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A key Food and Drug Administration expert panel recommended the approval of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine Friday, paving the way for its likely authorization to come as early as Saturday, which would make it the third vaccine available in the United States.

During the hours-long discussion, Johnson & Johnson scientists argued that the single-shot vaccine was 66 percent effective in protecting against cases of moderate to severe illness in a large, global trial, and 85 percent effective against severe cases.

The panel’s recommendation comes the same week the United States reached yet another grim milestone of 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths, raising experts’ hopes of a faster and more effective inoculation process as virus mutations spread.

Here are some significant developments:
  • During a tour of a vaccination facility in Texas on Friday, President Biden urged Americans not to let their guard down in the next few months, claiming “it’s not the time to relax” after touting his efforts to combat the pandemic.
  • Public health officials have eagerly awaited the arrival of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. But supply will continue to limit U.S. inoculation efforts in the near term.
  • The House is expected to vote Friday evening and approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package, which includes $1,400 direct checks to Americans and a minimum-wage increase. On Thursday, the Senate parliamentarian ruled against including the $15 minimum wage in the bill.
  • South Korea began its vaccination program Friday, prioritizing health-care workers and vulnerable residents, including the elderly. It will extend social distance measures until March 14.
  • California is anticipating a delivery of 380,300 Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine doses by next week, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced in a news conference Friday.
  • Following a significant drop in coronavirus cases for months in a row, a sharp uptick in new infections in some parts of India in February have experts sounding alarms, the BBC reported.

3:00 a.m.
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White House tells insurers to cover asymptomatic testing

The Biden administration on Friday issued guidance telling insurers they cannot deny coverage or make people share the cost of getting a coronavirus test, whether the person being tested has symptoms or not.

The guidance is meant to help the uninsured and also people infected with the virus but not showing any symptoms.

Such asymptomatic people have been a large driver of transmission. And the testing industry and patients have criticized some insurance health plans for not fully covering the cost of tests for people who suspect they might have the virus but are not showing symptoms.

The guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Friday said: Private “group health plans and issuers generally cannot use medical screening criteria to deny coverage for COVID-19 diagnostic tests for individuals with health coverage who are asymptomatic.”

2:00 a.m.
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Vaccine lotteries and personal appeals: The medically vulnerable find their priority status slipping away

An inflammatory lung disease puts Nate Engebrecht at increased risk from the coronavirus. When he was hospitalized last year with influenza, doctors gave the Milwaukee college student respiratory therapy every four hours to keep air moving through his lungs.

“We’re all terrified of what would happen if he got covid,” said his mother, Kerri Engebrecht.

They found hope with the arrival of vaccines, figuring the 19-year-old would be next in line for a shot. But because vaccine supply is still so sharply limited, Wisconsin officials say they don’t know when residents beset by serious conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, will be eligible.

An estimated 81 million adults have conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as posing an increased risk for severe covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. In December, the CDC designated that group a vaccination priority — after health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, older adults and some front-line essential workers.

1:10 a.m.
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U-Va. eases restrictions, including ban on in-person gatherings, after coronavirus cases fall

The University of Virginia will loosen temporary restrictions on students following a recent sharp decline in coronavirus cases on campus, officials said Friday.

The school imposed limits on gatherings and other social activities earlier this month after a surge in cases. On Feb. 16, 229 cases were recorded during a single day. Twenty-six incidents of the virus were recorded Wednesday, according to the most recent data made available by the university.

“We know this period has been really difficult, particularly for our students,” officials said Friday in a message to the community. “But the sacrifices you’ve made over the past 10 days are making our community safer. We have demonstrated the ability to do the right things to limit the spread of the virus.

”There will still be limits on students’ activities. In-person gatherings will be capped at six people and students eating indoors will be restricted to groups of two, officials said. Students, who previously were told not to gather except to attend classes, will be permitted to “resume normal activity, while observing all health and safety guidelines,” university officials said.

