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UK advises limiting AstraZeneca in under-30s amid clot worry
British authorities have recommended that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine not be given to adults under 30 where possible because of strengthening evidence that the shot may be linked to rare blood clots

LONDON — British authorities recommended Wednesday that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine not be given to adults under 30 where possible because of strengthening evidence that the shot may be linked to rare blood clots.

The recommendation came as regulators in the United Kingdom and the European Union emphasized that the benefits of receiving the vaccine continue to outweigh the risks for most people — even though the European Medicines Agency said it had found a “possible link” between the shot and the rare clots. British authorities recommended that people under 30 be offered alternatives to AstraZeneca. But the EMA advised no such age restrictions, leaving it up to its member-countries to decide whether to limit its use.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is stepping up appeals to seniors to get inoculated. The vaccination rate for this top-priority group is reaching a plateau even as supplies have expanded.

About 76% of Americans aged 65 and older have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccines since authorization in December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the rate of new vaccinations among the group most vulnerable to adverse virus outcomes has dramatically slowed.

It’s a growing source of concern, not only because of the potential for preventable deaths and serious illness among seniors in coming months but also for what it could portend for America’s broader population.

“I want to make a direct appeal to our seniors and everyone who cares about them,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday, citing “incredible progress” but declaring it’s still not enough.

“It’s simple: Seniors, it’s time for you to get vaccinated now. Get vaccinated now.”

By government estimates, about 12.9 million American seniors have yet to receive their first shot. Even though they were the first age group prioritized for shots, more than 23% of those 75 and older have yet to be vaccinated.

Several countries have already imposed limits on who can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, and any restrictions are closely watched since the vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to store than many others, is critical to global immunization campaigns and is a pillar of the U.N.-backed program known as COVAX that aims to get vaccines to some of the world’s poorest countries.

“This is a course correction, there’s no question about that,” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said during a news briefing.

Van-Tam said the effect on Britain’s vaccination timetable — one of the speediest in the world — should be “zero or negligible,” assuming the National Health Service receives expected deliveries of other vaccines, including those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

EU and U.K. regulators held simultaneous news conferences Wednesday to announce the results of investigations into reports of blood clots that sparked concern about the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The EU agency described the clots as “very rare” side effects. Dr Sabine Straus, chair of its Safety Committee, said the best data was from Germany, where there was one report of the clots for every 100,000 doses given, although she noted far fewer reports in the U.K. Still, that’s less than the clot risk that healthy women face from birth control pills, noted another expert, Dr. Peter Arlett.

The agency said most of the cases reported were in women under 60 within two weeks of vaccination, though it was unable to identify specific risk factors based on current information. Experts reviewed several dozen cases that came mainly from Europe and the U.K., where around 25 million people have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“The risk of mortality from COVID is much greater than the risk of mortality from these side effects,” said Emer Cooke, the EMA’s executive director.

Arlett said there is no information suggesting an increased risk from the other major COVID-19 vaccines.

In a statement, AstraZeneca said both UK and EU regulators had requested their vaccine labels be updated to warn of these “extremely rare potential side effect(s).”

“Both of these reviews reaffirmed the vaccine offers a high-level of protection against all severities of COVID-19 and that these benefits continue to far outweigh the risks,” it said.

The EMA’s investigation focused on unusual types of blood clots that have occurred along with low blood platelets. One rare clot type appears in multiple blood vessels and the other in veins that drain blood from the brain.

“We are not advising a stop to any vaccination for any individual in any age group,” said Wei Shen Lim, who chairs Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. “We are advising a preference for one vaccine over another vaccine for a particular age group ... out of the utmost caution rather than because we have any serious safety concerns.”

In March, more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, suspended their use of AstraZeneca over the blood clot issue. Most restarted — some with age restrictions — after the EMA said countries should continue using the vaccine.

Britain, which relies heavily on AstraZeneca, however, continued to use it.

Dr. Peter English, who formerly chaired the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, said the back-and-forth over the AstraZeneca vaccine could have serious consequences.

