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Hot spots no more: Nursing homes far outpace nation in COVID declines

A rehabilitation center in Opelika, Ala. Coronavirus cases have dropped at US nursing homes and other long-term-care centers.
A rehabilitation center in Opelika, Ala. Coronavirus cases have dropped at US nursing homes and other long-term-care centers.Julie Bennett/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Throughout the pandemic, there has been perhaps nowhere more dangerous than a nursing home. The coronavirus raced through some 31,000 long-term care facilities in the United States, killing more than 163,000 residents and employees — more than one-third of all virus deaths since late spring.

But for the first time since the US outbreak began roughly a year ago, at a nursing care center in Kirkland, Wash., the threat at nursing homes may have reached a turning point.

Since the arrival of vaccines, which were prioritized to long-term care facilities starting in late December, new cases and deaths in nursing homes, a large subset of long-term-care facilities, have fallen steeply, outpacing national declines, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. The turnaround is an encouraging sign that vaccines are effective and offers an early glimpse of what may be in store for the rest of the country as more people are vaccinated.

From late December to early February, new cases among nursing home residents fell more than 80 percent, nearly double the rate of improvement in the general population. And even as fatalities overall spiked this winter, deaths inside the facilities fell, by more than 65 percent. — NEW YORK TIMES

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NYC says new tactics against virus variant aren’t needed yet

NEW YORK — New York City officials said Thursday that all the possible risks posed by a new form of the coronavirus spreading in New York City were unknown, but that it did not appear the city should modify its public health response.

Two teams of researchers have reported that the new virus variant carries a worrisome mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.

Right now, “we need to just consider this a variant of interest — something that’s interesting, that we need to follow and track,” Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, said at a news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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“But it doesn’t change anything about our public health concern,” he added. “We need more data and studies to understand that.”

Public health officials have also been working “incredibly intensively” to improve efforts to detect variants, Varma added.

The new variant, called B.1.526, first appeared in samples collected in the city in November. By mid-February, it accounted for about one in four viral sequences appearing in a database shared by scientists.

Asked about the new variant on NBC’s “Today,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said any new version of the virus is a concern. He urged people to get vaccinated to stop it from spreading.

“Other strains or mutants or variants, as we call them, are coming up, but the major spread in the country right now — the vaccine is good against it,” he said. “And even ones in which it may be somewhat less effective, the vaccine is still good against severe disease.” — NEW YORK TIMES

California’s coronavirus deaths exceed 50,000

NEW YORK — California surpassed 50,000 known coronavirus deaths on Wednesday, the first state to reach that chilling milestone.

The news comes as a bleak reminder that recent progress the state against the pandemic may be fragile. Many deaths were recorded recently, during a frightening winter surge that followed a period of relatively low case counts and a spreading hope that the virus could be controlled until vaccines arrived.

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According to a New York Times database, California, the country’s most populous state, averaged more than 560 deaths a day, on average, at the peak in January. For much of November, it reported fewer than 50.

It took nearly 10 months for Los Angeles County to hit 400,000 cases, but little more than a month to add another 400,000, from Nov. 30 to Jan. 2.

Though the state has reported more total deaths than any other, it’s far from the hardest-hit. At least 30 states have reported more total deaths per capita, and New Jersey has recorded twice as many as California per capita. — NEW YORK TIMES

Pfizer plans to test a plan for one shot plus two boosters

NEW YORK — As concerns grow that coronavirus variants could blunt the protective effects of vaccines, Pfizer and BioNTech said Thursday that they planned to test adding a third shot to their regimen, as well as update their original vaccine.

Laboratory experiments have found that the levels of antibodies neutralized by the Pfizer-BioNTech shot were reduced against a variant first identified in South Africa, which could hint at reduced efficacy. But there is no evidence yet from clinical trials there suggesting that the vaccine does not offer strong protection.

One study will look at what kind of protection is given when people receive a third shot about six to 12 months after the initial two-dose regimen. In addition, the companies said they were speaking to regulators about testing an adapted version of the vaccine that would protect against the variant from South Africa, known as B.1.351.

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Moderna, which developed a vaccine using the same technology as the Pfizer-BioNTech product, said on Wednesday that it had shipped doses of a newly adjusted vaccine to the National Institutes of Health for testing. It also addresses the B.1.351 variant, which seems to dampen the effectiveness of existing vaccines. — NEW YORK TIMES

Don’t hesitate to take whichever vaccine is available first, Fauci says

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says that if a coronavirus vaccine is available, regardless of which one, take it.

The top US infectious disease expert told NBC on Thursday that a third vaccine becoming available “is nothing but good news” and would help control the pandemic. US regulators said Wednesday that Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine offers strong protection against severe COVID-19. It’s expected to be approved soon.

Fauci warned people not to avoid getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while waiting for the slightly more effective Pfizer or Moderna shots. He said it’s a race “between the virus and getting vaccines into people” and “the longer one waits not getting vaccinated, the better chance the virus has to get a variant or a mutation.”

Fauci said public health officials are always concerned about virus variants and stressed the need to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The predominant coronavirus variant in the United States is from Britain. Fauci said the vaccines distributed so far “clearly can take care of that particular strain.” — ASSOCIATED PRESS

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