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Coronavirus live blog, Feb. 24, 2021: Illinois expanding to phase 1B of vaccination program Thursday

Here’s the latest news on how COVID-19 impacted Chicago and Illinois.

While Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union gear up for talks on reopening high schools, the state is moving forward with the expansion of eligibility for vaccines. However, less than 5% of residents have been vaccinated so far.

Here’s what else happened in coronavirus-related news.

News

TOP STORY: Less than 5% of Illinois residents fully vaccinated for COVID-19 as state prepares to expand eligibility

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Nearly 56,000 more COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered across Illinois, public health officials announced Wednesday, pushing the state’s overall shot tally past 2.3 million as more people become eligible to receive it later this week.

Still, with the latest 55,947 shots given Tuesday, only 619,480 residents across the state have received both required doses — about 4.9% of the population — and supply remains scarce, especially after heavy snow delayed shipments from the federal government last week.

Despite that, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is moving ahead with expanding Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination program Thursday, meaning people 16 and up with underlying health conditions can sign up to get a shot. That includes people with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other “co-morbidities,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

But that won’t be the case at sites in Chicago or suburban Cook County, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot and county Board President Toni Preckwinkle have said they won’t expand the pool of recipients when there’s nowhere near enough supply to cover the currently eligible essential workers and elderly people as it is.

The state is averaging 58,141 daily shots administered over the past week — down from a pre-snowstorm high of more than 66,000 — but Pritzker said he expects that number to bounce back as production and shipment ramps up.

Read the full story from Mitchell Armentrout here.

7:20 p.m. CPS open to remote learning fixes as F’s increase, attendance drops

As students continue to ask for more leniency and support in remote learning, Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson reiterated her stance Wednesday that the school district would not reduce screen time — but she suggested officials would be willing to revisit how that time is spent.

Those students’ pleas come as new data released Wednesday shows failing grades are up and attendance is down across Chicago Public Schools, largely along racial and socioeconomic lines.

The district’s year-to-date attendance has dropped 1.9% this school year compared to last —92.5% to 90.6% — with the most serious decreases coming among Black students at 4.5%, Latino children at 1.4%, special education students at 3.6% and homeless students at 6.7%, district records show. White and Asian American kids are attending at higher rates than last year.

High schools have faced a 4.3% drop in attendance compared to 0.9% for elementary schools, and charter school attendance has fallen 6.3% compared to 1.3% for district-run schools.

Read the full story from Nader Issa here.

5:41 p.m. Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine works well in big ‘real world’ test

A real-world test of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in more than half a million people confirms that it’s very effective at preventing serious illness or death, even after one dose.

Wednesday’s published results, from a mass vaccination campaign in Israel, give strong reassurance that the benefits seen in smaller, limited testing persisted when the vaccine was used much more widely in a general population with various ages and health conditions.

The vaccine was 92% effective at preventing severe disease after two shots and 62% after one. Its estimated effectiveness for preventing death was 72% two to three weeks after the first shot, a rate that may improve as immunity builds over time.

It seemed as effective in folks over 70 as in younger people.

“This is immensely reassuring ... better than I would have guessed,” said the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Gregory Poland.

Read the full story here.

4:49 p.m. High school reopening talks between CPS, CTU expected to start this week

Chicago Public Schools officials said Wednesday they hope to reopen high schools this spring for the first time during the pandemic, and will begin discussions with the Chicago Teachers Union over how and when to do so.

The logistics behind the resumption of in-person learning for older children would appear more complex than that of elementary students because of higher classroom-to-classroom mobility and the greater level of independence to which those students are accustomed.

But with a reopening framework established in a K-8 plan that is seeing thousands of students return over the next two weeks, district and union leaders expressed optimism the path back to classrooms for the 74,000 students in non-charter high schools won’t be as painful. They’ll look to juggle competing sets of parent priorities, but the school board president made clear Wednesday it would be “unacceptable” for high schools to stay closed this year.

“We know that many high school students and families are eager to learn more about their return to in-person instruction, and it is our goal to provide them with a safe, in-person option this school year,” schools chief Janice Jackson said at Wednesday’s virtual monthly school board meeting.

“Last week, we formally reached out to CTU leadership to begin this process. We expect to begin meeting with CTU later this week so that we can work towards a safe return that meets the needs of all of our students and families.”

Read the full story from Nader Issa here.

3:52 p.m. Chicago hospital fined $13,500 over masking policy after nurses file complaint after 3 die

A Northwest Side community hospital faces a possible penalty of almost $13,500 after it was cited late last year for not following federal guidelines related to respirator use for workers treating COVID-19 patients.

The action taken against Community First Medical Center in Portage Park followed an inspection that some nurses say was prompted by their complaints to federal regulators after the deaths of three of their colleagues who fell ill after being infected with the virus in 2020.

Community was cited for two “serious” violations in December, one for allegedly not testing the fit of respirator masks for employees and another for failure to provide a written “respiratory protection program” for workers, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration records.

The OSHA inspection was categorized as a fatality/catastrophe inquiry. The alleged violations were “grouped because they involve similar or related hazards that may increase the potential for injury or illness,” according to an OSHA document.

Hospital officials are contesting the citations and declined to discuss the matter other than to issue a short statement saying that the medical center “has felt the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand” and added that “our colleagues have become ill and some have made the ultimate sacrifice for their profession.”

Read the full story here.

2:24 p.m. States pass their own virus aid, not waiting on Washington

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Not waiting for more federal help, states have been approving their own coronavirus aid packages, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help residents and business owners devastated by the the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Maryland and California recently moved forward with help for the poor, the jobless, small businesses and those needing child care. New Mexico and Pennsylvania are funneling grants directly to cash-starved businesses. North Carolina’s governor wants additional state aid for such things as bonus pay for teachers and boosting rural internet speeds.

The spending also provides fuel for critics who say states don’t need another massive infusion of cash from Congress. The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan calls for sending $350 billion to state and local governments. Directing federal money to state governments has been so contentious that the idea was stripped from the previous congressional aid package passed in December.

Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has frequently criticized proposals to send more money to state governments, calling it a bailout for Democratic-run states he accuses of overspending.

“It’s great news that states are doing well, many seeing revenues higher than projected, and are able to help their citizens during this pandemic,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press. “House and Senate Democrats should follow the facts and ditch their radical efforts to award wasteful bailouts for failed politicians in states like New York and California.”

Read the full story here.

2:04 p.m. FDA says Johnson & Johnson 1-dose shot prevents COVID-19; final decision soon

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine protects against COVID-19, according to an analysis by U.S. regulators Wednesday that sets the stage for a final decision on a new and easier-to-use shot to help tame the pandemic.

The Food and Drug Administration’s scientists confirmed that overall the vaccine is about 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19. The agency also said J&J’s shot — one that could help speed vaccinations by requiring just one dose instead of two — is safe to use.

That’s just one step in the FDA’s evaluation of a third vaccine option for the U.S. On Friday, the agency’s independent advisers will debate if the evidence is strong enough to recommend the long-anticipated shot. Armed with that advice, FDA is expected to make a final decision within days.

The vaccination drive has been slower than hoped, hampered by logistical issues and weather delays even as the country mourns more than 500,000 virus-related deaths. So far, about 65 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine made by Pfizer or Moderna, shots that require two doses several weeks apart for full protection.

Read the full story here.

1:05 p.m. Biden aims to distribute masks to millions in ‘equity’ push

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to distribute millions of face masks to Americans in communities hard-hit by the coronavirus beginning next month as part of his efforts to ensure “equity” in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Biden, who like Donald Trump’s administration considered sending masks to all Americans, is instead adopting a more conservative approach, aiming to reach underserved communities and those bearing the brunt of the outbreak. Trump’s administration shelved the plans entirely.

Biden’s plan will distribute masks not through the mail, but instead through Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and the nation’s food bank and food pantry systems, the White House announced Wednesday.

The Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture will be involved in the distribution of more than 25 million American-made cloth masks in both adult and kid sizes. The White House estimates they will reach 12 million to 15 million people.

“Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all have access, and not all masks are equal,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.

Read the full story here.

12:21 p.m. Ghana 1st nation to receive coronavirus vaccines from COVAX

ACCRA, Ghana — Ghana received the world’s first delivery of coronavirus vaccines from the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative on Wednesday — the long-awaited start for a program that has thus far fallen short of hopes that it would ensure shots were given quickly to the world’s most vulnerable people.

The arrival of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the West African country marks the beginning of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. It is a linchpin of efforts to bring the pandemic to an end and has been hailed as the first time the world has delivered a highly sought-after vaccine to poor countries during an ongoing outbreak.

“Today marks the historic moment for which we have been planning and working so hard. With the first shipment of doses, we can make good on the promise of the COVAX facility to ensure people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race for life-saving vaccines,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, which delivered the vaccines.

But the initiative, formed to ensure fair access to vaccines by low- and middle-income countries, has been hampered by the severely limited global supply of doses and logistical problems. Although it aims to deliver 2 billion shots this year, it currently has legally binding agreements only for several hundred million shots.

Read the full story here.

9:07 a.m. Summer in the city? Chicago eases travel limits as statewide COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations hit July numbers

Public health officials in Chicago have loosened guidelines for travel to and from 18 states as the city’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate sits at its lowest point since the onset of the pandemic.

Statewide, the seven-day average positivity rate is the lowest it’s been since July. And COVID-19 hospitalizations are at comparable levels.

For Chicago, the states seeing less travel restrictions include Wisconsin and Indiana, which have also seen coronavirus infections decline, moving them down from the “orange tier” to yellow on the color-coded emergency travel order updated Tuesday by the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The city still wants people traveling from the 31 remaining orange-level hot spot states — including Iowa and Kentucky — to quarantine for 10 days or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test from within three days of arrival to Chicago.

That will no longer apply for people who have been fully vaccinated against the virus. The updated order goes into effect Friday.

Read the full story from Mitchell Armentrout here.


New Cases

  • Chicago’s seven-day average positivity rate is down to 3.1%, the lowest it has been since the virus gripped the state early last year.
  • The Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday announced the latest 1,665 cases diagnosed among 61,400 tests.