The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Sarah Faidell, Brad Lendon, Joshua Berlinger, Mary Ilyushina and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 8:38 a.m. ET, February 19, 2021
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6:29 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Belgium has recorded more than 184,000 breaches of pandemic rules 

From CNN's James Frater in London

Belgium, a country of around 11.5 million people, has reported 184,565 suspected violations of coronavirus rules since restrictions came into force, according to official figures.

Between March 2020 and February 14 2021, almost 97,000 people were fined on the spot and more than half of them actually paid, according to figures released by the College of Attorney Generals.

Covid-related fines in Belgium range from $300 to about $5,000:

  • Residents breaking quarantine or violating ban on small gatherings -- $300
  • Returning travelers not getting a Covid-19 test -- $300
  • Businesses caught breaking Covid-19 restrictions -- $900 
  • People attending a large gathering or party -- $900 (organizers pay around $5,000)

Earlier in February, police in the neighboring Netherlands said they been issuing between 7,000 and 12,000 fines a week since a nationwide 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew came into force in late January. 

Violating that curfew, which was designed to reduce social interaction and thus the spread of coronavirus, comes at a cost of around $114.

On Tuesday a Dutch court ruled that the government must “immediately” lift the curfew, upholding a claim from the foundation viruswaarheid.nl, which means “virus truth."

8:38 a.m. ET, February 19, 2021

Oxford University's major therapeutics trial goes international

From CNN’s Jo Shelley in London

A major UK trial of potential Covid-19 treatments has started to enrol patients in other countries in the hope of speeding up results, Oxford University said on Thursday.

The RECOVERY trial -- billed by the British government at its launch as the world’s largest randomized clinical trial -- looks at whether existing drugs can be used to treat the virus. It has enrolled more than 36,000 hospital patients in the UK since March 2020 and is now expanding to countries including Indonesia and Nepal.

Peter Horby, professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at Oxford, said he hoped that expanding the trial internationally would enable researchers to assess potential treatments more quickly.

It is particularly important to find readily and affordable treatments for COVID-19 that can be used worldwide," Horby added. "RECOVERY International will help us to identify effective treatments that can be used in less well-resourced settings.”

The trial has tested a number of drugs to determine which work against Covid-19 and which don’t. Last year, its researchers found that the cheap steroid dexamethasone reduced the risk of death for the sickest Covid-19 patients – but that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was of no benefit.

Last week, it released preliminary results showing that the rheumatoid arthritis drug tocilizumab could also save the lives of patients hospitalized with severe Covid-19. The results were shared in a preprint, but have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal.

In Indonesia and Nepal, the trial will initially focus on aspirin and colchicine, a drug for gout.

5:32 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Hong Kong to begin vaccinations with China's Sinovac shot next week

From Carol Yuan in Hong Kong

A box of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine is displayed at a media event in Beijing in September 2020.
A box of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine is displayed at a media event in Beijing in September 2020. Nicolas Bock/Bloomberg/Getty Images

One million doses of China's Sinovac Covid-19 shot will arrive in Hong Kong on Friday afternoon and vaccinations will begin there a week later, according to a city official.

The inoculation of priority groups with Sinovac doses is scheduled to begin on February 26, said Hong Kong's Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip.

The city is relaxing social distancing restrictions from today after reporting its lowest daily number of new Covid-19 cases since late November earlier in the week.

Hong Kong recorded eight new cases from Monday, of which six are locally transmitted. In total, the city of more than seven million people has recorded 10,812 Covid infections and 197 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. 

In January, Sinovac was revealed to have an efficacy rate of just 50.38% in late-stage trials in Brazil -- significantly lower than earlier results showed. That rate only barely crosses the 50% efficacy threshold set by the World Health Organization, and far lower than the 78% previously announced to much fanfare in China earlier this month.

The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines have been regarded as potentially affordable and easily distributed vaccine candidates. Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the Chinese shots do not require expensive cold storage.

Read more on the Sinovac vaccine:

4:44 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

US life expectancy dropped a full year in first half of 2020, according to CDC. Covid-19 was a big factor

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

Funeral workers load the casket of a Covid-19 victim into a hearse at East County Mortuary on January 15, in El Cajon, California.
Funeral workers load the casket of a Covid-19 victim into a hearse at East County Mortuary on January 15, in El Cajon, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Life expectancy in the US dropped a full year in the first half of 2020, according to a report published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. Experts say that Covid-19 was a significant factor contributing to the decline.

The life expectancy for the entire US population fell to 77.8 years, similar to what it was in 2006, CDC data shows.

