ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A decrease in the rate of COVID-19 infections buoyed by other factors like having 12% of the population vaccinated has led Alaska’s largest city to relax restrictions placed on businesses to combat the pandemic, officials said Thursday.
The municipality of Anchorage will double the occupancy rate to 50 percent for bars, restaurants, storefront businesses, gyms, bingo halls and theaters as of Monday, said acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson. Last call will also be moved back an hour, with alcohol service ending at midnight.
Anchorage is averaging about 60 new COVID-19 cases a day, said Dr. Janet Johnston, the epidemiologist for the Anchorage Health Department. While that’s still considered high, it’s a level not seen since last October.
“We’re heading in the right direction and we need to keep it that way,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Other changes that go into effect Monday include allowing sports teams to again compete, but only against other teams from within the municipality. People are encouraged to limit contact with those outside their household.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
The U.S. reports first case of South Africa virus variant found in South Carolina. More than 90 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be produced in Japan. No respite for UK hospital workers facing record number of patients. EXPLAINER: Why it’s hard to make vaccines and boost supplies.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BEIJING — New cases of local transmission in China are continuing to fall with just 36 announced on Friday, even as the country’s annual Lunar New Year travel push gets underway.
Authorities have taken a variety measures to discourage travel this season and far few Chinese appear willing to make the trip, even though it might be their only chance to return home and see family all year.
The northeastern province of Heilongjiang reported the largest number of new cases, 21, over the past 24 hours, followed by Jilin province just to the south. The capital Beijing and its surrounding province of Hebei both reported one new case each.
Also Friday, inspectors from the World Health Organization began day two of a fact finding tour in the central Chinese city of Wuhan clusters of the virus were first detected in late 2019.
The mission has become politically charged, 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.
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations chief is calling the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines a “global emergency,” saying more that 70 million doses have been administered but fewer than 20,000 vaccinations were on the African continent.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday that while every country has the duty to protect its own people “no country can afford to neglect the rest of the world.”
He called “vaccine nationalism” both a moral and economic failure and said: “We need a global vaccination campaign to deal with a global pandemic.”
If COVID-19 continues circulating in the global south, it will inevitably mutate, Guterres told a news conference. New variants could be more deadly and more transmissible and threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines, “prolonging or risking to prolong the pandemic significantly.”
Research by the International Chamber of Commerce showed that without support to the developing world, “this crisis could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion –- almost half, including in the wealthiest countries,’’ the secretary-general said.
HARTFORD, Conn. - Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday he’s considering easing some COVID-19 restrictions in Connecticut, including for places of worship, possibly as early as next week.
Under the state’s rules, indoor church services are currently limited to 50% capacity, capped at 100 people. Worshipers must wear masks and social distance.
“Let’s lift that numerical cap. Let’s do it now,” the Democrat told reporters during his COVID-19 briefing. “But if you haven’t been vaccinated, probably it’s better stay home for a little bit longer if you are of a certain age.”
As of Thursday, about 35% of state residents 75 years and older have received the vaccine. There have been a total of 364,255 vaccinations, which includes 299,876 first doses and 64.379 second doses administered.
The Connecticut Catholic Conference welcomed the news that Lamont planned to ease the state’s restrictions, saying in a written statement that multiple steps have already been taken by clergy and parishioners to reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon says it is reviewing a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for military troops to help set up vaccination sites, as the Biden administration vows to speed up deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine over the next few weeks.
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday that the military will help as aggressively as it can, and it will likely require a mix of active-duty troops as well as National Guard and Reserves to meet FEMA’s needs.
According to a draft of the request, FEMA wants the military to set up 100 teams that will help operate vaccination centers across the country. Kirby and other Pentagon officials said Thursday that talks are still ongoing to determine how many service members it will take and who they will be.
FEMA initially asked for as many as 10,000 troops, but defense officials say it may not require that many.
Since a key job will be to actually give shots to the public, officials have to determine what military personnel can do that without taking key capabilities from other units, including some that may be deployed. In addition, many health care professionals who are in the Guard and Reserves are already working at critical medical jobs, and may not be available for the vaccination centers.
SANTA FE, N.M. -- New Mexico health officials have reported an additional 678 confirmed COVID-19 infections, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to nearly 172,000 cases.
The latest figures include 20 inmates at three of the state’s prisons. Overall, confirmed cases and related deaths have been trending downward along with hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, vaccinations are underway for the oldest New Mexicans as well as those who have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk.
More than 86% of the 276,850 doses that have been shipped to New Mexico have been administered. More than 530,000 residents have registered to receive the vaccine.
BATON ROUGE, La — Louisiana’s work to vaccinate nursing home residents and employees against COVID-19 is moving slowly.
Data released Thursday from the state’s chief public health adviser indicates fewer than one-third of the doses set aside for the effort have been used and a slim percentage of workers at the facilities showing interest so far.
Dr. Joe Kanter says 93,600 Moderna vaccine doses have been allocated to a program administered by CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate people who live and work at long-term care facilities. Only 28,000 have reached arms.
Kanter says 69% of residents at the facilities that have been visited have wanted the immunization while only 26% of the staff have been interested.
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine last week, after spending several days assisting health care workers at a large coronavirus vaccination center at Dodger Stadium.
The 49-year-old mayor made clear in December that he would wait his turn to receive the vaccine, echoing county policy that nursing home residents, people 65 and older and medical workers will be first in line.
However, his office said medical personnel strongly recommended he be vaccinated because he was interacting with hundreds of people daily at the stadium while assisting health care workers.
SACRAMENTO -- California reported its second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths — while the rates of new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continue to drop.
The state Department of Public Health says the total of 737 new deaths Thursday is second to the record 764 reported Jan. 22.
California’s death toll since the start of the pandemic rose to nearly 39,000, while total cases topped 3.1 million. The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 has slipped more than 20% in two weeks.
The positivity rate for people being tested has been falling for weeks, which means fewer people will end up in hospitals.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s program to vaccinate residents and staff members at long-term care facilities is complete, the state’s director of emergency management told lawmakers Thursday, freeing up resources — and possibly more vaccines — for the state’s broader inoculation strategy against the coronavirus.
During an appearance before a legislative select committee on the response to the pandemic, the director, Jared Moskowitz, echoed Gov. Ron DeSantis’s concern over inadequate deliveries of life-saving vaccines to meet the intense demand.
Moskowitz said the bottleneck in vaccinations is not because of a lack of a distribution infrastructure. The onus, he said, is on the federal officials to speed up the delivery of vaccines to states like his.
Moskowitz conceded that some areas of the state, particularly communities of color, may not be getting equal access to vaccines. He also acknowledged that the state would have to do better on that score — particularly on the public relations front as DeSantis travels to the state to announce vaccination center openings in communities mostly populated by affluent white Floridians.
ALBANY, N.Y. — New York may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by thousands. That’s according to a new report from the state attorney general that dealt a blow to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s claims that his state is doing better than others in protecting its most vulnerable.
Attorney General Letitia James has, for months, been examining discrepancies between the number of deaths being reported by the state’s Department of Health, and the number of deaths reported by the homes themselves. Her investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities
The report backed up the findings of an Associated Press investigation last year. The official 8,711 nursing home toll could actually be more than 13,000, highest in the nation.
LAS VEGAS — The fifth-largest school district in the U.S. has announced its youngest students are scheduled to return to in-person education on March 1 on a voluntary basis, with employees returning a week earlier.
The Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas-area schools, said in a statement Wednesday that prekindergarten through third grade students whose parents complete a questionnaire will return to a hybrid education model.
School Board President Linda Cavazos said there are concerns about the return to school plan that she hopes will be resolved as more details are announced.
MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has only shared a photo of himself since testing positive for the coronavirus.
His aides say little more than the leader is in good spirits, experiencing mild symptoms and working. But the country has grown accustomed to waking to the 67-year-old López Obrador as he conducts marathon news conferences each morning.
His public absence since the weekend announcement of his illness is spurring calls that the president who touts the transparency of his administration to share more about his health.
López Obrador played down the coronavirus threat early, has rarely been seen wearing a mask in public and at times contradicted his own health officials’ recommendations. The president is a heart attack survivor who has high blood pressure.
Michelle Varela, an economist, says she hopes after his illness, López Obrador will take precautions to set an example. Mexico has 1.8 million confirmed cases and more than 153,000 confirmed deaths, the fourth-highest death toll in the world.
MADRID — Spain’s coronavirus infection rate dropped slightly for the first time in nearly a month, while the influx of patients into intensive care units keeps rising.
Spain’s Health Ministry logged 34,899 new infections and 515 confirmed deaths Thursday, bringing the total tally to 2.6 million cases and 57,800 confirmed deaths.
The 14-day average cases per 100,000 inhabitants dropped slightly from 899 cases on Wednesday to 889 on Thursday.
Nearly one in four hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. The situation is far worse in intensive care units. Although the official occupation rate by coronavirus patients there is 42%, the share includes many ICU beds that have been installed temporarily in surgery rooms and other hospital areas.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the United States for the first time.
South Carolina officials say two such cases have been diagnosed in the state. The two cases don’t appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Viruses mutate constantly and many variants of the coronavirus are circulating around the globe. However, scientists are primarily concerned with three that appear to spread more easily.
Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were already confirmed in the U.S. Researchers predicted it was only a matter of time before the variant identified in South Africa reached the United States as well.
President Joe Biden on Monday reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa. The CDC is currently recommending Americans not travel.
AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency has updated its recommendation for the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, clarifying that the second dose should be given three weeks after the first dose.
That’s in line with what the drugmakers and some other regulatory agencies recommend.
In a statement on Thursday, the EU’s medicines regulator says there is no data on the efficacy of the vaccine when the second dose is given after 21 days. Previously, the EMA said the time between administering the two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine should be “at least 21 days.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine be given after 21 days, in line with what the company itself recommends based on its research.
In Britain, officials have decided to delay giving people the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 weeks so that as many people as possible can get at least some protection from one shot. Numerous scientists have questioned the U.K. decision and called for an evaluation to investigate the effects of prolonging the gap between doses.