12:22 a.m.
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The medically vulnerable find vaccine priority status in question as states chart their own course

An inflammatory lung disease puts Nate Engebrecht at increased risk from the coronavirus. When he was hospitalized last year with influenza, doctors gave the Milwaukee college student respiratory therapy every four hours to keep air moving through his lungs.

“We’re all terrified of what would happen if he got covid,” said his mother, Kerri Engebrecht.

They found hope with the arrival of vaccines, figuring the 19-year-old would be next in line for a shot. But because vaccine supply is still so sharply limited, Wisconsin officials say they don’t know when residents beset by serious conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, will be eligible.

An estimated 81 million adults have conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as posing an increased risk for severe covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. In December, the CDC designated that group a vaccination priority — after health-care workers, nursing-home residents and staff, older adults and some front-line essential workers.

But those recommendations have plainly become unworkable, as states veer from federal guidelines and chart their own paths, often in seemingly random ways. The result: Access to a shot can depend on what side of a state line you live on.

10:55 p.m.
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How this summer could bring the pandemic relief we’re longing for

It’s been months since David Rubin’s children have seen their 87-year-old grandmother, and only from a distance because of the coronavirus. But Rubin, an epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is now making plans for a family reunion this summer — hunting for a rental property big enough to fit four families.

“As a modeler, my mind works in terms of probabilities, and the probability of a great summer is really increasing,” said Rubin, director of the hospital’s PolicyLab.

There is a good chance that by summer, American life will look and feel very different. Eating inside a restaurant or a friend’s house may no longer be controversial. Cookouts and summer vacations may return. Many aspects of life will be reminiscent of a time before the coronavirus — as long as vaccinations continue to increase and Americans stay careful during the spring, when more highly transmissible variants could proliferate and lead to an increase in cases, according to interviews with more than a dozen epidemiologists, modelers and virologists.

9:26 p.m.
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A small town in denial comes face to face with the virus

In late September, before covid-19 swept through southern Illinois like a prairie fire, before nearly every single resident of a nursing home in Du Quoin was infected, before the disease pushed Perry County’s rural health-care system to the breaking point, confidence was in the air.

The county clerk, Beth Lipe, realized the pandemic wasn’t causing any rush for absentee ballots. Of 9,300 applications she mailed out, she got back fewer than 1,000 requests, about the same as any other year.

The staff of the St. Nicholas Brewing Co. on a Friday afternoon set up 10 tables for its evening food and bar service next door in the parking lot of the Du Quoin State Bank. As usual, fewer than half their customers showed up in masks.

Fairview Rehabilitation and Healthcare, on East Jackson Street, had yet to see a single case of covid-19, six months into the pandemic. “I had escaped it,” said the home’s owner, Scott Stout. “We hoped and we prayed.” That month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the nursing home a $19,000 incentive grant recognizing its superior infection-control procedures, one of thousands of such grants across the nation.

Elsewhere in the United States, the death toll passed 200,000. But up at the north end of Washington Street, the nurses at Marshall Browning Hospital, a 25-bed “critical access” facility, were beginning to exhale because there had been so few signs of the illness since a brief flurry in the spring.

“We had a really long grace period,” said Amy Blakemore, the medical-surgical nurse manager at the hospital. “I’m going to attribute it to sheer dumb luck that we kept our numbers as low as we did as long as we did.”

Du Quoin’s experience with covid-19 this past fall was typical of hundreds of small towns across the United States. Alarm when the pandemic began gave way to a mixture of complacency, denial and resistance to public health measures as the disease seemed for so long to be passing rural America by.

7:53 p.m.
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Coronavirus restrictions ease in some of Mexico’s most popular tourist cities ahead of spring break season

The Mexican state of Quintana Roo is softening its coronavirus restrictions after a decrease in confirmed cases in the area, officials announced on Twitter.

The entire state, which includes the major tourist destinations of Cancún, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, will begin to permit hotels, restaurants, shops, theaters and theme parks to operate at 60 percent capacity next week. Previous limits on hotel and restaurant capacities were 30 percent.

Quintana Roo’s stoplight alert system, which is assessed weekly on Thursdays and takes effect on the following Monday, was lowered from orange to yellow status.

