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Coronavirus updates: Rate of new infections falls sharply; Michael Strahan reportedly tests positive – USA TODAY

COVID-19 has killed nearly 430,000 Americans, and infections have continued to mount despite the introduction of a pair of vaccines late in 2020. USA TODAY is tracking the news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

New U.S cases of the coronavirus have fallen 35% from their Jan. 11 peak, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. The average number of daily cases has fallen to about 162,000, from 249,000. 

And there are positive signs for hospitalization: The COVID Tracking Project said Wednesday that “the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is decreasing in every major US region.” About 107,000 Americans were hospitalized because of the virus Tuesday, down from a peak of more than 130,000 three weeks ago.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the improvement in numbers appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.

Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University in Indianapolis, called the decline in new cases is encouraging but warned that it might not be permanent.

“This is the time to take advantage of the window and strive even harder to sustain the downward trend as we gradually tap into the supporting act of vaccines,” Omenka said. “It is still possible for the increase in new cases to return if we prematurely let go of the public health efforts that have been helping us all along.”

The daily death toll remains close to the record highs set earlier this mont: The United States is still averaging about 23,000 deaths per week. Recorded deaths lag the infection rate.

Mike Stucka

In the headlines:

►Pro Football Hall of Famer and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan has tested positive for COVID-19 and is self-quarantining, the Associated Press reported, citing people familiar with the situation. Strahan is not experiencing severe symptoms, AP says.

►The Sinclair Broadcast Group says it is ending its “America This Week” show with Eric Bolling, which has been criticized for pandemic misstatements. One episode of “America This Week” pulled last July included a conspiracy theorist who suggested Dr. Anthony Fauci manufactured the virus and shipped it to China. There is no evidence to back up that theory.

►Chicago Public Schools will continue all-virtual learning Thursday for about 3,200 pre-K and special education students who had been in classrooms for two weeks amid an impasse in negotiations between the city and the teachers’ union. Negotiations are continuing.

►California will turn over its coronavirus vaccine distribution to health insurance giant Blue Shield. Blue Shield will take over a vaccine delivery that has been one of the slowest in the nation, the state health agency told San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday.

►Vaccine coverage is twice as high among white people on average than Black and Latino people, a CNN analysis of data from 14 states found. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 equity task force, said in a CNN town hall Wednesday that she’s seen “a similar pattern already emerging across the country.”

►The University of Michigan and the Washtenaw County Health Department asked students Wednesday to avoid leaving their residences to slow the spread of COVID-19 and a more contagious variant.

?Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 25.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 429,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 100.9 million cases and 2.17 million deaths. About 47.3 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 24.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC. 

? What we’re reading: $15 minimum wage? Another round of checks? Resistance to key pieces could derail Biden’s COVID relief plan.

CDC chief says ‘normalcy’ won’t return soon

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday night that it’s “going to take awhile for us to feel like we’re back to a sense of normalcy.”

“Will we feel as if we have the herd immunity that everybody has been talking about by the end of the first 100 days?” she said during a CNN town hall. “I told you I’d tell you the truth. I don’t think we’ll feel it there.”

A CDC report released late Wednesday shows the U.K. strain of the virus continuing to spread across the United States. The report shows 315 cases, up from 293 Monday and 144 a week earlier. California and Florida are tied for the most cases with 92 each.

Staying at home leads to open roads – and more traffic deaths

The rate of traffic deaths jumped in the first half of 2020, and safety experts blame drivers who sped up on roads left open when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and limited commuting.

The new research also showed that even small increases in speed led to much deadlier outcomes in vehicle crashes. A crash that is easily survivable at 40 mph can be fatal at 50 mph or more, according to the study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“Small changes in speed when you’re involved in a crash can really increase your chances of getting a severe injury,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “It’s a huge problem.”

Nathan Bomey

Vaccines: So far, so good – and safe

More than 22 million Americans have been vaccinated and the few reported allergic responses have been treated successfully, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No other serious problems have turned up, the CDC says. 

Although it’s never possible to prove something is completely safe, data from multiple tracking systems suggest the vaccines are not causing large numbers of unusual or dangerous results. Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub

Arizona hospital system using arthritis drug for critically ill patients

Phoenix-based Banner Health officials hope the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, will help improve outcomes in their most critically-ill COVID-19 patients.

Tocilizumab has had mixed results on COVID-19 patients in numerous trials, and reports conflict about its usefulness in treating people infected with the new coronavirus. The drug has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating COVID-19 patients, nor does it have a government Emergency Use Authorization.

But recent data on the drug’s viability is giving Banner Health leaders some optimism for use with a select group of critically-ill COVID-19 patients at risk of dying.

But not all hospitals and hospital systems in Arizona are treating COVID-19 patients with the arthritis drug right now.

– Stephanie Innes, Arizona Republic

CDC report: How schools with little COVID-19 spread are making it work

In-person schooling can be safe, U.S. health researchers argue, but it requires schools and their surrounding communities to commit to a slew of public health precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

President Joe Biden and his administration have made a return to in-person instruction a priority, setting out to reopen most schools within his first 100 days. Last week, Biden directed the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidance and resources to reopen schools and child care centers.

On Tuesday, two epidemiologists and a researcher from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, writing that “accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”

As schools in the U.S. and abroad have reopened amid the pandemic, there “has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the scientists said. By taking various public health precautions, it’s possible to prevent transmission in schools, the researchers concluded. Here’s what they want to see happen.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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