The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Ben Westcott, Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner, Veronica Rocha and Fernando Alfonso, CNN

Updated 10:19 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021
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9:39 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Supreme Court once again sides with houses of worship in dispute over Covid-19 restrictions

From CNN's Ariane de Vogue

The Supreme Court on Friday once again sided with houses of worship challenging regulations aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 in California. 

The court blocked so-called “gathering restrictions” in Santa Clara county that critics said treated churches differently than secular businesses in violation of the First Amendment. 

The issue has bitterly divided the court and the three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor noted their dissent in an order issued after hours on Friday. 

The court acted despite the fact that the restrictions are scheduled to be lifted next week. 

The dispute was brought by several churches in California’s Santa Clara County which objected to a ban on all indoor gatherings including political events, weddings, funerals, movie showings and worship services. 

Although on Feb. 5, the Supreme Court struck down state regulations that banned indoor worship services, the state allows counties to pass their own more strict rules. 

In court papers, lawyers for the Santa Clara churches said the county “did just that.” 

“The Santa Clara Director of Public Health forced worshipers outdoors in the heat and smoke of the summer and the cold and rain of autumn and winter,” Kevin T. Snider, a lawyer for the churches, argued in court papers. 

7:37 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Here is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution plan that local health officials expect to see

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

State and local officials got draft plans for how the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will distribute Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine Friday, once it gets emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration.

They can start ordering vaccines as soon as Sunday, said an official who has seen the plans.

FDA advisers recommended EUA on Friday and the FDA has said it will move ahead quickly with the decision.

On Sunday, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will meet to discuss and vote on recommendations for the vaccine. But the CDC is ready to go and has put its plans into Tiberius, the federal government’s software platform used for distributing Covid-19 vaccines.

"In anticipation of everything going as planned on Sunday with the ACIP group, allocations have already been put into Tiberius for shipments next week," said Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

She said 3.9 million doses will be available for ordering right away. “About 2.8 million will go to state and local jurisdictions; 800,000 to the retail pharmacy program," Freeman told CNN. She added that 70,000 will go to community vaccine centers and 90,000 to the federally qualified health centers. Ordering can begin on Sunday. 

"For the initial week of distribution, orders will arrive one to two days after (they are) placed, and orders will be delivered by UPS or FedEx," Freeman said. "The manufacturer information should be live after the EUA release, assuming that gets done tomorrow."  

Freeman said the 3.9 million doses from Johnson & Johnson could add at least 25% more Covid-19 vaccination capacity for states — since currently 14.5 million doses are allocated per week to states, tribes, and territories and 3.9 million represents about 26.9% of that.

7:41 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Brazilian ICU bed occupation at worst level since the start of the pandemic

From CNN’s Taylor Barnes

A leading Brazilian public health institute warned on Friday that intensive care unit bed occupation in the country is at its worst level since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

A bulletin published Friday by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a highly regarded Brazilian research institute for public health, said that data gathered on Feb. 22 showed that ICU bed occupation for adult Covid-19 wards in public hospitals was above 80% in 12 of Brazil’s 26 states and in its federal district.

Seventeen state capitals also had high ICU bed usage, such as the Amazonian cities of Porto Velho (100%) and Manaus (94.6%), Fortaleza (94.4%) in the northeast, Goiânia (94.4%) in the central-western region, and the southern city of Florianópolis (96.2%), according to the report.

Brazil has routinely reported more than a thousand daily Covid-19 deaths since late December, including more than 1,500 on Feb. 25.

“The continued high levels of illness, as well as the burden on hospitals, may still be due to exposures that occurred at the end of 2020 and January of 2021, with end-of-year parties, clandestine festivals, and an intensification of travel,” the bulletin said.

7:29 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Millions are on the brink of losing unemployment benefits if Congress doesn't pass another relief bill

From CNN's Tami Luhby and Katie Lobosco

An estimated 11.4 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits between mid-March and mid-April unless Congress passes its next coronavirus relief package in coming weeks, a recent study by The Century Foundation found.

The House bill would extend two key pandemic unemployment programs through Aug. 29. It would also increase the federal weekly boost to $400, from the current $300, and continue it for the same time period.

It would lengthen the duration of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to up to 74 weeks, from 50 weeks, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to 48 weeks, from 24 weeks.

The former provides benefits to freelancers, gig workers, independent contracts and certain people affected by the pandemic, while the latter increases the duration of payments for those in the traditional state unemployment system.

The President's plan had called for continuing the benefits through the end of September.

Out-of-work Americans will start running out of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits in mid-March, when provisions in December's $900 billion relief package begin phasing out.

The $300 enhancement also ends in mid-March.

6:45 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

If Johnson & Johnson vaccine becomes available to you, get it, health expert says

From CNN’s Christopher Rios

People should get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if it is made available to them, several public health experts told Congress Friday.

Vaccine advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration recommended emergency use authorization Friday and top FDA officials said they would move to finalize EUA quickly.

People should not hesitate to get it, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told a House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee hearing.

“If had a J&J vaccine available today and a Moderna vaccine available tomorrow, I would be happy to take the J&J today. I don’t feel like I would need to wait. They are all terrific vaccines for the things that we care about,” Jha said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be the first one-shot Covid-19 vaccine in the US and would be the first coronavirus vaccine approved by the FDA that uses a viral vector, a more common method of vaccine design – something that could help combat vaccine hesitancy, Ann Lewandowski, executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, said. 

“There are some acceptability positives with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Lewandowski said. “The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were subject to misinformation campaigns for months before they were released. And the mRNA technology is not well understood. And we were lucky that Johnson and Johnson has not had that same campaign, which means that some people who are distrustful of the Moderna and Pfizer platforms may be more willing to accept the Johnson & Johnson even if it seems like there is lower efficacy with that headline number.”

