'Now is not the moment' to drop mask rules, CDC director says as states end mandates – The Washington Post

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500,000 deaths reported globally since omicron was detected, WHO says
Analysis: Canada’s Trumpian trucker protests show the global radicalization of anti-vaxxers
Analysis: The pandemic’s seasonality didn’t spare Florida
Rep. Joyce Beatty asked Rep. Harold Rogers to put on a mask. She says he insulted her instead.
Covid deaths highest in a year as omicron targets the unvaccinated and older people
Four states plan to lift school mask mandates as CDC continues its support for masking
Global deaths increase for fifth week in a row, WHO says
Pandemic stress could be causing your eye problems. Here’s what to know.
He’s cute. But is he swab-worthy? How rapid testing became a dating ritual.
The inside story of a family’s battle to save their restaurant during the pandemic
Texas man pleads guilty to threats sent to Maryland doctor over coronavirus vaccine
The CDC’s do-not-travel list now encompasses more than half the world’s destinations
Australian lawmakers fear escalation of ‘Freedom Convoy’-inspired anti-vaccination protests
Canada cautions on ‘foreign interference’ as U.S. Republicans back vaccine mandate protesters
Here’s what you need to know about the ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada
500,000 deaths reported globally since omicron was detected, WHO says
Analysis: Canada’s Trumpian trucker protests show the global radicalization of anti-vaxxers
Analysis: The pandemic’s seasonality didn’t spare Florida
Rep. Joyce Beatty asked Rep. Harold Rogers to put on a mask. She says he insulted her instead.
Covid deaths highest in a year as omicron targets the unvaccinated and older people
Four states plan to lift school mask mandates as CDC continues its support for masking
Global deaths increase for fifth week in a row, WHO says
Pandemic stress could be causing your eye problems. Here’s what to know.
He’s cute. But is he swab-worthy? How rapid testing became a dating ritual.
The inside story of a family’s battle to save their restaurant during the pandemic
Texas man pleads guilty to threats sent to Maryland doctor over coronavirus vaccine
The CDC’s do-not-travel list now encompasses more than half the world’s destinations
Australian lawmakers fear escalation of ‘Freedom Convoy’-inspired anti-vaccination protests
Canada cautions on ‘foreign interference’ as U.S. Republicans back vaccine mandate protesters
Here’s what you need to know about the ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada
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As more states announce an end to mask mandates in schools and other public places, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against lifting such requirements, citing the country’s still-high rate of new infections.
“Now is not the moment,” the agency’s chief, Rochelle Walensky, told Reuters in an interview published Tuesday, one day after five states announced major changes in their masking policies.
“I know people are interested in taking masks off. I too am interested. That would be one marker that we have much of the pandemic behind us,” Walenksy told the outlet. “Right now our CDC guidance has not changed. … We continue to endorse universal masking in schools.”
Officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon said they would drop school mask mandates in the coming weeks. California, meanwhile, will end its universal indoor mandate, and while face coverings will still be required in schools, leaders said they are working to adjust the rules for children and teachers.
The United States is recording more than 270,000 new coronavirus cases each day, according to Washington Post tracking. Walensky said she is “cautiously optimistic” that case counts will fall below crisis levels but added that “I don’t think we’re there right now.”
Here’s what to know
A half-million deaths have been reported since the omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, calling the death toll tragic in the age of effective vaccines.
About 100,000 of those deaths occurred in the United States, WHO incident manager Abdi Mahamud said during an online Q&A session. He said it was “tragic, beyond tragic” to witness in a country where vaccines are available free, noting that millions of people in the United States are resistant to being vaccinated.
Worldwide, coronavirus deaths rose for the fifth consecutive week, with the 68,000 fatalities reported last week, representing a 7 percent jump from the previous week. Although cases are declining in the United States, WHO officials said many countries have not hit the peak of omicron. They called for people to continue masking and maintaining distance to help drive down transmission.
“You will not need to wear a mask forever,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said. “We will not need to physically distance forever. But for now, it’s really important that we be careful.”
