Coronavirus Updates The latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The novel coronavirus, first detected at the end of 2019, has caused a global pandemic.

Coronavirus Updates

Latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic

A general view of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. The embassy is facing a coronavirus outbreak, according to the State Department. Ahmad Nazar/AP hide caption

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A general view of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. The embassy is facing a coronavirus outbreak, according to the State Department.

Ahmad Nazar/AP

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul says it is suffering from a major COVID-19 outbreak that has largely confined staff to their quarters and is disrupting many of its operations. Earlier this week, the embassy announced that it was suspending in-person visa interviews for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military.

In a note sent to staff, seen by NPR, the embassy says 114 people "have COVID and are in isolation; one has died, and several have been medevaced." The note goes on to say that military hospital ICU resources are at full capacity and that the embassy has been forced to "create temporary, on-compound COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients." Most of the cases involve individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

"We are saddened by the deaths of many valiant Afghans, who have been sickened by this pandemic and we in fact grieve the passing of an embassy local staff member," said Ned Price, the State Department's spokesperson.

The embassy requests staff to get vaccinated, stay six feet from others, suspends the use of pools and gyms, and demands strict mask compliance from staff. "Wear your masks, correctly! We are seeing a lot of noses."

Failure to comply could see staff on the next flight home. The embassy asks them to make sure others are following protocols and to report those who aren't.

Eric Rubin, who heads the American Foreign Service Association — the State Department's union — says he's hearing from members, who are "very concerned that their safety has been endangered by fellow employees, who have chosen not to be vaccinated."

"Our understanding is that there is enough vaccine at every embassy and consulate in the world for anyone, who wants to get it," Rubin told NPR.

The State Department does not disclose how many people are at the embassy, but it is one of the U.S.' largest. The embassy reportedly faced a smaller coronavirus outbreak in June 2020.

The State Department and the embassy in Kabul did add some staff in recent months to handle a surge in visa applications for Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S.

As the U.S. military pulls out – and is expected to fully do so by July, with a symbolic end date of Sept 11 – many of those who helped U.S. forces over the past two decades believe their lives are in danger, with the Taliban controlling greater swaths of the country.

Testifying before a congressional committee recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there are currently 18,000 Afghans who have expressed interest in moving to the U.S. and about half were in the early stages of their application process.

Trying to reassure Congress, he added that while the military was leaving, the embassy would continue with its job and was focused on getting those who helped the U.S. out: "We're not withdrawing. We're staying. The embassy staying. Our programs are staying. We're working to make sure that other partners stay. We're building all of that up."

Dr. Fauci Says The Risks From The Delta Variant Underscore The Importance Of Vaccines

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In this March 18, 2021 file photo, Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

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In this March 18, 2021 file photo, Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.

Susan Walsh/AP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that the variant of coronavirus first detected in India is a variant of concern, meaning it poses a significant threat to those who are not vaccinated.

The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2, is the most contagious yet. The CDC estimates that it may be responsible for nearly 10% of all new COVID-19 infections in the United States. In some Western U.S. states, the variant may be responsible for nearly 20% of cases.

That risk has public health officials stressing the benefits of vaccines, which have been shown to be highly effective against the Delta variant. In one recent study, researchers in the U.K. found that a two-dose regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant.

"If you are vaccinated, you're going to be protected, which is another very good reason to encourage people strongly to get vaccinated," says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "If you are not vaccinated, you are at risk of getting infected with the virus that now spreads more rapidly and gives more serious disease."

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition on Thursday, Fauci elaborated on what led the CDC to designate the Delta variant a variant of concern, what the science says so far about how long protection lasts from vaccines and whether he's worried about a new surge.

Here are highlights of the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

On what prompted the CDC to elevate the Delta variant to a new level of concern

Some studies have recently come out essentially documenting that indeed, this particular variant does transmit significantly more readily between people and among people than the virus that is now the dominant virus, which is the Alpha variant, which is the one that's more dominant in the United States. In addition, a very recent data — literally yesterday and the day before — shows that, in fact, it is a more dangerous virus in the sense that it can potentially make people more severely ill. So the combination of more transmissibility and a greater severity of disease appropriately prompted the CDC to elevate it to a variant of concern.

On his concerns that the variant could make people more sick as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted nationwide

I'm not concerned about the people who are vaccinated because the good news about all this among the seriousness of the situation with regard to the variant is that the vaccines work really quite well. A recent study came out showing that against any clinical disease with 617, which is the Delta variant, that the efficacy or the effectiveness is somewhere close to 90% — 88, 89, 90%. Importantly, the protection against severe disease resulting in hospitalization and death is over 90%, 93, 94%. So if you are vaccinated, you're going to be protected, which is another very good reason to encourage people strongly to get vaccinated, because if you are not vaccinated, you are at risk of getting infected with the virus that now spreads more rapidly and gives more serious disease. The Brits are having a very difficult time with this. They have about 90 plus percent of their isolates are the Delta. As you mentioned correctly just a moment ago, about 10% of our isolates are Delta. We want to make sure we don't get into the same situation that people in the U.K. did.

On what we know now about how long vaccine protection lasts

We don't know for sure. We certainly know that it's several months up to a year, because people who have been vaccinated early on, the original people who were vaccinated, seemed to continue to have protection. What we do is we monitor cohorts of people who have been in clinical trial, both for laboratory indication of durability, of protection, as well as clinical indication. For example, if we start seeing breakthrough infections, there's a thing called correlate of immunity, which is a laboratory test that you could follow. And as that goes below a certain threshold, then you know you're going to have to give someone a booster. So we're preparing to boost people, but we don't know at exactly what point we will have to do that. But we're doing tests right now, clinical trials to determine various options for boosting people.

The federal government has agreed to buy 200 million more doses of the Moderna vaccine to prepare for necessity for boosters. Can you explain how that will work?

It's going to be a combination of the need — potential need — for boosters, but also for the pediatric population, because as you know now, we've shown that at least with one candidate and likely more to come, that 12 to 15 year olds can be vaccinated. We are doing studies now to determine the proper dosage and the proper regimen for children from 12 to nine, and then nine to six and then six to two. So we have the, I wouldn't say challenge, but at least facing ahead for the likelihood — of more than just the likelihood, I'm sure we'll be doing it — of vaccinating children as well as possibly needing to give people boosters. They'll be a varying requirement for boosters. For example, it is likely that the elderly who have less of a powerful immune system than people who are younger, those people would likely need a booster longer than that. So we're looking at this. Hopefully we'll get the right answer, which I believe we will and will be prepared for it.

Right now, 51% of eligible people nationwide are fully vaccinated. But we're seeing people traveling. Could we see another surge?

Well, not among vaccinated people. You know, we have a disparity throughout the country. Certain states have low level. They will be at risk.

