Nation & World: Experts warn against COVID-19 variants as states reopen

photo by: Associated Press

In this Feb. 10, 2021, file photo, Lucy Gagliano, 75, is vaccinated at Central High School in Bridgeport, Conn. States are beginning to ease coronavirus restrictions, but health experts say we don’t know enough yet about variants to roll back measures that could help slow their spread. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — As states lift mask rules and ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses because of falling case numbers, public health officials say authorities are overlooking potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants that are quietly spreading through the U.S.

Scientists widely agree that the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough of a handle on the variants to roll back public health measures and is at risk of fumbling yet another phase of the pandemic after letting the virus rage through the country over the last year and kill nearly 500,000 people.

“Now is not the time to fully open up,” said Karthik Gangavarapu, a researcher at Scripps Research Institute whose team works closely with San Diego health officials to watch for mutant versions of the coronavirus. “We need to still be vigilant.”

Over the past two weeks, the daily averages for both coronavirus cases and deaths have dropped by about half in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And as of Wednesday, over 40 million people — about 12% of the population — had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

But experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky say the downward trend could reverse itself if new variants take hold.

The problem, as experts see it, is that the U.S. has been slow to ramp up a rigorous genetic surveillance system for tracking the variants’ spread and measuring how much of a foothold they have gained here.

“The fact of the matter is we’re kind of in the dark,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, who studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins. She said the variants are “probably widespread even if we don’t know it.”

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will spend $200 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to triple its levels of genetic sequencing to identify mutations that might make the coronavirus more infectious or more deadly. Separately, Congress is considering a bill that would provide $1.75 billion for such work.

A more contagious and possibly more deadly variant that was first identified in Britain has been found in at least 42 states. Other variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil have been been reported across the U.S. in low numbers. The South Africa one is especially worrisome because of evidence it may diminish the effectiveness of the vaccines.

“We’re chasing a moving target. It’s changing a little too fast for comfort,” said Dr. Lucio Miele a geneticist at LSU Health Sciences in New Orleans. “We need to be proactive. We’re not invulnerable.”

Detecting variants and knowing where and how widely they are spreading could be critical to preventing another deadly wave of COVID-19 like the one that overwhelmed hospitals this winter.

In Europe in late 2020, once surveillance began flagging variants like the one that was causing cases to rage out of control and overwhelm hospitals in England, governments across the continent responded by imposing strict travel restrictions and lockdowns.

But in the U.S., the emergence of variants has been met with a shrug among many state and local officials amid the overall drop-off in confirmed infections.

Florida, for example, has the country’s highest tally of cases of the British variant, according to the CDC. But state leaders seem to have already moved on from the coronavirus, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.

When asked about the rise of new strains last week, DeSantis told reporters, “The media is worried about that, obviously. You guys really love that.”

Florida has repealed many restrictions and hosted 25,000 fans for the Super Bowl in Tampa and 30,000 spectators at the Daytona 500 a week later in what was the largest sporting event in the nation since the start of the pandemic.

Restrictions are also being eased in California, which is recovering from a surge of COVID-19 that overran its hospital system in recent months. California officials expect a substantial number of counties to be allowed to offer limited-capacity indoor dining and open up theaters, museums and gyms. The state is also reporting the country’s second-highest case count for the British variant.

Elsewhere, states such as North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have lifted mask mandates in recent weeks, and many more have eased restrictions on businesses like restaurants, bars and stores.

Public health experts say part of the problem is that the latest statistics may be misleading. The CDC, for example, has reported only about 1,300 cases of emerging variants nationwide.

“That is an undercount,” said Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Rivers. She and others say that figure reflects the country’s underdeveloped genetic surveillance system.

Local health authorities are facing the same statistical problem.

Last month, Minnesota was the first state to detect the COVID-19 variant identified in Brazil. By testing about 2% to 3% of the state’s positive COVID-19 samples, Minnesota’s Department of Health has since identified two cases of the Brazilian variant and 40 of the British one.

“It is somewhat a meaningless number,” said Kathy Como-Sabetti, an epidemiology manager for the health department. “It is a small fraction of our total number of cases.”

