Biden to buy more COVID vaccine doses as stimulus bill passes

President Joe Biden is expected to announce that he is procuring an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine for the second half of 2021 during a meeting today with J&J and Merck executives.

Last week, the two pharmaceutical giants formed a partnership to ramp up distribution of the single-dose J&J vaccine.

"This is war time, the extra doses gives us maximum flexibility for the upcoming months," said Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor for COVID response, during a White House press briefing. The increase in doses comes as the president closes in on his first 50 days in office.

During those 50 days, Slavitt said, Biden has ordered enough vaccine to ensure that every American adult is able to receive a shot by May 31 and has brought the nation this week to an average of 2 million vaccines administered each day. A total of 93,721,290 doses have been administered in the United States, with 32,904,161 Americans fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

$1.9 trillion 'rescue plan' gets green light

The bigger victory today for Biden was the House's passage of the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package that sees more direct stimulus payments to American families and ensures that vaccines will remain free for all Americans. The plan also extended $300-per-week unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The bill is expected to cross Biden's desk this week, with the first round of stimulus checks to individuals to be sent as early as next week.

Included in the bill is $14 billion for the distribution of vaccine and $130 billion to primary and secondary schools, meant to foster in-person learning as soon as possible.

CDC head sees signs of drop in cases

Today marked the first time a state—Alaska—has removed all eligibility restrictions for accessing COVID-19 vaccines. Now any resident of that state age 16 and up can get vaccinated if they so choose.

"This historic step is yet another nationwide first for Alaska, but it should come as no surprise. Since day one, your response to the pandemic has been hands-down the best in the nation," said Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a press statement.

The news came as Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, CDC director, said there were signs that after several days of a plateau, new COVID-19 cases across the country were beginning to drop again.

The most recent data showed a 7-day average of new cases per day at 56,000. And earlier this week, Walensky said, the United States reported fewer than 1,000 deaths per day for the first time since early November.

Texas lifts mask mandate

The United States reported 55,909 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 1,891 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. In total, 29,137,386 Americans have had a confirmed case of COVID-19, including 528,652 fatalities.

But progress on controlling the pandemic could be stop and go as more states lift restrictions. Texas' statewide mask mandate ends today, the Texas Tribune reports, and businesses are now allowed to operate at full capacity.

School boards, courts, and college campuses can still require masks, and local governments can require them in their facilities, however. Texas is the most populous state to end mask requirements, which had been in place since last summer.

Experts have warned that removing restrictions too soon could backfire on states, especially in light of more transmissible COVID-19 variants, including B117. The latest tally from the CDC shows 3,283 B117 cases in 49 states, 91 B1351 cases in 21 states, and 15 P1 cases in 9 states.

Vaccine still not reaching minorities

The nation's COVID-19 vaccine drive is failing to reach Black and Hispanic communities, despite persistent warnings about lack of healthcare access and vaccine hesitancy, according to Reuters. And there's no comprehensive national effort from the government or major philanthropies to address the problem.

To that end, the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general is examining how the CDC can improve the accuracy of its data on COVID-19's impact by race and ethnicity, Politico reports. The inspector general has been interviewing several officials who deal with COVID-19 data over the past week, with a focus on collecting accurate vaccine information.

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