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The novel coronavirus, first detected at the end of 2019, has caused a global pandemic.

Coronavirus Updates

Latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic

Israeli Health Officials To Government: Vaccinate All Palestinians

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Palestinian elementary school students wearing protective face masks take their seats in their classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class in September at a United Nations-run school in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Majdi Mohammed/AP hide caption

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Majdi Mohammed/AP

Palestinian elementary school students wearing protective face masks take their seats in their classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class in September at a United Nations-run school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

JERUSALEM - Israeli health officials have urged their country's leaders to help vaccinate the entire Palestinian population against COVID-19, citing a public health imperative, an outgoing senior health official told NPR Monday.

"This is really important, to vaccinate the entire Palestinian Authority population, and I believe it will go this way," said Itamar Grotto, who helped lead Israel's pandemic response and stepped down Monday as deputy director general of Israel's Health Ministry. "This is the recommendation of all the experts, and I believe that the politicians will follow our recommendations."

On Sunday, Israel said it would vaccinate about 110,000 Palestinian day laborers who work in Israel. In recent days, Israel has also vaccinated special categories of Palestinians, such as relatives of people who live in Jerusalem. Israel also vaccinated Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

"We are starting to give them more and more vaccines," Grotto said. "It is an important objective, from a public health point of view, and of course also from a humanitarian point of view."

He said Israel is giving Palestinians unused supplies of the Moderna vaccine, more of which is expected to arrive in Israel. Israelis are being immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Israel has faced calls from international and Israeli aid groups and rights advocates to help facilitate vaccines for Palestinians in occupied territory, arguing Israel is obligated to do so by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israeli political leaders say the Oslo Peace Accords make the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority responsible for its own population.

Israel has already vaccinated half of its population, including Palestinian citizens and residents (of Israel). But in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of Palestinians have not yet been vaccinated.

Palestinians have received small donations of vaccines from the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Israel. Palestinian officials ordered larger quantities of vaccines but they say manufacturers are delaying shipments. The Biden administration has urged Israel to help.

"We believe it's important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccine in the weeks ahead," State Department spokesman Ned Price said. "We believe it's important for their own – for their own needs. It's important for Israel, Israel's health and security as well."

Palestinian officials have also faced accusations of improperly distributing donated vaccines intended for health workers, to politicians and their friends. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly was secretly vaccinated. In a press conference Monday, the Palestinian anti-corruption civil society organization AMAN called on the Palestinian Authority to form a committee to investigate "corrupt" vaccine distribution.

A man speaks on his mobile phone in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem in December. In the early days of the pandemic, Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its own people, tracking civilians' mobile phones to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Maya Alleruzzo/AP hide caption

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A man speaks on his mobile phone in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem in December. In the early days of the pandemic, Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its own people, tracking civilians' mobile phones to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

JERUSALEM - Israel's Supreme Court on Monday ordered an end to a controversial surveillance program to track COVID-19 infections through cellular phone location data, citing concerns about the country spying on its own citizens.

"The State of Israel is the only Western democracy that enlisted its clandestine spy agency in the war against the coronavirus pandemic," wrote Justice Isaac Amit in the 73-page ruling.

Nearly one year ago, the Israeli government ordered the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, usually charged with monitoring Palestinian and Israeli extremists, to monitor Israelis' movements through their cellphones. Those deemed to have come in contact with confirmed virus carriers received text messages ordering them to quarantine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the pandemic justified the infringement on privacy. But Israeli lawmakers and the head of Israel's public health physicians association opposed the surveillance program, citing privacy concerns. Some Israelis said they received text messages in error.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said there were concerns the spying could become permanent, and that human contact tracers are more effective at tracking COVID-19 infections than the surveillance technology. It ruled that as of March 14, Israel may only employ cellphone tracking in cases where Israelis refuse to cooperate with contact tracers.

Amit compared the surveillance program to Big Brother in George Orwell's novel 1984 and alluded to the 1997 horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer.

"What did you do last summer? You don't remember? Do not worry, I, Big Brother, know what you did last summer," wrote Amit in the ruling. "No, this is not a horror film but rather the reality of our lives this past year."

The first box of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine departs from a facility in Shepherdsville, Ky., on Monday. The company is set to distribute its first 3.9 million doses across the U.S. this week. Timothy D. Easley/Getty Images hide caption

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Timothy D. Easley/Getty Images

The first box of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine departs from a facility in Shepherdsville, Ky., on Monday. The company is set to distribute its first 3.9 million doses across the U.S. this week.

Timothy D. Easley/Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson has begun shipping nearly 4 million doses of its newly authorized COVID-19 vaccine across the U.S., officials said Monday, and is expected to further scale up supply in the coming weeks and months.

"We think literally within about the next 24 to 48 hours, Americans should start receiving shots in arms," Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson's CEO and chairman of the board, told NBC's Today.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on the vaccine over the weekend, making it the third to receive authorization in the United States. It's also the first single-dose vaccine to receive the blessing of U.S. authorities and the only one that does not require ultracold storage.

Johnson & Johnson's addition to the vaccine arsenal will be limited at first, but company officials expect to scale up production in the coming months. Gorsky said the company is committed to delivering 100 million doses by June and "up to a billion" by the end of 2021.

"When we say 100 million doses by June, that means 100 million vaccinations, patients that will have been treated," he said. "So we're excited. We're going to work hard to make sure that we follow through on all those commitments. ... We think it's really important for our country and the world."

Jeff Zients, the White House's COVID-19 response coordinator, said at a briefing Monday that 3.9 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be distributed to states, tribes, territories, pharmacies and community health centers this week, starting as early as Tuesday.

"We're getting these doses out the door right away to ensure vaccines get into arms as quickly as possible," Zients said.

This number represents the entirety of Johnson & Johnson's current inventory, and supply will be limited in the ensuing weeks. He said the company expects to deliver some 16 million additional doses by the end of March, "predominantly in the back half of the month."

The vaccine is being allocated based on population, just as the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are, he added. The federal government will continue to monitor distribution to ensure all three are offered in a "fair and equitable" way, he said.

"We're focused on execution, and that includes the important work of ensuring that we continue to increase overall vaccine supply, increase the number of vaccinators and increase the number of places Americans can get vaccinated," Zients said.

Other public health officials at the briefing praised the vaccine as an addition to the country's arsenal in the fight against COVID-19 and as one that offers increased flexibility.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outlined several advantages of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Namely, it can fully inoculate people who may not be able or willing to return for a second dose, and easier storage and transportation mean it can be delivered to and administered at more community settings.

"Having multiple types of vaccine available, especially ones with different dosing regimens and different storing and handling, offers more flexibility," she said.

Public health guidance urges eligible individuals to opt to receive whichever vaccine is available to them first — guidance that officials stressed repeatedly on Monday.

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the head of the White House's COVID-19 health equity task force, acknowledged that some people might prefer a certain vaccine but urged them to be flexible.

"If people want to opt for one vaccine over another, they may have to wait," she said. "Time is of the essence. Getting vaccinated saves lives."

