February 17 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung and Sarah Faidell, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021
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5:08 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Lab studies suggest Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can protect against coronavirus variants

From CNN's Amanda Sealy and John Bonifield

A new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday suggests that Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine can protect people against concerning new coronavirus variants, including one first seen in South Africa called B.1.351.

For the study, researchers at Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch genetically engineered versions of the virus to carry some of the mutations found in B.1.351. They tested them against blood samples taken from 15 people who had received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as part of a clinical trial. 

While the blood serum samples produced less neutralizing antibody activity, it was still enough to neutralize the virus, they wrote in a letter to the journal. This is in line with other studies. And it’s well within what is seen with other viruses, one of the researchers said. 

“Although we do not yet know exactly what level of neutralization is required for protection against COVID-19 disease or infection, our experience with other vaccines tells us that it is likely that the Pfizer vaccine offers relatively good protection against this new variant,” Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch and an author of the study, told CNN. 

“The reduction in the levels of neutralization against the South African variant of about 2/3 is fairly small compared to variations in neutralization levels generated by vaccines against other viruses that have even more variability in their protein sequences than SARS-CoV-2,” Weaver added. 

Pfizer said there is no evidence in real life that the variant escapes the protection offered by its vaccine. “Nevertheless, Pfizer and BioNTech are taking the necessary steps, making the right investments, and engaging in the appropriate conversations with regulators to be in a position to develop and seek authorization for an updated mRNA vaccine or booster once a strain that significantly reduces the protection from the vaccine is identified,” Pfizer said in a statement.

Separately, a team at the National Institutes of Health and Moderna published a letter in the same journal outlining findings from an experiment they reported last month. They also reported a reduction in the antibody response to viruses genetically engineered to look like the B.1.351 variant – but not enough of a reduction to make the vaccine fail.

“Despite this reduction, neutralizing titer levels with (the variant discovered in South Africa) remain above levels that are expected to be protective,” the company said in a statement.  

They found no reduction in efficacy against a variant first seen in Britain and known as B.1.1.7.


4:51 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Minnesota governor expects all schools to offer "some form" of in-person learning by March 8

From CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference on Wednesday.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference on Wednesday. Pool/WCCO

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he is hoping to get students back into classrooms "in a safe manner" by March 8.

“My goal is to try the best we can to get five days a week in all of our schools for all of our students in a safe manner by March 8,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.

“We have made extraordinary progress against Covid-19, we are at case positivity rates that mirror last summer,” Walz said, adding that they aren’t out of the woods yet, “but our relentless progress with vaccines and Minnesotans’ vigilance has put us closer than ever to the end of this pandemic.”

Walz referred to the state’s updated Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-2021 school year, which provides new guidelines for all middle and high schools to come back to the classroom beginning Feb. 22 for hybrid or in-person learning. 

Starting next week, educators will have access to more than 18,000 vaccine doses at state vaccine sites and through other providers, an attempt at vaccinating all educators across Minnesota, he said. The governor added that nearly 25% of teachers and 40% of seniors have been vaccinated.

According to a statement released by the governor last week, 85% K-8 students are receiving some form of in-person learning, and 15% are in distance learning. Additionally, Minnesota began delivering Covid-19 testing supplies from state warehouses to each school district every two weeks at no cost to staff or schools, Walz said.

What the numbers show: In a Covid-19 update, the governor said the percentage of Covid-19 tests coming back positive is now below five percent—for the first time ever.

“Hospital bed usage is now back down to almost pre-Covid level,” Walz added.

On Wednesday, Minnesota reported 783 new coronavirus cases, bringing the state's total to 475,379. The state also reported 10 new deaths, bringing the total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic to 6,390, according to Minnesota’s Department of Public Health.

Note: These numbers were released by the state’s public health agency and may not line up exactly in real time with CNN’s database drawn from Johns Hopkins University, The Covid Tracking Project and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


4:08 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Pfizer vaccine is about 95% effective against Covid-19, Israeli data shows

From CNN's Amir Tal and Elizabeth Cohen

A health worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
A health worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Data from more than 600,000 vaccinated Israelis shows the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective, with only 21 vaccinated people ending up in the hospital with Covid-19, according to a press release from Maccabi Healthcare Services, Israel’s second largest healthcare provider.

