Arizona orders schools to reopen for in-person classes by March 15; New York eases travel policies; 518K US deaths. Latest COVID-19 updates

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered all schools must return to in-person learning this month, saying “students need to be back in the classroom.”

Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday that calls for all schools to reopen in-person learning by March 15, or after spring break.

The move comes about a year after schools initially closed in-person classes to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Some states have similar plans to welcome back students, including California, Michigan and North Carolina.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package being debated in the Senate, has about $130 billion included for schools to give them the resources to reopen safely amid the pandemic. Many states are now vaccinating teachers in an effort to get them back into classrooms as soon as possible. 

There is emerging proof that vaccines are effective: There has been, for example, a significant drop in cases among health care workers in Los Angeles County, where many have been vaccinated.

Public health officials reported this week that among health care workers, cases have dropped to the lowest number since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“During the week of November 29, there were over 1,800 cases among healthcare workers. The week of February 14, there were just 69 cases,” they said in a news release.

Also in the news:

► President Joe Biden slammed the decisions of some states to roll back coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday, a day after the Texas and Mississippi governors said they’re doing away with mask mandates. Only about 8% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

► Health officials in Hillsborough County, Florida, have determined that official events around Super Bowl 55 resulted in 57 total COVID-19 cases, despite the thousands of fans who traveled to Tampa to attend the game and surrounding events.

► New York, one of the first states in the U.S. to implement travel restrictions on domestic visitors last spring, took another step toward relaxing its COVID-19 policies Wednesday by lifting the quarantine and COVID-19 testing restrictions on people who have been vaccinated within 90 days of their second inoculation.

► An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Vermont state prison in Newport has grown to 100 inmates and eight staff members, making it the largest outbreak at a Vermont correctional facility since the start of the pandemic, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections said.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 518,300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 115.12 million cases and 2.55 million deaths. More than 107 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 80 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Four states have announced rolling back mask mandates in major recalls of COVID-19 safety measures over the last month — leaving many to wonder whether additional states will join the tide and alter how the country is dealing with COVID-19 at a crucial moment in the fight against the disease. Read the full story

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Licensed vocational nurse Jelisa Stewart prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a County of Santa Clara mobile vaccination clinic on Wednesday in Morgan Hill, Calif.

Starbucks, Target among retailers that will still require masks in Texas

Even as some states roll back mask mandates, some of the nation’s largest retailers including Kroger, Macy’s, Starbucks and Target are not rolling back theirs.

Kroger, which also owns supermarket chains including Ralphs and Dillons, said in a statement to USA TODAY that it will “continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Best Buy also told USA TODAY it had no plans to change its mask policy.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the face covering requirement and “open Texas 100%” to full capacity on March 10 conflict with safety protocols at many businesses. Read more here.

– Jessica Guynn

California officials dispute local report of underdosing at Oakland Coliseum

The California Office of Emergency Services is disputing a local television report that some people who were vaccinated on Monday at the Oakland Coliseum received too little of the Pfizer dose.

The Bay Area’s KTVU reported Wednesday that two EMTs told them they had received a number of 0.3-mL syringes at the site that day just before 2 p.m. that left about a third of the vaccine stuck in the bottom of the plunger.

But Cal OES spokesman Brian Ferguson said in an email to USA TODAY that neither the state nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency “are aware of any instance of even a single individual being under-vaccinated” at the site.

“The public should rest assured that vaccines administered at the Coliseum are being dispensed in a manner consistent with medical and scientific best practices and will work as designed,” he wrote.

What to know about COVID variants spreading throughout the country

Health officials are urging Americans to not let their guards down against COVID-19 as researchers discover new variants that may already be more transmissible and could also be somewhat resistant to the vaccine.

“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Monday. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”

While experts have been following variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, they’re also seeing red flags in other variants discovered closer to home in Brazil, New York and California. Find out what you should know about the variants.

– Adriana Rodriguez

Contributing: The Associated Press

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