NEW YORK — More than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients in New York state were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic under a controversial directive that was scrapped amid criticism it accelerated outbreaks, according to new records obtained by The Associated Press.

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Families of COVID-19 victims who died in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center in New York on Oct. 18 to demand that Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologize for his response to COVID-19 clusters in nursing homes early in the pandemic. Associated Press/Yuki Iwamura

The new number of 9,056 recovering patients sent to hundreds of nursing homes is more than 40% higher than what the state health department previously released. And it raises new questions as to whether a March 25 directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge the state disputes.

The new figures come as the Cuomo administration has been forced in recent weeks to acknowledge it has been underreporting the overall number of COVID-19 deaths among long-term care residents. It is now nearly 15,000 up from the 8,500 previously disclosed.

The Cuomo administration’s March 25 directive barred nursing homes from refusing people just because they had COVID-19. It was intended to free up space in hospitals swamped in the early days of the pandemic. It came under criticism from advocates for nursing home residents and their relatives, who said it had the potential to spread the virus in a state that at the time already had the nation’s highest nursing home death toll.

In its reply to an AP Freedom of Information request from May, the state health department this week released two figures: a previously disclosed count of 6,327 admissions of patients directly from hospitals and a new count of 2,729 “readmissions” of patients sent back from a hospital to the nursing home where they had lived before.

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Race to vaccinate older Americans advances in many states

Two months after the first COVID-19 shots were administered, the race to vaccinate older Americans is gaining traction, with more than a third of people 65 and up having received their first dose in states that have provided data.

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A senior citizen receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a healthcare worker after arriving on a bus at a vaccination site at Anquan Boldin Stadium in Pahokee, Fla., on Feb. 3. Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP

The finding comes from an Associated Press analysis of information from 27 states where data is available. Those states account for just over half of all first doses administered nationwide.

“This is very good news. This is a sign we’re doing it right,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Vaccine hesitancy is dropping quickly as older Americans talk to their friends who have been vaccinated, he said. “They’re watching people they know get the vaccine and seeing it’s safe.”

The effort is uneven, with many other states still lagging behind on vaccinations of the higher-risk population.

The proportion of vaccines given to those 65 years and older varies. It’s about three-quarters of all first-dose shots in Florida and more than two-thirds in North Carolina.

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Biden says U.S. will have enough vaccine for 300 million people by midsummer

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday purchased another 200 million doses of the two coronavirus vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States, securing sufficient shots by the end of July to cover everyone currently eligible for inoculation.

President Biden, in remarks capping an afternoon tour of the National Institutes of Health, announced the deals for 100 million more doses from Pfizer and German company BioNTech and 100 million more from Moderna. The expectation, Biden said, is that the additional doses will be delivered by the end of July.

The purchases increase available supply by 50%, bringing the total to 600 million doses. Because both products are two-dose regimens, that would be enough to fully vaccinate 300 million people. An estimated 260 million people in the United States are currently considered eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine, though trials involving children as young as 12 could widen the pool.

Moderna issued a statement confirming the purchase and saying it was “working with its domestic manufacturing partners,” as well as federal regulators, to “explore ways to accelerate delivery, with the goal of providing this new order of 100 million doses before the end of July 2021.” A Pfizer spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moderna has already promised to supply the federal government with 100 million doses by the end of March and another 100 million by the end of June. Pfizer has indicated it can provide 120 million doses by the end of March and another 80 million by the end of May, two months earlier than its initial July target.

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Instagram bans Robert F. Kennedy Jr. over vaccine misinformation

Instagram took down the account of prominent anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in the latest move by the company to curb the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.

“We removed this account for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, said in a statement. Kennedy had amassed a following of 800,000 users before the social network banned his account.

Kennedy, the son of the former U.S. attorney general and senator, has repeatedly spoken out against vaccines, even as he maintains that he supports vaccines that are safe. His Facebook page, where he posts links critical of vaccines, and which claims more than 300,000 followers, remains active.

In a 2015 photo, Robert Kennedy Jr. speaks against a measure requiring California schoolchildren to get vaccinated. Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli

In December, Facebook said it would remove erroneous posts about vaccines that had been debunked by government health agencies, in an effort to build public trust around immunization campaigns. On Monday, Facebook went further, stating that the social network will prohibit posts that assert vaccines are toxic, cause autism or that it’s safer for people to contract the disease that vaccines are intended to prevent.

On Instagram, it will be harder for users to find accounts that discourage vaccinations, Facebook said. And Groups, Pages and accounts that repeatedly violate the rules around posting misleading health claims will be removed from the platform, as part of Facebook’s latest round of tightening content policies.

Instagram will soon promote Facebook’s COVID-19 Information Center, allowing users to access the latest information about vaccines and, through WhatsApp, will help local health authorities share up to date vaccine information and respond to questions from the public, Facebook said.

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France is seeing a baby bust nine months after its first COVID lockdown

SAINT-DENIS, France – When France confined more than 64 million people under one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns last spring, there was widespread speculation that a baby boom would follow.

