Disneyland, sports stadiums to reopen next month in Calif.; Supreme Court vaccinated: Latest COVID-19 updates

A new report about the link between face masks and COVID-19 cases and deaths "serves as a warning" about the dangers of lifting mask mandates prematurely, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Friday. 

The news comes as California announced more relaxed rules: State officials are allowing people in limited groups to attend Major League Baseball games and go to Disneyland, beginning the first week of April.

A recent CDC report found that mask mandates were associated with decreases in COVID-19 cases and deaths whereas reopening dining was associated with increases.

Daily COVID-19 cases and deaths have plateaued around 60,000 to 70,000 cases per day and 2,000 deaths per day, numbers that are still "too high" and around where they were in the summer surge, Walensky said at a White House COVID-19 news conference.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pointed to the plateaus seen in between prior peaks in the country as a sign that another spike in cases could come if Americans do not remain diligent in mask wearing and social distancing as well as getting a vaccine when it available to them.

Meanwhile, senators on Friday were still debating President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. The Senate's 20 hours of debate on the bill could last through Sunday, and a final vote may not happen until early next week.

Also in the news:

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced schools must reopen for in-person or hybrid learning by mid-April. The executive order will require every district to offer in-person instruction to K-5 students by March 29 and, in areas where counties meet the COVID-19 advisory metrics, students in grades 6-12 by April 19.

►The Houston Astros are minus eight pitchers because of COVID-19 protocols, but the team has no plans of pausing their spring training camp. It's unclear whether the players tested positive for the virus or had come in close contact with someone who had tested positive.

►Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration successfully pressured New York's health department to strip the full COVID-19 death count attributed to nursing homes from a state report released last July, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported.

Hiring rebounded sharply in February after a two-month slump with employers adding 379,000 jobs, the Labor department said Friday. Falling COVID-19 cases and easing business restrictions offset harsh winter weather across much of the country.

►The coronavirus variant that first appeared in the United Kingdom has now been spotted in almost the entire country, CDC data reported Thursday show. Only the states of Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Vermont have not reported a case.

►More than 49.7 million Americans had received at least one dose of vaccine, a USA TODAY analysis of Centers for Disease Control data showed on the last day of February.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 520,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 115.5 million cases and 2.56 million deaths. More than 109.9 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 82.57 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: President Joe Biden said this week that there will be enough COVID-19 vaccine for every U.S. adult by May, nearly two months earlier than his administration predicted last month. Some health experts wouldn't be surprised if it's even sooner. Read the full story.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. 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.

Calif. will allow Disneyland, sports stadiums to reopen next month

California officials are allowing people to attend Major League Baseball games and other sports, go to Disneyland and watch live performances in limited capacities starting April 1.

The rules announced Friday coincide with baseball’s opening day. The San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics all have home games scheduled for April 1.

California divides its counties into four color-coded tiers based on the spread of the coronavirus. Attendance limits are based on what tier a county is in.

Theme parks will be allowed to open at 15% capacity in the red tier, the second-highest risk level, and only people who live in California can buy tickets. Pro sports are limited to 100 people in areas where the spread of the virus is higher.

The California Attractions and Parks Association's executive director Erin Guerrero said that the adjustment was "encouraging news." 

“Parks now have a framework to safely and responsibly reopen," Guerrero said. "We appreciate the Administration’s willingness to work with the State’s theme on the finer details of the plan so parks can responsibly reopen soon, putting people safely back to work and reinvigorating local economies.”

– Morgan Hines

Canadian leader bashes Biden over not sharing vaccines 

The leader of Canada’s most populous province says he thought he’d see a change with a new American president but he says it remains “every person for themselves” when it comes to getting vaccines from the United States.

The U.S. isn’t allowing vaccines made in the U.S. to be exported so Canada has been forced to get vaccines from Europe and India. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the U.S. is Canada’s closest ally in the world but said “You really see who your friends and foes are.”

Like other countries, Canada has had a shortage of vaccines. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the U.S. is focused on vaccinating Americans and says once that is done the next step is economic recovery and ensuring America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, have similarly managed the pandemic so that the borders can reopen.