The findings, while preliminary, suggest the vaccine remains remarkably effective in the real world and not just in the clinical trials conducted last year by Pfizer and BioNTech. 

Maccabi looked at data from about 602,000 of its members who were at least one week past their second dose of the vaccine. Among them, 7 were hospitalized with severe symptoms, 3 with moderate symptoms, and 11 with mild symptoms.

All of the hospitalized members were over age 50, and half of them had a chronic health condition, such as morbid obesity, according to Ido Hadari, a Maccabi spokesman.

Among the 602,000 vaccinated members, tests showed that 608 became infected with Covid-19. Maccabi did not routinely test members, but of the 608, 35% chose to get tested because they had symptoms of Covid-19 and 65% chose to get tested because they had been exposed to someone with the virus.

Maccabi compared that infection rate with a group of 528,000 members who had not yet received the vaccine. In this control group, 20,621 people, or nearly 4%, were identified as having Covid-19.

Maccabi’s findings are similar to data released earlier this week by Israel’s largest healthcare provider, which found the vaccine was 94% effective. Pfizer’s clinical trial showed about the same efficacy.

3:50 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

More than 56 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in the US, according to CDC data

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

Dr. Galen Harnden administers a Covid-19 vaccine to Edith Arangoitia in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on Tuesday.
Dr. Galen Harnden administers a Covid-19 vaccine to Edith Arangoitia in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on Tuesday. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

More than 56 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, according to data published Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The CDC reported that 56,281,827 total doses have been administered — about 72% of the 72,423,125 doses distributed.

That’s more than 1 million more administered doses reported since Tuesday, for a seven-day average of about 1.6 million doses per day.

More than 40 million people have now received at least one dose of the vaccine and more than 15 million people have been fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.

Data published by the CDC may be delayed, and doses may not have been given on the day reported.

3:27 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Kroger Health announces new online Covid-19 vaccine scheduling tool

From CNN’s Rebekah Riess and Jessica Jordan

Today, Kroger Health announced its new Covid-19 vaccine scheduling tool to book vaccine appointments online, according to a release from Kroger. 

The company says their new tool can manage more than 250,000 appointment requests on a daily basis and will reflect the amount of vaccine doses confirmed within Kroger’s system. Importantly, customers will be able to book both their first and second dose appointments at the same time. for both their first and second dose at the same time. 

The website will also let customers check their vaccine eligibility, the release said.  

As of Feb. 16, Kroger Health has administered more than 380,000 Covid-19 vaccines in 25 states, the release said. Currently, Kroger Health is receiving and administering vaccines at 1,300 of its 2,200 pharmacies. 

“As more vaccines become available nationwide, our pharmacies and clinics will be ready and able to administer thousands of doses to our communities every day,” the President of Kroger Health, Colleen Lindholz, said. “Our new online scheduling tool and improved call center experience will allow us to easily scale to meet demand once more vaccine doses are available to Kroger Health.”
2:29 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

White House says Biden included minimum wage increase in relief bill because he "feels it's important"

From CNN's DJ Judd

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a daily news briefing on Wednesday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a daily news briefing on Wednesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that President Biden included a minimum wage increase in the Covid-19 relief bill "because he feels it's important, it's a priority," but wouldn't say if the administration thinks it will survive Senate rules.

“We’re in the middle of the legislative process for the American Rescue Plan, and we fully recognize, as does the President, having served in the Senate for 36 years that his bill, that he proposed, that included a $15 minimum wage increase, included many other key components may not look exactly the same on the other end when it comes out of the sausage making machine, but he put it in there, a raise of the minimum wage, because he feels it's important," she said.