“We can’t afford not to use this vaccine if we are going to end the pandemic,” he said.

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Local
breaking
Virginia General Assembly votes to legalize simple possession of marijuana by this July

RICHMOND — The General Assembly voted to end criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana beginning this July, backing Gov. Ralph Northam’s suggestion to accelerate the legalization timeline.

The legislature barely approved bills in February to legalize marijuana and set up a system for retail sales in 2024, with Democrats hoping Northam would send back changes to address various concerns. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly approved several other amendments to the massive marijuana legalization legislation during a one-day session Wednesday to take up the governor’s recommended changes to bills.

“There’s a straightforward injustice to punishing someone for something we agreed should be legal,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.

Retail sales still will begin in 2024. Households will be permitted to grow up to four plants beginning this July as long as they are properly identified, out of view of the public and out of range of people under 21. A public awareness campaign on the health and safety risk of marijuana and training for law enforcement to help them recognize and prevent drugged driving will begin immediately.

Adult-use of marijuana is only permitted in certain circumstances so public safety standards are maintained. For instance, people can’t smoke marijuana in public and while driving and cannot possess it while on school grounds. People can’t sell an ounce of marijuana, but they can gift an ounce of it.

“This is not going to generate some ganja fest at Jiffy Lube Pavilion out in the parking lot,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

Lawmakers also signed off on authorizing the new Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if it interferes with union organizing efforts, fails to pay the prevailing wage, or classifies more than 10% of the employees as independent contractors.

The House of Delegates passed the amendments on a party-line vote, while Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, broke ranks in the Senate so that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, broke the tie to pass the amendments.

A substantial part of the legislation is still subject to the General Assembly having to pass it again next year during its regular legislative session, and it’s not guaranteed that Democrats will retain control of the governorship and House.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said he’s been “ambivalent” about legalizing marijuana. He said he grew up in the 1960s when marijuana use was popular in the counterculture, but he said he recognizes Americans’ growing support for legalization.

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said the legislation was a “trainwreck” and Democrats were rushing through marijuana legalization this year to avoid being called racist. He worried about the consequences of legalizing recreational use before establishing a legal market.

“By legalizing before we have retail sales in place, we are supercharging illicit sales,” Head said.

Coal tax credits proposal

The legislature also swiftly defeated Northam’s proposal that it promise to spend the savings from the elimination of the controversial coal tax credits on the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

The projected savings with the elimination of the credits could be $300,000 each year in fiscal years 2023, 2024 and 2025, and then increasing to $6.5 million a year beginning fiscal year 2026. Northam wanted those savings to go toward expanding course offerings in data science, computer science, cybersecurity and renewable energy. The governor can’t require the lawmakers to spend the money this way, so he was hoping to get the legislature to make a commitment.

“You’ll find another way to send it to Northern Virginia, because y’all don’t care about Southside and Southwest Virginia,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin.

The Senate defeated Northam’s amendment on a vote of 14-26, with Democrats casting the only votes in favor. The House didn’t cast votes on the amendment. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, said passing such a measure would set a “bad precedent.”

“This is a matter for future budget deliberations,” she said. “It can’t be dictated ahead of time.”

Parole Board investigation

The General Assembly also authorized Northam’s request to spend up to $250,000 to conduct a third-party investigation of the Office of the State Inspector General’s handling of the investigation into the Virginia Parole Board’s decision to release Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for killing of a Richmond police officer.

Republicans complained the investigation was misguided for not looking into the parole board violating the law and procedures when releasing inmates early. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, called the investigation that Northam proposed a “sham.”

“This is the final act of a cover-up,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, made a failed attempt at setting up a special committee made up of lawmakers to look into the allegations against the parole board.

“I can’t think of a better way to put politics into this situation than put a bunch of politicians in charge of the investigation,” Surovell said.

Other amended bills

Lawmakers supported most of the amendments the governor sent them. They agreed to apply the start date to when firefighters, law enforcement, correction officers and emergency workers who get sick with COVID-19 can receive workers’ compensation to July 1, 2020. The House and Senate had disagreed on how far back to apply the compensation pay, whether to the start of the pandemic or several months later, because local governments had complained about the high cost.

