Joe Biden vows vaccines for all adults by end of May; Texas, Mississippi defy health officials, end mask mandates: Live COVID-19 updates

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

Defying warnings from federal health officials about the need to stay vigilant against the coronavirus, the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi said Tuesday they're lifting COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.

Their decisions came on the same day President Joe Biden said there will be enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May, which is still unlikely to stem the recent reversal in coronavirus trends.

After announcing an unlikely partnership between pharmaceutical giants Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co. to increase production of the former's COVID-19 vaccine, Biden said the enhanced capabilities of that collaboration would allow the U.S. to inoculate more eligible Americans sooner. In the past, Biden had said there would be enough vaccines for all Americans by late July.

"We're now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,'' Biden said.

Not long before Biden's announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he's moving to "open Texas 100%" and will issue a new executive order to take effect March 10 rescinding most of his earlier orders, including restrictions on business occupancy and the July 2 statewide mask order.

"Texas is in a far better position now than when I issued my last executive order back in October," Abbott said, referring to his order allowing bars to reopen under certain conditions. Cases spiked after he eased business restrictions in the fall.

“Absolutely reckless,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, tweeted in response to Abbott’s announcement.

On Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned states that "now is not the time" to remove coronavirus restrictions, citing a reversal in the decline in new cases and deaths of recent weeks. Walensky said that in the last week, the average number of infections and deaths had increased by about 2%. The spread of virus variants has stalled progress despite the expanding vaccination program.

"Please hear me clearly,'' she said. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."

Nonetheless, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Tuesday that, starting the next day, all county mask mandates would be lifted and businesses allowed to operate at full capacity.

"Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!'' Reeves said.

Public health specialists disagree.

"We need to keep transmission down as we roll out vaccines to preserve their effectiveness and give the virus less chance to mutate,'' said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco. "I do not think it is a good idea to end mask mandates until mass vaccination is reached.''

Also in the news:

►The number of known variant cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. has climbed to 2,581, up from 546 a month earlier, according to CDC data. The vast majority of the cases, 2,506, stem from the variant first discovered in the UK, which is considered at least 50% more contagious than the original strain.

►The federal government has crossed the 100 million mark vaccine doses distributed, and more than 78 million of them have been administered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

►The National Fraternal Order of Police reports that 439 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty due to COVID-19. Texas, with 105, has the highest death toll of officers on the FOP list.

►Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says his country and Denmark will stop relying solely on the European Union for coronavirus vaccines and will work with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines. The EU has faced criticism for its slow vaccine rollout while Israel is a world-leader in per-capita vaccinations.

►Many states prioritized COVID-19 vaccines for people over 75, then moved to those over 65, but they shouldn't keep stepping down by age, an advisory committee to the CDC said.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 516,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 114.6 million cases and 2.54 million deaths. More than 102.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 78.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: Drugstore giants CVS and Walgreens and big-box stores such as Walmart and Kroger received most of the initial allotment of COVID-19 vaccines sent to retail pharmacies. Community pharmacies want their share. 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.

New Orleans, St. Louis archdioceses call J&J vaccine 'morally compromised'

Two pharmaceutical colossuses are forming a historic collaboration aimed at sharply increasing production of the first single-shot COVID-19 vaccine to win FDA authorization.

The Biden administration said Tuesday that Merck & Co. will help manufacture Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, which won emergency authorization just days ago. Merck, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, abandoned its own effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

"You don’t often see such fierce competitors partner to increase production capacity of pharmaceutical products," said Kaitlin Wowak, assistant professor of IT, analytics and operations at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. "But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.''

The J&J vaccine has drawn a thumbs down, however, from the archdioceses of New Orleans and St. Louis, which are advising Catholics that the vaccine is “morally compromised” because it is produced using a cell line derived from an aborted fetus.

In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines involved some testing using the abortion-derived cell line. But the bishops said the vaccines "do not rely on cell lines from abortions in the manufacturing process and therefore can be morally acceptable for Catholics as the connection to abortion is extremely remote."