Some more context: Earlier this month, Biden conceded that he does not believe he will be able to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour through his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief proposal due to the Senate's rules. "I put it in, but I don't think it's going to survive," Biden told "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell" in excerpts of an interview that aired before the Super Bowl. 

Asked if she was optimistic about the minimum wage raise surviving Senate rules, Psaki told reporters Wednesday, “We'll see. It's up to members of Congress to determine what the final package looks like, it's a priority to the President,” adding Biden “supports a gradual increase, that it wouldn't be an immediate and as does Sen. Sanders and as do many advocates for increasing the minimum wage.”

1:05 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

New York state to open up four additional mass vaccination sites, governor says

From CNN's Brian Vitagliano

Registered nurse Rita Alba taps the air out of a syringe before vaccinating a patient at a pop-up site in New York on January 31.
Registered nurse Rita Alba taps the air out of a syringe before vaccinating a patient at a pop-up site in New York on January 31. Mary Altaffer/AP

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced four new mass vaccination sites in the state to increase the supply of doses in “socially vulnerable communities.”

The sites in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Yonkers will be in partnership with the federal government with the goal of vaccinating 1,000 New Yorkers a day. The sites will come online March 3, according to the governor. 

Cuomo said the state has developed 91 pop-up vaccination sites to help with what he called “vaccine hesitancy” in the Black community.

Forty-three thousand first doses have been administered to date at those sites, with 13 more pop-up vaccinations sites coming online this week.

New York state has administered 3.3 million total doses, 2.2 first doses and 1 million second doses, according to Cuomo.

He said 73% of current nursing home residents and 49% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated. The state has concluded vaccinations to all nursing home residents and nursing home staff who have agreed to take the vaccine.

“They have all been offered first and second doses and the only people left in that category are residents or staff that refused,” Cuomo said. 

There will be vaccines available for all residents and staff who may change their mind later, including any new residents or staff entering long-term care facilities, Cuomo said.

12:44 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

CDC's ensemble forecast now projects up to 559,000 US Covid-19 deaths by March 13

From CNN's Ben Tinker

An ensemble forecast published Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projects there will be 530,000 to 559,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States by March 13. 

Unlike some individual models, the CDC’s ensemble��forecast only offers projections a few weeks into the future. The previous ensemble forecast, published Feb. 10, projected up to 540,000 coronavirus deaths by March 6. 

At least 488,352 people have already died from Covid-19 in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

12:37 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

White House says teacher vaccinations are "not a requirement to reopen"

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Jeff Zients, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, conducts a virtual press briefing on Wednesday.
Jeff Zients, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, conducts a virtual press briefing on Wednesday. White House

The White House has gotten back in step with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after some confusion regarding vaccinating teachers, saying Wednesday that it is not mandatory though teachers should be prioritized like frontline workers. 

“Teachers should be vaccinated… like other frontline workers,” White House Covid response coordinator Jeff Zients said at Wednesday’s virtual Covid press briefing, but added. “But the President, vice president agree with the CDC guidelines that it's not a requirement to reopen.”  

President Biden said Tuesday in a CNN town hall that he wanted teachers to be vaccinated, comments Vice President Kamala Harris echoed when pressed repeatedly on the matter Wednesday during an interview with NBC News. 

The CDC’s guidelines released last week suggest it is not mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated in order to return to in-person learning, a key priority for the Biden administration in its first 100 days. But the decision is ultimately up to the states.

Right now, 28 states plus the District of Columbia are currently allowing some or all of their teachers and school staff to receive Covid-19 vaccines. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday that getting every teacher vaccinated before schools can open “really is rather impractical to make that a sine qua non of opening the schools,” using to the Latin phrase for an “essential condition,” though he added, “We feel strongly that we should try as best as we possibly can to vaccinate teachers and they should be as a high priority within the area of essential personnel.”

“Even though we don't feel that every teacher needs to be vaccinated before you can open a school, that doesn't take away from the fact that we strongly support the vaccination of teachers," he continued.

Fauci suggested that the data of Covid cases in school settings, largely, are “reflective of what is going on in the community,” rather than super-spreading events within schools.