J&J Gets Initial U.S. Approval; CDC Issues Warning: Virus Update

Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine won the backing of a panel of U.S. government advisers, paving the way for authorization of a third U.S. immunization against the deadly virus.

February is on track to show just a third of the monthly Covid-19 cases seen during the worst parts of the holiday surge that drove U.S. infections to records, as states such as South Carolina and Wyoming plan to lift more restrictions.

Still, states should maintain restrictions such as mask wearing as the decline in cases begins to slow, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, citing the circulation of new variants and infection rates that remain alarmingly high. New York will also add hotel workers to the list of professions eligible to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

  • Global Tracker: Cases exceed 113.2 million; deaths pass 2.5 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 231 million shots given worldwide
  • U.S. Spotlight: February cases set to show just a fraction of the winter holiday surge
  • Vaccine rollout, recall threaten California governor’s ambitions
  • Can a vaccinated person still spread the coronavirus?: QuickTake
  • Is news of U.S. virus variants too much, too soon?: QuickTake

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FDA Advisers Back J&J Vaccine (5:08 p.m. NY)

Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine won the backing of a panel of U.S. government advisers, paving the way for authorization of a third U.S. immunization against the deadly virus.

Experts advising the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted 22-0, with no abstentions, that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh its risks in adults 18 and older, a decision that could help bolster the vaccine supply as new variants continue to spread. The FDA usually follows the nonbinding recommendations of its advisory panels and could authorize the shot within days.

Czechs Impose 3-Week Lockdown (4:50 p.m. NY)

The Czech government announced the strictest lockdown measures since the start of the pandemic to stem one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks and avoid a collapse of the health-care system.

For at least three weeks starting on Monday, the central European country will restrict travel between counties and close all schools, pre-schools and some of the shops that are currently open, Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his health, interior and industry and trade ministers say at a televised briefing in Prague on Friday.

California Positivity at 18-Week Low (4:26 p.m. NY)

California’s 14-day positive test rate dropped to 2.9%, the lowest since Oct. 23, according to the health department’s website. The state said there were 5,400 new cases yesterday, below the average of 6,008. Still, deaths climbed by 391, above the 384 average. California has administered almost 48 million tests in total.

Colorado Completes Nursing Home Vaccines (4:24 p.m. NY)

Colorado has completed inoculation of almost all residents at long-term care homes a year after Covid-19 erupted at the facilities, Governor Jared Polis said at a Friday news conference in Denver. “Finally we’ll be getting back, you know, poker night and movie night and the ability to see loved ones,” Polis said. The governor also announced Colorado will lower the minimum age for vaccines to 60 on March 5 and then to 50 around March 21.

Shot Scandals Widen in Latin America (3:54 p.m. NY)

Ecuador health minister Juan Carlos Zevallos resigned Friday, becoming the third top Latin American health official forced out in a week as outrage grows over the ability of the region’s richest and most powerful to obtain vaccinations before the rest of the population.

President Lenin Moreno, whose term ends May 24, posted the minister’s resignation letter on Twitter. Zevallos’ departure was quickened after he sent letters to university presidents inviting them to skip the line, and after prosecutors launched an investigation into his mother’s vaccination in January.

In the past seven days, Argentina’s health minister resigned, as did both the Peruvian health minister and his deputy.

Portugal Eyes Gradual Reopening (3:48 p.m. NY)

Portugal will present in March a gradual plan to ease restrictions, and it’s “natural” that the first steps may be schools, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Friday.

Daily infections eased in February after one of the most difficult months in the pandemic. The government said on Jan. 21 that the variant that first emerged in the U.K. was spreading quickly, forcing it to adopt additional measures such as closing schools.

N.Y. Allows Hotel Workers Vaccine (2:37 p.m. NY)

Hotel workers will be added to the list of professions eligible to get the Covid-19 vaccine, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday.

The governor said he was granting localities the flexibility to add hotel workers to vaccine priority lists because these establishments in many parts of the state serve as quarantine areas for Covid patients to isolate from their families. He said the hotel workers provide an essential health-care service.

Cuomo also announced new vaccine sites for those 65 years and older, which will provide transportation and other services.

S Carolina, Wyoming Lift Restrictions (2:28 p.m. NY)

South Carolina will no longer require government approval for gatherings of more than 250 people starting Monday, Governor Henry McMaster said. The state on Monday will also lift restrictions on alcohol sales at restaurants, though it still recommends limiting large gatherings to either 50% of the event space’s posted occupancy limit, or fewer than 250 people.

Starting Monday, Wyoming will also lift all Covid-19 restrictions on barber shops, hair and nail salons, tattoo and massage parlors imposed almost a year ago, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. The state posted 214 news cases Thursday, an almost five-fold increase from Wednesday.

Covid Levels Below Holiday Spike (2:12 p.m. NY)

February is on track to show just a fraction of the monthly Covid-19 cases seen during the worst parts of the holiday surge that drove infections to records.

The U.S. this month has already seen more than 2.17 million cases, which is more than any month prior to the surge, according to the Covid Tracking Project. But February looks likely to post about a third of the cases seen in December, the pandemic’s worst month.

The figures are a reminder of how much the daily case situation has improved, but also how far the country still has to go. Improvements are fragile, and rapidly accelerating variant cases pose serious threats to the efficacy of vaccines being rushed to patients.

