Please Note

The Washington Post is providing this important information about the coronavirus for free. For more free coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, sign up for our Coronavirus Updates newsletter where all stories are free to read.

On the day Texas’s mask mandate was lifted, Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) threatened a lawsuit against the city of Austin and Travis County for ordering businesses to continue requiring customers to wear masks.

Texas is now the most populous state without a mask rule, although experts say face coverings are one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Arguing local governments do not have the authority to require businesses to comply with public health recommendations, Paxton gave a 6 p.m. deadline Wednesday for the officials to rescind the requirement — which Austin Mayor Steve Adler said they would not meet.

“We’re not going to rescind anything,” Adler said on CNN. “We told our community that we would always be guided by the data and the doctors, and we’re going to continue that.”

Here are some significant developments:

  • Congress approved a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Wednesday, which includes $1,400 for most Americans, extends enhanced unemployment benefits and offers relief for low-income families. Biden is expected to sign the bill Friday.
  • Recognizing the stain isolation has had on families, federal health officials Wednesday expanded guidelines for nursing homes, allowing residents to meet with visitors indoors.
  • Alaska is the first state to remove eligibility requirements for the coronavirus vaccine, making immunization available to anyone 16 and older who lives or works in the state.
  • Some experts disagree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines that discourage vaccinated people from traveling. One leading physician said the agency “is being far overly cautious in a way that defies common sense.”
  • Nearly 32 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated, a little less than 10 percent of the population. The nation is averaging about 2.1 million doses administered per day, up from about 1.5 million a month ago.
3:06 a.m.
Link copied
link

Gov. Hogan’s decision to reopen Maryland took local officials, business leaders by surprise

Maryland’s swift and far-reaching plan to reopen businesses and public venues took many key stakeholders by surprise, interviews with officials, business and health leaders show, and went further than some industry representatives had requested.

Aides to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declined to answer questions Wednesday about whom the governor consulted before announcing he would lift restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other public venues that had been in place for nearly a year.

Outside public health experts described the decision to reopen Friday at 5 p.m. as “premature” given the state’s coronavirus metrics. Hogan’s order Tuesday also revoked local-level restrictions, leaving county leaders scrambling to decide whether and how to reimpose stricter rules in the face of plateauing coronavirus cases and the widening spread of concerning variants.

2:18 a.m.
Link copied
link

Texas Rangers to allow full stadium at home opener in April

The Texas Rangers announced Wednesday that they will allow full capacity at Globe Life Field for their home opener April 5 against the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the first MLB team to potentially welcome a sellout crowd amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At other games this season, the Rangers will set up “Distanced Seating” sections for fans who want more space. But for the home opener, Texas will allow 40,518 fans, Globe Life Field’s capacity.

“We were very encouraged that the Governor’s Office has given clearance for us to fully open Globe Life Field at the start of the 2021 Major League Baseball season,” Neil Leibman, the Rangers’ president of business operations and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We’re fully confident that we can do this in a responsible and safe way. There is so much pent-up demand for people wanting to go to events in a safe environment.”

12:12 a.m.
Link copied
link

McCarthy asks Pelosi about easing Capitol covid restrictions

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking her to detail her plans “to reopen the People’s House,” citing new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that ease some coronavirus restrictions for vaccinated Americans.

McCarthy suggests that Pelosi begin lifting the protocols put in place nearly a year ago in the House because about 75 percent of the chamber’s members are vaccinated.

That recommendation doesn’t take into account the many other people who work in the Capitol, including congressional aides, janitors, law enforcement personnel and reporters, who may not yet be vaccinated. It also overstates the new CDC guidelines. The CDC said a vaccinated person could be inside maskless with an unvaccinated person in a single household but did not suggest that hundreds of vaccinated people could gather with dozens of unvaccinated ones.

McCarthy specifically asks Pelosi for the timeline for ending proxy voting — something several Republicans took advantage of when they attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida recently.

He also asks when lawmakers will return to in-person committee meetings, when visitors will be allowed inside the Capitol and when mask requirements will be lifted.

McCarthy also asks about removing the security reinforcements that have been in place around the Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying, “There are no credible threats against the Capitol.” The House adjourned a day early last week after U.S. Capitol Police received intelligence of threats against the Capitol.