An international study found Johnson & Johnson's vaccine to be 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, in contrast to Pfizer's and Moderna's higher figures of 95% and 94%. But it also determined the vaccine prevented COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths after 28 days, which officials say is equally important.

"All three vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing what we care about most, and that's very serious illness and death," Nunez-Smith said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser, also noted that the vaccine is 72% effective against moderate to severe infection in the U.S. and 85% effective against severe COVID-19 globally. He pointed out that the clinical trial was conducted in the U.S., South America and South Africa, places with different infection dynamics and virus variants.

Gorsky offered a similar explanation on Today, assuring viewers they can trust they're getting a safe and effective vaccine.

"When we conducted our clinical trials in October 2020 to about January of 2021, this was during the time when the incidence rate of the virus was really just about at its peak," he said. "We also conducted our trial around the world, so 40% of our patients were in Latin America and about 15% were in South Africa, where over 90% of those patients were infected with the South African variant that we didn't even really fully understand or appreciate earlier in the year."

At the briefing, Walensky described the trials for COVID-19 vaccines as the "largest-scale clinical trials of any vaccine," made possible by the high amount of disease circulating and the high volume of participant interest. All of the available data, she said, show that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective.

"The most important thing you can do is to be ready to get the vaccine that is available to you," she said. "It will help protect us all from COVID-19."

Walensky also warned, for the second consecutive time in a briefing, that progress on reducing case numbers may be stalling. The number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is leveling off at a concerningly high number, she said, following weeks of declining cases and deaths.

She cited data showing that cases reported to the CDC have increased by 2% a day to about 67,200, based on a seven-day average, with deaths also up by 2% to nearly 2,000 per day. Noting that these latest figures may look low compared with the winter peak, Walensky said they are still too high, and she implored Americans not to "be resigned."

"Please hear me clearly," Walensky said. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."

She said she is "really worried" about states rolling back public health measures, and she urged Americans to continue following public health guidance to prevent a potential fourth surge brought on by more infectious variants. While vaccination is key to ultimately ending the pandemic, Walensky said, much of the population is still waiting.

Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the White House said the current seven-day average has returned to 1.7 million shots per day, following disruptive winter weather.

Obesity Specialist Says BMI Is A 'Good Measure' For Vaccine Priority Group

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People with extra weight — those that have a BMI of at least 30 — are at a greater risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19. David Goldman/AP hide caption

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David Goldman/AP

People with extra weight — those that have a BMI of at least 30 — are at a greater risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19.

David Goldman/AP

Several cities across the country that count obesity as an underlying condition have opened COVID-19 vaccine appointments to people with a body mass index of 30 or higher — the medical benchmark for obesity.

While BMI isn't a foolproof standard by which to assess potential health risk factors, obesity medicine physician Dr. Fatima Stanford told NPR, "overall, it's a good measure" in this case.

It would be dangerous for people with obesity to not get vaccinated, she said, given that obesity is a risk factor for both severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19.

"We're talking about two inflammatory conditions. We have chronic inflammation associated with obesity, the disease, not playing well with the acute inflammatory process of COVID-19," said Stanford, who works at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

More than 42% of adults in the U.S. have obesity, one of the country's most prevalent chronic diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is more common in Black people, and slightly more common in Hispanic people, compared to white people. Black and Hispanic people have been suffering from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates.

"BMI by itself is an arbitrary cutoff, but it's a decent population-wide measure," Stanford said. "It's important though if you're talking with physicians and their work with individual patients to not use BMI as the sole cutoff for how we navigate treatment strategies for patients that have this disease of obesity."

As awareness grows about the negative health outcomes from COVID-19 for people with excess weight, Stanford said she's seeing an uptick in patients at her hospital who are looking for ways to address their own obesity.

The brain is the body's biggest decision-maker between all the body's organs in regulating weight, she said.

"The brain not only tells us how much to eat," she said, "it tells us how much to store. So there are many different factors that are playing a role in how one's brain decides to do that work."

It's one reason why she distinguishes between the terms "obesity" and "obese," because of blame and bias attached to the latter.

"I never use the word obese because that actually promotes stigma. Obese is a label and obesity is a disease," she said.

Writer Emma Specter explored such stigmas in an opinion essay for Vogue last week, titled, "Millions of Americans Qualify for the COVID-19 Vaccine Based on BMI. Why Should We Apologize for It?" Stanford agreed with Specter's assessment that doctors are among the "worst groups" when it comes to perpetuating "fat shaming."

Those attitudes are part of preconceptions, Stanford told NPR, that promote the idea that people with obesity "did this to themselves — and that is indeed a fallacy."

"Are there things that that person might do that may have contributed? Absolutely. But are there things that may have contributed to that person having a particular cancer, or having high blood pressure, or having other disease processes? Absolutely," she said. "We don't shame people in that same way for any other disease process like we do for obesity and I think it has to stop."

Instead, she suggested that obesity should be viewed as yet another risk factor for COVID-19 illness, just as other underlying health conditions and older age.

"We are going to want everyone to get vaccinated at some point, but why not allow those that have higher risk factors get access to the vaccine as soon as they can?"

Peter Breslow and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

A health care worker holds a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

A health care worker holds a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18.

PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

A third COVID-19 vaccine is on the way, and this one requires only one shot for immunization.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized Johnson & Johnson's vaccine for emergency use Saturday, a day after a panel of advisers to the agency voted unanimously (22-0) in its favor.

"The authorization of this vaccine expands the availability of vaccines, the best medical prevention method for COVID-19, to help us in the fight against this pandemic, which has claimed over half a million lives in the United States," said a statement by Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in an international study of about 40,000 people, half of whom got the vaccine and half of whom got a placebo. The study found the company's vaccine to be 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. For disease judged severe or critical, the effectiveness was 85%. The study was conducted in the U.S., South America and South Africa.

The main study included in the company's application found that 28 days or more after immunization, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine prevented hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19.

The overall efficacy figures are lower than Pfizer's 95% in preventing COVID-19 disease and 94% for Moderna. But direct comparisons are challenging because of differences in the clinical trials and emergence of new strains of the coronavirus.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine "is very effective ... at preventing severe disease after a single dose and it induces the kind of response, so-called cellular immune response, that looks like it's going to have fairly long-lived memory, which is all good," Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA's advisory panel, told NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday. "This certainly provides protection against what you care about, which is hospitalization, ICU admission and death. It's virtually 100% effective at doing that." Offit is also director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

As the pandemic has drawn on, the coronavirus has mutated. Variants first seen in South Africa and Brazil, where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested, developed mutations that help them evade the immune response prompted by previous infections with the original form of the virus and vaccines designed against it. Some of the variants, including one first identified in the U.K, are more contagious.

In the South African portion of the Johnson & Johnson study, the company's vaccine was 64% effective in preventing moderate to severe disease. In the Latin American region, the vaccine was 61% effective.

