Biden adviser urges US to prioritize first doses 'right now'; South African variant reaches Maryland; 441K US deaths. Key COVID-19 updates

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John Bacon and Jordan Culver, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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COVID-19 has killed more than 440,000 Americans, 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 top epidemiologist and adviser to President Joe Biden’s transition team said Sunday that the U.S. needs to prioritize giving a single dose to as many people as possible before focusing on second doses of the two-shot vaccines.

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told “Meet the Press” he expects another surge of infections within the next few months. Osterholm cited new variants, such as those first detected in Britain and South Africa, that appear to spread more easily than the original virus.

"The hurricane is coming. Because of this surge, we have to call an audible,” he said.

The vaccines now in use, from Moderna and Pfizer, require two doses spaced out over a few weeks. One dose, however, does provide some protection. And Osterholm said data indicates that the longer people wait until the second dose "the better you may do."

“We still want to get two doses in everyone, but I think right now, in advance of this surge, we need to get as many one-doses in as many people over 65 as we possibly can," Osterholm said, saying such a focus could "reduce serious illness and death that is going to occur over the weeks ahead."

In the headlines:

►Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Sunday that vaccine distribution has been "seamless" under the Biden administration. "President Biden and his team is working to assure that partnership and not tear it apart, which I'm very grateful for," Hutchinson told ABC News' "This Week."

►The Vatican has unveiled new COVID protocols for distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17. Priests, instead of reciting a specific blessing and making a cross on each parishioner's forehead, will stand at arms length and sprinkle the ashes on each recipient’s head “without touching them or speaking any words."

►One of the nation's largest vaccination sites temporarily shut down Saturday when dozens of protesters blocked the entrance to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, stalling hundreds of motorists who had been waiting in line.

►A second U.S. state reported a case of the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan confirmed a case of the B.1.351 variant in his state Saturday. South Carolina reported at least two cases of the variant earlier this week.

►After opening itself to New Year’s revelers, Dubai is now being blamed by several countries for spreading the coronavirus abroad, even as questions swirl about the city-state’s ability to handle reported record spikes in virus cases.

►Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said she requested to move her Washington office away from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, saying the Georgia Republican "berated" her in the Capitol earlier this month over a mask altercation.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 26.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 441,300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 102.9 million cases and 2.22 million deaths. About 49.2 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 29.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: Applications to medical school for this coming fall are up 18%, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. And many school officials specifically note the number of applicants from traditionally underrepresented Americans is helping to drive the surge.

Triumph of science over COVID waylaid by confusion, frustration

In late December, the idea that safe, effective vaccines against COVID-19 had been created in less than a year seemed miraculous. Pride in the remarkable feat, however, has been replaced by confusion, unfairness, frustrating waits and the nightmare of vaccine vials gathering dust while tens of thousands of people continue to die of what is now a preventable disease. Even people leading the effort are at a loss to explain what happened.

"I would love to understand it," said Moncef Slaoui, head of the vaccine development effort under the Trump administration and now an adviser to the Biden administration. "What makes me sad is ... the thousands of people that have worked day and night over the last many, many months really feel terrible, feel depressed, because the whole thing is now positioned as a disaster." Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise

Not all COVID patients get back senses of taste and smell

Millions of people worldwide have suffered changes to their sense of smell or taste after contracting COVID-19. In most cases, the symptoms usually only last a few weeks. But a year into the pandemic, researchers still aren't sure when some COVID-19 survivors may get their senses back – if ever – and many are struggling with the long-term safety, hygiene and psychiatric implications of the loss. In the coming year, there will be at least 1 million new cases of people in the U.S. with chronically diminished senses of smell or taste because of COVID-19, said Dr. Jay Piccirillo, an ear, nose and throat specialist and professor at the Washington University School of Medicine who studies the topic.

"We've gotten a better idea about the long-term, chronic effects of COVID on smell and taste," he said. "The things we've learned suggest that most people recover smell and taste, but not all."

US pauses plan to give virus vaccine to Guantanamo prisoners

The U.S. is backing off for now on a plan to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to the 40 prisoners held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said in a tweet Saturday that the Defense Department would be “pausing” the plan to give the vaccination to those held at Guantanamo while it reviews measures to protect troops who work there. Kirby said no prisoners had yet received the vaccination. The plan drew some criticism after The New York Times reported that the vaccination of prisoners would start in the coming days.

“We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols,” Kirby said. “We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.”

Drivers with a vaccine appointment enter a mega COVID-19 vaccination site set up in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. One of the largest vaccination sites in the country was temporarily shut down Saturday because dozen of protesters blocked the entrance.
Drivers with a vaccine appointment enter a mega COVID-19 vaccination site set up in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. One of the largest vaccination sites in the country was temporarily shut down Saturday because dozen of protesters blocked the entrance.

NYC neighborhood struggles to vaccinate Latino residents

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says a vaccine site in Washington Heights administered shots to mostly white people who came from outside the predominantly Latino neighborhood.

"Somehow instead of focusing on the Latino community of Washington Heights, a place that really was hit hard by COVID, instead the approach was somehow conducive to folks from outside of the community coming and getting vaccinated, but not folks who live right there in Washington Heights – totally backward," the mayor said in a press conference, according to a transcript.

Many cities and states are lagging in vaccinating people of color although they are more likely to be hospitalized or die of the virus.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Dodger Stadium protests, Guantanamo vaccinations paused