NEW YORK — Another mutated version of the coronavirus has popped up in New York City, and experts reacted to the the news with a mixture of caution and concern.

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People wait in line Wednesday at a mass vaccination site in New York City. Researchers have flagged another mutated version of the coronavirus spreading in New York, but experts say it’s too soon to know if the variant will be problematic. Associated Press/Seth Wenig, pool

The new variant first appeared in the New York area in late November and has since cropped up in neighboring states, according to researchers at the California Institute of Technology, one of two teams to share their work this week.

But how problematic the variant may be isn’t known yet. Viruses are constantly mutating – or making typos in their genetic code – as they spread and make copies of themselves.

Some genetic tweaks can be worrisome, especially if they help the virus spread more easily, make it more deadly or curb the effectiveness of vaccines. Scientists use genome sequencing and other research to figure out which are a potential problem.

New York City health officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday sought to tamp down worries about the new variant, emphasizing that the new research is preliminary and little is known about the variant.

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Biden marks 50 million vaccine doses in first 5 weeks in office

WASHINGTON — Days after marking a solemn milestone in the pandemic, President Joe Biden is celebrating the pace of his efforts to end it.

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President Biden looks on as Washington, D.C., firefighter and EMT Gerald Burn receives a vaccination during an event Thursday to mark 50 million COVID-19 shots since Inauguration Day. Associated Press/Evan Vucci

On Thursday, Biden marked the administration of the 50 millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine since his swearing-in. The moment came days after the nation reached the devastating milestone of 500,000 coronavirus deaths and ahead of a meeting with the nation’s governors on plans to speed the distribution even further.

“The more people get vaccinated, the faster we’re going to beat this pandemic,” Biden said at the White House ceremony, noting that his administration is on course to exceed his promise to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. “We’re halfway there: 50 million shots in 37 days,” Biden said. “That’s weeks ahead of schedule.”

All told, more than 45 million Americans have been administered at least one dose of the approved vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna since they received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in December, with more than 20 million receiving both required doses.

As part of the ceremony, four front-line workers — a pair of emergency medical technicians, a school counselor and a grocery store worker — received vaccine doses on live television, part of the White House’s efforts to build confidence in the vaccination program.

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One in 10 people infected suffer from ‘long COVID,’ WHO says

About one in 10 people who have contracted COVID-19 continue to show symptoms three months after infection, the World Health Organization said Thursday, urging policymakers to do more to acknowledge and treat the phenomenon often referred to as “long COVID.”

Symptoms can include everything from fatigue to chest pain to depression to a loss of smell, the WHO said in a policy brief released Thursday by its Europe division. The head of WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, said “many thousands” are suffering from persistent ill-health with “severe social, economic, health and occupational consequences.”

A doctor in Nice, France assembles tubes of odors to waft under the nose of a blindfolded patient during tests to help determine why she has been unable to smell or taste since she contracted COVID-19 in November 2020. Associated Press/John Leicester

“The burden is real and it is significant … [but] as with any new disease, so much was and remains unknown,” Kluge said at a briefing, adding that doctors and patients have “mapped a path in the dark.”

Some experiencing long-term symptoms have been “met with disbelief or lack of understanding,” he said. “The sufferers of post-COVID conditions need to be heard if we are to understand the long-term consequences.”

His warnings come as global infections have reached 118 million, although cases are trending downward worldwide. Vaccinations against the virus are on the rise, despite the proliferation of new variants experts say are more contagious than the original strain.

People grappling with the lingering effects of COVID-19 have reported feeling stigmatized and unable to persuade medical professionals to take their cases seriously, according to the brief, titled “Preparing for Long COVID.”

It also found that women and health-care workers appeared to be at greater risk.

About a quarter of those with COVID-19 suffer symptoms about a month after testing positive, but some 1 in 10 experience symptoms after 12 weeks, according to the authors.

Tokyo Olympics chiefs say no cheering or shouting at torch relay

TOKYO – With the Olympic flame at its heart, the role of the torch relay is “to arouse joy and excitement for the Games” across the host nation. That’s the message Tokyo 2020 officials put out on Thursday. But, they warned, be careful how you express your joy – and definitely don’t get too excited.

Actress Satomi Ishihara runs during a rehearsal of the torch relay in Tokyo, in February 2020, as crowds line the roadside to watch. Japan News-Yomiuri

“We ask that spectators refrain from cheering and shouting,” Yukihiko Nunomura, a senior member of organizing committee, said at a news conference, explaining that spectators will be expected to wear masks. “Please cheer by clapping your hands,” he added.

Spectators aren’t being discouraged from attending, organizers stressed. But crowds are, if you can work out when a group of spectators becomes a crowd.

“If by any chance, any dense gatherings happen on streets, the torch relay can be stopped as we prioritize safety and security,” Nunomura said.

The tamped-down torch relay will begin on March 25 in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The flame is supposed to travel through all of Japan’s 47 prefectures before arriving in Tokyo for the July 23 Opening Ceremony. But the route may be modified based on the pandemic situation, organizers said.

The relay will be live-streamed to deter mass gatherings on streets.

“We ask people to watch the livestream to avoid overcrowding,” Nunomura said. “But if there aren’t crowds, we want people to actively join on-site and enliven the mood.”

New research shows California coronavirus variant is more transmissible

A coronavirus variant detected in California this winter rapidly became dominant in the state over five months and now makes up more than half of the infections in 44 counties, according to new research from scientists who believe this version of the virus should be declared a “variant of concern warranting urgent follow-up investigation.”

The United States has been ramping up scrutiny of the shape-shifting virus, and scientists have identified many genetically distinct variants, but there is continued uncertainty and debate over which of these mutations are significant and to what extent. The variant identified in California has emerged as potentially the first homegrown “variant of concern” in the United States, though it has not yet been designated that by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Los Angeles County emergency medical technicians deliver patients for admission at an LA hospital on Wednesday. Associated Press/Damian Dovarganes

The variant contains a mutation that scientists suspect is enhancing the virus’s ability to bind to human receptor cells. If truly more transmissible, as the new study contends, the California variant joins a growing list of virus variants circulating in the United States as the country continues to emerge from the devastating winter wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Those key metrics have been trending in a positive direction since peaking in January. Whether the variants can significantly slow, or even reverse, those trends is unknown. Forecasts must take into account multiple variables, including vaccination rates, continued mutation of the virus and the unpredictability of human behavior.

But evidence from other countries suggests that highly transmissible variants can be suppressed through public health interventions, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and restrictions on gatherings, and by broadening immunity through vaccination campaigns.

Dozens got coronavirus from high-intensity workouts in gyms. The CDC warns that masks, better ventilation are a must.

In September, a Chicago resident called their gym with alarming news: They’d recently come to an indoor workout class despite feeling sick and then later tested positive for the coronavirus.

A man works out on a treadmill in a Massachusetts fitness gym in July, 2020. Associated Press/Steven Senne

The gym quickly shut its doors, but it was too late. Fifty-five of the 81 people who attended high-intensity classes at the facility between Aug. 24 and Sept. 1 would eventually test positive. A similar case tied to three gyms in Honolulu over the summer resulted in 22 total infections.

Citing both cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday urged gym users to wear masks during intense workouts — even when socially distant — and asked gyms to improve ventilation and push for outdoor activities when possible.

The new research is a reminder that working out indoors with other people carries a significant risk of infection, public health experts said.

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Pfizer studying effects of a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine

NEW YORK — Pfizer announced Thursday that it has begun studying a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine, part of a strategy to guard against mutated versions of the coronavirus.

Health authorities say first-generation COVID-19 vaccines still protect against variants that are emerging in different parts of the world. But manufacturers are starting to prepare now in case a more vaccine-resistant mutation comes along.

Pfizer said it will offer a third dose to 144 volunteers, drawing from people who participated in the vaccine’s early-stage U.S. testing last year. It wants to determine if an additional booster shot given six to 12 months after the first two doses would rev up the immune system enough to ward off a mutated virus.

Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, also are tweaking their vaccine recipe. The companies are in discussions with U.S. and European regulators about a study to evaluate doses updated to better match variants such as the one first discovered in South Africa.

N.H. House approves a bill to refund fines paid by businesses that have violated emergency orders

CONCORD, N.H. — Meeting indoors for the first time since September, the Republican-led New Hampshire House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would reverse and refund the fines paid by businesses that have violated emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and — after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 — from their cars in a parking lot. The sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday are being held at sports complex in Bedford that offers more space to spread out than the previous facilities, as well as separate entrances for members from opposing parties.

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The New Hampshire House of Representatives, meeting in an an indoor arena, rise to honor former House Speaker Richard Hinch, who died of COVID-19 a week after being sworn in December. Associated Press/Charles Krupa

“Let’s keep this thing as safe as we can,” said House Speaker Sherm Packard, who successfully fought attempts by medically vulnerable Democrats to attend the sessions remotely.

With more than 130 bills on the agenda, one of the first actions members took Wednesday was to give an initial nod to a bill that would refund money to businesses that were fined for violating the governor’s orders on mask use and other restrictions. As of late last month, eight businesses had been fined a total of $10,000.

A general store in Loudon was fined $2,000 in October after being warned more than 10 times that workers must wear masks. That same month, Fat Katz Food and Drink in Hudson was fined $2,000 for holding an indoor karaoke event after being told it wasn’t allowed. Nearly 20 people later tested positive for the virus.

Rep. Chris True, R-Sandown, said the bill would not “make any business whole” but would be a good first step.

“The people and the businesses in New Hampshire have suffered enough, and we must stop adding to their pain,” he said.

Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, called the bill ill-timed and unwise, and said it would send a message to those who have followed the orders that “your state has chosen to reward people who chose not to follow the rules during the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years.”

“This is a time when we need to do everything in our power to rid ourselves of the virus and not to rid ourselves of accountability,” he said. “Freedom from accountability during a pandemic isn’t freedom. It’s anarchy.”

In a statement, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said lawmakers should not be incentivizing law-breaking.

Family doctors begin to administer vaccine in France

PARIS — Family doctors in France have started giving COVID-19 vaccine shots vulnerable people between the ages of 50 and 64 as the country works to speed up its vaccination program against the coronavirus.

Vaccines administrated by doctors are reserved to those with pre-existing health condition that make them more susceptible to complications of COVID-19 if they become infected.

France has started its vaccination campaign on Dec. 27 in nursing homes. Since then, it has opened hundreds of vaccination centers across the country to provide vaccines to people over age 75 and health care workers.

Making vaccines available to the next category of recipients through family doctors starting Thursday marks the next step in the vaccination rollout. Doctors are allowed to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine at their practice offices or at patients’ workplaces.

French authorities have reported over 85,000 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the highest tolls in Europe.

Taiwan will ease restrictions on foreign visitors

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan will begin slightly easing restrictions on foreign visitors coming to the island beginning Monday.

The Central Epidemic Command Center says foreign nationals wishing to come to Taiwan for business can apply for special permission at the island’s representative offices abroad.

They will need to show negative coronavirus test results obtained three days before they travel and will be tested again after undergoing two weeks of quarantine. Travelers from a list of countries and regions classified as being of low or medium risk for COVID-19 can apply for shortened quarantine periods of between five and seven days.

Those include New Zealand, Macao, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Rule changes will also allow for foreigners in travel groups to change flights in Taiwan, and make it easier for Chinese citizens to visit for personal reasons and for Chinese students to return to Taiwanese institutions of higher education.

Taiwan instituted stricter measures on Jan. 1 to guard against variants of the coronavirus. The island of 23 million has recorded just 946 cases and nine deaths from COVID-19.

California’s coronavirus deaths rises above 50,000, one-tenth of U.S. total

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County is reporting another 806 deaths from coronavirus during the winter surge, pushing California’s toll above 50,000, or about one-tenth of the U.S. total from the pandemic.

The county, which has a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, said Wednesday that it checked backlogged death records and found the deaths, most of which occurred between December and early this month.

Johns Hopkins University puts California’s overall COVID-19 death toll at 50,890. The grim figure comes just days after the U.S. recorded a half-million deaths.


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