Virus Updates: US Data Accuracy Questioned; Fla. Sheriff Bans Masks for Deputies

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As the academic year begins across the United States, schools and universities are still trying to work out how to proceed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Georgia, a school district quarantined more than 900 students and staff members because of possible exposure to the virus after classes resumed last week. And in a monumental but not surprising decision, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced Tuesday they won't play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19.

Meanwhile, new research from Duke University shows N95s, surgical masks and homemade cotton masks are most effective, while neck fleeces, knitted masks and bandannas proved not to be effective.

And in Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia has approved a coronavirus vaccine and that one of his daughters has already been inoculated. Russian authorities have offered no proof to back up claims of safety or effectiveness and the move was met with international skepticism.

The virus shows no signs of easing, with more than 5.2 million infections and nearly 166,000 deaths, according to a tally from NBC News.

Here are the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.:

Accuracy of US Coronavirus Data Thrown Into Question as Decline in Testing Skews Drop in New Cases

For the first time in months, the daily growth of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. has steadily fallen over the past two weeks, giving some hope to U.S. officials who proclaimed there were “signs of progress” in Southern states that were hit particularly hard.

“No one’s declaring victory,” Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at HHS, told reporters on a July 30 conference call. “We continue to see signs of progress across the Sun Belt and diffusely throughout the country.”

But testing shortages in key states and other gaps in COVID-19 data call into question the accuracy of those numbers and whether the outbreak in the U.S. is really improving or whether cases are simply going undiagnosed, epidemiologists say.

The country recorded an average of 52,875 new cases every day over the last seven days, down 19% from an average of 65,285 new cases per day on July 28, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. However, COVID-19 testing has declined as well, falling from a seven-day average of about 814,000 tests per day two weeks ago to about 716,000, a 12% decline, over the same two-week period, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer project founded by journalists at The Atlantic magazine.

Read the full story at

There's a Shortage of Dr. Pepper Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Dr Pepper is the latest brand to announce that there's a shortage of its products on store shelves amid the coronavirus pandemic, TODAY reports.

"We know it’s harder to find Dr Pepper these days," a message on Dr Pepper's Twitter account said on Monday. "We’re working on it – hang tight!"

The soda company said the shortage applied to all flavors of the beloved soft drink. It also recommended contacting local retailers to see if they had any Dr Pepper on shelves.

A company spokesperson didn't respond to a question from TODAY about the reason behind the shortage. In an email statement, the company noted sales of the soda have been up for the past four years, including a 15% jump in 2020.

Read the full story here.

Rhode Island Gov. Delays Start of School Year

Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday the start of school in Rhode Island will be delayed by two week to give administrators and families more time to prepare amid the coronavirus pandemic, NECN reports.

Raimondo made the announcement at an afternoon news conference saying school will now start Sept. 14.

"It gives schools a little more time to be ready," Raimondo said.

A final determination on whether schools go back in-person, remotely or by using the hybrid model will be made at the end of the month, Raimondo said.

The last day of school will now be pushed back to June 25 to allow students their required 177 days of learning, the governor said.

The governor had wanted schools to reopen on Aug. 31.

Read the full story here.

Fla. Sheriff Bans Masks for Deputies, With Some Exceptions

A central Florida sheriff says his deputies won’t be allowed to wear face masks except under some conditions, and neither will visitors to the sheriff’s office.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods made the announcement on the week that Florida had some of its highest days of coronavirus deaths. On Wednesday, state health officials reported 212 new deaths from COVID-19. Also on Wednesday, there were more than 8,100 new infections reported, for a total of 550,000 cases in the state since the pandemic started.

Woods said in an email to staff that he had weighed both sides of the issue, and while, "he can debate and argue all day of why and why not. The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July asked Americans to wear masks to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus. “There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others,” the CDC said.

Elsewhere in Florida, police and city officials in Miami Beach have issued $14,400 in fines to people who weren't wearing facial coverings, NBC Miami reported.

“Just wear the damn mask,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber has said.

Here are some dos and don'ts when it comes to wearing a mask, explained by some of history's most famous paintings.

Masters Golf Tournament to Be Played Without Fans

The roars of the crowd will be missing from the Masters this year. Augusta National says it won't have spectators when the Masters is played two weeks before Thanksgiving.

That means all three majors won't have fans this year. The silence will be most deafening at the Masters. The tournament is renowned for its roars on the back nine on Sunday. Tiger Woods says when he won last year, it helped to look at leaderboards so that he could have a better understanding of what each cheer meant.

The Masters was moved from April to Nov. 12-15 because the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the full story here.

West Virginia Coronavirus Cases Triple in 7 Weeks

The number of reported deaths from the new coronavirus in West Virginia has jumped 23% in the past week, with six more fatalities announced Wednesday pushing the total to at least 153.

The state of 1.8 million residents has seen a smaller amount of cases and deaths compared to other places since the pandemic began. Lately, though, the numbers have been alarming.

Confirmed cases have tripled in the past seven weeks, surpassing the 8,000 mark total on Wednesday, while the numbers of deaths have shot up 66%.

