More therapeutics but no surge in vaccine for Michigan, Biden administration says

By Jeff Mason and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House said on Monday it was prepared to send additional therapeutic treatments to the state of Michigan, which is experiencing a worrying number of COVID-19 cases, but declined to promise more vaccine as the state has sought.

White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt told reporters the U.S. government would work to ensure that states such as Michigan were ordering the full amount of vaccine that was available to them but said that shifting distribution was not in line with the administration’s public health strategy.

“We have to remember the fact that in the next two to six weeks, the variants that we’ve seen … in Michigan, those variants are also … present in other states,” he told reporters on a conference call.

“So our ability to vaccinate people quickly … (in) each of those states rather than taking vaccines and shifting it to playing Whack-a-Mole isn’t the strategy that public health leaders and scientists … have laid out,” he said.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has pleaded with the federal government to increase the number of vaccines allotted to her state to address a dangerous surge in cases but, despite close ties to the White House, has been rebuffed.

Whitmer was on President Joe Biden’s list of potential running mates before he chose now Vice President Kamala Harris. Michigan is a political battleground state that Biden won in 2020, helping to secure his victory over former President Donald Trump, a Republican. It is likely to be decisive in the 2024 White House race as well.

The Biden administration has highlighted an increase in vaccination rates across the country while warning Americans to continue wearing masks, maintain social distance, and follow other health protocols to prevent another major COVID-19 surge.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said more vaccine was not the answer to Michigan’s problem. She said the state needed to “go back to basics” and shut down.

“I think if we tried to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan we would be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work,” she said. “Similarly we need that vaccine in other places. If we vaccinate today we will have, you know, impact at six weeks and we don’t know where the next place … is going to be that is going to surge.”

Whitmer has faced fierce political backlash from conservatives in her Midwestern state for her COVID-19 restrictions, including armed groups entering the state capitol and a foiled plot to kidnap her. She was a frequent target of criticism from Trump.

Slavitt said that Johnson & Johnson is on track to deliver around 24 million COVID-19 shots to the United States in April whether or not it receives U.S. regulatory clearance for its Baltimore vaccine production plant, which is owned by contract manufacturer Emergent BioSciences Inc.

J&J has faced delays on vaccine shipments because of challenges at its Emergent plant, which ruined 15 million doses in recent weeks due to manufacturing error.

Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said last week J&J would ship relatively few shots each week until the Emergent plant received authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Carl O’Donnell; additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Caroline HumerEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

Italy’s old pay high price for regional vaccine lottery

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Agostino Airaudo, 86, died of the coronavirus on March 21. Ninety minutes earlier he had received an SMS telling him that, after weeks of waiting, he had got an appointment for a vaccine.

Ten days later, his 82-year-old wife Michela also died of the disease.

Unlike many other European countries, Italy did not give automatic precedence to its army of pensioners when it launched its inoculation campaign in December, even though they were bearing the brunt of the disease.

The failure to provide swifter protection has cost thousands of lives, experts say, and stoked anger about a fragmented health system under which regions take most of the decisions and the central government has struggled to impose a clear strategy.

“People could have been saved,” said Giorgio Airaudo, the son of Agostino and Michela, and the head of Italy’s powerful FIOM metalworkers’ union in the northern region of Piedmont.

“As soon as the vaccines arrived, there was no justification for not giving priority to fragile people and the elderly…,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“But this did not happen. The government made suggestions and each region did as they pleased.”

More than 110,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Italy, the world’s seventh highest tally. Their average age was 81, and 86% of them were 70 or over, data from the ISS national health institute shows.

Many countries, including Britain and the United States, vaccinated old people first, recognizing their great vulnerability.

Italy’s government also said the over 80’s should get priority, but a haphazard rollout has allowed professionals including lawyers, magistrates and university professors to move to the head of the queue in many places.

As the death rate has fallen in much of Europe thanks to the early impact of the vaccines, Italy’s has stayed stubbornly high, and its average daily toll of 431 during the past week was the highest on the continent, according to Reuters data.

Acknowledging the problem, Prime Minister Mario Draghi – the epitome of measured calm during his eight-year stint as head of the European Central Bank – on Thursday made an impassioned plea to fellow Italians to wait their turn.

“With what conscience does someone jump the line knowing that they are leaving a person who is over 75 or fragile exposed to the real risk of dying?” Draghi told reporters.

“Stop vaccinating people under 60,” he said, raising his voice.

‘DEATH, PAIN AND GRIEF’

At the start of this year, Italy’s 20 regions focused almost exclusively on protecting health workers, even those in their 20s with no contact with patients. Most places did not begin mass vaccinations for over 80’s until mid-February.