In Canada — yes, Canada — the confederacy of anti-vaxxers came out of the shadows for “Freedom Convoy 2022,” a protest of angry truckers that snowballed in the Ottawa winter to include a wider class of the governmentally aggrieved. At their worst, demonstrators have urinated on the National War Memorial and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But despite the lack of widespread violence, the diverse alliance of outraged citizens — from Confederate flag wavers to dancing libertarian hipsters — appear to share common purpose: shutting down the Canadian capital on a quest to end vaccine mandates.
In the United States, Republican glee at the spreading, city-paralyzing protests in “liberal Canada” came under fire from Canadian officials, who insist they won’t budge on the spark that lit the demonstrations — a vaccination mandate for truckers transiting the U.S.-Canadian border. But as the convoy gains international traction — from social media to European and Australian streets — Canada is becoming an unlikely symbol of the radicalization of the anti-vaccination movement in the West that shares more than a few similarities with the militancy of Trump Republicans.
The seemingly endless pandemic has brought together diverse civic forces furious over perceived government overreach. They’ve protested mandates and lockdowns as well as vaguer notions of encroachment into public life. But the scope, nature and tactics of such protests are escalating, becoming increasingly uncivil and more aggressive around the world. They include outbursts of anger and violent threats against specific politicians, far-right imagery at demonstrations, violent melees with police and, in the surprising case of Canada, the shutting down of entire cities.
When it comes to the pandemic, at least, Punxsutawney Phil was wrong.
After seeing his shadow last week, his handlers assured us six more weeks of winter loomed. The rapid decline in new coronavirus infections in recent weeks, though, indicates the pandemic winter has evaporated. The omicron variant’s emergence drove infections to record highs — but the worst of it appears to be over. Governors who’d implemented mask mandates hoping to limit the virus’s spread have announced they’re now comfortable setting them aside.
One of the challenges of the most recent surge was that the new variant behaved differently than the iterations of the virus that preceded it, as might be expected. But it makes it harder to evaluate responses: Were one state’s efforts better than another’s given how the virus spread at different points? Given how different variants spread?
Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) and Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) got into an apparent spat Tuesday after Beatty said she asked Rogers to put on a face mask before boarding the U.S. Capitol’s subway system.
“Today, while heading to the House floor for votes, I respectfully asked my colleague @RepHalRogers to put on a mask while boarding the train,” Beatty tweeted. “He then poked my back, demanding I get on the train.”
“When I asked him not to touch me, he responded, ‘kiss my a–,’ ” she added.
Beatty, 71, said the exchange was “the kind of disrespect we have been fighting for years,” and indicative of the wider problem of Republicans legislators disregarding health and safety mandates put in place in Congress at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though considered milder than other coronavirus variants, omicron has infected so many people that it has driven the number of daily deaths beyond where it was last spring, before vaccines were widely available, according to Washington Post data.
The omicron variant has been particularly lethal to people over 75, the unvaccinated and the medically vulnerable, according to doctors and public health officials. The soaring death toll also illustrates why experts pleaded with the public to beware the highly contagious variant even though it is less virulent than others.
“That feels quite jarring to people who may have assumed omicron is generally on a per-case level less severe and given the fact we have vaccinated at least some portion of the country,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Even if on a per-case basis fewer people develop severe illness and die, when you apply a small percentage to a very large number, you get a substantial number.”
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Officials from four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon — on Monday announced plans to drop mask mandates for schools in the coming weeks, leaving masking decisions to individual districts.
Connecticut’s governor said he will recommend removing his state’s mandate for masks in schools at the end of this month. New Jersey will end its mandate March 7. Oregon’s masking requirement for all indoor public places, including classrooms, will be removed no later than March 31, when Delaware’s school mask mandate is also set to expire.
In response to news of states’ easing of restrictions, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the Biden administration’s support for the CDC guidance for masks to be worn in schools but said the policy will be “continually” assessed based on “science and data.”
Mask mandates remain controversial, and lawsuits debating their legality are still playing out in some states. The Illinois attorney general filed an appeal Monday to a court-issued temporary restraining order that prevents the state’s school districts from requiring indoor masking. On Friday, a judge in Virginia barred the enforcement of the governor’s mask-optional order for schools, after local school boards opposed the policy.
