South African scientists detect new variant amid spike: COVID updates


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Thousands of people traveling for the holidays this week will first test themselves for COVID-19 without a doctor, lab or any medical oversight.

While quick home tests are hailed as a major convenience and a smart way to protect loved ones, they’ve also raised a significant challenge for public health officials. How can agencies comprehensively track cases and trends when many consumers don’t report home test results?

Federal and state health officials have worked since March 2020 to build capacity to test, report and keep tabs on COVID-19 cases. Public health officials say reporting cases is critical for spotting trends and detecting surges so hotspot communities can lessen risk and prepare hospitals for a rush of people seeking care.

But it’s unclear how often customers report results from the dozen authorized home coronavirus tests that typically deliver results in 15 minutes outside a lab or doctor’s office. And public health’s data blind spot is poised to grow larger.

Private test manufacturers already make more home antigen tests than standard laboratory tests — and the gap could nearly double next month as new home tests flood the market.

— Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

Also in the news:

►Beginning Monday, Massachusetts hospitals will have to cut back on non-urgent scheduled procedures due to staffing shortages and longer patient stays, according to the state’s health authorities.

►The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday period.

►More than 100 children at a vaccination event in Iowa on Saturday were given the incorrect dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, according to a statement from the hospital. A MercyOne spokesperson said there are no significant health risks associated with the larger dose, just a likelihood the children will have more severe versions of the common vaccine side effects.

►France has launched a plan Thursday to give COVID-19 booster shots to all adults, as it opted against a further lockdown or curfew to help combat a worrying uptick in infections in the country.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 775,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 259 million cases and 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans — 59.1% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we’re reading: During COVID-19, they believed home was safer than school. Now some NYC parents are accused of neglect.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The WHO’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

— Associated Press

Just over nine out of ten federal employees have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the required deadline, the Biden administration announced Wednesday when releasing agency-by-agency vaccination rates.

Those rates were as high as 97.8% at the Agency for International Development. Workers at the Agriculture Department had the lowest rate: 86.1%.

Federal employees had until the end of Monday to get vaccinated or request a medical or religious exemption. Unlike a rule the Biden administration wants to impose on private employers, federal workers are not allowed to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they agree to weekly testing.

Workers who are not in the process of getting vaccinated or seeking an exemption will begin a “period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps,” according to the White House.

— Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins, USA TODAY

European Unions’ drug regulator approves Pfizer vaccine for young children

The European Union’s drug regulator cleared the way for children ages 5 to 11 to begin receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Thursday amid a new wave of infections across the continent.

The European Medicines Agency’s human medicines committee, an EU agency in charge of the evaluation and supervision of medicinal products, concluded that the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh the risks. The European committee will send its recommendation to the European Commission next, which will issue a final decision.

Germany has been facing its worst surge of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, reporting more than 333,000 cases the week of Nov. 15, according to the World Health Organization. That’s nearly double the weekly rate reported during a prior surge in December 2020.

— Celina Tebor, USA TODAY

German Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled Thursday “a very sad day” and backed calls for more restrictions, as her country became the latest to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

The national disease control agency said it recorded 351 deaths in connection with the coronavirus over the past 24 hours, taking the total toll to 100,119. In Europe, Germany is the fifth country to pass that mark, after Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The longtime German leader, who is currently in office as caretaker until her successor is sworn in, warned that hundreds more deaths were already looming.

“(The deaths) correlate very clearly with the number of infections that are occurring,” she said. “We know how many people on average do not survive this disease.”

The Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency that collects data from some 400 regional health offices, said Germany set a record for daily confirmed cases — 75,961 — in the past 24-hour period. Since the start of the outbreak, Germany has had more than 5.57 million confirmed cases of COVID-19.

— Associated Press

Despite early signs that suggested the U.S. may have avoided another winter surge, COVID-19 cases are rising again.

The country reported 665,420 cases in the week ending Monday, more than a 30% increase from the pace of cases reported about a month ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

As cases rise in 39 states, U.S. Health and Human Services data show hospitals in 32 states admitted more patients in the latest week than the week before.