By that stage, France and Germany had already given a first dose to 20% of their over 80s.

Italy has since caught up with the EU average, with data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showing it had given at least one shot to 62% of its over 80’s. But just 13.4% of people in their 70’s have had a first dose, the lowest rate in Europe after Bulgaria.

Regional governors say they followed government guidelines and blame delays on slower-than-expected vaccine deliveries.

They also say they were blindsided in January when the national drug regulator advised that the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot should only be used for the under 55’s.

They had planned to give this shot to older residents and had to change strategy. Now guidance has swung round again with a recommendation that it should be used only for over-60s after concern emerged that it may cause rare blood clots in young adults.

Matteo Villa, a researcher with the ISPI think-tank, says other EU nations facing the same issues were more agile. His analysis suggests Italy could have saved 11,900 lives had it focused more on the elderly.

“Central government did not control the situation and then, amazingly, many of the regions did not prepare carefully for the rollout,” Villa told Reuters.

He said some regions competed with each other to see who could administer the most shots, and found it easier to corral health workers than the elderly.

“This isn’t a race …This is a situation where there is death, pain and grief,” said the union boss Airaudo.

His parents lived in Piedmont, which is centered on Turin. They both had serious ailments and had registered with their doctor for the vaccine. An algorithm adopted by the region decides who gets a vaccine, and when.

Piedmont health officials did not respond to questions over why they had not received timely shots.

‘AN INCREDIBLE MESS’

Adding to the confusion, each region uses its own booking system.

Franco Perco, 81, lives in the central Marche region, a COVID-19 hotspot. He is still waiting for a vaccine appointment despite numerous phone calls to helplines and efforts to book online.

“I feel very scared. There is no clarity,” said Perco, the former head of one of Italy’s major national parks. “I am going out as little as possible.”

Under the constitution, Italian regions have broad autonomy over healthcare decision-making, even during a pandemic.

In Tuscany, Abruzzo and Sicily, magistrates and lawyers were given priority status. In the southern region of Molise, journalists were allowed early vaccinations. Lax supervision in Sicily meant one priest was able to get his congregation vaccinated regardless of age.

“It created an incredible mess. It has served as a lesson for us to be more careful,” said Angelo Aliquò, the health agency director general in the Sicilian city of Ragusa.

Health undersecretary Andrea Costa, who took office in February, told Reuters that mistakes had been made in not clearly identifying priority groups.

“There will be time in the future to analyze what happened, but now we need to achieve as soon as possible immunization which will allow a return to normal life,” he said.

Angered by the sudden death of both his parents, Airaudo hopes there will be a reckoning.

“I always thought that decentralization was about being close to the people. Instead, today we have confusion, difference, injustice and delays,” he said.

Canada’s hospitals deploy artificial lungs, scramble for staff as COVID-19 hits younger patients

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Allison Martell

TORONTO (Reuters) – Younger Canadians are bearing the brunt of the nation’s latest COVID-19 surge, creating growing demand for artificial lungs and a struggle to maintain staffing in critical care units as hospitals make last-ditch efforts to save patients.

Treatment with artificial lungs, known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, is much more likely to be deployed for patients under age 65, explained Marcelo Cypel, surgical director for the extracorporeal life support program at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN).

Last week, there were a record 19 ECMO patients at UHN, 17 of them with severe COVID-19. When the sickest COVID-19 patients’ lungs fill with fluid and mechanical ventilators can no longer do the job, artificial lungs can save lives.

By Monday, doctors had weaned some off the machines and were down to 14 ECMO patients, 12 of them with COVID-19.

The need for these artificial lungs reflects a change in Canada’s epidemic, which has taken a turn for the worse, with new cases surging and outbreaks hitting workplaces and schools.

With many seniors vaccinated and new, far more contagious coronavirus variants circulating widely, younger patients are increasingly arriving in intensive care.

“It’s very different now than the first wave, when we saw older people with comorbidities,” Cypel said. “We’re seeing more … young essential workers.”

The ECMO situation is under control for now, but things can change very quickly, Cypel cautioned.

When hospital systems in other countries were overwhelmed, they had to stop using ECMO because it requires a lot of staff – seven or more people to start the treatment.

About 55% of people who receive the therapy survive, Cypel said. However, they are often left with “severe physical limitations” from their extended hospital stay, he added.

Many of Canada’s provinces are in the grip of a worsening third COVID-19 wave, as they struggle to hasten vaccine rollouts. The country reported more than 6,200 new cases on Monday, with the percentage of people testing positive for the virus up to 3.8%.

‘SEEING BURNOUT’

In British Columbia, where hospitals are bracing for a surge in demand for intensive care unit (ICU) beds caused by the highly concerning P.1 virus variant first discovered in, and now ravaging, Brazil, critical care doctor Del Dorscheid from Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital is more worried about staffing than artificial lung use.

On a given shift, he said, a third of the staff are working overtime.

“They’re working so hard to find bodies to fill those empty spots,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re seeing more mistakes. Not yet, anyways. But we are certainly seeing burnout.”

For ICUs, there is no end in sight. As of Tuesday, there were 497 COVID-19 patients in Ontario’s ICUs, a new high. Last week, experts advising the provincial government said that could rise to 800 by the end of April even with a new stay-at-home order – or approach 1,000 without it. The province stopped short of a new stay-at-home order.

New restrictions implemented in Ontario last week change little for hardest-hit areas. In Toronto, patios for outdoor bars and restaurants closed, and a plan to reopen salons was shelved. On Monday, hard-hit Peel, west of Toronto, moved on its own to suspend in-person classes at schools for two weeks.

Canada’s vaccination rate has picked up after a slow start, with 15% of the population getting at least one shot. But data from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences shows that the Ontario communities at highest risk of COVID-19 transmission also have the lowest rates of vaccination.

These communities tend to have a high proportion of residents unable to work from home, many of them non-white immigrants holding down jobs at high risk of virus exposure.

Some lack cars to drive to vaccination sites or paid time off to get the vaccine, said Brampton doctor Amanpreet Brar. Some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods lack pharmacies that dispense COVID-19 vaccines.

“It really reflects systemic inequities we see in our society,” said Brar. “They’re considered non-essential, while their work is considered essential.”

(Editing by Denny Thomas and Bill Berkrot)

Brazil’s COVID-19 death surge set to pass the worst of record U.S. wave

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, climbing well beyond an average 3,000 fatalities per day, scientists predict, as contagious new variants overwhelm hospitals.

Brazil’s overall death toll trails only the U.S. outbreak, with nearly 333,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

But with Brazil’s healthcare system at the breaking point, the country could also exceed total U.S. deaths, despite having two-thirds the population, two experts told Reuters.

“It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima,” said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider necessary. The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunization program.

With weak measures failing to combat contagion, Brazil’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever. On the other hand, a widespread U.S. vaccination campaign is rapidly curtailing what has been the world’s deadliest outbreak.

Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately predicting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.

As soon as next week, Brazil may break the record U.S. seven-day average for deaths, forecasts the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The U.S. average for daily deaths peaked at 3,285 in January.

The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 U.S. casualties expected by then.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. COVID-19 cases rise for third straight week, hospitalizations also up

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 in the United States rose 5% to more than 450,000 last week, the third week in a row that infections have increased, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals rose 4% to more than 37,000 in the week ended April 4, breaking a streak of 11 weeks of falling admissions.

Health officials have expressed concerns about the increase in travel around the Easter holiday and school spring breaks, at a time when more infectious variants of the coronavirus are circulating.

While flu viruses tend to be seasonal, with cases falling as the weather warms, health officials said they have not seen similar trends with the novel coronavirus, pointing to a surge in COVID-19 cases in some regions last summer.

“I don’t think we should even think about relying on the weather to bail us out of anything we’re in right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said at a news briefing on Monday.

Twenty-seven out of 50 states reported increases in new cases last week compared with the previous seven days, according to the Reuters analysis.

Per 100,000 people, Michigan, New Jersey and New York reported both the highest number of new cases and the highest number of hospitalizations.

Deaths from COVID-19, which tend to lag infections by several weeks, fell 17% to about 5,800 last week, or about 834 per day. Health officials have said the country’s vaccination effort could limit deaths even with rising cases.

For a sixth week, vaccinations set a record, with an average of 3.1 million shots given per day last week. As of Sunday, 32% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose and 19% was fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

Tropical cyclone kills at least 113 in Indonesia, East Timor

By Yos Seran and Agustinus Beo Da Costa

MALAKA, Indonesia (Reuters) – Floods and landslides triggered by tropical cyclone Seroja in a cluster of islands in southeast Indonesia and East Timor have killed 113 people, with many still unaccounted for and thousands displaced, officials said on Monday.

At least 86 deaths were reported on several islands in Indonesia’s West and East Nusa Tenggara provinces, while 71 others were missing, after the cyclone brought flash floods, landslides and strong winds amid heavy rain over the weekend, disaster agency BNPB said.

In East Timor, which shares the Timor island with Indonesia, at least 27 people were killed by landslides, flash floods and a falling tree, while 7,000 were displaced, its government said.

On Lembata island, authorities feared bodies had been washed away.

“We are using rubber boats to find bodies at sea. In several villages, flash floods hit while people were sleeping,” Thomas Ola Langoday, deputy head of Lembata district government, told Reuters by phone.

About 30,000 people have been impacted by floods in Indonesia, some already taking shelter in evacuation centers, but rescue operations have been made difficult after five bridges collapsed and falling trees blocked some roads, BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati said.

A continuing storm had also halted evacuations in some places, local authorities said.

Hundreds of houses and other facilities such as a solar power plant were damaged, BNPB said. Ships and motor boats sank as the cyclone set off waves as high as 6 meters.

Powerful currents continued to flow through villages in the Malaka district on Timor island on Monday, even though the rain had stopped.

Some residents there hauled themselves to their roofs to escape flood water rising to 3-4 meters.

“We had to dismantle the zinc roof. We went out through the back door and pulled ourselves out with a rope,” Agustina Luruk, 36, told Reuters as she and her three daughters waited to be evacuated by the side of a muddy road.

President Joko Widodo offered his condolences and ordered speedy disaster relief efforts.

The Seroja cyclone hit the Savu sea southwest of Timor island in the early hours of Monday, Indonesia’s weather agency said.

Within 24 hours, the cyclone’s intensity could strengthen, bringing yet more rain, waves and winds, although it was moving away from Indonesia, the agency said.

Dwikorita Karnawati, the agency’s head, said that the cyclone would be weakening in the next two days.

(Reporting by Yos Seran in Malaka, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo; Editing by Martin Petty, Giles Elgood, Kirsten Donovan)

India AstraZeneca shot delay could be ‘catastrophic’ for Africa: health official

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – India’s temporary hold on major exports of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot will undermine Africa’s vaccination plans, and could have a “catastrophic” impact if extended, the head of the continent’s disease control body said on Thursday.

India decided to delay big exports of the shots made in its territory by the Serum Institute of India (SII) to make sure it could meet local demand, two sources told Reuters last week.

The hold “will definitely impact our ability to continuously vaccinate people,” the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told a news conference in Addis Ababa.

The African Union had planned to vaccinate 30-35% of the continent’s population by the end of the year he said. “If the vaccines are delayed we are unlikely to meet our target,” he added.

That AU target primarily relies on supplies from the global COVAX vaccine-sharing facility, through which 64 poorer countries including many in Africa are supposed to get doses from the SII. COVAX aims to provide enough shots for African countries to inoculate at least 20% of their populations.

“If the delay continues, I hope it’s a delay and not a ban, that would be catastrophic for meeting our vaccinations schedule,” Nkengasong said.

African countries have reported 4.25 million coronavirus infections and 112,000 related deaths, though experts have said the actual numbers could be higher.

The AU has also been negotiating with manufacturers to help member states secure the additional doses they will need to achieve 60% coverage.

On Monday, Johnson & Johnson announced it would supply the AU with up to 400 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine. Delivery of those doses is due to begin in the third quarter of this year and will continue through 2022.

Those doses are separate from the GAVI/WHO-backed global COVAX facility.

Nkengasong said on Thursday the AU has “pivoted” towards the J&J shot in part as a result of the delay in the delivery of AstraZeneca shots, and also because it is a single-dose shot.

The J&J doses will begin to arrive in June or July, which will ease any shortage caused by the delay in the AstraZeneca doses, Nkengasong said. The gap until the arrival of the J&J doses is a concern, he added.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

‘Falling like flies’: Hungary’s Roma community pleads for COVID help

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are ravaging Hungary’s 700,000-strong Roma community, according to personal accounts that suggest multiple deaths in single families are common in an unchecked outbreak fueled by deep distrust of authorities.

Data on infections in the community is unavailable but interviews with about a dozen Roma, who often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, reveal harrowing stories of suffering and death and of huge health-care challenges.

“Our people are falling like flies,” said Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights advocate who travels widely among the community.

When asked by phone to describe the overall situation, he broke down sobbing and said he had learned an hour before that his 35-year-old nephew had died of COVID.

Another Roma, Zsanett Bito-Balogh, likened the outbreak in her town of Nagykallo in eastern Hungary to an explosion.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.

“Just about every family got it…People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”

Bito-Balogh, who herself recovered twice from COVID-19, said that at one point she had 12 family members in hospital. She said she had lost two uncles and her grandmother to the virus in the past month, and a neighbor lost both parents, a cousin and a uncle within weeks.

