BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Coronavirus cases have dropped at U.S. nursing homes and other long-term care facilities over the past few weeks, offering a glimmer of hope that health officials attribute to the start of vaccinations, an easing of the post-holiday surge and better prevention, among other reasons.

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Carmela Sileo, left, and Susan McEachern sit next to each other Wednesday in the dayroom at Arbor Springs Health and Rehabilitation Center in Opelika, Ala. Coronavirus cases have dropped at U.S. nursing homes and other long-term care centers over the past few weeks. Associated Press/Julie Bennett

More than 153,000 residents of the country’s nursing homes and assisted living centers have died of COVID-19, accounting for 36% of the U.S. pandemic death toll, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Many of the roughly 2 million people who live at such facilities remain cut off from loved ones because of the risk of infection. The virus still kills thousands of them weekly.

The overall trend for long-term care residents is improving, though, with fewer new cases recorded and fewer facilities reporting outbreaks. Coupled with better figures for the country overall, it’s cause for optimism even if it’s too early to declare victory.

Nursing homes have been a priority since vaccinations began in mid-December, and the federal government says 1.5 million long-term care residents have already received at least an initial dose.

Researchers and industry leaders say they are seeing marked improvements after months in which some nursing homes lost dozens of residents to the disease and had to keep others in semi-isolation for protection. Some 2,000 nursing homes are now virus-free, or about 13% nationally, according to an industry group, and many are dealing with far fewer cases than before.

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Pentagon deploys troops to help staff COVID-19 vaccination centers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will deploy more than 1,100 troops to five vaccination centers in what will be the first wave of increased military support for the White House campaign to get more Americans inoculated against COVID-19.

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Lisa Meincke of Arlington Heights prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccination administered by National Guard member Erika O’Meara of Scott Air Force base, at Triton College on Wednesday in River Grove, Ill. Mark Welsh/Daily Herald via Associated Press

President Biden has called for setting up 100 mass vaccination centers around the country within a month. One of the five new military teams will go to a vaccination center opening in California. Other centers are expected to be announced soon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the Pentagon to supply as many as 10,000 service members to staff 100 centers. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the initial five teams, but the others will be approved in separate tranches as FEMA identifies the other site locations.

Acting FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton told reporters that two vaccination sites that will be “predominantly” federally run will open in California on Feb. 16, one at California State University, Los Angeles, and the other in Oakland.

Military troops will staff one of the two California centers, FEMA and Pentagon officials said. Personnel from other parts of the federal government will be at the other one. More sites will open around the country as more doses of vaccine become available.

The military deployment comes as the nation is in a race against a virus that is spawning mutations which may make it spread more easily and inflict deadlier disease.

Only about 2 percent of Americans have received the required two-dose vaccination regimen that confers optimum protection with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines currently available. To reach widespread, or “herd” immunity, the U.S. must vaccinate 70 percent to 85 percent of its population, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert.

That would be roughly 230 million to 280 million people, compared to 6.9 million who are currently fully immunized with two shots.

More help could be on the way soon. Johnson & Johnson announced this week it is seeking emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its vaccine, which requires only one shot.

Each of the Pentagon’s five military teams includes 222 personnel, including 80 who will give the vaccines, as well as nurses and other support staff. The teams would be able to provide about 6,000 shots a day.

The five teams represent a growing use of the active duty military to a vaccination campaign that already involves nearly 100 National Guard teams in 29 states across the country. National Guard leaders told The Associated Press that they are now considering training additional Guard members to give shots, so that they can also expand vaccinations in more remote and rural portions of their states.

Biden to use Defense Production Act for gloves, COVID-19 vaccines

The White House COVID-19 task force announced Friday that the Biden administration plans to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, surgical gloves and at-home testing kits as part of an effort to increase supplies and reduce long-term dependence on foreign suppliers.

The administration said it will use the DPA to contract with six more COVID-19 at-home test suppliers, which should result in more than 60 million at-home tests becoming available by the end of the summer. This news comes just days after the administration announced a $231.8 million deal with at-home COVID-19 test-maker Ellume to produce 100,000 test kits per month for the United States from February to July, with a goal of ramping that number up to 19 million tests per month by the end of the year.

