Today leaders of the White House COVID-19 response team said they are ready to distribute Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine when and if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues an emergency use authorization (EUA)—which could come as early as this weekend.

“We are doing the work so if the EUA is granted we will waste no time in getting life-saving vaccines into the arms of Americans,” said Jeff Zients, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 czar during today’s press conference on response efforts.

Zients said governors have received information about how to possibly distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, unlike the current approved and in-use vaccines, requires only one shot and standard refrigeration.

If approved, the 3 million to 4 million doses of the vaccine could be available in the United States by the end of next week, and 20 million total by the end of March. Johnson & Johnson is contractually obligated to provide 100 million doses of vaccine to the United States by the end of June. 

Zients said more vaccine is welcome news to the Biden administration, which is now planning to send 14.5 million doses of vaccine to the states this week, up from 8.6 million sent in the first week of the administration’s tenure in January. That increase of 70%, Zients said, has come despite inheriting less vaccine from the Trump administration than assumed.

FDA staff report endorses J&J vaccine

Today CNBC reported that FDA staff had endorsed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use, signaling an EUA was likely when the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meets on Friday. The endorsement came in a briefing to the committee.

The FDA does not need to follow the committee’s recommendations, but often does, and did follow suit when Pfizer and Moderna submitted their vaccines for EUAs in December. The FDA committee data show the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 100% effective in preventing death and hospitalizations, and 64% effective in preventing illness from the South African variant, B1351.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker shows 82,114,370 COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered in the United States, and 65,032,083 have been administered, with 19,882,544 Americans receiving two doses.

Among the first group of Americans to receive the vaccine were nursing home staff and residents. A new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that deaths and hospitalization among this population have fallen sharply since vaccination began in December.

Resident deaths from COVID-19 in nursing homes have decreased by 66% since vaccination efforts began, and new cases of COVID-19 among residents have fallen even more sharply, by 83%.

As of Feb 22, 2 million residents and staff of US nursing homes had been fully vaccinated.

Cases now lower than summer peak

Also today, Zients said the federal government would be sending out millions of cloth masks to food banks and community health centers across the country. The move will help ensure that the poorest Americans will have access to face coverings, Zients said.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said at the briefing that the nation is continuing to move in the right direction, with an average of 64,000 cases per day. Though still high, the daily average is now slightly below the summer peak of 67,000 cases per day as seen in July.

Yesterday the country reported 69,828 new COVID-19 cases, and 2,284 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. In total, the United States has 28,313,003 cases, including 504,295 deaths.

The CDC variant tracker shows 1,881 B117 cases in 45 states, 46 B1351 cases in 14 states, and 5 P1 cases in 4 states.

In related news, scientists in California are sounding the alarm about a new coronavirus variant identified in the state (B.1.427/B.1.429) that may be more contagious and cause more severe disease, CNN reports. The research on the variant is in the very early stages and has not been peer-reviewed.

Reports show risk of indoor gyms

Finally today, the high risk of COVID-19 transmission in gyms is demonstrated in two new studies in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

In Chicago, 68% of 81 people attending indoor high-intensity fitness classes developed COVID-19 infections after 22 people came to class on or 1 day after developing symptoms of the virus.

“Among 58 exercise class attendees who provided information on in-class behaviors, 44 (76%) reported infrequent mask use, including 32 of 38 (84%) attendees with COVID-19 and 12 of 20 (60%) without COVID-19,” the authors wrote. “The increased respiratory exertion that occurs in the enclosed spaces of indoor exercise facilities facilitates transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in these settings.”

In another MMWR study based on gym facilities in Hawaii, investigators linked 21 cases to two infected fitness instructors who taught classes in the 2 days before and after symptom onset. Transmission was highest on the day of symptom onset for both instructors.

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