The FDA's analysis of the safety data found that "a favorable safety profile with no specific safety concerns" for the vaccine. As part of the vaccine study more than 6,000 people were asked about their reactions, and the most common side effects they reported were pain at the injection site (49%), headache (39%), fatigue (38%) and muscle pain (33%).

While COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have fallen dramatically since their January peak, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky warned during a White House briefing Friday that the 7-day average of confirmed cases had ticked up in the past three days and represents a "very concerning shift in trajectory." The 7-day average for cases was 67,207 on Friday, up from 65,426 on Tuesday.

"Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions," Walensky said. "Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and hospital admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

She also warned that the continued spread of coronavirus variants in the U.S. threatens to reverse gains in containing the pandemic.

Besides mitigation measures like mask-wearing and physical distancing, vaccination is an important public health tool. More than 48 million people, or almost 15% of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CDC figures out Saturday. More than 23 million, or 7% of the population, have received two doses of the either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

Johnson & Johnson's addition to the coronavirus fight will be limited at first. The company has said it would have 4 million doses ready to go when the FDA green lights its vaccine. By the end of March, the company expects to be able to supply 20 million doses and to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.

A health care worker withdrew a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from a vial at the Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18. Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

A health care worker withdrew a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from a vial at the Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18.

Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

In a unanimous 22-0, a panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson be authorized for emergency use in adults during the pandemic.

The vote in favor of the vaccine, which requires only one shot for protection, was taken to answer this question: Do the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine outweigh its risks for use in people 18 years of age and older.

The FDA typically follows the advice of its expert advisers. If the agency agrees, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be the third one cleared for use in the U.S.

A quick decision is expected given the state of the pandemic. The FDA authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines one day after the same panel recommended them for clearance during separate meetings last December.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in an international study of about 40,000 people, half of whom got the vaccine and half of whom got a placebo. The study found the company's vaccine to be 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. For disease judged severe or critical, the effectiveness was 85%. The study was conducted in the U.S., South America and South Africa.

The main study included in the company's application found that 28 days or more after immunization, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine prevented hospitalizations and death related to COVID-19.

The overall efficacy figures are lower than Pfizer's 95% for preventing COVID-19 disease and 94% for Moderna.

As the pandemic has drawn on, the coronavirus has mutated. Variants first seen in South Africa and Brazil, where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested, mutated in ways that help them evade the immune response prompted by vaccines developed against the original form of the virus.

Among more than 6,000 study participants who were queried within a week of vaccination, the most common side effects were pain at the site of injection (49%), headache (39%), fatigue (38%) and muscle pain (33%). These side effects were mostly mild or moderate.

The authorization of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine would help expand the supply of COVID-19 shots. The company said 4 million doses of vaccine would be available in the U.S. as soon as the FDA gives its OK. A total of 20 million doses would be ready by the end of March, and Johnson & Johnson has committed to deliver 100 million doses under its contract with the federal government by the end of June.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said on Friday that the says that the 7-day average of confirmed cases in the U.S. has ticked up for the past three days, warning that "now is not the time to relax restrictions." Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said on Friday that the says that the 7-day average of confirmed cases in the U.S. has ticked up for the past three days, warning that "now is not the time to relax restrictions."

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday of an uptick in the country's confirmed COVID-19 cases, saying recent progress may be "stalling" as highly infectious new variants become more predominant.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing that after weeks of declining cases and hospitalizations, the 7-day average in confirmed cases has ticked up in the past three days in what the CDC considers a "very concerning shift in trajectory." The most recent 7-day average of deaths is at about 2,000 per day, she said, which is slightly higher than that of the week before.

"Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions," Walensky said. "Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and hospital admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

In other words, she said, the decline in cases could taper off at a level that is still dangerously high.

Walensky warned of the threat posed by the continued spread of coronavirus variants. These variants now account for roughly 10% of U.S. cases, she said, up from between 1% and 4% in recent weeks. The prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant — first seen in the U.K. — is even higher in certain parts of the country.

Scientists predict that the B.1.1.7 variant — which is 50% more transmissible than the strain that has been circulating in the U.S. — will become the country's dominant strain by mid-March. Walensky said that the spike in case numbers may be the first sign that it is starting to take over.

Other variants emerging in New York City and California also appear to spread more easily and account for a large portion of cases in those areas, she added.

"We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us," Walensky said. "We cannot get comfortable or give into a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us."

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Walensky acknowledged that Americans are tired and longing for a return to normalcy. She implored them to be vigilant and continue taking protective measures to prevent another surge.

This is especially important, she said, with mass vaccination "so very close." Some 46 million people, or 14% of the population, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Walensky. And with Food and Drug Administration experts meeting to evaluate the Johnson & Johnson vaccine today, she said the country may soon have a third vaccine in its toolbox.

Also on Friday, White House COVID-19 Senior Advisor Andy Slavitt said the Biden administration has been in discussions with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to arrange transportation to vaccine sites for vulnerable populations.

The administration is also working with a coalition of business groups to promote pandemic control measures aimed at making workplaces safer for customers, employees and communities, Slavitt said. Those measures include educating individuals about masking and social distancing on site, and providing employees with incentives to get vaccinated.

A British Airways plane comes in to land behind a tail fin at Heathrow Airport in London. On Friday, the head of the group that owns BA called for instituting an electronic health pass for passengers as the company announced steep losses due to COVID-19. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP hide caption

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Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

A British Airways plane comes in to land behind a tail fin at Heathrow Airport in London. On Friday, the head of the group that owns BA called for instituting an electronic health pass for passengers as the company announced steep losses due to COVID-19.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The owner of British Airways is calling for digital health passes for passengers as a step toward getting airlines back in the sky after devastating losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

International Airlines Group, which also owns carriers such as Iberia and Aer Lingus, announced Friday a total annual loss of £6.4 billion ($9.8 billion) for the group after passenger traffic plunged by one third in 2020 compared to the previous year. The group's CEO, Luis Gallego, said the company was looking for "a clear roadmap" for scaling back restrictions on travel "when the time is right."

"We're calling for international common testing standards and the introduction of digital health passes to reopen our skies safely," Gallego said.

The International Air Transport Association recently said its "IATA Travel Pass" — a smartphone app that verifies that a passenger has had a negative coronavirus test or has been vaccinated — should be ready "within weeks."

"The key issue is one of confidence," said Vinoop Goel, IATA's regional director of airports and external relations, according to the BBC. "Passengers need to be confident that the testing they've taken is accurate and will allow them to enter the country ... And then governments need to have the confidence that the tests is one which is accurate," he added.

However, it's not yet clear if such a pass would be utilized by airlines or governments.

In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began requiring passengers entering the country from abroad to provide a negative coronavirus test before boarding a U.S.- bound flight.

IAG said despite its steep losses, its cargo business had helped prop up the passenger side of the operation. The company made more than 4,000 cargo-only flights last year, with revenue for the sector up strongly.

"Our results reflect the serious impact that COVID-19 has had on our business," Gallego said.

The losses at IAG have been felt worldwide throughout the airline industry, with U.S.-based carriers hit particularly hard.

In January, American Airlines posted its largest annual loss on record — $8.9 billion for 2020, with United Airlines reporting a $7.1 billion loss. Southwest Airlines posted an annual loss of $3.1 billion – its first since 1972.

IATA expects U.S. airlines to see a rebound in demand in 2021, but that it will still be down 45% from 2019, according to an analysis published in November.

In December, the U.S. Treasury began distributing $15 billion in aid approved by Congress to help airlines meet payroll through March 2021, after a similar $25 billion infusion earlier in the pandemic. As part of the COVID-19 relief package working its way through Congress, another $15 billion could go to support airline industry workers.

President of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committee Seiko Hashimoto (right) talks to Tokyo 2020 Vice Director General Yukihiko Nunomura before a press briefing on the operation and media coverage of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay in Tokyo on Thursday. Behrouz Mehri/AP hide caption

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Behrouz Mehri/AP

President of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committee Seiko Hashimoto (right) talks to Tokyo 2020 Vice Director General Yukihiko Nunomura before a press briefing on the operation and media coverage of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay in Tokyo on Thursday.

Behrouz Mehri/AP

The traditional prelude to the Olympics, the torch relay, will look – and sound – a bit different this year, as spectators are asked to avoid crowds and dampen their cheers when the torch passes by them.

Members of the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced a series of pandemic measures on Thursday, including leaving the option open for suspending portions of the relay should health officials deem it necessary.

"No shouting, no cheering. Please cheer by clapping your hands and maintain appropriate distance in case there is crowding," Yukihiko Nunomura, the vice director general of the committee, said at a press conference Thursday, according to The Associated Press.

The subdued torch relay is set to begin March 25 in Fukushima and travel through Japan until July 23, the day of the Games' Opening Ceremony. The Olympics were delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Olympic rings displayed outside the National Stadium, a venue for the 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo last year. The Games have been delayed until 2021 because of the coronavirus. Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

The Olympic rings displayed outside the National Stadium, a venue for the 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo last year. The Games have been delayed until 2021 because of the coronavirus.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

About 10,000 torchbearers and others expected to take part in the torch relay, the AP added.

The organizing committee also released detailed safety protocols including what it calls avoidance of the "3C's:" closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.

It also asked that spectators not watch from the roadside if they feel sick, and encouraged them to wear facial coverings.

Officials are also allowing task forces from local governments to enforce "suspension of the Torch Relay on public roads and/or the hosting of only a Torch lighting ceremony with no spectators," if such safety protocols are required.

Additionally, torchbearers are asked to follow safety protocols in the lead up to their portion of the relay.

In the two weeks prior to their leg, according to official guidelines, "torchbearers will be asked to refrain from activities that may involve a risk of COVID-19 infection, such as eating out or going to crowded places."

In the 14 days prior to their portion of the relay, torchbearers must also submit a daily health checklist. On the day of their leg of the relay, if the torchbearers feel sick or suspect they are infected, they must immediately report it to the organizing committee staff.

If they have a temperature above 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) they may be asked to refrain from running, according to the guidelines.

The embattled Tokyo Olympic Games have faced a number of headwinds besides the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, Japan chose Seiko Hashimoto, one of the nation's most prominent female politicians, to step in as its new organizing executive.

Her predecessor Yoshiro Mori resigned on Feb. 12 after making sexist remarks saying that women talk to much in meetings.

Following his resignation, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach issued a statement saying he respects Mori's decision to step down, and looks forward to working with his successor.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, organizers are pushing forward with planning the event, a daunting task that is scheduled to bring thousands of athletes, media and volunteers from around the world.

Few people in Japan are likely to be vaccinated by the time the Games open, The Guardian reported, increasing fears the event could trigger a new round of outbreaks there.

President Joe Biden, pictured on the campaign trail in Nov. 2020, has long encouraged Americans to mask up in the fight against COVID-19. On Wednesday, his administration announced it will provide 25 million masks to community health centers and food banks across the country. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Joe Biden, pictured on the campaign trail in Nov. 2020, has long encouraged Americans to mask up in the fight against COVID-19. On Wednesday, his administration announced it will provide 25 million masks to community health centers and food banks across the country.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

The Biden administration will distribute millions of face coverings to thousands of community health centers and food banks in an effort to help vulnerable Americans more easily mask up, officials said on Wednesday.

The federal government will distribute some 25 million masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said at a briefing. The White House said in a press release that the masks will be available between March and May, and are expected to benefit some 12 to 15 million Americans.

"Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all Americans have access, and not all masks are equal," Zients said. "With this action, we are helping to level the playing field, giving vulnerable populations quality, well-fitting masks."

Anyone who needs a mask will be able to pick one up at participating locations, Zients said, adding that the "high-quality, American-made" masks will be free, washable and available in both adult and children sizes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask-wearing as a simple, effective step in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this month, it said layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask and tying knots on the ear loops of surgical masks can offer even better protection in the face of transmissible new variants.

Biden has consistently emphasized the importance of wearing masks, and issued executive orders requiring face coverings on federal property and during interstate travel shortly after taking office.

The initiative will not impact the availability of masks for healthcare workers, according to the White House.

The Department of Health and Human Services will partner with the Department of Defense to deliver the masks to federally qualified community health centers, where staff will distribute them to recipients. Two-thirds of the people served by these health centers are living in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are unhoused, the White House said. Meanwhile, the DOD will also work with the Department of Agriculture to deliver masks through the nation's vast food bank and food pantry system.

At the same time, Zients said, the federal government will continue ramping up its efforts to get Americans vaccinated quickly and equitably.

He said the weather-related backlogs in vaccine distribution have been resolved, with some 14.5 million doses allocated to states, tribes and territories this week, and 2.1 million more going to select pharmacies.

While last week's extreme winter weather created a backlog of millions of doses, closed down clinics and lowered the 7-day average for daily vaccinations — it stands at 1.4 million doses, down from 1.7 million — Zients said that number is expected to start rising again shortly.

A medical worker gives a coronavirus vaccine shot to a patient at a vaccination facility in Beijing, in January. Two pharmaceutical companies in China announced Wednesday they are seeking market approval for new vaccines. Mark Schiefelbein/AP hide caption

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A medical worker gives a coronavirus vaccine shot to a patient at a vaccination facility in Beijing, in January. Two pharmaceutical companies in China announced Wednesday they are seeking market approval for new vaccines.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Chinese pharmaceutical makers are seeking market approval from Beijing for two new coronavirus vaccines – one that has shown 72% efficacy and another 69% efficacy in human Phase III trials.

The separate announcements on Wednesday come from Sinopharm for its second vaccine after the state-run company's first was approved for distribution in December, and from CanSino Biologics, Inc. (CanSinoBIO), for its first vaccine.

Another vaccine, produced by Beijing-based Sinovac, received market approval earlier this month, although it – like Sinopharm's first vaccine — had been in use since July on an emergency basis.

