Faster driving, more traffic deaths in pandemic year; disparities in vaccine access favor the wealthy: Live COVID-19 updates

John Bacon, Jorge L. Ortiz and Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY
·12 min read

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday delayed a release of coronavirus guidelines designed to ease restrictions for fully vaccinated Americans.

The agency’s guidelines were expected to align with comments made this week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who suggested "small gatherings" indoors among vaccinated people were probably safe.

"The relative risk is so low that you would not have to wear a mask, that you could have a good social gathering within the home," Fauci said at a White House task force briefing Monday.

The guidelines were also expected to advise on travel scenarios for immunized people. Politico, citing two senior administration officials with knowledge of the situation, said the guidelines were to be released Thursday but were delayed because they were still being finalized. The CDC did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.

The news comes as the pace of vaccinations grows to more than 2 million Americans per day. President Joe Biden said this week there will be enough vaccine for every adult in the U.S. by late May. Some health experts say the U.S. could reach that milestone by mid-April.

Adrianna Rodriguez

Also in the news:

►Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's top COVID-19 adviser, told CNN on Thursday that coronavirus restrictions shouldn't be relaxed until the number of daily new infections in the U.S. dwindles to less than 10,000 "and maybe even considerably less than that." The country has been averaging more than 64,000 new cases per day over the last week.

►The California legislature on Thursday approved a $6.6 billion plan that attempts to convince school districts to bring students back for classroom instruction before the end of the school year and dangles $2 billion in incentives to reopen by April 1. Gov. Gavin Newsom supports the plan.

►Health officials in Hillsborough County, Florida, have determined that official events around Super Bowl 55 resulted in 57 total COVID-19 cases. Thousands of fans traveled to Tampa to attend the game and surrounding events.

►New York, one of the first states in the U.S. to implement travel restrictions on domestic visitors last spring, took another step toward relaxing its COVID-19 policies Wednesday by lifting the quarantine and testing restrictions on people who have been vaccinated within 90 days of their second inoculation.

►An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Vermont state prison in Newport has grown to 100 inmates and eight staff members, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections said.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.82 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 520,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 115.58 million cases and 2.56 million deaths. Nearly 110 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 82.57 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: Five states have announced rolling back mask mandates in major recalls of coronavirus safety measures over the last month – leaving many to wonder whether additional states will join the tide and alter how the country is dealing with COVID-19 at a crucial moment in the fight against the disease. Read the full story.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

California to allot 40% of vaccines for poorest residents

In an effort to protect communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, California officials said the state will implement a new plan that allocates 40% of its supply of COVID-19 vaccines to residents in the lowest-income areas.

The policy shift is expected to take place in about two weeks, after the majority of those currently eligible are vaccinated. That group includes people who work in health care, education, agriculture and the food industry, as well as those 65 and older.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that wealthier Californians have benefited most in the first months of the vaccine rollout, with those in the higher-income areas getting 35% of the vaccinations, compared to 17% for those in the most disadvantaged areas.

Maryland also seeking more equitable vaccine access

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan released further plans Thursday to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more equitably to underserved parts of the state, after leaders of its largest Black populations criticized major disparities in the rollout of vaccinations to minorities.

“We’re not where we need to be with the Black community or the Hispanic community, and so we’re continuing to take every effort to ramp that up,” Hogan said at a news conference in offering new steps to improve on distribution efforts.

-- The Associated Press

Wealthy white Florida residents getting vaccines aimed for rural minorities

In Palm Beach County, Florida, where former President Donald Trump now lives, people in wealthy white areas are getting a significant share of the COVID-19 vaccines intended for rural Black and Latino communities.

STAT News reports that even though Hispanics make up 21.7% of the county residents and Black people account for 18% of the population, as of March 1 they had received only 4.7% and 4.1% of vaccines, respectively. Combined, the two racial or ethnic groups represent nearly 40% of the county's population and had gotten less than 9% of the doses.

And it's not just those in the county who are attending vaccination drives for poorer neighborhoods. STAT reports that people from more than 100 miles away have been driving in to those events.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials have been under scrutiny amid accusations of favoring wealthy residents for vaccinations. DeSantis has denied any favoritism.

Fewer miles but faster driving in pandemic year fuels spike in traffic deaths

Traffic deaths in the U.S. increased for the first time in four years in 2020, as coronavirus-induced lockdowns opened roads and led to more reckless driving.

The nonprofit National Safety Council estimates in a report issued Thursday that 42,060 people died in vehicle crashes in 2020, an 8% increase over 2019. In addition, the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven spiked 24%, the largest annual percentage increase since the council began collecting data in 1923.

The death total on the roads was the nation's highest since 2007, when 43,945 people were killed in vehicle crashes, even though federal data shows the number of miles driven dwindled by 13% in 2020. The safety council also said about 4.8 million people were injured in crashes last year.

“The pandemic appears to be taking our eyes off the ball when it comes to traffic safety,” said Ken Kolosh, the safety council’s manager of statistics, adding that speeding was the top factor contributing to the rise in traffic deaths.

Texas Gov. Abbott's decision to end mask mandate stirs controversy

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that he is dropping all mask mandates and business restrictions effective March 10 is fueling controversy in the Lone Star state. Dr. Mark McClellan, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration whom the Abbott administration has consulted in the past, said he had no input.