“Quite frankly, I’m really concerned,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “I would say we are better off than we were last year, but cases are starting to tick up and that is something that we really need to keep an eye on.”

After nearly two years of combating COVID-19, health experts thought the U.S. would have been in a better position to control the pandemic. Instead, many people remain unvaccinated and ignore mitigation measures, slowing the pace of progress and burning out health care professionals. 

— Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press



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Holiday Travel Scams Expected to Spike Amid Surging Prices, BBB Warns – NBC Chicago


The Better Business Bureau is warning Wednesday of an expected spike in holiday travel scams as prices see a surge.

Similar to the summer months, the BBB said people may think they are receiving a holiday “deal” with the price of flights, rental cars and lodging increasing. However, officials said it could be a sign of a scam.

“Being a bargain hunter is wise, but being careful is smarter when there could be thousands of dollars on the line,” said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the BBB serving Chicago and Northern Illinois.

People could receive a call, text message, flyer in the mail or online ad promising free or low-cost vacations, the BBB warned.

These so-called “deals” could result in hidden fees or an entirely fake experience, according to officials.

“There are several common travel scams,” Bernas added. “Travelers should be leery of free vacation offers, robocalls offering vacation deals at discounted prices, vacation home scams – where the scammer hijacks real rental listings and advertises them as their own, or they make up listings that don’t exist, and fake charter flights that may include lodging and sightseeing. After you pay for the package, you find it’s all a scam.”

Here are some warning signs to recognize the scams:

  • An offer for a “free” vacation for which you have to pay
  • Organizers are not giving you specific details on the travel order, but using terms like “five-star” and “luxury” to describe the trip
  • The only way to pay for your “vacation” is by a wire transfer, gift card or cryptocurrency
  • Pressure to make a rushed decision about a vacation package or rental
  • Premium vacation properties are advertised to you for super cheap prices

The BBB warns people to not sign or pay until fully aware of the terms of the deal and get a copy of the cancelation and refund policies. Officials also advised that people do their research before booking and never pay using wire transfers, gift cards or cryptocurrency.



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Possible gas spike this week coming as people are planning to travel more


LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — You could be paying more at the pump in the coming days.

Gas prices are expected to rise in reaction to the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which delivers about 45% of fuel to the East Coast.

The pipeline announced over the weekend they were the victim of a cyberattack, and as a precaution, they shut down the pipeline. However, they expect to have the pipeline back up and running by the end of the week.

One local expert says the longer it’s offline, the bigger the impact.

Gas prices in the area have already been creeping up as we head into the summer driving season. Prices in our area are up about four cents over last week, so the pipeline shutting down comes at a time when gas prices usually go up anyway as the warmer months begin.

This summer could be especially big for travel, as Morgan Dean, Senior Specialist for Public & Government Affairs with AAA, explains.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand this year,” said Dean. “A recent survey by Destination Analyst, whom we work with here at AAA, found that 70 percent of people are ready to travel right now.”

“That’s very different from where we were last year in the midst of stay at home orders.”

According to Dean, this time last year, a decrease in demand drove the average cost of a gallon of gas down to $1.54.

Now, at stations in the Lynchburg area, gas is averaging at $2.75. That’s up about four cents over last week.

Dean offered the following tips to save on gas:

  • Plan ahead to accomplish multiple errands in one trip, and whenever possible avoid high-traffic times of day.
  • If you own more than one car, use the most fuel-efficient model that meets the needs of any given journey.
  • Remove unnecessary and bulky items from your car. Minimize your use of roof racks and remove special carriers when not in use. It takes more fuel to accelerate a heavier car, and the reduction in fuel economy is greater for small cars than for larger models.
  • Minimize your use of air conditioning. Even at highway speeds, open windows have less effect on fuel economy than the engine power required to operate the air conditioning compressor.
  • In hot weather, park in the shade or use a windshield sunscreen to lessen heat buildup inside the car. This reduces the need for air conditioning (and thus fuel) to cool down the car.

Dean also says not to panic about a price increase and buy gas if you already have more than a quarter of a tank, saying it can increase demand and drive up prices further.