Unlike the revolutionary mRNA vaccines developed in the West by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, which use a piece of the virus' genetic code to trigger an immune response, three of the four Chinese vaccines are based on a more conventional approach that uses an inactivated form of the coronavirus.

The fourth – the one made by CanSinoBIO – is a single-dose vaccine that is based around a technique called viral vector, which uses a modified version of a different virus as a vector to deliver instructions to a cell. China is also reportedly working on its own mRNA vaccine.

One advantage for the Chinese vaccines already approved or seeking market approval is that they can be stored at room temperature, while the Moderna vaccine must be stored at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) and the Pfizer vaccine at -70 C (-94 F), nearly as cold as dry ice.

China has yet to approve any Western vaccines, preferring to rely on its own. However, Hong Kong's government has agreed to buy 7.5 million doses each from Sinovac; the British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca; and Fosun Pharma, which is delivering the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

After delays, the first 1 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine arrived in Hong Kong last week. As of Wednesday, the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine had yet to arrive, but was expected within days, according to the South China Morning Post.

Despite moving ahead on new vaccines, China, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first identified more than a year ago, has been slow in getting the country's 1.4 billion people inoculated against the disease. It vaccinated tens of thousands of people on the first day of its official drive in early January. Since then it has inoculated large numbers of people, but still a relatively small portion of its vast population.

Health authorities say that about 40 million doses of the two-dose vaccines have been administered so far, covering a first shot for only about 3% of the population, NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng reported Wednesday. That's well short of the minimum 700 million people that the chairman of the China National Biotec Group (CNBG), Yang Xiaoming, told state-run media in December would be required to adequately protect the country from COVID-19.

China is prioritizing workers in the health care, transportation and shipping sectors for the first round of vaccinations. But unlike most other countries, it isn't immediately focusing on seniors. Instead, people aged 18-59 who are considered at high risk and highly likely to spread the virus are being targeted, Wang Bin, an official of National Health Commission, told reporters in January.

As the vaccine supply increases, people 60 years and older will gradually be phased in, Wang said.

That has reportedly caused concern among some older Chinese.

Instead, China seems to be banking on its current low positivity rate, which has been bolstered by extensive testing, quarantines and travel restrictions, to keep SARS-CoV-2 at bay within its own borders.

Meanwhile, despite its lagging vaccine drive, Beijing has been sending millions of doses abroad. Many developing countries are counting on Chinese-developed vaccines as affordable and available options, and China's foreign ministry on Feb. 8 said it will provide them to 53 countries.

Serbia and Hungary are among the recipients, as are several countries in Latin America. Thailand on Wednesday received its first 200,000 of 2 million doses it expects to receive of the Sinovac vaccine.

A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX global program arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra on Wednesday, as Ghana received the group's first vaccine shipment. Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX global program arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra on Wednesday, as Ghana received the group's first vaccine shipment.

Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Updated at 2:10 p.m. ET

The first wave of coronavirus vaccines from the COVAX initiative are now reaching their destinations. Ghana became the first country to receive the vaccine on Wednesday, marking an important step for the international effort to help low- and middle-income countries cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the first round of allocations continues to roll out, more countries will receive their own doses in coming days, according to the World Health Organization, a leader of the initiative. In all, the COVAX alliance hopes to deliver nearly 2 billion doses of the vaccines this year.

The 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine that arrived in Ghana were produced by the Serum Institute of India. Along with the initial shipment to Accra, more deliveries are expected to arrive in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, this week, according to the WHO. The vital supplies will also include the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The shipments are the start of "what should be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history," according to a joint statement by WHO Representative to Ghana Dr. Francis Kasolo and UNICEF's representative in Ghana, Anne-Claire Dufay.

"After a year of disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 80,700 Ghanaians getting infected with the virus and over 580 lost lives, the path to recovery for the people of Ghana can finally begin," Kasolo and Dufay said.

As for why Ghana, in West Africa, was chosen to receive the vaccine before other countries, a UNICEF representative told NPR that the country met conditions for receiving the vaccine. After Ghana's national deployment and vaccination plan was approved, they said, the country was added to the allocation process.

Other factors affecting when countries receive the vaccine include the speed with which they get national approval and provide an import license for the COVID-19 vaccines.

The COVAX initiative was created to boost equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for lower-income countries. Through donations, licensing and build purchases, COVAX helps those countries acquire vaccines — something they've struggled to do, as wealthy countries compete with each other to buy the limited number of vaccines worldwide.

"We will not end the pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Today is a major first step towards realizing our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it's just the beginning."

As the WHO's Dr. Katherine O'Brien, who directs the WHO's Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, told NPR earlier this month, "We're in a situation where we have 108 million doses of vaccine that have been distributed worldwide, but 75% of those doses have gone to just 10 countries."

For nearly all of the COVAX initiative's existence, the U.S. did not join the coalition. But President Biden has reversed that course, and the U.S. recently announced it would send some $4 billion in contributions to COVAX.

A health care worker looks away as she's immunized with Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine at Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18. Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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A health care worker looks away as she's immunized with Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine at Klerksdorp Hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Feb. 18.

Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration released an analysis of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday morning that supports its authorization for emergency use.

On Friday, a panel of advisers to the agency will meet to evaluate the vaccine and make a recommendation about whether it should be given the OK. If the agency goes on to authorize the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it would be the third, after those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, to become available in the U.S.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has some advantages. Immunization with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot, unlike the two-shot dosing for the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also doesn't require special refrigeration for shipment and storage.

The FDA review noted that an international study of about 40,000 people, half of whom got the vaccine and half of whom got a placebo, found the company's vaccine to be 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. The study was conducted in the U.S., Latin America and South Africa.

The agency also said the vaccine has a "favorable safety profile" and that there were "no specific safety concerns identified that would preclude issuance of an EUA." This language mirrors the assessments for vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, which were authorized in December for emergency use.

The efficacy figures are lower than Pfizer's 95% for preventing COVID-19 disease and 94% for Moderna. Over the course of the pandemic, the coronavirus has begun to change. Variants first seen in South Africa and Brazil, where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested, mutated in ways that help them evade the immune response prompted by vaccines developed against the original form of the virus.

But there are more important measures, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Health told All Things Considered on Monday. "What you care about is hospitalizations and deaths," he said. In the large clinical trial that is the centerpiece of the company's application to the FDA, nobody who received the vaccine required hospitalization or died once the vaccine took full effect (28 days after immunization). "Johnson & Johnson appears to be just as good as Moderna and Pfizer at preventing those," Jha said.

The most common adverse reactions among more than 6,000 study participants who were queried about their experience were injection site pain (49%), headache (39%), fatigue (38%) and muscle pain (33%). These side effects were mostly mild or moderate.

The authorization of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine could eventually help expand the supply of COVID-19 shots for Americans. But its availability won't make a huge difference right away.

In congressional testimony Tuesday, a Johnson & Johnson executive said 4 million doses of vaccine would be available in the U.S. when the FDA grants an emergency use authorization. A total of 20 million doses would be ready by the end of March, he said, and the company would be able to deliver a total of 100 million doses by the end of June.

People wait in front of the hospital of the Military Medical Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Feb. 21 for a COVID-19 vaccination. NurPhoto/Getty Images hide caption

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People wait in front of the hospital of the Military Medical Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Feb. 21 for a COVID-19 vaccination.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria - In an effort to boost vaccination rates among a skeptical public, Bulgaria has opened up COVID-19 inoculations to all who want them.

On Friday, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov told the nation he was creating "green corridors" where any Bulgarian resident could line up for the vaccine.

Bulgaria first began administering the shots on Dec. 27. But before the mass vaccination campaign began Saturday, Bulgaria had one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with fewer than 1% of Bulgarians having taken the first dose and fewer than half of those fully vaccinated as of Feb. 14, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

In a poll of 1,000 Bulgarians conducted by Alpha Research and cited by The Sofia Globe, some 52 percent said they did not intend to be immediately vaccinated.

Since the mass vaccination campaign began, more than 30,000 people have received a first shot, according to local media reports.

Thousands stood in line for hours over the weekend at vaccination points set up at hospitals in Sofia, with temperatures hovering around freezing. Many are receiving the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which has been approved for use in some EU countries but not in the U.S. The Moderna and Pfizer -BioNTech vaccines are also part of the campaign. Some have received appointments to return for their second shot — up to 10 weeks from the first vaccination date — and others have been told they'll be contacted for follow-up.

As of Feb. 18, 229,679 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Bulgaria with 9,624 deaths. As of Feb. 14, about 200,000 vaccine doses had been delivered to Bulgaria – with more expected to arrive in coming days.

The number of COVID-19 cases is up week-over-week in Bulgaria though the country is under partial closure – with restaurants and bars shuttered until at least March 1. Proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required to enter the country until at least April 30.

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Bubble sheet test with pencil.
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The U.S. Education Department says states must resume the annual testing of students that was suspended a year ago amid the pandemic.

For the past two decades, federal law has required schools to test students once each year in math and reading, in grades three through eight and once in high school. And they are required to publicly report these standardized test results, broken out by racial and ethnic group and disability status, and in some cases, hold schools accountable with various sanctions if their students score too low.

In March of 2020, with nearly every school in the nation suddenly pivoting to remote learning, the department waived these requirements.

But in a Feb. 22 letter to state schools chiefs and governors, the department wrote that states must again give these tests and report the results. It remains "vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success," the letter says.

States must also publicly report other indicators, like chronic absenteeism, as well as, where possible, information on students' access to computers and the Internet for remote learning. This information is intended "to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs."

The department is granting states lots of flexibility, but critics of the current accountability system are still unhappy with this move to reinstate mandatory testing.

The department invites states to request waivers of the requirement that they use this data to identify "failing" schools. These waivers would also exempt schools from the current requirement that at least 95% of students participate in testing. And the letter invites states to be flexible in how schools give the tests, such as by shortening the tests, administering them remotely and offering multiple testing windows into the summer and even the fall.

The move toward collecting data while reducing accountability measures effectively lowers the "stakes" on high-stakes testing. This has been a major issue of contention in education circles, with a national parent-led "opt-out" movement peaking around 2015.

Still, this news will be unwelcome for the states where leaders have already begun talking about canceling tests altogether this spring — California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Georgia, to name a few.

Some education leaders say it is logistically impossible to test most students safely and accurately, and an unwise use of limited resources in an ongoing emergency.

"While the vast majority of Georgia schools are offering in-person instruction, students are dealing with the ongoing effects of a global crisis and the trauma of necessary, but unprecedented, isolation," Georgia's Department of Education wrote in a letter requesting a waiver.

More than half of the nation's students are learning remotely or in hybrid classrooms with reduced in-person class time. Comparing this spring's results with those of any other year will be difficult. When the NWEA, a nonprofit test organization, released fall 2020 test results in December, about a quarter of students were "missing" from the data — and these were more likely to be Black and Hispanic students, from high-poverty areas, or lower-performing in the first place. So even though the students who did take the test showed progress on reading and only a little less progress than a normal year on math, there are concerns that the data do not reflect the true learning loss of the most vulnerable students.

Conversely, if tests are given remotely, students might get help from family members or look up the answers, artificially inflating the results.

"Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, in a statement urging states to seek maximum flexibility on waivers. "High-stakes standardized tests administered during the global health crisis should not determine a student's future, evaluate educators, or punish schools; nor should they come at the expense of precious learning time that students could be spending with their educators."

The Met Considers Selling Its Art To Stave Off Financial Shortfall

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Visitors wear masks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October. The museum's director says the Met is considering selling art to pay for operating expenses. John Minchillo/AP hide caption

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Visitors wear masks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October. The museum's director says the Met is considering selling art to pay for operating expenses.

John Minchillo/AP

The pandemic is causing The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to consider selling its artwork to cover operational costs as it falls short of $150 million in revenue.

The country's flagship art museum has still not made a final decision on selling its work.

Museum Director Max Hollein says the Met isn't quite facing an "existential crisis." But he tells Rachel Martin on Morning Edition that the museum's "attendance is of course, way, way below from where we were before the pandemic. And it's going to continue to be that way, even when restrictions are going to be lifted."

Back in April 2020, the museum had to lay off 81 employees in its customer service and retail departments and sizably cut the salaries of top executives.

The process of selling artwork, also known as deaccessioning, is regulated by the Association of Art Museum Directors, a professional organization that sets policies and guidelines for art museums across America.

However, last spring the AAMD announced it would relax its guidelines on deaccessioning until April 2022 to allow for museums to keep themselves afloat against the existential threat posed by the pandemic. Previously, money collected from deaccessioning was only allowed to be used to purchase new art. Now, it can go toward other expenses, including salaries for those who work in collection care.

Already, at least nine museums around the country have sold off art to stay afloat.

A spokesperson from the Met said the museum has still not looked into which pieces would be up for auction if it decides to take advantage of the new deaccessioning rules.

The Met has always practiced deaccessioning, Hollein wrote in a blog post — resulting in revenue that's varied from $45,000 to $25 million. The pieces must meet specific criteria set by the museum to be eligible for resale, such as if the work is redundant or of lesser quality than other pieces in its collection.

The move has met with some criticism, including from former Met director Thomas Campbell, who warned that selling art to cover operating costs could "become the norm."

And as Artnet reported, the Met has an endowment of $3.3 billion and multiple billionaires sit on its board.

Hollein counters that the actual slippery slope would be museums dipping into endowments to cover operating costs, which would "have enormous effects in the long run."

Hollein tells Morning Edition that despite the conditions, the Met will still be able to acquire new art through its endowment.

"We will get this year another $50 million of endowment proceeds through restricted endowments that are just for acquisitions, we get another $50 million just to buy art," Hollein said. "So it doesn't mean that the museum is no longer acquiring new works, or that we are not growing as a collection. We continue to grow, we just for this two-year period might not grow as vigorously or as rapidly as before."

