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The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will begin shipping coronavirus vaccines next week directly to federally qualified community health centers, which often serve some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. The program’s first phase aims to allocate 1 million doses while increasing the number of places for people to get shots.

“Equity is our north star here,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House covid-19 Health Equity Task Force. As supply ramps up, she said, vaccines will become available to all community health centers that want to participate.

Here are some significant developments:
  • A 12-day investigation by a World Health Organization team has shed little new light on the origins of the coronavirus that sparked the pandemic. In a news conference Tuesday, the heads of the Chinese and WHO delegations said the virus was “extremely unlikely” to have spread as the result of a lab accident, dispelling conspiracy theories.
  • The Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization for a combination monoclonal antibody treatment, citing data that it reduces hospitalization and death among certain covid-19 patients.
  • People with dementia are much more likely to catch, be hospitalized with and die of the coronavirus, researchers have found.
  • After suspending its AstraZeneca vaccine rollout, South Africa is scrambling for a new vaccine plan — which could be a preview for when the rest of the world confronts the new variants.
  • House Democrats proposed sending full $1,400 stimulus payments to Americans who make up to $75,000 a year, rejecting plans to limit eligibility for the checks.
  • With a seal of approval from the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is giving the country’s biotech industry the validation it has long sought.
4:30 a.m.
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What we know about how the coronavirus started, and why it matters

More than a year after the initial coronavirus cases were uncovered in Wuhan, China, the origin of the virus remains a mystery.

Last month, a team of researchers on a World Health Organization-backed mission traveled to China to try to find some answers. But their 12-day visit to Wuhan was long delayed and besieged by political pressure from multiple angles. On Tuesday, the researchers announced their preliminary findings at a news conference, arguing that it was most likely that the virus spread to humans from bats through an intermediary animal and dismissed one of the more popular alternative theories: that it was the result of a leak from a Wuhan laboratory.

But the investigation still leaves many questions, and the findings are unlikely to sway critics who said the WHO team was too close to Chinese authorities for a fair investigation.

3:30 a.m.
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Lacking a Lifeline: How a federal effort to help low-income Americans pay their phone bills failed amid the pandemic

The coronavirus has reinforced the Internet as the fabric of modern American life, a luxury-turned-necessity for a generation now forced to work, learn and communicate primarily through the Web. But it also has laid bare the country’s inequalities — and the role Washington has played in exacerbating these long-known divides.

Nowhere is the gap more startling than with Lifeline, a roughly $2.4 billion digital safety net conceived nearly three decades ago to ensure that all Americans could access reliable communications. Families who rely on Lifeline say they have struggled to talk to their doctors, employers and loved ones throughout the pandemic, illustrating how significant technical shortcomings, and years of government neglect, have undermined a critical aid program at a time when it is needed most.

Many Lifeline subscribers are stuck with service so subpar that it would be unrecognizable to most app-loving, data-hungry smartphone users, according to interviews with more than two dozen participants and policy experts, including members of Congress, Biden administration officials, state regulators, telecom executives and public-interest advocates. The program’s inadequacies are so great that even those who are eligible for help often turn it down: More than 33 million households are eligible to receive Lifeline support, yet only 1 in 4 of these Americans actually takes advantage of it, according to U.S. government estimates prepared in October. Yet attempts to update Lifeline and remedy its well-known shortcomings have stalled in Washington for years.

2:30 a.m.
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Cooped up in the pandemic, Chinese couples were not in the mood for love

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Chinese families were ordered to stay at home last year amid the coronavirus outbreak, authorities hoped for a much-needed baby boom.

It turns out that few couples were in the mood. New data this week showed that birthrates in China continued to plummet, with 10.04 million births registered in 2020, a 15 percent drop from the year before, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

Although not the official birthrate, the latest figure was a third lower than the number of births recorded in 2019 — already the country’s lowest since the early 1960s, when China was in the middle of a famine. Yet residents were not surprised by the data.

2:05 a.m.
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FDA authorizes Lilly’s combination monoclonal antibody treatment

The Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency-use authorization for a combination monoclonal antibody treatment, citing data that it reduces hospitalization and death among certain covid-19 patients.

The treatment was authorized for patients with mild to moderate covid-19 who are at high risk of developing severe illness, including people 65 years and older and those who have chronic medical conditions.

The manufacturer, Eli Lilly, said in a statement that the treatment should be administered together in a single intravenous infusion as soon as possible after a positive coronavirus test and within 10 days of the onset of symptoms.

The FDA said that in a clinical trial of covid-19 patients at high risk for severe disease, a single infusion of the two monoclonal antibodies — bamlanivimab and etesevimab — significantly reduced covid-19-related hospitalizations and deaths compared with a placebo.

Patrizia Cavazzoni, acting director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said that “the data supporting this emergency authorization add to emerging evidence that points to the clinical utility of neutralizing antibodies for the treatment of covid-19 in certain patients.”

Monoclonal antibodies are produced in the laboratory and mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off viruses. Bamlanivimab and etesevimab are directed against the spike protein of the coronavirus and are designed to block the virus’s attachment and entry into human cells, the FDA said. They bind to different but overlapping sites on the spike protein.

“This really is a home run result; that is a game-changer. It is definitive and now gives us all the ability to educate patients and providers around the country, as well as throughout the world, about reasons to intervene earlier,” said Robert Gottlieb, a cardiologist at Baylor Scott & White Health who led the study.

The bamlanivimab therapy alone had been greeted with skepticism by many clinicians because the suggestive data that led to its authorization was not fully supported by a trial, which found that it did not reduce the levels of virus in the body 11 days after treatment. Treatment guidelines from the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend against the routine use of the therapy alone.

Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.

1:30 a.m.
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MLB, players’ union agree to health and safety protocols

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to health and safety protocols for the 2021 season Monday night, according to multiple people familiar with the agreement.

The deal clears the way for an on-time start to spring training, and just in time: Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report and begin workouts at facilities in Arizona and Florida next week.

Details of the agreement are not yet clear, but the fact an agreement exists represents important progress for groups that have refused to agree on much all offseason.

Just last week, the players’ union rejected MLB’s latest proposal to delay the season while implementing an expanded postseason and universal designated hitter for 2021. People within MLB expressed displeasure at the union’s unwillingness to make a counteroffer. The union was not obligated to do so because both sides have signed on to the collective bargaining agreement and neither is obligated to renegotiate it.

12:30 a.m.
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How a sluggish vaccination program could delay a return to normal

The president-elect’s pledge had a certain ring to it: “at least 100 million covid vaccine shots” in 100 days. That was on Dec. 8, before Joe Biden took office. On the fifth day of his presidency, Biden appeared to aim higher, saying 1.5 million shots in 100 days was within reach.

Less than a month into the Biden presidency, as the rate of vaccinations continues to increase, the country has nearly reached the pace needed to achieve that milestone, with 1.48 million shots per day administered over the past week.

Yet as the country faces a deadly pandemic made even bleaker by emerging and more infectious variants of the coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, epidemiologists and public health experts say the Biden administration must set its sights even higher.

A less-than-vigorous vaccination program would prevent Americans from recovering some semblance of their pre-pandemic lives and would also increase the likelihood that new, potentially vaccine-resistant variants will become dominant in the United States.

11:30 p.m.
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Ford attempting to mass-produce masks that will make it easier to communicate

Ford Motor Co. is rolling out clear face masks with N95-level filtration, in what could be the largest-scale effort to produce masks specifically designed to improve communication while offering medical-grade protection against the coronavirus.

Masks make it more difficult to hear what the wearer is saying and impossible for those who rely on lip reading. The ability to read facial expressions also is crucial, particularly for those in fields such as education, health care and travel, as most communication is nonverbal.

“When you think about interactions in a work environment, and the people who might be … relying on lips to read expressions and understand day-to-day work, that becomes a challenge. It literally takes away another sense from somebody,” said Jim Baumbick, the Ford vice president overseeing its personal protective equipment manufacturing effort.

10:16 p.m.
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Reps. Maloney, Connolly request briefing on spiking USPS virus rates

The two top Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have requested a briefing from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on spiking coronavirus rates among mail workers, citing a Washington Post report.

More than 16,000 U.S. Postal Service employees were under quarantine last week, The Post reported Saturday, citing data provided by the American Postal Workers Union, after either testing positive for the virus or coming in contact with others who had. Separately, DeJoy notified state governors in December that 119 mail workers have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chair of the subcommittee in charge of postal oversight, called the numbers “alarming” in a letter Tuesday to DeJoy, and cited a postal inspector general report that found the agency was insufficiently adhering to safety protocols.

Specifically, the inspector general found in November that postal officials did not enforce proper mask-wearing policies, did not meet goals in the service’s contact-tracing program, failed to fill vacant nursing positions at mail facilities and did not implement temperature-taking requirements. Maloney and Connolly requested that DeJoy brief the Oversight Committee by March 1.

9:29 p.m.
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Dementia patients twice as likely to be infected

People with dementia are much more likely to contract, be hospitalized with and die of the coronavirus, researchers have found. The risk is especially high for Black people with dementia.

The findings highlight the critical need to protect dementia patients as part of any strategy to fight the virus.

The study, published in a scientific journal run by the Alzheimer’s Association, drew on the medical records of 62 million people. It found that people with dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease are at significantly higher risk of developing covid-19.

Those with dementia are often at higher risk because of their situation — being older, living in nursing homes and having added risk factors such as heart disease and asthma. But even after accounting statistically for all those added risks, dementia patients are twice as likely to develop covid-19, researchers found.

Black dementia patients are nearly three times as likely to get covid-19.

The researchers could not pinpoint the mechanism causing dementia patients to be at higher risk, but they pointed some likely causes, such as memory problems making dementia patients less able to maintain social distancing, mask-wearing or handwashing. Dementia diseases may also be damaging the patients’ blood-brain barrier, making them more vulnerable to viral infection, the study’s authors suggested.

“This study highlights the need to protect patients with dementia, especially those who are Black,” the researchers conclude.

8:35 p.m.
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Vaccine will be shipped straight to community health centers, Biden administration says

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it plans to begin shipping coronavirus vaccines next week directly to federally qualified community health centers, which often serve some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, in an effort to increase both vaccine supply and the number of places for people to get shots.

More than 1,300 health centers provide medical services to 30 million people — most living in poverty and 60 percent of whom are racial and ethnic minorities — in underserved communities. During the initial rollout, at least one community health center in each state will be included, eventually expanding to 250 centers nationwide.

The goal is to allocate 500,000 first doses of the vaccine and 500,000 second doses during this phase of the program, said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House covid-19 Health Equity Task Force.

As supply ramps up, Nunez-Smith said vaccines will become available to all community health centers that want to participate. Participating community health centers must follow state priority guidelines for the administration of vaccines.

“Equity is our north star here,” she said, adding that the effort is about focusing on hard-to-reach populations, including people who are homeless, living in public housing, migrant farmers, or those who speak and read English with limited proficiency.

Tuesday’s announcement is another step in the administration’s efforts to create “new, convenient locations for vaccinations,” Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s covid-19 response, said. “Community health centers are an important part of our broader strategy to ensure we are reaching everyone with our response.” Zients said.

It builds on other efforts such as community vaccination centers, mobile vaccine units and the community pharmacy program, he said.

6:58 p.m.
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Walgreens and Uber look to address vaccine hesitancy, transportation difficulties for vulnerable communities

To help people in underserved communities get to their coronavirus vaccine appointments, Walgreens and Uber announced a partnership Tuesday to boost access to transportation and to address concerns that hold some people back from scheduling an immunization.