Both chambers also signed off on tweaking bills to speed up — if possible — when people can begin the process of sealing their criminal records. The General Assembly passed measures to provide for several misdemeanor charges to be eligible for automatic sealing and other misdemeanors for the ability to be sealed through the petition process after so many years of the person maintaining a clean record. Lawmakers had expressed frustration that legislation wouldn’t go into effect until 2025, which is how long the state police and court system said it might take to update its computer system to allow for this new way of dealing with criminal records. If the computer system is up and running sooner, people can have their records sealed.

The legislature’s work is not done this year. It is expected to convene again likely sometime in the summer to figure out how to distribute funds provided to Virginia through the American Rescue Plan Act. Also, the General Assembly will have to fill seven spots on the Virginia Court of Appeals created by one retirement and an expansion of the court by the legislature this year.

“In a time when every facet of our lives has been faced by historic challenges, this body and this government has not wavered in its resolve nor its ability to carry out the people’s work,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said.


Politics
Biden to unveil actions on guns

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will unveil a series of executive actions aimed at addressing gun violence on Thursday, according to a person familiar with the plans, delivering his first major action on gun control since taking office.

He's also expected to nominate David Chipman, a former federal agent and adviser at the gun control group Giffords, to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Chipman's nomination is expected to be announced Thursday. The people could not discuss the matter publicly ahead of an official announcement and spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity. If confirmed, Chipman would be the agency's first permanent director since 2015.

Biden has faced increasing pressure to act on gun control after a spate of mass shootings across the U.S. in recent weeks, but the White House has repeatedly emphasized the need for legislative action on guns. While the House passed a background check bill last month, gun control measures face slim prospects in an evenly divided Senate, where Republicans remain near-unified against most proposals.

Biden is expected to announce tighter regulations requiring buyers of so-called ghost guns to undergo background checks. The homemade firearms — often assembled from parts and milled with a metal-cutting machine — often lack serial numbers used to trace them. It's legal to build a gun in a home or a workshop and there is no federal requirement for a background check.

The president's plans were previewed by a person familiar with the expected actions who was not authorized to publicly discuss them. Biden will be joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland at the event.

Senior administration officials confirmed that the Justice Department would issue a new proposed rule aimed at reining in ghost guns within 30 days, but offered no details on the content of the rule.

The Justice Department will also issue a proposed rule within 60 days tightening regulations on pistol-stabilizing braces, like the one used by the Boulder, Colorado, shooter in a massacre last month that left 10 dead. The rule would designate pistols used with stabilizing braces as short-barreled rifles, which, under the National Firearms Act, require a federal license to own and are subject to a more thorough application process and a $200 tax.

The Justice Department will also publish model red flag legislation within 60 days, which the administration says will make it easier for states to adopt their own red flag laws. Such laws allow for individuals to petition a court to allow the police to confiscate weapons from a person deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

It will begin to provide more data on firearms trafficking, starting with a new comprehensive report on the issue, which the Biden administration says it hasn’t done in over two decades.

The president will also announce investments in community violence intervention programs, which are aimed at reducing gun violence in urban communities, across five federal agencies.

Administration officials hinted there may be more to come from the administration on guns, calling the round of executive actions “initial steps” that were completed under Garland’s purview within the first few weeks of his tenure.

The ATF is currently run by Acting Director Regina Lombardo. Gun-control advocates have emphasized the significance of the ATF director in enforcing the nation's gun laws, and Chipman is certain to win praise from them. During his time as a senior policy adviser with Giffords, he spent considerable effort pushing for greater regulation and enforcement on "ghost guns," reforms of the background check system and measures to reduce the trafficking of illegal firearms.

Prior to that, Chipman spent 25 years as an agent at the ATF, where he worked on stopping a trafficking ring that sent illegal firearms from Virginia to New York, and served on the ATF's SWAT team. Chipman is a gun owner himself.

Chipman and a White House spokesman both declined to comment.