Ziad Buchh and Scott Saloway produced and edited the audio interview.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine in Edinburg, Texas, last year. The Rio Grande Valley, a four-county region that stretches across Texas's southernmost tip, remains one of America's most afflicted areas, with the highest hospitalization rates, deaths at more than twice the state average, overwhelmed hospitals and refrigerated trucks serving as back-up morgues. Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine in Edinburg, Texas, last year. The Rio Grande Valley, a four-county region that stretches across Texas's southernmost tip, remains one of America's most afflicted areas, with the highest hospitalization rates, deaths at more than twice the state average, overwhelmed hospitals and refrigerated trucks serving as back-up morgues.

Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is apologizing for turning away two people eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations on Saturday because they could not prove they live in the United States.

On Feb. 21, it posted a statement on Twitter. UT Health Rio Valley, the clinical practice of the university, stated it "apologizes to those patients who were affected" and "did not follow the most current State of Texas guidelines."

Proof of residency and citizenship are not required to get the vaccine, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services — as stated in guidance on the agency's website. UT-RGV spokesperson Patrick Gonzalez confirmed the university did not follow state protocol.

Abraham Diaz, who lives in San Juan, says his father was one of the people turned away. He tweeted about the experience on Feb. 20.

Diaz said his dad called him upset and embarrassed after waiting in line for four hours at the UT-RGV vaccine clinic, only to be wrongly told by a person working there he was not eligible for the shot.

"[Dad] said that [the health worker] told him in front of everybody, 'you don't have a social, so we can't help you at all. And it's only for U.S. citizens,' " said Diaz.

The Rio Grande Valley is located near the U.S.-Mexico border and is a majority Hispanic region with a large number of undocumented and mixed-status families.

The university said it is working to reschedule individuals wrongly turned away.

NPR's Malak Gharib contributed to this story.

Why The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Has Gotten A Bad Rap — And Why That's Not Fair

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Kurtis Smith gives the Moderna coronavirus vaccine to a resident at Red Hook Neighborhood Senior Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images hide caption

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Kurtis Smith gives the Moderna coronavirus vaccine to a resident at Red Hook Neighborhood Senior Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Two COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed in the U.S. right now, and this week an FDA advisory committee will vote on whether a third should join them.

If granted emergency use authorization, Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine would become available in the U.S., along with those from Pfizer and Moderna.

In clinical trials, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 — compared to about 95% for Moderna and Pfizer. That has some people wondering if they should avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Absolutely not, says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

"What I've been saying to my family is, as soon as the J&J vaccine is authorized, if that's what you can get, you should get it as soon as it's your turn in line," says Jha.

He points out that the 66% vs. 95% effectiveness isn't the right comparison for several reasons. He notes that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in different settings — the U.S., several Latin American countries and South Africa, where some worrisome variants of the virus were first seen.

"So that 66% number really represents an amalgamation of a variety of different clinical trials. Moderna and Pfizer were not tested in those circumstances," Jha tells All Things Considered. "And even if you just look at the U.S. data, the Johnson & Johnson number then starts getting much closer to the Moderna and Pfizer numbers."

But all of that misses what Jha says is the most important point.

"What you care about is hospitalizations and deaths," he says. "And Johnson & Johnson appears to be just as good as Moderna and Pfizer at preventing those."

Jha notes that among the vaccines that have reported results, almost all of them — including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — have shown to be close to 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

In excerpts from his interview, Jha discusses the advantages of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and how that might affect distribution.

Are there other significant differences among the vaccines?

Johnson & Johnson has the huge advantage of being one shot. So that's, of course, really helpful. There are a lot of differences in storage. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored basically in any refrigerator. [The Pfizer vaccine is shipped and stored at ultracold temperatures.] So transportation, widespread availability, much easier. But I certainly think for most people, the idea of a single-shot vaccine should be attractive for a lot of folks. And that also makes it easier for people to get.

As people organizing this vaccination effort look at which vaccine should go where, does the ease of administering a one-shot vaccine that can be kept in a refrigerator determine where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is going to go?

I think you're going to see that play out. The two-shot Pfizer vaccine is particularly hard to manage in, let's say, rural settings, hard-to-reach places. Doable, but harder. J&J vaccine — much, much easier on that front. There are also certain people who may just decide they'd rather get a single shot than two shots. And, you know, and that may also influence who ends up getting what.

Some people are expressing concern that the vaccines that appear to be more effective — Moderna, Pfizer — are going to go to constituencies that have more political power, more clout, a louder voice, and that the so-called less effective vaccine, Johnson and Johnson, is going to go to more disenfranchised groups. What's your response to that?

First of all, I want to make the case that the J&J vaccine is not a lesser vaccine. And second is we absolutely should not be distributing these things based on socioeconomic status or any of those things. We should really be getting all these vaccines out everywhere, we should be focused on disenfranchised groups, actually, for priority because they've been hit so hard.

Mia Venkat and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio interview.

Columns along the sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool pay tribute to victims of COVID-19 at a Jan. 19 memorial. Just over a month later, a Monday evening ceremony will pay tribute to 500,000 Americans lives lost. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images hide caption

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Columns along the sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool pay tribute to victims of COVID-19 at a Jan. 19 memorial. Just over a month later, a Monday evening ceremony will pay tribute to 500,000 Americans lives lost.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

As the U.S. passes the grievous marker of 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19, President Joe Biden will order flags on federal property to be lowered at half staff for five days to mark the solemn milestone, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday briefing.

Biden will commemorate the people who died at a Monday evening ceremony, joined by First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. The event will include remarks, a candle lighting ceremony and a moment of silence, according to Psaki.

"Tonight's events, including the president's remarks, will highlight the magnitude of loss that this milestone marks for the American people and so many families across the country," she said. "He will also speak to the power of the American people to turn the tide on this pandemic by working together, following public health guidelines and getting in line to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible."

Monday's event comes nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, and just over a month after the U.S. crossed the threshold of 400,000 confirmed deaths. It has the highest recorded number of cases and deaths in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, with communities of color hit disproportionately hard.

The milestone of half a million confirmed deaths exceeds the worst-case projections from the start of the pandemic, NPR's Allison Aubrey said on Morning Edition. And new research shows that average U.S. life expectancy dropped by a year in the first half of 2020, with the pandemic mostly to blame.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, described the pandemic's toll as historic in a Sunday interview with CNN's State of the Union.

"It's nothing like we've ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic," Fauci said. "To have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection, it really is a terrible situation that we've been through, and that we're still going through."

As of this month, the U.S. is starting to see a decline in average new daily infections, which dropped below 100,000 for the first time since November. But, as new and highly transmissible variants continue to circulate, the race to get vaccines into Americans' arms remains as urgent as ever.

West Virginia's Vaccination Rate Ranks Among Highest In World

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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced in late December that residents older than 80 would be able to receive doses of the vaccine from their county health departments. Chris Jackson/AP hide caption

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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced in late December that residents older than 80 would be able to receive doses of the vaccine from their county health departments.