The audio for this story was produced and edited by Nina Kravinsky and Jill Craig.

Royal Caribbean had been set to launch the Odyssey of the Seas on its first cruise with passengers in early July. But positive coronavirus tests among the crew have forced the voyage to be delayed for four weeks. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Royal Caribbean had been set to launch the Odyssey of the Seas on its first cruise with passengers in early July. But positive coronavirus tests among the crew have forced the voyage to be delayed for four weeks.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Royal Caribbean's new megaship, Odyssey of the Seas, was supposed to hail the company's return to business as near-usual this summer. But the ship's launch is now delayed after eight crew members tested positive for the coronavirus. Its first scheduled trips are now canceled.

The Odyssey of the Seas had been slated to make its debut sail with paying passengers on July 3 — more than a year after the pandemic hobbled the cruise ship industry. Its first voyage is now delayed for four weeks, until July 31. By then, summer will be nearly halfway over.

"While disappointing, this is the right decision for the health and well-being of our crew and guests," Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said as he announced the delay.

The cruise line said it's contacting customers to discuss refunding tickets and rebooking their trips.

All 1,400 crew members aboard the ship will now be quarantined. The entire crew had been vaccinated on June 4, the same day the ship arrived in Port Canaveral, Fla., Bayley said. The positive cases sprang up before their vaccinations could be considered fully effective.

Crew members of the Odyssey of the Seas were tested on the day they arrived in Florida. A week later, a second round of tests returned the positive results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires regular tests in the conditional sailing order that has allowed the U.S. cruise industry to restart operations.

The cruise company said medical staff is monitoring its infected crew members. Six of them are asymptomatic, and two have mild symptoms, Bayley said.

Cruise ships were banned from operating from U.S. ports in March 2020 when the CDC issued a no sail order due to the pandemic. Cruise trips were linked to early COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S., and outbreaks of cases on ships have been blamed for at least 41 deaths.

The first commercial cruise to launch from a U.S. port in more than a year is expected to take place in 10 days when a Celebrity Cruises ship will depart from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a weeklong tour of the Caribbean.

Under the CDC's new guidelines, cruise ships will be able to operate under near-normal conditions if a large portion of passengers and crew are fully vaccinated. Guests who are vaccinated against the coronavirus can even fill up their own plates at the buffet, for instance.

Memorials hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery in New York City during an event organized by Naming the Lost Memorials to remember and celebrate those who died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

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Memorials hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery in New York City during an event organized by Naming the Lost Memorials to remember and celebrate those who died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More than 15 months since the first confirmed death due to COVID-19 in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 600,000 lives across the country.

But that trend has slowed from thousands to hundreds per day in recent weeks, thanks largely to the ready availability of vaccines.

Over the winter, the nation was adding about 100,000 deaths each month. But as more and more people were vaccinated — particularly older Americans — the death rate fell precipitously. There are now about 375 deaths per day on average — down from more than 3,000 per day in January.

Worldwide, the U.S. still is reporting the greatest total deaths, followed by Brazil, India and Mexico. The total global death toll stands at 3.8 million.

The U.S. death toll, according to Johns Hopkins University, stood at 600,012 on Tuesday afternoon.

Even so, the cumulative number of deaths in the country clearly shows the recent positive impact of vaccines: Barely a month passed between 400,000 and a half-million deaths, but it has taken nearly four times as long to reach the 600,000 mark. At the same time, the trend in the number of new infections, which has closely mirrored deaths, reached a peak in January of more than 300,000 in a single day. Now the U.S. is hovering around an average of fewer than 15,000 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins.

The positive trends have led many states to lift their coronavirus restrictions — with some dropping mask mandates altogether for vaccinated individuals and eliminating other social distancing requirements.

At the same time, however, many Americans have shown a reluctance to get vaccinated, with just over half of U.S. adults fully immunized. In parts of the Midwest and South, in particular, vaccine rates per 100,000 people still remain relatively low compared with the Northeast and parts of the West Coast, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The divide has been particularly marked between rural and urban areas of the country.

Tuesday's figures follow a study this week showing that a new vaccine, one made by Novavax, is 100% effective against the original strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and 93% effective against other variants.

The next step is for the company to seek regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which has issued emergency authorizations for three other vaccines – ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

This Twitter Account Is Honoring COVID Victims, With 5,000 Obituaries And Counting

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The Twitter account @FacesofCOVID, says creator Alex Goldstein, helps people mourn. And as long as COVID-19 persists, he plans on running the account. Michele Abercrombie/NPR hide caption

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The Twitter account @FacesofCOVID, says creator Alex Goldstein, helps people mourn. And as long as COVID-19 persists, he plans on running the account.

Michele Abercrombie/NPR

Alex Goldstein started the Twitter account @FacesofCOVID in March of 2020 to help him make sense of grief.

The account has been his way to honor some of the nearly 600,000 people who have died in the U.S.

Even back in March 2020, Goldstein knew something was wrong. The communications specialist's home city of Boston was hit early and harshly from virus. As the death toll climbed and businesses shut down, he started to feel overwhelmed. How could a virus kill so many and yet he knew so few of its victims? Who were the people who had passed away from COVID, and what were their stories?

He created FacesofCOVID to learn those answers. He has posted over 5,000 virtual obituaries from newspapers and families of those who have died.

"I think that the story at the beginning of the pandemic was largely a data story. We were getting thrown all these numbers thrown at us — hospitalizations and cases and deaths," Goldstein tells Morning Edition. "I found it really hard to process and I felt like, we were missing the human element of that story."

One of the things that made this pandemic especially difficult was the lack of mourning rituals. Families saw their loved ones one last time from iPads in isolation wards. Many funeral homes did not let more than 10 mourners at a time attend a service due to regulations. In a time of immense grief, people couldn't mourn in familiar ways.

"It's a place where they can share their loved one's story and see people from all over the country and all over the world saying, 'Your loved one meant something, and even if I didn't know them, we are all less because they're not here anymore, and we all share in your sadness,' " Goldstein says.

As long as COVID-19 continues to exist and take lives, Goldstein plans on running the account.

"I don't want us to immediately lose sight just because things are reopening," he says. "There's a lot of pain out there, and if FacesofCOVID can help people slow down a little bit on their impulse to change the channel, I think that can be a good thing."

Tori Dominguez is an intern at Morning Edition.

Novavax Says Its COVID Vaccine Is Extremely Effective

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Novavax says its vaccine is 100% effective against the original strain of the coronavirus and had 93% efficacy against more worrisome variants. Alastair Grant/AP hide caption

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Novavax says its vaccine is 100% effective against the original strain of the coronavirus and had 93% efficacy against more worrisome variants.

Alastair Grant/AP

The first results from a large efficacy study of a new kind of COVID-19 vaccine are now out, and they are good. Very good.

According to Novavax, the vaccine's manufacturer, it had a 100% efficacy against the original strain of the coronavirus and 93% efficacy against more worrisome variants that have subsequently appeared.

In addition to efficacy, the PREVENT-19 (the PRE-fusion protein subunit Vaccine Efficacy Novavax Trial COVID-19) trial showed the Novavax vaccine was safe for users. Like other COVID-19 vaccines, it caused headaches, chills and muscle aches after injection, but few of these side effects were considered serious or severe.

The study involved 29,960 volunteers in the United States and Mexico. In the study, two-thirds of the volunteers received two shots of the vaccine and one-third received two shots of a placebo.

A total of 77 cases of COVID-19 occurred during the study: 63 in the placebo group and 14 in the vaccine group. According to the Novavax statement describing the results, none of the cases of COVID-19 in the vaccine group were related to the original strain of the virus, hence the 100% efficacy against the original strain.

The breakthrough cases were all caused by the newer, more worrisome variants, and all of the breakthroughs in the vaccine group were mild. By contrast, 10 in the placebo group were considered moderate and four severe. Novavax's statement did not specify which variants in particular were prevented.

The company says it intends to file for authorization from regulators in the U.S., Europe and the United Kingdom later this summer. Novavax says it will be able to deliver 100 million doses per month by the end of September and 150 million doses per month by the end of the year.

The Novavax vaccine is what's known as a protein subunit vaccine. All COVID-19 vaccines are based on something called the coronavirus spike protein. That's the protein that prompts the immune system to make antibodies to the virus.

The vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech deliver the genetic instructions for the spike protein in the form of messenger-RNA, and the cells of the person receiving the vaccine make the spike protein. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine delivers those instructions using a viral vector, again relying on the vaccine recipient's cells to make the protein.

Novavax, on the other hand, makes the protein in cell cultures grown in giant bioreactors in manufacturing facilities and delivers the fully formed vaccine along with a substance for priming the immune system in its vaccine.

The Novavax vaccine was one of the vaccines chosen for development as part of Operation Warp Speed. The U.S. government is providing $1.75 billion to the company to support the vaccine's development.

It's not clear at this point whether the Food and Drug Administration is prepared to continue to grant emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines. The FDA may require Novavax to go through the standard licensure process, which can take considerably longer than an EUA.

President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during a bilateral meeting ahead of the G-7 summit on Thursday in Carbis Bay, England. Patrick Semansky/AP hide caption

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President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during a bilateral meeting ahead of the G-7 summit on Thursday in Carbis Bay, England.

Patrick Semansky/AP

World leaders of the Group of Seven are expected to announce Friday a commitment to share 1 billion of their COVID-19 vaccine resources with lower-income countries struggling to control the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, President Biden announced plans for the U.S. to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine globally. The first 200 million are expected to be distributed this year and the rest will follow in 2022.

"Our values call on us to do everything that we can to vaccinate the world against COVID-19," Biden said of the decision. "It's also in America's self-interest. As long as the virus rages elsewhere, there's a risk of new mutations that could threaten our people."

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. make up the G-7.

The move by the wealthy democracies to share their vaccine stockpiles comes as relatively high vaccination levels in those countries have led to a decline in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Enough improvements have been made in the U.S. and U.K. for coronavirus-related protocols to ease.

But in South Asia and Latin America, countries are still struggling to contain the virus.

In late May, the World Health Organization urged wealthier countries to contribute more to COVAX and requested at least 1 billion excess doses by the end of 2021. The COVAX program distributes mass quantities of vaccines to countries based on their populations.

"By donating vaccines to COVAX alongside domestic vaccination programmes, the most at-risk populations can be protected globally, which is instrumental to ending the acute phase of the pandemic, curbing the rise and threat of variants, and accelerating a return to normality," WHO said in a statement in May.

Biden and the other G-7 leaders are in the U.K. for the first meeting in about two years. The meeting is set to open Friday at Carbis Bay, a seaside resort in Cornwall in southwest England.

Washington is offering free, pre-rolled joints to adults who get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here, a person smokes a joint in The Netherlands. Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty Images

Washington is offering free, pre-rolled joints to adults who get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here, a person smokes a joint in The Netherlands.

Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty Images

Still anxious about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? Washington state is offering adults a relaxing new incentive — marijuana joints.

The program, launched by the state's Liquor and Cannabis Board and named "Joints for Jabs," runs until July 12 and allows state-licensed dispensaries to give qualifying customers one pre-rolled joint at an in-store vaccination clinic.

Eligible participants must be 21 years old or older and have to have received their first or second dose during that visit.

This is only the latest among Washington's abundant vaccination incentives, which include free tickets to sports events and a lottery totaling up to $1 million. Just a few weeks ago, the Liquor and Cannabis Board announced an incentive that allows breweries, wineries, and restaurants to offer free drinks to vaccinated adults.

Washington's newest promotion reflects a multitude of unique vaccination incentives being offered across the country, and the state isn't the first to offer weed.

In exchange for proof of vaccination, an Arizona dispensary's "Snax for Vaxx" campaign provides free joints and edibles. In Washington, D.C., cannabis advocacy group D.C. Marijuana Justice distributed joints at vaccination sites on April 20.

As of June 9, nearly 49% of Washington residents have been fully vaccinated.

Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR's News Desk.

The Delta variant, or B.1.617.2, is now the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.K. and is causing surges of COVID-19 in parts of the country. Mark Kerrison/Getty Images hide caption

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The Delta variant, or B.1.617.2, is now the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.K. and is causing surges of COVID-19 in parts of the country.

Mark Kerrison/Getty Images

The Delta variant, which was first detected in India, now accounts for more than 6% of all infections in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And this highly transmissible variant may be responsible for more than 18% of cases in some Western U.S. states.

The variant, also known as B.1.617.2, is spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom and has quickly become the dominant strain there, responsible for more than 90% of infections and causing surges of COVID-19 in some parts of England.

"We cannot let that happen in the United States," Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

Speaking at a White House COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Fauci warned that the Delta variant may be associated with more severe disease and a higher risk of hospitalization.

The good news is that the vaccines look like they can protect people against the Delta variant. A new study from Public Health England showed two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant compared with 93% effectiveness against the Alpha variant, the variant first detected in the U.K. The vaccine only provided 33% protection after just one dose.

Fauci urged everyone who has received the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to make sure to sign up for a second. "And for those who have still not been vaccinated yet, please get vaccinated," he said.

He said vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and to stop this variant from spreading and becoming dominant in the U.S.

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization is recommending allowing people to mix COVID-19 vaccine doses. Here, people walk past a vaccination clinic this week in Toronto. Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images hide caption

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Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization is recommending allowing people to mix COVID-19 vaccine doses. Here, people walk past a vaccination clinic this week in Toronto.

Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Canada's public health agency says people can mix COVID-19 vaccines if they want to, citing cases where local supply shortages or health concerns might otherwise prevent some from completing their two-dose vaccination regimen.

The new recommendations come after safety concerns were raised linking the AstraZeneca vaccine to the potential for dangerous blood clots — a condition the health agency calls "rare but serious." That vaccine is not authorized for use in the U.S., but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has faced similar scrutiny, is. Both of them are viral vector vaccines.

Several Canadian provinces have recently moved to mix vaccines, the CBC reported, because of supply issues, when the vaccine used for a first dose isn't available for the second.

Public confidence is also an issue: Health officials cite a study from late April that found more than 90% of participants said they were comfortable with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, but only 52% of participants said they were comfortable with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Both Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines.

Based on the available evidence, "we are recommending that someone who received a first dose of the AstraZeneca ... vaccine may receive an mRNA vaccine for their second dose," said Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, who chairs Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

The agency cites the results of a study in Germany and clinical trials in the U.K. and Spain as supporting the safety of vaccine interchangeability. It says it expects further data from ongoing studies in Canada and elsewhere in the coming months and will update its recommendations if warranted.

Two vaccines are dominant in both the U.S. and Canada

Nationwide, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have increasingly become the primary vaccines administered in Canada, according to the latest government data.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines "can be considered interchangeable" between the first and second doses, Canada's advisory committee on immunization says in its recommendations that were updated this week.

Canadian officials are hoping the new guidance will help bridge a wide gap in their vaccination program. As of late May, 50.6% of Canada's population had received at least one vaccination shot — but only 4.6% of the population was fully vaccinated.

"This is not a new concept," the advisory group said of the practice known as heterologous vaccination. In the past, the group added, "Different vaccine products have been used to complete a vaccine series for influenza, hepatitis A, and others to complete a vaccine series for influenza, hepatitis A, and others."

Several European countries have already been encouraging people who've received a first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine to make either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines their second shot, including France, Spain and Germany.

Two vaccines may be better than one

In addition to potentially easing vaccine reluctance, mixing vaccines could also bring other benefits.

As NPR's Joe Palca reported last month: "Basically, all vaccines work by showing people's immune systems something that looks like an invading virus but really isn't. If the real virus ever comes along, their immune systems will recognize it and be prepared to fight it off.

"Using two different vaccines is a bit like giving the immune system two pictures of the virus, maybe one face-on and one in profile."

As other countries authorize mixing vaccines, the U.S. is not following suit — in part because the Food and Drug Administration hasn't authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine. And unlike that vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only a single dose.

When asked for comment about the strategy of mixing vaccines, an FDA spokesperson cited a lack of data about the interchangeability of the vaccine with other COVID-19 vaccines.

"Individuals who have received one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine should receive a second dose of the same vaccine to complete the vaccination series," the spokesperson added.

The White House Says It Has Started Shipping Surplus COVID-19 Vaccines Abroad

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People wait their turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Chennai, India, in April. India is among the nations that will receive surplus U.S. vaccine through the international distribution system COVAX, the White House announced. Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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People wait their turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Chennai, India, in April. India is among the nations that will receive surplus U.S. vaccine through the international distribution system COVAX, the White House announced.

Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

The United States will send its first shipments of surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad on Thursday, spelling out for the first time how it will share its wealth of vaccines with parts of the world struggling to get shots in arms.

The Biden administration has previously said it would share 80 million doses by the end of June. "We know that won't be sufficient," said Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response. But he said it's an important step toward boosting global production and trying to end the global pandemic.

"We expect a regular cadence of shipments around the world across the next several weeks. And in the weeks ahead, working with the world's democracies we will coordinate a multilateral effort, including the G-7, to combat and end the pandemic," Zients said.

The U.S. has contracts for hundreds of millions more vaccine doses than it could possibly use — and this is a major move by the Biden administration to attempt to exert global leadership after months of pressure from global health organizations.

Zients said 75% of the first 25 million doses will be allotted through COVAX, an international distribution system aimed at helping vaccinate people in the world's poorest countries.

The administration also removed contract ratings under the Defense Production Act that prioritized U.S. contracts for suppliers to AstraZeneca, Novavax and Sanofi — three vaccines not currently authorized for use in the United States.

"While the manufacturers will continue to make these three vaccines, this action will allow U.S.-based companies that supply these vaccine manufacturers to make their own decisions on which orders to fulfill first," Zients said.

The administration says no strings attached

The first priority for doses shared through COVAX will be Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, the White House said.

The remaining doses will go to countries that have made their case to the White House, including nations such as India that have seen surges in cases; places such as Gaza, which is grappling to rebuild from recent fighting; and neighboring countries such as Canada and Mexico, the White House said.

"This won't be enough to end or reduce the life span of the pandemic. And that's why we're working with allies and partners to expand the production of vaccines and raw materials, including here at home," said Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, on a call with reporters.

Sullivan emphasized there would be no strings attached to the doses — a veiled criticism of China and Russia, which have rapidly shared doses around the world. "We're not seeking to extract concessions. We're not extorting. We're not imposing conditions the way that other countries who are providing doses are doing."

In accordance with the administration's framework, the White House announced approximate allocations for the first 25 million doses that will ship:

  • 6 million to South and Central America;
  • 7 million to Asia;
  • 5 million to Africa; and
  • 6 million to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo, Haiti, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen as well as U.N. front-line workers

Leaders are facing calls to do more

Both Biden and Vice President Harris leave next week on their first official foreign trips and are expected to discuss the U.S. plans for vaccine distribution. Harris is set to travel to Guatemala and Mexico City starting on Sunday, and Biden leaves Wednesday for the U.K., Brussels and Geneva.

Harris made a series of calls about the shipments on Thursday, including to leaders in Mexico, Guatemala and India. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tweeted about his conversation with Harris, announcing that a shipment of 1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be heading for Mexico. The White House did not immediately confirm those details.

Carolyn Reynolds of the Pandemic Action Network called the announcement a good start but said the White House and other world leaders needed to pick up the pace.

"It is time to have a global road map to vaccinate the world. That's what we hope will come out of the G-7 summit next week," Reynolds told NPR. "As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere around the world, Americans aren't safe, none of us are safe."

Tom Hart, acting CEO of the ONE Campaign, said he was disappointed that the Biden administration has not moved faster to ship 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which U.S. regulators have not yet authorized for emergency use.

"Less than 1 percent of COVID-19 vaccine doses globally have been administered to people in low-income countries," Hart said in a statement. "This is a once in a generation crisis, and as we approach the G7 next week, the world is looking to the US for global leadership and more ambition is needed."

