February 23 coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Eoin McSweeney and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 0714 GMT (1514 HKT) February 24, 2021
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9:12 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

New cases of Covid-19 variants falling "quite sharply," says UK health secretary

From CNN's Amy Cassidy in Glasgow

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is seen during a visit to The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, on February 17.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is seen during a visit to The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, on February 17. Molly Darlington/WPA Pool/Getty Images

"New variant" cases of Covid-19 are falling across the UK, according to the country’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, who credits extra border measures for the drop.

British people arriving home from "high risk" countries have to undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense in a bid to tighten border controls to try to curb one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks.

The UK has the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, with more than 120,000 fatalities, and remains under strict pandemic restrictions, partly due to a new, more transmissible variant of coronavirus first discovered in southeast England. Other variants, including those first detected in South Africa and Brazil, are also spreading globally.

“In the last week or so, there were just over a dozen new cases, which is far smaller than we were seeing even a couple of weeks ago," Hancock said on Sky News Tuesday morning.

"So the extra measures we’re taking at the border are working, and also the lower cases rate makes it much less likely that there will be new variants here because new variants tend to rise when you’ve got an area that’s got a very high case rate and the virus is trying to escape from the immunity are getting naturally," he added.

Asked how the government’s plan to ease lockdown in England, published Monday, would affect the spread of the South African and Brazilian variants, Hancock responded: "Well, the good news is that the number of new variant cases we’re finding across the whole UK has fallen quite sharply over the last month."

"Continued work" is needed to understand the effectiveness of vaccines against the South African and Brazilian variants, he said, and that will impact a government review into international travel restrictions, announced yesterday. 

After the interview, Hancock tweeted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's roadmap out England's lockdown is "only possible because of the vaccine roll-out." 

"It's vital everybody plays their part so we can get out of this as soon as we possibly can," he added.

5:20 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Japan appoints Minister for Loneliness to combat rising suicide rate

From CNN's Junko Ogura in Tokyo

Japan appointed its first Minister for Loneliness this month after the country’s suicide rate increased for the first time in 11 years during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tetsushi Sakamoto took over the newly created position on February 12.

In his inaugural press conference, Sakamoto said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed him to address national matters "including the issue of the increasing women's suicide rate under the pandemic."

"Suga instructed me to examine the issue and put forward a comprehensive strategy, by coordinating with the related ministry," Sakamoto added. “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”

The Japanese government also created an "isolation/loneliness countermeasures office" within the cabinet on February 19 for issues such as suicide and child poverty -- which have risen during the pandemic.

Japan has so far recorded more than 426,000 Covid-19 cases and 7,577 deaths, according to data from John Hopkins University.

It has so far administered more than 5,000 vaccine doses.

1:42 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Oman to suspend incoming flights from 10 countries amid spread of Covid-19 variants

From CNN's Raja Razek

Oman's supreme committee for dealing with Covid-19 has decided to suspend incoming flights from 10 countries for 15 days over concerns about the spread of variants, according to state-run Oman News Agency. 

"The Supreme Committee studied the impact of the global epidemiological situation on health systems in different countries of the world, particularly amid the spread of mutated variants of the virus linked to travel," the report said.

The 10 countries are:

  • Sudan
  • Lebanon
  • South Africa
  • Brazil
  • Nigeria
  • Tanzania
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Sierra Leone
  • Ethiopia

The report said in addition, "arrivals from any other country if the travelers happened to have visited the above-mentioned ten countries within 14 days before applying to enter the Sultanate" will also be banned.  

According to the state-run news agency, the 15-day ban, with an exemption granted to Omani citizens, diplomats, and health workers and their families, takes effect from 12 a.m. local time next Thursday. 

3:14 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Multiple US governors order flags lowered in memory of 500,000 lives lost to Covid-19

From CNN’s Jen Selva

The U.S. flag is flied at half-staff on the roof of the White House to honor lives that have been lost to Covid-19 February 22 in Washington, DC.
The U.S. flag is flied at half-staff on the roof of the White House to honor lives that have been lost to Covid-19 February 22 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Multiple governors across the United States have ordered flags being flown at half-staff to honor the 500,000 victims who have died from Covid-19.

It follows US President Joe Biden's speech at a candlelighting ceremony to mark the milestone.

The governors of Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington are honoring the lives lost. 

3:19 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Covid-19 is likely to be a problem "for the next few winters," says England's chief medical officer

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in Central London on February 22.
Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in Central London on February 22. Leon Neal/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Covid-19 is likely to be a problem for the next few winters -- despite vaccination programs -- the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said during a news conference Monday. 

“This is something that we have to see for the long term and, in my view, is likely to be a problem in particular during the winter for the next few winters,” Whitty said. 

The chief medical officer for England said that other respiratory diseases, for which there are vaccines, still cause a significant number of deaths every year -- and so will Covid-19

“I am afraid, for the foreseeable future, the coronavirus is going to be added to that list of things that those who are vulnerable, even despite vaccination, can be at risk of,” he said.
“We vaccinate against flu, we vaccinate against pneumococcal pneumonia and still there are cases and there are deaths. 
3:21 a.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Major challenges ahead after US hits 500,000 coronavirus deaths

From CNN's Holly Yan and Christina Maxouris

Half a million US lives have been lost to Covid-19. That's more than the number of Americans killed in World War II.

The pandemic is far from over. But Americans can steer its course -- and help prevent many more families from suffering inconsolable grief.

Good news (for now) on cases and hospitalizations:

Nationwide, the rates of new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are declining.

The number of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 has fallen for the 40th day in a row, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And daily deaths have declined 24% this past week compared to the previous week, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Major challenges:

As numbers of new cases and hospitalizations go down, however, reports of highly contagious variants go up.

"I am worried about this variant -- the B.1.1.7 variant (first found in the UK)," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
"If that takes over, the numbers are going to start to spiral up again. There's no end to what the death toll will look like unless we can vaccinate ahead of it."

Where the US stands on vaccinations:

More than 44.1 million Americans have received at least one dose of their two-dose vaccines, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 19.4 million have been fully vaccinated. That's about 5.9% of the US population -- far less than the estimated 70% to 85% of Americans who would need to be immune to reach herd immunity.

Some states are still grappling with vaccine delays after severe weather walloped much of the country last week. But the US will likely be caught up by the middle of this week, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Read more about the situation in the US: