For tens of millions of Americans still unsure about taking coronavirus vaccine shots, advertising industry experts and government scientists have a new message: “It’s Up to You.”

That message and accompanying ad campaign – shaped by months of consumer research and backed by more than $50 million in donated funds – is to be unveiled Thursday across TV and digital video, social media and audio platforms like Pandora and Spotify. It also will include messaging tailored toward Black and Hispanic communities, where studies have found a lack of trust about the coronavirus vaccines and their long-term effects.

The campaign – the first concerted effort urging Americans to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus – will further encourage those skeptical of the vaccines to visit a new website, getvaccineanswers.org, for the latest information on the safety and availability of vaccines.

The campaign was overseen by the Ad Council – the nonprofit communications industry group responsible for landmark ads such as Smokey Bear and famous public health messages including “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” – which has billed “It’s Up to You” as one of the largest public education efforts in U.S. history. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closely consulted on the campaign, which was announced in November as the first coronavirus vaccines were nearing release. The CDC’s branding also will appear in ads.

Read the full story here.

Biden aims to distribute masks to millions in equity push

WASHINGTON — President Biden plans to distribute millions of face masks to Americans in communities hard-hit by the coronavirus beginning next month as part of his efforts to ensure “equity” in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Biden, who like Donald Trump’s administration considered sending masks to all Americans, is instead adopting a more conservative approach, aiming to reach underserved communities and those bearing the brunt of the outbreak. Trump’s administration shelved the plans entirely.

Biden’s plan will distribute masks not through the mail, but instead through Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and the nation’s food bank and food pantry systems, the White House announced Wednesday.

The Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture will be involved in the distribution of more than 25 million American-made cloth masks in both adult and kid sizes. The White House estimates they will reach 12 million to 15 million people.

“Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all have access, and not all masks are equal,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.

The White House is not distributing safer N95 masks, of which the U.S. now has abundant supply after shortages early in the pandemic.

The cloth masks adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and “certainly they meet those requirements set by our federal standard,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Biden hinted at the move Tuesday during a virtual roundtable discussion Tuesday with four essential workers who are Black, saying he expected his administration to send millions of masks to people around the country “very shortly.”

Biden has asked all Americans to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his term, pointing to models showing it could help save 50,000 lives. He also required mask-wearing in federal buildings and on public transportation in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Read the full story here.

Pennsylvania health network allowed employees’ relatives to skip vaccine line

One of Pennsylvania’s largest health networks allowed employees’ family members to skip the COVID-19 vaccine line, raising questions of fairness at a time of strong public demand and scarce supply.

Geisinger’s decision to give special access to employees’ relatives earned a rebuke this week from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which said the health care giant shouldn’t have held vaccine clinics for eligible family members of employees.

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People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk past a depiction of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in Philadelphia, Monday, Jan. 25. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

“DOH has been in contact with the provider to ensure that going forward they follow the agreement they signed, or risk losing access to first doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” said Maggi Barton, a Health Department spokesperson.

The state agency said it was unaware that Geisinger had arranged for family members to be inoculated until alerted by the Associated Press.

Geisinger said that since the family members who got the shots met the state’s eligibility requirements, it didn’t need to tell the Health Department that it had set aside vaccine for them. Geisinger also insisted it followed state guidelines for vaccine eligibility and administration and said “at no time were we informed that our vaccine program could be at risk.”

Geisinger, which has 24,000 employees spread across central and northeastern Pennsylvania, held employee vaccination clinics on three consecutive Sundays in late January and early February. Each employee was permitted to bring two family members, so long as they were eligible under the state’s phased vaccine rollout, Geisinger acknowledged in response to an AP inquiry. Family members did not have to live with the employee to qualify, the health system said.

About 3,600 relatives of Geisinger employees were vaccinated under the program. No additional vaccine clinics for employee family members are scheduled.