As of now, about a dozen or so states still have masking mandates for schools. But eight states also passed laws banning such measures, including four that extended the policy to cover institutions of higher education, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
Leaving masking decisions to individual school districts may not be less contentious. School districts and educators sometimes disagree with how much protection should be in place for in-person teaching. For example, Chicago had classes canceled for a handful of days last month until the school system, the third largest in the country, reached a deal with the teachers union to distribute KN95 masks to educators and implement unpaid sick leave, among other terms.
Global coronavirus deaths increased for the fifth week in a row, World Health Organization officials said Tuesday, calling the trend tragic at a time of effective vaccinations.
The 68,000 fatalities recorded last week marked a 7 percent jump from the previous week, WHO incident manager Abdi Mahamud said during an online Q&A session. That number is probably an undercount, he and other officials said, because adequate reporting systems are not in place around the world.
“The fact that we are seeing an increase in deaths when we have safe and effective vaccines, when more than 10 billion doses of vaccines have been administered to date, when we have diagnostics that work, when we can get patients into the clinical care pathway and save people’s lives, this is beyond tragic,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said.
Since the highly contagious omicron variant was first detected, at least 500,000 deaths have been recorded around the world, Mahamud said. Of those, about 100,000 were in the United States, he added, saying it was “tragic beyond tragic” to witness in a nation with free doses of vaccines. He noted there are millions of people in the United States who remain resistant to being vaccinated.
Although U.S. cases have been declining, many countries have not yet hit the peak of the omicron surge, Van Kerkhove said. WHO officials are monitoring four sublineages of omicron, including BA.2, which is more transmissible than even BA.1. There has been no evidence it is more severe, but Van Kerkhove noted that it is in “early days” and that “the studies are really just underway.”
She described variants as the “wild card” in the pandemic and said the virus has “a lot of room to move.” While omicron is the latest variant of concern, she said, it will not be the last one.
“The next one that will come, hopefully, it will take some time to get there, but with the level of intensity of spread, the possibility that we will have other variants is really high,” Van Kerkhove said.
The physical manifestations of pandemic stress are well-documented: People have been experiencing increased blood pressure, sleep problems and trouble focusing. But there are other, potentially overlooked, indicators of stress, according to experts — and eye health is a prime example.
“Stress, anxiety, depression and mental health changes can affect our sensory system, especially our vision,” said Raj Maturi, an ophthalmologist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Vision is a complex psychophysical process where we build a model of the world around us — and this is affected by our mental state.”
Eye twitching, for example, is a common stress response. Usually, the twitches, which are triggered when the muscles around the eye spasm, go away in a day or two. But other common issues, including dry eye disease, can have lasting effects if they aren’t addressed.
Asking someone to stick something up their nose isn’t usually polite first-, second- or even third-date behavior.
But when Jamie Gloyne’s date called an hour before they planned to meet up for an art exhibit in downtown San Francisco, saying she had a headache, he swooped in with a nose swab. Gloyne had several coronavirus rapid tests on-hand, so he took one to his date’s apartment. As soon as his date’s drops hit the test strip, two pink lines appeared. She was positive.
Gloyne bid his date adieu and went to the art exhibit alone. It was his 41st birthday, and though he was celebrating solo, he was relieved to be vaccinated, boosted and to have had an antigen test to spare.
Many in the dating scene aren’t as cautious or as prepared. And who can blame them? For two years, the coronavirus pandemic has been making the awkward and excruciating dating dance even more complicated. At every stage, there are new precautions to take and questions to ask: Is my date social distancing? Do they arrive with their own mask, or do I need to give them one? Are they vaccinated? Boosted? When was their last coronavirus test? How do I trust that they’re telling the truth? This is all in addition to the pre-pandemic conundrums: Do I like them? Do they like me back?
One morning in early April 2020, Alan Yu woke up congested after a restless night’s sleep. His wife, Janet, prepared him a cup of hap zai cha, a Chinese medicinal tea she’d made for years to help with the family’s flus and colds. Normally, in the early afternoon, Alan would drive from the family’s home in Olney, Md., to their restaurant, Hollywood East Cafe, in Silver Spring. But once Janet noticed her husband’s labored breathing, she told him to stay home. She would cover for both of them.