Como-Sabetti said the state is bracing for a potential wave of illness if variants proliferate unchecked.

Some scientists have called for the U.S. to test about 5% of positive COVID-19 samples — which, this week, would represent about 3,900 sequences — to stay on top of variants. Currently, the U.S. sequences between 0.3% to 0.5% of virus samples. Britain sequences about 8% of its positive cases and Denmark around 12%.

“We are woefully behind when it comes to sequencing technology,” Miele said.

In the meantime, Chicago and surrounding suburbs allowed indoor dining to resume in January for the first time since October and reopened, with crowd limits, major cultural attractions including the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium. Boston opened up gyms, movie theaters and sightseeing harbor cruises this month.

New York City restaurants got the green light to open for indoor dining last week, despite concern from some local officials.

“Are we defying the global pattern of variants doubling every 10 days?” tweeted City Council member Mark D. Levine. “Or are variants in fact growing here and we just aren’t being told?”


South Dakota’s AG charged with 3 misdemeanors in fatal crash

Pierre, S.D. (ap) — South Dakota’s Republican attorney general was charged Thursday with three misdemeanors for striking and killing a man with his car last summer, avoiding more serious felony charges in a case that raised questions about how the state’s top law enforcement official first reported the crash.

Jason Ravnsborg could face up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine on each charge: careless driving, driving out of his lane and operating a motor vehicle while on his phone.

S.C. governor signs abortion ban; Planned Parenthood sues

Columbia, S.C. (ap) — South Carolina’s governor on Thursday signed a bill banning most abortions, one of his top priorities since he took office more than four years ago. Planned Parenthood immediately sued, effectively preventing the new law from taking effect.

The “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act, is similar to abortion restriction laws that a dozen states have previously passed. All are tied up in court. Federal law, which takes precedence over state law, currently allows abortion.

“There’s a lot of happy hearts beating across South Carolina right now,” Republican Gov. Henry McMaster proclaimed during a ceremony at the Statehouse attended by lawmakers who made the proposal a reality.

Immediately after he signed the bill, a group of legislators and members of the public, standing shoulder to shoulder and wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, began singing the words “Praise God” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

NASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (ap) — A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

“Now the amazing science starts,” a jubilant Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, said at a news conference, where he theatrically ripped up the contingency plan in the event of a failure and threw the document over his shoulders.

Power returns in more places after storm; water woes grow

Austin, Texas (ap) — Power was restored to more homes and businesses Thursday in states hit by a deadly blast of winter that overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold this week. But the crisis was far from over in parts of the South, where many people still lacked safe drinking water.

In Texas on Thursday, about 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about 3 million a day earlier, though utility officials said limited rolling blackouts were still possible.

The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.

Cruz returns from Cancun after uproar

Dallas (ap) — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said his family vacation to Mexico was “obviously a mistake” as he returned stateside Thursday following an uproar over his disappearance during a deadly winter storm.

The Republican senator said he began second-guessing the trip since the moment he got on the plane Wednesday. “In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it,” he told reporters.

The Associated Press and other media outlets reported that he had traveled out of the country with his family as hundreds of thousands of Texans were still grappling with the fallout of a winter storm that crippled the state’s power grid. The trip drew criticism from leaders in both parties and was seen as potentially damaging to his future political ambitions.

Cruz said in an earlier statement Thursday that he accompanied his family to Cancun a day earlier after his daughters asked to go on a trip with friends, given that school was canceled for the week.

Dolly Parton asks Tennessee not to put her statue at Capitol

Nashville, Tenn. (ap) — Dolly Parton is asking Tennessee lawmakers to withdraw a bill that would erect a statue of her on the Capitol grounds in Nashville.

“Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time,” Parton said in a statement issued Thursday.

Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle introduced the bill last month that aims to honor Parton “for all that she has contributed to this state.”

Dems consider piecemeal plan for immigration

Washington (ap) — After decades of failed attempts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden are signaling openness to a piece-by-piece approach.

They unveiled a broad bill Thursday that would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million people living in the country without legal status. There are other provisions, too, but the Democrats are not talking all-or-nothing.


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