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Coronavirus Update

May 24, 2022, 7:56 a.m. EDT

Philadelphia reinstates face-mask mandate for students and teachers, and WHO head warns pandemic is ‘most certainly not over’

By Ciara Linnane

Philadelphia has reinstated a face-mask mandate for students and teachers that comes into effect Monday, in its latest move to rein in COVID-19 infections.

The news was announced Friday by William Hite, superintendent of the public school district, who said it would remain in effect until further notice. “As we’ve learned since the pandemic began, the coronavirus continues to evolve and so too will our response to it,”  Hite said in a statement. 

The move comes as COVID cases continue to rise across the U.S. and trend at the highest levels seen since March, driven by the BA.2 variant of omicron and two subvariants that appear to be even more infectious.

The U.S. is averaging 108,065 cases a day, up 53% from two weeks ago,  according to a New York Times tracker. Cases are higher in nearly every state, but the Northeast and Midwest are being particularly hard hit with case reports in both regions now higher than they were at the peak of last summer’s delta surge. New York City raised its COVID alert to “high” last week, and the CDC warned that one-third of Americans are living in areas with medium to high transmission levels.

There are concerns that case numbers are even higher than known, as many people are now testing at home and data are not being collected. 

The country is averaging 24,728 hospitalizations a day, the tracker shows, up 30% from two weeks ago. The daily death toll has fallen to 309 on average, down 16% from two weeks ago.

The pandemic is “most certainly not over,” the head of the World Health Organization warned Sunday, as he reminded governments that “we lower our guard at our peril,” the Associated Press reported.

The director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told officials gathered in Geneva for opening of the WHO’s annual meeting that “declining testing and sequencing means we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus.” He also noted that almost 1 billion people in lower-income countries still haven’t been vaccinated.

While there has been progress, with 60% of the world’s population vaccinated, “it’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere,” Tedros said.

“Reported cases are increasing in almost 70 countries in all regions, and this in a world in which testing rates have plummeted,” he added.

Tedros has repeatedly warned that leaving vast areas of the world unvaccinated would allow new variants to emerge that may prove vaccine-resistant and be more lethal than existing and previous ones.

“In all, we see vaccine hesitancy driven by misinformation and disinformation,” Tedros said. “The pandemic will not magically disappear, but we can end it.”

In medical news, Pfizer (NYS:PFE) and BioNTech (NAS:BNTX) said three doses of their COVID-19 vaccine for children age 6 months to 5 years “met all immunobridging criteria” required for emergency-use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Also see: COVID-19 boosters for children to be rolled out

The companies said the vaccine showed 80.3% efficacy in an analysis of three doses at a time when omicron was the dominant variant, with a favorable safety profile, similar to placebo.

“The study suggests that a low [3-milligram] dose of our vaccine, carefully selected based on tolerability data, provides young children with a high level of protection against the recent COVID-19 strains,” said BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin. “We are preparing the relevant documents and expect completing the submission process to the FDA this week, with submissions to EMA and other regulatory agencies to follow within the coming weeks.” 

Ocugen Inc. (NAS:OCGN) said the Food and Drug Administration has lifted its clinical hold on Ocugen’s Phase 2/3 trial of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate Covaxin.

“We’re extremely pleased that we can proceed with our clinical trials for COVAXIN(TM), our whole virus inactivated COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The need for delivering an additional, differentiated vaccine option, we believe, remains a priority,” said Dr. Shankar Musunuri, CEO and co-founder of Ocugen, in a statement.

The company plans to restart the trial immediately. The hold came after a World Health Organization inspection of a facility of Bharat Biotech, the Indian company that developed the vaccine. 

Coronavirus Update:   MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Beijing extended orders for workers and students to stay home and ordered additional mass testing Monday as cases of COVID-19 again rose in the city, the AP reported. Numerous residential compounds in the Chinese capital have restricted movement in and out, although conditions remain far less severe than in Shanghai, where millions of citizens have been under varying degrees of lockdown for two months. Beijing on Monday reported an uptick in cases to 99, rising from a previous daily average of around 50.

• A large number of North Koreans including leader Kim Jong Un attended a funeral for a top official, state media reported Monday, as the country maintained the much-disputed claim that its suspected coronavirus outbreak is subsiding, the AP reported separately. Since admitting earlier this month  to an outbreak  of the omicron variant, North Korea has only stated how many people have fevers daily, and has only identified a few of the cases as COVID-19. Its state media said Monday that 2.8 million people have fallen ill due to an unidentified fever but only 68 of them had died since late April, an extremely low fatality rate if the illness is COVID-19 as suspected. State media photos showed an unmasked Kim carrying the coffin of Hyon Chol Hae, a Korean People’s Army marshal who reportedly played a key role in grooming him as the country’s next leader before Kim’s father died in late 2011.

• Health officials remain perplexed by mysterious cases of severe liver damage in hundreds of young children around the world and are questioning whether it is linked to COVID, according to an AP report. The best available evidence points to a fairly common stomach bug that isn’t known to cause liver problems in otherwise healthy kids. That virus was detected in the blood of stricken children but — oddly — it has not been found in their diseased livers

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 525.7 million on Monday, while the death toll rose above 6.27 million,  according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University .

The U.S. leads the world with 83.3 million cases and 1,002,219 fatalities.

The  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker  shows that 220.9 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.5% of the total population. But just 102.8 million have had a first booster, equal to 46.5% of the vaccinated population.

Just 12.4 million of the people aged 50 and over who are eligible for a second booster have had one, equal to 19.9% of those who had a first booster.

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