Coronavirus updates: Biden outlines COVID plan, requires masks on flights; Fauci feels liberated on Biden team

COVID-19 has killed more than 400,000 Americans in less than a year 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.

A COVID vaccine being developed by New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson could dramatically speed up the fight against the pandemic because, unlike the two vaccines already in use, this one would require only one dose and would not need to be stored at super-cold temperatures.

Results from clinical trials of the new vaccine – developed and produced by Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen division – are expected by the end of this month. The vaccine could become the third authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“If it comes through, that’s a game-changer,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.

Johnson & Johnson has a deal to deliver 100 million doses of its vaccine to the U.S. Government. Leaders of Operation Warp Speed, the federal program to develop and manufacture a COVID vaccine, said this month that unspecified production issues likely would slow the arrival of the initial doses.

– Lindy Washburn, NorthJersey.Com.

In the headlines:.

►President Joe Biden on Thursday signed 10 executive orders aimed at combating the coronavirus as he outlined a 198-page comprehensive national strategy to address the pandemic, an endeavor he called “a wartime undertaking.” The plan calls for improved vaccine distribution, enhanced testing and broader use of masks, including new requirements in airports and many trains, airplanes and buses.

►Britain’s National Health Service is preparing at least two London buses to serve as makeshift ambulances so four COVID patients can be transported at once, The Guardian reports. The buses, to be staffed by intensive car physicians and nurses, are designed to ease the strain the pandemic has put on London ambulance services.

►The push to inoculate Americans against the coronavirus is hitting a roadblock: A number of states are reporting they are running out of vaccine, and tens of thousands of people who managed to get appointments for a first dose are seeing them canceled. Last week the Health and Human Services Department suggested that states had unrealistic expectations for how much vaccine was on the way.

►Florida’s surgeon general urged the federal government Wednesday to increase allotments of coronavirus vaccine to states like his where large concentrations of seniors face the greatest risk of illness and death from COVID-19.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. Has more than 24.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 409,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 97.4 million cases and 2 million deaths.

📘 What we’re reading: The U.S. COVID-19 death toll now exceeds 409,000. That’s more than the number of Americans who died in WWII – and enough to fill every existing burial plot at Arlington National Cemetery.

Texas doctor charged with stealing vial of COVID vaccine

A fired county public health doctor in Texas was charged with taking a vial of COVID-19 vaccine, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced in a Thursday press release.

Dr. Hasan Gokal took a vial that contained nine doses while working at a county vaccination site on Dec. 29, according to the district attorney’s office. He told another employee what he did a week later, and that employee reported him to supervisors.

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“He abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there,” Ogg said. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”.

Gokal was charged with theft by a public servant, a misdemeanor that “carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine,” according to the district attorney’s office.

Biden asks FEMA to set up 100 community vaccination centers

Calling his plan to administer 100 million vaccines doses in his first 100 days in office “one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever undertaken,” President Joe Biden offered details on his strategy to improve the lagging vaccine rollout and address the pandemic.

Those plans include enlisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to put up 100 community vaccination centers in the next month, launching a pharmacy program to make vaccines available in local drug stores by early February and expanding the national pool of vaccinators.

“We’ll move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated for free and create more places for them to get vaccinated,” Biden said.

Expansion of vaccine eligibility blamed for shortages

The Trump administration’s push to have states vastly expand their vaccination drives to the nation’s estimated 54 million people 65 and older has contributed to vaccine shortages, public health experts say.

The push that began over a week ago has not been accompanied by enough doses to meet demand, according to state and local officials, leading to frustration and confusion and limiting states’ ability to attack the outbreak that has killed over 400,000 Americans.

As states have ramped up their distribution chains, authorities in California, New York, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia and Hawaii warned their supplies were running out. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer even inquired about buying vaccines directly from manufacturer Pfizer, but have not been authorized to do so.

Some state and local public health officials have complained of not getting reliable information on the amount of vaccine they can expect, making it difficult to plan the inoculations.

Fauci returns, says vaccines are key to limiting impact of variants

Dr. Anthony Fauci is emphasizing the importance of an effective COVID-19 vaccination program, especially with the emergence of variants that might make the coronavirus even more contagious.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert returned to the White House podium Thursday to update the nation on the pandemic and address public fears about the spread of new variants around the globe. A variant that first appeared in the United Kingdom has been detected in at least 20 U.S. States and is twice as transmissible as the original strain, Fauci said.

While the variant may not cause more severe disease, a more contagious virus could lead to more cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Fauci said, adding that the “more concerning” variant out of South Africa hasn’t shown up in the U.S. Yet. Very early research suggests that variant, more so than the one in the U.K., May diminish the impact of vaccines, he said.

“It is all the more reason why we should be vaccinating as many people as you possibly can,” Fauci said. “Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate, and if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you can actually avoid this deleterious effect you might get from the mutations.”.

— Grace Hauck.

Fauci finds working for Biden’s team ‘liberating’

Asked Thursday about his experience working on the pandemic response for two different administrations, Dr. Anthony Fauci said being able to share science was “liberating.” Fauci at times corrected information provided by former President Donald Trump during briefings, and said he did not enjoy doing that. He was eventually sidelined and had his public appearances limited.