Get breaking news, weather, and sports delivered to your smartphone with the WFXR News app available on Apple and Android.



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Hotel industry leaders hoping for spike in summer travel – Honolulu, Hawaii news, sports & weather


News

If you’ve set foot in side the Outrigger Resort in Waikiki, you’ll notice social distancing, touchless elements and plexiglass at check-in, and enhanced cleaning in rooms. Along with masks in common areas, Hawaii has been setting an example when it comes

Wednesday, May 5th 2021, 6:10 PM HST by Tom George





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CDC Implores Americans To Limit Travel Amid COVID-19 Spike


The United States’ rolling seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases is escalating once again, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to recent increases in travel as one of the culprits.

In recent weeks, there has been an obvious rise in the volume of travelers taking to the skies and heading to vacation destinations during the Spring Break period. Travel + Leisure reported that, since March 11, the TSA has screened more than a million passengers per day at U.S. airports, representing a pandemic-era record of 19 days in a row. That’s more Americans heading off on Spring Break holidays than traveled for Christmas or New Year’s.

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Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

Whether it boils down to folks having hit their limit after a year of staying at home or the introduction of vaccines having sparked a false sense of safety, it’s clear that many Americans are now throwing caution to the wind as they head off on vacations.

The trend has strengthened despite the CDC’s consistent and repeated pleas that the public refrain from all non-essential travel a while longer, as accelerated vaccine rollouts attempt to overtake the virus that’s still sweeping the nation.

“We’re in the life and death race with a virus that is spreading quickly, with cases rising again,” President Joe Biden said yesterday at the White House. The steady rise in infection is widespread from coast to coast, with spikes occurring in 30 states in the past week, according to Forbes reports and Johns Hopkins University data.

The most recent seven-day national average is close to 60,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky disclosed at yesterday’s White House press briefing. That’s ten percent higher than the previous week, with hospitalizations and deaths increasing commensurately.

Dr. Walensky shared her “recurring feeling” of “impending doom” with the U.S. repeating a pattern of increased contagion that has invariably followed behaviors like travel and social mixing over holiday periods. “We know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw over the summer and over the winter again.”

“I think people have taken advantage of what they perceived as a relative paucity of cases, a relative lull in where we were, to take advantage of their time of spring break, of holiday travel,” Dr. Walensky posited. “And, what I would just say is, you know, we’ve seen surges after every single holiday…you know, July 4th, Labor Day, Christmas. And we’re seeing the uptick of that right now.”

She further explained that the current U.S. trends fall into a pattern similar to the pandemic’s trajectory in Europe only a few weeks ago. And, those countries now find themselves battling another surge after previously letting their guard down for the spring holidays.

“We are not powerless; we can change this trajectory of the pandemic. But it will take all of us, recommitting to following the public health prevention strategies consistently, while we work to get the American public vaccinated,” Dr. Walensky said. “We do not have the luxury of inaction. For the health of our country, we must work together now to prevent a fourth surge.”

For more information, visit cdc.gov.





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Travel agencies seeing spike in vacation interest as more people get vaccinated


BATON ROUGE – With more and more people getting vaccinated, people are eager to start venturing out again. Travel agencies say they’re busy booking summer vacations, and the upcoming trips are giving people something to look forward to.

“You can hear it in their voice. Even at the end of the conversation they say, ‘wow, I feel so much better,’” said Amy Lytle, a travel advisor at House of Travel.

Lytle says trip inquiries have doubled since the end of last year.

“Anything to do with outdoors and national parks has been extremely popular, like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone,” Lytle said. “And then beach vacations. Everyone needs a little sun, a little vitamin D in their life. So we’ve gotten a lot of calls for the Caribbean and Mexico.”

Spring and summer are normally the busiest times for booking vacations, but travel isn’t quite back to normal. The CDC still recommends staying at home even if vaccinated, and those flying internationally have to have proof of a negative COVID test to get back into the U.S..

“That’s kind of kept people closer to home. But, believe it or not, there are countries that are open like Kenya and South Africa. So I’m currently working on a safari for a family,” Lytle said.

