Coronavirus live blog, April 23, 2021: Fears of third statewide spike lessens as positivity rate continues to decline

Here’s Friday’s news on how COVID-19 is impacting Chicago and Illinois. Follow here for live updates.

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7 p.m. Fears of third statewide spike lessens as positivity rate continues to decline

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Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois’ average statewide COVID-19 testing positivity rate fell to its lowest point in three weeks Friday as public health officials reported 3,369 new cases of the disease.

They were diagnosed among 104,795 tests, sending the positivity rate down to 3.6% and continuing an 11-day streak without any increases in that key metric, which indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also reported a third straight night of decreasing COVID-19 hospitalizations, easing concerns — for now — that a third statewide spike in infections that started last month could spiral further out of control. Hospitals across the state were treating 2,112 COVID-19 patients Thursday night.

Chicago’s regional positivity rate is down to 5.1% compared to 5.7% a week ago, while the city’s daily rate has fallen by 15%.

Read the complete story by Mitchell Armentrout here.

6 p.m. Loyola to require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall

Loyola University Chicago will require students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus this fall.

The decision came after the university announced plans last week to return to in-person classes at three of its Chicago campuses this fall for undergraduate and many graduate programs.

Columbia College and DePaul University previously announced they will require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall.

The vaccine requirement is “the most effective, efficient, and safest way to return to campus,” Jo Ann Rooney, president of Loyola, and Norberto Grzywacz, provost and chief academic officer, said in a joint statement sent to the university community Thursday.

Read the complete story here.

5 p.m. Indian hospitals plead for oxygen, country sets virus record

NEW DELHI — India put oxygen tankers on special express trains as major hospitals in New Delhi begged on social media on Friday for more supplies to save COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breathe. More than a dozen people died when an oxygen-fed fire ripped through a coronavirus ward in a populous western state.

India’s underfunded health system is tattering as the world’s worst coronavirus surge wears out the nation, which set a global record in daily infections for a second straight day with 332,730.

India has confirmed 16 million cases so far, second only to the United States in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. India has recorded 2,263 deaths in the past 24 hours for a total of 186,920.

The fire in a hospital intensive care unit killed 13 COVID-19 patients in the Virar area on the outskirts of Mumbai early Friday.

The situation is worsening by the day with hospitals taking to social media to plead with the government to replenish their oxygen supplies and threatening to stop admissions of new patients.

Read the complete story here.

4:15 p.m. US health panel urges restarting J&J COVID-19 vaccinations

A U.S. health panel says it’s time to resume use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, despite a very rare risk of blood clots.

Out of nearly 8 million people vaccinated before the U.S. suspended J&J’s shot, health officials uncovered 15 cases of a highly unusual kind of blood clot, three of them fatal. All were women, most younger than 50.

But advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday the vaccine’s benefits outweigh that serious but small risk — especially against a virus that’s still infecting tens of thousands of Americans every day. The government will rapidly weigh that recommendation in deciding next steps.

Read the complete story here.

3 p.m. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson questions need for COVID-19 vaccinations

MADISON, Wis. — Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, questioned the need for widespread COVID-19 vaccinations, saying in a radio interview “what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?”

Johnson, who has no medical expertise or background, made the comments Thursday during an interview with conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna. Contrary to what medical experts advise, Johnson has said he doesn’t need to be vaccinated because he had COVID-19 in the fall. On Thursday, he went further, questioning why anyone would get vaccinated or worry about why others have not.

“For the very young, I see no reason to be pushing vaccines on people.” Johnson said. “I certainly am going to vigorously resist any kind of government use or imposing of vaccine passports. ... That could be a very freedom-robbing step and people need to understand these things.”

Johnson’s comments come as health officials in the U.S. and around the world urge people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as possible, saying that reaching herd immunity is the best shot at stopping the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Read the complete story here.

2:10 p.m. Payroll Protection Plan paid off for Illinois banks; see which of them got the most money

Illinois banks issued 239,000 loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program worth $29 billion to businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic — and collected at least $1.5 billion in fees ultimately paid by taxpayers, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis finds.

Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank got the most money in fees: at least $232 million for handling 34,000 loans that totaled $6 billion that the banking company’s top executive has said contributed heavily to “a good” first quarter of 2021.

BMO Harris’s PPP loans ranged from just $133 to the maximum amount allowed under the program — $10 million.

The 360 banks with headquarters in Illinois made loans through the program to businesses in all 50 states and four U.S. territories.

Illinois ranked 10th among states for total fees and seventh for dollars provided in the loans, which did not need to be repaid as long as businesses spent all of the money to keep employees on the payroll and pay rent and utilities.

Read the complete story by Lauren FitzPatrick and Stephanie Zimmerman here.

1 p.m. US drop in vaccine demand has some places turning down doses

JACKSON, Miss. — Louisiana has stopped asking the federal government for its full allotment of COVID-19 vaccine. About three-quarters of Kansas counties have turned down new shipments of the vaccine at least once over the past month. And in Mississippi, officials asked the federal government to ship vials in smaller packages so they don’t go to waste.

As the supply of coronavirus vaccine doses in the U.S. outpaces demand, some places around the country are finding there’s such little interest in the shots, they need to turn down shipments.

“It is kind of stalling. Some people just don’t want it,” said Stacey Hileman, a nurse with the health department in rural Kansas’ Decatur County, where less than a third of the county’s 2,900 residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

The dwindling demand for vaccines illustrates the challenge that the U.S. faces in trying to conquer the pandemic while at the same time dealing with the optics of tens of thousands of doses sitting on shelves when countries like India and Brazil are in the midst of full-blown medical emergencies.

Read the complete story here.

12:15 p.m. N95 masks, now plentiful, should no longer be reused: FDA

The Biden administration has taken the first step toward ending an emergency exception that allowed hospitals to ration and reuse N95 medical masks, the first line of defense between frontline workers and the deadly coronavirus.

Thousands of medical providers have died in the COVID-19 pandemic, many exposed and infected while caring for patients without adequate protection.

Critical shortages of masks, gowns, swabs, and other medical supplies prompted the Trump administration to issue guidelines for providers to ration, clean, and reuse disposable equipment. Thus, throughout the pandemic, once a week many doctors and nurses were issued an N95 mask, which is normally designed to be tossed after each patient.

Now U.S. manufacturers say they have vast surpluses for sale, and hospitals say they have three to 12 month stockpiles.

Read the complete story here.

11:30 a.m. Limited number of walk-in COVID-19 vaccine appointments start today at city-run clinics

The vaccine “Hunger Games” are over.

After four months of frustration for thousands of residents who scrambled to claim fleeting batches of COVID-19 vaccination appointments, Chicago finally has enough doses to provide a shot to anyone who wants one, the city’s top doctor said Thursday.

Thanks to a “softening” of vaccine demand in other parts of Illinois and growth in supply provided by the federal government, “you can get one today, no excuses,” according to Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Read Mitchell Armentrout’s full story here.

10:45 a.m. Topless clubs in Las Vegas among Nevada businesses allowed to reopen under COVID protocols

LAS VEGAS — Topless dancers in Las Vegas can soon shed coronavirus restrictions along with some of their clothing and once again get face-to-face with patrons under rules accepted Thursday by a Nevada COVID-19 task force.

But masks still will be required for adult entertainment employees and will still be recommended for customers.

Strip clubs that went dark when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered casinos, clubs and nonessential businesses closed in March 2020 will be able to open May 1 at 80% of fire code capacity under strict social distancing guidelines.

The rules will allow strip club entertainers to get closer than three feet to patrons if the entertainer has gotten at least a first coronavirus vaccination 14 days earlier, according to county rules or if the dancers test negative in a weekly COVID test.

Occupancy limits will be relaxed but not completely lifted at many other businesses — stores, spas and saunas, restaurants and bars, even karaoke clubs — under a new reopening plan adopted by Clark County officials.

Read the full story here.

9 a.m. National Spelling Bee revamps to ensure single champion in pandemic-altered competition.

WASHINGTON— The Scripps National Spelling Bee is undergoing a major overhaul to ensure it can identify a single champion, adding vocabulary questions and a lightning-round tiebreaker to this year’s pandemic-altered competition.

The 96-year-old bee has in the past included vocabulary on written tests but never in the high-stakes oral competition rounds, where one mistake eliminates a speller. The only previous tiebreaker to determine a single champion was a short-lived extra written test that never turned out to be needed.

The changes, announced this week, amount to a new direction for the bee under executive director J. Michael Durnil, who started in the job earlier this year.

Read the complete story here.


New cases and vaccination rates


Analysis & Commentary

11 a.m. COVID-19’s silver linings

As of this week, more than 40% of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine and 26% are fully vaccinated. Though it wasn’t planned this way, more normal human life is returning just as the redbuds, azaleas, magnolias and tulips are performing their gorgeous annual affirmation of renewal. Fears of catastrophic depression, widespread shortages and massive civil unrest are receding.

Hundreds of thousands of American families and millions worldwide are bereaved, and nearly everyone has experienced some form of disruption, pain or trauma during the past year. But not everything changed for the worse.

A recent Pew poll found that among adults whose jobs can be conveniently performed online, 54% would like to continue working from home after the pandemic is over. Another 33% said they’d like to do so part time. If employers agree, then that could mark a dramatic change in many areas of American life — less road congestion, reduced demand for office space and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from cars and buses. That also means less income for real estate landlords, bus drivers, restaurants, dry cleaners, delivery services and other businesses that serve office workers. There will be many dislocations and adjustments.

Read the full column by Mona Charen here.

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