Memorial Day weekend a test for Americans as infections drop, inoculations rise; CVS, Kroger offer vaccine incentives: Live COVID-19 updates

With coronavirus infections dropping and 50% of American adults fully vaccinated, many people in the nation are looking forward to Memorial Day weekend. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicted last week that virus deaths and cases will continue to plummet through the middle of summer.

Memorial Day weekend will be a test of whether the U.S. can avoid the spikes in infections and hospitalizations that occurred amid, and after, the winter holidays before vaccines were widely available.

More than 37 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home between Thursday and Monday – a 60% jump compared to last year, but still 6 million people fewer than the pre-pandemic Memorial Day weekend in 2019, according to AAA.

“If you are vaccinated, you’re protected, and you can enjoy your Memorial Day,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday. “If you’re not vaccinated, our guidance has not changed for you. You remain at risk of infection. You still need to mask and take other precautions.”

Walensky’s comments come after the CDC mask guidance was revised to say that fully vaccinated Americans can discard masks and the need for social distancing outdoors and in most indoor settings.

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found 49% of Americans feel unsure about the adjustment to in-person interactions once the pandemic ends. Similarly, 46% said they don’t feel comfortable going back to their pre-pandemic life.

“The return to normalcy is not a quick jump; it’s incremental,” Jenny Englerth of Family First Health explained to the York Daily Record, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Also in the news:

►Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told ABC on Friday the U.S. is taking “a very close look” at the possibility of the use of vaccine passports for international travel. However, officials would have to ensure any passport system “is accessible to all and that no one is disenfranchised,” Mayorkas added.

►CVS is offering a chance to win a trip to the Super Bowl, a Bermuda vacation, or cash prizes to bring in more customers for COVID-19 vaccinations. Kroger is also offering customers, workers, or individuals who get the shot the chance to win $1 million or free groceries for a year.

►Mexico gave emergency use authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the country’s drug regulators.

►Just over 50 days away from the start of the Olympics, Japan on Friday extended its COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas for 20 more days. The games have already been delayed a year, but worries about variants and Japan’s slow vaccine rollout have raised fears of a possible cancellation.

►Oxford University is launching an effort to bring together academic, industry, and government experts from around the world to use the lessons learned from COVID-19 in the fight against future pandemics.

►A Tennessee woman is facing felony reckless endangerment charges after she sped through a vaccine clinic, shouting “No vaccine,” the Blount County Sheriff’s Office said.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 33.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 593,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: Over 168 million cases and 3.5 million deaths. More than 132.7 million Americans have been fully vaccinated — 40% of the population.

📘 What we’re reading: Numerous studies conducted since last March have shown depression spike among college-age young adults and an increase in anti-depressant drug refills.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Another drug may join list of FDA-authorized COVID treatments

Biopharmaceutical company Humanigen submitted their drug Lenzilumab to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization to treat hospitalized patients with COVID-19, the company announced Friday.

If authorized, the drug will join a growing list of treatments authorized by the FDA for COVID-19. Lenzilumab focuses on preventing and treating an overactive immune response commonly known as a “cytokine storm,” which causes the immune system to kill both healthy and diseased tissue.

In a Phase 3 study, the drug improved the likelihood of survival without ventilation by 54% in newly hospitalized patients. Survival improved by 92% in patients who also took certain steroids and remdesivir.

“There is a need for hospitalized patients who require supplementary oxygen,” said Dr. Cameron Durrant, Humanigen’s chief executive officer. “Treatments can be lifesaving; despite vaccinations, infections and significant breakthrough disease will continue.”

– Adrianna Rodriguez

COVID cases spiking at some ICE detention centers

Several immigration detention centers in the U.S. are experiencing new spikes in COVID-19 cases.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials attribute the spikes to newly arrived immigrants transferred to ICE detention facilities from Border Patrol facilities near the border with Mexico, where there has been an influx of migrants and asylum seekers.

Many critics, however, say a failure by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Biden administration to systematically administer vaccines to detainees has led to the rise in new cases.

Medical experts fear that recent outbreaks in some ICE detention facilities not only endanger the health of detainees and staff, but could spread to surrounding communities at a time when more states are relaxing COVID-19 safety precautions.

“It’s absolutely outrageous that there are still COVID-19 outbreaks taking place in immigration detention six months after vaccines have been approved and given that there was a surplus of unused vaccine in the United States,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

– Daniel Gonzalez, Arizona Republic and Maria Clark, The American South

Biden tells intelligence agencies to step up probe of COVID-19’s origins

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he has asked the intelligence community to report within 90 days on the likely origins of COVID-19.

As questions grow about whether the virus was the result of an accident in a Chinese laboratory or spread through other means, Biden said in a statement he wants the community, which has been divided over the issue, to “redouble” their investigative efforts.

As of Thursday, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios,” according to Biden’s statement.

While two elements of the community lean toward the likelihood that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal, one leans toward the possibility of a laboratory accident. Their assessments are made “with low or moderate confidence.” and the majority of members of the intelligence community “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

Biden’s order came as intelligence officials informed the White House that they had some still-unexamined evidence from Chinese communications databases, senior administration officials told the New York Times. Read more here.

– Maureen Groppe

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California to offer $116.5M in vaccine prize money

California is hopping on the trend of cash prizes for vaccinated individuals in hopes that the incentive will stimulate its plateauing vaccination rate.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that the state is offering the nation’s largest vaccine prize money — $116.5 million — to get millions more inoculated before the state’s reopening next month.

“This is all in an effort to incentivize and build momentum,” Newsom said.

Ten vaccinated residents 12 years and older will have the chance to win $1.5 million dollars apiece, and another 30 will win $50,000 each on June 4 and June 11. Anyone 12 and older who has received at least one shot will be eligible, even if they have already received their shot.

The state is also giving $50 grocery or prepaid gift cards to the next 2 million Californians who begin and complete their vaccination, starting Thursday.

1.9 million people got the vaccine in the last week, and the number of people seeking a first dose has fallen, according to the Sacramento Bee. More than 22 million of the state’s 40 million residents have received at least one dose, according to data from the California COVID website.

“Some Californians weren’t ready to get their COVID-19 vaccine on Day One, and that’s OK. This program is designed to encourage those who need extra support to get vaccinated and help keep California safe,” Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the state’s department of public health, added in a statement.

California isn’t the first state to offer vaccine lotteries or cash incentives for vaccinations. Read more about the states that also have.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

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