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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7:58 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

More than 1,900 cases of concerning variants reported in the US, CDC says

From CNN's Michael Nedelman

At least 1,932 cases of coronavirus strains first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported in the United States, according to data updated Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vast majority of these cases, 1,881, are the more contagious variant known as B.1.1.7, which was originally detected in the UK. This variant has been found in 43 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. More than a quarter are in Florida.

In addition, there are 46 total cases of a strain initially seen in South Africa, called B.1.351, in 13 states and Washington, DC.

Lastly, five total cases of the P.1 strain first linked to Brazil have been discovered among four states.

CDC says this does not represent the total number of such cases circulating in the US, but rather just those that have been found by analyzing positive samples. The agency cautions that its numbers may not immediately match those of state and local health departments.

7:27 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Colombia authorizes AstraZeneca vaccine

From CNN’s Stefano Pozzebon

Colombia has authorized the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use, the director of local medical authority INVIMA, Julio Cesar Aldana, announced Tuesday. 

Speaking on television as part of President Ivan Duque’s daily address to the nation, Aldana said that the country expects to receive the first AstraZeneca doses through the COVAX mechanism in coming weeks.

This is the third vaccine authorized by Colombia after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and China’s SinoVac.

Colombia started vaccinations on Feb. 17.

6:39 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

GOP senator pushes CDC to issue clear guidance for vaccinated Americans, particularly for seniors

From CNN's Ali Zaslav 

Erin Scott/Pool/The New York Times/AP
Erin Scott/Pool/The New York Times/AP

Republican Sen. James Lankford is urging the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to immediately issue guidance for vaccinated Americans, saying it’s “obviously, one of the top questions” for the more than 40 million people who have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and particularly crucial for vaccinated seniors who have “endured more isolation than any other population” during the pandemic.

“We’ve got 42 million Americans that have been vaccinated at this point that are all asking the same questions” about safely reengaging with family members, going to the store, among other activities, but they’re waiting for clarity from US health officials, Lankford said.

Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Republican wrote a letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, asking the agency to proactively release recommendations for fully vaccinated Americans. 

“The completion of a vaccine regimen has been the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for many Americans,” he wrote in a letter to Walensky. “Many seniors are crossing the finish line of their race toward vaccination. They believed, right or wrong, that this accomplishment would open doors to safely gather with family members and return to some public activities. Currently, there is no guidance, only silence.”

Lankford said he has not heard back from the CDC, but is currently trying to set up a call to discuss it with them.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has reiterated in recent days that there will be new firm recommendations coming out very soon. 

5:56 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

UK variant likely to drive new wave of US transmission in spring, experts say

From CNN's Maggie Fox

A new, more contagious variant of coronavirus first seen in the UK is likely to fuel a surge of cases in the US in spring, several experts predicted Tuesday. They say the best way to get out ahead of it is to vaccinate as many people as possible.

The variant called B.1.1.7 was suspected of causing renewed spread in Britain and it’s been seen across much of the US – more than 1,880 cases in 45 states, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those are only the cases detected by sequencing, which falls short in the US, said virus expert Trevor Bedford of the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“It’s going to increase in the spring. It could result in more of a wave in, say, April or May than we would have expected otherwise. But I still do suspect that things will be brought under control in the summer, and there will be very little virus circulating,” Bedford told a briefing sponsored by the cancer center.

Vaccination efforts and mitigation efforts such as mask use and continued social distancing will help bring spread under control, Bedford said, adding, it’s possible, a new surge could begin in the fall.

Dr. Josh Schiffer, an infectious diseases specialist at Fred Hutch who has been modeling patterns of spread, agreed. “I think with the newly infectious variants, I think it is going to be difficult to prevent a fourth wave altogether,” Schiffer said. 

Vaccination will be the best way to slow any renewed surges, the experts said. “We do want a lot of vaccines and strong robust immunity from those vaccines,” Bedford said.

