US coronavirus: Variant on track to become dominant in Florida and California hot spots, testing company says

The company, Helix, has been tracking evidence suggesting cases of B.1.1.7 — a strain first found in the UK — are on the rise, and not just a product of increased genetic sequencing across the country, Helix President Dr. James Lu told CNN late Wednesday.

“The rate of growth here in Florida and Southern California looks a lot like the type of growth that we have seen previously in the UK and Denmark … where B.1.1.7 became the predominant variant strain pretty quickly,” Lu said.

Rates of new coronavirus cases overall in the United States have been dropping. The country has averaged about 136,900 new cases a day over the last week — the lowest average since November 12, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested the US isn’t vaccinating people fast enough to stay ahead of new variants, and that could blunt efforts to keep bringing case levels down.

“If the variants and the mutations come, and start becoming dominant, then that’s going to obviate some of the effects of the vaccine,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN this week.

As for how Helix has tracked the B.1.1.7 variant: Lu referenced a small but growing number of samples showing a testing glitch, which signals the presence of a mutation in B.1.1.7. Not all of these samples are B.1.1.7, since the mutation can exist on its own.

There’s been an increasing rate of this glitch — known as S gene dropout — in places like Florida and Southern California. And an increasing proportion of these samples are being confirmed as B.1.1.7 once they’re genetically sequenced, Lu said.

“We’re in a race between the vaccine and the new strains,” Lu said. It’s unclear whether the pace of vaccination will prevent the strain from taking a foothold in places where it’s not already circulating, Lu added.

Helix is one of a number of commercial, academic and public health labs that share information with the CDC.

More than 540 cases of this variant have been found in 33 states, according to CDC. Most are in Florida and California. The first US case was announced December 29, but the earliest known cases stretch back at least as far as mid-December.

Researchers have said that although the B.1.1.7 variant appears to be more transmissible than previous strains, it is not known to be more deadly or cause more severe disease.

The strain has also been found in at least 80 countries and territories around the globe, the World Health Organization said this week.

Coronavirus deaths in US still hovering near record level

Though daily case levels and number of coronavirus patients in hospitals are dropping in the United States, daily reports of Covid-19 deaths have been relatively high for weeks.

The country has averaged more than 3,080 Covid-19 deaths a day over the last week — not far from the peak average of 3,357 on January 13, according to Johns Hopkins data. Health experts have said death tallies can be high weeks after cases surge because patients can be sick for weeks.

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The United States, meanwhile, could add about 83,000 deaths to the current tally of more than 450,800 by February 27, according to an ensemble forecast by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As health experts urge a faster pace for vaccinations to get ahead of more-transmissible variants, the United States may be inching closer to obtaining a third authorized vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration this week for emergency use authorization for its one-dose vaccine candidate. If authorized, it would be the third vaccine to be allowed in the US market, joining two-dose products from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the FDA, but I would not be surprised … if this (emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson) happens within the next week or two,” Fauci told NBC on Wednesday.

Schools districts and teachers at odds over reopening

The push to get students back into the classroom amid the pandemic has brought lawsuits and threats of strikes.

However, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that data increasingly supports the safety of returning to schools under the right conditions.

With weekly screenings of students, teachers and staff using rapid antigen tests, schools can reduce their infections by 50% for high schools and 35% for primary schools, according to a new study by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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But many cities are feeling frustration as schools or teachers express hesitation to return.

Chicago schools were supposed to bring students back to campus Monday, but negotiations between the district and teachers continue to avoid a strike.

In Minneapolis, after a weekend ruling that teachers cannot be forced to go back to in-person learning if they had previously asked for accommodations to work remotely, the public school district is moving forward with plans to start resuming classes for pre-K through fifth-graders on Monday. More than half of the families opted to keep their students learning remotely.

The city of San Francisco sued its own school district on Wednesday for failing to open the schools.

“The undisputed scientific consensus is that schools can reopen safely for teachers, staff and students with proper precautions, and that in-person instruction is not causing spikes in Covid-19 infections. Let’s follow the science and get the school doors open,” city attorney Dennis Herrera said in a virtual news conference.

Black and Hispanic people in the US vaccinated disproportionally less

Though Black and Hispanic Americans are often impacted by coronavirus a disproportionally higher rate, they are receiving vaccinations less, according to analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

More than 20 states now report Covid-19 vaccination data by race or ethnicity, and inequities in Covid-19 vaccination are present in all of them, the analysis found.

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Black people have received a smaller share of vaccinations than their share of Covid-19 cases in all 23 reporting that data, and the same is true for Hispanic people in all 21 states reporting that data.

In most of those states, Black and Hispanic people also received a smaller share of Covid-19 vaccinations than their share of deaths, with Vermont and Missouri as the exceptions.

In Vermont, the share of vaccinations among Black people was equal to the share of Covid-19 deaths among Black people, and in Vermont and Missouri, the share of vaccinations among Hispanic people were higher than the share of Covid-19 deaths among Hispanic people.

A CNN analysis of state vaccination data last week found that vaccine coverage is twice as high among White people on average than it is among Black and Hispanic people.

CORRECTION: A version of this story on Thursday morning stated that Johnson & Johnson had sought emergency use authorization for its vaccine candidate from the Food and Drug Administration. As of that time, the company had not announced such an application.

CNN’s Andrea Diaz, Ben Tinker, Haley Brink, Naomi Thomas, Kristina Sgueglia, Christopher Rios, John Bonifield, Elizabeth Stuart, Jen Christensen and Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.

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