Troops to help vaccine distribution; at-home test surge

More than 1,000 active duty troops will begin supporting vaccination sites around the United States, starting later this month in California, White House senior COVID-19 advisor Andy Slavitt announced Friday.

Slavitt said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin OK’ed the move and troops’ mission in California would being within 10 days.

The White House COVID-19 Response Team also announced Friday that the government would be supporting six additional companies to surge at-home COVID-19 test supplies to more than 60 million by the end of summer.

The government is boosting at-home testing supply through the Defense Production Act, said Tim Manning, COVID-19 supply coordinator. The news comes on the heels of an announcement Monday that the government would help boost production from Australian company Ellume to provide the U.S. with 8.5 million at-home tests.

“The country is well behind in where we need to be in testing,” Manning said.

Manning also announced that the government would be invoking the Defense Production Act to support manufacturing of the Pfizer vaccine and of rubber medical gloves for health care workers.

COVID-19 has killed more than 456,000 Americans, and infections have continued to mount despite the introduction of a pair of vaccines late in 2020. USA TODAY is tracking the news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletterfor updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

In the headlines:

►An estimated 631,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19 by June 1, according to the latest forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. 

►Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide mask order an hour after the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal his previous mandate Thursday.

►The White House is studying a proposal to send masks to all Americans, a notion the Trump administration considered but discarded. “There are a range of options on the table to help protect more Americans from the coronavirus and encourage people to mask up,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding that no decision has been made on the idea.

►The FDA’s advisory committee will meet Feb. 26 to discuss Johnson & Johnson’s application for emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine, the agency announced Thursday. 

►Paperwork problems in Indiana led the United States to report a record 4,941 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, nearly 500 people worse than the previous record, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.

►California lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at hastening the reopening of Disneyland, which has been shuttered since March, and other California theme parks.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has 26.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 456,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 105 million cases and 2.2 million deaths. More than 57.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 35.2 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: The digital divide, even a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, remains a hurdle for online schooling. There are still thousands of students who can’t get reliable WiFi. Read the full story.

Iowa governor lifting mask requirements effective Sunday

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will lift the state’s limited mask requirement Sunday, along with the social distance and other limitations she had in place for businesses and social gatherings.

Her latest coronavirus emergency proclamation, issued Friday afternoon and effective 12:01 a.m. Sunday, instead “strongly encourages Iowans, businesses and organizations to take reasonable public health measures consistent with guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health,” Reynolds’ spokesperson Pat Garrett said.  

Since mid-November, Reynolds, a Republican, has required Iowans two years of age and older to wear masks if they were in indoor areas and spent 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of a person not in their households. The rule carried several exceptions. Her previous proclamation also required social distancing between groups at bars, restaurants, casinos, fitness centers and other establishments, as well as at social gatherings and sporting events. 

Mask violations on planes, trains, buses could result in fines up to $1,500

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Friday that it will recommend fines ranging from $250 to $1,500 for people who do not abide by the new transportation mask order issued by President Joe Biden on his second day in office.

The agency said it could also “seek a sanction amount that falls outside these ranges,” in the announcement and noted the higher fines would apply to repeat offenders.  

Biden’s order requires people to wear masks in airports, bus and train terminals and on trains, planes, buses and public transportation. 

TSA has been charged with implementing Biden’s executive order and subsequent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask-wearing rules that took effect Feb. 1 and built on the order.

Although the TSA is most commonly associated with airport checkpoints, fines will apply to offenders across those various transportation types. TSA said on Twitter the agency has “provided transportation system operators specific guidance on how to report violations so that TSA may issue penalties to those who refuse to wear a face mask.”

– Julia Thompson 

The latest updates on school reopenings around the US

►Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all Virginia school systems to develop options for in-person instruction by March 15, and also wants the systems to consider summer-school for all students in an effort to help them “catch up” on lessons lost during the pandemic, he announced Friday.

►Public school students did not return to classrooms this week in the nation’s third-largest school district. Chicago Public Schools initially planned for 70,000 K-8 students to return this past Monday, but classes have remained online amid ongoing negotiations between the teachers union and City Hall.

►In Philadelphia, the teachers’ union told its members not to show up to school buildings on Monday ahead of a planned reopening on Feb. 22, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

FDA will draft guidance to work with vaccine, drug and testing companies on COVID-19 variants

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced late Thursday that it is developing guidance to help vaccine, drug and testing manufacturers adapt to the growing threat of COVID-19 variants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at least 618 cases of the coronavirus variants from the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa across 33 states.

Existing vaccines, treatments and tests still work well, emphasized the FDA’s acting commissioner Janet Woodcock. But now is the time to get ready for a future when they may not.

“We must prepare for all eventualities,” she said in a call with reporters.

– Karen Weintraub

Fighting on the frontlines of COVID-19 while his team plays in the Super Bowl

When Laurent Duvernay-Tardif wakes up Friday, he will think about work, the one he left behind and the one that lies ahead. A bye week, practice and travel, he’ll think as his Kansas City Chiefs prepare for Super Bowl 55. Then, his focus will turn to his other work.

