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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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.”
11:55 a.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Polish health minister says he does not recommend China's Sinopharm vaccine at present

From CNNs Antonia Mortensen and Sharon Braithwaite

Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski attends a press briefing in Kraków, Poland, in September 2020.
Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski attends a press briefing in Kraków, Poland, in September 2020. Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski has said he does not recommend China’s Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine at the moment, the Polish Press Agency (PAP) reported Wednesday, adding that the Polish government is yet to come to a decision on the possible purchase of vaccines developed by China. 

"I do not know of any research results that would allow the Chinese vaccine against coronavirus to be marketed, so at the moment I do not recommend using it,” Niedzielski said during a news conference on Wednesday. 

“No decision has been made regarding the possible purchase of Chinese vaccines by Poland,” he added, highlighting that, in the case of the Sinopharm vaccine, no cooperation procedure has been initiated yet.  

The health minister also emphasized that patient safety is of the highest value, noting that such safety would be "guaranteed by the European Assessment System, culminating in the activities of the European Medicines Agency (EMA)."

Niedzielski added that the Hungarian government, which has already imported doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, has not yet carried out "the certification process of the production process so that there is a guarantee of quality.” 

"We do not really have any specific information on this subject, so from this point of view, until such results are carried out, it seems that there is no possibility that Polish patients will be at any risk," Niedzielski said.

Hungary is the first EU country to have rolled out China's Sinopharm vaccine, which has not been approved by the EMA.

11:52 a.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Massachusetts teachers, school staff and childcare workers can receive the vaccine next week

From CNN’s LaCrisha McAllister 

About 400,000 teachers, childcare workers and school staff in Massachusetts will be eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments starting March 11, Gov. Charlie Baker announced at a news conference Wednesday. 

There will be specified days designated for them, according to the governor.

A celebratory “YES!” could be heard in response from Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, who was also at the news conference held at West Parish Elementary School. 

The state of Massachusetts has received 2 million vaccine doses and has administered 1.8 million so far, getting six doses out of a vile instead of five doses, Baker said.

Baker added that Tuesday was the first day in “I don’t know how long” that there has been zero new cases in long-term care facilities. 

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

CDC director urges people not to give in to pandemic "fatigue"

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

The country is about to benefit from “historic scientific success” of rapid vaccine development, but people must not give in to pandemic “fatigue” – particularly with recent “troubling signs” of variants emerging, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House Covid-19 Response Team briefing on Wednesday.

“We are just on the verge of capitalizing on the culmination of a historic scientific success, the ability to vaccinate the country in just a matter of three or four more months. How this plays out is up to us,” Walensky said.

“The next three months are pivotal,” she added. 

To protect the country’s health, people need to remain vigilant, and whether mandated or not, Walensky asked the public to wear a well-fitted mask, keep physical distance from others, avoid crowds, and practice good hand hygiene.

“So much can turn in the next few weeks,” Walensky emphasized. 

Watch:

11:33 a.m. ET, March 3, 2021

Johnson & Johnson says vaccines for children under 18 could be available by September

From CNN’s Amanda Sealy

Johnson & Johnson is likely to have a Covid-19 vaccine available for children under the age of 18 by September, says CEO Alex Gorsky.

“I think it's likely to occur right in that timeline. The good news is, is that the FDA is already working with companies to establish the clear regulatory guidelines, so that the appropriate data can be collected,” Gorsky told David Ignatius during a Washington Post Live event on Wednesday

Gorksy said one benefit of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is that this particular type of vaccine has been used in lower age groups before.

“The AdVac 26 was used extensively among broad age groups, young and old in Africa when we were developing this for other conditions such as Ebola and HIV. So it gives us reasons to be optimistic regarding the safety profile in that in that patient population, but we still have to do the clinical work," he said.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson first announced their plans to study the vaccine in adolescents. Gorsky says it will begin testing in people ages 12 to 18, and it will go down from there.

"We will conduct several immunogenicity and safety studies in children from 17 years of age down to neonates,” Dr. Macaya Douoguih, head of clinical development & medical affairs with J&J’s vaccine arm Janssen, told a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee last week.

“We are also anticipating a study in pregnant women in the second and third trimesters toward the end of March, early April," Douoguih said. "We also plan to begin a study in immunocompromised individuals in the third quarter of this year."

Both Pfizer and Moderna are currently trialing their mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines in children.