CDC chief wants to ‘give people a break’ from mask wearing once transmission rates improve: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining and federal health officials could ease guidance on masks soon, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaking at a White House briefing on COVID-19, said her agency was assessing data and “will soon put guidance in place” that encourages prevention measures while protecting public health and hospitals.

The CDC recommends indoor masking in areas with substantial or high transmission. That includes 97% of U.S. counties, Walensky said.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better,” Walensky said. “And then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.”

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, provided an update on the Biden administration program to ship free coronavirus tests to American households. Fifty million orders – 200M tests – have been shipped, he said. 

Also in the news:

►Vaccination before contracting the coronavirus appears to diminish the chances of developing symptoms of long COVID among those who get infected, according to six of eight studies examined by the UK’s National Security Agency.

►A judge blocked Boston Mayor Michelle Wu from imposing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate on certain classes of firefighters and police officers.

►The Biden administration is telling Congress that it needs an additional $30 billion to press ahead with the fight against COVID-19, officials told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 78 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 928,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 417 million cases and over 5.8 million deaths. More than 214 million Americans – 64.5% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘 What we’re reading: Research during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown Americans are enjoying the health benefits of being outdoors more than ever — but outdoor recreation is still largely dominated by white Americans, and nearly all other races continued to lag, or even stopped getting outdoors during the pandemic in disproportionate numbers.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

U.S. ‘moving in the right direction’ as weekly infections drop to lowest point in 2 months

The U.S. is reporting fewer than 1 million new coronavirus infections per week for the first time in two months, with the seven-day average dropping from about 453,000 two weeks ago to about 136,000 Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The declining numbers in cases, hospitalizations and deaths are prompting more governments, businesses and sports and entertainment venues to start lifting restrictions, allowing for more of a sense of normalcy than the country has enjoyed in months.

In Philadelphia, a vaccination requirement for indoor dining was removed Wednesday, and in Seattle proof of vaccination at restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms will no longer be necessary starting March 1. In Salt Lake City, the arena that’s home to the Utah Jazz will stop requiring fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend games, effective Feb. 25.

Several states that had indoor mask mandates, including California and New York, have rescinded them, although local officials and businesses can impose their own requirements.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the U.S. — where nearly 75% of adults are fully vaccinated — is “moving in the right direction,” while still urging caution.

“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against and treat,” Walensky said.

Most of California lifts indoor masking rule, but LA and Santa Clara counties keep it in place

California removed its mask mandate for indoor public places Wednesday, but two of its three largest cities will still require face coverings.

The state allows local health officials to impose stricter measures, and Los Angeles County — home to its namesake city — and Santa Clara County — where San Jose is located — have opted to keep masking in place. The city of Palm Springs and Mendocino County are doing likewise.

Statewide, masks are still required in certain settings, such as indoors at K-12 schools, at transportation hubs and in public transit. 

L.A. County did make an accommodation Wednesday by lifting an outdoor mask mandate as its rate of coronavirus infections dropped sharply and hospitalizations dwindled by 29% compared to the previous week.

“We remain very encouraged by the steady declines that are seen across so many of our metrics,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Modular vaccine production facilities planned for Africa

Vaccine maker BioNTech unveiled a plan Wednesday for modular manufacturing facilities that could dramatically boost production of vaccines and medicines in Africa. The German firm’s “BioNTainers” are shipping containers equipped with state-of-the-art production technology. Each facility would require about a dozen containers and could provide up to 50 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine each year, the company said. Other medicines and vaccines also could be produced at the sites.

The company said the containers could be available later this year, although it could take another year for mass production to be fully underway. BioNTech has drawn criticism for refusing to suspend patents so other manufacturers could make the vaccine more widely available in developing nations.

“Today represents a momentous day for Mother Africa,” said Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo. “Another step in the process towards self-reliance has been taken.”

Ottawa weighs ‘no-go’ zones; murder conspiracy charges filed

Ottawa Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said new emergency measures could result in protest “no-go” zones around monuments and legislatures to help quell three weeks of chaos in Canada’s capital city. Police Chief Peter Sloly was ousted amid criticism over his handling of trucker-inspired protests against COVID-19 measures. 

The protests have spread across much of Canada. The Ambassador Bridge recently reopened after a blockade halted traffic between Detroit and Ontario for a week. But this week several protesters arrested in connection with a blockade at the border crossing between Coutts, Alberta, and Montana face charges of conspiracy to commit murder against Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.

Chronic fatigue syndrome epidemic could emerge as COVID retreats

Even as the latest COVID surge recedes, doctors and patient advocates warn that the virus could leave a new epidemic in its wake: millions more cases of the rare, mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome

Researchers increasingly see parallels between chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects 1.5 million Americans, and long COVID, the barrage of symptoms including exhaustion, persistent pain and cognitive impairment that can linger for months in some patients. 

The connection between the two disorders is still being studied, but some research suggests the pandemic could more than triple the prevalence of chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME. 

While research into COVID’s long-term impact is still in its infancy, there’s evidence that one in 10 infections may develop symptoms of chronic fatigue. That would equate to about 7.7 million cases in the U.S. 

— Gene Myers,

Vaccination, mask rules easing in entertainment world

Starting Thursday, vaccinated guests will no longer need to mask up indoors across most of Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Face coverings will still be required for all guests ages 2 and older on enclosed Disney transportation at both resorts, such as shuttles and monorails.

“We expect guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in all indoor locations, including indoor attractions and theaters,” Disney World’s website said. However, guests are not required to provide proof of vaccination.

There will be no vaccination, testing or masking requirements at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Stagecoach Country Music Festival when they return in April to the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, organizers announced.

– Britt Kennerly and Eve Chen

NJ Supreme Court rejects bid to block vaccine mandate for prison guards

The New Jersey state Supreme Court rejected a last-minute appeal by the state’s largest police union to block Gov. Phil Murphy’s vaccine mandate for workers in high-risk settings, meaning more than 11,000 county and state corrections officers have until Wednesday to show proof of vaccination or risk losing their jobs.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association did not deserve a stay pending appeal because it had not shown that its claim rested on settled law or had a reasonable probability of success, or that relief was consistent with the public interest, among other things.

The high court’s ruling extinguishes the union’s hope that a judge would step in to block Murphy’s mandate, which requires that workers in high-risk environments, including hospitals and jails, get the COVID-19 vaccine or face discipline.

— Steve Janoski,

Aides can keep substitute teaching in Iowa under emergency rule

Instructional aides may continue to substitute teach in multiple classrooms once Iowa’s emergency pandemic proclamation expires this week after lawmakers met Tuesday to approve an emergency rules change. Iowa public schools were worried that the expiration of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health disaster proclamation this week would worsen their staffing shortages since the proclamation relaxed the rules for some school staffing, like allowing the aides — known as paraeducators — to substitute teach in multiple classrooms.

The rule allows paraeducators with substitute teaching authorizations to work as a substitute in multiple classrooms with emergency permission if the school shows a documented need for them to fill that role. Normally, paraeducators’ work involves assisting teachers in the classroom, and they are only authorized to substitute teach if they are assigned to a specific special education classroom.

— Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register

Contributing: The Associated Press