February 17 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung and Sarah Faidell, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021
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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. 

12:10 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

National Guard members have helped administer more than 1.2 million vaccinations

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

A National Guardsman prepares to vaccinate a man in Boston on Tuesday.
A National Guardsman prepares to vaccinate a man in Boston on Tuesday. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

The National Guard has administered over 1.2 million vaccinations to civilians in their support of distribution efforts across the country, Major General Steven Nordhaus, Director of Operations of the National Guard Bureau, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Right now, Army and Air National Guard members are “administering on average over 72,000 vaccines a day to local citizens,” Nordhaus said. 

The National Guard has more than 350 civilian vaccination sites “across 42 states and territories,” while there are National Guard members helping vaccination efforts in 33 states and territories, Nordhaus said.

“We currently have over 28,400 soldiers and airmen dedicated to Covid-19 operations across all 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia performing a wide range of missions,” Nordhaus said.

11:53 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

White House outlines "bridge" funding to increase Covid-19 testing

From CNN's Betsy Klein

White House Covid-19 response team testing coordinator Carole Johnson announced new steps from the Biden administration to increase testing efforts and capacity across the country, focused on testing for schools and underserved communities, testing supplies, and genomic sequencing as a “bridge” before Congress is able to pass a stimulus package. 

“We need to test broadly and rapidly to turn the tide of this pandemic. But we still don’t have enough testing and we don’t have enough testing in all the places it needs to be. Today, we’re taking a critical step along that path,” she said at Wednesday’s virtual Covid briefing. 

She outlined a new $1.6 billion federal investment in three key areas: 

  • $650 million in funding for testing for schools and underserved populations: She said this will “serve only as a pilot” until Congress can pass a relief package. It will create regional coordinating centers that will partner with labs to support schools and underserved committees, including homeless shelters and other places that “don’t have the resources or the bandwidth to build partnerships with academic or commercial testing labs.” 
  • $815 million for domestic manufacturing of testing supplies: This money will address what Johnson described as a “shortage of critical supplies and raw materials,” including pipette tips, the specialized paper used in the antigen test, and the specialized molded plastics needed to house testing reagents. 
  • Nearly $200 million toward genome sequencing: The funding will “result in a three-fold increase to the CDC’s genomic sequencing capacity,” bringing the US to 25,000 samples per week, which, she said, will help to quickly identify variants sooner and “better target our efforts to stop the spread.”

Johnson said that these steps are “a significant help in the short term” but are still “far from what’s necessary to meet the needs of testing in communities across the country,” describing the funding as a “bridge until Congress passes the American Rescue Plan.” 

“We need to build the capacity to produce these materials, or we'll continue to face shortages that will sidetrack our work in expanding access to testing,” she added.

11:34 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Biden administration announces more federal funding to expand Covid-19 testing, including at schools

From CNN's Betsy Klein

The Biden administration is announcing more federal funding to expand Covid-19 testing in different sectors and "better prepare for the threat of variants."

President Biden said his administration will invest:

  • $650 million in federal funding for Covid-19 testing for schools and underserved populations
  • $815 million for domestic manufacturing of testing supplies
  • Nearly $200 million toward genome sequencing. 

Health and Human Services will establish "regional coordinating centers" to organize the distribution of testing supplies and "partner with laboratories across the country, including universities and commercial labs, to collect specimens, perform tests, and report results to the relevant public health agencies," according to a White House statement on the funding.

The statement noted that often testing can "be hard to implement in non-medical settings or it can be hard for schools or other congregate settings to find the right partner to make testing work."

11:47 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Massachusetts is expanding eligibility for vaccinations, governor says

From CNN's Kristina Sgueglia

A man is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts on February 16, 2021.
A man is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts on February 16, 2021. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Individuals over the age of 65 and those 16 and older with two or more of certain medical conditions, including asthma, can begin booking appointments Thursday for vaccinations in the state of Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker's office said in a release.

Almost 1 million individuals are now eligible for vaccines, Baker’s office said.

The governor's office said that due to the "extremely high" demand for a vaccine it could take "more than a month" for all eligible individuals to secure an appointment "unless federal supply significantly increases."

