Coronavirus updates: Oregon health workers stuck in snow vaccinate other drivers; US could reach 500K deaths by February, task force says

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

COVID-19 has killed nearly 430,000 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 newsletter for updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

The Biden administration’s White House COVID-19 task force held its first virtual briefing Wednesday, promoting its efforts to expedite vaccinations while warning that the nation could surpass 500,000 deaths within weeks.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency predicts 479,000 to 514,000 pandemic deaths will have been reported by Feb. 20. Almost 4,000 deaths and more than 140,000 new infections were reported Tuesday alone.

“Our case rates remain extraordinarily high and now is the time to remain vigilant,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated that vaccines appear to be effective against emerging variants, adding that the U.S. is working with companies to develop new antibody treatments that will be effective as newer strains evolve.

President Joe Biden said this week he expects the majority of the U.S. population can be vaccinated by summer's end or early fall. Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, warned that despite ramping up the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, "it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one."

Grace Hauck

In the headlines:

►A CDC report released late Wednesday shows the U.K. strain of the virus continuing to spread across the United States. The report shows 315 cases, up from 293 Monday and 144 a week earlier, with California and Florida tied for the most cases with 92 each.

►Some people who have received the Moderna vaccine are reporting what has become known as “COVID arm,” a red rash at the injection spot that sometimes gets itchy. There's no indication that it's dangerous and usually it goes away in a few days, doctors say.

►Despite conspiracy theories by anti-vaxxers, it's unlikely baseball icon Hank Aaron died because of a COVID-19 vaccine shot. The Fulton County Medical Examiner said Aaron, who was two weeks shy of his 87th birthday, died of natural causes Friday.

►Eli Lilly announced that its monoclonal antibody cocktail cuts hospitalizations by 70% for high-risk COVID-19 patients.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 429,100 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 100.8 million cases and 2.17 million deaths. About 47.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 24.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

Traffic cones guide drivers into a COVID-19 mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Traffic cones guide drivers into a COVID-19 mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Health workers, stuck in snowstorm, vaccinate other stranded drivers

Oregon health workers who got stuck in a snowstorm on their way back from a COVID-19 vaccination event went car to car injecting stranded drivers before several of the doses expired.

Josephine County Public Health said on Facebook that the “impromptu vaccine clinic” took place after about 20 employees were stopped in traffic on a highway after a vaccination clinic.

Six of the vaccines were getting close to expiring so the workers decided to offer them to other stranded drivers. The shots were meant for other people, but “the snow meant those doses wouldn’t make it to them before they expired,” the health department said.

Josephine County Public Health Director Mike Weber said it was one of the “coolest operations he’d been a part of.”

Millions for vaccine research were misused over a decade, special counsel says

Millions of dollars allocated by Congress for vaccine research and preparation for public health emergencies were misappropriated by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a report from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which says the funds were instead spent on expenses that included legal services, salaries of unrelated personnel and the removal of office furniture.

The OSC says President Joe Biden and Congress have been informed of the decade-long misuse of funds intended for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA. The findings came out of an investigation conducted by the HHS inspector general after a whistleblower complaint.

"The report reveals that the practice of using BARDA funds for non-BARDA purposes was so common, there was even a name for it within the agency: 'Bank of BARDA,''' a release from the OSC says.

The practice, which was carried out under the administrations of both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, violated one law and possibly a second one, the OSC release said.

"I urge Congress and HHS to take immediate actions to ensure funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush-fund for unrelated expenses,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said.

COVID-19 testing may be required for domestic flights

Federal health officials are considering requiring travelers to submit proof that they have recently passed a coronavirus test before boarding flights within the U.S. That same requirement came into effect Tuesday for flights arriving from abroad.

"We are actively looking at it,'' Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said about testing for domestic flights.

For now, the CDC recommends but doesn't mandate getting tested before and after air travel.

– Dawn Gilbertson

Poll: 25% of Americans would gather to watch Super Bowl; 64% say no

For one-quarter of the nation, the coronavirus pandemic is no reason to refrain from gathering with people from outside the household to watch the Super Bowl. And avid sports fans are even more determined not to let COVID-19 spoil their fun.

Those are the findings from a Seton Hall University poll that collected answers from 1,522 adults spread across the country from Jan. 22-25. The results show 25% of respondents said they would gather with people outside of their home to watch the game. Sixty-four percent said they would not, and 11% said they were not sure.

Of those who consider themselves devoted fans, 40% said they would get together with others from outside their household to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7.

Public health officials have repeatedly advised against gathering with people from outside the home to prevent spreading the virus.

– Lorenzo Reyes

Remember hydroxychloroquine? Oklahoma wants its $2 million back

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office is attempting to return $2 million worth of a malaria drug once touted by former President Donald Trump as an effective treatment for COVID-19, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Gov. Kevin Stitt defended the purchase last year, saying the pills had shown some promise as a treatment in early March and he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to acquire it. The drug, purchased from California-based FFF Enterprises, has since been shown to have little or no effect on severe cases of COVID-19.

Chicago schools halt in-person learning for thousands

Chicago Public Schools halted in-person learning for about 3,200 pre-K and special education students who have been in classrooms for two weeks amid an impasse in negotiations between City Hall and the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We have no other choice but to inform parents that they should not bring their children to school" Wednesday, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said.

District officials also had wanted 10,000 K-8 teachers and other staffers to return to school two days ago to prepare for classes that would start Feb. 1, but delayed the return after union members voted not to return. City officials said they would continue bargaining with the union and expected schools to reopen as planned on Feb. 1 for an estimated 71,000 elementary students who indicated they intend to return.

Since pre-K and special education students returned Jan. 11, the district has reported about 60 cases of COVID-19. The “great majority” of these cases did not involve transmission at school, Chicago Department of Public Health Director Allison Arwady said.

Grace Hauck

Florida 'Paramedic of the Year' accused of stealing vaccines

A Florida county's reigning Paramedic of the Year has been charged with stealing COVID-19 vaccines meant for first responders.

Joshua Colon, 31, was arrested after confessing to intentionally stealing three doses of Moderna vaccine, then forging paperwork in attempt to cover his actions, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Grady Judd said Colon told authorities he stole the vaccines earlier this month at the request of his supervisor, Capt. Tony Damiano, who sought the vaccine for his elderly mother. Damiano, who is under investigation, was deployed to California to aid in the pandemic response, Judd said.

On Wednesday, Damiano turned himself in.

Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger

Antibody cocktail could be game changer for high-risk patients

While vaccines may help slow the COVID-19 pandemic over the next months, drug company Eli Lilly announced Tuesday that its treatments can help save lives in the meantime. The Indianapolis-based drug giant says its monoclonal antibody cocktail cuts hospitalizations by 70% for high-risk patients.

A monoclonal antibody mimics one of the natural antibodies the immune system uses to fight off the virus. Former President Donald Trump as well as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani all received monoclonal antibodies shortly after they were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Karen Weintraub

January already deadliest month for pandemic in US

The 4,087 deaths from COVID-19 reported Tuesday – the fourth-highest day in the pandemic – have already made January the deadliest month in the country, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the first 26 days of January, the United States reported 79,261 deaths. The total number of deaths in December, which had been the most deadly month, was 77,486 deaths.

Some states have been ravaged. California's previous worst month was December with 6,772 fatalities, but the state has already reported 12,282 dead in January. This is already the deadliest month for another 15 states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

– Mike Stucka

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Vaccine research funds misused; 500,000 deaths in 3 weeks