“The situation in mid-January was very different than where we stand today,” said a Geisinger spokesperson, Matthew Van Stone. At the time, he said, Geisinger had an adequate supply of vaccine, and “we felt opening up Sundays to employees and up to two Phase 1A-eligible family members would make it easier for the community to find appointments throughout the week.”

It is unclear if members of the public lost out on appointments because of doses given to employee relatives.

But the vaccine clinics allowed family members to avoid the frustrating, tedious and often fruitless hunt for an appointment that has plagued the state’s early rollout and led to widespread complaints among Pennsylvania residents. The state has been among the nation’s lowest ranked in how efficiently it is vaccinating its population.

“Even if their intentions were good, we shouldn’t be using vaccines as a ‘friends and family’ perk of employment,” said Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz, a professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. “This was just prioritizing the wrong people at the wrong time.”

Coronavirus infection leads to immunity that’s comparable to a COVID-19 vaccine

One of the enduring questions of the COVID-19 pandemic is how much immunity people are left with after recovering from a coronavirus infection. New research suggests the level of protection is comparable to getting a vaccine — at least for a few months.

Among a group of hundreds of thousands of Americans who tested positive for a SARS-CoV-2 infection, the risk of developing a subsequent infection more than three months later was about 90% lower than for people who had not been previously infected and therefore had no immunity to the virus, according to researchers from the National Cancer Institute.

A van used for mobile vaccinations is parked in Los Angeles as part of the state’s efforts to vaccinate hard-to-reach and disproportionately impacted communities. Associated Press/Damian Dovarganes

For the sake of comparison, when the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were tested in Phase 3 clinical trials, they reduced the risk of developing COVID-19 by at least 94%.

The findings, published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, could help inform plans for returning workers to their offices, sending students and teachers back to school campuses and allowing more of the economy to reopen.

Read the full story here.

First vaccine doses distributed by Covax, the global vaccine effort, land in Ghana

ABUJA, Nigeria – Ghana became the first country to receive a shipment of coronavirus vaccines from a global effort to equitably distribute doses after a plane landed Wednesday with 600,000 AstraZeneca shots.

The rollout is an early step toward getting doses to low- and middle-income countries cut out of the global vaccine race. But the timing and the relatively modest supply – enough for 1% of Ghana’s population – reflect major challenges in the immunization effort.

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The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by COVAX are unloaded at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana on Feb, 24. Francis Kokoroko/UNICEF via Associated Press

More than 190 countries signed up to participate in Covax, a multilateral effort to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines, but the initiative has struggled to secure enough because wealthy countries snapped up a disproportionate share of early supply.

President Joe Biden last week pledged $4 billion to the effort, reversing the Trump administration’s decision to opt out. Yet the United States and other wealthy countries have so far resisted calls to give doses, rather than funding, to countries in greatest need.

“So far, 210 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally – but half of those are in just two countries,” WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday in Geneva. “More than 200 countries are yet to administer a single dose.”

Covax aims to distribute 2.3 billion doses by the end of 2021 – a significant amount but still well short of demand.

Coronavirus medical mystery: Baby with high viral load puzzles researchers

Among the more than 2,000 youngsters treated for the coronavirus at Children’s National Hospital in D.C., one newborn was unusual. The baby was very sick, for one. Most infected kids barely show symptoms and even the hospitalized ones tend to have mild cases.

But the real surprise came when doctors measured the infant’s viral load. It was 51,418 times the median of other pediatric patients. And when they sequenced the virus in the baby recently, they found a variant they hadn’t seen before.

Roberta DeBiasi, chief of infectious disease for the hospital, knew she couldn’t conclude anything from one case. But it set off alarm bells. And as the researchers delved further into the mystery, they found evidence that a variant with a mutation called N679S may be circulating in the Mid-Atlantic region.

No one knows whether the infant, who was seen in September and has since recovered, represents a chance case, a sign of things to come, or worrisome changes already in motion as new, more transmissible variants race across the Earth.

“It could be a complete coincidence,” DeBiasi said. “But the association is pretty strong. If you see a patient who has exponentially more virus and it’s a completely different variant, it is probably related.”

Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said the viral load in the infant’s nose “in itself, is shocking and noteworthy.” However, he was cautious in speculating that it “could be because of N679S, or simply because it is a [newborn] with an immature immune system, permitting the virus to replicate out of control.”

As the world heads into a new stage of the pandemic where the virus is changing in significant ways, the United States has been so behind in tracking new variants that it’s difficult to understand the current threat, much less predict the next one. The White House announced last week that it will invest an additional $200 million into genomic sequencing to help track new variants — making it possible to analyze 25,000 per week. Some experts argue that the best bang for our limited genetic testing buck could come from focusing more on children, who could act as harbingers of more infectious strains because they are generally more resistant to the virus.

Until then, findings like the one from Children’s National remain single puzzle pieces that may be important in determining the direction of the pandemic — or merely transient scientific curiosities.

Two hard-hit New England cities, 2 diverging fates in vaccine rollout

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.  — Mario Valdez, his wife and their 18-year-old son were fully vaccinated for COVID-19 this month as part of a special effort to inoculate every resident of Central Falls, the Rhode Island community hit hardest by the pandemic.

“I feel happy,” the 62-year-old school bus driver said shortly after receiving his second and final dose. “Too many people here have COVID. It’s better to be safe.”

Roughly 50 miles across the state line is Chelsea, a Massachusetts city that was an early epicenter of the virus. Like Central Falls, it’s a tiny former industrial city that is overwhelmingly Latino. Residents of both cities live in dense rows of triple-decker homes and apartment complexes, providing the workforce for their respective state capitals of Providence and Boston.

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People line up for vaccines at a clinic in Central Falls, R.I., on Feb. 20, 2021. Nearly a third of adults in the city have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to state data. Associated Press/David Goldman

But the two cities’ fortunes could not be more different during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Chelsea high school sophomore Mannix Resto fears that Massachusetts’ slow pace of vaccinations will continue to prevent students from attending classes in person. The 15-year-old says no one in his family has been vaccinated yet as the state focuses on front-line workers and residents who are older or have serious health conditions.

“I just want to know how much longer it’s going to last,” Resto said earlier this month while walking with a friend on Broadway, Chelsea’s busy main street. “It’s been a year already. We can’t keep living like this.”

Rhode Island began offering vaccinations to elderly Central Falls residents in late December and gradually expanded it so that anyone 18 or older who lives or works in the city is now eligible.

Nearly a third of adults in the city have received at least one dose of vaccine and about 16% are fully vaccinated, according to state data. Health officials say the city of about 20,000 has seen a marked drop in COVID-19 cases as a result.

Read the full story here.

Merkel warns of third virus wave as Germany weighs ending lockdown

Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany is in the midst of a third wave of coronavirus infections and should proceed carefully with reopening schools and businesses, putting a damper on discussions to loosen lockdown curbs.

The note of caution comes as Germany struggles on numerous fronts to control the pandemic. Infection rates haven’t come down for days, while the pace of vaccinations remains sluggish. A delayed test strategy represents the latest foul-up.

A protective face mask sign in Romerberg Square in Frankfurt, on Jan. 29. Bloomberg/Alex Kraus

Health Minister Jens Spahn promised to make quick tests widely available from March 1 to facilitate a gradual return to normality as immunizations ramp up. After Merkel shot down Spahn’s plan in a cabinet meeting on Monday, she will now discuss it with state leaders on March 3.

“We’re in principle ready to go, but many have asked how we can better integrate it into opening strategies, so we’re discussing that now,” Spahn said in an interview with ZDF television. The cabinet member was scheduled to face lawmaker questions over the bungled plan later on Wednesday.

Political strains have increasingly bogged down Germany’s pandemic fight, as election-year campaigning muddies discussions. Multiple plans to reopen Europe’s largest economy are in the works, while Merkel — who will leave office after the September elections — argues for a gradual approach.

