March 18 coronavirus news

By Nectar Gan, Brett McKeehan and Kara Fox, CNN

Updated 0748 GMT (1548 HKT) March 19, 2021
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1:09 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

Biden administration in talks to send 2.5 million AstraZeneca vaccines to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Kylie Atwood and Betsy Klein

President Joe Biden walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on March 16 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on March 16 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Thursday that the US has 7 million releasable doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, and the Biden administration is working to finalize plans to lend 2.5 million doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada. 

Biden could announce the agreement upon finalization as soon as Friday. CNN reported Wednesday night that negotiations between the US, Mexico and Canada were ongoing. If the agreement comes together, it would be the first time the US has shared vaccines directly with another country. 

Several European countries have temporarily halted the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine over a small number of blood clot concerns. The European Medicines Agency said Thursday that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine “is safe and effective in preventing Covid-19 and its benefits continued to be far greater than its risks.” The committee however could not “rule out definitively” a possible link to a rare blood clotting disorder.

Biden has met virtually with both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. During both conversations, his counterparts pressed him on the need for more vaccines in their countries. The Biden administration has so far maintained the stance that they would not share vaccines until all Americans could be vaccinated. 

Mexican government officials pressed Biden officials on helping with vaccine supply during conversations between both parties regarding the surge on the southern US border. It was part of a broader discussion and not necessarily an exchange of one for the other, an official told CNN. 

The US has a limited amount of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine in stockpile, but the vaccine has not been authorized for emergency use in the US yet. AstraZeneca has been approved for use in both Canada and Mexico. 

The Biden administration will eventually share excess vaccines — beyond the AstraZeneca doses — and does not see joint efforts alongside US allies as precluding them from unilaterally donating vaccines to other countries down the road, according to the senior administration official.

1:00 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

CDC expected to update its physical distancing guidelines for schools tomorrow

From CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen and Maggie Fox

Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 18.
Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 18. Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to update its physical distancing guidelines for schools from 6 feet to 3 feet on Friday, an administration official confirms to CNN.

US health officials have pointed to a study published last week that showed “no significant difference” in rates of Covid-19 at Massachusetts public schools that had implemented social distancing rules of more than 3 feet apart compared to those with rules to stay more than 6 feet apart.

“Indeed, because six feet has been such a challenge there, science has leaned in and there are now emerging studies on the question between three feet and six feet,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Sen. Susan Collins during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday.

“This is an urgent issue,” Walensky said.

1:25 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

Massachusetts loosens restrictions for a range of indoor and outdoor venues

From CNN's Kristina Sgueglia

A general view of Gillette Stadium is seen on December 28, 2020, in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
A general view of Gillette Stadium is seen on December 28, 2020, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Massachusetts is loosening restrictions and announcing new operation guidelines for sports and entertainment venues, as well as replacing its travel advisory starting Monday, the governor said.

As of March 22, large capacity sports and entertainment venues – including indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas and ball parks – will be permitted to operate at strict 12% capacity limit after submitting a plan to the Department of Public Health.

In addition, Gov. Charlie Baker said a range of previously closed business sectors will open under tight capacity restrictions:

  • Gathering limits for event venues will increase to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors.
  • Outdoor gatherings at private residences and in private yards will remain at a maximum of 25 people, with indoor gatherings remaining at 10 people.
  • Dance floors will be permitted at weddings and other events, per the governor’s office.
  • Overnight summer camps will also be allowed to operate this summer, the governor said. Exhibition and convention halls may also open pursuant to gathering limits.

The new travel advisory, according to governor, urges persons entering the state – including returning residents – to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival if they have been out of the state for 24 hours or more. It does not apply to travelers who have a negative Covid-19 result administered up to 72 hours prior, workers performing critical infrastructure functions or those who are fully vaccinated.

1:14 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

EU regulator: AstraZeneca vaccine is "safe" but blood clot link cannot be ruled out

From CNN's Nada Bashir and Schams Elwazer

Empty phials of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine sit at a vaccination center at the Universite Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, France, on March 12.
Empty phials of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine sit at a vaccination center at the Universite Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, France, on March 12. Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigation has concluded that the AstraZeneca vaccine "is safe and effective in preventing Covid-19 and its benefits continued to be far greater than its risks.

Dr. Sabine Straus, chair of the EMA’s Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee (PRAC), said the committee “has found no evidence of a quality of batch issue.”

“The committee also concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events, or blood clots,” EMA Executive Director Emer Cooke said.  

Cooke reiterated that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.

“I want to reiterate that our scientific position is this, is that this vaccine is a safe and effective option to protect citizens against Covid-19,” Cooke said.

“It demonstrated that at least 60% efficacy in clinical trials and preventing coronavirus disease and in fact the real world evidence suggests that the effectiveness could be even higher than that,” she added.

However Cooke added that the agency “cannot rule out definitely a link” between blood clot cases and the vaccine.

The EMA’s recommendation “is to raise awareness of these possible risks, making sure that they’re included in the product information. Drawing attention to these possible rare conditions and providing information to health care professionals and vaccinated people will help to spot and mitigate any possible side effects.”

1:14 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

New York venues and sports stadiums to reopen with restrictions on April 1

From CNN's Elizabeth Joseph

A general view of Yankee Stadium is seen on August 20, 2020, in New York City.
A general view of Yankee Stadium is seen on August 20, 2020, in New York City. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Beginning April 1, large outdoor venues that host live concerts and shows across New York state will be permitted to reopen at 20% capacity, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in a Thursday news briefing. 

