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The Latest: Los Angeles County sees decline, but more cases of UK variant reported




LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County officials continue to report a decline in new coronavirus cases but say the emergence of a more transmissible, potentially more virulent variant underscores the importance of sticking with safety measures like masking and distancing.

Public health officials on Saturday recorded 2,393 new cases of the virus and 136 related deaths, as well as two more cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the U.K. that has since spread to at least 42 U.S. states. Experts predict it will become the dominant coronavirus nationwide by the end of March. That’s a cause for concern because it is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the conventional variety and may also be more deadly.

Los Angeles County has now recorded a total of 14 cases of the B.1.1.7 strain, but experts have said there are likely more, as only a small portion of samples undergo the genetic sequencing necessary to determine the variant. The variant has also been reported in Alameda, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Mateo and Yolo counties.

There were 2,369 COVID-19 patients in L.A. County hospitals as of Friday, a decline of nearly 44% from two weeks before, when there were 4,186 patients.

Texas reports 227 more confirmed COVID-19 deaths

AUSTIN, Texas — The number of deaths in Texas due to the illness caused by the coronavirus increased by more than 200 on Saturday while the number of people hospitalized with the virus declined, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

There were an additional 227 COVID-19 deaths, more than 4,900 new cases and 7,535 hospitalizations, a decline of 222 people hospitalized, the department reported.

Texas has had more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, and more than 42,000 deaths due to COVID-19, the third highest death count in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Skateboarding world champion charged for organizing superspreader parties

LOS ANGELES — A skateboarding world champion is among five people prosecutors in Southern California have charged with organizing parties that were possible superspreader events amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Los Angeles Times reports Nyjah Huston, a four-time world skateboarding champion, and Edward Essa, the owner of a home in the Fairfax District, held a party last month with at least 40 people that was shut down by police after receiving a complaint.

Huston and Essa were both charged with creating a nuisance, a misdemeanor.

Neither could be reached for comment.

At least first dose of vaccine administered to 14.3% of Oklahoma population

OKLAHOMA CITY — More than 681,000 Oklahomans have now received the coronavirus vaccine, including more than 204,000 who have received both required doses, according to an Oklahoma State Department of Health report.

The state ranked 12th in the nation on Saturday with 14.3% of the population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and the state health department has scheduled vaccination clinics during the weekend to replace those canceled because of a winter storm.

There have been a reported 418,318 total virus cases and 4,155 deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, since the pandemic began, increases of 973 cases and 23 deaths since Friday, according to the health department.

Israel proposes allowing vaccinated people to ease up on restrictions

JERUSALEM — Israel unveiled a plan on Saturday to allow people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend cultural events, fly abroad and go to health clubs and restaurants.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the plan at a news conference on Saturday night, saying those who have been vaccinated will be able to download the “green badge” in the coming days.

“The green badge is gradually opening up the country,” Netanyahu said.

Israel has conducted the world’s speediest vaccine campaign over the past month and a half, inoculating nearly half of its 9.3 million people. But with the coronavirus still spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated, the country only recently began emerging from a two-month lockdown.

On Sunday, retail stores, shopping malls, gyms, some middle school grades and other public services for limited crowd sizes are set to start back up.

Netanyahu said the government could not keep unvaccinated residents from places like medical clinics, pharmacies and supermarkets. But he said other services would be allowed only for those who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Israel’s main international airport, for instance, remains closed to nearly all air traffic because of concerns of foreign variants of the virus entering the country.

Montenegro launches vaccinations with Russia’s Sputnik V

PODGORICA, Montenegro — Tiny Montenegro has launched vaccinations against the coronavirus with doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines that were donated by neighboring Serbia.

Health authorities said the first person to receive a shot on Saturday was a 66-year-old resident of a care home in the coastal town of Risan. Two doctors working at the same nursing home came next.

A nation of some 620,000 people, Montenegro has reported more than 70,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 939 known deaths.

