The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Nectar Gan, CNN

Updated 0011 GMT (0811 HKT) March 18, 2021
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1:46 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis is a "cautionary tale," health officials say

From CNN's Hira Humayun

Open graves are seen at the Vila Formosa Cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil, on Friday. Vila Formosa, the biggest graveyard in Latin America, has seen its activity grow in the last few weeks due to the surge of deaths related to Covid-19.
Open graves are seen at the Vila Formosa Cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil, on Friday. Vila Formosa, the biggest graveyard in Latin America, has seen its activity grow in the last few weeks due to the surge of deaths related to Covid-19. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) officials addressed the Covid-19 crisis in Brazil at Wednesday’s virtual press briefing. PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne called it a “cautionary tale that keeping this virus under control requires continuous attention by public health authorities and leaders to protect people and health systems alike” from the effects of the virus.

She said Brazil is now reporting the highest number of new infections in the region and the second highest daily death toll from the virus, in the world – with several areas of the country witnessing a record high number of infections and hospital beds that are nearly at capacity across more than half of Brazilian states

PAHO Incident Manager Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri said the situation in Brazil is the result of an increased transmission during the holiday period and later, Carnival. Two weeks after Christmas and two weeks after Carnival, spikes in cases were recorded.

“I’d like to highlight that during these two periods, the implementation of public health measures in Brazil was suboptimal in most of the territory.”

As of today, he said, transmission in Brazil is “very high” in all regions and is increasing at the same time in all regions. “This is the difference compared to the 2020 pandemic wave, what we have now- this simultaneous increase in all the regions of Brazil.”

Aldighieri cited Brazilian health ministry data saying as of Tuesday, all 27 of Brazil’s states plus the federal district were reporting an ICU occupancy rate of more than 75%, and 20 of the 27 were reporting more than 85% occupancy.

 

1:42 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

We need to "flood the system" with cheap coronavirus tests, Fauci says

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

The US needs to make greater use of coronavirus tests to help control the pandemic, two top health officials said Wednesday.

Cheaper home tests would help schools and workplaces more safely open, they told a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“For example, if we had widely available, inexpensive home testing, people could test themselves and stay home if they are infected. I am thinking schools, workplaces, and we could catch the disease early and prevent outbreaks,” Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat from Washington, who is a pediatrician, asked National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“I not only agree with that, Dr. Schrier, I actually have been saying that for months and months and months – that we should be literally flooding the system with easily accessible, cheap, not needing a prescription, point of care, highly sensitive and highly specific, that we could do just what you are saying. And that in fact, you are going to be seeing more of that soon,” Fauci said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky agreed. “I too, have been saying that and writing about it, as well. We know in schools, we know now that we didn’t know then, than there is less transmission in schools among kids than among adults,” Walensky said. 

“I do believe that once we have teachers vaccinated that we can use testing in the schools – serial testing, cadence testing – to identify potential infections, asymptomatic infections, shut down clusters and keep our schools open.”

1:41 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Older children have highest Covid-19 test positivity rate in most states, according to CNN analysis

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

In at least 34 states, Covid-19 test positivity rates are higher among older children between the ages of 12 and 17 than any other age group, according to a CNN analysis of the latest Covid-19 Community Profile Report published by the federal government.

On average, test positivity rates among the 12-17 age group were more than double state rates over the past week, the federal data shows. Three states did not have test positivity data by age group available.

Test positivity rates can give an indication of how widespread infection is and how it is spreading, but only if testing is broadly accessible and utilized. Among children, some say that fewer tests focused on symptomatic cases and known exposure may have driven higher positivity rates.

“Since the testing is so targeted, it stands to reason a higher proportion of the tests would be positive,” Zachary Clark, public information officer for the Idaho’s health department told CNN. 

In Idaho, the test positivity rate for the 12-17 age group was nearly 12% over the past week, the fifth highest in the country and about 60% higher than the state’s overall positivity rate of about 7%. The health department is working with the education department, school board association and governor to implement CDC guidance, he said.  

The federal Covid-19 Community Profile Report does not publish the number of tests reported by age group, and the US Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to CNN’s request for more information. 