The news comes just before Mexico’s busy spring break season and despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s January warning for Americans not to visit Mexico because of “very high” levels of the coronavirus. New U.S. entry restrictions that require a negative coronavirus test result of all arrivals were also mentioned in the CDC warning, which remains at a highest-possible Level 4.

6:51 p.m.
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Mexico is vaccinating the poor first, against expert advice

SAN PEDRO EL ALTO, Mexico — The message blared from a pickup truck with a megaphone attached to the roof: Coronavirus vaccines had arrived in this tiny, indigenous town in the hills of central Mexico.

Villagers stopped what they were doing to listen. How could San Pedro, where nothing ever seemed to happen, become one of the first places in Latin America to vaccinate its residents?

“I thought it must be a lie or a joke,” said Ubaldo Sánchez, 61, who walked off his cornfield, confused and ecstatic, when his daughter ran up to him, shouting the news.

As debate rages around the world about who should be vaccinated first, Mexico has come up with its own unconventional approach — one with no apparent epidemiological foundation. The government of populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who campaigned on the slogan “First, the poor,” is prioritizing the country’s poorest citizens, using the vaccine as a kind of reparation for years of marginalization.

Teachers in rural villages, some of the country’s poorest farmers, elderly members of far-flung indigenous communities: They will receive coronavirus vaccinations before almost any of Mexico’s city dwellers, who have endured the worst outbreaks. In many cases, the rural poor have been vaccinated even before the medical personnel in charge of administering the shots.

5:57 p.m.
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Johnson & Johnson scientists present data to back their one-shot vaccine

Executives from Janssen — the division of Johnson & Johnson that developed their coronavirus vaccine candidate — made the case to the FDA’s advisers that their one-shot vaccine is safe and effective. They highlighted its strong protection against severe disease, even in areas of the world dominated by concerning variants, and stressed the logistical advantages of a vaccine that can be kept at refrigerator temperatures for three months and requires only one shot.

The vaccine was 66 percent effective in protecting any cases of moderate to severe illness in a large, global trial. It was 85 percent effective against severe cases, and there were no cases of death or hospitalization among those that received the vaccine, four weeks after infection.

“During the last two months, we have all seen it is critically important to manufacture and distribute vaccines quickly and efficiently. And Janssen’s vaccine offers logistical and practical advantages to help simplify the distribution and expand vaccine access,” said Johan van Hoof, global therapeutic area head of vaccines for Janssen research and development.

Company executives acknowledged that in a subgroup of people over 60 with risk factors for severe disease, the estimate of vaccine efficacy was only 42 percent. But they noted the wide statistical uncertainty around that number. Macaya Douoguih, head of clinical development for vaccines at Janssen, said that the company had concluded that those older adults were similar to any other subgroup and would benefit from vaccination.

In a concluding presentation, Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at Mayo Clinic, made the point that throughout the pandemic, the world has experienced dangerous periods of exponential spread. He noted that there were three main ways to control these surges. The first, lockdowns and public health measures such as masking, have been less successful in the United States than other countries. The second, the possibility that the virus evolves to become less transmissible, is not occurring — and in fact, variants that are more transmissible and resistant to immunity have emerged. That leaves vaccines.

“We need vaccines that are effective and well tolerated, and — importantly — ones that are simple to deploy,” Poland said.

5:29 p.m.
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Judge rejects D.C.’s latest request on behalf of tenants to pause evictions amid pandemic

As landlords and property owners continue to challenge aspects of the District’s eviction moratorium, a judge has rejected the city’s latest request on behalf of tenants to pause the eviction process as the challenge works through the legal system. However, eviction filings are unlikely to resume anytime soon.

On Feb. 19, D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein released an order denying a motion filed by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) asking him to stay a ruling he made in December allowing eviction filings to move forward.

In the latest decision, Epstein ruled that the city did not prove that allowing the eviction process to move ahead would hurt tenants, saying the city and advocates “have not shown that a stay would prevent harm.”