Each state also has its own COVID restrictions.

”You do have to quarantine if you go to New York. Most of the northeast states are requiring that,” Lytle said. “California just opened back up a couple of weeks ago, so they’re getting back in. But still Nappa Valley is having a hard time fully being able to operate.”

Despite that, Lytle says she’s noticed more people are getting comfortable with traveling again.

“Those 50 and over that have already gotten vaccines are super excited, because they feel like they got their freedom back. Then you have younger people also traveling, and they were already kind of feeling that way.”

Airport officials say travel is still down about 50 percent at the Baton Rouge airport, but advance bookings are picking up.



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Tri-State doctors concerned about potential COVID-19 spike amid spring break travel


“Hopefully the persons that are undergoing spring break and having a good time are otherwise healthy,” Dr. Huhnke said. “The patients that are of the highest risk, of course, are the elderly and those who have other co-morbidities. We would encourage those folks, in particular, to be very careful about going into large crowds and most certainly wear their masks.”



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Valley doctor warns spring break travel could lead to COVID-19 spike | Coronavirus in Arizona


PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Spring breakers are bringing massive crowds to Miami, Florida. On Saturday night, hundreds of mask-less people filled the streets and officials imposed a state of emergency.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber declared a state of emergency and set a curfew Saturday, saying the crowds that have descended on the city recently are “more than we can handle.”

Back here at home, many people are flocking to our state to party, as well. “This is the first time we have traveled in a year. This was on our list to come here like two years ago,” said Chelsea Preneta. 

But health officials are now sounding the alarm we could see a surge in cases post-spring break travel and gatherings. 

“These gatherings for spring training games, the Old Town Scottsdale, the bars; it is just way too premature,” said Dr. Andrew Carroll, a Valley family physician. 

Carroll is also concerned about COVID-19 variants, some like the UK variant are more deadly and contagious. Health officials said spring break could be the perfect storm for spreading the variants. 

“We are concerned that if we don’t get there fast enough, we don’t get all the people vaccinated as quickly as we can, those variants are going to take hold and get a lot of people sick much sooner than we anticipated,” said Carroll. 

 


Copyright 2021 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.





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Why doesn’t FDOT use spike strips to prevent wrong-way crashes?


In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a number of wrong-way crashes on Tampa Bay area highways.

Tampa Police Officer Jesse Madsen was killed by a speeding and impaired wrong-way driver on I-275 on March 9. Chief Brian Dugan said Madsen deliberately put his vehicle into the path of the wrong-way driver to protect others.

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Many of you have called into our Driving Tampa Bay Forward Tipline to ask why the state doesn’t use spike strips on entrance/exit ramps to prevent this.

In fact, FDOT says they get this question multiple times a month, too!

Here’s their answer:

Tire-spike barriers have been tested to determine if they could be used at off-ramps to stop vehicles from entering the wrong way and they were found to be unsuitable. The spikes, even when modified in shape, did not cause the tires to deflate quickly enough to prevent a vehicle from entering the freeway. Also, under high-volume traffic, the spikes broke, leaving stubs that damaged the tires of right-way driving vehicles. In addition, if law enforcement vehicles or emergency medical personnel need to travel up a ramp in the wrong direction to assist motorists etc. – this would prevent them from doing so. Tire spike strips are designed for very low-speed locations. They are effective when used in parking lots and parking garages. They are intended for installation at locations where speeds do not exceed 5 mph. They are not designed to work at high-speed, high-volume traffic locations such as freeway exit ramps.

The Florida Department of Transportation currently has active projects in the Tampa Bay area to try and help address wrong-way crashes. These programs include flashing signs at exit ramps with radar detection, which trigger and notify the driver they are traveling in the wrong direction. Once triggered, an alert is immediately sent to FDOT and law enforcement officials, and a wrong-way driver alert is broadcast on the electronic message boards along the interstate system. Another component of the pilot programs is the increase in wrong-way signage, roadway reflectors and large painted pavement markings to help motorists identify the proper entrance and exit ramps of the interstate.





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