The anticipated rollback of the England’s lockdown restrictions in late June may have hit a snag due to the highly-transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The variant has come to dominate COVID cases in the UK and is causing concerns in the U.S., where it currently accounts for 6% of infections overall. In some states it accounts for over 18% of sampled coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible, and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalization are going up,” Johnson said on Sky News. “Now, we don’t know exactly to what extent that is going to feed through into extra mortality, but clearly it’s a matter of serious, serious concern.”
Johnson is set to make an announcement Monday about the June 21 timetable, the final stage in his government’s four-step unlocking plan for England.
A Saturday New York Times report says data from China suggests the variant can cause more severe illness.
Regions of the U.S. with lower vaccination rates may be especially vulnerable to the virus, but fully vaccinated people have little to worry about, according to a study from Public Health England. It showed two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant, and even more successful at preventing hospitalization and death.
Southern states with lagging vaccinations may be particularly vulnerable to the variant, some experts say.
“Here in the South, particularly in Louisiana, Mississippi, we’re seeing really low vaccination rates,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told CNBC. “And less than 10% of adolescents are vaccinated in many of these southern states, so we have a real vulnerability here.”
Also in the news:
► Saudi Arabia announced Saturday that this year’s hajj pilgrimage, a physically arduous trek performed by Muslims, will be limited to no more than 60,000 people, all of them from within the kingdom, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Saudi Press Agency said in a statement that the pilgrimage, which will begin in mid-July, will be limited to vaccinated residents between the ages of 18 and 65.
► Russia has developed and tested a nasal spray version of its COVID-19 vaccine, aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 12. The spray is expected to enter the consumer market in September, according to a report from Reuters.
► Starting June 15, Walt Disney World will no longer require guests who have been fully vaccinated to wear face masks in most areas. All guests, however, must continue to wear their masks while on Disney transportation, including Disney buses, monorails and the Disney Skyliner aerial gondolas.
► Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has been suspended from posting content to YouTube for one week, after the company said Johnson violated the platform’s COVID-19 “medical misinformation policies” with a series of video clips.
► Last year, about 19.5 million kids missed out on the fun of summer camp because of the pandemic. This year, even though most camps are set to reopen, COVID-19 restrictions and a pandemic-induced labor shortage will keep numbers well below a normal threshold of about 26 million summer campers, said Tom Rosenberg of the American Camp Association.
►Even though the pace of vaccinations has slowed within Major League Baseball, two additional teams have been able to relax coronavirus protocols after reaching the 85% vaccination threshold for players and other on-field personnel, raising the total to 22 of the 30 clubs.
►Honolulu is loosening some of its COVID-19 restrictions on social activity now that more than half its population has been vaccinated against the virus, including allowing outdoor social gatherings of up to 25 people and indoor gatherings of up to 10.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 33.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 599,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: over 175 million cases and over 3.7 million deaths. More than 142 million Americans have been fully vaccinated – 42.8% of the population, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: Scientists say biology tells us why it has been so much easier to vaccinate against COVID-19 when other medical problems remain intractable.
TSA screens more than 2 million on Friday for the first time since the pandemic hit
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2 million people for the first time since the onset of the pandemic on Friday, a major milestone for the travel industry.
The agency screened 2,028,961 people that day, about four times the number screened on the same day in 2020 and 74% of the travel volume in 2019. Before the pandemic, the TSA screened 2 to 2.5 million people per day on average.
The number is a strong signal for the return of travel this summer, which has been one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. Experts expect a healthy amount of leisure travel this summer as vaccination rates continue to climb in the U.S. and pent-up demand pushes Americans to book trips.
“The growing number of travelers demonstrates this country’s resilience and the high level of confidence in COVID-19 counter measures, to include ready access to vaccines,” TSA acting administrator Darby LaJoye said in a Saturday news release. “TSA stands ready to provide a safe and secure screening process as part of the overall travel experience.”