The city’s eviction moratorium — enacted by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council in response to the coronavirus pandemic — is one of the strongest such provisions in the country. The moratorium not only prohibits the physical removal of tenants but also blocks landlords from filing evictions against tenants.

4:04 p.m.
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Canada approves AstraZeneca vaccine

TORONTO — Canada’s health regulator approved the coronavirus vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca on Friday, a potential boost for the country’s sluggish vaccine rollout.

Health Canada said in its decision that the vaccine has an estimated efficacy of 62 percent and that it was “well tolerated by participants.” It approved the vaccine for people 18 and older.

Canada has an advance purchase agreement for 20 million doses of the vaccine with the company, as well as an additional 1.9 million doses of the vaccine from the Covax Facility, a program aimed primarily at helping low- and middle-income countries procure vaccines. It is unclear when the doses will begin to arrive.

Health Canada said the results from available clinical trial data “were too limited to allow a reliable estimate of vaccine efficacy” in those 65 and older.

“Efficacy in individuals 65 years of age and older is supported by immunogenicity data, emerging real world evidence and post-market experience in regions where the vaccine has been deployed,” the regulator said, “which suggest at this point in time a potential benefit and no safety concerns.”

Canada has approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Officials said that the AstraZeneca vaccine will pose fewer logistical challenges for distribution.

“This is another option,” Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, told reporters on Friday. “And it is a good option.”

3:51 p.m.
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Russian diplomats face grueling trip out of North Korea due to coronavirus restrictions

Several employees of the Russian Embassy in North Korea left the country on Feb. 25 in a hand-pushed railcar, Russia’s foreign ministry said. (Russian Foreign Ministry via Storyful)

By train, bus and railroad handcart — that’s how Russian diplomats working in North Korea eventually made it home after a grueling 34-hour journey this week.

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which posted about the trip on Facebook on Thursday, the departing group included eight embassy employees and their families. In two photographs accompanying the post, the embassy’s third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, is shown pushing his young children and the family’s luggage down railway tracks on a handcart, which they used to reach the Russian border with North Korea.

The Russian foreign ministry also published video footage of the surreal journey, which evoked cinematic depictions of bygone eras more than a border crossing in 2021.

The employees of Russia’s embassy in Pyongyang departed the country amid worsening conditions brought on by the government’s harsh coronavirus measures, including various bans on things such as hard currency and foreign cargo.

3:22 p.m.
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Head of Canada’s largest pension fund out after UAE vaccine trip

TORONTO — Mark Machin, the head of Canada’s largest pension fund, resigned Friday after he traveled to the United Arab Emirates — flouting Ottawa’s advice against nonessential travel — where he arranged to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“After discussions last evening with the board, Mr. Machin tendered his resignation and it has been accepted,” the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board said in a statement.

The CPPIB is a federal Crown corporation that is one of the world’s largest pension funds, with more than $400 billion in public funds under management. It is operated independently from the federal government, but its board of directors is selected by the country’s finance minister.

Canada has long advised against nonessential travel, but it has not banned it. The 54-year-old’s trip, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, came as a surprise to Canada’s finance minister.

The trip came amid concerns in many parts of the world over vaccine queue-jumping, as well as a glacial vaccine rollout in Canada that has lagged far behind many peer countries. The country has administered roughly 4.5 doses per 100 people, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

In Ontario, where the CPPIB is headquartered, the government released a timeline this week for its vaccine rollout. It could not say when people younger than 60 who are not essential workers should expect to get their shots.

2:17 p.m.
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FDA advisers will vote on whether Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be authorized

At the end of the day, the Food and Drug Administration’s external vaccine advisers will vote on this key question: Do the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine outweigh its risks for people 18 and older?

The vote is not binding, but the FDA typically takes the recommendation of its advisers into account. If this vaccine follows the trajectory of the previous two authorized vaccines in the United States, a regulatory decision could come Saturday.

There will be hours of scientific presentations from Johnson & Johnson, government scientists and others before the vote. Discussion of the data and voting is scheduled to begin at 3:10 p.m.

“You will see an open meeting discussing scientific findings in action,” said Arnold Monto, the chair of the committee and a professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.