She says she is now rushing to organize in-person registration points for vaccines and plans to have the network up and running in a few weeks.

Despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horvath describes as a humanitarian crisis.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said vaccinations would be rolled out to Roma but that the community needed to volunteer for their shots.

“Once we get to that point, the younger Roma should get in line,” Gulyas said in answer to Reuters questions. The Roma community is predominantly young, which means their vaccinations are scheduled later than for older Hungarians.

The government’s chief epidemiologist did not respond to requests for comment.

DECADES OF MISTRUST

Barely 9% of Roma want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey carried out at Hungary’s University of Pecs in January but published here for the first time. It was conducted by Zsuzsanna Kiss, a Roma biologist and professor at Hungary’s University of Pecs.

Kiss said the Roma have mistrusted doctors and governments for decades because of perceived discrimination.

However, gaining Roma trust is not the only challenge.

Hungary’s 6,500 general practitioners are leading the vaccine roll-out, but 10% of small GP clinics are shut because there is no doctor to operate them, mostly in areas with high Roma populations, government data shows.

Although the government has deployed five “vaccination buses” that tour remote areas, people must first register for inoculations.

“The rise in cases (among the Roma) is clearly proportionate to vaccine rejection,” said former Surgeon General Ferenc Falus.

“This more infectious virus reaches a population whose immune system has weakened greatly during the winter months. If they go without vaccines for long, it will definitely show in extra infections and fatalities among the Roma.”

Hungary currently has the world’s highest weekly per capita death toll, driven by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, despite a rapid vaccination rollout, data from Johns Hopkins University and the European Union indicates.

“We never trusted vaccines much,” said Zoltan Varga, a young Roma also from Nagykallo.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Mark Heinrich)

COVID-19 third leading cause of U.S. deaths in 2020 after heart disease, cancer: U.S. report

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – COVID-19 was the primary or contributing cause of 377,883 deaths in the United States last year, with a particularly high toll among the elderly, according to a government report released on Wednesday.

The COVID-19 mortality rate made it the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2020 after heart disease and cancer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis found.

The CDC said that the overall U.S. mortality rate increased for the first time since 2017, by nearly 16%, to 3,358,814 deaths. The jump was driven by COVID-19, which accounted for an increase of 11.3%.

The overall death rate was lowest among children aged 5 to 14 years, and highest among people over age 85, the report found. A total of 134 children aged 14 and under died from COVID-19 in 2020, while 120,648 people aged 85 and older died from the disease. People 75-84 years old accounted for 104,212 deaths.

The COVID-19 death rate was highest among Hispanics, followed by Black non-Hispanics, the CDC’s analysis found. A total of 68,469 Hispanics died from COVID-19 and 59,871 non-Hispanic Black people died. It said 228,328 White non-Hispanics died.

The CDC report is based on death certificate data between January and December 2020.

Provisional estimates from the CDC, published last month, showed that life expectancy in the U.S. fell by a year in the first half of 2020 – the biggest decline since World War 2 – and stood at the lowest levels since 2006.

The CDC’s current analysis is based on provisional death estimates, but they provide an early indication of shifts in mortality trends, the agency said.

The CDC pointed out that limited availability of testing for the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic might have resulted in an underestimation of COVID-19–associated deaths.

(Reporting by Reporting by Vishwadha Chander and Caroline Humer; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. COVID-19 cases top 30 million as states race to vaccinate

By Anurag Maan

(Reuters) – The United States crossed 30 million coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, as states accelerate the vaccination process by lowering age limits.

Health authorities are racing to vaccinate in the face of the first uptick in new cases on a weekly basis since January. Against the advice of health experts, several states have lifted mask mandates and more infectious variants have also spread across the nation.

Although cases are trending higher in 30 out of 50 states compared with the previous week, health officials hope the vaccinations will prevent a rise in deaths. The United States has lost a total of 544,000 lives to the virus.

New York on Monday joined Florida and a handful of other states that have made vaccines available to people who are at least 50 years old.

In the past two weeks, many states including Alaska, Arizona and Texas have lowered down their eligibility age for coronavirus vaccines.

Arizona lowered the eligibility age to 16 at state-run vaccination sites in three populous southern counties, effective Wednesday. Three other counties already have eligibility at 16, but most are at 55.

Earlier this month, Alaska became the first U.S. state to make vaccine available to everyone 16 and older and currently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with 31.5% of its residents having received at least one dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly one-fourth of Americans have received at least one dose while about 13% of the population is fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)