Free tests now available online; 400 million masks being distributed: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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The end may be in sight for the unforgiving omicron surge.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts a peak in daily new infections within a few days, followed by a decline as steep as the ascent over the last six weeks. Daily deaths, now averaging about 1,700, also should decline rapidly under the institute’s model.
Dr. Ali Khan, chief medical officer at Oak Street Health, a national network of primary care centers specializing in vulnerable patients, says the omicron surge is finally leveling off.
“We are seeing plateaus and downturns in the northern markets that were first hit hard by omicron in mid-December – Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York City – so that’s a somewhat promising sign.” 
But Khan said other markets, such as Texas and Oklahoma, are really “in the thick of things.” A nationwide, sustained decline probably remains a couple of weeks away, he said.
Also in the news:
►Vaccination was a strong defense against infection during the delta coronavirus surge, but previous infection was even better, a new study found. The data predates the omicron surge and did not allow for booster shots.
►The pandemic’s death toll, officially around 5.5 million globally but considered much higher by experts, is likely at least twice that much and quite possibly worse, according to the journal Nature.
►British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing calls for his resignation after a series of lockdown-flouting government parties, announced he was lifting mask mandates and most other coronavirus restrictions.
►A California man who punched two medical assistants at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Tustin and later groped a nurse has been charged with misdemeanor battery and resisting arrest, prosecutors in Orange County announced. Thomas Apollo, 44, had been asked to leave the Families Together clinic after he refused to wear a mask.
►A group of parents in the Chesapeake Public Schools district sued new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, arguing that his executive order allowing parents to opt their kids out of any school’s mask mandate violates state law.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 68 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 855,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 335 million cases and over 5.56 million deaths. More than 209 million Americans – 63% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
📘 What we’re reading: The world’s 10 richest men doubled their wealth during the pandemic while 99% of incomes dropped, a new study says.
Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration has place the Orange County health director on leave for encouraging his staff to get vaccinated. Dr. Raul Pino had written in a Jan. 4 email to his staff: “I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it,” according to WFME, a public radio station in Orlando. In an email Wednesday to the USA TODAY Network-Florida, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw referred to a state health department statement on the decision.
“As the decision to get vaccinated is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers, the employee in question has been placed on administrative leave,” the statement said. “The Florida Department of Health is conducting an inquiry to determine if any laws were broken in this case.”
Frank Gluck, Fort Myers News-Press
A Pennsylvania school district apologized Wednesday after a photo went viral on social media of a teacher taping a mask to a student’s face. An investigation of the incident found no malice, but the teacher’s actions were “entirely inappropriate and unacceptable, no matter the context,” the North Penn School District said in a statement. The district said it was addressing the issue with the teacher; it was not immediately clear whether criminal charges would be filed. A local group called North Penn Stronger Together encouraged parents on Facebook to contact the administration and to “speak up” at the upcoming board meeting.
“Pro-mask or anti-mask, I hope we can all agree that taping masks to children’s faces crosses the LINE,”  the post read. “This was not a joke for the child or the parents.”
– Ashley R. Williams, Bucks County Courier Times
Supreme Court Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch pushed back Wednesday on reporting that the two are engaged in a dispute over wearing masks in court amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic. In a joint statement released by the court, the two said news accounts of the dispute “surprised us” and described them as “false.”
Sotomayor is at high risk because of diabetes. Chief Justice John Roberts had asked the justices to wear masks in the courtroom, NPR reported. Gorsuch, who sits next to Sotomayor on the bench, has broken with the other eight justices in declining to wear a mask during oral arguments. Sotomayor has been taking part in arguments remotely from her chambers. 
“While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” the two said in the statement.
– John Fritze
The CEO of apparel-maker Carhartt is taking heat from conservatives on social media for requiring employees to get vaccinated despite the Supreme Court ruling that blocked the Biden administration’s plan to mandate that large companies require inoculations. CEO Mark Valade issued a memo to employees saying the company puts employee safety atop its priority list and that the ruling “doesn’t impact that core value.”
“Never ever buy @Carhartt  products again,” tweeted Sebastian Gorka, host of “The Gorka Reality Check,” to his 1.1 million Twitter followers.
Right-wing author Ashley St. Clair tweeted “Went from “Buy Carhartt” to “Bye Carhartt” real quick!” and “stop supporting medical tyranny.”
Conservative radio host and former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch chimed in: “Even though it doesn’t prevent transmissions, as per the CDC? No recognition of natural immunity? This true, @Carhartt?”
But the plan had its supporters, too. Tweeted Georgia Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell: “Shoutout to @Carhartt for prioritizing worker health in this way.”
Your taxpayer dollars are at work today combating the pandemic. The Biden administration is shipping 400 million N95 face masks out to pharmacies and other outlets for free distribution to the populace while also unveiling a website allowing every household to sign up for four free coronavirus at-home tests.
The intensified effort to halt the most recent, omicron-fueled surge comes as hospitals struggle with spiking caseloads. And the seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 this week. That’s half the peak of a year ago – but if unchecked would push the U.S. death total to 900,000 just a month from now.
Those much-anticipated free coronavirus tests are now available on a new federal government website. has an “Order free at-home tests” button that brings users to to order four free rapid tests. The Postal Service will only send one set of four tests to valid residential addresses, the site says.
Americans will be able to pick up their masks at one of “tens of thousands” of pharmacies, thousands of community centers and other locations across the country beginning next week, according to a White House official. 
– Joey Garrison, Kelly Tyko and Maureen Groppe
Novak Djokovic, barred from the Australian Open because he isn’t vaccinated, could also find himself out of some other Grand Slam tournaments – the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The French Sports Ministry said this week it would provide no exemptions from France’s new vaccine mandate for the tournament, which starts May 22.
“The situation may change between now and then, and we hope that it will be more favorable,” the ministry statement said. “But clearly there’s no exemption.”
Djokovic is seeking his record 21st Grand Slam victory, and Wimbledon might be his best chance to compete. It starts June 27, and Britain has allowed visiting athletes to enter the country unvaccinated. The U.S. Open has said it will follow U.S. government rules, which currently require vaccination to enter the country, although that could change by the time the tournament begins Aug. 29.
The number of new coronavirus cases globally rose by 20% last week to more than 18 million – actually marking a slowdown in the surge caused by the omicron variant’s spread, according to the World Health Organization. That’s because confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped by about 50% the week before last, and earlier this month, the WHO reported the biggest single-week increase in cases of the pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says is it ”misleading” to consider the omicron variant as causing mild disease, although studies have shown omicron is less likely to result in severe illness or hospitalization than its predecessors.
“We are concerned about the impact omicron is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems,” Tedros said.
Nearly 500 inmates at a federal prison in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19, currently the highest number of inmate cases among federal prisons nationwide, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The medium-security prison, with a population of 1,425, is part of a federal complex that also includes low and maximum-security facilities. Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said as far back as April 2020 that the Yazoo City site was a hot spot for coronavirus. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the fall of 2020 to learn more about the bureau’s response to COVID-19 in federal jails and prisons, eventually obtaining emails from Yazoo City and other federal prisons.
“My concerns have not been resolved,” one Yazoo City federal prison employee wrote, according to the ACLU. “We are critically understaffed. We are breaking policy to complete our mission. A case could be made that we are violating the constitutional rights of our inmate population.”
Contributing: The Associated Press


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