CDC reports 618 variant cases across 33 states; Johnson & Johnson applies for FDA authorization; 455K US deaths. Latest COVID-19 updates.

The number of COVID-19 vaccines distributed in the U.S. is nearing 58 million, and the number of shots is slowly catching up.

Still, the threat of new variants looms, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting at least 618 cases of the coronavirus variants from the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa across 33 states.

Concerned about the new variants, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced late Thursday that it is developing guidance to help vaccine, drug and testing manufacturers adapt.

Existing vaccines, treatments and tests still work well, emphasized the FDA’s acting commissioner Janet Woodcock. But now is the time to get ready for a future when they may not.

“We must prepare for all eventualities,” she said in a call with reporters.

Meanwhile, 24 states now allow at least some teachers and school staff to get inoculated, even as the CDC says schools can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated. And districts have scrambled to distribute laptops and provide internet access so students can engage in schooling from home, but millions of students still lack the basic tools to participate in live lessons from home.

COVID-19 has killed more than 455,000 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 newsletterfor updates to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions.

In the headlines:

►An estimated 631,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19 by June 1, according to the latest forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

►Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide mask order an hour after the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal his previous mandate Thursday.

►The White House is studying a proposal to send masks to all Americans, a notion the Trump administration considered but discarded. “There are a range of options on the table to help protect more Americans from the coronavirus and encourage people to mask up,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding that no decision has been made on the idea.

►Public school students did not return to classrooms this week in the nation’s third-largest school district. Chicago Public Schools initially planned for 70,000 K-8 students to return this past Monday, but classes have remained online amid ongoing negotiations between the teachers union and City Hall.

►California lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at hastening the reopening of Disneyland, which has been shuttered since March, and other California theme parks.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has 26.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 455,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 104.8 million cases and 2.28 million deaths. More than 57.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 35.2 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: The digital divide, even a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, remains a hurdle for online schooling. There are still thousands of students who can’t get reliable WiFi. Read the full story.

Cheri Rose, a medical assistant at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Vermont, draws the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe on Wednesday during a vaccination clinic for people 75 years and older.

California prison with worst virus outbreak slapped with record fine

California workplace safety regulators announced Thursday that a state prison rocked by one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks has been hit with by far its largest pandemic-related fine yet against an employer.

The $421,880 fine against San Quentin State Prison is several times higher than any others levied by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as Cal/OSHA. Only a few others exceed $100,000, and most are several thousand dollars.

The announcement comes days after the state’s inspector general said corrections officials’ poorly planned attempts to protect inmates from the coronavirus at a Southern California prison “caused a public health disaster” at San Quentin, north of San Francisco. The outbreak sickened 75% of the inmate population, and led to the deaths of 28 inmates and a correctional officer there.

How a secret military experiment left Black Georgians wary of COVID vaccine

Black Americans are more hesitant than white Americans to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The reasons for that hit close to home in Savannah, Georgia, where a classified military operation in the 1950s dropped hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes – mosquitoes that many believe were infected with disease – on Carver Village.

“They didn’t tell anybody, and it happened,” said Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis. “And so that leaves some apprehension, especially when you have residents of that area who’ve been there since the ’50s. And so my job as neighborhood president, and also as chairman of the County Commission, is to kind of calm the storm down to let them know that this vaccination is not like that.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking attitudes about the vaccine for months, indicates 43% of Black adults in the U.S. are taking a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, according to results of a poll completed Jan. 18. That compares to 26% of white adults in the same poll who say that when an FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 is available to them for free, they would wait and see how it is working for other people. Read more here.

– Mary Landers, Savannah Morning News

Johnson & Johnson applies for FDA authorization for single-shot vaccine

Johnson & Johnson, whose single-dose COVID-19 vaccine provided 66% protection against the disease in international trials, requested emergency-use authorization from the FDA on Thursday.

If it gains clearance, the J&J offering could serve as another valuable tool in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic at a time when vaccine demand outstrips supply. The company said it expects to deliver 100 million doses before the end of June.

The J&J vaccine demonstrated higher effectiveness in U.S. trials (72%) than in overall testing, though it didn’t perform as well as the vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna (both above 94%). But the J&J product has two distinct advantages: It requires only one shot – the company is exploring whether a second one would improve protection – and it can be stored at refrigerator temperatures. The other two vaccines need to be frozen.

FDA says convalescent plasma is not helpful for COVID-19 therapy

The Food and Drug Administration revised its recommendation for use of convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 therapy Thursday solely “for the treatment of hospitalized patients early in the disease course,” based on studies reported since the treatment was issued Emergency Use Authorization in August 2020.

Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood collected from patients who have recovered from COVID-19, according to the FDA. The patients develop antibodies, proteins that might help fight the infection. Congressmen and celebrities have donated plasma after recovering from COVID-19 and urge others to do the same.

But now, the FDA has said that “plasma with low levels of antibodies has not been shown to be helpful in COVID-19.” Still, the organization wrote that the benefits of the treatment are believed to outweigh the risks for patients recently hospitalized or who were just diagnosed, pending additional trials.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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