March 3 coronavirus news

By Zamira Rahim, Kareem Khadder, Hannah Strange and Jessie Yeung, CNN

Updated 0717 GMT (1517 HKT) March 4, 2021
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1:33 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

More than 2,500 reported cases of concerning variants in the US, CDC says

From CNN’s Nadia Kounang

At least 2,581 cases of coronavirus variants 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, 2,506, are the more contagious variant known as B.1.1.7, which was originally detected in the UK. This variant has been found in 44 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. About a quarter of these were found were in Florida.

In addition, 65 cases have been reported of a variant initially seen in South Africa, called B.1.351, in 16 states and Washington, DC. 

Lastly, 10 cases of the P.1 variant first linked to Brazil have been discovered among five 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.

1:03 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Austin city leaders slam Texas governor's decision to lift mask mandate

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott makes an announcement in Lubbock, Texas, on March 2.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott makes an announcement in Lubbock, Texas, on March 2. Justin Rex/AP

The day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would be lifting the mask mandate and "opening Texas 100%," the leadership of Austin has strong words of opposition to the move.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that the move is a breaking of a promise and an attempt to deflect from other issues the governor is facing.

"Governor Abbott said he'd be guided by the science and the data and yesterday he broke that promise," Adler said today at a news conference this morning. 

"There is no explanation for the governor's action other than trying to distract us and the media from the failure of the state to protect us from the power outage," Adler added.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown noted that "with just over 5% of our community vaccinated, this is no time to be lifting the mask ordinance."

Brown said that county and city leaders will "do everything possible to still require masks in any way possible under that order, and under the law."

Brown also noted that some businesses have told him that "they still want to be able to require people to wear masks — they want people to wear masks."

Abbott, however, suggested that business leaders were behind the move by releasing three statements of praise from state business associations in a news release this morning.

"The Governor is striking the right balance by removing the heavy hand of government and allowing businesses to operate as they see fit," Glenn Hamer, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, wrote in his statement.

"As other states in the country keep restrictions in place, Texas will spearhead the economic recovery," Invest Texas Council Chairman Ron Simmons said in the release. 

12:42 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Brazil’s largest state to enter most restrictive “red phase” as cases rise

From CNN’s Shasta Darlington and Marcia Reverdosa

Brazil’s largest state Sao Paulo will enter a two-week “red phase” in coronavirus restrictions starting at midnight Saturday, according to Sao Paulo’s governor.

That means all but essential businesses must close, including restaurants, bars, gyms and beauty salons as well as all but essential retail shops. Schools, however, will continue to provide a portion of their classes in-person.

This announcement comes during a particularly difficult week for the nation, as Tuesday marked the highest daily death toll in Brazil, with at least 1,641 people dying in a single day, according to the health ministry.

It also comes as public and private ICUS are near or at capacity across the country, with one-third at the edge of collapse at over 90% capacity, according to federal and state data.

“We are on the verge of a collapse in the health system in Sao Paulo,” Governor Joao Doria said during a press conference to announce the tightening of restrictions. “Urgent, collective measures are needed," he added.

12:48 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Harris shines a light on women-owned small business during pandemic

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on March 2.
Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on March 2. Evan Vucci/AP

Vice President Kamala Harris sought to highlight the plight of women in the workforce amid the pandemic with a visit to a local small yarn and fiber business, which she called the “fabric of the community.”

She pressed the need for Congress to pass the administration’s $1.9 trillion relief package, which the Senate could take up as soon as today. 

The vice president heard from the store’s owner and a few members of the staff and another female business owner who handles public relations for the shop. They outlined some of the difficulties of running a small business as a woman during the pandemic, including childcare issues, health concerns, and closures. 

Told that a large portion of the shop’s business is now online, Harris said, “God bless the United States Postal Service, by the way,” calling them the “heroes of the moment.”

Harris touted Biden’s announcement that there will be “enough vaccines for everyone” by May, telling the group, “we’re going to get through this.”