Montenegrin authorities say they plan to acquire supplies of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Mexico’s top official responding to pandemic tests positive

MEXICO CITY — The official leading Mexico’s response to the pandemic says he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell tweeted Saturday that he had light COVID-19 symptoms on Friday night and an antigen test came out positive. He was awaiting the results of a PCR test, which takes longer to process and is generally more accurate..

“I’ll be working from home,’’ López-Gatell said, adding that he was involved in Mexico’s vaccination program.

Some 200,000 doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine arrived in Mexico from Hong Kong on Saturday, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter. A total of 10 million Sinovac vaccines are expected.

Mexico has approved several other coronavirus vaccines and has administered 1.5 million shots so far.

Hawaii extends window for travelers to get coronavirus test

HONOLULU — The Hawaii Department of Health says it has temporarily extended the window incoming travelers have to get a pre-arrival coronavirus test that comes back negative.

The state says travelers can now take the tests up to 96 hours before their scheduled flights instead of 72 hours because of winter storms that have ravaged the continental U.S.

The tests still have to be conducted by a state-approved provider.

Hawaii News Now reports the extension will be in effect through Sunday.

Alternatively, visitors can quarantine for 10 days after arriving in Hawaii.

Alaska says vaccines will arrive later than expected due to weather

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska public health officials say 3,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine will arrive later than expected because of a winter storm that has ravaged the continental U.S.

The state’s immunization program manager, Matt Bobo, said some vaccine appointments may be postponed until next week.

The doses were supposed to reach 21 different providers.

Another state vaccine official says the delay occurred at a somewhat fortuitous time — a part of the month for which the state had already anticipated a smaller vaccine shipment.

State officials say they have been communicating with officials at the White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about the delay.

Nevada brothel owners seek state’s OK to reopen

LAS VEGAS — Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourist-dependent Nevada had a notorious attraction: It was the only place in America where someone could legally pay for sex. These days, even in the state known for sin, the business is taboo.

Legal brothels have been shuttered for nearly a year, leaving sex workers to offer less-lucrative alternatives like online dates or nonsexual escort services.

While the business of legal bordellos may seem incompatible with social distancing, sex workers and brothel owners say they should be allowed to reopen with protective measures like other close-contact industries, including massage therapy and dental services.

A state task force that makes recommendations on coronavirus restrictions hasn’t responded to pleas from brothel owners seeking a way to reopen.

Gov. Steve Sisolak recently said brothels, along with other adult entertainment like nightclubs and strip clubs, would stay closed at least through May 1. After that, the state may let counties decide whether to allow those businesses to open, as long as COVID-19 infections aren’t surging.

Read the full story here.

Arizona to close larger regional vaccination sites

PHOENIX — Arizona’s Maricopa County plans to close two of its six regional COVID-19 vaccination sites in coming weeks as public health officials put increased emphasis on smaller sites and events to give more shots.

The county’s site in north Phoenix, operated by Honor Health, will last operate on Feb. 28. and the site run by Dignity Health in Chandler will close in early March.

Officials say current appointments will be honored at both locations. Arizona on Saturday reported 2,047 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 59 deaths, increasing the state’s pandemic totals to 806,163 cases and 15,480 deaths.

British nursing home residents to be allowed solo visitors

LONDON — The British government has announced a small step out of lockdown — allowing nursing home residents to have a single friend or family member visit them indoors.

Residents and their visitors will be able to hold hands, but not hug. The change takes effect March 8. For months, nursing home residents have only been able to see loved ones outdoors or through screens.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he will announce a “road map” out of lockdown on Monday. The government has stressed that reopening will be slow and cautious, with store reopenings or outdoor socializing unlikely before April, though children will go back to school from March 8.

Johnson’s Conservative government has been accused of reopening the country too quickly after the first lockdown in the spring. Britain has had about 120,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe.

The new measures apply in England. In other parts of the U.K., nursing home visiting rules vary, with Scottish residents able to have two visitors from March 8.

Denmark closes border crossings with Germany

HELSINKI — Denmark has temporarily closed some border crossing points with Germany and stepped up checks at others due to a spike in COVID-19 cases and a rise in virus variants in the the northern German town of Flensburg, just off the Danish border.