“Simply put: it’s time that we return to regular order. House Republicans are eager for the chance to reopen the People’s House, restore America’s voice in Congress, and work day in and day out to address the many concerns our constituents face,” he concluded.

10:07 p.m.
Link copied
link

Biden says U.S. will share coronavirus vaccine surplus with rest of the world

At an event with the chief executives of Johnson & Johnson and Merck on Wednesday, Biden hailed the progress the United States has made toward combating the coronavirus and said that any surplus vaccine doses will be shared with other countries after people living in the United States are inoculated.

“If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world. … We’re not going to be ultimately safe until the world is safe,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “And so we’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try to help the rest of the world.”

Biden also thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for shepherding the coronavirus relief package through the House hours earlier. Everything in the plan “addresses a real need,” he said.

“The vaccines bring hope and healing in so many ways,” Biden said. “Again, a vaccinated American is the only way to beat the pandemic, get our economy back on track and for us to get back our lives and our loved ones.”

8:00 p.m.
Link copied
link

A university is offering students $75 to skip spring break

A university in California is hoping a little cash incentive will keep students from traveling for spring break, the latest effort by a school to curb the spread of the coronavirus as experts urge against travel.

The University of California at Davis is offering $75 “staycation” grants for students staying in town for spring break in late March. Students must apply for the grants by Wednesday evening, and 2,000 students will be selected to receive a gift card to a local business. The school had a total of more than 39,000 students in fall 2019.

It has been about a year since the virus first put a wrench in academic calendars across the country, prompting schools to begin shutting students out of the classroom or sending them home from campus. Some colleges have already scaled back or scrapped spring break altogether as students, most of whom may still be waiting for a vaccine, consider what the rest of the school year will look like.

6:42 p.m.
Link copied
link

Five health experts share how they’ve readjusted to life post-vaccination — and returned to some simple pleasures

Millions of Americans wonder how they can emerge safely from their pandemic cocoons after getting coronavirus vaccines. Federal health officials issued long-awaited guidance Monday, saying that two weeks after their final shots, grandparents might visit with grandchildren who live nearby and dine at home with vaccinated friends — all without wearing masks. But the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was necessarily broad.

To help fill in the blanks, The Washington Post asked five public health/infectious-diseases experts how they have navigated risk — and how their own lives have changed since getting inoculated. They all said they continue to take precautions, wearing masks and social distancing in public. All drew their lines in different places but exulted at the opportunities for more human connection.

4:56 p.m.
Link copied
link

Senate Democrats launch new effort to guarantee billions of dollars in public health funds

The chair of the Senate’s health committee is reintroducing a bill to steer billions of dollars to public health departments, saying that the pandemic has laid bare the need to fund local officials’ work.

“It’s really critical that we’re rebuilding stronger and fairer,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, told reporters on Wednesday. “Our commitment to this work must extend beyond this crisis.”

Murray’s bill, the Public Health Infrastructure Saves Lives Act, would guarantee additional annual funding for state, local and territorial health departments, beginning with $750 million in fiscal year 2022 and ramping up to $4.5 billion by fiscal year 2026, awarded through grants. Nineteen Senate Democrats co-sponsored the bill, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Murray’s bill was timed to the release of a new report from public health organization Trust for America’s Health, which blamed “chronic underfunding of public health” for cracks in the response to coronavirus and called for $4.5 billion in mandatory annual funding to boost training, technology and other resources for health departments.

“All too often we have seen this pattern of neglect of public health, followed by an influx of short-term emergency funding, followed by an erosion of funds again,” Nadine Gracia, executive vice president of Trust for America’s Health, told reporters.

Murray and other Senate Democrats first introduced a similar bill in October, but the package died in the last session of Congress. With Democrats now in control of the Senate and the White House, Murray is optimistic that there’s a path for the $11 billion-plus package. “We are looking for all ways to include this” in coming legislation, she told reporters.

The legislation has been championed by more than 120 public health organizations, including the Association of American Medical Colleges, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum and March of Dimes.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated that Murray is a senator from Oregon. She represents Washington.

3:09 p.m.
Link copied
link

Plan for more Johnson & Johnson doses will be announced Wednesday

President Biden intends to announce Wednesday that his administration will secure another 100 million doses of the single-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, according to two officials familiar with the matter.