The governor's office said that the state is receiving approximately 110,000 first doses per week from the federal government.

1:26 p.m. ET, February 17, 2021

New CDC reports warn that variants could lead to "rapid rise" in Covid-19 cases

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht

Two new reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that new coronavirus variants could lead to a rapid rise in the numbers of Covid-19 cases.

In one report released Wednesday, researchers from the CDC and Minnesota health department detailed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom. Earlier modeling data suggested this variant, which may be more transmissible, could become the predominant variant in the United States in March, and the CDC has urged people to take action to reduce spread.

The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report described identified B.1.1.7 cases in specimens collected from eight Minnesota residents, ages 15 to 41, from mid-December through mid-January. Five reported Covid-19-like symptoms and three were asymptomatic.

Three of the people had a history of international travel in the two weeks before they became ill, including two who traveled in West Africa and one who traveled to the Dominican Republic, and three others had traveled to California, including one who received a positive test while in California and isolated before returning to Minnesota. None had a history of travel to the UK.

Identification of these variants in Minnesota “highlights the importance of mitigation measures such as mask use, physical distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces, isolation of persons with diagnosed COVID-19, quarantine of close contacts of persons with COVID-19, and adherence to CDC travel guidance,” the report says.

On Tuesday, the CDC reported at least 1,299 cases of coronavirus strains first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported in the United States. The vast majority of these cases — 1,277 — are the B.1.1.7 variant originally detected in the UK. This variant has been found in 41 states and Washington, DC. Roughly a third are in Florida. Nineteen of those 1,299 are the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

These numbers do not represent the total number of such cases circulating in the United States, but rather, only those found by analyzing positive samples.

In a separate report released by the CDC on Wednesday, researchers from Zambia described how the detection of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa coincided with a rapid rise of cases in Zambia – and this variant might have become the dominant strain there.

The B.1.351 variant might be circulating elsewhere in southern Africa, where many countries are reported rapid increases in Covid-19 case numbers in December and January, the report said.

“Spread of the B.1.351 variant is of public health concern because of the potential for increased transmissibility and, thus, increases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” researchers wrote.

11:07 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

At least 90 Covid-19 variant cases linked to Michigan prison, state official says 

From CNN's Melissa Alonso 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has identified 90 cases of the B.1.1.7 Covid-19 variant – the variant first identified in the UK – at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility (IBC) in Ionia, Michigan, according to a news release from the state's emergency management.   

The cases have been identified as "88 prisoners and two employees," the release said. 

Daily testing at IBC began this month after an employee there "was found to have the variant and the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) immediately began to test" all prisoners and staff, the release said.  

Of the first set of samples provided to MDHHS labs, 90 out of 95 "were found to have the variant," according to the release.  

"There are more than 100 lab results still pending," the release said. 

"Since the daily testing results have come in, the number of COVID-19 positive cases at the facility has been on the decline, which indicates the swift efforts undertaken to reduce the spread is working," according to the release.  

 “The MDOC will be taking extra steps to identify where this variant is present amongst staff and the prisoner population and we will continue to do everything we can to keep the prisoners, our staff and the community safe,” MDOC Director Heidi Washington said in a Feb. 10 statement about the initial variant case.  

IBC is a multi-level facility, which opened in 2001, and houses male prisoners, according to the MDOC website. 

Some more context: Michigan has 67 B.1.1.7 cases, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC cautions that its numbers may not immediately match those of state and local health departments. CNN has reached out to the state health department for more information but has not yet heard back. 

CNN's Ben Tinker contributed reporting to this post.

10:43 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Two DC airports to soon have onsite Covid-19 testing

From CNN's Greg Wallace and Pete Muntean

A terminal at Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD) on November 10, 2020
A terminal at Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD) on November 10, 2020 Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images

Two airports near the nation’s capital will soon become the latest to host coronavirus testing on-site.  

The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority said Tuesday it will launch testing sites at Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport in March.  

The sites will be located before the security checkpoint and will “offer both PCR and rapid testing,” the airport authority said. 

“It’s voluntary, pre-security so technically open to the public but primarily meant for passengers," it added. 

CNN is contacting XpresCheck, the company that will run the service, for further details.  

The airport authority said it would soon announce further details including pricing.