Janet wasn’t too worried as she pulled into the covered garage that Wednesday morning at the Westfield Wheaton mall, where she was protected from the elements on her short walk to Hollywood East on the first floor. She figured Alan had a cold. Plus, she had a business to run, a Cantonese/Hong Kong restaurant that was a fixture not just of the Maryland suburbs, but of the wider D.C. region, thanks largely to its dim sum service. Every weekend, pre-pandemic, diners would crowd their tables with orders of siu mai and har gow dumplings, steamed roast pork buns, sticky rice with Chinese sausage, and delicate rice-noodle crepes that conceal tiny curls of shrimp. The service attracted large multicultural crowds that would happily wait for a table in a 140-seat dining room whose walls were painted a vibrant shade of red, a color associated with joy and luck in China, but one also thought to make diners hungry.
A Texas man pleaded guilty to sending a threatening message to a Maryland medical doctor who publicly promoted the coronavirus vaccine, prosecutors announced Monday.
Scott Eli Harris, 51, of Aubrey, Tex., could spend up to five years in federal prison for threats transmitted by interstate communication, prosecutors said.
“Public health officials and doctors deserve our respect for their tireless efforts during the ongoing pandemic, and individuals who seek to use threats of violence to intimidate and silence them will be held accountable,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a news release.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has moved seven more countries to its highest-risk category for travel — a list that has grown to include 134 destinations, with many added since the World Health Organization declared omicron a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26.
The CDC on Monday gave Democratic Republic of Congo, Oman, Libya, Japan, Israel, Cuba and Armenia a “Level 4″ warning, which means it is recommending that Americans avoid traveling there, even if vaccinated.
The CDC’s four levels — which start at “low” risk and escalate to “moderate,” “high” and “very high” — are designed to help Americans navigate travel in the pandemic as case levels continue to fluctuate. The public health agency recommends that all travelers should be fully vaccinated, regardless of their destination’s designation. For countries deemed “very high” risk, the CDC guidance is to “avoid travel.”
SYDNEY — Australian lawmakers expressed fears Tuesday over the escalation of anti-vaccination protests in the capital inspired by the trucker-led demonstrations in Canada.
The protests in Canberra have been energized by the truck convoy causing havoc in Ottawa but feature few trucks. They have lasted for eight days and are set to continue until at least the weekend amid fears that the situation, mostly peaceful so far, could deteriorate.
As protesters waved signs saying “Genocide” and “Freedom” on the lawn in front of Parliament, center-left lawmaker Kristina Keneally warned that the motley crowd contained “individuals that our national security agencies are worried about.”
“Some of these protesters actually want to undermine and overturn democracy,” Keneally, an American-born senator of the Australian Labor Party, told reporters, citing the arrest of one protest organizer last week after police allegedly found a gun in his car.
Protest organizers and politicians supporting the demonstrations rejected her claim, however. And a few hours later, a far-right lawmaker welcomed eight demonstrators into the capitol so they could deliver a list of demands.
Senior Canadian officials hit back Monday at high-profile U.S. Republicans who have voiced support for the self-described “Freedom Convoy,” as the group continued to block traffic in downtown Ottawa in protest of vaccine rules for cross-border truckers.
The Canadian convoy has attracted the attention of U.S. politicians debating their own country’s coronavirus protocols, and drawn support from Republican figures including former president Donald Trump.
Responding to some of those critics Monday, Canada’s public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, said: “We’re Canadian. We have our own set of laws. We will follow them.”
The demonstrations began in late January after Canada and the United States imposed a new rule requiring cross-border truck drivers to be fully vaccinated to enter their respective countries. Since then, the protests have grown into a broader condemnation both of pandemic-related measures and the government of recently reelected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists and anti-government activists have joined their ranks.
The latest: California joins growing numbers of states saying mask mandates will end in coming weeks. See the latest coronavirus numbers.
Vaccines: Pfizer and BioNTech have sought emergency authorization of the first coronavirus vaccine for children under 5. FDA says it will review.
At-home tests: Medicare to offer free at-home tests from pharmacies, starting in early spring. Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.
Mask guidance: The CDC has recommended better masks to protect against the omicron variant. Here’s why N95s are so effective and how to safety reuse your N95 and KN95 masks.
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