“I thought to myself: They’re all stuck at home, and they need to occupy themselves. So, they’ll make babies,” recalled Martine Mabiala Moussirou, a midwife coordinator at the main public hospital in Saint-Denis, a city on the outskirts of Paris that has one of France’s highest birth rates.

Nine months on, though, instead of a boom, France is witnessing a sharp decline in births. Economic uncertainty, social stress and in some cases anxieties about the virus itself appear to have prompted families to abandon or postpone plans to have a baby.

A nurse checks on a newborn at the hospital in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on Feb. 4. Chloe Sharrock/Le Pictorium for The Washington Post

The number of babies born at the Saint-Denis hospital plummeted by about 20 percent between mid-December and mid-January and is expected to remain below 2020 levels for at least the first half of the year. While the coronavirus wards were hives of activity last week, lights in the maternity ward were dimmed and the corridors empty.

“Usually, it’s bustling here,” said Mabiala Moussirou, who was chatting with other midwives next to a board showing the occupancy status of the ward’s nine delivery rooms.

Only one was in use.

Other maternity wards in France are reporting similar trends, as are cities in Italy. A drop in births is predicted for the United States, as well.

The unusually quiet hospital wards are an early sign of how the pandemic may indirectly shape demographics. They are also one of many indications of the toll on women.

Some developing countries are registering the beginnings of a baby boom, triggered in part by reduced funding for and access to contraceptives and family planning services during the pandemic.

But in France and other developed countries, a pandemic birth slump is emerging, with implications for decades to come.

Social factors in some communities seem to inoculate them against bad virus outbreaks

Communities with high amounts of interconnectedness and communal trust – what experts call social capital – experienced less severe coronavirus outbreaks in 2020, according to research published in the journal PLOS-One.

Pandemics are as much a product of human behavior as they are of biology, because a virus spreads via social interaction. The coronavirus has been particularly virulent in places where people congregate – churches, nursing homes, prisons, close-quarters work environments and the like.

Social factors also are at the heart of any pandemic response, particularly before the development of a vaccine. Adhering to coronavirus countermeasures – using masks, getting tested and maintaining social distance – are as much a reflection of concern for others as they are of self-preservation.

It stands to reason, then, that stronger, more connected and more trusting communities would have more success weathering the pandemic. This is the idea motivating the recent paper by Christos Makridis of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cary Wu of York University in Toronto. Their work assesses whether the level of social capital in a community predicts the severity of the pandemic there.

Social capital refers to “features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit,” as defined by legendary political scientist Robert Putnam. In communities with large reserves of social capital, people trust their institutions and their neighbors. They belong to civic organizations such as churches, Elks clubs and bowling leagues. They help each other in times of crisis.

For their paper, Makridis and Wu used a social capital index previously developed by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. That index combines dozens of individual data points – including family structure, parental behaviors, social ties, political engagement, trust in institutions, crime and charitable giving – to assess social capital at the county level.

The committee’s report identifies two U.S. regions where social capital is high: what it calls the “mid-continent North,” stretching roughly from Utah to the upper Midwestern states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

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California’s virus death toll surpasses New York’s

LOS ANGELES — California has edged past New York with the most death from the coronavirus. California’s death toll reached 45,496, surpassing New York’s toll of 45,312 on Thursday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The development comes as other coronavirus numbers show improvement in California. The most recent seven-day test positivity rate has fallen to 4.8%, according to the state Department of Public Health.

The most recent daily number of confirmed positive cases was 8,390, down from 53,000 in December.

However, California is grappling with vaccine shortages to inoculate substantial numbers of its nearly 40 million residents.

Los Angeles is temporarily closing five mass vaccination sites, including Dodger Stadium, for lack of supply. Smaller mobile vaccination clinics will continue their work in LA, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti. The city expects more supplies next week.

Fauci: Virus shot categories to open up by April

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts by April it will be “open season” for vaccinations in the U.S., as supply boosts allow most people to get shots to protect against COVID-19.

Speaking to NBC’s “Today Show,” Fauci, who serves as science adviser to President joe Biden, says the rate of vaccinations will greatly accelerate in the coming months. He credits forthcoming deliveries of the two approved vaccines, the potential approval of a third and moves taken by the Biden administration to increase the nation’s capacity to deliver doses.

He says, “by the time we get to April,” it will be “open season, namely virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.”

He cautioned it will take “several more months” to logistically deliver injections to adult Americans but predicted herd immunity could be achieved by late summer.

AstraZeneca expects updated COVID-19 vaccine by autumn

LONDON  — AstraZeneca said Thursday it expects to have a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine ready for use by this autumn as drugmakers respond to concerns about emerging variants of the disease that may be more transmissible or resistant to existing vaccines.

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Syringes and a package with the vaccine from AstraZeneca. Kay Nietfeld via Associated Press

The Anglo-Swedish company, which makes a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, said it is working with the university’s scientists to adapt the shot to combat new variants. Researchers began this work months ago when the variants were first detected, said Mene Pangalos, head of biopharmaceuticals research for AstraZeneca.