Citing the relief package, she discussed the importance of supporting small businesses, citing statistics of women leaving the workforce during the pandemic.

She said Covid-19 has “highlighted the fissures and the failures of the system,” specifically referencing paid sick leave and paid family leave, as well as support for vaccinations and schools. 

“This is literally about relief for people who need it,” Harris said of the legislation, adding that it will be “interesting to see” how history views this time, but added that the heroes – including the workers at small businesses – will be remembered.

12:54 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Teachers in West Virginia are now eligible to receive Covid-19 vaccines

From CNN’s Anna Sturla

A health worker prepares a Covid-19 vaccine dose in Charleston, West Virginia, on February 13.
A health worker prepares a Covid-19 vaccine dose in Charleston, West Virginia, on February 13. Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Teachers and West Virginians age 50 and older are now eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the state, Gov. Jim Justice announced during a news conference Wednesday. The previous restriction was age 65.

Eligible categories now include:

  • Teachers and school service personnel age 40 and above
  • Residents with chronic health conditions who are 16 or older

"We got this thing on the run, and we’re gonna chase it until the ends of the earth, and get it gone," Justice said.

The state has seen sharp reductions in overall deaths and nursing home outbreaks in recent months, according to government officials during the news conference.

Justice reported 232 new cases of Covid-19 and eight deaths in the past 24 hours, with 197 hospitalized. West Virginia's daily percent positivity was 3.13%.

Note: These numbers were released by the state’s health agency, and may not line up exactly in real time with CNN’s database drawn from Johns Hopkins University and the Covid Tracking Project. 


12:26 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Study identifies several coronavirus variants of concern in patients from Houston area

From CNN’s Nadia Kounang

In a new preprint study, researchers say they have identified the variants first identified in the UK, Brazil, South Africa and California in patients from the Houston metro area.

Researchers from Houston Methodist and elsewhere say it’s the “first city in the United States to have all variants documented by genome sequencing,” although sequencing is done for only a small number of coronavirus cases around the United States and does not capture the overall prevalence of the variants. 

The report, which was posted on Tuesday and has not been published or peer-reviewed, said the finding “is not unexpected but it is disquieting,” and called it a “testament to our aggressive sequencing of COVID-19 patient samples.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK, the B.1.351 first identified in South Africa, and the P.1. first identified in Brazil as “variants of concern��� and track incidences of these variants. The variants may be more transmissible than others.

According to the CDC’s most recent update, as of March 2, there are at least 2,572 cases of coronavirus variants across the country. Florida and Maryland have also identified all three of the CDC’s “variants of concern."

The CDC says this does not represent the total number of such cases circulating in the US, but 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.

The authors also note that the variants were found widely spread across the Houston area, “indicating successful patient-to-patient transmission.”

They added that none of the patients were from a common household or reported any recent international travel, “suggesting that every infection was independently acquired locally or during domestic travel.” 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he's lifting the mask mandate in Texas, even as health officials warn not to ease safety restrictions.

12:33 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

How the White House convinced two pharma giants to collaborate on a vaccine

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond

A person is administered the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Columbus, Ohio, on March 2.
A person is administered the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Columbus, Ohio, on March 2. Jay LaPrete/AP

President Biden's coronavirus response team learned two things his first week in office: Johnson & Johnson's one-shot coronavirus vaccine was highly effective – but the company was millions of doses behind its production schedule.

Preliminary conversations that began under the Trump administration about a vaccine manufacturing partnership between the pharmaceutical giant and its competitor, Merck, whose own vaccine attempt had failed, were "incremental" and going nowhere fast, according to two senior administration officials. And Johnson & Johnson seemed reluctant to commit to a large-scale deal with Merck, the officials said.

"They just were not all in," one of the officials told CNN.

That changed when Jeff Zients, the White House's coronavirus czar, called Johnson & Johnson's CEO Alex Gorsky on a Sunday in early February and urged the company to meet the moment, stressing that the US is in a "national emergency" and that it was time to go "big and bold."