A month later, the Vatican said that when "ethically irreproachable" vaccines are not available, "it is morally acceptable" to use vaccines that used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production.

Coming soon: Stimulus payouts – but not to as many people as planned

Americans could begin seeing the latest round of stimulus payments in about two weeks, but the number of people expected to cash in is likely to be pared down this week. The Senate could debate the crucial $1.9 billion stimulus package as soon as Wednesday, and Democrats are hoping for a Senate vote Friday. That would allow the House a few days to approve changes and President Joe Biden to sign it by March 14. Stimulus money could start rolling out before the ink is dry.

The Biden administration likely will need all 50 Democratic senators to get the legislation passed. Some moderate Democrats led by West Virginia's Joe Manchin want to lower the threshold for the $1,400 checks, calling for helping "the people that need help the most." Manchin also opposes the minimum wage measure and wants to continue the current $300 weekly unemployment boost, instead of the $400 called for in the legislation.

The measure would also provide hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and colleges, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, mass transit systems, renters and small businesses. Child care, tax breaks for families with children and assistance for states to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents also would get funding.

'Vaccine angels' try to rescue broken system for scheduling shots

The nation's vaccine appointment system is broken in many places, leading to a race to find appointments that often works best for the lucky, the internet-savvy or the mobile. To help bridge the gap between the elderly and others without the means to connect online, strangers are stepping in. "Vaccine angels" or "vaccine hunters" have appeared online to help others find spots or simply to share information. One site, vaccinefinder.org, is still being built out but gives users in some states current vaccine eligibility for their ZIP code and what appointments are available nearby. The site's getting millions of hits and helping people get immunized.

"Even though they still have to register for an appointment, the site told them where there was vaccine near them, which cuts down on frustration," said John Brownstein, the site's creator and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. Read more here.

Elizabeth Weise

Frontier Airlines accused of antisemitism after canceling flight

Frontier Airlines canceled a flight from Miami to New York on Sunday night, saying a "large group" refused to wear masks as the plane prepared for departure. The group was made up of Hasidic Jews, and the incident drew outrage from the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, which tweeted that even people who were not part of the group were accusing the airline of bigotry. The council posted videos of angry passengers and the confusion on board the plane. The Anti-Defamation League tweeted that "a visibly Jewish family was asked to leave a @FlyFrontier flight allegedly due to lack of mask compliance; while deplaning, apparent #antisemitic comments made by crew or others. @ADL formally calls for a full & transparent investigation."

The airline said in a statement that members of the group, including adults, refused to wear masks as Flight 2878 was preparing to depart from Miami. "Repeated requests to comply with federal law necessitated their removal from the flight," the airline said.

Stimulus bill would expand Obamacare

The Biden administration's stimulus package includes measures that would be the first significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, since its 2010 passage.

Though temporary, the more generous ACA provisions could lead to permanent – and even bigger – changes to the law that prompted a GOP-led government shutdown in 2013. It's a law President Donald Trump and Republicans failed to repeal when they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Republicans haven’t made the insurance subsidies a focus of their opposition to the stimulus bill they’ve dismissed as a “far-left wish list.”

Some experts say the measure is overdue. “In the U.S., we have done very little to address the underlying cost of health care, which is why health insurance is so expensive,” said Cynthia Cox, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Maureen Groppe and Courtney Subramanian

WHO warns end of 2021 might not mean end of pandemic

Health care experts are warning that it might be too soon to think the COVID-19 pandemic will be over by the end of 2021. The emergencies chief of the World Health Organization said it was “premature” to think that the pandemic might be stopped by the end of the year, but the rollout of vaccines could at least help dramatically reduce hospitalizations and deaths. Dr. Michael Ryan said at a press briefing Monday that the world’s singular focus right now should be to keep transmission of COVID-19 as low as possible. And President Joe Biden's top public health officials warned Monday that the U.S. could "lose the hard-earned ground we have gained" if cases plateau at their current level.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she was "deeply concerned" as new case counts stall but states continue their rollbacks of virus-related restrictions.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Biden enough vaccine; Texas, Mississippi lift restrictions