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“It is very clear that there were things that were said, regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and things like that, that really was uncomfortable because they were not based on scientific fact,” Fauci said.

“It was really something that you didn’t feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it,” he said. “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is, and know that’s it, let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”.

— Grace Hauck.

New administration reportedly stunned by Trump’s lack of vaccine plan

The Biden administration’s pandemic response team continues to express shock at the lack of a vaccine distribution plan under the Trump administration. CNN reported Thursday that one Biden administration source claimed no plan was left for them and that “we are going to have to build everything from scratch.”.

The revelation is not really new – the Biden team has been complaining for weeks about the lack of cooperation and planning from the previous administration. Former President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat from COVID, although he attempted to claim credit for the development of the vaccines. Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 czar, said publicly Wednesday that “what we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined.”.

Biden signs more directives aimed at halting pandemic

Biden is expected to sign an order reflecting U.S. Intent to join the COVAX Facility, a project to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to people in need around the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci said. Fauci, Biden’s top pandemic medical adviser, said the U.S. Also will cease reducing American staff counts at the World Health Organization and will pay its financial obligations to the agency.

Biden on Thursday also signed an order requiring people to wear masks in airports and most planes as he presses his national strategy to beat back the pandemic. All this comes hours after a busy Inauguration Day that saw Biden approve 15 executive orders, including a mandate requiring face masks be worn in buildings and on land controlled by the federal government.

– Joey Garrison.

Amazon says it can help vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days

Amazon is offering its help to President Joe Biden with the rollout of COVID vaccines and is working to get its employees inoculated “at the earliest appropriate time.” In a letter written to Biden and dated Wednesday, Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark said the e-commerce giant is prepared to leverage its operations to help vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of the president’s administration.

“Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort,” Clark wrote.

– Brett Molina.

Eli Lilly says its monoclonal antibody treatment cuts risk of COVID-19

A drug developed by Eli Lilly and Company dramatically reduced the risk of developing symptomatic COVID-19 among nursing home residents, the company said. Of 299 residents, half of whom received a placebo, those randomized to receive the drug bamlanivimab had up to an 80% lower risk of contracting COVID-19, according to a study that has not yet been published. Health care providers at the same nursing homes also were statistically less likely to contract symptomatic COVID-19 after receiving bamlanivimab, which was delivered in a 4,200 mg dose. Among 41 residents who already tested positive for the virus, none died after receiving the drug compared to 4 deaths in the placebo group.

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“The results of this innovative study further support the belief that bamlanivimab – and potentially other monoclonal antibodies – can reduce symptoms and may even prevent COVID-19,” said Dr. Myron S. Cohen, who helped lead the study and directs the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina.

– Karen Weintraub.

Alzheimer’s deaths jump as lives of patients ‘upended’ by pandemic

Nationally, about 259,250 people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia were expected to die last year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But federal data analyzed by the association shows that the number of dementia deaths, at least through the end of November, was 16% higher than expected. Experts working on explanations for the added 40,000 deaths say it’s possible some people died from undiagnosed cases of COVID-19. It’s also possible that some saw the level of care they received from overworked caregivers decline with the pandemic. And there is the issue of coronavirus protocols that change routines, curtail visitors and force isolation.

“If you are confined in a place like that, you don’t have anybody to prod and do the things with you,” said George Pitchford, 78, a retiree in Sylvan Lake, Michigan. “I can’t imagine it not having an impact on your decline.”.

– Georgea Kovanis, Detroit Free Press.

CDC extends federal eviction moratorium to March 31

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will extend an order preventing landlords from evicting tenants to March 31, protecting as many as 40 million Americans from displacement, new CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky announced Wednesday.

“We must act to get cases down and keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings – like shelters – where COVID-19 can take an even stronger foothold,” Walensky said in a statement.

A study by global investment firm Stout estimates up to 14 million households could already be close to eviction, with a rental shortfall of more than $24 billion.

The order, issued by former President Donald Trump in September, was set to expire on Jan. 31, but the CDC was directed to extend it during a flurry of executive orders signed Wednesday by President Joe Biden.

– Joey Garrison and Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY.

Health experts: 2020 may be deadliest year in American history

Preliminary numbers show 2020 is on track to become the deadliest year in U.S. History, with more than 3.2 million total deaths – about 400,000 more than 2019 – a sharp increase that public health experts attribute to COVID-19 and aligns with reported deaths from the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,835,533 U.S. Deaths in 2019. Before the pandemic, models projected a slightly higher number, about 2.9 million deaths, for 2020, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

It’s not a coincidence, he said, that the 400,000 excess deaths closely resemble the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S., Which had surpassed 407,000 as of Thursday at 2 p.M. ET, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“That is not a seasonal change or just a random bad year,” Faust said. “That is what every person who can correctly attest to these numbers can plainly see is a historic increase in excess mortality. If we put that together with the number of coronavirus deaths, it’s game, set, match.”.

– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY.

Contributing: The Associated Press.