CDC Raises Alarm on Variants (12:32 p.m. NY)

States should maintain Covid-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and capacity limitations as case numbers halt their decline, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday, citing the circulation of new variants and infection rates that remain alarmingly high.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a sobering warning during a press briefing Friday, where she said the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the U.K., now accounts for an estimated 10% of current U.S. cases, and that variants in California and New York also appear to spread more easily.

“Things are tenuous — now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Walensky said. “The latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number.”

Warren Buffett Vaccinated (12:04 p.m. NY)

Warren Buffett, the 90-year-old chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has received his Covid-19 vaccination.

As shareholders prepare for the release of his closely watched annual letter Saturday, Buffett’s assistant confirmed that the investor has had both of the Pfizer Inc. shots. The vaccination has a two-dose regimen.

NYC Mayor Criticizes Vaccine Waits (12 p.m. NY)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is investigating many reports of hours-long waits at vaccine sites where people had scheduled appointments in an appearance on WNYC radio.

He said some people are arriving early to their appointments on purpose and that’s contributing to lines. But the mayor called the long waiting times “unacceptable.”

Italy Cases Highest Since New Year (11:55 a.m. NY)

Italy’s infections rose to the highest point since Jan. 1 as restrictions were set to tighten again in some regions, including Milan, according to Ansa newswires.

The country reported 20,499 new cases, compared with 19,886 the day before. Giovanni Rezza, head of prevention at the Health Ministry, said he is worried that many regional clusters are related to new virus strains.

Greece Extends Lockdown (11:36 a.m. NY)

Greece extended a strict lockdown for high-risk areas of the country, which include Athens and the surrounding area, by one week to March 8, Deputy Citizen Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said Friday, citing a rise in new virus cases.

All people entering the country by land will be subject to rapid tests, with those testing positive barred from entry. The occupancy rate of intensive care units in Athens and the Attica region is now 88%, Health Ministry officials said.

U.S. Hospitals Plead for Bailout (10:59 a.m. NY)

U.S. hospitals face up to $122 billion in lost revenue this year as the pandemic continues its rampage, threatening to push more critical-care centers into bankruptcy or out of business entirely.

Even a best-case scenario would cost hospitals $53 billion of revenue, according to a new Kaufman, Hall & Associates report for the American Hospital Association. That’s on top of more than $323 billion in reduced revenue and higher expenses last year.

Belgium Defers Easing (10:50 a.m. NY)

Belgium’s federal government and regions agreed to postpone a decision about relaxing restrictions by a week amid a surge in hospital admissions in recent days, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.

Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said he’s asking hospitals to reserve as much as 50% of ICU beds for Covid-19 patients. Current ICU occupation by Covid-19 patients ranges from 7% to as much as 35%, depending on the region.

FDA Vets J&J’s One-Shot Vaccine (10:23 a.m. NY)

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is set for vetting by outside advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Friday, one of the final steps toward potential authorization of the country’s first one-dose immunization against Covid-19.

If the panel votes that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks, as expected, the agency could grant emergency clearance within days, providing a badly needed boost to U.S. vaccine supplies. While the committee’s decision is non-binding, the FDA usually follows its advisers’ recommendations.

Biden administration officials have said the U.S. expects J&J to release 3 million to 4 million shots next week, assuming it’s authorized for use. The company is ready to deliver 20 million doses by the end of March, an executive said earlier this week at a congressional hearing.

The Caribbean Asks for Help (9:43 a.m NY)

The 15-country Caribbean Community has asked wealthy nations to share their supply of Covid-19 vaccines, saying their economies won’t be able to recover from the pandemic without them. In a statement issued late Thursday, CARICOM said it was “dissatisfied and deeply concerned about the inequitable access to vaccines” it was facing.

While members states belong to the WHO’s Covax Facility, the only vaccines received so far have been 170,000 shots that the government of India donated to Dominica and Barbados, the group said. Those two nations have been sharing their supply with other CARICOM members.

Separately, governments are starting to listen to WHO’s request to not compromise vaccine supply through Covax by pursuing bilateral deals, according to Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor. Covax has been able to lock in the volumes needed over the coming weeks to ship vaccines to more countries.

Canada Approves Astra Vaccine (8:10 a.m. NY)

Health Canada’s approval of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine clears the way for millions of shots to be administered. The country will have access to 20 million doses of the vaccine, CBC reported.

Hungary, Slovenia Report S. Africa Strain (6:44 a.m. NY)

Hungary detected the South African variant of the coronavirus for the first time as the country grapples with a surge in new cases.

The variant, known to be more resistant than some other strains, was discovered on Thursday. Hungary plans to limit travel to inside the EU to reduce the chances of spreading Covid-19 variants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said earlier Friday.

Slovenia also confirmed the first infection with South Africa variant, the health minister said at a press conference.

Irish Cases Drop (4:30 p.m. HK)

Ireland is seeing a big drop in virus cases among health-care workers and residents of care homes, showing the apparent effect of vaccines. There are about 60 frontline health workers infected now, compared with more than 1,000 “just a few weeks ago,” Colm Henry, an official with Ireland’s health authority, told Newstalk Radio.

Cases in care homes have dropped to 91 from 482 on Feb. 14, he said. The change coincides with Ireland’s vaccine program, and matches the “signals” Israel has seen since it began its vaccinating, Henry added.

J&J Gets Initial U.S. Approval; CDC Issues Warning: Virus Update

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