ATLANTA, GA — As schools continue to reopen following coronavirus closures that have gone on for months, it's not just teachers, coaches and other staff members worried about how reopening plans could affect their ability to stay virus-free.
School bus drivers are among the groups at the highest risk. It's them, in many cases, with whom students first come in contact every day.
A group of bus drivers in the Atlanta Public Schools system are calling for a mask mandate for students riding the bus as schools are set to reopen in the capital city of Georgia.
“We’re supposed to be safe," Marcus, one of the drivers, told WSB-TV. "But it’s impossible to tell me that I am going to be safe when you are telling me that I have no limitations on how many students can actually get on the bus.”
Elizabeth, another driver, told the news station bus drivers cannot deny maskless students a ride.
“They’re telling us if a child is at the bus stop with no mask, we have to let them on the bus," she said. "We can’t deny them any ride.”
Buses in the school system could have as many as 70 students on at one time, making it difficult to practice proper social distancing, the group of drivers told the station.
International travelers to the United States now must have a negative coronavirus test within the previous three days in order to enter the country. As the new Biden administration's order goes into effect on Tuesday, some Americans are changing their travel plans as a result.
United Airlines has said there has been a noticeable increase in international flight cancellations and decrease in bookings since the order was signed last week, according to a USA Today report.
Colorado resident Tammy McQuitty and her husband felt safe during their New Year's trip to Cancun, but decided to cancel their upcoming February trip to Puerto Vallarta due to the new policy, which includes all United States citizens and others age 2 and up. The only Americans who are exempt are the ones who can prove they have already received a coronavirus vaccine.
The risk of finding themselves stuck abroad was too much, she told USA Today.
"What if one of us tests positive and one of us doesn't? Where do we stay? What do we do?'' she said. "Everything was so up in the air it was absolutely not worth the risk.''
Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said scientists are already preparing to upgrade COVID-19 vaccines to address the mutated versions that erupted in Britain and South Africa.
Vaccine makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech reported Monday their vaccines are effective against the variant from the United Kingdom but could be less so against the one from South Africa, according to a New York Times report.
Moderna said it will develop a new form of its vaccine to be used as a booster against the South Africa variant, the report states.
“We’re doing it today to be ahead of the curve, should we need to,” Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, told the Times. “I think of it as an insurance policy.”
Another drugmaker, Merck, is abandoning its plan for two vaccines altogether. The company was slower than others to start work on a vaccine, having begun in June, according to The New York Times. The decision to stop work on them came Monday as they had progressed to the clinical trial stages.
Instead, according to the Times, Merck will focus its COVID-19 efforts on an experimental antiviral drug called molnupiravir to be used for treatment. The biotech company Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is developing molnupiravir in collaboration with Merck.
Another treatment, an antibody cocktail made by the drugmaker Regeneron, has prevented serious illnesses in people exposed to others who were positive for the virus, according to a report from The New York Times that cited a not-yet-published analysis of clinical trials.
The treatment developments come as the first case of another variant, this one from Brazil, was reported in the United States on Monday. The first Brazil P.1 coronavirus variant patient is from Minnesota and became ill in the first week of January after traveling to Brazil. While this variant is believed to be more transmissible, it is not known if it produces more severe symptoms.
Lower virus numbers have led to some states lifting coronavirus-related restrictions — such as California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly lifted the state's regional stay-at-home order on Monday.
With the cancellation of the order, the state returned to its original system of county-by-county restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. The state also lifted a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew.
"California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we've been hoping for," Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state's health secretary, said in a statement Monday morning. He added: "Our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared."
Newsom, a Democrat, defended his abrupt decision to drop restrictions against accusations by Republican elected officials in the state who questioned whether politics led to him making the call.
The governor insisted it was science, not politics, that led to his decision.
"We are in a position — projecting four weeks forward with a significant decline in the case rates, positivity rates — we are anticipating still more decline in hospitalizations and more declines in ICUs, and that's why we're lifting that stay-at-home order effective immediately today," Newsom said.
The governor released updated statewide figures showing sharp drops over the past two weeks in average daily case numbers, a 20 percent drop in hospitalizations and 10 percent dip in ICU admissions. He said the 14-day average testing positivity rate fell from 13.6 percent to 9.4 percent, while the rate over the past seven days has dropped to 8 percent, ranking better than half the states in the nation.
At least 1,639 deaths and 135,822 new cases of coronavirus were reported in the United States on Monday, according to a Washington Post database. The Post's reporting shows that over the past week, new daily cases fell 20.3 percent, new daily deaths fell 6.4 percent and COVID-19-related hospitalizations fell 10.5 percent.
Currently, 109,936 people are hospitalized with a coronavirus-related illness in the United States, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
As of Tuesday, 41 states and U.S. territories remained above the positive testing rate recommended by the World Health Organization to safely reopen. To safely reopen, the WHO recommends states remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the United States had reported more than 25.3 million cases and more than 422,500 deaths from COVID-19-related illnesses, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.