Dr. Larry Corey, a University of Washington vaccine expert who has been leading clinical trials of coronavirus vaccines, said the vaccines available so far appear to protect people from the variants. “The great thing to remember is that the vaccines appear to induce better immunity than natural infection. This is a major achievement,” Corey said.

5:24 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Report calls for delaying second doses of vaccine, warns of surge fueled by coronavirus variant

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

A new report out Tuesday warns that a more transmissible variant of coronavirus threatens to start a renewed surge of infections in March, and suggests the US speed up vaccination by skipping second doses for now.

People over 65 should go to the front of the line, since they are by far the most vulnerable to severe disease and death, Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and colleagues at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota recommended.

They call on the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to quickly assemble advisers to help change vaccination guidelines to get more vulnerable people vaccinated more quickly, before the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first seen in the UK, causes more spread.

“If the US experiences a surge similar to that seen in the UK, one could expect to see unprecedented healthcare demand of 175,000 to 193,000 hospitalizations per day — far surpassing the US peak of 132,474 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 set in early January,” the report reads. Right now, just over 55,000 people are currently hospitalized for Covid-19 in the US, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

“To maintain healthcare capacity during a B.1.1.7 surge, we have a time-limited period to strategically target vaccination to those at highest risk of hospitalization and death before the surge arrives," it adds.

So far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 44.5 million people have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine and just under 20 million have gotten both doses.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are meant to be given as two doses, three or four weeks apart, but the report recommends delaying that second dose to get more people at least partial protection.

“There is a narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity to more effectively use vaccines and potentially prevent thousands of severe cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the next weeks and months,” it reads.

It also says the FDA should consider authorizing a half-dose of Moderna’s vaccine, based on evidence that even half a dose provides good protection, at least at first.

5:01 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

New studies raise concerns about coronavirus variant seen in California

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Two studies due to come out soon raise concerns about a new coronavirus variant that scientists have been keeping an eye on in California.  

They hint that the variant might not only be more contagious, but may cause more severe disease, as well. The research is in its very early stages, has not been published or peer reviewed, and needs more work, the researchers stressed.

A team at the University of California, San Francisco, tested virus samples from recent outbreaks across California and found it was becoming far more common. It wasn’t seen in any samples from September but by the end of January it was found in half the samples. 

This variant, which the team calls B.1.427/B.1.429, has a different pattern of mutations than the variants first seen in the UK, called B.1.1.7 and in South Africa, called B.1.351. One mutation, called L452R, affects the spike protein of the virus, which is the bit that attaches to cells the virus infects.

“One specific mutation, the L452R mutation, in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein may enable the virus to dock more efficiently to cells. Our data shows that this is likely the key mutation that makes this variant more infectious,” Dr. Charles Chiu, associate director of the clinical microbiology lab at UCSF, who led one of the studies, told CNN. 

And they found some evidence it is more dangerous.

“In this study, we observed increased severity of disease associated with B.1.427/B.1.429 infection, including increased risk of high oxygen requirement,” they wrote in their report, which is to post to a preprint server later this week after public health officials in San Francisco review it.

Chiu said it should be designated a variant of concern and should be made a priority for study.

A second team at Unidos en Salud, a San Francisco-based nonprofit offering fast testing in San Francisco’s Mission District, tested 8,846 people over the month of January and sequenced the virus from 630 of the samples. They also found a rapid increase in the variant.

“The research findings indicate that the L452R variant represents 53% of the positive test samples collected between January 10th and the 27th. That is a significant increase from November when our sequencing indicated that this variant comprised only 16% of the positive tests,” Dr. Diane Havlir, an infectious diseases expert at UCSF who is helping lead the study, said in a statement.

Havlir’s team is also preparing their findings for publication.

4:16 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Republicans begin new push against Biden's Covid-19 relief plan 

From CNN's Manu Raju and Clare Foran

Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23.
Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23. Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Republican leaders in both chambers are maneuvering to keep all of their members in line against the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, a move that would deny President Biden a bipartisan victory and one that could scuttle the bill in the Senate if any Democrat breaks ranks. 

