Vaccines open to all adults by April 15 in three biggest states; Joe Biden doubles target to 200M doses in 100 days: Latest COVID-19 updates

The U.S. coronavirus death toll could have stayed under 300,000 if by last May the nation had adopted firm mask, social distancing and testing protocols while waiting for vaccines to vanquish the crisis, a University of California, Los Angeles economics professor estimates.

The report was released Thursday, the same day President Joe Biden set a new target of 200 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office, double his initial goal.

The U.S. death toll exceeds 545,000 and continues to rise. UCLA Professor Andrew Atkeson projects a final fatality level of around 672,000. Without a vaccine, 1.27 million would have died, Atkeson estimated in a report released Thursday at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity conference.

“Public efforts at disease control can save a lot of lives over the long run by controlling disease while we wait for a vaccine or a cure,” Atkeson told The Brookings Institution. “We have a tremendous opportunity to learn from international experience with COVID on how to do that without tanking the economy.”

The report comes as America's long stretch of declining daily coronavirus cases appears to be ending – and some states are seeing rapid increases even as one-third of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccination shot.

Also in the news:

►Despite warnings from health experts that the U.S. could be headed for a spring surge in coronavirus cases, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is prohibiting government mask mandates and allowing bars and nightclubs that were closed for months to open their doors without restrictions. Limits on gatherings of 50 or more people also were lifted.

►The CDC said 26.3% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 14% has completed vaccination. The country's seven-day average for daily new cases increased over the last two weeks from 56,315 on March 10 to 57,531 on Wednesday.

►Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday reduced the coronavirus social distancing requirements for K-12 classrooms in the state from 6 feet to 3 feet as more schools begin to open up. New CDC guidelines approve that reduction.

►New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans Thursday to set up vaccination sites for Broadway performers and theater workers to ensure shows can make a return to the city this fall. Broadway theaters abruptly closed on March 12, 2020.

►AstraZeneca released updated information on its COVID-19 clinical trial late Wednesday, showing an effectiveness rate of 76% instead of the 79% rate it claimed earlier in the week.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has over 30 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 546,300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: 125.3 million cases and 2.75 million deaths. More than 169.2 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 133 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: A growing share of Americans would feel safe resuming activities such as dining out or flying within a few weeks of their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, but 25% to 30% would wait until the nation reaches herd immunity, according to a Harris Poll survey for USA TODAY. Read the full story.

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Joe Biden doubles down, targets 200M shots for first 100 days

President Joe Biden opened his first formal news conference by setting a new goal of administering 200 million COVID vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office. Biden’s original goal was to administer 100 million shots in that period. The U.S. passed that goal last week and is already on track to reach 200 million shots by the president’s first 100 days. The U.S. is now averaging about 2.5 million doses per day; 133 million shots have already been given, though some before Biden took office Jan. 20.

“I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal,” Biden said Thursday. “But no other country in the world has even come close. Not even close to what we're doing. I believe we can do it.”

Michael Collins

California to open vaccines for all 16 and older April 15

California, the nation's most populous state with 40 million people, will make all residents 16 and above eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting April 15. In addition, those 50 and older will become eligible April 1.

That doesn't mean vaccine appointments will be available right away, but state officials expect supply to increase substantially in the coming weeks as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine becomes more widely distributed.

According to the Los Angeles Times, California expects to get about 2.5 million doses per week in the first half of April and more than 3 million later in the month. That's a major leap from the 1.8 million expected doses this week.

With California and Florida announcing Thursday they're dropping age requirements in the coming weeks, the country's three largest states by population will make COVID-19 vaccines available to all adults by no later than mid-April. Texas plans to do so Monday.  

US to aid world vaccination effort –after inoculating Americans first

Wealthy countries that have secured large amounts of COVID-19 vaccine doses, including the U.S., have come under increasing pressure to share their bounty.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, reiterated that point recently, noting that as long as the pandemic rages out of control anywhere, variants can emerge and pose risks to those thought to be immune.

"The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage,'' he said. "It’s also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating."

The Biden administration has vowed to contribute to the global vaccination effort and has pledged $4 billion toward that cause, but wants to take care of Americans first.

"The president has stated his No. 1 priority is to make sure we prioritize vaccination in this country,'' said Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response. "We've suffered over 540,000 deaths, more than anywhere else in the world."

– Karen Weintraub

Rutgers among first universities to require COVID vaccine for fall students

Rutgers University in New Jersey said Thursday that all students who take on-campus classes in the fall term will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, while faculty and staff members are "strongly urged" to get one of the available vaccines.

Rutgers is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, universities to impose that mandate, although school officials don't have data to confirm that.

Vaccination availability in New Jersey has been limited to those who are 65 and older or who have a preexisting condition, such as asthma or diabetes, as well as smokers. But state officials have said they expect to get additional supplies and ramp up vaccinations in the next few weeks.

-- Abbott Koloff, Bergen Record

Schools prepare for spring break rule-breakers

Spring breakers are back, but this time schools are more prepared for COVID-19 rule breakers. After a year of pandemic schooling, districts and colleges warned students to avoid travel. Some canceled spring break altogether. Even further, some schools put protocols in place to prevent traveling students from coming back to in-person school. They will be required to quarantine or finish the semester virtually. Schools have punished students who break COVID-19 restrictions on school grounds. Punishment for travel is trickier.

"Most institutions don't have the power to lock down their students," Christopher Marsicano, a professor of higher education practice at Davidson College in North Carolina, told USA TODAY. "They just don't have the money to have adequate testing to make sure everybody returning to campus after spring break doesn't have COVID-19."

Dustin Barnes

Infection rate again rising: 'I don't think you can declare victory'

The U.S. is reporting a seven-day average of about 55,000 new cases per day, up 3% from the previous week, the CDC reports. The country is also reporting about 4,600 new hospitalizations and nearly 1,000 deaths per day. And the U.S. surpassed 30 million coronavirus cases Wednesday afternoon, once again reaching a dubious milestone much faster than any other country. 

"When you’re at that level, I don’t think you can declare victory," Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a briefing. "We are at the corner. Whether or not we’re going to be turning that corner remains to be seen."

There are positive signs. About 2.5 million Americans are being vaccinated each day, according to Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response. And the CDC reported that more than 133 million vaccine shots have been administered, and 18% of the U.S. adult population is completely vaccinated.

Florida, North Carolina join list of states allowing all adults to get vaccinated

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that he will eliminate the age restriction for COVID-19 vaccines as of April 5. And starting Monday, anyone 40 and up can make an appointment for the vaccine. President Joe Biden has instructed states to allow all adults access to vaccines by May 1.

North Carolina also said Thursday that it would open up vaccine eligibility for all  residents 16 and older, starting April 7.

Louisiana announced this week it will provide access to anyone 16 and older starting Monday, and Idaho Gov. Brad Little said eligibility will be open to all state residents 16 and up starting April 5.

Jeffrey Schweers, Florida Capital Bureau

Billions from relief bill heading to states, health centers for vaccines 

Community health centers will receive more than $6 billion from the federal government to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, testing and treatment for vulnerable populations, the administration announced Thursday. An additional $3 billion will be distributed to states, territories and some large cities for initiatives intended to increase vaccine access, acceptance and uptake. Another $330 million will go directly to support community health workers.

The funding comes primarily through the recently passed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Maureen Groppe

34% of US adults have had at least one shot; half the others don't want it

In the U.S., 34.1% of adults report having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and those who aren't vaccinated and would get the shot say they are relatively brand agnostic, according to a new poll by Survey Monkey on vaccine hesitancy.

Meanwhile, 66% of people willing to get the shot would be up for the Moderna vaccine, while 70% are willing to get the Pfizer vaccine and 67% are willing to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But just 51% of people still unvaccinated say they would get a vaccine if offered to them.

Reports: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's family got priority testing early in pandemic

 In the early months of the pandemic, when COVID-19 tests were scarce, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to make the testing available to those most in need. Turns out that included his family members and other well-connected people close to his administration, according to reports Wednesday night.

Both The Washington Post and the Times Union in Albany reported that Cuomo's office arranged coronavirus testing for his family, including his CNN anchor brother, Chris Cuomo, and other influential people with close Cuomo ties.

The testing was conducted at times at people's homes and in part by Dr. Eleanor Adams, an epidemiologist who was a special adviser to the state Health Department, the reports said, citing unnamed sources. The Times Union, which first reported the details, said Adams' trips included going to the Long Island home of Chris Cuomo, who announced in late March 2020 that he was positive for COVID-19 and detailed his battle with the virus nightly on his show – on which the governor often appeared last year.

The governor's office did not deny the reports but said the state was trying to test as many people as possible.

– Joseph Spector, Democrat and Chronicle

Contributing: The Associated Press