"You can't be incremental and small in your thinking. We have to overwhelm this problem," one senior administration official said, recounting the conversation, which lasted an hour more than the scheduled 15 minutes.

Zients reminded Gorsky – a West Point graduate and US military veteran – of Johnson & Johnson's major contributions during World War II, including manufacturing the first-ever duct tape and other military supplies. Just as Americans remembered Johnson & Johnson's contributions then, its efforts to accelerate the vaccination of Americans would be their new legacy, Zients said, according to two senior officials.

"That was really a turning point," one of the officials said, noting that Gorsky "embraced" the approach and discussions about a large-scale partnership with Merck quickly turned more serious.

Hanging over that conversation and others between Biden administration officials and executives from both companies was Biden's authority under the Defense Production Act to compel the companies to partner if they were unwilling. A senior administration official said that authority was never explicitly threatened in conversations with both companies, but added that it was implicitly a motivating factor. 

"The DPA is always there, implicitly as a tool, which brings people to the table and puts people on their toes," the official said.

The administration would have been willing to invoke the DPA's coercive authorities had the two companies not reached an agreement, but did not need to, the official said. Instead, Biden is exercising other authorities under the DPA to invest $105 million to help Merck retrofit its manufacturing facilities to produce the vaccine at scale and to expedite the supply of key vaccine production materials to Johnson & Johnson. 

Keep reading.

12:30 p.m. ET, March 3, 2021

White House announces private sector effort to vaccinate vulnerable seniors. These are the program's goals.

From CNN's Betsy Klein

White House senior Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt, center, on March 3.
White House senior Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt, center, on March 3. White House

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced enhanced efforts from the private sector to reach some of the nation’s most vulnerable seniors for vaccinations, part of the administration’s overall goal of distributing vaccines more equitably amid hesitation in some disproportionally-impacted communities. 

Led by over a dozen of “America's leading health insurance providers,” the “Vaccine Community Connectors Pilot” program aims to get 2 million vulnerable seniors “vaccinated as fast as possible,” White House senior Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt announced at Wednesday’s virtual Covid-19 briefing. 

The program’s goal, Slavitt said, is “to help vulnerable seniors overcome three of the most challenging current barriers: questions about the vaccine, scheduling, and transportation.”

Insurance providers, he explained, will “make outbound calls to unvaccinated Americans of over 65 who live in areas of high social vulnerability.”

“They'll talk to them about vaccine efficacy, safety and the value of vaccinations, then they will facilitate back registration and appointment scheduling for seniors. They'll arrange transportation to and from a vaccination site and ensure seniors get back for a second shot,” he said, noting that there will also be mobile vans deployed into communities of need.

Slavitt praised the private sector for their efforts.

“This commitment came from organizations who have the call centers, technology, and community relationships to run a pilot program like this. And it comes on the heels of our call to action last week to the private sector to use their talents and resources to help bring a quicker end to this crisis,” he said.

It comes days after the White House acknowledged it is still too difficult to schedule a vaccine, suggesting the federal government may also step in to provide technical support to states, as well as call centers.

“Scheduling remains, for far too many people, too frustrating, and we need to make it better,” White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Monday.

11:56 a.m. ET, March 3, 2021

CDC director says "now is not the time" for states to lift Covid-19 restrictions

From CNN’s Jen Christensen

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on March 3.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on March 3. White House

It’s premature for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to lift the state’s mask mandate and end restrictions on businesses, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday. 

“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing.

Abbott announced the end of the state’s pandemic restrictions on Monday.

Walensky said the next month or two will be pivotal for the country, and she hopes people will do whatever they can to decrease the amount of the virus spreading in the community – particularly as the country rolls out more vaccines to protect the public.

“I will also note that, you know, every individual has, is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for their health, and their loved ones and communities,” Walensky said. “I would still encourage individuals to wear masks to do the right thing to protect their health.”