Philadelphia reinstating indoor mask mandate amid case surge

Philadelphia is reinstating its indoor mask mandate after reporting a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, the city’s top health official announced Monday.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases have risen more than 50% in 10 days, the threshold at which the city’s guidelines call for people to wear masks indoors, said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the health commissioner.

The city is reporting more than 140 cases per day, a fraction of what it saw at the height of the omicron surge, and hospitalizations remain low. But Bettigole said the recent increase in infections indicates the city might be at the beginning of a new wave, and city officials are seeking to stay ahead of it by requiring indoor masking.

Health inspectors will start to enforce the mask mandate at city businesses starting April 18.

Source: WBAL

COVID-19 cases rising in Northeast, partly fueled by BA.2, experts say

As COVID-19 cases continue to tick up in the United States, the Northeast appears to be fueling the increase.

Four of the five states with the highest seven-day case rates per 100,000 are in the Northeast. In the 10 states with the highest seven-day rates, seven are Northeastern, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rhode Island currently has the highest seven-day case rate at 172.4 cases per 100,000 people. This is nearly three times higher than the national rate of 59.4 cases per 100,000 people.

As of Friday, the Ocean State has also seen its average daily number of cases increase 53% over a two-week period from 170 per day to 260 per day, CDC data shows.

Other Northeastern states seeing increases include Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Maine and Connecticut.

In particular, New York and New Jersey have seen their average daily cases increase by 64%, the CDC data shows.

Experts said one of the reasons for the rise in cases is the spread of BA.2, a subvariant of the original omicron variant that is more transmissible.

In the Northeast, BA.2 accounts for more than 84% of COVID-19 cases that have undergone genomic sequencing, more than any other region in the country, according to the CDC.

Dr. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told ABC News that early evidence suggests people who were infected with the original omicron variant during the previous wave may now have some immunity against BA.2.

He suggested states that were able to have better control of cases earlier may currently be more vulnerable to infections.

“States that did a good job controlling infections with mandates, most in the Northeast and West, are more susceptible now with BA.2,” he said.

Mokdad compared Maine and Florida using data from the institute, which projects COVID-19 cases around the country.

“We estimate that 54% of people in Maine have been infected at least once as of April 4,” he said. “So, we estimate that 60% are immune. We estimate that 87% of people in Florida have been infected at least once as of April 4. We estimate that 80% are immune.”

Another reason Northeastern states may be seeing case increases is due to the lifting of mask and vaccine requirements, the experts said.

“Not only is BA.2 extraordinarily transmissible, but now, consistent with CDC guidelines, many people are going to crowded indoor events and outdoor events without wearing a mask and not social distancing,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told ABC News. “In anticipation of summer … people are eager to see family and friends and engage in near-normal activities again.”

However, the experts warned the true number of cases could be even higher as some states shift their COVID-19 testing strategy.

Source: WBAL

Death toll nears 6 million as pandemic enters its 3rd year

The official global death toll from COVID-19 is on the verge of eclipsing 6 million — underscoring that the pandemic, now entering its third year, is far from over.

The milestone is the latest tragic reminder of the unrelenting nature of the pandemic even as people are shedding masks, travel is resuming and businesses are reopening around the globe. The death toll, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, stood at 5,997,994 as of Sunday afternoon.

Remote Pacific islands, whose isolation had protected them for more than two years, are just now grappling with their first outbreaks and deaths, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Anaiya Layland, 12, receives her first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination as her mother, Ashlesha Patel, observes at the Cook County Public Health Department, Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Des Plaines, Ill. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

Hong Kong, which is seeing deaths soar, is testing its entire population of 7.5 million three times this month as it clings to mainland China’s “zero-COVID” strategy.

As death rates remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries, the region has seen more than 1 million refugees arrive from war-torn Ukraine, a country with poor vaccination coverage and high rates of cases and deaths.

And despite its wealth and vaccine availability, the United States is nearing 1 million reported deaths on its own.

Death rates worldwide are still highest among people unvaccinated against the virus, said Tikki Pang, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s medical school and co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Immunization Coalition.