Changes to life expectancy also widened racial and ethnic inequities. Compared to 2019, life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black people in the US fell about three times what it did for non-Hispanic White people, by 2.7 years. It fell by twice as much for Hispanic people, by 1.9 years.

Life-expectancy disparities between Black people and White people had been shrinking in recent years, but these latest figures reverse some of that progress.

Over the past 40 years, life expectancy has increased slowly but rarely declined. Between 2014 and 2017 -- a peak period of the opioid epidemic -- life expectancy declined a third of a year, which itself was significant.

Life-expectancy estimates before 1980 have been measured less consistently, but experts told CNN that estimates for drops in life expectancy after World War II range from less than a year to three years.

Read more:

3:41 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Biden administration confronts regulatory maze and hazy messaging in push to reopen schools

From CNN's Maeve Reston and Stephen Collinson

A closed public school is seen in New York, on November 19, 2020.
A closed public school is seen in New York, on November 19, 2020. Wang Ying/Xinhua/Getty Images

President Joe Biden's promise to try to open schools within his first 100 days has become one of most vexing puzzles facing the new administration, leading to confusion and anger among parents who still aren't getting clear answers.

There are few more urgent issues facing the country with the pandemic about to hit the one-year mark. Many kids have been out of in-person school for almost that long. Online school is especially tough for lower income children, particularly for households where parents cannot oversee daily school work because their careers require them to continue working outside the home during the pandemic. Some parents fear that the abrupt transition to online learning during the pandemic could have a lasting impact their kids' mental health and ability to keep up. And re-opening schools is crucial to easing child care issues that threaten to slow the return of workers needed to reboot the economy.

A month into the new administration, the White House still cannot provide the clarity much of America needs about when children can return to school, which kids can go back and when their teachers will be vaccinated. Biden declared Tuesday night at a CNN town hall that teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations. But decisions about teacher vaccinations and schools reopening are made at the local level -- with school districts often having to abide by state guidelines that determine based on the level of transmission in a community.

Read more about the Biden administration's plans here:

2:59 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

More than 68,000 Covid-19 cases were reported in the US on Wednesday

From CNN's Joe Sutton

At least 68,419 new Covid-19 cases were reported in the United States on Wednesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. At least 2,366 peopled died.

To date there have been at least 27,825,043 cases of coronavirus in the US. As of the end of the day Wednesday, at least 490,447 people have died amid the pandemic.

These totals include cases from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other US territories as well as repatriated cases.  

Vaccine rollout: At least 72,423,125 vaccine doses have been distributed, and at least 56,281,827 total doses of the vaccine have been administered, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2:01 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

FBI and US prosecutors scrutinizing New York's handling of data surrounding Covid nursing home deaths

From CNN's Shimon Prokupecz and Paul LeBlanc

The United States attorney's office in Brooklyn, along with the FBI, is scrutinizing the handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long term care facilities in New York, according to a law enforcement official.

The inquiry is described as preliminary, according to the source. It was not clear whether authorities were looking at Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo himself or members of his administration.

A senior adviser to the governor said that the administration had been cooperating with the Justice Department and would continue to do so.

Separately, 20 New York state lawmakers sent a letter to the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, demanding it vacate Cuomo's International Emmy Award in light of his administration's handling of the Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Read more:

1:29 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

"We really, really would advocate for not traveling right now," CDC director warns

From CNN's Andrea Diaz

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference at the Queen Theater December 8, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference at the Queen Theater December 8, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Americans should not travel due to the increased risk posed by new Covid-19 variants, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

Walensky said the organization would not recommend people get tested for the virus before taking domestic flights because of supply constraints. Other health protocols, like quarantines at destinations and post-arrival tests, need to be further evaluated before the CDC would recommend them, Walensky said during a conversation hosted by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"You shouldn't be traveling anyway," said Walensky.

 

12:35 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

New standards will take the guesswork out of choosing the most effective face masks

From CNN's Keri Enriquez

Americans may soon be able to choose between two clearly labeled levels of face mask protection while browsing store shelves.

The new national mask standard outlines minimum fit, design, performance and testing requirements for face masks and would require user instructions, package labeling and a permanent tag on the product.

ASTM International -- an international standards organization -- spent seven months conducting expedited testing and review and published its guidance on Tuesday. Experts and industry leaders say the new "Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings" has the potential to transform the quality of masks available for personal protection in the American marketplace.

Until this point, there were no standards even though masks are highly recommended by US health officials to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Read more: