CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union has approved a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district to get students back to class during the coronavirus pandemic, union officials announced early Wednesday.
The vote ends the possibility of an immediate teacher lockout or strike. The agreement follows months of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools, which had intensified in recent weeks, with plans that included more teacher vaccinations and metrics to allow school closures when COVID-19 infections spike.
The union said 13,681 members voted to approve the agreement and 6,585 voted against it. Despite the approval, the union characterized it as the “absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools.”
Union President Jesse Sharkey also criticized the deal in an email to members that was released by the union, echoing previous arguments that the district’s safety plans fell short.
But in a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson defended the agreement, saying it “ensures families have options to choose in-person learning and make a plan that is best for them.”
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
AP poll: Some US adults skeptical of vaccine, but 67% say they’ll take it. South Africa to offer 1-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. EXPLAINER: What the WHO coronavirus experts learned in Wuhan. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox reject criticism of their virus defiance, say they’re defending their way of life. What quarantine is like in Japan and what it might look like for the Tokyo Olympics.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
WASHINGTON — Federal authorities are investigating a massive counterfeit N95 mask operation in which fake 3M masks were sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies. The foreign-made knockoffs are becoming increasingly difficult to spot and could put health care workers at grave risk for the coronavirus.
These masks are giving first responders “a false sense of security,” said Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with the Homeland Security Department’s principal investigative arm.
Officials could not name the states or the company involved because of the active investigation.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, fraud remains a major problem as scammers seek to exploit hospitals and desperate and weary Americans. Federal investigators say they have seen an increase in phony websites purporting to sell vaccines as well as fake medicine produced overseas and scams involving personal protective equipment. The schemes deliver phony products, unlike fraud earlier in the pandemic that focused more on fleecing customers.
3M, based in Maplewood, Minnesota, is among the largest global producers of the N95 mask, which has been approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and is considered the gold standard in protection against the coronavirus. The company delivered some 2 billion N95 masks in 2020 as the pandemic soared, but in earlier months of the pandemic, when masks were in short supply, fraudsters starting popped up.
JOHNSTON, Iowa — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds defended her relaxation of mask wearing and other coronavirus reduction measures Wednesday as some public health officials warned ending such measures now gives a new European virus mutation a path to spread quickly in the U.S.
Reynolds said lower hospitalizations and other measures prompted her to lift the partial mask requirement and limits on crowd sizes. She says she’s entrusting Iowans to do the right thing.
Iowa reported 1,035 new confirmed positive cases Wednesday and 29 additional deaths, increasing the state total to 5,174.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, says opening up now is giving the European virus variant a chance to spread quickly in the U.S.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis again lashed out at the news media when he suggested Wednesday a bias in coverage of the pandemic, even as concerns swirl over more contagious strains of COVID-19 potentially spreading at gatherings celebrating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory in the Super Bowl.
“The media is worried about that, obviously,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Venice.
“You don’t care as much when it’s a peaceful protest,” he continued. “You don’t care as much if you’re celebrating a Biden election. You only care about if it’s people you don’t like.”
DeSantis has routinely asserted that there is a bias against conservatives and Republicans, particularly among reporters who have asked tough and sometimes uncomfortable questions about the governor’s handling of the public health crisis.
But when a journalist asked DeSantis about the spread of a more contagious variant of the virus in the context of super-spreader events following the Super Bowl, the governor took it as an unjustified hit.
After the Buccaneers’ victory, celebrations erupted across the region — and prompted maskless throngs to spill into streets.
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 governors are extending the country’s coronavirus lockdown until March 7 amid concern about new virus variants.
The agreement provides some exceptions, including allowing hairdressers to reopen on March 1, with hygiene regulations.
Germany’s second lockdown began in November and was extended and toughened before Christmas due to concern that the number of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm hospitals. It was to end on Sunday.
The weekly number of new infections has dropped to 68 per 100,000 inhabitants. The government’s goal is below 50 to help with reliable contact tracing. The number peaked at nearly 200 before Christmas.
On Wednesday, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute reported 8,072 new virus cases and 813 deaths in 24 hours. Germany has registered more than 63,000 confirmed deaths.
LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Britain’s coronavirus vaccination program is on course to give everyone over 50 the first of two shots by the end of April.
Johnson says 13 million people have had a shot so far, about a quarter of the adult population. Health authorities aim to reach the 15 million people at greatest risk from COVID-19, including frontline health workers and everyone over 70, by Feb. 15.
Johnson praised a World Health Organization recommendation that the AstraZeneca-Oxford University-vaccine can be used in adults of all ages, with a gap of eight to 12 weeks between doses. Some countries have declined to give the vaccine to older adults, citing a lack of data. Others have questioned the U.K.’s decision to leave a 12-week gap between doses to give as many people as possible the first shot.
Britain’s coronavirus death toll has reached nearly 115,000, the highest in Europe.
MADRID — Spain’s official 14-day rate of coronavirus cases has fallen to 584, from a peak of 900 two weeks ago.
Health Minister Carolina Darias says, “We are on a downward trend and our data indicate that it will continue.”
But the case rate remains high, she says, compared to the country’s goal of 50 per 100,000 over 14 days.
The health ministry reported 643 deaths in the previous 24 hours, increasing the confirmed total to 63,700.
Spain has administered 2.23 million vaccines and nearly 890,000 of both doses.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The European Union’s medicines agency says it is developing guidance for drug companies planning to adapt COVID-19 vaccines to combat new variants of the coronavirus.
The European Medicines Agency says it has asked all vaccine makers “to investigate if their vaccine can offer protection against any new variants” such as those identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, and “submit relevant data.”
The EMA has so far authorized three vaccines for use in the 27-nation bloc, made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
The agency says that there are concerns that some of the virus mutations “could impact to different degrees the ability of the vaccines to protect against infection and disease.”
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s health minister says the country has reached an agreement to purchase another 50 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac company, bringing the total amount to 100 million doses.
Fahrettin Koca says the country is to receive at least 4.5 million doses developed by Pfizer by the end of March, with an option to purchase a further 30 million later.
Koca says an agreement has been reached to produce the Russian-developed vaccine Sputnik V in Turkey.
The country of 83.6 million people has received 15 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, he says.
Turkey is poised to start administering the second dose of the Sinovac shot on Thursday. Some 2.8 million people have so far received their first doses.
NEW YORK — A new government study finds that wearing two masks can be better than one in protecting against coronavirus spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday reported the results of a lab experiment. The researchers found that particles were blocked twice as much when two masks were worn.
The CDC is updating its guidance to address wearing two masks. It says that a cloth mask worn over a surgical mask can tighten the gaps around the mask’s edges that can let virus particles in.
The researchers found that wearing one mask — surgical or cloth — blocked around 40% of the particles coming in during an experiment. When a cloth mask was worn on top of a surgical mask, about 80% were blocked.
Some Americans have already started doubling up. Experts believe that’s at least partly out of concern about new strains of coronavirus that possibly spread more easily. The U.S. has registered 2.7 million confirmed cases and more than 468,000 confirmed deaths, the highest numbers in the world.
PHOENIX — State officials say Arizona will expand a COVID-19 vaccination site on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson and convert it into a state site with higher capacity for administering shots.
It will be the third state site and the first in metro Tucson, where Pima County already has distribution points. State officials say the new state site will be a partnership between the state, the university and the county.
The transition to the state site will begin with appointments starting on Feb. 18. Arizona on Wednesday reported 1,997 more confirmed cases and 176 deaths.
WASHINGTON — The White House is announcing three new mass vaccination sites in Texas, capable of delivering 10,000 shots per day among them.
The federally supported sites at stadiums in Dallas, Arlington and Houston will pair federal troops with local health officials to expand COVID-19 vaccinations in Texas.
White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients announced the new facilities on Wednesday, saying they will be operational on Feb. 22.
Zients adds the Biden administration has plans to open similar sites in more states in the coming weeks.
GENEVA — A group of experts on immunization working with the World Health Organization is recommending the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine against the coronavirus even in countries that have variants.
It comes after the South African government announced it wouldn’t deploy the AstraZeneca vaccine as widely as first planned out of concerns about its effectiveness against a variant that first emerged in the country.
The U.N.-backed COVAX Facility, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people in need around the world, hopes to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine later this month.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, noted the AstraZeneca vaccine requires storage at refrigerator temperatures — not the far colder temperatures required of the Pfizer vaccines.
So far, only Pfizer’s vaccine has received the emergency use authorization from WHO, though other countries and regions have individually authorized other vaccines.
MADRID — Spain will begin using the AstraZeneca vaccine for essential workers such as police, fire fighters and the military.
Vaccine guidelines were published Wednesday by Spanish health authorities. They are expected to be approved later in the day by regional health officials for the AstraZeneca shots and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The latter two already have been given to vulnerable groups, including the elderly and infirm.
The guidance says the AstraZeneca vaccine shouldn’t be given to people over 55 years or people with serious illness, because there is no data to show it works on them.
In line for the AstraZeneca vaccine are teachers and staff at nursery, primary and secondary schools, pharmacies, day centers for the elderly and those who provide home help for the elderly.
BRUSSELS — The chief of the European Union’s executive commission says the 27-nation bloc’s criticized coronavirus vaccine rollout can be partly blamed on the EU being overly optimistic the doses would be delivered on time.
As the EU’s reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed 500,000 on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defended the overall approach of the bloc’s 27 nations working together to fight the pandemic. But von der Leyen acknowledged mistakes in the strategy to quickly obtain sufficient vaccine doses for the bloc’s 447 million citizens.
She promised action to speed up the vaccine authorization process following earlier approvals that put the EU three weeks behind Britain in starting its mass vaccination campaign.
The United States, with a population of 330 million, has the world’s highest national death toll in the pandemic with more than 468,000 deaths.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal says COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths and cases are continuing their downward trend after a January surge.
The Health Ministry says the number pandemic patients in hospital fell below 6,000 for the first time since Jan. 23.
The 161 deaths in the previous 24 hours were the fewest since Jan. 17. The nearly 4,400 new infections were fewer than half the number a week ago.
The country went into lockdown on Jan. 15 and schools closed a week later.
TIRANA, Albania — Albanian authorities toughened virus preventive measures to cope with a recent surge of the daily infections.
In the next two weeks, the curfew will take effect from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., two hours earlier. All bars and restaurants should close, except for delivery. High schools will turn to remote learning.
Albania has seen a significant rise in the daily infections, reaching 1,239 new cases and 16 deaths on Tuesday. Four virus-related hospitals are reaching their capacities.
The health ministry registered 87,528 total confirmed cases and 1,488 confirmed deaths.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s minister for planning and development says vaccinations will next month for people 65 and over.
Asad Umar took to twitter saying the registration of people in this category will start next week.
The announcement comes hours after Pakistan reported additional 62 deaths from coronavirus and 1,072 new cases in the past 24 hours, amid steady decline in confirmed cases.
The development comes less than two weeks after Pakistan started vaccinating frontline health workers after it received 500,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
Pakistan has reported 12,128 confirmed deaths among 557,591 cases of the coronavirus in the past year.
NEW YORK — About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while 67% of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already done so, 15% are certain they won’t and 17% say probably not.
Many expressed doubts about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, even though few if any serious side effects have turned up more than a month and a half into the vaccination drive.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease scientist, has estimated that somewhere between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population needs to get inoculated to stop the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 470,000 Americans. More recently, he says the spread of more contagious variants of the virus increases the need for more people to get their shots — and quickly.
JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s health minister says the country will begin administering the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to its front-line health workers next week.
The workers will be monitored to see what protection the J&J shot provides from COVID-19, particularly against the variant dominant in the country.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said Wednesday that South Africa scrapped its plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because it “does not prevent mild to moderate disease” of the variant dominant in South Africa.
Mkhize asserts that the J&J vaccine, which is still being tested internationally, is safe.
He says those shots will be followed by a campaign to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people in South Africa by the end of the year. The minister said the country will be using the Pfizer vaccine and others, possibly including the Russian Sputnik V, Chinese Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines.
LONDON — Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
The prince’s Clarence House office says the 72-year-old heir to the throne and his wife, Camilla, 73, received the inoculations as part of the government’s drive to offer a first dose of the vaccine to the most vulnerable people in the population, including everyone over 70, by Feb. 15.
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, received their shots last month.