Nation & World: Vaccine drive gains speed, but maskless fans fuel worries

photo by: Associated Press

A Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan arrives before the NFL Super Bowl 55 football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The drive to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus is gaining speed and newly recorded cases have fallen to their lowest level in three months, but authorities worry that raucous Super Bowl celebrations could fuel new outbreaks.

More than 4 million more vaccinations were reported over the weekend, a significantly faster clip than in previous days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly one in 10 Americans have now received at least one shot. But just 2.9% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, a long way from the 70% or more that experts say must be inoculated to conquer the outbreak.

Newly confirmed infections have declined to an average of 117,000 a day, the lowest point since early November. That is a steep drop from the peak of nearly 250,000 a day in early January.

The number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has also fallen sharply to about 81,000, down from more than 130,000 last month.

Health officials say the decline in hospitalizations and new cases most likely reflects an easing of the surge that was fueled by holiday gatherings, and perhaps better adherence to safety precautions.

The drop-off in new cases comes as fewer tests for the virus are being reported. But experts say the decline in cases is real. It is more pronounced than the apparent slowdown in testing, and it is accompanied by other encouraging signs.

“We are seeing a real decline because it’s been sustained over time and it’s correlated with decreasing hospitalizations,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “That tells you that there does seem to be something afoot.”

The question, he said, is whether the lower numbers can be sustained as new variants of the virus take hold in the United States. President Joe Biden has announced plans to spend billions to increase rapid testing by the summer.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are still running at close to all-time highs, at an average of about 3,160 per day, down about 200 since mid-January. The death toll overall has eclipsed 460,000.

Federal officials are warning states not to relax restrictions on dining out and other social activities.

“We have yet to control this pandemic,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, said Monday.

The sight of fans, many without masks, celebrating the Super Bowl in the streets, in sports bars and at game-watching parties has sparked worries of new outbreaks.

“This isn’t how we should be celebrating the Super Bowl,” the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., Rick Kriseman, tweeted after a maskless party was hosted by rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in a hangar at the city’s airport, not far from where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the title.

“It’s not safe or smart. It’s stupid. We’re going to take a very close look at this, and it may end up costing someone a lot more than 50 cent.”

Police in Charleston, S.C., issued citations to nearly 50 people for not wearing masks in public during Sunday’s game.

Richard Medina of Los Angeles attended a friend’s backyard game party on Sunday, though he knew case numbers in Southern California remain high.

“It was outdoors and felt like it was going to be pretty chill,” said Medina, who spent most of the past year in isolation with a roommate who hates sports. He enjoyed the escape but decided to leave after awhile.

“More people started showing up later, and it felt like the more people drank, the more they started getting sloppy about masks and keeping their distance,” he said.

New variants raise worry about reinfections

Evidence is mounting that having COVID-19 may not protect against getting infected again with some of the new variants. People also can get second infections with earlier versions of the coronavirus if they mounted a weak defense the first time, new research suggests.

How long immunity lasts from natural infection is one of the big questions in the pandemic. Scientists still think reinfections are fairly rare and usually less serious than initial ones, but recent developments around the world have raised concerns.

In South Africa, a vaccine study found new infections with a variant in 2% of people who previously had an earlier version of the virus.

In Brazil, several similar cases were documented with a new variant there. Researchers are exploring whether reinfections help explain a recent surge in the city of Manaus, where three-fourths of residents were thought to have been previously infected.

In the United States, a study found that 10% of Marine recruits who had evidence of prior infection and repeatedly tested negative before starting basic training were later infected again. That work was done before the new variants began to spread, said one study leader, Dr. Stuart Sealfon of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

“Previous infection does not give you a free pass,” he said. “A substantial risk of reinfection remains.”

Reinfections pose a public health concern, not just a personal one. Even in cases where reinfection causes no symptoms or just mild ones, people might still spread the virus. That’s why health officials are urging vaccination as a longer-term solution and encouraging people to wear masks, keep physical distance and wash their hands frequently.

“It’s an incentive to do what we have been saying all along: to vaccinate as many people as we can and to do so as quickly as we can,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert.

“My looking at the data suggests … and I want to underline suggests … the protection induced by a vaccine may even be a little better” than natural infection, Fauci said.