– Associated Press

Americans less hesitant about COVID vaccine, survey shows

Only six months ago, nearly half of Americans in a a Pew Research Center survey said they were either adamant or unlikely to get a vaccine against COVID-19. That number has shrunk by double digits over the months with 30% of Americans saying they do not currently plan on getting a vaccine, a new Pew survey found

About 69% of Americans say they have already or are planning to get the vaccine, the survey found. 

The number of people hesitant about the vaccine has slowly dropped over the months. In September, a Pew survey found 49% of Americans were unwilling to get a shot at the time. In November, that number dropped to 39%. This latest survey, taken in February, found it dropped to 30%. 

Those opposed to getting a vaccine lay out a variety of reasons, from concerns about side effects and the quick pace of their development, along with wanting to see first how effective they are in combatting the disease. 

–Christal Hayes

All Supreme Court justices have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus

The nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a court spokeswoman said Friday.

The effort took several weeks: The court said in January that the justices were "in the process" of receiving their vaccines and CNN had reported in January that Chief Justice John Roberts had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The news comes almost exactly a year after the court stopped holding in-person oral arguments because of the pandemic. Those arguments are now held over telephone. 

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg confirmed Friday that the vaccinations are now complete for all nine justices. 

– John Fritze 

Detroit declined J&J vaccines this week, but will take them in future

The city of Detroit declined to accept 6,200 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine this week, state health officials said a day after Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday that the city was “gonna protect Detroiters with a 95% vaccine."

On Wednesday night, Duggan's spokesman John Roach said the city had enough Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to more than cover all of the upcoming week's scheduled appointments and that the city would take Johnson & Johnson vaccines "in the next round … giving Detroiters that option." He added that the Duggan's concerns were around whether allocations of Moderna and Pfizer would have been substituted with J&J doses.

"We now have clear assurance from the state that Detroit’s full allocation of Moderna/Pfizer will continue and that J&J vaccines will be additional," Roach added.

Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, addressed the issue Friday during a press briefing and described it as a "misunderstanding."

During the same briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained that all three vaccines available are highly effective at preventing severe COVID-19 and deaths and that the vaccines have not been studied in head-to-head comparisons, making claims about which is "better" inaccurate. 

– Christina Hall and Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press; Ryan Miller, USA TODAY

Cuomo administration recrafted report on nursing homes to conceal COVID-19 death count: reports

The Cuomo administration's reporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes drew another round of criticism late Thursday after it was revealed the total death count was stripped from a state report last July.

The report released by the Department of Health last summer had long been criticized for not including the number of nursing home deaths that occurred in hospitals, leading to a drastic undercounting.

Now the reason is more clear: The Cuomo administration pressured the health department to not include the full death count attributed to nursing homes in the report, according to The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Instead, the report indicated more than 6,200 nursing home residents had died, instead of nearly 10,000 at the time who were residents of the homes and either died there or at a hospital.

The lower count allowed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to more affirmatively tout the state's response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 48,000 New Yorkers. He wrote a book in October to burnish his image over lowering the state's death count and cases through government action.

– Joseph Spector, USA TODAY Network in New York

CDC study: Mask mandates associated with decreases in case and deaths; reopening dining associated with increases 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday found more evidence supporting the effectiveness of mask mandates while cases and death rates grew after dining was reopened.

According to the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: 

  • Mandating masks was associated with a drop in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates within 20 days of the order taking effect.
  • Allowing restaurants to reopen for inside or outside dining was associated with an increase in daily case growth rates within 41 to 100 days after lifting a ban and an increase in daily death growth rates 61-100 days after implementation.

"Mask mandates are quite effective — and when we terminate them prematurely for political reasons — people suffer and lose their lives," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital.

The study looked at county-level data on mask and restaurant orders and found mask mandates applied to 73.6% of the 3,142 U.S. counties from March through December 2020, while 97.9% of U.S. counties allowed restaurants to reopen for on-premise dining during the same period.

Albertsons reverses decision, will mandate masks 

Albertsons will continue to require Texas shoppers to wear masks in its stores after the state lifts its face covering requirement March 10.

The retailer, which also operates under the Tom Thumb, Randalls, United Supermarkets and Market Street banners, reversed a decision it shared earlier in the week to "encourage" masks for customers when the state mandate ends. Masks will still be required.

"While we know that mask requirements have been controversial and polarizing across some of our operating areas, we also know that masks in combination with social distancing and proper cleaning and sanitization can work to prevent the spread of the virus," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY Friday.