The lowest pandemic-era screening volume at the TSA was on April 13, 2020, when 87,534 people were screened. As travel picks up over the summer, the TSA advises passengers arrive at the airport “with sufficient time” to accommodate increased screening times, according to the release.
Facing criticism that they are hogging vaccines, the leaders of seven wealthy industrialized nations are competing to be the global champion of so many wounded by the virus.
With 3.7 million people lost in the pandemic, the world’s richest democracies are eager to show themselves the champions of the afflicted and have committed to sharing at least 1 billion vaccine shots with struggling countries.
The U.S. is set to donate 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses in the next year, while the U.K. plans to share 5 million doses – out of a 100 million total – in the coming weeks; France and Germany each plan to donate 30 million vaccines.
The COVAX vaccination campaign got off to a slow start as richer nations locked up billions of doses through contracts directly with drug manufacturers. The alliance has distributed just 81 million doses globally, and large parts of the world, particularly in Africa, remain vaccine deserts.
“It is vital that we don’t repeat the mistake of the last great crisis, the last great economic recession in 2008, when the recovery was not uniform across all parts of society,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said after leaders posed for a formal photo by the sea.
The U.S. is confronted with an ever-growing surplus of coronavirus vaccine, looming expiration dates and stubbornly lagging demand.
The stockpiles are becoming more daunting each week. Oklahoma has more than 700,000 doses on shelves but is administering only 4,500 a day and has 27,000 Pfizer and Moderna doses that are set to expire at the end of the month. Millions of Johnson & Johnson doses nationwide were set to expire this month before the government extended their dates by six weeks, but some leaders acknowledge it will be difficult to use them up even by then.
“We really cannot let doses expire. That would be a real outrage, given the need to get vaccines to some under-vaccinated communities in the U.S. and the glaring gap in vaccinations and the inequity of vaccinations that we have globally,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
Each week, states are allotted a number of doses from the government and are allowed to order shots from that. But more states, including Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah, Delaware and New Hampshire, have stopped placing orders for new doses in recent weeks because they have such a large inventory. That has added to the ballooning federal stockpile.
Despite their limited effectiveness in reducing vaccine hesitancy, incentive programs – million-dollar prizes, free beer and marijuana and raffled-off hunting rifles – may be a worthwhile tool for states struggling to improve their vaccination rates and convince reluctant citizens.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday declared his state’s deadly fight against COVID-19 a “success story” as he ended most pandemic restrictions and said his state lessened the crisis because Kentuckians ultimately put science ahead of politics.
Kentucky “beat back” three surges of infection without having its hospitals overrun with virus patients, the governor said. The rollout of vaccinations was “pretty successful”: More than 2.1 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose of vaccine, he said.
Beshear lifted Kentucky’s statewide mask mandate with a few exceptions, keeping the measure for such “high-risk settings” as public transit, health care settings and long-term care facilities. Prior to lifting the mask mandate, he vented his frustration with the divisions over donning a facial covering.
“Masks have been used to reduce infection in health care settings for decades,” Beshear said. “Yet somehow it became a question of liberty.”
Shortly before announcing he was lifting capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and other public venues, Beshear said the pandemic was “a test of our humanity” and posed “the single deadliest threat” of his lifetime. Kentucky’s virus-related death toll has surpassed 7,000. Beshear said bringing the coronavirus under control required collective efforts of Democrats and Republicans, offering a lesson to move beyond the partisan strife that “can just be toxic.”
“I’m the guy that has to try to lay my head down every night and sleep knowing that Kentuckians that we’ve lost, the grief that’s out there, the fact that so many couldn’t say goodbye and be at that bedside,” Beshear said. “That we had thousands of Kentuckians die alone or with a nurse holding their hands. And so that perspective, each and every day, I never looked at any of this in any of the red or the blue discussion, and the rest of the country shouldn’t either.”
Contributing: The Associated Press