Virus Updates: Biden to Outline Pandemic Plan; Another Lawmaker Tests Positive After Lockdown

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The United States on Wednesday surpassed 23 million confirmed coronavirus cases, the same day that Texas became the second state to top 2 million cases, according to a tally by NBC News.

Meanwhile, in a bit of promising news, California lifted a stay-at-home order for 13 northern counties with improving hospital conditions, but most of the state’s population remains under tight restrictions. California has seen an enormous surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths since Thanksgiving.

The U.S. has recorded more than 388,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Here are the latest coronavirus updates from the U.S. and elsewhere:

Coronavirus Pandemic Reduced Life Expectancy for Blacks, Latinos: Study

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected life expectancy, USC and Princeton researchers have found, according to a study published Thursday.

The researchers project that, due to the more than 336,000 pandemic deaths in the United States in 2020, life expectancy at birth for Americans will shorten by 1.13 years to 77.48 years, according to the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That is the largest single-year decline in life expectancy in at least 40 years and the lowest life expectancy estimate since 2003.

The declines in life expectancy are likely even starker among Black and Latino communities. For Blacks, the researchers project their life expectancy would shorten by 2.10 years to 72.78 years, and 3.05 years for Latinos to 78.77 years.

Whites are also impacted, but their projected decline is much smaller -- 0.68 years -- to 77.84 years.

Overall, the gap in life expectancy between Blacks and whites is projected to widen by 40%, from 3.6 years to more than 5 -- further evidence of the disease's disparate impact on minority populations.

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Biden Unveils $1.9T Plan to Stem COVID-19, Steady Economy

President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan Thursday to end “a crisis of deep human suffering” by speeding up vaccines and pumping out financial help to those struggling with the pandemic’s prolonged economic fallout.

Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden's goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, and advance his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. On a parallel track, it delivers another round of aid to stabilize the economy while the public health effort seeks the upper hand on the pandemic.

“We not only have an economic imperative to act now — I believe we have a moral obligation,” Biden said in a nationwide address. At the same time, he acknowledged that his plan “does not come cheaply.”

Biden proposed $1,400 checks for most Americans, which on top of $600 provided in the most recent COVID-19 bill would bring the total to the $2,000 that Biden has called for. It would also extend a temporary boost in unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through September.

And it shoehorns in long-term Democratic policy aims such as increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding paid leave for workers, and increasing tax credits for families with children. The last item would make it easier for women to go back to work, which in turn would help the economy recover.

The political outlook for the legislation remained unclear. In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer praised Biden for including liberal priorities, saying they would move quickly to pass it after Biden takes office next Wednesday. But Democrats have narrow margins in both chambers of Congress, and Republicans will push back on issues that range from increasing the minimum wage to providing more money for states, while demanding inclusion of their priorities, such as liability protection for businesses.

Rapid Expansion of Vaccine Plan Leads to Bottlenecks

The rapid expansion of COVID-19 vaccinations to senior citizens across the U.S. has led to bottlenecks, system crashes and hard feelings in many states because of overwhelming demand for the shots.

Mississippi's Health Department stopped taking new appointments the same day it began accepting them because of a “monumental surge” in requests. People had to wait hours to book vaccinations through a state website or a toll-free number Tuesday and Wednesday, and many were booted off the site because of technical problems and had to start over.

Pharmacies will soon begin administering shots as hospitals are pushed to the brink.

In California, counties begged for more coronavirus vaccine to reach millions of its senior citizens. In South Carolina, hospitals ran out appointment slots within hours.

Up until the past few days, health care workers and nursing home patients had largely been given priority in most places around the U.S. But amid frustration over the slow rollout, states have thrown open the line to many of the nation's senior citizens with the blessing of the Trump administration, though the minimum age varies from place to place, at 65, 70 or higher.

More than 11.1 million Americans, or over 3% of the U.S. population, have gotten their first shot of the vaccine, a gain of about 800,000 from the day before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. The goal of inoculating anywhere between 70% and 85% of the population to achieve herd immunity and conquer the outbreak is still many months away.

NY Congressman Tests Positive for Virus After Capitol Lockdown, Latest Since Breach

U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat said Thursday that he has the coronavirus, making the New York Democrat the latest House member to report testing positive since dozens huddled together for protection during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Espaillat said in statements that he wasn't experiencing any symptoms, was quarantining at home and would keep up his work representing his Upper Manhattan district. He added that he'd received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, the second of them last week, and tested positive on Wednesday evening.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it typically takes a few weeks after vaccination for people to build immunity to the virus. But, the agency notes, experts believe that the vaccine can help prevent people from getting seriously ill even if they do get infected.