During his campaign, Biden promised to prioritize new gun control measures as president, including enacting universal background check legislation, banning online sales of firearms and the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But gun-control advocates have said that while they were heartened by signs from the White House that they took the issue seriously, they've been disappointed by the lack of early action.

Biden himself expressed uncertainty late last month when asked if he had the political capital to pass new gun control proposals, telling reporters, "I haven't done any counting yet."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month, however, that executive actions on guns were coming as well, calling them "one of the levers that we can use" to address gun violence.


National
Even as schools reopen, many students learn remotely

Large numbers of students are not returning to the classroom even as more schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Biden administration.

The findings reflect a nation that has been locked in debate over the safety of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as national COVID-19 rates continued to ebb in February, key measures around reopening schools barely budged.

Nearly 46% of public schools offered five days a week of in-person learning to all students in February, according to the survey, but just 34% of students were learning full time in the classroom. The gap was most pronounced among older K-12 students, with just 29% of eighth graders getting five days a week of learning at school.

With the new findings, President Joe Biden came no closer to meeting his goal of having most elementary schools open five days a week in his first 100 days. School offerings were nearly identical to what was reported a month before. But among eighth grade students, there was a slight shift from fully remote to hybrid learning.

Speaking at a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt described the findings as a step forward.

“This is encouraging early data covering the month of February that shows progress toward the president’s goal to have K-8 schools open five days a week,” Slavitt said.

The findings are based on a survey of 3,500 public schools that serve fourth graders and 3,500 schools that serve eighth graders. It’s based on data from schools in 37 states that agreed to participate. This is the second round of data released from a survey started by the Biden administration to evaluate progress in reopening schools.

The data capture a month that saw building momentum in the push to reopen schools. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that schools could safely reopen with masks, social distancing and other precautions. Days later, Biden reframed his goal around reopening schools after critics said his previous pledge lacked ambition.

Since then, schools have continued to reopen as more teachers get vaccines and as some states loosen social distancing requirements. More recent estimates from the data service Burbio found that, as of Sunday, more than 55% of K-12 students were back in the classroom full time.

As in January, the new federal data showed dramatic disparities based on region and race. In the South, slightly more than half of all fourth graders were learning entirely at school in February, an uptick from the month before. In the same period, by contrast, the Northeast saw a decrease in the rate of students learning in the classroom five days a week, from 23% to 19%.

Overall, more than a third of students in the South and Midwest were learning entirely at school, compared with less than a quarter in the West and Northeast, according to the survey.

White students continued to be far more likely to be back in the classroom, with 52% of white fourth graders receiving full-time, in-person instruction. By contrast, less than a third of Black and Hispanic fourth graders were back at school full time, along with just 15% of Asian students.

The results do not indicate whether students are learning remotely by choice or because their schools do not offer an in-person option. The mismatch between what schools are offering and what students are getting is at least partly explained by big urban districts that have been slow to offer in-person options. But it’s clear that at least some students are opting to stay remote even after their schools reopen classrooms.

The survey’s findings around race align with previous findings from some of the nation’s largest school districts, where Black students have returned at far lower rates than their white classmates — a disparity that’s believed to come down at least partly to trust. Advocates say more must be done to convince parents that their children will be safe in school, especially Black families who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

Although wide racial disparities persisted in the new round of data, the Education Department saw a glimmer of hope in a slight increase among Black students learning fully in-person. From January to February, the rate ticked up from 28% to 30%.

“Although white students continue to enroll in full-time in-person instruction at higher rates, we are beginning to see shifts toward full-time in-person learning for other groups,” said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner at the agency’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Parents across the U.S. have been conflicted about a return to the classroom, expressing concerns about the virus but also about learning setbacks as their children learn remotely, according to a poll from The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Worries about learning setbacks were slightly more prevalent than fears of spreading the virus at school, the poll found.

The department also reported progress in bringing more students with disabilities back to school. Among Black and white students with disabilities in the fourth grade, fewer were learning remotely in February than in January, according to the survey.


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