livonia, a Detroit suburb, was expected to be arraigned Wednesday on one count of larceny in a building, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Two syringes filled with the Moderna vaccine and two vaccination cards were taken Monday afternoon, the prosecutor’s office said.

The statement did not say Elahi works as a nurse, but city officials earlier said a nurse staffing COVID-19 vaccinations at the TCF Center was detained by police on suspicion of stealing two doses of the vaccine. The woman was stopped after another staff member at the TCF Center saw her take two syringes, Detroit Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said.

The nurse is employed by a firm that contracts with the city. No one missed getting vaccinated, Berry added.

“We have really tight controls with the security of the vaccine, from our central storage facility all the way to TCF and our handling and accounting of our vaccines by the hour at the beginning and end of the day,” he told The Detroit News. “Even when you administer a vaccine within the facility, we have a chain of custody form you have to sign off for.”

Detroit police officers are among about 200 people staffing vaccinations at the center.

“This past year has been extremely stressful for everyone,” Prosecutor Kym Worthy said. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel because of the various vaccines. State and local governments have been doing their level best to get vaccines to as many people as possible. This case should send a loud and clear message that this conduct is criminal and will be taken seriously.”

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HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe has received 400,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, half of which were donated by China and the other half purchased, according to President Emmerson Mnangagwa who went to the Harare international airport when the consignment arrived.

The Zimbabwean plane that brought the vaccines also carried 100,000 doses Sinopharm doses destined for nearby Namibia, the president said Tuesday.

Zimbabwe now has 600,000 Sinopharm doses and plans to purchase an additional 1.8 million doses. It is expecting that soon it will get 75,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by India and 200,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine donated by Russia, according to the ministry of information.

Those deliveries will leave Zimbabwe far short of the doses needed to reach its goal of vaccinating 10 million people, representing about 60% of the population.

The country started vaccinating frontline staff such as health workers, journalists, immigration officials and gravediggers in February when it received the first donation of 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China. So far it has vaccinated 37,660 people, a figure described as too low by health professionals. They say skepticism and anti-vaccine messages, including by some influential religious leaders, is contributing to the low numbers of people getting vaccinated.

According to health ministry figures, Zimbabwe recorded 36,535 cases of infections, including 1,507 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s government is further tightening its coronavirus restrictive measures, barring the citizens from traveling abroad for tourist trips.

One of the key goals of the measure is to prevent new fast-spreading coronavirus variants from spreading in Slovakia. It will still be possible to travel to other countries to work.

At the same time, authorities will step up controls on the country’s borders.

Slovakia’s already tight lockdown prevents people from traveling to other counties. People also have to have a negative coronavirus test when they go to work.

Slovakia has been one of the hardest hit European Union countries but the number of new infections and of hospitalized people have been on a decline recently.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 1.88 deaths per 100,000 people on March 2 to 1.65 deaths per 100,000 people on Tuesday, still the second worst rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The nation of 5.4 million has 342,430 confirmed cases with 8,738 deaths.

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Disney will reopen its theme parks in California at the end of April after remaining closed for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Disneyland announced Wednesday that Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will reopen on April 30 with limited capacity. Under current state guidelines, only California residents can attend the parks.

“The day all of us have long been waiting for is almost here,” Ken Potrock, president of the Disneyland Resort, said in a statement. “We’re excited to have more than 10,000 cast members returning to work as we get ready to welcome our guests back to this happy place.”

All visitors ages 3 and up will require a reservation. Events that draw large group gatherings, such as parades, will not resume immediately.

The parks in Southern California closed on March 14, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is sending $10 billion to states to expand COVID-19 testing in schools, as part of its push to get more schools open five days a week before the end of the school year.

The funding is meant to help schools test symptomatic and exposed individuals, as well as establish screening testing for students, teachers and staff members to identify asymptomatic individuals in the community.

The Department of Health and Human Services is announcing the spending Wednesday, funded by the newly passed $1.9 trillion virus relief bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also unveiling new guidance Wednesday for how different settings like schools and non-healthcare workplaces should best use available screening testing to catch asymptomatic infections.

Biden has faced challenges meeting his promise of opening a majority of K-8 schools for in-person learning by the end of his first 100 days. This month he directed states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and announced he was directing federal resources toward vaccinating educators in March.

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BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister has backed the idea of testing people who return from abroad even if the regions they visited aren’t considered high risk for coronavirus infection.

German airlines and travel firms have been inundated with bookings for trips to Mallorca and other Spanish tourism hotspots after they were taken off the German ‘risk list’ last week.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday that it was up to individuals to decide for themselves whether it is right to go on holiday there given the current rise in infections back home in Germany.

Maas said Germany is working to expand its testing capacity and “the fact that returning tourists are tested is in everybody’s interest, including the interest of the tourists.”

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BERLIN — The German government defended its decision to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it was based on expert advice.

Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters in Berlin on Thursday that while she understood some might be worried by the move it should be seen as a sign that “trust in our control mechanisms is justified.”

“That’s why this step could also strengthen trust” in the vaccines, she said. “Concerns are taken seriously and examined. And as soon as these concerns are cleared up a vaccine can be used again without hesitation.”

A spokesman for the Health Ministry said Germany would rely on the EMA decision for how to proceed.

“It’s clear that the EMA decision is binding and of course we will follow the EMA decision too,” said Hanno Kautz.

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BOSTON — All residents of Massachusetts age 16 and older will be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine beginning April 19.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration says that before that date, residents age 60 and older, as well as workers considered essential, can get a vaccine starting March 22. Those 55 and older can get a shot beginning April 5.

The essential workers eligible for a vaccination starting March 22 include those who work at supermarkets and convenience stores, restaurant workers, transit employees and funeral home workers.

The administration said Wednesday in a statement that it’s received assurances from the federal government “that an increased vaccine supply will be available to states soon.”

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WARSAW, Poland — After the number of new COVID-19 cases exceeded 25,000 Wednesday, double of the number last month, Poland is reintroducing nationwide lockdown of shopping malls, theaters and galleries and sports centers, for three weeks starting Saturday. The time will cover Easter holidays, an important family time in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said Wednesday that also schoolchildren in the lowest classes need to return to remote learning after they were the only group of learners to be allowed to return to schools last month.

Niedzielski said that tougher measures could be introduced if the current tightening does not slow down the spread of the disease.

He said the British variant was responsible for over 52% of new infections. The 25,052 new cases are the highest number since a spike in November.

Restrictions were lifted nationwide in mid-February but were reinstated in four regions this month.

The nation of some 38 million has registered some1.96 million cases of infection, including over 48,000 deaths. Some 4.6 million vaccine doses have been administered, including some 1.6 million second doses.

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