Half Of States Are Ending Pandemic Jobless Aid Early, And The Economy Could Suffer

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A Nordstrom store is looking for employees last month in Coral Gables, Fla. Citing a severe shortage of workers, half of the nation's governors have decided to end extra federal jobless benefits months early. Marta Lavandier/AP hide caption

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Marta Lavandier/AP

A Nordstrom store is looking for employees last month in Coral Gables, Fla. Citing a severe shortage of workers, half of the nation's governors have decided to end extra federal jobless benefits months early.

Marta Lavandier/AP

As the economic recovery picks up steam, new claims for state unemployment benefits have fallen to the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. And, citing a severe shortage of workers, half of the nation's governors have decided to end extra federal jobless benefits early — well before they're due to expire in early September.

But cutting off those extra benefits — which amount to about $10 billion per week — is a big mistake that could hurt the economy just as it's getting back on its feet, said Dan Alpert, a senior fellow in macroeconomics and finance at Cornell Law School.

"If we terminate those benefits earlier, as many Republicans have suggested, what we're going to be doing is bringing forward a contraction in spending," Alpert said in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. "And that's really going to be a problem ... not just for the households, but for the local economies as well."

Why it's so difficult to fill low-wage jobs

Alpert said state and federal benefits average about $750 per week across the country, and that can make it difficult for employers in lower-paying jobs to fill openings.

"It's just common sense," he said. "If you're paying $500 a week to your employers, you're not going to get somebody who's receiving $750 in benefits back to work."

But when those benefits run out, Alpert said, "this $10 billion a week, that's going to be eliminated when these people resume those low-income jobs. And that's a big problem for the recovery from the pandemic."

He said it makes no sense for governors to cut off those federal benefits because those receiving $750 a week are "spending pretty much all that money into the economy. So ... you're effectively removing that money" from the economy.

Governors are citing worker shortages as a reason to cut jobless benefits

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan became the latest Republican governor to announce an end to enhanced pandemic federal unemployment benefits. Hogan cited the economic recovery and a high COVID-19 vaccination rate for the state's adults.

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"While these federal programs provided important temporary relief, vaccines and jobs are now in good supply," Hogan said. He said businesses "are trying to hire more people, but many are facing severe worker shortages."

It's not just Maryland. A lack of available workers has been cited around the country.

"It remained difficult for many firms to hire new workers, especially low-wage hourly workers, truck drivers, and skilled tradespeople," the Federal Reserve said this week in its latest report on economic activity.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki addresses a news briefing last month as a chart showing a drop in initial claims for unemployment insurance appears on a monitor. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

White House press secretary Jen Psaki addresses a news briefing last month as a chart showing a drop in initial claims for unemployment insurance appears on a monitor.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Wages are starting to rise as an incentive to hiring

And, the central bank said, a growing number of employers are offering signing bonuses and increased starting wages to attract workers. In its April employment report, the Labor Department said the rising demand for labor as the economy rebounds from the pandemic "may have put upward pressure on wages."

Average hourly earnings jumped 21 cents in April, to $30.17, though the year-over-year increase was just 0.3%. In May, private economists estimate that earnings surged more than 1% over the past 12 months.

The official jobs report for last month is due from the Labor Department on Friday. Private analysts project that the economy added more than 600,000 jobs in May, up from the weaker-than-expected 266,000 jobs added in April.

New claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 20,000 — to a level of 385,000 — for the week ending May 29, the Labor Department reported Thursday. That's the lowest level since March 14, 2020.

"At the current rate, we should be around the typical pre-COVID level for state claims — about 200,000 — later this summer," said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.

Miranda Kennedy and Tekella Foster produced and edited the audio version of this report.

The World Health Organization says it will start assigning new names for variants of the coronavirus based on letters from the Greek alphabet — part of an effort to help avoid stigmatization around the virus. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization says it will start assigning new names for variants of the coronavirus based on letters from the Greek alphabet — part of an effort to help avoid stigmatization around the virus.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization is hoping to simplify the way the public talks about the growing number of variants of the coronavirus. It will start assigning different letters of the Greek alphabet to each new mutation of the virus.

The new system takes the names of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and moves them away from what can be sometimes confusing scientific nomenclature, or shorthand that puts heavy emphasis on where the variants were first discovered.

For example, under the new system, the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the U.K., will be known as Alpha. The B.1.351 variant, first spotted in South Africa, will be called Beta, while the variant initially found in Brazil, known as P.1, will go by Gamma.

The new names won't officially replace the scientific names already assigned to new variants, but the WHO said it is making the change in an attempt to avoid fueling stigma toward nations where new variants arise.

"While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting," the WHO said in a statement Monday. "As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory."

It's meant to avoid stigmatization

The danger of stigmatization is an issue the WHO has warned about since the early days of the pandemic when some politicians, most notably former President Donald Trump, would routinely refer to the virus as the "China virus" or the "Wuhan virus." Trump said he used the terms "to be accurate" and maintained they were "not racist at all," yet he continued to use them even after the WHO cautioned against language that can "perpetuate negative stereotypes or assumptions."

Use of such language became widespread. In one study released in May, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco directly linked Trump's first tweet about a "Chinese virus" to an exponential rise in anti-Asian language on Twitter.

The rhetoric has been followed by violence

More than a year later, much of that rhetoric has given way to violence. Last month, the group Stop AAPI Hate released a report documenting 6,603 hate incidents between March 2020 and March 2021. Physical assaults rose from 10% of total hate incidents in 2020 to almost 17% in 2021, according to the report.

In India, sensitivity around stigmatization led the government last month to ask social media companies to remove any references to the "India variant" from their platforms. A government official told Reuters the notice was issued to send a "loud and clear" message that mentions of "Indian variant" fuel miscommunication.

The new names are going fast

It's a message that was echoed Monday by Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for the COVID-19 response. "No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants," she wrote on Twitter. Under the WHO's new naming system, the variant, known among scientists as B.1.617.2, is called the Delta variant.

The new system applies to two different classifications of variants — "variants of concern," considered the most potentially dangerous, and second-level "variants of interest."

There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. The WHO has already assigned 10 of them — four to variants of concern and six to variants of interest.

"At present, pathogens have greater power than WHO," World Health Organization leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday. "They exploit our interconnectedness and expose our inequities and divisions." Tedros is seen speaking earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland. Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images hide caption

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Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

"At present, pathogens have greater power than WHO," World Health Organization leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday. "They exploit our interconnectedness and expose our inequities and divisions." Tedros is seen speaking earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland.

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic proves that the world needs a pandemic treaty, says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It's the one major change, Tedros said, that would do the most to boost global health security and also empower the World Health Organization.

"This is an idea whose time has come," Tedros told diplomats attending the final day of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

More than two dozen world leaders said in March that they support an international treaty or framework on pandemic preparedness and response, signing a letter whose signatories notably did not include the U.S., China or Russia.

Momentum grew further at the World Health Assembly, as more than 30 countries, along with every EU member, supported discussing the matter of a treaty or convention in November.

