An increasing number of states and communities say they are planning to resume or expand in-person learning a year into the coronavirus pandemic, as new infections decline and vaccinations rise.
North Carolina’s governor announced an agreement on a bill Wednesday with lawmakers — still to be passed — that would remove capacity limits from middle and high schools.
Los Angeles’ main school district this week reached a tentative deal with teachers to resume in-person classes for many of their youngest students by April. New York City’s high schools will reopen by March 22, as its other schools did earlier.
And leaders in other states, including Arizona, Oregon and New Mexico say they’ve ordered or otherwise expect all their schools to offer in-person instruction in the next few days or weeks.
This comes as states increasingly ease other coronavirus restrictions or rules, including Texas, which on Wednesday lifted its statewide mask mandate and began letting businesses operate at full capacity. Several leading public health experts have said it’s too soon to drop those rules, concerned that more-contagious variants might fuel another case spike in just several weeks’ time.
But if anything should reopen, they should be schools, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.
“Schools should be the first place to open,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC. “So, if your schools are not open, I don’t believe that we should be opening other places because we really do need to get our children back to school.”
The CDC released guidance in the past few weeks aimed at safely getting children and teachers back to school.
Although that guidance didn’t insist that teachers be vaccinated before returning to class, the CDC did recommend they be prioritized for the shots. Most states allow teachers to be vaccinated now, and all 50 will make them eligible by Monday.
‘We’re not out of the woods yet,’ Fauci says
Texas isn’t the only state moving to end its mask mandate. Utah will lift its statewide mask rule on April 10, the governor’s office said.
At least 16 states don’t have mask mandates now, and a few others, including Alabama, have said they intend to join that list within weeks.
Some public health experts have encouraged people to keep masking and distancing until significantly more vaccinations happen, regardless of what states may allow.
They point to a potential threat from more-transmissible coronavirus variants, such as B.1.1.7, the one first identified in the United Kingdom. That one, they say, is a threat in part because their share caught in surveillance testing is increasing, and because spring break trips may promote more spread.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Wednesday. “When you start doing things like completely putting aside all public health measures … that’s inviting (another case surge) when you do that.”
Still, Covid-19 inoculations are rising. More than 62 million people in the country have received at least one shot, and 32.9 million — or 9.9% of the US population — are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
That’s not high enough yet to crush the spread of the coronavirus through herd immunity, something experts say would take months still.
But if case rates keep dropping while the country gets more vaccines into arms, the nation will get “closer to being safe from another (case) surge,” Fauci said.
“You can never put your guard down completely. … (But) once you get a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated, that is a very, very strong defense against there being another surge,” Fauci told CNN’s “New Day.”
The country has averaged more than 55,800 new Covid-19 cases a day over the last week — a 13% decline from the week previous, and well below the nation’s pandemic peak average of more than 255,300 a day on January 10, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The nation’s test-positivity rate, or the percentage of tests taken that turn out to be positive, averaged about 4.2% over the last week as of Sunday — one of the country’s lowest averages recorded during the pandemic, according to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services. The World Health Organization previously suggested governments could consider reopening when the positivity rate is 5% or lower for at least two weeks.
But the positivity rate isn’t dropping everywhere. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday his city’s positivity rate was 13.1%, higher than it was last week. Texas’ seven-day average rate as of Sunday was 7.3% — down from 9.5% a week earlier, according to HHS data.
Biden to announce plans to buy 100 million more J&J shots, sources say
President Joe Biden will announce Wednesday that he is directing the US Department of Health and Human Services to purchase an additional 100 million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, a White House official told CNN.
The New York Times first reported the expected announcement.
Biden announced last week that the US would have enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for every adult American by the end of May, given what Johnson & Johnson had already pledged, along with expected supplies of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
This new purchase of Johnson & Johnson vaccines will not accelerate that timeline, but these doses would help build up US vaccine stock later in the year.
Some states announce more people now eligible for a shot
This week, several state leaders announced they were opening up current eligibility requirements and allowing more residents to get a vaccine.
Alaska took it the furthest by making vaccines available to everyone living or working in the state who is at least 16 years old — becoming the first state in the country to do so.
“With widespread vaccinations available to all Alaskans who live or work here, we will no doubt see our economy grow and our businesses thrive,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.
Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is the only one available for use by people who are 16 or older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are both restricted to people 18 or older.
In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday the state will allow anyone 16 or older who has certain high-risk conditions to schedule a vaccine appointment starting Thursday.
Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said that to make vaccine distribution more equitable, the state will allow household members accompanying eligible residents who are Black, indigenous or people of color to vaccine appointments, to also get a vaccine starting next week.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards also said Tuesday people 16 and older with certain health conditions are now eligible to get a vaccine.
“We came to this decision after hearing from our providers over the weekend that there’s a little slack in the appointments, and that they were able to accommodate and ready to accommodate more people,” Edwards said.
“We also have had a very stable supply (of vaccine), especially of the Moderna and the Pfizer, so we feel comfortable about what’s coming ahead,” he added.
CDC wants more data before giving travel guidance to vaccinated people
When the CDC released guidance this week for what people can do when they’ve been fully vaccinated, it did not mention travel.
Walensky, when ABC asked her Wednesday why travel guidance wasn’t included, said her agency is waiting for more information — such as whether the coronavirus cases spike again, and how soon vaccine protection fades.
“This is some of the data and evidence we are watching really carefully,” Walensky told ABC. “We are watching for breakthrough infections; we’re monitoring this really carefully. And that’s some of the science that we’re waiting to emerge before we liberalize our guidance — it’s the reason we’re taking these baby steps.”
She noted that when travel surges in the US — such as over holidays — case surges follow. She also told a Covid-19 briefing Wednesday that she is “looking forward” to updating the guidance once more people get inoculated.