Duvernay-Tardif became the first of 69 active NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and has been working as an orderly/nurse in a long-term care facility in Montreal.

He has fed patients, changed soiled linens, administered IVs, drawn blood, handed out medication, performed COVID-19 tests and conducted patient exams.

“At the beginning, it was hard. It was a big event when I opted out. But then you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and go change diapers for a couple months,” he told USA TODAY. Read more about Duvernay-Tardif and other NFL players who opted out of the season here.

– Lorenzo Reyes

Senate clears way for COVID-19 relief package

The Senate early Friday set the stage for the passage of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package that President Joe Biden is pushing.

The 51-50 vote to approve a budget resolution paving the way for Biden’s American Rescue Plan fell along party lines with every Democrat in favor and every Republican opposed. Vice President Kamala Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, broke the tie around 5:30 a.m.

The resolution allows Democrats to use a process known as “reconciliation” to bypass a Senate filibuster for budget-related bills. Without it, Democrats would need at least 60 votes, including 10 Republicans, a tall order given the opposition from GOP lawmakers.

Later Friday, House Democratic leaders expressed confidence that the bill would pass Congress before March 15, when enhanced unemployment benefits are set to end.

Committees in the House and Senate will now start working on several aspects of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which would provide $1,400 direct payments to individuals, $160 billion to distribute COVID-19 tests and vaccines, and hundreds of billions to cash-strapped state and local governments to stay afloat and open schools.

– Ledyard King, Nicholas Wu and Joey Garrison

Workers who lost jobs due to COVID-19 have found higher-paying positions

While the U.S. economy is far from healed from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many permanently laid-off workers are finding new jobs and often for more pay and at higher levels than their previous positions, according to a recent survey by Skynova.

Skynova, which provides online invoicing services for businesses, found that 65% of employees who lost their jobs permanently due to COVID-19 but continued to look for work have landed new positions.

Even more surprising: About 57% of laid-off workers are earning more money in their new roles, including 57.4% of blue-collar workers and 56.5% of white-collar employees, the survey shows. Also, 58.8% of blue-collar workers and 50.8% of white-collar staffers said their new jobs are at higher levels than their old ones. About 56% overall said they’re receiving better benefits.

Brandon Boyd was furloughed then permanently laid off from his communications jobs for an events company. Now, he’s in a marketing coordinator position for Mercyhurst University. While it pays about $4,000 a year less than his old job, he’s offsetting that gap with free online classes at the school that will allow him to earn a Master’s degree. He’s also benefiting from other career development opportunities.

“It’s going to end up being better for me,” he said.

– Paul Davidson

California prison with worst virus outbreak slapped with record fine

California workplace safety regulators announced Thursday that a state prison rocked by one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks has been hit with by far its largest pandemic-related fine yet against an employer.

The $421,880 fine against San Quentin State Prison is several times higher than any others levied by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as Cal/OSHA. Only a few others exceed $100,000, and most are several thousand dollars.

The announcement comes days after the state’s inspector general said corrections officials’ poorly planned attempts to protect inmates from the coronavirus at a Southern California prison “caused a public health disaster” at San Quentin, north of San Francisco. The outbreak sickened 75% of the inmate population, and led to the deaths of 28 inmates and a correctional officer there.

How a secret military experiment left Black Georgians wary of COVID vaccine

Black Americans are more hesitant than white Americans to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The reasons for that hit close to home in Savannah, Georgia, where a classified military operation in the 1950s dropped hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes – mosquitoes that many believe were infected with disease – on Carver Village. 

“They didn’t tell anybody, and it happened,” said Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis. “And so that leaves some apprehension, especially when you have residents of that area who’ve been there since the ’50s. And so my job as neighborhood president, and also as chairman of the County Commission, is to kind of calm the storm down to let them know that this vaccination is not like that.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking attitudes about the vaccine for months, indicates 43% of Black adults in the U.S. are taking a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, according to results of a poll completed Jan. 18. That compares to 26% of white adults in the same poll who say that when an FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 is available to them for free, they would wait and see how it is working for other people. Read more here.

– Mary Landers, Savannah Morning News

Johnson & Johnson applies for FDA authorization for single-shot vaccine

Johnson & Johnson, whose single-dose COVID-19 vaccine provided 66% protection against the disease in international trials, requested emergency-use authorization from the FDA on Thursday.

If it gains clearance, the J&J offering could serve as another valuable tool in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic at a time when vaccine demand outstrips supply. The company said it expects to deliver 100 million doses before the end of June.

The J&J vaccine demonstrated higher effectiveness in U.S. trials (72%) than in overall testing, though it didn’t perform as well as the vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna (both above 94%). But the J&J product has two distinct advantages: It requires only one shot – the company is exploring whether a second one would improve protection – and it can be stored at refrigerator temperatures. The other two vaccines need to be frozen.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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