Ending restrictions on personal contact must be accompanied by more testing and vaccinations, Merkel told lawmakers from her conservative bloc during a video conference on Tuesday, according to a participant on the call. The chancellor warned that the aggressive British variant is already spreading in Germany, threatening the success of the country’s containment efforts to date.

Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff and a trained medical doctor, told lawmakers that virus mutations could rapidly lead to a rise in new infections. He said the contagion rate could potentially soar as high as 800 infections per 100,000 people over seven days.

After falling steadily since Christmas, Germany’s incidence rate has been stuck at about 60 for more than a week, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute. Merkel has set a rate of 50 as the minimum for lifting certain restrictions, with further curbs possibly eased when the level falls below 35.

China considering approval of  2 more COVID-19 vaccines

Beijing — China is moving ahead with two more COVID-19 vaccines in the regulatory process, one from state-owned company Sinopharm and another from a private company CanSino.

Both vaccines have submitted been to regulators for approval this week. CanSino said that Chinese regulators are reviewing its application for its COVID-19 vaccine, in a stock filing on Wednesday. Sinopharm’s subsidiary the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products announced Wednesday that it had submitted an application Sunday and that regulators were reviewing it.

China already has approved two vaccines that it has been using in a mass immunization campaign. One of them is also from Sinopharm, but it was developed by its Beijing subsidiary. The other is the Sinovac vaccine.

The Wuhan shot from Sinopharm is 72.51% effective, the company said. Both shots from Sinopharm rely on inactivated viruses, a traditional technology.

CanSino’s vaccine is a one-dose shot that relies on a harmless common cold virus, called an adenovirus, to deliver the spike gene of the virus into the body. The technology is similar to both Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines, which rely on different adenoviruses.

CanSino’s vaccine is 65.28% effective, the company said Wednesday.

Neither company has published its trial data in peer-reviewed scientific journals yet.

Thousands of vaccine doses go to waste in Tennessee

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than 2,400 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Tennessee’s most populous county went to waste while local officials sat on tens of thousands of shots they thought had already gone into arms, the state’s top health official announced Tuesday.

The Department of Health began an investigation over the weekend into a report that recent winter storms caused 1,000 doses to be tossed in Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis.

But Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey on Tuesday revealed that the problems were far more widespread. She said issues dating back to Feb. 3 included multiple incidents of spoiled doses, an excessive vaccine inventory, insufficient record-keeping and a lack of a formal process for managing soon-to-expire vaccines. A federal investigation is also expected.

As a result, Shelby County’s local health department will temporarily no longer be allowed to allocate the vaccine. Instead, Memphis city officials, hospitals, clinics and other pharmacies will handle the distribution. Meanwhile, the physical management of the vaccine will now be handled by hospital partners.

Two elderly Australians given higher-than-prescribed doses of Pfizer vaccine

CANBERRA, Australia — Two elderly people have received higher-than-prescribed doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Australia’s health minister said Wednesday.

The 88-year-old man and 94-year-old woman were being monitored and the doctor who administered the shots has been removed from the vaccination program, Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

The error occurred at the Holy Spirit aged care home in the Brisbane suburb of Carseldine on Tuesday, the day after the vaccine rollout in Australia began, Hunt said.

“Both patients are being been monitored and both patients are showing no signs at all of an adverse reaction,” Hunt said.

Lincoln Hopper, chief executive of St. Vincent’s Care Services that owns the home, said he was “very concerned” for the residents’ welfare. The woman remained at the home while the man has been admitted to a hospital, Hopper said.

“This incident has been very distressing to us, to our residents and to their families and it’s also very concerning,” Hopper said. “It’s caused us to question whether some of the clinicians given the job of administering the vaccine have received the appropriate training.”

Hunt later revealed that the doctor who administered the overdoses had not completed the online training that all health professionals in the program must undertake.

Hunt apologized for earlier telling Parliament that the doctor had been trained. He said he had asked the Health Department to take action against the doctor and the company the doctor works for.


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