"The United States was one of the countries that supported the resolution to hold the special session," the WHO said Monday in response to an NPR inquiry. "That is not to say it has committed to support the treaty yet, as the process of moving forward was only confirmed today."

In Tedros' closing remarks, he welcomed calls for a stronger and better-financed WHO. But while more resources and authority are direly needed, he said, an international treaty would connect countries in ways that strengthen the world's health security.

"At present, pathogens have greater power than WHO. They are emerging more frequently in a planet out of balance. They exploit our interconnectedness and expose our inequities and divisions," Tedros said. "The safety of the world's people cannot rely solely on the goodwill of governments."

A treaty would make countries more accountable to one another, he said.

The lack of sharing — of information, technology, resources and data — is the COVID-19 pandemic's defining characteristic, the WHO leader said.

The weeklong World Health Assembly's theme is "Ending this pandemic, preventing the next one."

While Tedros acknowledged progress in reducing the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, he stressed that much work remains to end the pandemic, calling it "a monumental error for any country to think the danger has passed."

Together, the world still faces "the same vulnerabilities that allowed a small outbreak to become a global pandemic," he said.

In many ways, Tedros' remarks echoed the frustrations he raised last year, when he said the pandemic was presenting humanity with a test — one that we are failing.

"How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately?" an emotional Tedros asked at a briefing in Geneva. "Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy?"

A man rides a bicycle on an empty street amid lockdown restrictions due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Hanoi on May 10. On Saturday, Vietnam's health ministry announced the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in the country. Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

A man rides a bicycle on an empty street amid lockdown restrictions due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Hanoi on May 10. On Saturday, Vietnam's health ministry announced the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in the country.

Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnam has detected a new coronavirus variant that is highly transmissible and has features of two other strains.

"Vietnam has uncovered a new COVID-19 variant combining characteristics of the two existing variants first found in India and the U.K.," Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long said, according to Reuters. "That the new one is an Indian variant with mutations that originally belong to the U.K. variant is very dangerous."

The announcement came on Saturday as the country is dealing with a recent spike of infections that started in May.

Long says the new variant might be responsible for the latest surge, according to the AP.

The new variant is more transmissible in the air and Long says scientists observed the variant's ability to replicate quickly in lab cultures, according to VnExpress.

Seven other coronavirus variants had been detected in the country prior to Saturday's announcement. The latest variant does not have a name yet, but the ministry of health plans to publish genome data of it.

Since the pandemic began, Vietnam has reported 6,713 cases and 47 deaths as of Saturday. A little more than half of the cases and 12 of the deaths were reported in the last month, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

A majority of the latest cases reported came from the Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces, both of which have a large industrial presence. Hundreds of thousands of people work there to manufacture goods for big tech companies including Samsung, Canon and Apple.

Early on in the pandemic, Vietnam was praised for low case numbers and deaths. The country's aggressive social distancing policies and experience with prior epidemics were seen as effective measures in stopping the spread.

But since cases as increasing again, restrictions have been put in place again. All religious events are banned nationwide, and authorities in major cities have closed public parks and nonessential businesses to help stop large gatherings, according to the AP.

Nearly 29,000 people or .03% of the country has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

People carry a banner reading "Extinguish the Olympic torch" during a march in Tokyo last week calling for the cancellation of the Summer Olympics. The government insists the games will go on despite concerns about the coronavirus. Koji Sasahara/AP hide caption

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Koji Sasahara/AP

People carry a banner reading "Extinguish the Olympic torch" during a march in Tokyo last week calling for the cancellation of the Summer Olympics. The government insists the games will go on despite concerns about the coronavirus.

Koji Sasahara/AP

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan's government extended a state of emergency covering major cities until at least until June 20 — roughly a month before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, which polls show an overwhelming number of Japanese do not want to proceed as scheduled.

It's Japan's third state of emergency of the pandemic and the second extension since the current emergency began on April 25. The emergency shortens some businesses' hours, and caps attendance at large events. It covers the capital Tokyo, second city Osaka and seven other prefectures. Less stringent "quasi-emergencies" will be extended to June 20 in five other prefectures.

"New coronavirus cases have been declining nationwide since mid-May, but the situation remains highly unpredictable," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a government task force Friday after finalizing a decision that had been requested by several local governments.

The spread in Japan of variant strains of the virus has slowed the decline in case numbers. Some hospitals remain overstretched by COVID-19 patients, and some people have died at home without being able to access medical care.

Japan's vaccine rollout remains the slowest among developed economies with just 6% of residents having received at least one dose. Partially because Japan had relatively few COVID-19 cases compared to other countries last year, it entered into vaccine purchasing agreements with foreign vaccine-makers months later than experts say it should have.

What's more, Japan requires that imported vaccines undergo domestic clinical testing, slowing down the approval process. And it has had several vaccine scares, which have damaged trust between residents and the government.

In spite of all this, the government's insistence that the games will proceed, safely, has only become more adamant.

"I'm aware many people are anxious or worried," Suga told reporters, sticking to the organizers' pledge that athletes would be strictly segregated from Japan's population and countermeasures against the virus would keep both groups safe.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told a conference on Thursday that athletes should "come with full confidence to Tokyo and get ready," lauding the Japanese capital as "the best-prepared Olympic city ever."

The IOC has asked Olympic athletes to sign waivers absolving the organizers of legal liability for COVID-19-related risks. Bach acknowledged this was an issue of concern for some athletes, but the IOC calls it "standard practice."

The organizers' unyielding position has been met this week by a crescendo of criticism in Japan and abroad.

"Since the emergence of COVID-19 there has not been such a dangerous gathering of people coming together in one place from so many different places around the world," Dr. Naoto Ueyama, chairman of the Japan Doctors Union, told reporters Thursday.

One possible result, he added, "is if a new mutant strain of the virus were to arise as a result of this, the Olympics."

An article this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, meanwhile, questioned organizers' fundamental argument that the games can be held safely. "We believe the IOC's determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence," the authors wrote.

The authors note that when organizers decided in March 2020 to postpone the games, Japan had only 865 active COVID-19 cases. It now has more than 70,000, while active cases worldwide have gone from 385,000 to 19 million in the same period.

Also this week, Japan's second-largest newspaper by circulation, The Asahi Shimbun, became the first major Japanese media outlet to publish an editorial calling for the games to be canceled. The 142-year-old publication, one of Asia's oldest newspapers, is also an Olympic sponsor.

Sponsors are especially jittery about the prospect of the games' cancellation, which could cost Japan an estimated $17 billion. But, as a report by an economist at the Nomura Research Institute pointed out this week, another state of emergency in response to a fresh wave of infections after the Olympics could cost the country several times that amount.