The COVID-19 task force did not yet disclose who makes the tests or how much the tests will cost, as the contracts aren’t final. COVID-19 Response Team Supply Coordinator Tim Manning said the U.S. would work with these companies to construct new domestic plants and production lines.

The administration also plans to help Pfizer ramp up its COVID-19 vaccine production by expanding the priority rating on Pfizer’s vaccine production contract to ensure the drugmaker gets first dibs on specific products and materials it needs to produce vaccines. This will now include filling pumps and tangential flow filtration skid units, two critical components of vaccine manufacturing. This action should have an immediate impact, officials said.

This move could help Pfizer reach its production goals of delivering 200 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. by May. Since Jan. 20, the new administration has increased vaccine supplies to states by more than 20 percent. Right now, one of the factors restraining manufacturing is limited equipment and ingredients, Manning said.

Finally, the administration said it will leverage the DPA to increase the production of surgical gloves, something the country needs more of now. Currently, the U.S. is nearly completely reliant on overseas manufacturers of surgical gloves, Manning said. So, the United States will build plants to produce the raw materials for surgical gloves so they can be produced in the U.S. By the end of the year, the administration hopes to make 1 billion nitrile gloves per month in the U.S, although this will satisfy only half of the country’s demand for surgical gloves.

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‘A super-spreader just waiting to happen’: Virus outbreaks stoke tensions in some state capitols 

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.  — After only their first few weeks of work, tensions already are high among lawmakers meeting in-person at some state capitols — not because of testy debates over taxes, guns or abortion, but because of a disregard for coronavirus precautions.

In Georgia, a Republican lawmaker recently was booted from the House floor for refusing to get tested for the coronavirus. In Iowa, a Democratic House member boldly violated a no-jeans rule to protest the chamber’s lack of a mask rule.

And in Missouri, numerous lawmakers and staff — some fearing for their health after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol — scrambled to get vaccinated at a pop-up clinic before legislative leaders warned that the shots weren’t actually meant for them. GOP Gov. Mike Parson denounced the lawmakers as line-jumpers.

Members of the Missouri House gather in the chamber before the beginning of session on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Jefferson City, Mo. The House chamber has no mask mandate and has not modified its seating during the coronavirus pandemic. David A. Lieb/Associated Press

House Democratic leader Crystal Quade, who got the shot, blamed the lax policies of the Republican-led Legislature for fostering angst.

Lawmakers are “coming every week to a building that doesn’t have precautions, where people aren’t wearing masks, where people are getting a positive test left and right,” Quade said.

“We are essentially a super-spreader just waiting to happen,” she said.

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Companies are charging hidden ‘COVID fees’ to make up for lost profits. They may be illegal.

Nearly a year into the pandemic’s gutting of the economy, businesses across the country are increasingly charging coronavirus-related fees, ranging from a $5 disinfection charge in a hair salon to $1,200 for extra food and cleaning in a senior living center, which are often undisclosed until the customer gets a bill.

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People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Dallas on Thursday, Feb. 4. Associated Press/LM Otero

According to a survey by The Washington Post of attorney general offices and financial departments in 52 states and territories, U.S. consumers in 28 states have filed 510 complaints of coronavirus-related surcharges at dentist offices, senior living facilities, hair salons and restaurants.

Hidden fees are a legitimate concern for consumers, especially for economically vulnerable Americans or senior citizens without income, but not every state protects consumers from them. While medical insurance law in some states requires health-care providers to offer refunds to patients who have been unfairly charged for personal protective equipment, other states allow for businesses to tack on extra fees, as long as they’re disclosed upfront.

It’s unclear exactly how widespread coronavirus surcharges are, as anecdotal social media posts of customer receipts and reports filed with attorneys general and state consumer protection departments are the only way to track them. But health-care providers and residential facilities are some of the worst-affected sectors.

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Britain plans quarantine for those returning from virus hot spots

British residents arriving home from coronavirus hot spots will now face mandatory quarantine at designated hotels beginning Feb. 15.

Britain’s Department of Health announced the new policy Thursday and said that it applies to British nationals and residents returning from 33 “red list” countries where cases involving new virus variants are high.

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Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport in January. The UK will quarantine travelers entering from so-called ‘hot spot’ countries where virus variants are widespread. Associated Press/Matt Dunham

Travelers will be required to quarantine for 10 days inside their hotel rooms and will be accompanied by security guards if go outside to smoke or for fresh air, according to government documents reviewed by the BBC. They will also be expected to pay for the cost of their accommodation.