“This is a disease of the unvaccinated — look what is happening in Hong Kong right now, the health system is being overwhelmed,” said Pang, the former director of research policy and cooperation with the World Health Organization. “The large majority of the deaths and the severe cases are in the unvaccinated, vulnerable segment of the population.”

It took the world seven months to record its first million deaths from the virus after the pandemic began in early 2020. Four months later another million people had died, and 1 million have died every three months since, until the death toll hit 5 million at the end of October. Now it has reached 6 million — more than the populations of Berlin and Brussels combined, or the entire state of Maryland.

But despite the enormity of the figure, the world undoubtedly hit its 6 millionth death some time ago. Poor record-keeping and testing in many parts of the world has led to an undercount in coronavirus deaths, in addition to excess deaths related to the pandemic but not from actual COVID-19 infections, like people who died from preventable causes but could not receive treatment because hospitals were full.

Edouard Mathieu, head of data for the Our World in Data portal, said that — when countries’ excess mortality figures are studied — as many as nearly four times the reported death toll have likely died because of the pandemic.

An analysis of excess deaths by a team at The Economist estimates that the number of COVID-19 deaths is between 14 million and 23.5 million.

Source: AP News

Governors in 4 states plan for end to school mask mandates

The governors of four states announced plans Monday to lift statewide mask requirements in schools by the end of February or March, citing the rapid easing of COVID-19′s omicron surge.

The decisions in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon were announced as state and local governments grapple with which virus restrictions to jettison and which ones to keep in place. The changes also come amid a growing sense that the virus is never going to go away and Americans need to find a way to coexist with it.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called the move “a huge step back to normalcy for our kids” and said individual school districts will be free to continue requiring masks after the state mandate ends March 7.

Meanwhile, California announced plans to end its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week, but masks will still be the rule for schoolchildren in the nation’s most populous state.

The four states are among a dozen with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey’s requirement has been in place since classes resumed in person in September 2020.

Source: AP News

Omicron surge is undermining care for other health problems – The omicron surge this winter has not only swamped U.S. hospitals with record numbers of patients with COVID-19, it has also caused frightening moments and major headaches for people trying to get treatment for other ailments.

Less-urgent procedures have been put on hold around the country, such as cochlear implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medical complaints have had to wait in emergency rooms for hours longer than usual.
Source: AP News

US begins offering 1B free COVID tests, but many more needed

For the first time, people across the U.S. can log on to a government website and order free, at-home COVID-19 tests. But the White House push may do little to ease the omicron surge, and experts say Washington will have to do a lot more to fix the country’s long-troubled testing system. The website,, allows people to order four at-home tests per household, regardless of citizenship status, and have them delivered by mail. But the tests won’t arrive for seven to 12 days, after omicron cases are expected to peak in many parts of the country. The White House also announced Wednesday that it will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers. Both initiatives represent the kind of mass government investments long seen in parts of Europe and Asia, but delayed in the U.S.

“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes, but we’re doing more now,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday, recapping his first year in office.

Experts say the plan to distribute 1 billion tests is a good first step, but it must become a regular part of the pandemic response. In the same way that it has made vaccines free and plentiful, the government must use its purchasing power to assure a steady test supply, they say.

“The playbook for rapid tests should look exactly like the playbook for vaccines,” said Zoe McLaren, a health economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They’re both things that help keep cases down and help keep COVID under control.”

A home test two-pack commonly sells for more than $20 at the store — if you can find one, amid the omicron-triggered rush to get tested. Since last week, insurance companies have been required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid tests bought at drugstores or online retailers.

The four tests per home made available through the government website may not go very far in some households.

Source: APNews

COVID deaths and cases are rising again at US nursing homes

COVID-19 infections are soaring again at U.S. nursing homes because of the omicron wave, and deaths are climbing too, leading to new restrictions on family visits and a renewed push to get more residents and staff members vaccinated and boosted.

Nursing homes were the lethal epicenter of the pandemic early on, before the vaccine allowed many of them to reopen to visitors last year. But the wildly contagious variant has dealt them a setback.

