April 17, 2021

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As variant cases surge, a crackdown on Mardi Gras this week; Valentine’s Day message of hope from Biden: Latest COVID-19 updates

New Orleans is tamping down its annual pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebrations this week and health officials in other cities are warning would-be revelers to do the same amid a spike in coronavirus variant cases across the nation. 

COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been slowly dropping since a peak several weeks ago. The U.S. is reporting an average of fewer than 100,000 new cases per day now. That’s still more than one new case every second, but it’s less than half the rate the country was reporting in January.

But the number of known coronavirus variant cases has surged in recent weeks. The vast majority are of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and has run rampant there. The CDC has said it may become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. Last month, U.K. researchers said there’s evidence the variant may be more deadly than others, and it’s  also considered at least 50% more transmissible than the original strain.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has ordered bars closed during the Mardi Gras weekend that started Friday and runs through Tuesday. Parades are canceled and there are limits on gatherings. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the annual pre-Lenten bash celebrated along much of the Gulf Coast. Last year’s revelry is considered to have contributed to an early surge that made Louisiana a coronavirus hot spot.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

In the headlines:

►The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend required COVID-19 testing before domestic air travel, the CDC said in a statement to CNN Saturday. Federal officials had said this week they were considering domestic testing requirements.

►New COVID-19 variants are spreading fast in multiple regions of France, prompting tougher mask rules and a curfew crackdown around the English Channel coast.

China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization team probing the origins of the pandemic, one of the team’s investigators, Dominic Dwyer, told Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. The head of the WHO said Friday that all hypotheses into the origins of the coronavirus were still being investigated and analyzed after a team of investigators said earlier this week that the theory that the virus leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan would no longer be pursued.

► Florida state health officials reported that more than 10,000 residents and staff of long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19.

►The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agreed to let Moderna increase the number of doses of its COVID-19 vaccine that it puts into each vial from 10 to 14, The New York Times reported Friday. The Times reported that the change, which could boost the nation’s vaccine supply by 20%, could take effect before the end of April.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 484,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 108.6 million cases and 2.39 million deaths. More than 69 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 50.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: People of color have suffered most from COVID-19. But now that a vaccine is here, they are far less likely to have received a first dose – for many of the same reasons. Read more.

Ellen Yun loads Valentine's Day gifts for her mom, sister and brother in-laws, nephew and her two children Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, outside a Chicago area grocery store. Yun said she had shopped for her husband earlier.

Biden offers message of hope on a challenging Valentine’s Day

For millions of Americans grappling with loneliness, separation from a partner or the loss of a loved one, Valentine’s Day may be particularly challenging this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, this coronavirus-era holiday also reminds us that, through thick and thin, relationships can withstand many hardships – including a pandemic. Some couples have spent an unprecedented amount of time together throughout the last year. Others were forced to navigate long distance unexpectedly and with no end in sight. Many are stronger for it.

“There’s hope. You just have to stay strong,” President Joe Biden said last week on the front lawn of the White House, where the first lady set up large, colorful hearts. “A lot of people have gone through unbearable suffering, lost their families, lost their children, their husbands, wives, mom, dad. And it’s almost unbearable. The only thing I can say to them is, they’re still in your heart.”

If you’re still planning to spread love, not germs, this year, check out these coronavirus-themed digital valentines and see where you can get last-minute flowers here.

FDA policy to allow antibody tests without authorization was ‘flawed,’ officials say

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy of allowing companies to market their COVID-19 antibody tests without authorization was “flawed” and allowed ineffective products to flood the market, two FDA officials wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine Saturday.

In March, the agency began allowing companies to market their antibody tests without FDA emergency use authorization as long as the companies notified the agency and could show that the test worked.

“As a result, the market was flooded with serology tests, some of which performed poorly and many of which were marketed in a manner that conflicted with FDA policy,” wrote Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, and Dr. Timothy Stenzel, director of the FDA’s Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health.

Inexperienced or dubious companies capitalized on the vacuum of FDA oversight, including one that sells vape pens and one headed by a self-proclaimed technology evangelist, a USA TODAY investigation last year found.

“We realized that the policy outlined in our March 16 guidance was flawed,” the authors said. “Knowing what we know now, we would not have permitted serology tests to be marketed without FDA review and authorization, even within the limits we initially imposed.”

As of Feb. 1, 2021, the FDA had removed listings for 225 tests from its website, issued 15 warning letters and placed 88 firms on import alert for violations, the authors said.

– Grace Hauck

Massachusetts program to vaccinate people who accompany seniors quickly ‘abused’

Some people in Massachusetts are offering rides and even money for a chance to take advantage of a state rule that allows those who accompany people age 75 and older to a coronavirus vaccination appointment to get a shot at the same time.

But the rash of online ads from people looking to cut the vaccination line drew a stern rebuke from Gov. Charlie Baker, who warned against offers of help from complete strangers. “If you’re contacted by somebody soliciting to take you to a site, please report it to the authorities,” Baker said.

Seniors should accept help only from someone they trust, he said. Many senior centers in the state are offering help. Some officials called on the Republican governor to put the vaccine companion program on hold.

“While it may have been well-meaning, it took less than 24 hours for this new state policy to be abused,” Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell in a statement.

Democratic state Rep. Steve Owens said a group of lawmakers have urged Baker to pause the program, noting that he saw an ad from someone offering $250 to drive an eligible resident to a vaccination site.

– Associated Press

Oxford University testing vaccine in children

The University of Oxford plans to test its COVID-19 vaccine – which is being produced and distributed by AstraZeneca – in children for the first time, becoming the latest vaccine developer to assess whether its coronavirus shot is effective in young people.

The trial announced Saturday seeks to recruit 300 volunteers from 6 to 17, with up to 240 receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the remainder a control meningitis vaccine.

Andrew Pollard, chief researcher on the Oxford vaccine trial, says that while most children don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, “it is important to establish the safety and immune response to the vaccine in children and young people as some children may benefit from vaccination.”

Contributing: The Associated Press