In the history of the pandemic in the U.S., 2020 will be remembered as the most disruptive year, a time when the coronavirus shut down businesses, schools, sports, travel and many more staples of everyday life.

However, 2021 is now the most deadly year. 

That threshold, especially lamentable considering the widespread availability of  COVID-19 vaccines in the country since the spring, was crossed Tuesday when the U.S.’s world-leading total of coronavirus deaths went over the 704,000 mark. The 2020 tally was 352,000, or half that number.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Washington National Cathedral plans to toll its funeral bell 700 times in memory of the lives lost.

Johns Hopkins University data shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and cases in the U.S. have been declining. This solemn event comes at a time when they are experiencing a decline in their numbers. Compared to four weeks ago, hospitalizations for the latest week are down 26.9%, and the number of ICU beds occupied by likely COVID-19 patients has diminished by 25.3%. There has been a decrease in fatalities, approximately 12% more than at the peak on Sept. 22.

But the combination of the hyper-infectious delta variant with the misinformation-driven refusal by so many Americans to get vaccinated — some 70 million who are eligible have not received the free shots — has left the country vulnerable to a virus that continues to adapt and find new victims.

There were actually many more of them than what is likely to be the worst year for the pandemic.

In the news also:

►Award-winning hair and makeup designer Marc Pilcher, who according to his agency was fully vaccinated and had no underlying health conditions, has died of COVID-19 at 53.

Wyoming was Tuesday’s 47th state that had at least 1,000 COVID-19 death. Alaska, Vermont and Hawaii were below it.

Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider, said 1,400 employees, less than 2% of its total workforce, have been fired for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A statewide vaccination mandate for all hospital and nursing home workers took effect Sept. 27. 

►A New York man was charged with a felony and could face seven years in prison for faking a COVID-19 vaccine card.

►The European Union’s drug regulator gave its backing Monday to administering booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people 18 and older.

📈The numbers today: The U.S. has recorded more than 43.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 704,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 235.6 million cases and 4.8 million deaths. More than 185.8 million Americans – 56.3% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘This is what we are reading COVID-19 vaccines could be available for younger children in a matter of weeks – but experts worry whether communities of color will have an equal shot at protecting their kids. Continue reading

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Justice Department may prosecute hostile behavior against school personnel

The Justice Department plans to announce in the upcoming days several measures to address a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against” school personnel, Attorney General Merrick Garland said this week in a memo to the FBI and state attorneys general.

The hostile behavior, which has been directed at school administrators, board members, teachers and staff, stems in part from COVID-19 protocols, especially mask mandates. Garland suggested that this behavior be discouraged and prosecuted if necessary.

Garland stated that while spirited discussion about policy issues is protected by our Constitution, it does not protect against threats of violence and attempts to intimidate people based on their opinions. 

— Erin Richards

Chicago CBP confiscates counterfeit vaccine cards and unauthorized medication

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers working at the International Mail Facility at Chicago O’Hare found 41 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards Monday, along with ivermectin tablets and hydroxychloroquine pills, according to Chicago Field Office spokesperson Steve Bansbach. While some individuals have used these drugs for COVID treatments, they are not authorized.

Two shipments of cards from China were sent to Houston and Seagraves in Texas. One package was labeled “greeting cards,” according to Bansbach. The cards resembled the authentic CDC certificates provided by healthcare practitioners when administering the COVID vaccine but “appeared to be fraudulent due to their low-quality appearance and other discrepancies,” CBP said in a statement.

“Our CBP officers continue the fight against these crooks who are using this pandemic to make a profit by selling these fraudulent documents,” said LaFonda Sutton-Burke, Director of Field Operations at the Chicago Field Office.

— Grace Hauck

CDC advises Americans not vaccinated against going on trips

The CDC says unvaccinated Americans should delay planned trips within the country until they’ve had their COVID-19 shots.

In a Monday update to its domestic travel guidelines, the CDC announced that “people who have had their vaccines administered by FDA or a World Health Organization authorized vaccine can travel in safety within the United States.” It also provided recommendations for people with no vaccination who need to travel. 

Also Monday, the CDC’s list of countries where Americans should avoid travel because of “very high” COVID-19 cases grew again, with Barbados and Croatia the most notable additions.

Over 80 countries now appear on the constantly changing list of places travelers should avoid. This includes Jamaica, Belize and the United Kingdom as well as Greece and other tourist hot spots. Continue reading

– Dawn Gilbertson

J&J seeks FDA clearance for booster shot

Johnson & Johnson said Tuesday that it submitted data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration showing a booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and significantly increases protection against disease.

Johnson & Johnson says its data, published last month, shows a booster given 56 days after a first dose of its vaccine provides 94% protection against symptomatic COVID-19 and 100% protection against severe disease.