Nursing homes reported a near-record of about 32,000 COVID-19 cases among residents in the week ending Jan. 9, an almost sevenfold increase from a month earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A total of 645 COVID-19-related deaths among residents were recorded during the same week, a 47% increase from the earlier period. And there are fears that deaths could go much higher before omicron is through. Despite the rising numbers, the situation is not as dire as it was in December 2020, when nursing home deaths per week topped out at about 6,200. Experts credit the high vaccination rates now among nursing home residents: About 87% are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

Source: AP News

17 Baltimore County schools transition to virtual learning due to COVID-19

More than a dozen Baltimore County schools will transition to virtual learning this week due to COVID-19.

Baltimore County Public Schools announced the schools have 5% or more of unrelated students, teachers and staff (a minimum of 10 individuals) testing positive for COVID-19 in a 14-day period.

From Jan. 3 to Jan. 7, all grades in the following schools will hold virtual learning:

– Carroll Manor Elementary School

– Chapel Hill Elementary School

– Deer Park Middle Magnet School

– Dundalk High School

– Fullerton Elementary School

– Lansdowne High School

– Parkville High School

– Randallstown High School

– Ridge Ruxton School

– Sandalwood Elementary School

– Scotts Branch Elementary School

– Woodholme Elementary School

– Woodlawn High School

From Jan. 3 to Jan. 7, the following schools will hold virtual learning as designated:

– Edgemere Elementary School — pre-school program only

– Logan Elementary School — prekindergarten only

– Lyons Mill Elementary School — Fifth grade only

– Stemmers Runn Elementary School — Sixth grade only

Source: WBAL

FDA authorizes COVID-19 boosters for 12 to 15-year-olds

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday authorized Pfizer booster shots for people aged 12 to 15 years, another expansion in the population eligible for the third shots.

Booster shots are seen as a key tool to fight the omicron variant, which has shown a heightened ability to infect people who have two shots, though vaccinated people still have important protection against severe disease.

The FDA also shortened the time for all adults to get their booster shots, down to five months from six months after the initial shots.

Finally, for children 5-11 years old, the FDA authorized a third shot for certain immunocompromised children, who it said might not respond fully to two shots.

“Based on the FDA’s assessment of currently available data, a booster dose of the currently authorized vaccines may help provide better protection against both the delta and omicron variants. In particular, the omicron variant appears to be slightly more resistant to the antibody levels produced in response to the primary series doses from the current vaccines,” said Peter Marks, a top FDA vaccine official.

“With this in mind, the FDA has extended the range of individuals eligible to receive a booster, shortened the length of time between the completion of the Pfizer primary series for individuals to receive a booster and is authorizing a third protective vaccine dose for some of our youngest and most vulnerable individuals,” he added.

The FDA said the decision on boosters for 12-15 year-olds was based off data from 6,300 people in Israel.

Source: The Hill

COVID-19 mass testing sites open in Annapolis, Bel Air amid increased demand

Their opening comes amid a recent surge of COVID-19 cases and a spike in demand for COVID-19 testing, while tests of any kind are nearly impossible to find.

The new testing clinic at Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center was scheduled to open at 9 a.m., but officials said there were so many people waiting in line that it opened a half hour early.

The other testing site at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air also opened to very long lines.

Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead said 40 Maryland National Guard soldiers are providing staffing, logistics and security across both locations, which are offering walk-up only COVID-19 PCR testing seven days a week.

“So, clearly, there was a demand, and this was up and running in 48 hours — this and the one in Bel Air. So, (I) absolutely understood the need and absolutely adjusted to that, and here we are,” Birckhead said.

Some said they didn’t mind waiting when the alternative is waiting a week or more for an appointment.

“I got an appointment for Jan. 10, not here, but I got an appointment, and then I got off the internet. I’m tired of doing this,” said Ruth Long, 64, of Upper Marlboro.

Others called on the state to do more, like open Six Flags for testing.

“There is no reason that elderly and sick people should be standing in line for hours and hours. We are two years into this pandemic,” said Chanda Anderson, of Upper Marlboro. “We need a bigger response immediately.”

“There is no reason that elderly and sick people should be standing in line for hours and hours. We are two years into this pandemic,” said Chanda Anderson, of Upper Marlboro. “We need a bigger response immediately.”

According to the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland National Guard, both of the new locations will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.

The sites will offer PCR lab tests only. Results for PCR tests generally take 24 to 48 hours, Testing at the sites is free of charge.

Source: WBAL