He is expected to preview the plans during an afternoon meeting with executives from Johnson & Johnson and Merck, just over a week after announcing that his administration had helped broker a deal between the two rival companies to speed up production of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson has already agreed to supply the United States with 100 million doses by the end of June, and its latest goal is to produce 94 million of those doses by the end of May, according to officials familiar with the estimates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Between those doses and the supply of the two-dose regimens sufficient to cover 200 million people by the end of May, the country is expected to have enough to cover everyone currently eligible for a vaccine by then. The additional 100 million doses would be delivered in the second half of the year, according to a senior administration official.

Senior administration officials have stressed the importance of redundancy in vaccine supply, given the uncertainty involved in manufacturing new products at scale, as well as the possible need to tweak the vaccines to account for new variants of the virus.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is priced at $10 a dose. The company has said it does not intend to make a profit. Its original deal for 100 million doses for the United States struck in August contained a provision allowing the government to buy up to 200 million more doses, options that would be subject to further negotiations and an additional stand-alone agreement, according to the contract.

Johnson & Johnson and Merck executives were scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House later Wednesday. The company indicated the new order was not a done deal.

“The U.S. Government has the option to purchase additional doses under a subsequent agreement. We look forward to any future discussions with the U.S. Government and to participating in the event at the White House later today,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Correction: An earlier alert headline suggested the deal had already been struck.

1:00 p.m.
Link copied
link

First the Uber customer refused to wear her mask, then she coughed on the driver and finally lunged forward and ripped his mask off

A woman was banned from Uber after refusing to put on a face mask and attacking an Uber driver in San Francisco on March 7. (Subhakar Khadka via Storyful)

Subhakar Khadka’s Uber passenger started screaming profanities and racial slurs at him shortly after he picked her and two friends up in San Francisco on Sunday. He had just stopped to let her buy a mask at a gas station, but now she was refusing to wear it.

“F--- the mask,” the woman said.

Then, leaning toward the driver, she ripped off her mask and coughed on him several times.

“And I got corona,” another passenger said, laughing. Then the woman who had coughed grabbed the driver’s phone and tore his mask off his face.

A video of the incident recorded from Khadka’s security camera went viral this week after KPIX reporter Dion Lim tweeted it out, garnering more than 2.3 million views by early Wednesday.

12:15 p.m.
Link copied
link

Germany to boost vaccinations in April — but not by too much

More Germans will be able to get vaccinated against the coronavirus starting next month when family doctors are allowed to administer the shot, Health Minister Jens Spahn said Wednesday. But he warned that it wouldn’t immediately lead to a faster pace of vaccinations.

Germans are already frustrated with the slow-moving vaccine rollout, which officials attributed to supply shortages and a lack of cold storage facilities. Authorities are now immunizing a specific priority group that includes elderly and nursing home residents and staff, as well as front-line health-care workers exposed to the virus.

According to government figures, just over 3 percent of Germany’s population has been fully vaccinated. The immunization campaign began in late December.

“The vaccination numbers will not immediately grow to 20 million a month or to 10 million a week,” Spahn told ZDF television, Reuters reported. “In April there will be significantly more vaccinations, but not on that scale.”

Reuters quoted the head of the KBV doctors’ association as saying that physicians are capable of handling vaccinations and should not have to wait until April to begin.

“Just let us vaccinate, make the vaccine available to us through pharmacies and don’t kill us with bureaucracy,” Andreas Gassen said.

Still, Germany was poised to expand the number of vaccines on offer, after approving AstraZeneca’s shot for people aged 65 and over last week. It initially limited the vaccine’s use, citing insufficient trial data, a move that led to hundreds of thousands of AstraZeneca doses being left on the shelves.

Also this week, the chairman of Germany’s vaccination committee, Thomas Mertens, voiced his support for the Sputnik V vaccine developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute — even as European Union officials warned member states against greenlighting the vaccine too quickly.

The bloc’s pharmaceutical regulatory agency said it would begin a rolling review of the vaccine, which has already been purchased or administered in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

11:30 a.m.
Link copied
link

The pandemic is hard for teens and hard for parents. These young women are both.

Aysia Miller-Wansel, 17, is saving to buy a car and, when she turns 18, move out of her group home and into her own apartment. She is making $9.50 an hour at a fast-food restaurant, taking high school classes online and dreaming of going to college to become a nurse. At the center of everything is her son, Ozias, who turned 1 in December.

