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South African variant of virus shows up in South Carolina

Strain 1 of 3 mutations of covid-19 worrying researchers around world by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | January 29, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.
Women console each other Thursday in Bekasi, Indonesia, as a family member is buried in a section of the Padurenan cemetery designated to accommodate the surge in deaths during the coronavirus outbreak. More photos at arkansasonline.com/129covid19/. (AP/Achmad Ibrahim)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the United States for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in South Carolina, state health officials said Thursday.

The cases don't appear to be connected, nor do the two adults have a history of recent travel, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said.

"That's frightening," because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious-diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "It's probably more widespread."

The arrival of this variant now surging in other countries shows that "the fight against this deadly virus is far from over," Dr. Brannon Traxler, the state's interim public health director, said in a statement. "While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together."

Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe, but scientists are primarily concerned with the emergence of three of them. Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were previously confirmed in the U.S. Researchers believe these three variants may spread more easily and predicted it was only a matter of time before they appeared in the U.S.

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Scientists last week reported preliminary but troubling signs that some of the recent mutations may modestly curb the effectiveness of two current vaccines, although they stressed that the shots still protect against the disease. And there are signs that some of the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of certain treatments.

The coronavirus has already sickened almost 26 million people and killed more than 432,000 in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported at least 315 cases of the U.K. variant in the United States. Those reports have come from at least 28 states, and health officials believe it could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. It has been reported in at least 70 countries.

The first U.S. case of the Brazil variant was announced this week by health officials in Minnesota. A person who recently traveled to that nation was infected. That version has popped up in more than a half-dozen countries.

The variant found in South Africa was detected in October. Since then it has been found in at least 30 other countries.

Some tests suggest the South African and Brazilian variants may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or antibody-rich blood from covid-19 survivors, both of which help people fight off the virus.

Health officials also worry that if the virus changes enough, people might get covid-19 a second time.

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President Joe Biden on Monday reinstated travel restrictions on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa. And the CDC is recommending that Americans do not travel at this time.

N.Y. NURSING HOMES

An investigation by the New York state attorney general has concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration undercounted coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%.

The count has been a source of controversy for Cuomo and state Health Department officials, who have been sensitive to any suggestion that decisions made at the outset of the pandemic may have caused some of those deaths, which the state puts at more than 8,700.

They have also been accused of obscuring a more accurate estimate of nursing home deaths, because the state's count included only deaths at the facilities rather than accounting for residents who died at a hospital after being transferred.

In the report released Thursday by Attorney General Letitia James, a survey of nursing homes found consistent discrepancies between deaths reported to the attorney general's investigators and those reported to and officially released by the Health Department.

Deaths in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have accounted for about one-third of the nation's deaths. Federal and state authorities have made vaccinating staffs and residents at such facilities a top priority, though that effort has been slower than hoped.

In New York, with more than 42,000 virus-related deaths, the toll in the state's nursing homes has been a particular source of agony for residents and their families. It has also been a political liability for Cuomo, who has pushed back on accusations that his administration did not do enough to safeguard a highly vulnerable population.

AUTHORITY OF GOVERNORS

Irritated by the sweeping use of executive orders during the covid-19 crisis, state lawmakers around the U.S. are moving to curb the authority of governors and top health officials to impose emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business shutdowns.

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The push is underway in such states as Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania, where legislators are seeking a constitutional amendment to strip the governor of many of his emergency powers.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc said the amendment would "make it unequivocally clear that our General Assembly is a co-equal branch ... that we are not a monarchy and that our voices matter."

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and some of his counterparts around the country have argued that they need authority to act quickly and decisively against the fast-changing threat.

State legislatures generally took on lesser roles after the pandemic hit, with many suspending work or adjourning. Governors or their top health officials have set many of the policies -- imposing mask mandates, limiting public gatherings and shutting down dine-in restaurants, gyms, hair salons and other businesses.

Lawmakers in more than half the states have filed bills this year to limit gubernatorial powers during the pandemic and other emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Kentucky's Republican-led Legislature as soon as next week could consider overriding Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's vetoes of several bills that would rein in his emergency powers.

Wisconsin's GOP-controlled Senate voted this week to repeal Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' emergency health order and end the state's mask mandate. The Republican-controlled Assembly called off a similar vote Thursday in the face of criticism from health, school and business leaders and concern that a repeal could jeopardize more than $49 million in federal aid.

Wisconsin Republicans have argued that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing a number of emergency declarations, which enabled him to extend the mask mandate beyond the 60 days allowed without getting the Legislature's approval.

The amendment Pennsylvania Republicans are seeking to place on the May ballot also would put a cap on the governor's disaster declarations -- 21 days, unless lawmakers vote to extend them. The Legislature also could halt them at any time with a two-thirds vote.

Wolf has said prematurely ending his disaster declaration would itself be "disastrous" for the state and that requiring repeated legislative approval "could slow down or halt emergency response when aid is most needed."

In Michigan, House Republicans have threatened to withhold billions of dollars for schools unless Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cedes her administration's power to prohibit in-person instruction and sports to local health departments. Whitmer called the move "cruel and reckless."

Though legislative resistance to executive coronavirus orders has fallen largely along partisan lines in some states, lawmakers elsewhere are pushing back against governors of their own parties.

Republicans in the Arizona Senate want to end the broad emergency powers that GOP Gov. Doug Ducey has used to limit large gatherings and business capacities.

Rob McColley, a state senator in Ohio, introduced a bill this week that could rescind emergency health orders issued by Gov. Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican. It would create a committee to review them. DeWine vetoed a similar bill last year.

McColley said the Legislature needs to take action "when the relatively unfettered power of the executive branch during a time of emergency has lasted as long as it has."

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's executive orders have also stirred opposition from his own party. GOP-sponsored legislation would require lawmakers to be called into session to extend a governor's emergency order beyond 60 days.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is supporting legislation that would give lawmakers greater opportunity to pass judgment on his emergency declarations.

Under current law, McMaster can issue a declaration for just 15 days before the General Assembly has to weigh in. The Republican governor has skirted that by issuing 22 declarations, with incremental changes, every two weeks or so.

McMaster says he wasn't trying to avoid legislative oversight, but that he couldn't wait for lawmakers to meet.

Democrats who control the Maryland General Assembly are pressing for more transparency from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration. And a GOP-sponsored bill seeks to limit his power by capping the number of times he could extend a state of emergency without legislative input. Hogan has denounced it as "about probably the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life."

VACCINE-ACCESS DISPARITIES

Democratic lawmakers are urging federal health officials to address racial disparity in vaccine access nationwide, as data from some states show hard-hit nonwhite Americans who are eligible to receive them are not getting covid-19 vaccinations in proportion to their share of the population.

In a letter Thursday to acting Health and Human Services Secretary Norris Cochran IV, the lawmakers said the agency must work with states, municipalities and private labs to collect and publish demographic data of vaccine recipients.

Without that information, policymakers and health workers cannot efficiently identify vaccine disparities in the hardest-hit communities, said the letter, signed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, all from Massachusetts.

"It is critical that the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant communities that have been most impacted by this virus and have been more likely to contract, be hospitalized, and die from the disease have access to the vaccine," said the letter.

The virus has taken a particularly severe toll on Black populations in the U.S. Along with Hispanics and American Indians, Black Americans are dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans.

The lawmakers said the recent distribution of vaccines "is a sign of hope that much needed recovery from this pandemic is near." But, they said, an inadequate vaccine deployment campaign could make things worse for communities that have shouldered the greatest burden.

Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination and treatment is a priority for Biden, who has appointed a White House official to oversee that part of the government's response.

Pressley said communities of color cannot afford to wait for vaccine demographic data to become available.

"We've learned consistently throughout history that in the face of any public health crisis, communities of color disproportionately suffer -- and this pandemic is no exception," Pressley said in a statement. "That which gets measured gets done," she said.

Dr. Uche Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity, said the data is crucial to help inform efforts to reach vulnerable populations and communities of color that distrust the medical community because of racism and structural inequities that have long existed in America.

"We're going to see a widening and exacerbation of the racial health inequities that were here before the pandemic and worsened during the pandemic if our communities cannot access the vaccine," said Blackstock, an emergency physician in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We could see years taken off the lives of Black Americans in this country and a worsening of life expectancy that will probably take generations to recover from," Blackstock said. "There needs to be a plan, and unfortunately I don't see that happening with the urgency that it should."

Information for this article was contributed by Michelle Liu, Mike Stobbe, David A. Lieb, Farnoush Amiri, Scott Bauer, Jeffrey Collins, Marc Levy, Mark Scolforo, Brian Witte, Aaron Morrison and ​​​​​Kat Stafford of The Associated Press; and by Jesse McKinley and Luis Ferre-Sadurni of The New York Times.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talks with Kathy Oakley of St. Paul as she arrives for a covid-19 vaccination Thursday at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Walz toured the site to highlight efforts to vaccinate people who are 65 and older. The first case of the Brazil variant of the coronavirus was announced this week in Minnesota.
(AP/Star Tribune/Anthony Souffle)
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talks with Kathy Oakley of St. Paul as she arrives for a covid-19 vaccination Thursday at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Walz toured the site to highlight efforts to vaccinate people who are 65 and older. The first case of the Brazil variant of the coronavirus was announced this week in Minnesota. (AP/Star Tribune/Anthony Souffle)
Sharon Smith-Butler (right) bags produce Thursday as she works with other volunteers at a food distribution site sponsored by Feeding South Florida in Florida City, Fla. The effort was to help people affected economically by the pandemic and others in need.
(AP/Lynne Sladky)
Sharon Smith-Butler (right) bags produce Thursday as she works with other volunteers at a food distribution site sponsored by Feeding South Florida in Florida City, Fla. The effort was to help people affected economically by the pandemic and others in need. (AP/Lynne Sladky)
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