However, HHS on Wednesday announced a $10 billion initiative to implement Covid-19 surveillance testing in schools across the country and upcoming guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on appropriate use of surveillance testing in schools and other communal settings. 

Last week, Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for Arkansas’s health department, told CNN that they have “no plans at this time to require routine, regular testing as screening of school kids,” despite a positivity rate among the 12-17 age group that was more than double the state rate.

However, many experts are supportive of more testing among children.

Schools should “absolutely” be testing more to help reduce community spread, says Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar with Johns Hopkins University.

“Lots of people thought it would be too much of a burden for children to do the self-swabbing, but children are resilient and able to learn,” she said.

In Colorado, rapid tests are already distributed to teachers, staff and select students. And some school districts encourage students and their families to test weekly through state-funded community sites, Brian Spencer, a spokesperson for the Colorado State Joint Information Center, told CNN.

But “testing isn’t going to be the only way out of here,” Gronvall says. “It needs to be testing plus masking plus improved air quality plus vaccination strategies.”

She says she hopes building a healthier infrastructure in schools is something that evolves past Covid-19. 

 “A holistic approach to reduce disease transmission in schools will make it a healthier environment for kids and help them learn better.”

 

1:15 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

It's unclear when US will hit herd immunity, Fauci says

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

It’s not entirely clear when the United States will hit herd immunity against coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.

Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both pushed back against questions about herd immunity, saying much depended on how quickly Americans take vaccines. 

It’s also not clear when children can and will be vaccinated, said Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Let’s just keep pushing to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can. And as we do that, you will see the type of infection, the dynamics of the outbreak, get less and less and less, so whatever that time is – middle of the summer, end of the summer, early fall, we’ll be much, much better off than we are now,” Fauci told a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

1:18 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

NIH director says it seems unlikely AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine causes clots

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

A nurse administers the AstraZeneca vaccine to a patient in Melbourne on Wednesday.
A nurse administers the AstraZeneca vaccine to a patient in Melbourne on Wednesday. Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Wednesday that is seems “fairly unlikely” that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is causing blood clots, and that he was surprised that so many countries have paused administration of the vaccine.

“Everything that I have heard so far – but we’re waiting for the European Medicines Agency report tomorrow – would indicate that this is one of those things where clotting is a fairly common medical problem and you have 17 million people getting a vaccine, some of them are going to have various medical problems just because that was going to happen to them anyway,” Collins told CNN on Wednesday.

“To try to draw a cause and effect would require much stronger evidence than some coincidences of those experiences, but let’s see what the data looks like," he added.

Collins said the that US Food and Drug Administration will look “with great care and stringency” at AstraZeneca trial results from the US. The information will start to be revealed soon, he said, and that the company will put in a request for emergency use authorization. 

Collins said he was “a bit surprised” that so many countries have decided to pause the rollout of the vaccine, “especially at a time where the disease itself is so incredibly threatening in most of those countries.”  

However, he added that he didn’t have access to any of the primary data that may have caused alarm in those countries.

 

12:55 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Lambeau Field opens as Covid-19 vaccination site in Wisconsin

From CNN’s Carma Hassan

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers toured the newly opened Covid-19 community vaccination site at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, which he says has the capacity to vaccinate 6,000 to 10,000 people a week, depending on supply.

The governor said the state is heading in the right direction with vaccinations, saying, “We've put over 2 million shots in people's arms. We have more than 1.25 million people who have received the first dose and more than 700,000 people in the state of Wisconsin have been vaccinated twice.”

Lambeau Field is now one of 17 NFL facilities being used as a vaccination site, Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy said.

“It's been a challenging year for all of us and we all want this pandemic to end for so many reasons. And the Packers and everybody here at Lambeau Field, we're just so proud to be part of providing our atrium as a vaccination site and doing what we can to help bring an end to this pandemic,” Murphy said.
3:05 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Approximately 90 million stimulus checks have been disbursed

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Approximately 90 million stimulus checks have been disbursed to Americans, the Department of Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, and the Bureau of the Fiscal Service announced Wednesday, totaling over $242 billion in payments. 