The chain is the latest in a string to announce they would continue enforcing mask rules despite governors in multiple states announcing they will rescind such mandates, orders that run contrary to guidance from public health experts. 

As Americans get vaccinated, fewer are getting tested for COVID-19

Public heath experts have been critical of states such as Texas and Mississippi that tossed aside mask mandates this week at a critical juncture in the nation's pandemic. But they also warn of another threat to hard-fought gains in recent weeks – the number of Americans getting tested for coronavirus has dropped significantly since January.

While the testing slowdown may be the result of fewer infections, it also might signal too many Americans are growing complacent as the second year of COVID-19 marches on and millions get vaccinated every week.  

In January, labs and other testing sites completed an average of nearly 1.9 million tests each day as cases reached record levels. Average daily testing dropped to 1.5 million in February and 1.3 million so far in March, according to figures from the COVID Tracking Project. 

Mary K. Hayden, professor of internal medicine and pathology at Rush Medical College in Chicago, said the nation's testing never reached levels that public health officials thought was "adequate or optimal" to control the virus. "We never quite got there," said Hayden, an Infectious Diseases Society of America fellow. "And now we’re dropping."

– Ken Alltucker

9 great apes receive COVID-19 vaccinations at San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo has vaccinated nine great apes for the coronavirus after a troop of gorillas in its Safari Park became infected, officials said Thursday.

Four orangutans and five bonobos received COVID-19 injections in January and February. Three bonobos and a gorilla also were expected to receive the vaccine, which is experimental.

The vaccinations followed a January outbreak of COVID-19 at the zoo's Safari Park. Eight western lowland gorillas got the virus, probably by exposure to a zookeeper who tested positive for COVID-19, officials said in January, even though employees work masks at all times around the gorillas.

Biden campaigned as the mask candidate. Now he's facing the limits of the bully pulpit.

Joe Biden ran for the White House as the mask candidate, criticizing then-President Donald Trump’s dismissal of masks, promising to get tough on mask wearing and modeling good behavior by wearing at least one – and sometimes two – masks himself.

As president, however, Biden is running up against the limits of the bully pulpit as mask-wearing remains politically polarized. After the governors of Texas and Mississippi moved to lift mask mandates on Tuesday, an exasperated and frustrated Biden said Wednesday that such decisions come from “Neanderthal thinking.”

“It shouldn't be political at all, but it seems like it is,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, a former GOP governor of Florida who is now a Democrat and critical of his state’s lack of a mask requirement. “What President Biden is doing is exactly what he needs to be doing: calling them out for it.”

– Maureen Groppe

Texans who lost loved ones to COVID hurt by state's decision to lift mask mandate

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday declaration that it was time to “open Texas” has been decried by local officials and health experts who say it’s too soon to become lax with coronavirus restrictions with just 7% of the state’s residents have been fully inoculated against the virus.

But the announcement hit harder with Delia Ramos, and others who have lost spouses, parents or friends to the virus — in some cases, making them wonder if the deaths of their loved ones meant nothing.

It feels like people that think it’s “inconvenient to wear a mask” override all the “people that have been lost” to the virus, as well as doctors and nurses working long hours and teachers scared to go to work for fear of being exposed, Ramos, 39, said.

She’ll continue to wear her mask “with honor.”

“I don't want other children to grow up without a father, the way that mine unfortunately are going to have to grow up without one,” she said. Read the full story.

– Shannon Najmabadi, Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Wealthy white Florida residents getting vaccines aimed for rural minorities

In Palm Beach County, Florida, where former President Donald Trump now lives, people in wealthy white areas are getting a significant share of the COVID-19 vaccines intended for rural Black and Latino communities.

STAT News reports that even though Hispanics make up 21.7% of the county residents and Black people account for 18% of the population, as of March 1 they had received only 4.7% and 4.1% of vaccines, respectively. Combined, the two racial or ethnic groups represent nearly 40% of the county's population and had gotten less than 9% of the doses. 

And it's not just those in the county who are attending vaccination drives for poorer neighborhoods. STAT reports that people from more than 100 miles away have been driving in to those events.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials have been under scrutiny amid accusations of favoring wealthy residents for vaccinations. DeSantis has denied any favoritism.

Contributing: Natalie Pate and Jordyn Brown, The Statesman Journal; The Associated Press