At least three other House members besides Espaillat have tested positive since the Capitol breach, when dozens of lawmakers were rushed to a secure location as supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the building. Some members of Congress stayed for hours in the large room, while others were there for a shorter period.

It’s not clear where and when lawmakers caught the virus, but the Capitol’s attending physician has told all House members they might have been exposed to someone in the room who had the virus. The physician, Dr. Brian Moynihan, urged all members to get tested.

FAA Closes Air Traffic Control Center for COVID Cleanup, Delaying Flights Out of Jacksonville, Florida

Flights were delayed when an air traffic control center near Jacksonville, Florida, closed for several hours for extensive cleaning after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

Jacksonville International Airport tweeted Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight-control center in Hilliard would be closed “into the evening which may cause extensive delays and/or cancellations.” It advised passengers to check with their airlines regarding delayed flights.

It was the second time this year that this center has been closed for cleaning due to the coronavirus. Overall, the Hilliard facility has had 12 personnel testing positive since June, and the nearby Jacksonville International Airport tower also has had a dozen infections, according to data provided by the FAA.

The FAA data show hundreds of coronavirus infections among air traffic control workers since the pandemic began.

Pope Francis Gets First Dose of COVID Vaccine

Pope Francis has received the first of two doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also received the first shot, director of the Vatican press office, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement Thursday morning.

In his Christmas message, Pope Francis called for everyone to receive the coronavirus vaccine, but added that the poor and vulnerable should receive it first.

The Pope offered up a service for people who have died from the coronavirus during Tuesday's mass.

Ohio Researchers Say They've Identified Two New COVID Strains Likely Originating in US

Researchers in Ohio said Wednesday that they've discovered two new variants of the coronavirus that likely originated in the U.S. — one of which quickly became the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-week period in late December and early January, CNBC reports.

Like the strain first detected in the U.K., the U.S. mutations appear to make COVID-19 more contagious but do not seem like they will diminish the effectiveness of the vaccines, researchers said.

The Ohio State University researchers have not yet published their full findings, but said a non-peer-reviewed study is forthcoming. Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement to CNBC that the agency is looking at the new research.

One of the new strains, found in just one patient in Ohio, contains a mutation identical to the now-dominant variant in the U.K., researchers said, noting that it "likely arose in a virus strain already present in the United States." However, the "Columbus strain," which the researchers said in a press release has become dominant in the city, includes "three other gene mutations not previously seen together in SARS-CoV2."

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Vaccines and Masks: Biden Plan Aims to Break Pandemic Cycle

A coronavirus action plan being unveiled by President-elect Joe Biden centers on a mass vaccination campaign and closer coordination among all levels of government.

Biden hopes his multidimensional strategy, expected to be detailed in a Thursday evening speech, will put the country on the path to recovery by the end of his first 100 days. “It’s going to be hard,” Biden said Monday after he got his second vaccine shot. “It’s not going to be easy. But we can get it done.”

A more disciplined focus on vaccination is the new and widely anticipated game-changing element, but that's far from the whole story. Biden is asking Americans to override their sense of pandemic fatigue and recommit to wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and avoiding indoor gatherings, particularly larger ones. That's still the surest way to brake the COVID-19 wave, with more than 4,400 deaths reported just on Tuesday.

Biden has also talked about asking Congress to pump more money to states, to help their efforts to contain the pandemic and replenish depleted coffers that pay for basic services. And Democratic lawmakers are eager to push for $2,000 economic stimulus payments to Americans.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the Biden COVID-19 package will be the first order of business this year.

But Biden's biggest challenge is to “win the hearts and minds of the American people to follow his lead,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and emergency physician.

J&J's One-Shot COVID Vaccine Is Safe and Generates Promising Immune Response in Early Trial

Johnson & Johnson's one-dose coronavirus vaccine is safe and appears to generate a promising immune response in both young and elderly volunteers, according to trial data published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

J&J scientists randomly assigned healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 55 and those 65 and older to receive a high or low dose of its vaccine — called Ad26.COV2.S — or a placebo. Some participants in the 18-to-55 age group were also selected to receive a second dose of the vaccine, CNBC reports.

Most of the volunteers produced detectable neutralizing antibodies, which researchers believe play an important role in defending cells against the virus, after 28 days, according to the trial data. By day 57, all volunteers had detectable antibodies, regardless of vaccine dose or age group, and remained stable for at least 71 days in the 18-to-55 age group.

The most common side effects were fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and pain at the injection site, according to the trial data. Side effects were less common in the older age group, who received only one dose of the vaccine, as well as those who received a lower dose of the vaccine, according to the data.

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