Nearly 130 million U.S. adults have completed their vaccine regimens, the CDC says, with another 70 million vaccine doses currently in the distribution pipeline. Here, Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead greets soldiers last week at a mobile vaccine clinic in Wheaton, Md. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Nearly 130 million U.S. adults have completed their vaccine regimens, the CDC says, with another 70 million vaccine doses currently in the distribution pipeline. Here, Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead greets soldiers last week at a mobile vaccine clinic in Wheaton, Md.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. COVID-19 vaccination program has gone from zero to 50% in less than six months.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Biden administration said, half of the country's adults are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

"This is a major milestone in our country's vaccination efforts," Andy Slavitt, a White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response, said during a midday briefing. "The number was 1% when we entered office Jan. 20."

Nearly 130 million people age 18 and older have completed their vaccine regimens since the first doses were administered to the public in December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Another 70 million vaccine doses are currently in the distribution pipeline, according to the agency.

Vaccinations have risen sharply in children 12 years and older, weeks after the Food and Drug Administration said that cohort is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech. Nearly 5 million adolescents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the CDC's latest data.

The U.S. is pushing to add millions more people to the ranks of the vaccinated. President Biden said this month that his new goal is to administer at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July.

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Nine states have given at least one vaccine shot to 70% of their adult population, Slavitt said at Tuesday's briefing. Acknowledging the welcome return to a more normal life taking place around the country, he urged more people to get the vaccine: "Unless you're vaccinated, you're at risk."

An increasing number of states, businesses and organizations are offering incentives for people to get vaccinated, from free doughnuts to free airline flights. One of the best-known programs is in Ohio, where people who get vaccinated are entered into a $1 million lottery called the Ohio Vax-a-Million.

"Gov. Mike DeWine has unlocked a secret," Slavitt said, noting that Ohio's vaccination rate went up 55% among young adults in the days after unveiling the program. Other states have since announced similar plans.

The stunning speed of the vaccines' development and rollout has helped tame COVID-19 in the U.S., which remains the worst-hit country in the world, despite having less than 5% of the world's population. The U.S. has reported more than 33 million COVID-19 cases, and more than 590,000 people have died from the disease.

Vaccination rates vary sharply across the nation. On the state level, more than half of all adults were fully vaccinated in just 25 states, along with the District of Columbia and Guam, as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reported.

The lowest overall vaccination rates in the U.S. remain in the South, where Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas have administered the fewest doses per 100,000 adults, according to the CDC. The highest rates are in Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Connecticut.

Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine is the most prevalent in the U.S., with more than 155 million doses administered, the CDC said. Moderna is next, with nearly 122 million doses. Johnson & Johnson, whose one-dose vaccine was approved after the two messenger RNA vaccines, accounts for more than 10 million doses.

United Airlines is offering customers who've received COVID-19 vaccines the chance to win free flights for a year. Jeff Chiu/AP hide caption

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Jeff Chiu/AP

United Airlines is offering customers who've received COVID-19 vaccines the chance to win free flights for a year.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Krispy Kreme is giving away a complimentary glazed doughnut to anyone who flashes their vaccine card. Maine is furnishing L.L.Bean gift certificates and free fishing and hunting licenses to residents who get the shot.

Now, United Airlines has become the latest entity to offer an incentive to get more of its customers inoculated against the coronavirus: the chance to win free flights for a year.

Companies and state governments have been rolling out inducements to the as-yet-unvaccinated in an effort to inoculate more people against the coronavirus, which has killed more than 590,000 in the U.S. alone.

The offers are aimed at overcoming vaccine hesitancy and have become more common in recent weeks as vaccine interest has slowed nationwide. A CNN poll in April found that 26% of Americans said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine.

To enter United's contest, travelers who are part of the airline's MileagePlus program must enter a photo of their vaccine card online by June 22. United will choose five winners to receive a year of free flights — 26 round-trip tickets — in any class for themselves and one traveling companion. Another 30 flyers will be chosen to win one round-trip flight for two.

"With more dream destinations reopening for travel (ciao, Roma!), your COVID-19 vaccine is your ticket to the world," the United promotion reads.

When it comes to convincing people to get vaccinated, there is evidence the carrot works better than the stick.

Roughly a third of respondents in a recent survey by UCLA's Covid-19 Health and Politics Project said a monetary incentive would make them more likely to get the shot.

In Ohio, interest in the vaccine appears to have exploded this month after state officials created the Ohio Vax-a-Million sweepstakes, a $1 million lottery open to state residents who've received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. The state Department of Health reported a 28% increase in vaccinations the weekend after the drawing was announced.

Colorado is following in Ohio's footsteps with weekly million-dollar drawings on June 4 through July 7.

NYC Schools Chancellor Says Her Message To Parents Is Simple: Schools Are Safe

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Students wave goodbye during dismissal at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images hide caption

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Students wave goodbye during dismissal at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021 in New York City.

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New York City schools will reopen in full this fall with no options for virtual learning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the announcement during an appearance Monday on MSNBC, saying, "You can't have a full recovery without full-strength schools, everyone back sitting in those classrooms."

De Blasio said the nation's largest school district will meet in person five days a week, with no remote option available. New Jersey has similar plans, and other states want to limit remote lessons as well.

While the decision in New York is being celebrated as an important milestone on the path to returning to some level of normalcy from the pandemic, some parents remain fearful about sending their children back to in-person learning.

Meisha Porter, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, has heard those concerns firsthand, but says "our schools have been the safest place in the city."

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Porter said that with New York City in the process of a full reopening, "it's important that our schools be fully open, too."

Porter said the city would not make the vaccine a requirement for staff and teachers, but said more than 70,000 employees have already received at least one dose. The city will continue to monitor the health and safety of children, teachers and staff, she said, "but we know our schools have been safe and we need our children back."


Interview Highlights

What do you say to parents who are still really worried about the virus and may not want their kids to return, especially elementary aged kids who don't have access to a vaccine?

I say what we've said over and over again. You know, this past week, we've been at 0.3% — our seven-day positivity rate. Our schools are the safest place. And I've always said nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces the interaction and the learning that happens between a student and teacher in our classrooms. And so what I say to parents, as a parent, is we're going to continue to be in conversations. We're going to continue to make decisions around health and safety. We're going to continue to do those things that parents need us to do, that I need to ensure that we do, to make sure our buildings remain safe and we can get our babies back.

Is part of that effort a consideration about making the vaccine a requirement for staff and teachers?

At this moment, we're not making it a requirement, but we are encouraging [staff and teachers to get vaccinated], and we're going to really work with the city to provide access for students and families and teachers, as we've done over the last couple of months. And so right now, we're pushing and encouraging our staff to get vaccinated. ...

But I mean, wouldn't that help if you had 100%? I mean, children are required to show proof of of immunizations of vaccines to go to school. Why not maintain the same line for teachers and staff?

... I would say this, that we are not in a place where we want to, at this moment, mandate the vaccine. We want to continue to encourage. We all know that folks have had concerns about vaccines, and we want to continue to encourage that vaccines are safe and they are effective. I've been vaccinated along with the 70,000 DOE employees that have been vaccinated. And so we're not, at the moment where we are going to require it.

Have you heard from families who've come to rely on being able to have their kids, their teenagers, working while in school? There's evidence that those with that kind of economic need are those who want to continue with remote learning or some kind of hybrid.

I can tell you that I haven't heard that from families, that they want to they want remote learning so that their teenagers can continue to work. But I know, that that may be a reality for some families. And one of the things that we're doing this summer is increasing access to summer youth employment, increasing access to our learning-to-work programs for our young people, because we know how important it is for some young people to work. But it is equally, if not more important, that they maintain learning and have a connection to a strong and sound education, and we'll continue to do that through learning to work throughout the school year.

What about those students who have found that remote learning just works better for them? I mean, whether they are kids who have struggled socially in school environments, who have been bullied or kids with learning challenges who appreciate just being able to focus away from other students in the classroom. Are there any plans to come up with ways to better address their needs in the future?

So what we're looking forward to is leveraging what we've learned from remote learning as an innovation in our system as we move forward in return. And I think that's what's going to be important for us.

Do you know what that innovation is going to look like?

It's going to look like access to courses across schools and districts, breaking down district lines and walls, high-level courses, enrichment opportunities. You know, remote learning has expanded the universe of what schools should look like.

The audio for this story was produced by Jesse Johnson and edited by HJ Mai and Steve Mullis.

Moderna says clinical trials showed its COVID-19 vaccine is effective for children ages 12 to 17 with mostly mild or moderate side effects. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Moderna says clinical trials showed its COVID-19 vaccine is effective for children ages 12 to 17 with mostly mild or moderate side effects.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trials of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine show that it's safe and effective for teenagers, the company said Tuesday — a finding that could boost supply ahead of the start of the new school year this fall.

"We will submit these results to the U.S. [Food and Drug Administration] and regulators globally in early June and request authorization" for use in kids ages 12 to 17, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said.

The company announced the positive results roughly two weeks after the FDA said children 12 to 15 years old are now eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

At the time, Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, said the expansion of Pfizer's vaccine authorization "brings us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy."

Moderna's clinical trial involved 3,732 adolescents who were given two shots — of either the vaccine or a placebo. No participants who got two doses of the vaccine developed COVID-19, compared with four cases in the placebo group.

For the above results, researchers used the same definitions of a COVID-19 case that they used in adult trials. But because adolescents have a lower incidence rate for the disease than adults, the trial also included a second, more expansive definition set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That definition includes milder cases, as it requires only one COVID-19 symptom and also a positive test. When that definition was applied, the vaccine's efficacy rate was still 93% after the first dose.

As for potential side effects, Moderna said, "the majority of adverse events were mild or moderate in severity," listing symptoms such as headache, fatigue, muscle pain and chills.

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In 25 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, more than half of adults are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest CDC data.

New England leads the U.S. in vaccination rates among adults. Maine, Connecticut and Vermont have the highest vaccination rates among adults, with more than 62% of residents age 18 and over fully vaccinated. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are close behind.

The other states and jurisdictions with more than 50% of adults fully vaccinated, in order of highest to lowest vaccination rates, are New Jersey, New Mexico, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Washington, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Nebraska, District of Columbia, Guam, Oregon, California, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Michigan, New Hampshire and Alaska.

The states with the lowest rates of fully vaccinated adults are in the South. In Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia, fewer than 40% of adults are fully vaccinated.

In West Virginia, which was lauded for early success in getting vaccines into people's arms, the pace has slowed. As of Sunday, 41.3% of adults in the state were fully vaccinated.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a recent bump in the doses administered per day.

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On May 13, the CDC announced it was loosening its public health guidance for fully vaccinated Americans, giving those individuals two weeks past their final dose the thumbs-up to take off their masks in most places, indoors and out. Public health experts say the move was a gamble by the CDC to inspire more people to get vaccinated.

Some states have gotten creative to get more people vaccinated.

The same day the CDC updated its mask guidance, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced weekly drawings of $1 million, open to state residents who've received at least one dose of a vaccine. The "Vax-a-Million" idea apparently worked: The state saw a 28% increase in people getting the vaccine the weekend after the drawing was announced.

A sample page on the OkCupid app is held for a photograph showing the "I'm vaccinated" checkmark. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

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Alex Brandon/AP

A sample page on the OkCupid app is held for a photograph showing the "I'm vaccinated" checkmark.

Alex Brandon/AP

Do you like piña coladas? What about getting caught in the rain? Well, if fear of the coronavirus is what's keeping you from finding someone who also enjoys both, the White House is trying to help.

The nation's largest dating apps are hoping to make it easier for vaccinated singles to find one another, the White House announced Friday, part of the push to meet the Biden administration's goal of getting 70% of adults at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 4.

The range of new features will allow users to be able to filter potential matches by their vaccination status, and also gain free access to premium features such as "boosts," "super likes" and "super swipes."

"Social distancing and dating were always a bit of a challenging combination," Andy Slavitt, a White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response, told reporters on Friday. "So today, dating sites like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Match, OKCupid, BLK, Chispa, Plenty of Fish and Badoo are announcing a series of features to encourage vaccinations and help people meet people who have that universally attractive quality: they've been vaccinated against COVID-19."

The White House is hoping the new initiative will speed up vaccinations, after a decline in the pace of the rollout over the past few weeks. More than 60% of Americans 18 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 130 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But the pace of vaccinations has been falling, with the average daily pace of vaccinations down nearly 50% from a peak in April.

Dating apps could offer one path toward turning that trend around. The sites cater to more than 50 million users in the U.S., Slavitt said, noting that research from OKCupid has found people who are vaccinated or plan to get vaccinated receive 14% more matches than those who don't.

The types of new offerings will vary from site to site. Match, for example, will allow members to add a new "Vaccinated" badge to their profiles and give them a free "boost" to make their profile appear higher up in search results. BLK, the largest dating app for Black singles, will give also offer vaccinated users a boost if they add a "Vaxified" badge to their profiles. Tinder, the dating app with the most U.S. users, will also have vaccinated badges, as well as a new "Vaccine Center" to help connect users with nearby vaccination sites.

The effort to enlist dating apps in the vaccine drive is just one in a series of sometimes unorthodox measures that officials across the country have turned to in order to get more doses into arms. Maine, for example, has offered free hunting licenses to vaccinated residents, while the governor of Ohio has started a $1 million lottery for anyone who's received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Of course, what is money without true love? As Slavitt joked Friday, "We have finally found the one thing that makes us all more attractive: a vaccine."

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

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