Hotel owners in areas surrounding nine airports will be asked to provide rooms for more than 1,000 people every day, the BBC reported. Previous guidance suggested that British residents self-quarantine upon arrival.

The new policy stopped short of a blanket ban on travelers returning to the United Kingdom, prompting criticism from some quarters as the nation battles several contagious variants of the virus.

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said that the government’s plans around quarantine are in disarray, the Guardian reported.

“Not only do they fail to go far enough — leaving open the door to potential vaccine-resistant strains — they can’t even implement the half-baked plans that have been announced,” he said.

The list of countries designated as hot spots includes Brazil, Portugal, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Britain has recorded nearly 3.9 million total coronavirus cases and more than 110,000 deaths.

Canada defends decision to draw vaccines from program aimed at low- and middle-income countries

TORONTO — Canadian officials are defending a decision to accept coronavirus vaccines from a program aimed primarily at helping low- and middle-income countries, saying that drawing doses from the Covax facility was always part of its strategy.

“Our government will never apologize for doing everything in our power to get Canadians vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said this week. “We’re focused on getting Canadians vaccinated, while making sure the rest of the world is vaccinated, too.”

Her remarks Thursday came after the Covax Facility, a global effort to source and equitably distribute coronavirus vaccines, announced its first country-by-country projections. The estimate suggested Canada could receive 1.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by summer.

Only one of the world’s 29 poorest countries has started coronavirus vaccinations

The prospect of a wealthy country like Canada, which has cut several deals directly with drugmakers, seeking additional doses alongside low- and middle-income countries through Covax has added a new element to the debate about vaccine hoarding by the rich at the expense of the poor.

It has also created a headache for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which already was under fire for a slow vaccine rollout that has lagged behind many of its peers.

AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered only to Germans aged 18 to 64.

BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says first batches of the newly authorized AstraZeneca vaccine for will be delivered to the country’s 16 states Friday.

Jens Spahn said the addition of a third vaccine would “make a real difference” to Germany’s immunization campaign, which has so far been sluggish compared to the United States or Britain.

But Spahn said that, for now, the AstraZeneca shot will only be given to people aged 18-64, due to lack of data on older age groups.

He cited the additional vaccine as one of several positive signs for the country’s fight against the pandemic, along with the fact that for the first time in two months Germany has fewer than 200,000 people infected with COVID-19 and the nationwide number of newly confirmed cases per week has dropped to 80 per 100,000 inhabitants.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Thursday that the target remains 50 cases per week for every 100,000 people.

Klaus Cichutek, the head of Germany’s medicines regulator, said his agency doesn’t currently recommend stretching the time period between first and second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as practiced in Britain, where about 10.5 million people have received a first shot, compared to 2.1 million in Germany.

Pfizer withdraws application for emergency vaccine approval in India

NEW DELHI — Pfizer Inc says it has withdrawn its application for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine in India.

On Feb. 3, a committee of experts declined to accept Pfizer’s request because there wasn’t a local study done of the American company’s vaccine. The experts also noted that some serious side effects were still being investigated.

The committee of experts needs to give the green light to vaccines before India’s regulators can authorize the emergency use of a drug.

In a statement issued Friday, Pfizer said that it had decided to withdraw its application based on its “understanding of the additional information that the regulator may need.”

The company was the first to approach the Indian regulator in December for its messenger RNA vaccine that it has developed with Germany’s BioNTech. Its application was closely followed by ones for two other vaccines — a version of the AstraZeneca made by Serum Institute of India and another by Indian company by Bharat Biotech — which eventually got the nod for emergency use on Jan. 3.

But in the weeks after it applied, Pfizer representatives weren’t present when the experts met to deliberate, India’s health ministry said on Jan. 5.

Pfizer said in its statement that it would continue to engage with authoritie, and that it was committed to making its vaccine available for use in India. The company said that it would “resubmit its approval request with additional information as it becomes available in the near future”

Indian health ministry officials point out that the Pfizer vaccine isn’t necessarily the best-suited for India due to its high cost and since it requires ultra-cold storage freezers which aren’t easily available.


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