“We’re moving fast and we’ve got a number of variant versions in the works that we will be picking from as we move into the clinic,” Pangalos said on a conference call with reporters.

The comments came as CEO Pascal Soriot defended the company’s efforts to develop and ramp up production of the shot amid criticism from the European Union and a preliminary study that raised concerns about the vaccine’s ability to combat a variant of COVID-19 first discovered in South Africa.

While rollout of the vaccine hasn’t been perfect, regulators in a number of countries have found the vaccine to be safe and effective, and AstraZeneca will produce 100 million doses this month, Soriot said. Only a handful of vaccines have been authorized for widespread use out of hundreds that began development a year ago, he noted.

“One hundred million doses in February means 100 million vaccinations, which means hundreds of thousands of severe infections that are avoided, and it also means thousands of deaths that are avoided,” Soriot said.

The EU last month sparred with AstraZeneca after the company cut initial deliveries of the vaccine to the bloc because of production problems.

Although the European Medicines Agency approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use by everyone over 18, some European countries, including France and Germany, have recommended that people over 65 not receive the shot due to limited data on its effectiveness in older people.

Just this week, researchers released preliminary results from a small-scale study in South Africa that found that the vaccine did little to prevent mild to moderate cases of the disease caused by the variant prevalent in the country. The study also looked solely at healthy young people.

Under siege by virus, Britain to launch toughest travel restrictions to date, including 10-year prison sentences

LONDON — Britain, besieged by a more contagious coronavirus strain and alarmed by the potential of new and imported variants, is about to launch the toughest travel restrictions in Europe, including mandatory hotel quarantines and 10-year prison terms for those who lie on entry forms.

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A woman walks over Westminster Bridge on Feb. 9 as temperatures dropped below freezing during the third coronavirus lockdown in London. Associated Press//Kirsty Wigglesworth

The government has already has shut down almost all travel by international visitors from 33 countries seen as viral hot spots, including Brazil and South Africa.

Beginning Monday, British citizens returning from those “red list” countries must quarantine for 10 days in designated hotels, under police guard, costing travelers 1,750 pounds, or about $2,400. Travelers must to submit to multiple coronavirus tests before release. Those who try to elude quarantine face fines of up to $14,000.

 

Almost 1,000 vaccine doses were accidentally thrown out in Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Public health officials in eastern Tennessee announced Wednesday that 975 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that went missing were likely thrown out by accident.

Knox County — which encompasses Knoxville — says the state’s Department of Health confirmed that the doses were shipped to the region last week, but local officials said they have no record of receiving them.

Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said based on GPS data, she believes the box containing the doses was probably discarded by someone who thought they were throwing out dry ice. Due to security reasons, vaccine doses are shipped without any readily identifiable information attached.

“It was a kick in the gut for all of us,” Buchanan said through tears. “I apologize. Vaccinating our community is very important to us.”

County officials have asked for a state investigation.

Scientist predicts UK coronavirus variant could ‘sweep the world’

The highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain could “sweep the world” and prolong global efforts to tackle the pandemic, a senior British scientist warned Thursday, as governments moved to tighten restrictions and close borders to stop the spread of the new strains.

Sharon Peacock, who heads Britain’s national genomic surveillance program, told BBC News that the variant initially found in southeast England has “swept the country” and is “going to sweep the world, in all probability.”

Her remarks came as both Britain and Germany toughened virus measures amid heightened fears over the threat from new variants, including one first identified in South Africa that has shown resistance to some vaccines. Germany extended lockdown measures for another month despite a drop in cases, while the British government plans to introduce mandatory quarantine and prison sentences for travelers who lie on their entry forms.

Japan reports worst one-day death toll for pandemic

TOKYO — Japan is reporting its worst one-day death toll for the pandemic — 121 people who died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours.

The number reported Thursday by Japan’s Health Ministry raised the country’s pandemic death toll to 6,678.

Japan has not started coronavirus vaccinations. Shots for medical workers are set to begin this month.

The country also has never had a lockdown, but a government-backed state of emergency is now in place for Tokyo and other urban areas that urges people to stay home and restaurants to close at night.

Although coronavirus cases stayed relatively low in Japan last year compared to the United States and Europe, infections have been climbing recently. Demands are growing for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July.

Merkel says Germany didn’t act fast enough in the fall to prevent a second surge

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany didn’t act quickly enough last fall to prevent a second surge in coronavirus infections.

“We didn’t shut down public life early enough or systematically enough amid signs of a second wave and warnings from various scientists,” she told lawmakers Thursday.

Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed late Wednesday to extend the current lockdown, which was due to expire Sunday, until at least March 7.

Schools and hairdressers will be able to open earlier, albeit with strict hygiene measures.

Merkel defended a decision to set a target of pushing the number of new weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants below 35 before the lockdown is eased further.

“The virus doesn’t follow dates, the virus follows infection numbers,” she said.

Germany’s disease control agency said there were just over 64 cases per 100,000 inhabitants nationwide in the past week.

The Robert Koch Institute said there were 10,237 new cases and 666 deaths in the past day, taking the total to 2.31 million, including 63,635 deaths.


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