Officials have blamed the recent surge in part on vacation trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a popular destination for West Virginians.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has constantly urged residents to wear masks but he has resisted reimposing additional restrictions.

Tracking the Outbreak: Where Are Coronavirus Cases Increasing and Decreasing?

As the U.S continues to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns and governors ease restrictions on social gatherings and business activities, several states are seeing an upward trend in the number of COVID-19 cases. See all states here

Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Azar Says Vaccine Is 'Not a Race,' Casts Doubt on Russia's Efficacy Claim

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar says the push to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is “not a race to be first.”

Azar’s comments during a visit to Taiwan on Wednesday follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that his country was the first to approve a coronavirus vaccine, prompting doubts about the science and safety behind that purported achievement.

The U.S. is combining the powers of its government, economy and biopharmaceutical industry to “deliver as quickly as we can for the benefit of the United States’ citizens, but also for the people of the world, safe and effective vaccines," Azar said.

Just days ago, the U.S. secured an advanced manufacturing contract for a vaccine being developed by the company Moderna. The government also has supply agreements with five other firms with vaccines in the works, Azar said.

Four of the six companies under contract, Azar added, have reported testing results showing they produce more antibodies for the virus than people who have survived COVID-19, without severe side effects. And two companies’ vaccine candidates have entered the third phase of trials while the Russian vaccine is just now embarking on that stage with no information having been disclosed.

The U.S. process should allow the production of a "gold-standard, safe and effective vaccine" available in the tens of millions of doses by the end of the year, Azar said.

Russia says it has as the first vaccine to treat COVID-19. Jay Wolfson of the University of South Florida says not so fast.

Companies Test Antibody Drugs to Treat, Prevent COVID-19

With a coronavirus vaccine still months off, companies are rushing to test what may be the next best thing: drugs that deliver antibodies to fight the virus right away, without having to train the immune system to make them.

Antibodies are proteins the body makes when an infection occurs; they attach to a virus and help it be eliminated. Vaccines work by tricking the body into thinking there’s an infection so it makes antibodies and remembers how to do that if the real bug turns up.

These drugs are believed to last for a month or more and could give quick, temporary immunity to people at high risk of infection, such as health workers and housemates of someone with COVID-19. If they prove effective and if a vaccine doesn't materialize or protect as hoped, the drugs might eventually be considered for wider use, perhaps for teachers or other groups.

They’re also being tested as treatments to help the immune system and prevent severe symptoms or death.

The antibody drugs are “very promising” and, in contrast, could be available “fairly soon," said Dr. Janet Woodcock, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official who is leading government efforts to speed COVID-19 therapies. Key studies are underway and some answers should come by early fall.

Interest in Homeschooling Has 'Exploded' Amid Pandemic

As parents nationwide prepare to help their children with more distance learning, a small but quickly growing number are deciding to take matters entirely into their own hands and begin homeschooling.

Some are worried their districts are unable to offer a strong virtual learning program. For others who may have been considering homeschooling, concerns for their family's health amid the coronavirus and the on-again, off-again planning for in-person instruction are leading them to part ways with school systems.

Homeschooling applications are surging in states including Nebraska, where they are up 21%, and Vermont, where they are up 75%. In North Carolina, a rush of parents filing notices that they planned to homeschool overwhelmed a government website last month, leaving it temporarily unable to accept applications.

There were about 2.5 million homeschool students last year in grades K-12 in the U.S., making up about 3% to 4% of school-age children, according to the National Home Educators Research Institute. Brian Ray, the group’s president, is anticipating that their numbers will increase by at least 10%.

The National Home School Association received more than 3,400 requests for information on a single day last month, up from between five and 20 inquiries per day before the coronavirus. The group had to increase the size of its email inbox to keep up.

Arizona teacher Tavious Peterkin resigned from his position after school officials said he'd have to teach virtual classes from the classroom. The school is fining him $2,000 for that decision.

US Gov't Buys 100M Doses of Moderna's COVID Vaccine for $1.5B

Massachusetts biotech firm Moderna Inc. will produce 100 million doses of its in-development vaccine for the new coronavirus for the U.S. government, the Cambridge-based company and President Donald Trump announced Tuesday.

The price tag for the first batch of doses is $1.525 billion, NBC Boston reported. The government has the option to purchase an additional 400 million doses, part of its push to invest in companies working to stop the spread of COVID-19 and quickly protect citizens.

Moderna's vaccine candidate, mRNA-1273, was the first for the new coronavirus to enter phase 3 trials in the U.S., the last and largest stage of vaccine testing.

Americans will get free access to vaccines bought by the government's Operation Warp Speed, federal officials have said, but health care professionals could charge for administering it.

U.S. officials and scientists hope a coronavirus vaccine will be ready in the first half of 2021, which would be a record-breaking timetable. 

Vaccine development normally takes a decade and the fastest-ever period to develop one until now has been with the vaccine for mumps, which took more than four years.

Tens of thousands of volunteers will take part in the study, with results being reported as soon as November.

The Associated Press/NBC
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