Overnight Health Care: CDC says vaccinated people can take masks off indoors and outdoors | Missouri abandons voter-approved Medicaid expansion | White House unveils $7B plan to hire public health workers
Overnight Health Care: UK coronavirus variant now most common strain in US | Over 500K sign up for ObamaCare in special period | EU finds 'possible link' between AstraZeneca vaccine, blood clots
Welcome to Wednesday's Overnight Health Care. For those in the DC area looking for a shot, a new mass vaccination site opened at the Greenbelt metro station today.
Today: The B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common strain of coronavirus in the country; 500,000 people signed up for health coverage during a pandemic enrollment period; and more bad news for AstraZeneca from regulators in the EU and UK.
We'll start with an update on variants:
Another reason not to throw out all caution: UK coronavirus variant now most common strain in US, CDC head says
A more contagious variant of coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom is now the most common strain of the virus in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.
The announcement highlights the ongoing risks from the virus, given that the variant, known as B.1.1.7, spreads more easily and therefore is more able to cause spikes in cases.
"Based on our most recent estimates from CDC surveillance, the B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States," Walensky said at a White House press briefing.
More vaccinations will help: Importantly, officials say the current vaccines work well against the variant, meaning that the accelerating vaccination campaign will help control the virus even with the rise of this variant.
But in the short term, there are concerning signs in some places, such as Michigan, which is seeing an alarming spike in cases and hospitalizations.
Over 500,000 people sign up for ObamaCare in special sign-up period
Over 500,000 people have signed up for ObamaCare coverage in an extra enrollment period created by the Biden administration, officials said Wednesday.
The Department of Health and Human Services said 528,000 people signed up for health insurance between Feb. 15 and March 31, in what is known as a special enrollment period, an extra sign-up period beyond the regular yearly window, aimed at people who needed coverage because of the upheaval caused by COVID-19.
Flashback: The Trump administration last year declined to open an extra sign-up period, noting that people who lost job-based coverage were already eligible to enroll, but President Biden opened an extra period this year upon taking office.
More to come: The sign-up period is still going, lasting until Aug. 15, meaning that there is the opportunity for the number to climb higher.
The sign-ups come on top of the 8.2 million people who signed up during the regular enrollment period last fall.
EU regulator finds 'possible link' between AstraZeneca vaccine, blood clots
It was not a good day for AstraZeneca.
The European Union's top drug regulator said a "possible link" exists between AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine and rare blood clots. But overall, they said the benefits outweigh the risks.
A safety committee of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Wednesday concluded that unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as very rare side effects of the vaccine.
Next steps: Still, the agency placed no new restrictions on the use of the vaccine, which is currently being used in people aged 18 and older.
Concerns over blood clotting in a small number of recipients have dogged the shot in recent weeks, and the finding from the EMA is another blow for the vaccine, which is meant to be the backbone of a global inoculation effort.
Many European countries are relying heavily on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, as it is being sold using a nonprofit model and is far cheaper to make than other COVID-19 vaccines.
...But the UK took action and recommended people under age 30 get an alternative shot
Even as other countries were pausing the use of AstraZeneca's shot, or restricting it in certain populations, Britain stood by the company. But that changed Wednesday, as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there was enough evidence to recommend younger adults be given a different vaccine, if one is available.
The agency endorsed the overall safety of the vaccine for the "vast majority" of people, but said adults under age 30 should be offered an alternative.
People in the under-30 age group who have already had a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will still be offered a second.
Neither the UK nor the EU found that age or gender were a specific risk for blood clots, but both agencies said further investigation was needed.
Key quote: "We are not advising a stop to any vaccination for any individual in any age group," said Wei Shen Lim, chairman of Britain's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. "We are advising a preference for one vaccine over another vaccine for a particular age group, really out of the utmost caution rather than because we have any serious safety concerns."
Alabama governor to let statewide mask mandate expire Friday
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) issued a health order on Wednesday that does not require people to wear masks in public or in close contact with others, saying she will let the current mandate expire on Friday.
The governor said during a news conference that she is still encouraging people to wear masks and will continue to do so herself around others. She called ending the mask requirement "the right thing" to do, adding that businesses can still require masks.
Ivey in her own words: "We know that wearing the mask has been one of our greatest tools in combatting the spread of the virus, and that, along with practicing good hygiene and social distancing, has helped us keep more people from getting sick, or even worse, from dying," she said.
Ivey resisted dropping the mandate last month as other Republican governors, including Texas's Greg Abbott and Mississippi's Tate Reeves, ended mask requirements and loosened restrictions, despite warnings from federal health officials.
At the same time: President Biden warned a day earlier that the U.S. was still in a "life-and-death race" in the pandemic, calling on Americans to keep wearing masks and socially distancing.
NIH study to gauge risk of allergic reactions to Pfizer, Moderna vaccines
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Wednesday that it's launching a study to gauge the risk of allergic reactions to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines among certain individuals.
The research seeks to determine whether people who are highly allergic or have mast cell disorders - an illness when a white blood cell is abnormal and overly reactive - are more likely to have a systemic allergic reaction to either vaccine.
If any participants experience an allergic reaction, researchers will provide immediate medical care and then examine if those reactions are more common among people who are highly allergic or with mast cell disorders than those without an allergy history.
Allergic reactions to vaccines are rare: Most allergic reactions occur among those with a history of allergies, with several of them reporting they had previously experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction.
"The information gathered during this trial will help doctors advise people who are highly allergic or have a mast cell disorder about the risks and benefits of receiving these two vaccines," Anthony Fauci said in a statement. "However, for most people, the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination far outweigh the risks."
What we're reading
Vaccine Refusal May Put Herd Immunity At Risk, Researchers Warn (NPR)
'A moment of peril': Biden sees infections climb on his watch (Washington Post)
Brazil Tops 4,000 Daily COVID-19 Deaths, Nears U.S. Peak (NPR)
State by state
Ohio Department of Health broke state public records law by not releasing nursing home COVID-19 deaths, special master rules (WCPO)
Mississippi State Department of Health investigates possible hepatitis A exposure in Pascagoula restaurant employees (WJTV)
Iowa Senate votes to shift mental health funding to state, eliminate 'backfill' payments to cities (Des Moines Register)
The Hill op-eds