 “We look forward to our discussions with the FDA and other health authorities to support their decisions regarding boosters,” Mathai Mammen, a J&J research executive, said in a statement.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is one of three authorized in the U.S., and by far the least used, with less than 15 million Americans receiving its single-dose shot. Use of the J&J vaccine was paused for 10 days in April after reports of rare but dangerous blood clots in six women who got the shot, but the FDA and CDC determined the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks.

On Tuesday, officials in Washington state confirmed a female resident of King County became the fourth known person in the nation to die of a blood clot after getting the J&J vaccine. Unlike the two-dose mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, the J&J inoculation is an adenovirus vector vaccine.

Iowa Professor Punished for Requiring Masks Plans to Do It Again Next Semester

Steve O’Kane of University of Northern Iowa decided that masks were necessary in his Plant Systems class. He was conscious of breaking the state Board of Regents policy. O’Kane, who was unable to give the course this semester due to his actions last week, was reprimanded by the Board of Regents.

However, he still intends to use masks in the next semester, even if that means a termination. 

Accepting defeat is not to disobey. And what the administration is forced to do – please note my words – what the administration is forced to do is immoral and unethical. And it all boils down to Iowa politics,” O’Kane said in an interview. 

O’Kane’s disregard for the regents’ ban on masks is the most significant escalation of weeks of back and forth between faculty from UNI, Iowa State, and University of Iowa and their administrations, and the Board of Regents about how best to protect the community against the spread of COVID-19.

– Cleo Krejci, Iowa City Press-Citizen

AstraZeneca requests FDA approval for its anti-Bacterial treatment

AstraZeneca announced Tuesday that it is seeking FDA emergency authorization to use its long-acting antibody combination for COVID-19 treatment.

AstraZeneca says its AZD7442 treatment, a combination of the antibodies tixagevimab and cilgavimab, is designed to have more durability than traditional antibodies. Treatments are usually prescribed at an early stage of the disease process. While they can prevent hospitalizations and deaths, protection provided by these treatments is only temporary. AstraZeneca claims that its antibody treatment can provide protection for up to one year.

In its clinical trial, AstraZeneca said the treatment reduced the risk of symptomatic COVID by 77%, and more than 75% of the study population had an increased risk of severe complications from COVID.

Poor health choices are killing rural Americans, and COVID is making it worse

A federal study has confirmed that rural Americans are 20% more likely to succumb to illnesses like heart disease, cancer and lower respiratory infections than urban counterparts.

Lack of access to health care, poverty, smoking and heavy drinking all play a role in driving up the disparity between rural and urban residents – a gap likely now further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of rural hospitals.

From 2009 to 2019, the federal study looked at 10 of the leading causes for death in America. In addition, it found that urban residents are experiencing longer lives than rural ones and that health disparities in the country are growing. According to data from the University of Iowa Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis, the rates of COVID-19-related deaths in rural Americans is also twice that of urban Americans. 

Chair of New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital’s cardiology department, Dr. Varinder Sing said that there are health care disparities in cities, particularly within minority communities. However, he stated that while the federal study raises serious questions about the increasing urban-rural divide and should encourage discussions about ways to better reach rural areas with public-health messages.

– Trevor Hughes

National Institutes of Health director to step down by end of year

Francis S. Collins has announced that he will be stepping down as director of National Institutes of Health. Collins had been the head of the research center for 12+ years and became a well-known source of public information in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There comes a time where an institution like NIH really benefits from new vision, new leadership,” Collins, 71, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This was the right timing.”

The NIH expected to make a formal announcement Tuesday. The Post and Politico reported Collins’ plans Monday night.

Based in Bethesda, Maryland, and a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH is the nation’s medical research agency and operates more than two dozen institutes and centers. It is the biggest supporter for biomedical research worldwide.

– The Associated Press

Alabama Death Toll Doubles Starting 2020

Johns Hopkins University data show that COVID-19 already has killed twice as many Alabamans this year than it did in 2020.

Last year’s coronavirus wave, which was then triggered by the delta-driven virus in fall-winter waves, punished Alabama twice. The disease killed 4,827 people in Alabama in 2020, and a similar number from Jan. 1 to Feb. 23 this year.

COVID-19 is responsible for more than 3100 deaths in Alabama since July 1st, when it first became popular in the United States.

Mike Stucka

Texas may face an economic problem due to pandemics that drain education resources

More than 1 million Texans lost jobs seemingly overnight and the state’s unemployment rate nearly quadrupled when the coronavirus pandemic first slammed the economy early last year. 

But a less visible impact of the pandemic – a steep decline in educational attainment by Texas students amid the crisis – might end up having even bigger negative economic consequences long term, according to the state’s top public school official.

“This is the largest problem facing the state of Texas – the problem of making sure that our citizenry is educated to take advantage of the opportunities” generated by the economy in the future, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said.

Morath stated that the number of state third-graders who are proficient in math and reading has fallen precipitously since the outbreak of the pandemic. Find out more.

– Bob Sechler, Austin American-Statesman

Mike Stucka, The Associated Press Contributing

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