"I don't think this is the right time," McClellan said. "Texas has been making some real progress, but it's too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others."

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo described Abbott's ambitious plan as "grossly misguided" but said it will provide residents an opportunity to see "who among us cares enough about their fellow Texans to follow simple steps to protect our fellow Texans from a deadly virus." Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state Department of State Health Services, said he was not consulted on the decision but did not believe there was a threat to public safety. Hellerstedt said he believes Texans should wear masks but should not be ordered to do so.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a presidential adviser on COVID, said the decision by Texas and Mississippi to fully reopen was "inexplicable.''

–Asher Price and Nicole Cobler, Austin American-Statesman

Actual cost of $1.9 trillion stimulus plan remains a mystery

Senators were awaiting a final price tag on President Joe Biden's COVID-19 stimulus plan Thursday before starting debate on the measure Democrats are eager to pass by the end of next week. The Senate had been set to begin debate Wednesday on the legislation but was still waiting for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation to estimate the total cost of the Senate version of the bill, according to a senior Democratic aide speaking on condition of anonymity. By rule the total cost must come in at no more than the $1.9 trillion authorized in previous legislation.

Nicholas Wu

It's not just Texas: Pressure builds to ease restrictions

Texas and Mississippi aren't the only states rolling back mask mandates and other safety measures. Montana, New York and Arkansas are among states rapidly easing restrictions, possibly building momentum for others to follow suit.

On Thursday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said the state will loosen some measures. And Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said restrictions on the number of people who can eat at restaurant tables and outdoor programs at senior citizen centers will be lifted, although she extended the state's masking requirement until April 9.

“We have kept the mask mandate in place for more than a generous period of time because it has helped,” Ivey said.

Meanwhile, some cities and businesses are making their own choices about the need to wear masks in public, regardless of what governors say. Some of the nation’s largest retailers, including Target, Kroger, Macy’s, Starbucks and Best Buy, said they're not rolling back masking requirements at their stores nationwide.

Eric Rubin, an infectious diseases specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he understood the daunting task for states desperate to reopen their economies. But that, he says, has nothing to do with wearing a mask.

"The part that doesn't make any sense at all is the masking part," Rubin said. "There's no economic reason to not wear masks ever."

Christal Hayes and Jessica Guynn

Iconic civil rights march in Selma will be virtual this year

For the first time in decades, there will be no crowds walking streets in Selma, Alabama, or politicians linking arms at the base of Edmund Pettus Bridge during the first weekend in March.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee is going virtual, streaming speeches, workshops and fellowship into homes across the nation and around the world. The 2021 Jubilee marks the 56th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, in which hundreds of civil rights protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965.

"We realized in September there was still going to be a very real threat to public health and safety," said Drew Glover, principal coordinator for the 2021 event. "We took a step back and asked ourselves about what would be the best approach to still have the event and keep people as safe as possible."

Melissa Brown, Montgomery Advertiser

Arizona governor orders all schools to open classrooms

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered all schools must return to in-person learning this month, saying "students need to be back in the classroom."

Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday that calls for all schools to reopen in-person learning by March 15, or after spring break. The move comes about a year after schools initially closed in-person classes to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Some states have similar plans to welcome back students, including California, Michigan and North Carolina.

President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package being debated in the Senate, has about $130 billion included for schools to give them the resources to reopen safely amid the pandemic. Many states are now vaccinating teachers in an effort to get them back into classrooms as soon as possible.

Rachel Leingang, Arizona Republic

Fewer low-income students heading for college as pandemic takes toll

Applying to college has always been harder for first-generation and low-income students than for peers with greater access to support at every step of the process. This year, data shows, that gulf has widened. The pandemic is a likely culprit.

Overall completion of the federal financial aid form, a harbinger of college-going intent, was 9.2% behind the prior year on Feb. 19. In high schools serving lower-income students, it lagged 12.1%, and in schools with a high percentage of students of color, the decline was 14.6%.

"What we are really worried about, simply put, is: 'will we miss out on an entire generation of students going to college?'" said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “If the pandemic has highlighted anything” about admissions, he said, it is “how the system perpetuates inequality” and how complex applying has become.

Laura Pappano, The Hechinger Report

Hurdles remain as vaccine makers scramble to meet delivery dates

As vaccine experts welcomed President Joe Biden's accelerated timeline for distribution, they offered some caution about whether the companies can reach their promised doses and delivery dates.

While there's never 100% certainty in manufacturing, pharmaceutical manufacturing is especially finicky and demanding. People like to think making vaccines is like making widgets or automobiles but it’s not, said Robert Van Exan, president of Immunization Policy and Knowledge Translation, a vaccine production consulting firm.

“You can be going along and getting a certain yield and then all of the sudden your yield drops and you don’t know why," Van Exan said. "Test delays or failures, raw material supply chain, lot failures and yield problems are just some of the examples of things that can result in supply disruptions."

Elizabeth Weise

What to know about COVID variants spreading throughout the country

Health officials are urging Americans to not let their guard down against COVID-19 as researchers discover new variants that may be more transmissible and could also be somewhat resistant to the vaccine. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,'' CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday.

While experts have been following variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, they're also seeing red flags in newer variants discovered in Brazil, New York and California. Find out what you should know about the variants.

– Adrianna Rodriguez

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Traffic deaths; CDC guidelines; Texas mask mandate