“I’m working my butt off every day. I’m a full-time student, full-time mother, full-time worker, and it wears me out,” Miller-Wansel said. “Sometimes I feel like I have nobody on my side and it’s just me and my son against the world.”

Since the start of the pandemic, reports have emphasized the difficulties of being a parent or being a young adult, but rarely have they acknowledged those who are both — navigating remote school for themselves and their child, the loss of social interaction and support, parenting, child-care closures, work and economic stressors all at once.

10:45 a.m.
Link copied
link

Alaska makes vaccines available to those 16 and older, becoming first state to remove eligibility requirements

Alaska on Tuesday became the first state to remove eligibility requirements for the coronavirus vaccine, making immunization available to anyone 16 and older who lives or works in the state.

The state’s governor, Republican Mike Dunleavy, announced the move in a news release, calling it a “historic step” and “another nationwide first for Alaska.”

The statement marked a turning point in the nation’s immunization campaign, and it’s a reminder that access to the shots has been highly uneven throughout the country. Some states are still reserving appointments for adults 65 and older, in addition to other high-risk groups.

10:08 a.m.
Link copied
link

U.S. failure to lock down magnified impact of coronavirus surges, Fauci says

The U.S. refusal to completely shut down over the course of the pandemic led to an increasingly high baseline of new coronavirus infections, according to top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, a failure he said has allowed the pathogen to mutate and spread.

Fauci, who serves as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that the nation’s “historic negative experience” with the virus was due in part to the fact that the outbreak was never fully tamed through lockdowns — ensuring that each surge in cases grew from an ever-higher starting point.

“If you recall the history, which I painfully have lived through, is that in the very beginning … what we had was a surge in the Northeast which went up and then it came down and never got to a good baseline,” he said in a conversation with Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly. The event was hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The baseline was so high that that magnified the impact of the [next] surge” in the summer, he said. “And now, as we’re coming way down, we are reaching a point where we’re beginning to, if not plateau, but the slope of the deflection is starting to maybe go down a little bit more slowly, which means we might plateau again at an unacceptably high level.”

Fauci praised Australia’s pandemic response, including snap lockdowns that have kept total infections at fewer than 30,000. The country has reported just 909 coronavirus-related deaths.

“When Australia shuts down, they shut down, and they really do get the cases, like, almost to nothing. We’ve never had that in the United States,” Fauci said.

He added that the spread of new, more contagious variants in the United States was the result of allowing the virus to run rampant for months. The United States has recorded more than 29 million cases and over 526,000 deaths.

“A fundamental tenet of virology is that viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate, and the more spread that you have in the community the greater chance you’re going to have of the initiation of and propagation of variants,” he said. “And that’s what we’re seeing in the United States.”

9:15 a.m.
Link copied
link

Troubles hobble two-way travel bubble for Australia, New Zealand

SYDNEY — Travel bubbles were meant to reopen skies between countries across the Asia-Pacific region that have managed to suppress the virus. The on-again, off-again negotiations between Australia and New Zealand show just how hard that is to do.

The Southern Hemisphere neighbors began discussing a two-way bubble in May. Now, Australian citizens aren’t even allowed to leave their country unless they apply for, and are granted, a special exemption.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the decision had always been in New Zealand’s hands.

“If the New Zealand government doesn’t wish Australians to visit New Zealand and spend money in Queenstown or Wellington or other parts of the country, that’s a matter for them,” he told reporters. “But if Australians can’t go to Queenstown, I’m hoping they’ll go to Cairns,” he said, referring to a popular tourist city in tropical Queensland state.

New Zealand officials, meanwhile, are concerned Australia has been too quick to suspend a half-bubble in place since October that allows people to fly from New Zealand to Australia without having to quarantine for two weeks. The one-way arrangement has been halted several times after small virus outbreaks, such as one at a high school in Auckland last month.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she is worried that travelers would be stranded if one country suddenly shut its border, although she added that risk “may just be the reality we have to build into the system.” She has also questioned whether commercial airlines can operate in an environment where state-level officials can make snap decisions to close borders for multiple days.

Some 600,000 New Zealanders live in Australia. Allowing quarantine-free travel between the two countries would free up space in managed quarantine for those returning from riskier destinations farther afield.