But the move amounts to a political risk for Republicans with polls showing clear majorities of Americans supporting an emergency rescue package and with the economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.  

So Republicans now plan to begin an urgent public relations push to argue that the bill is bloated, poorly targeted and contains a hodge-podge of measures aimed at pleasing the Democratic base – a message that party leaders discussed with their members at a private GOP lunch on Tuesday and that they plan to echo in the days ahead, attendees say. 

"If the Democrats continue down the path they're on and that is to not make any attempt to try and get Republican input or ideas, it makes it hard for any of our members, even those that might be inclined to do so to vote for it, to vote for anything," Senate Minority Whip John Thune told CNN. "So, if it's in its current contours, it's hard to see very many, if any, Republicans being for it, especially given the way the Democrats have approached it." 

At the lunch on Tuesday, GOP senators talked at length about the Democrats’ bill, with attendees emerging criticizing it in sharp terms. They discussed their strategy for putting Democrats in a difficult political spot when amendment votes happen next week in the Senate, while also putting forward some middle-of-the-road amendments that could attract some Democratic support, according to attendees. 

And afterward, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the Democrats’ plan as “totally partisan,” while acknowledging that his party had work to do on its messaging in the face of public support for the Biden plan.  

“I’m sure everybody would love to get a check,” McConnell said, referring to the checks of up to $1,400 for certain individuals in the proposal. “But they haven’t yet learned about what else is in it and part of our job as the substantial minority, remember we’re in a 50-50 Senate here, is to make sure the American people fully understand what’s being proposed."

Democrats, however, argue that they have a mandate after winning the White House and the Senate and are taking urgently needed action to deliver aid to an American public suffering under the devastating toll of the ongoing pandemic. They have insisted they are willing to work with Republicans but will not water down the plan — a lesson they say they learned from then-President Barack Obama's first stimulus plan in 2009.  

CNN's Olanma Mang, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox contributed reporting to this post.

4:08 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

White House says 2 million doses of J&J vaccine should be ready next week, pending authorization

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

A  dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is prepared for a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado.
A dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is prepared for a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/FILE

President Biden's coronavirus advisers told governors today that they believe an estimated two million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be available next week pending emergency use authorization, according to a source familiar with the conversation. 

A White House official confirmed the conversation and said, "If an EUA is issued, we anticipate jurisdictions will get an allocation of around 2 million doses of J&J supply next week."

Richard Nettles, a Johnson & Johnson executive, told a House panel earlier Tuesday that they expect to ship nearly four million doses upon authorization. It's not clear why the numbers are different.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was designed to be a one dose shot, as opposed to the two doses required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

3:09 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Biden indicates masks will be sent directly to Americans

From CNN's Jason Hoffman

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Biden indicated the White House will move to send masks directly to the American people as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, something that was originally proposed by health officials during the Trump administration but blocked by the former President.

“We're probably going to be sending out an awful lot of mask around the country very shortly, millions of them,” Biden said during a roundtable event with Black frontline workers. He said that the issue of masks was turned into a political issue, which cost “an awful lot of lives.”

"We could have saved literally an awful lot of lives if people had listened. We turned wearing masks into a political statement. If you were for this thing, you wore it, if we were for somebody else, you didn't wear it, when in fact, it's just plain basic science,” Biden said.

Earlier this month, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that the Biden administration is hoping to resurrect a proposal from the Trump administration send masks directly to Americans.

"This was an idea that really came up last year in the Trump administration — the public health agencies recommended it, President Trump vetoed it for some reason," Klain told NBC's Lester Holt on Feb. 4. "We want to get this back on track. I hope in the next few days, or next week, we may be able to announce some progress on this.”

The US Postal Service had planned to distribute 650 million face coverings for the Trump administration last April, according to internal documents reviewed by CNN in September. A senior administration official told The Washington Post at the time that the plan was scrapped by the White House as some advisers were worried that it could create "concern or panic."

CNN has reached out to the White House to see if there are any additional details on this after the President’s remarks on Tuesday.