Over the next several months, the retail pharmacy and the ride-hailing company will begin several programs to address the lack of transportation for and vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations. The initiatives include free transportation to Walgreens locations and vaccine clinics; ease of access to scheduled rides once a vaccination appointment is made; and educational programs with the National Urban League to help convince potential patients of the benefits of receiving a vaccine.

In December, Uber committed to providing up to 10 million free or discounted rides to communities hit hardest by the novel coronavirus. Lyft, its ride-hailing rival, in a coalition with other businesses, aims to provide 60 million rides to and from vaccination appointments for low-income, uninsured and at-risk communities.

Before President Biden was sworn in, Uber and Lyft lobbied the incoming administration for a greater role in the national vaccine rollout, the Wall Street Journal reported last month, offering to provide transportation to health facilities while trying to secure dedicated vaccine doses for their contracted drivers.

States continue to struggle with making and keeping appointments, and the supply of doses has not kept up with the demand, as more people become eligible for scheduling a shot.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 32.8 million people in the United States, about 10 percent of the population, had received their first doses. Three percent of the country has been fully vaccinated.

5:54 p.m.
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Negative coronavirus test required at U.S.-Canada border starting Feb. 15

Nonessential travelers entering Canada at the U.S.-Canada land border will need to provide proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction test beginning Feb. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

Canadian officials announced the testing requirement last month, but had not said when it would be implemented. It was among several measures aimed at tightening the country’s borders with new coronavirus variants circulating.

The U.S.-Canada land border has been closed to nonessential travel since March, but Canadians have been able to fly to the United States, including for leisure. Some had their vehicles shipped over and flew over to meet them on the other side.

Trudeau said that the test must be taken within 72 hours of arrival. He said that while border agents can’t legally deny entry to Canadian citizens or permanent residents, those who fail to present a negative test could face fines or other penalties.

The new travel restrictions, including a mandatory three-day hotel quarantine for air passengers, have angered many Canadian “snowbirds,” who traveled to warmer climes despite Ottawa’s advice against nonessential travel and think that the measure is heavy-handed.

“These aren’t detentions,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “These are medically based quarantines.”

Separately, Canadian regulators said Tuesday that they will allow six doses to be drawn from each vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, not five, after a review. The change aligns Canada with the United States and Europe.

“In its review, Health Canada determined that six doses can be consistently obtained from vials with the use of low dead-volume syringes,” the body said in a statement.

Trudeau has been in the hot seat in recent weeks over a slow vaccine rollout that has lagged behind Canada’s peers and hurt his approval ratings. There has been a sharp shortfall in deliveries this month because of Pfizer’s decision to retool a manufacturing plant in Belgium.

4:58 p.m.
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Analysis: Reevaluating New York’s new nursing home coronavirus numbers

When New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) announced last month that her office had found that the state had apparently undercounted covid-19 deaths of nursing home residents, it seemed to bolster the idea that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and his administration were trying to bury the state’s poor protection of its most vulnerable residents. Cuomo’s attempts to dismiss questions about the numbers only helped to reinforce skepticism.

But there are important caveats to the updated numbers.

The first is that even with the adjustment, the percentage of total covid-19 deaths that have occurred in New York is still below the average for all 50 states and D.C., according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project. Before James’s report (and the state’s acknowledgment of it), the percentage of deaths for nursing home patients and staff in New York was among the lowest in the country — something Cuomo had bragged about. Now, it’s near the middle.

4:02 p.m.
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‘Coronaphobia’: Covid anxiety has a name. Here’s how to cope.

We’re living in a time when every little cough, sniffle, olfactory or circulatory problem can elicit a knee-jerk bout of worry: Is this the beginning of covid-19? For some people, however, it’s more than a fleeting concern: Experts say and research shows that the pandemic has triggered a surge in health anxiety. In fact, health anxiety related to the coronavirus has been given its own name: coronaphobia.

“People are very concerned and anxious about getting covid,” says Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association and a practicing licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland. “We should all have some kind of heightened vigilance about protecting ourselves, but for some people, [the anxiety] is out of proportion to the actual risk and generally disrupts life.”