The Danish justice ministry said late Friday that an increasing number of infections and virus mutations have been detected in Flensburg, just some seven kilometers (4 miles) from the border with Denmark.

The Danish justice ministry said officials police will significantly intensify border controls at the Danish-German border. Local authorities in Germany said Saturday on Flensburg’s webpage that the town’s coronavirus incidence rate was running at 193 per 100,000 people.

Dozens of cases of mutated coronavirus, mostly the variant first detected in Britain, have been detected in Flensburg, a town with some 90,000 inhabitants, in the past days.

Draft UN resolution would demand sustained pause in all global conflicts

UNITED NATIONS — Britain has circulated a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council demanding that all warring parties immediately institute a “sustained humanitarian pause” to enable people in conflict areas to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The proposed resolution reiterates the council’s demand last July 1 for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities” in major conflicts from Syria and Yemen to Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan and Somalia, an appeal first made by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 23, 2020, to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The draft, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, “emphasizes the need for solidarity, equity, and efficacy and invites donation of vaccine doses from developed economies to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, including through the COVAX Facility,” an ambitious World Health Organization project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

The British draft stresses that “equitable access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines, certified as safe and efficacious, is essential to end the pandemic.”

It would recognize “the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good for health in preventing, containing, and stopping transmission, in order to bring the pandemic to an end.”

The draft follows up on British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s appeal to the 15-member Security Council on Wednesday to adopt a resolution calling for local cease-fires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

USC plans to open campuses this fall

LOS ANGELES — The University of Southern California expects to reopen campuses this fall, joining the state’s major public universities in planning to resume on-campus life curtailed by COVID-19.

USC President Carol Folt issued an online letter Friday that said she is “cautiously optimistic” because virus cases are down and vaccinations are ramping up. USC and other universities nationwide were forced to switch to online learning last March.

Both the University of California and California State University systems also have said they plan to reopen their campuses this fall if conditions permit.

Storm disrupts vaccination effort in New Jersey

TRENTON, N.J. —The winter storm that brought snow, ice and frigid temperatures across the country this week has disrupted COVID-19 vaccine distribution in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.

Murphy, a Democrat, said he has asked the facilities run by the state to extend hours because of the delay.

The delayed shipments mean some vaccination appointments will likely have to be canceled and rescheduled, according to the governor, though some facilities may have enough shots on hand to keep up. New Jersey’s vaccination rate has roughly been keeping pace with the country overall, which stands at nearly 5% of the population having gotten both shots.

Johnson & Johnson asks WHO for emergency vaccine approval

NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey — Johnson & Johnson has applied to the World Health Organization for an emergency approval of its COVID-19 vaccines, which should help speed up its use in countries around the world.

J&J said Friday that its Janssen-Cilag International subsidiary has submitted to the WHO the last testing data needed on its vaccine’s efficacy and safety, completing the New Brunswick, New Jersey company’s application for an emergency use listing.

Obtaining that listing will expedite access to J&J’s single-dose vaccine for United Nations procurement agencies and scores of countries. The listing also is required for Johnson & Johnson to supply doses of its vaccine to what’s called the COVAX Facility, a WHO-backed project to ensure equitable access to vaccines for about 190 low- and middle-income countries. Johnson & Johnson in December agreed to provide up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to COVAX through 2022.

“If we are to end the global pandemic, life-saving innovations like vaccines must be within reach for all countries,” Johnson & Johnson Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Paul Stoffels said in a statement.

The company is supplying the vaccine at not-for-profit prices during the pandemic’s acute phase.

Besides requiring only one dose, J&J’s vaccine can be stored for at least three months at standard refrigerator temperatures, making it a good fit for poor and rural areas and developing countries that lack infrastructure for the ultracold storage some other COVID-19 vaccines require.

Interim results from a 44,000-volunteer late-stage testing found the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 in Latin America and 57% effective in South Africa, where a more-contagious variant is spreading. It was 72% effective in the U.S.

Testing also indicated the vaccine was 85% protective against the most serious symptoms — and starting 28 days after their shot, researchers found no one who got the vaccine needed hospitalization or died.

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