Cases fall, variant cases multiply in US; Honolulu extends restrictions; Navy reports fourth sailor fatality. Latest COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

COVID-19 cases in the United States have been dropping since a peak several weeks ago. There were 83,321 reported new cases on Saturday – the first time since Nov. 2 the country had reported less than one new case every second.

And on Sunday, Johns Hopkins University data shows, the pace slowed even further, to 64,938 cases. Cases are generally reported at a slower rate on weekends, but the rate at which cases have been reported has dropped by more than half since last month’s peak.

However, the number of known coronavirus variant cases is surging. The vast majority are of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and has run rampant there. The CDC has said it may become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

U.K. government scientific advisers said Friday that the variant may be up to 70% more deadly than previous variants, underscoring concerns about how mutations may change the characteristics of the disease.

On Sunday, the U.S. reported 1,193 cases of coronavirus variants that can spread more easily, dodge some treatments and immunities, or both. It’s nearly 200 more cases than were reported Thursday night, and the number has nearly doubled since Feb. 4.

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In the headlines:

►In Texas, the cities of Houston and Austin canceled their health departments’ vaccine appointments on Monday and Tuesday because of severe winter weather wreaking havoc across the southern and central U.S. The Tennessee Department of Health also said some local health departments were canceling vaccine appointments. 

►The IRS says it won’t push back the April 15 deadline this year to file taxes as it did last year during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

►Travelers arriving in Britain must quarantine in hotels starting Monday as the U.K. government aims to slow the spread of new coronavirus variants. The country reached the milestone of 15 million people, including people working in health care and those over 70, receiving their first vaccine dose, and is not expanding eligibility to people over 65 and those with underlying conditions.

►California on Sunday reported the lowest number of hospitalizations since Dec. 1, according to the California Department of Public Health. The state’s death toll, however, remains persistently high.

►Both New York’s daily and seven-day average case rates stayed below 4% on Sunday for the second day in a row, per Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. 

►Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi has extended coronavirus restrictions through mid-March in Hawaii’s most populous city but said that could change if confirmed cases remain low.

►New Zealand’s largest city went into lockdown for at least three days Sunday and police set up checkpoints at eight locations at Auckland’s border. The crackdown comes after three family members tested positive. The entire nation of about 5 million people has fewer than 50 known cases currently.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 485,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 108.7 million cases and 2.4 million deaths. More than 70 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 52.8 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: The life cycle of a COVID-19 vaccine, from DNA to doses, is a complicated, months-long process. Here’s how Pfizer does it.

ER visits down last year, but overdoses up. Experts blame the pandemic.

Many Americans stayed away from the emergency room when the nation went under lockdown for fear of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital. While this led to an overall decline in emergency department visits, a recent study shows weekly trips to the ER for drug overdoses were higher in 2020 than in 2019.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied more than 180 million ER visits from Dec. 30, 2018, to Oct. 10, 2020, and found that weekly counts of all drug overdoses were up to 45% higher in 2020 than in 2019, according to the study published Feb. 3 in the peer-reviewed JAMA Psychiatry. Opioid overdoses, specifically, increased about 29% compared to before the pandemic. 

Overall visits to the emergency room plummeted when COVID-19 lockdown measures were implemented in March 2020, decreasing about 43% compared to the same timeframe in 2019. However, drug overdoses experienced only a slight decrease from March 29 to April 11, about 4% compared to 2019, before increasing again.

“That all drug and opioid overdose emergency department visits did not decrease in a similar manner to other emergency department visits is especially compelling, suggesting an increase in overdose burden during the pandemic,” study authors said.

– Adrianna Rodriguez

Epidemiologist: Many schools will be ‘challenged to open at all’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released long-awaited guidelines on how America’s public schools can reopen safely, but a leading infectious diseases epidemiologist says the spiking number of variant cases may mean that “a lot of schools are going to be challenged to open at all.”

Michael Osterholm, the head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a Biden transition advisor on COVID-19, said the variant of the coronavirus from the United Kingdom may cause a surge in cases in the U.S. over the next 14 weeks that makes school reopenings challenging even with the new guidelines.

Osterholm said the challenge is not that schools can’t handle the requirements of the new guidelines but that cases in communities may rise too high for schools to remain open, as the CDC points out is a concern, he said. “The next 14 weeks I think will be the worst of the pandemic,” Osterholm added.

The Biden administration’s guidelines say schools should implement a host of safety guidelines, including mask wearing and maintaining 6 feet of physical distance between people when possible, but that vaccinating teachers is not a must for in-person instruction. Osterholm, speaking with “CBS This Morning” on Monday, praised the guidelines and said virus transmission in schools is generally low, especially among young students.

WHO finds signs of wider outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019, report says

The World Health Organization team of scientists investigating the origins of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic in China has found signs that the original outbreak in Wuhan was wider than previously thought, the lead investigator told CNN.

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO mission, told CNN that investigators had found several clues that point to a larger outbreak in the central Chinese city, including evidence of over a dozen strains of the virus already circulating in December 2019.

A preliminary report from Ben Embarek and a team of WHO scientists who recently concluded a trip to China is expected this week. 

Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine effective in reducing symptomatic infection, Israeli study finds

An Israeli study of 1.2 million people found that Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduced symptomatic infections by 94% and cases of serious disease by 92%, one of the country’s largest health care providers said.

The study by Clalit looked at 600,000 people who were vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 600,000 who were not immunized.

“The efficacy of the vaccine is preserved in every age group,” particularly a week after the second dose of the vaccine, researchers said, adding that the aim of the study was “emphasizing to the population that has yet to vaccinate that the vaccine is highly effective and prevents serious illness.”

Variant cases surge in US, including new reports in Maine, Illinois, Texas

COVID-19 variants continue to infiltrate the U.S.: The B.1.1.7 variant first seen in the United Kingdom has been reported for the first time in Maine, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., while the B.1.351 variant first seen in South Africa has now been reported in Illinois, Texas and D.C.

The B.1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly. Michigan had been reporting 29 cases since Feb. 4; on Sunday night, it reported another 32 cases, more than doubling its load. Florida also reported 32 new cases, bringing its total to 379, or about a third of the nation’s. California reported 27 new cases, bringing its total to 186. Colorado added 26 cases to reach 67; Massachusetts added 19 cases to nearly triple its reported tally, to 29. Texas added 14 cases to reach 49.

There are now 1,173 known cases of B.1.1.7, which the Centers for Disease Control had said could become the country’s predominate strain in March. The rapid spread of variants is happening even as all coronavirus case counts are being reported half as quickly as they were last month.

– Mike Stucka

New Orleans gets tough with Mardi Gras celebrations

New Orleans is tamping down its annual Mardi Gras celebrations this week and health officials in other cities are warning would-be revelers to do the same amid a spike in coronavirus variant cases across the nation.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered bars closed during the Mardi Gras weekend that started Friday and runs through Tuesday. Parades are canceled and there are limits on gatherings. 

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the annual pre-Lenten bash celebrated along much of the Gulf Coast. Last year’s revelry is believed to have contributed to an early surge that made Louisiana a coronavirus hot spot.

Contributing: The Associated Press