BRIEFLY



Israeli leader pleads not guilty as corruption trial resumes

Jerusalem (ap) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty Monday as his trial on corruption charges resumed in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.

Netanyahu was indicted last year for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. In recent months, Israelis have held weekly protests calling on him to resign over the charges and criticizing his government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse could be heard inside the room where the hearing was being held.

He stands accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. The latest hearing was postponed last month due to lockdown restrictions on public gatherings.


Myanmar junta imposes curfew, meeting bans as protests swell

Yangon, Myanmar (ap) — Myanmar’s new military rulers on Monday signaled their intention to crack down on opponents of their takeover, issuing decrees that effectively banned peaceful public protests in the country’s two biggest cities.

The restrictive measures were ordered after police fired water cannons at hundreds of protesters in the Myanmar capital, Naypyitaw, who were demanding the military hand power back to elected officials. It was just one of many demonstrations around the country.

Rallies and gatherings of more than five people, along with motorized processions, were banned, and an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew was imposed for areas of Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s first- and second-biggest cities, where thousands of people have been demonstrating since Saturday.

Protesters in Yangon rallied Monday at a major downtown intersection raising three-finger salutes that are symbols of resistance and carrying placards saying, “Reject the military coup” and “Justice for Myanmar.”

There were also demonstrations in towns in the north, southeast and east of the country.


New York’s high court ends state case against Paul Manafort

New York (ap) — Paul Manafort won’t face mortgage fraud charges in New York after the state’s highest court declined to revisit lower court decisions that found the case brought against Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman in the wake of a similar federal prosecution amounted to double jeopardy.

The decision last week from the New York Court of Appeals, a last blow to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s effort to put Manafort behind bars, closed the door on charges in the matter. It came less than two months after Trump pardoned the 71-year-old Manafort in a federal case that covered similar ground and put him behind bars.


Dems propose $1,400 checks as part of Biden virus relief

Washington (ap) — House Democrats on Monday proposed an additional $1,400 in direct payments to individuals as Congress began piecing together a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that tracks President Joe Biden’s plan for battling the pandemic and reviving a still-staggering economy.

Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee would expand tax credits for families with children, for lower-earning people and those buying health insurance on marketplaces created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The panel, which plans to approve the measure by week’s end, would also provide health care subsidies for some unemployed workers.

Less than three weeks into his presidency, Biden has declared that vanquishing the virus and resuscitating the economy are his top priorities. The coronavirus pandemic has killed over 460,000 Americans, and the economy has lost 10 million jobs since the crisis began last year.


Settlement near in case of suspect run over by state bulldozer

The estate of a man who was run over by a bulldozer while being chased by Pennsylvania State Police for illegally growing a handful of marijuana plants is nearing settlement of its federal wrongful death lawsuit against the state.

Gregory Longenecker, a 51-year-old short-order cook and Grateful Dead fan, had fled into thick brush after being caught growing 10 marijuana plants on public land near Reading. His body was found under the treads of a Pennsylvania Game Commission bulldozer that state police had commandeered in pursuit.

The suit by Longenecker’s family contended that state police and the game commission took “crazy and lethal action” against an unarmed man who posed no threat, then destroyed or withheld evidence to cover it up.


Tesla buys $1.5B in Bitcoin, will accept as payment soon

Silver Spring, Md. (ap) — Holders of Bitcoin may be able to cash in some of their investment in the digital currency for a brand new electric car.

Electric automaker Tesla said Monday that it has invested around $1.5 billion in Bitcoin and it plans to begin accepting the digital currency as payment for its high-end vehicles soon. The price of Bitcoin soared 15.4% to around $44,500 Monday in reaction to Tesla’s announcement, according to CoinBase.


Election officials in Georgia open investigation into Trump call

Atlanta (ap) — Georgia’s secretary of state’s office on Monday opened an investigation into a phone call between Donald Trump and the state’s top elections official in which the then-president said he wanted to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss in the state, an official said.

Walter Jones, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, confirmed the investigation.

“The Secretary of State’s office investigates complaints it receives. The investigations are fact-finding and administrative in nature. Any further legal efforts will be left to the Attorney General,” Jones wrote.

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