Jha said he hopes having an extra vaccine will help more people be immunized.

“The reason I am so optimistic that we’re going to get to very high levels of vaccination as we get in to May and June is because Johnson & Johnson is going to be on board and we’re going to have plenty of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines,” he said. “So certainly by mid-summer, everyone in America, and probably earlier than that, who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.”
6:35 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Biden urges bipartisan cooperation to expand vaccine efforts

From CNN's DJ Judd


President Biden offered bipartisan praise for the work being done to combat Covid-19 and help Texans recover from last week’s winter storm.

“Let me say this. We're not here today as Democrats or Republicans, we're here today as Americans, American leaders with responsibility, all of us here in this parking lot, responsibilities to all the people we serve," he told those gathered at a mass vaccination site in Houston.

Biden pointed to expanding vaccination efforts as another area ripe for bipartisan cooperation, pointing to Republicans Greg Abbott and John Cornyn, whom he met with over the course of the day. “There's nothing partisan about this virus. It's too long we've allowed the virus to divide us. I met today with Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cornyn conservative Republicans, I'm a Democratic president,” Biden said. “We disagree on plenty of things —there's nothing wrong with that. But there are plenty of things we can work on together, and one of them is represented right here today, the effort to speed up vaccinations.”

On the news that the US Food and Drug Administration's advisory committee voted today to recommend the agency grant emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, Biden said, “We're going to use every conceivable way to expand manufacturing of the vaccine, the third vaccine, to make even more rapid progress and getting shots in people's arms.”

Still, Biden warned that despite promising data, “cases and hospitalizations could go back up with new as new variants emerge, and it is not the time to relax.”

“We have to keep washing our hands, stay socially distanced, and for God's sake, where your mass, wear your mask. It’s not a political statement, it’s a patriotic thing to do,” Biden said, adding “the worst thing we could do now would we let our guard down.”
5:36 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

FDA advisers say it was an easy choice to recommend Johnson & Johnson vaccine

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

Vaccine advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration said Friday it was easy to vote in favor of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine.

The 22 members of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted unanimously Friday to recommend emergency use authorization of the vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine arm Janssen.

“I think it’s a relatively easy call. It clearly gets way over the bar and it’s nice to have a single-dose vaccine,” Dr. Eric Rubin, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said after the vote.

Several members stressed the urgency of fighting a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans.

“We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic. There is a shortage of vaccines that are currently authorized and I think authorization of this vaccine will help meet the need at this moment,” said Dr. Archana Chatterjee, vice president for medical affairs at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago.

“We’re dealing with a pandemic right now,” added Dr. Jay Portnoy, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri Kansas City school of medicine. “So there’s an urgency to get this done. We’re in a race between the virus mutating, new variants coming out that can cause further disease and stopping it,” he said.

“We need to get this vaccine out. I do believe the evidence supports its safety and effectiveness.” 


5:13 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

FDA vaccine advisers recommend authorization of Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/FILE
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/FILE

Vaccine advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voted Friday to recommend the agency grant emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine. 

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) voted unanimously to recommend EUA of the vaccine in people 18 and older. 

If the FDA acts on the recommendation – and it’s expected to do so quickly – the vaccine will become the third authorized for use in the US. It will be the first one-shot vaccine, and one that can be stored in regular refrigerators, making it easier to distribute than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which are more delicate and require two doses.

The vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine arm, Janssen, was tested in advanced clinical trials in more than 44,000 people in the US, South Africa and Latin America. Globally, it showed an overall efficacy of 66% in preventing moderate to severe disease. In the US, this efficacy was 72% and it was 85% effective in preventing severe disease. No one who got the vaccine died of Covid-19 during the trial.

What happens next: If the FDA issues an EUA, it could come as soon as Friday night. It’s up to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to decide whether the vaccine should actually be given to Americans. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has scheduled a meeting for Sunday to take up the question. ACIP will vote on Sunday afternoon on whether the CDC should OK the vaccine’s distribution and may also designate priority groups.

The CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, will then give the final go-ahead.

The US federal government says it’s ready to distribute up to 4 million doses of the vaccine immediately.

4:44 p.m. ET, February 26, 2021

Open a window to reduce virus spread, CDC tells schools in new ventilation recommendations

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new recommendations Friday on the importance of good ventilation in preventing coronavirus spread in schools and daycares. Its top recommendation: Open a window.

It’s the first time the agency has separately emphasized the role ventilation plays in helping or preventing the spread of the virus, which is transmitted in tiny particles called aerosols, as well as via larger articles.

“If safe to do so, open windows and doors,” the CDC advises. “Even just cracking open a window or door helps increase outdoor airflow, which helps reduce the potential concentration of virus particles in the air. If it gets too cold or hot, adjust the thermostat. Do not open windows or doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk (such as falling, exposure to extreme temperatures, or triggering asthma symptoms),” it adds.

“Open windows in transportation vehicles. Use exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens.”

Mask use can prevent the virus from getting into the air in the first place, the CDC said on the newly posted web page. But good ventilation is also important. 

“Use child-safe fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows. Safely secure fans in a window to blow potentially contaminated air out and pull new air in through other open windows and doors,” it adds. “Consider having activities, classes, or lunches outdoors when circumstances allow.”

The new guidance also addresses heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. “Set HVAC systems to bring in as much outdoor air as your system will safely allow,” it suggests. “Increase the HVAC system’s total airflow supply to occupied spaces when you can. More air flow encourages air mixing and ensures any recirculated air passes through the filter more frequently.”

Filtration is also important, but filters should not reduce airflow.