Chris Jackson/AP

West Virginia isn't known for its good health outcomes. It leads the nation in deaths from diabetes, accidents and drug overdoses. But when it comes to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, the state has been a shining star.

It didn't start out that way. In late December, on what was the day that Gov. Jim Justice announced West Virginians older than 80 would be able to receive doses of the vaccine from their county health departments, seniors began lining up right away — even before doses of the vaccine were available. Chris Dorst, a Charleston Gazette-Mail photographer for 30 years, was sent out by his editor to photograph the serpentine line of senior citizens she'd seen waiting outside the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, under the gray December sky.

"Some people had wheelchairs or walkers — elderly people, and maybe some family members with them in line, just waiting. It seemed to move really slow," Dorst says.

Behind the scenes at Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, things were chaotic. The staff received a call from the governor's office at 11 a.m. letting them know they would receive vaccines to distribute to seniors, just one hour before Justice's public announcement. As soon as the governor made the announcement, octogenarians came down to stand outside the health department. By the time Dr. Sherri Young, the county health director, returned to the building with the doses of the Moderna vaccine, it was nearly 2 p.m. But the vaccine she'd just picked up still needed to thaw, the line of elderly constituents was only getting longer and rain was in the forecast. Young's office was able to repurpose thawed doses of the vaccine meant for first responders and deliver 210 shots to the people in line that day.

In other parts of the country, some beleaguered county health departments have reported that beyond making vaccine doses available to them, state governments did nothing to help them get shots into arms.

But West Virginia has been successful in part because the opposite is true.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer is the head of the state's COVID-19 Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines. Hoyer, who retired as head of the West Virginia National Guard before assuming his role at the head of the vaccine task force, saw Dorst's striking photograph in the Charleston Gazette-Mail in his morning paper the following day.

"I remember seeing the picture," Hoyer says.

People didn't have any information yet about where and when to go, so they just showed up. Hoyer says it was a communications problem he needed to solve as quickly as possible. He got on the phone with Young to discuss "how we're going to help her get folks in."

Many states have relied on electronic registration systems — including the online ticket sales website Eventbrite after their own websites crashed — to help the public schedule vaccine appointments. But Hoyer says in West Virginia, that's not a great option. As much as 30% of the state's population lacks access to broadband Internet. Plus, as Hoyer puts it, "If you're talking about people over the age of 70 and in their 80s, how many of them are Internet savvy?"

Hoyer's team decided on a simple solution: a telephone hotline. Call it and residents can ask questions about how and where to get the vaccine, as well as schedule appointments.

Elsewhere, state COVID-19 hotlines have crashed, impacting cell service generally as networks strain under too many calls. West Virginia's population of 1.8 million reduced the chances of that happening. The state decided not to outsource the hotline to a private company as some states have done, housing it instead under the Department of Health and Human Resources' Office of Constituent Services. Justice gets a report every night on call volume, wait times and appointments scheduled.

"The last time I looked, it was 6 minutes," Hoyer says disapprovingly, of the hotline's average wait time. "What that tells us is we probably need more people manning the hotline."

West Virginia has administered almost 450,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. More than 9% of its population has gotten both doses. Alaska and West Virginia trade off for first place among states for the percentage of the population that have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. If broadened out to look at the whole world, the percentage of the population of West Virginia already fully vaccinated would rank third.

"Not bad for a bunch of hillbillies," Hoyer says.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, seen here during a press briefing on Feb. 4, told CBS the World Health Organization has more work to do to get to the bottom of where the coronavirus emerged. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, seen here during a press briefing on Feb. 4, told CBS the World Health Organization has more work to do to get to the bottom of where the coronavirus emerged.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden's national security adviser said Sunday that the administration has concerns over the data China has provided to the World Health Organization regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We need a credible, open, transparent international investigation led by the World Health Organization," Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CBS' Face the Nation.

Sullivan said the Biden administration has questions about an upcoming report from the WHO about the pandemic's origins.

"We do not believe that China has made available sufficient original data into how this pandemic began to spread, both in China and then eventually around the world," he said. "And we believe that both the WHO and China should step up on this matter."

He said Biden did "raise the issue of COVID-19 and the need for all countries to shoulder responsibility" during his recent call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Earlier this month a WHO team presented its initial findings after wrapping up a visit to Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019. The researchers said the outbreak almost certainly did not start in a Chinese lab, but that its path from animals to humans needs further investigation.

And one of those team members, Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, told NPR's Steve Inskeep that said she and her team believe the pandemic did not originate at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

"The market is not the whole story," she said. "The market has been one of those spreading events but there also was circulation outside of, aside from the market."

Hostages in Iran

Sullivan also told CBS that the Biden administration has started communication with Iran about the at least five Americans currently being held hostage in the country.

"Our strong message to the Iranians will be that we will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner," he said. "It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home."

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would restart diplomacy talks with Tehran centered on the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.

Sullivan said Biden is "prepared to go to the table" to talk with Iranians about getting constraints back on their nuclear program, and noted that Iran has not yet responded.

"That offer still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it," he said. "Iran has not yet responded. But what's happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court."

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a vial of the AstraZeneca vaccine during a visit to a coronavirus vaccination center in London on Feb. 15, 2021. The British government hopes to vaccinate all adults by the end of July. Jeremy Selwyn/AP hide caption

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Jeremy Selwyn/AP

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a vial of the AstraZeneca vaccine during a visit to a coronavirus vaccination center in London on Feb. 15, 2021. The British government hopes to vaccinate all adults by the end of July.

Jeremy Selwyn/AP

The British government has announced that every adult in the U.K. will be offered a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of July, one month earlier than initially planned. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the accelerated target will allow vulnerable people to be protected "sooner," which should help relax the lifting of lockdown restrictions across the country.

Senior ministers met to discuss the plan Sunday. Johnson will unveil the plan to ease restrictions to the House of Commons on Monday.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC that about one-third of U.K. adults — about 17 million people — have already been vaccinated. The new target also calls for everyone over 50 or with an underlying health condition to get a vaccine shot by April 15, rather than the previous target of May 1.

The U.K. uses both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

Britain is delaying giving second vaccine doses until 12 weeks after the first in an effort to give as many people as possible partial protection quickly, according to the Associated Press. While the move is backed by scientific advisors in the U.K., Pfizer says it does not have data to support the delay.

The U.K. was the first country in the world to grant emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, the government has faced widespread criticism for its handling of the pandemic, which has left more than 120,000 people dead, the highest toll in Europe.

The country is more than a month into its third national lockdown, leaving businesses and schools closed. The prime minister is under increasing pressure to ease the lockdown to help get the nation's struggling economy moving.

The latest lockdown was spurred by fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus — including one from South Africa — which overwhelmed British hospitals. Hancock said the number of cases of variants from South Africa was falling from a month ago.

"The latest data shows that there's around a dozen new ones, so a much, much smaller number, and each time we find a new one we absolutely clamp down on it," he said.

The novel coronavirus, first detected at the end of 2019, has caused a global pandemic.

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