The payments of up to $1,400 per person began processing on Friday after President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill into law last Thursday, with direct deposits beginning over the weekend. 

“The first batch of payments were mostly sent by direct deposit, which some recipients started receiving this past weekend. As of today, all recipients of this first batch of direct deposit payments will have access to their funds,” the Department of Treasury said in a statement with the IRS. 

This first batch, the statement said, “primarily went to eligible taxpayers who provided direct deposit information on their 2019 or 2020 returns, including people who don’t typically file a return but who successfully used the Non-Filers tool on IRS.gov last year.” 

The first batch of payments also included approximately 150,000 mailed paper checks totaling approximately $442 million, the statement said. 

Additional batches will be sent in the coming weeks, a majority via direct deposit, but also through checks and debit cards. 

Families will receive an additional $1,400 per dependent, so a couple with two children could receive up to $5,600. Unlike prior rounds, families will now receive the additional money for adult dependents over the age of 17. 

The full amount goes to individuals earning less than $75,000 of adjusted gross income, heads of households (like single parents) earning less than $112,500 and married couples earning less than $150,000. But then the payments gradually phase out as income goes up.

Americans can now track the status of their payments via a “Get May Payment” tool on IRS.gov.

1:04 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

NIH director says he's "surprised" so many countries paused AstraZeneca vaccine rollout

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks at an event in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks at an event in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said he’s “surprised” at the number of countries temporarily halting the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine rollout.

“I was a bit surprised that so many countries decided to put pause on the administration of the vaccine, especially at a time where the disease itself is so incredibly threatening in most of those countries,” Collins said to CNN’s Kate Bolduan.

The European Medical Authority has said there's "no indication" that the vaccine has caused blood clots. The EMA's safety committee is investigating whether there is any possible link between the vaccine and a small number of blood clots in vaccinated people. It is slated to release its findings on Thursday.

“It seems at the present time fairly unlikely that this is something that has been in any way caused by the vaccines,” Collins said, adding that he doesn’t have access to the data that might have caused alarm. 

The US Food and Drug Administration will look at the vaccine with “great care and stringency,” he said. 

Collins also said he is surprised by overall vaccine hesitancy, despite vaccines with “amazing characteristics.” 

“There's all this overlay — and some of it is politics, and some of it’s social media conspiracy theories, and some of it is distrust of anything the government had anything to do with. We have a long way to go yet to overcome that. And I'm kind of a little astounded as well that we haven't gotten further in overcoming that hesitancy,” he said. 

Watch:

12:07 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021

US Health Department announces $10 billion to expand coronavirus testing in schools

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond

The US Department of Health and Human Services is funneling $10 billion to states to help implement coronavirus surveillance testing in K-12 schools across the country, the agency announced Wednesday. It's part of the Biden administration's push to help schools reopen safely for in-person learning.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also releasing new guidance on the appropriate use of surveillance testing in schools and other communal settings, HHS announced.

The agency said the funds, which were approved as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law, "will be able to be deployed quickly" and will help schools test teachers, students and staff who were exposed to the virus and help identify asymptomatic cases of the virus to prevent the virus from spreading further in schools.

"Covid-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity," the agency's acting Secretary Norris Cochran said in a statement. "As part of the Biden administration's national strategy, HHS will continue to expand our capacity to get testing to the individuals and the places that need it most, so we can prevent transmission of the virus and defeat the pandemic."

President Biden has set a goal of reopening a majority of schools in the US for in-person learning within his first 100 days in office.

Earlier this month, Biden urged states to prioritize teachers and school staff to get at least one shot by the end of March and used his authority to prioritize teacher vaccinations through the federal supply of vaccines to pharmacies.

The CDC will also spend an additional $2.25 billion to boost testing and other mitigation measures in underserved populations, which will include grants to public health departments and funding to improve data collection efforts.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan delivered a windfall for coronavirus testing efforts in the US, dedicating a total of $47.8 billion.

Biden's efforts to reopen schools have moved ahead in fits and starts over the last month, amid messaging stumbles, pressure from Republicans to move faster and feuds between some teachers unions and school districts across the country.