COVID-19 has killed more than 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.
New U.S cases of the coronavirus have fallen 35% from their Jan. 11 peak, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. The average number of daily cases has fallen to about 162,000, from 249,000.
And there are positive signs for hospitalization: The COVID Tracking Project said Wednesday that "the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is decreasing in every major US region." About 107,000 Americans were hospitalized because of the virus Tuesday, down from a peak of more than 130,000 three weeks ago.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the improvement in numbers appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge, rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.
Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University in Indianapolis, called the decline in new cases encouraging but warned that it might not be permanent.
The daily death toll remains close to the record highs set earlier this month: The United States is still averaging about 23,000 deaths per week. Recorded deaths lag the infection rate. But the CDC says it expects deaths to decline over the next four weeks.
"This is the time to take advantage of the window and strive even harder to sustain the downward trend as we gradually tap into the supporting act of vaccines," Omenka said. "It is still possible for the increase in new cases to return if we prematurely let go of the public health efforts that have been helping us all along."
– Mike Stucka
In the headlines:
►U.S. airline executives expressed disdain about the idea of passengers being required to pass a coronavirus test before boarding domestic flights -- which the CDC is considering – calling the notion "wholly impractical'' and "a real goat rodeo.''
►The South Africa variant of the coronavirus has reached the U.S.: Two cases were identified in South Carolina. There is no evidence infections from the variant cause more severe disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement, adding that "preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants." There's also concern vaccines might be less effective against this variant.
►Public health officials in some states are clamoring for more vaccine doses, while at the same time 16 states have failed to use even half of their allotment, as the mass vaccination program in the U.S. continues on an uneven course. Biden administration officials say it will get better.
►Nine Roman Catholic nuns in southern Michigan have died in January because of a COVID-19 outbreak at their retirement home, which had gone months without a single case. The nuns, ranging in age from 79 to 97, lived at the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, 75 miles southwest of Detroit.
📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 432,600 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 101.3 million cases and 2.18 million deaths. About 48.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 26.2 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we're reading: $15 minimum wage? Another round of checks? Resistance to key pieces could derail Biden's COVID relief plan.
New vaccine by Maryland company nearly 90% effective in UK
A COVID-19 vaccine by Novavax showed nearly 90% effectiveness in late-stage clinical trials in the United Kingdom and robust protection against the variant now rampant in England, the Maryland biotech company said Thursday.
The vaccine was only about 50% effective against the variant now circulating in South Africa, according to results from a middle-stage study conducted in that country. Two cases of that variant have just been identified in South Carolina, the first instances of it detected in the U.S.
Still, the emergence of another vaccine would boost the chances of all eligible Americans getting protection from COVID-19 sooner, provided the Novavax candidate gets FDA authorization. The U.S. government has spent $1.6 billion to buy 100 million doses of the Novavax vaccine, which should be ready later this year.
UN head warns against 'vaccine nationalism' in African countries
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling attention to the wide disparity in distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, referring to it as a “global emergency” and saying less than 20,000 of the 70 million doses so far administered have gone to people in African countries.
Guterres warned against “vaccine nationalism,” pointing out the coronavirus will inevitably mutate if it continues circulating in parts of the globe. New variants could be more deadly and more transmissible and threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines, “prolonging or risking to prolong the pandemic significantly,” he said.
New York state undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%, probe reveals
COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents in New York state have been undercounted by about 50% as poor infection-control practices and understaffing fuel the coronavirus crisis, New York's Attorney General reported Thursday.
The investigation found the state Department of Health's controversial policy to only publicly report COVID-19 deaths of residents inside nursing homes and withhold deaths of residents transferred to hospitals hindered attempts to fully understand the scope of the the crisis and improve conditions inside the facilities. The true COVID-19 death toll of nursing home residents is closer to 13,000, as opposed to the 8,677 reported to date by the Health Department, according to the investigation's findings.
“As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” Attorney General Letitia James said.
– David Robinson
Oregon ponders prioritizing people of color for vaccine
To combat the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on people of color, Oregon may prioritize racial and ethnic minorities for the shots.
A COVID-19 advisory committee will vote Thursday on whether people of color should be vaccinated next. Other groups, such as those with chronic medical conditions, essential workers, refugees and inmates, are also being considered. The committee, which includes members of color and people from marginalized communities, was created to focus on equity in the vaccine rollout process and provide recommendations to the governor.
This comes as new data has shown Black and Latino communities are getting vaccinated at half the rate of white people, even though Blacks and Latinos in the U.S. are three times as likely to die of the virus.
– Kaanita Iyer
Justice Department watchdog: Staff shortages hurt federal prison response
Federal prisons in North Carolina and Michigan struggled to contain outbreaks of the coronavirus as staffing shortages and insufficient quarantine space compromised the response, an internal Justice Department review found. At the Bureau of Prisons complex in Butner, North Carolina, where 26 inmates and one staffer have died since June, authorities were unable to fully restrict staff movements to guard against cross-contamination while social distancing measures proved difficult to enforce because of the open design of the housing facilities, the Justice inspector general concluded.
“As COVID-19 spread throughout two of the complex’s institutions, these institutions were not able to quarantine all inmates meeting the criteria for quarantine, largely due to a shortage of space,” the report concluded.
In a written response, federal prison officials disputed the quarantine problems, asserting that “despite the high volume” of infections, authorities met guidelines.
– Kevin Johnson
Mass clinics could hold key to vaccinating nation
As part of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 strategy, mass vaccination clinics will soon become familiar to millions of Americans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could begin running up to 100 high-volume sites nationwide within a month to help reach the administration's goal of giving 1.5 million shots a day during Biden's first 100 days in office.
"It's complicated, it's challenging, but we want to get vaccine out the door and into arms as fast as we possibly can," San Francisco Mayor London Breed said. Read the full story.
WHO team in China to research origins of pandemic
A World Health Organization team completed a two-week quarantine in Wuhan, China, on Thursday to begin a fact-finding mission on the origins of COVID-19. The researchers are attempting what has become a politically charged mission as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and whom they will be able to talk to. White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concern Wednesday about what she called “misinformation” coming out of China, adding that the U.S. supports a robust international investigation.
“It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China,” she said.
Staying at home leads to open roads – and more traffic deaths
The rate of traffic deaths jumped in the first half of 2020, and safety experts blame drivers who sped up on roads left open when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and limited commuting.
The new research also showed that even small increases in speed led to much deadlier outcomes in vehicle crashes. A crash that is easily survivable at 40 mph can be fatal at 50 mph or more, according to the study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
"Small changes in speed when you’re involved in a crash can really increase your chances of getting a severe injury," IIHS President David Harkey said. "It's a huge problem."
– Nathan Bomey
Vaccines: So far, so good – and safe
About 22 million Americans have been vaccinated and the few reported allergic responses have been treated successfully, according to the CDC. No other serious problems have turned up, the CDC says.
Although it may not be possible to prove something is completely safe, data from multiple tracking systems suggest the vaccines are not causing large numbers of unusual or dangerous results. Read more here.
– Karen Weintraub
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: South Africa variant; South Carolina; Michael Strahan