These large venues – that can hold over 2,500 people – will see capacity increase as Covid-19 numbers across continue to decline.

Sports venues with over 1,500 indoor or 2,500 outdoor capacity will be permitted to reopen – with indoor capacity capped at 10% and outdoor capacity raised to 20%.

“We’ll have testing required when we open,” Cuomo said.

“You get your vaccine – I have my card, I can go to a game as soon as it opens. You can take a rapid test, you can take a PCR test, but we’re going to have testing as a precaution. As time moves on, and as our experience grows, and we see how the games work, we then right away do what's called contact tracing where we follow up on the game to see if anybody got infected, et cetera, and I think you're going to see the capacity increase and the testing requirements decrease as we get more evidence, but we want to start safe and smart," he said.

Citi Field could see up to 8,384 fans and Yankee Stadium could see up to 10,850 fans, Cuomo said.

Starting March 29, statewide travel for sports and recreational activities will also be permitted across New York, the governor announced.

At present, travel for sports is limited to contiguous counties and regions.

12:22 p.m. ET, March 18, 2021

How the NCAA is keeping teams safe during March Madness

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

March Madness banners for the NCAA college basketball tournament cover crosswalks in downtown Indianapolis on March 17.
March Madness banners for the NCAA college basketball tournament cover crosswalks in downtown Indianapolis on March 17. Darron Cummings/AP

As March Madness gets underway today, NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt says the effort to keep players safe during the Covid-19 pandemic has been “quite an undertaking.”  

All 68 teams are competing in one city — Indianapolis — for the entire tournament, one year after the tournament was canceled completely due to the pandemic. 

Gavitt outlined the protocols for this year’s tourney to CNN’s Kate Bolduan.

“We’ve created this controlled environment where all of the participants are being tested on a daily basis. … Everyone has their own hotel room. Hotels are connected by skywalk with the Indiana Convention Center, where there are practice courts set up, a dozen of them. So all activities are taking place — all team meetings, all meals, all practices and preparation — in this controlled environment,” Gavitt said. 

“We’re doing everything we can to mitigate the risk, obviously with social distancing, with masking, to make sure that everybody is safe and healthy, and can both start and finish the tournament to determine a very worthy national champion,” Gavitt added. 

He said he thinks the chances for coronavirus spread are low, due to months of planning for these protocols. 

There’s still time to fill out your bracket. Find out how here.

11:54 a.m. ET, March 18, 2021

US CDC wants to scale up search for new coronavirus variants, director says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill on March 18 in Washington, DC.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill on March 18 in Washington, DC. Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images

The United States is now sequencing 10,000 to 14,000 samples of coronavirus every week in its search for cases of new variants across the country, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday.  

But even more sequencing is needed to keep on top of the spread of concerning new variants, Walensky told a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We're now doing somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 sequences a week,” Walensky said. “Right now, we really would like to be up at the 25,000 range.” 

The US is doing far less genomic sequencing than other countries, such as the UK, and the CDC said this means there’s not a clear picture of the spread of variants. The CDC has forecast that the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant will be the dominant version of the virus across the US by the end of March. 

What the CDC needs: Walensky said the agency needs the money allocated in the American Rescue Plan to step up sequencing capability. “The additional $1.75 billion is in fact essential to help fund jurisdictions for next genome sequencing capacity,” she said. “Not all jurisdictions have this capacity and we really do need to be able to scale this up across the country.”

Equipment is also needed to sequence samples, and trained staff are essential, Walensky said. “We need to develop a work force, so that people understand how to do genomic epidemiology,” she said. “That is not standard application. That is not what people standardly know and so we need to develop that work force.”

11:37 a.m. ET, March 18, 2021

Democratic senators urge US Department of Justice to investigate Covid-19 deaths in federal prisons

From CNN's Amanda Sealy

From left to right, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Dick Durbin
From left to right, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Dick Durbin Getty Images

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Dick Durbin, along with 19 more Democratic lawmakers, sent a letter Thursday to the US Department of Juice Office of the Inspector General asking for an investigation into Covid-19-related deaths among people in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as staffers.

Some of the key questions they want answered are whether incarcerated people in these prisons who died received “timely and sufficient care” for Covid-19.

The letter notes Bureau of Prisons data saying that 225 incarcerated people as well as four staff members have died as a result of Covid-19 in federal prisons as of March 17.

“A comprehensive review would not only provide a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding each individual loss of life but would also help policymakers establish whether the appropriate (Bureau of Prisons) policies were in place and being followed in each case, as well as whether new policies or practices should be implemented to reduce risk during the current pandemic and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
11:24 a.m. ET, March 18, 2021

AMC Theatres will have 98% of their US locations open tomorrow

From CNN’s Alison Kosik

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

AMC Theatres, the world's biggest movie theater chain, announced that 98% of its theaters in the US will be open on Friday, with even more theaters opening a week later.

 “It was exactly one year ago that we closed all AMC locations in the United States,” said AMC CEO and President Adam Aron, in a news release.

 “As we have done at all of locations around the country, AMC is reopening and operating with the highest devotion to the health and safety of our guests and associates,” he said.

AMC says it expects 52 of its 54 locations in California will be open. That list includes two brand new theaters in the Los Angeles area.