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Variant cases in US spike by 73%, with Florida leading the way; CVS, Walgreens to start giving shots Friday: Latest COVID-19 updates

Jorge L. Ortiz, Ryan W. Miller and Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY
·9 min read
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The number of known coronavirus variant cases in the U.S. has surged 73% in the last week alone, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released late Tuesday.

The country now reports 944 cases of variants that spread more easily, bypass treatments and immunities, or both.

Nowhere has the increase been more noticeable than in Florida, which now has 343 cases of a fast-spreading variant – up from 201 cases reported during Sunday's Super Bowl, which was hosted in Tampa. Florida now has more than twice as many known variant cases as any other state, with California a distant second with 156 cases, up six from Sunday.

The vast majority of the country's known variant cases, and all of Florida's, are of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and has run rampant there. The CDC has said it may become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. Last month, U.K. researchers said there's evidence the variant may be more deadly than others, and it's also considered at least 50% more transmissible than the original strain.

Tuesday night's report still shows three known cases of P.1, a variant first spotted in Brazil that appears to bypass immunities, and now nine cases of B.1.351, a variant that took over South Africa and resists some treatments and vaccines.

– Mike Stucka

People wait in line to get COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday in a park in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.
People wait in line to get COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday in a park in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 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.

In the headlines:

►Major League Baseball and the players union have agreed to health and safety protocols for the upcoming season that contain some of the same measures put in place last year but add more penalties for clear violations. Players and other personnel at ballparks will have to wear electronic tracing devices from the start of spring training.

►The United States has reported 775,975 new COVID-19 cases in a seven-day period ending Monday, the first time the weekly tally has been under 800,000 cases since Nov. 6. The country peaked at about 1.75 million cases per week last month. The number of deaths, which typically lag cases by about four weeks, remains as high as ever, averaging 21,700 per week, an average of 3,100 a day.

►Starting next week, Canada will require any non-essential traveler arriving in the country by land to show a negative PCR-based coronavirus test or face a fine. Canada already requires people arriving by air to show a negative test.

►Congressional Democrats rejected calls from some moderate lawmakers to reduce the number of people eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks in President Joe Biden's COVID-19 relief proposal, proposing an income threshold of $75,000 annually, the same as in the last round of $600 checks.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 468,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 106.8 million cases and 2.33 million deaths. More than 62.8 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 43.2 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: Even as the latest surge in coronavirus infections abates across the nation, USA TODAY research found 245 hospitals reporting full intensive care units as of Jan. 28 and 477 hospitals reporting more COVID-19 patients in the ICU than the previous week. You can find out which hospitals in your community are overwhelmed here.

Alaska faces uncertain future with COVID-19 declaration nearing end

A disaster declaration intended to aid Alaska's response to the COVID-19 pandemic is set to expire this weekend, and health and emergency officials warn a failure to extend it could restrict the state's ability to distribute vaccines.

Three weeks into the state's legislative session, the politically divided House has yet to organize, and until it does, it can't consider or act on bills. Members of the Republican-led Senate, meanwhile, have chafed at Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposal for an extension through September.

"I think Alaskans want the disaster declaration to end," Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, said last week.

Not all of them. The heads of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, Alaska Chamber, Alaska Municipal League and Alaska Native Health Board urged an extension in an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News. They argued that "ending Alaska's public health disaster emergency declaration will not bring normalcy. Rather, it will delay the very thing we all want."

FDA authorizes Eli Lilly monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 treatment

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday granted emergency use authorization for the use of bamlanivimab and etesevimab administered together for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in adults and some pediatric patients.

The Eli Lilly monoclonal antibody therapy is authorized for those who are 65 years of age or older or who have certain chronic medical conditions, the company said in a press release. Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories, said bamlanivimab and etesevimab together “could potentially allow efficacy” against emerging COVID-19 variants, as well.

The monoclonal antibody cocktail should be administered together through a single intravenous infusion as soon as possible after a positive COVID-19 test and within 10 days of symptom onset, Lilly said.

The FDA, in its own press release, cautioned that the therapy is not authorized for patients who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 or require oxygen therapy due to the virus.

1 million vaccine doses for community health centers

The Biden administration will begin sending coronavirus vaccines directly to community health centers as it boosts distribution and reaches out to underserved communities, the White House announced Tuesday.

At least one center in every state and territory will get vaccines as the program ramps up to include 250 of the more than 1,300 such facilities in the country. The participating centers will receive a combined 1 million doses, starting as soon as next week. In later phases, vaccines will become available to all community health centers.

“This effort … really is about connecting with those hard-to-reach populations across the country,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, who heads the COVID-19 health equity task force. That includes the homeless, residents of public housing, migrant workers and people with limited English proficiency.

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, also said vaccine supply to states, tribal governments and territories is growing by 5% over last week. The new weekly total of 11 million doses represents a 28% increase over the 8.6 million distributed when Biden took office three weeks ago, Zients said.

– Maureen Groppe

COVID-19 vaccines at some drugs stores available Friday

That much-coveted vaccine shot could be available at a nearby drug store this week for those who are eligible.

CVS and Walgreens, the nation's two largest pharmacy chains, will begin vaccinating select populations in stores Friday. The CVS program will initially include 350 drug stores in 11 states, while Walgreens will offer vaccinations at some locations in 17 states and jurisdictions. Appointments are required. Other pharmacies chosen to deliver vaccines at certain locations include Walmart, Ride Aid, Kroger, Publix, Albertsons, Safeway, Costco and Meijer.

Experts hope the nation's established network of pharmacies will help speed up distribution amid consternation over the pace of the rollout.

– Nathan Bomey

Should employers give workers time off or other incentives to get vaccine?

T.J. Daniels was hoping after working at a Petco store in Colorado for 11 months during a pandemic that the company would give him time off to get a COVID-19 vaccine and deal with any potential side effects. So far, nothing. And while Petco said it was poised to announce a plan, most major employers, including Amazon, Target and Walmart, are not committing to provide any extra pay or time off to workers to get their shots.

Advocates say incentives will encourage vaccinations, which will result in more protection for employees and customers. It will also potentially limit downtime that can occur when workers contract the virus. Experts say a high proportion of the U.S. population – perhaps 80% – needs to get vaccinated to build herd immunity, which would limit the coronavirus from continuing to spread.

Dollar General, McDonald’s and Olive Garden are among the employers that have announced incentives for workers to get vaccinated. But most others are saying only that they’re strongly encouraging vaccination and essentially forcing workers to do it on their own time.

– Nathan Bomey

WHO says it will end research into unlikely coronavirus lab-leak theory

World Health Organization investigators said Tuesday they would no longer pursue research into whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety and animal diseases expert, announced the decision during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of WHO experts to the city where COVID-19 was first identified in 2019.

Embarek said there was not enough evidence to support a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a Chinese biosafety laboratory in Wuhan – the Wuhan Institute of Virology – and that the WHO stood by its previous determination that COVID-19 most likely entered the human population through an intermediate animal.

The WHO team has spent several weeks on a fact-finding mission in Wuhan. Experts from 10 nations have visited hospitals, research institutes and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak. However, the WHO's fieldwork and other activities in Wuhan have been closely monitored by Chinese officials and security officers, and Beijing has repeatedly resisted called for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

– Kim Hjelmgaard

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Spike in variant cases; vaccinations in CVS, Walgreens