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Today: The CDC updated its guidance on distancing in schools, Biden gave a pep talk to agency scientists, and surging COVID-19 abroad should be a warning sign in the U.S.

We’ll start with schools:

CDC says three feet of distance safe in schools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said students need only be three feet apart in school, rather than six, so long as there is universal masking. The change is aimed at speeding the return to in-person learning.

The recommendation is for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial, the CDC said, but there is some nuance at the upper level grades. Middle school and high school students should be at least six feet apart in communities where transmission is high, the CDC said, if cohorting is not possible. 

According to the CDC, older students are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and spread it than younger children.

The CDC also recommends six feet of distance in common areas, like lobbies and auditoriums, and during activities like singing, shouting, band or sport practices. 

Driving the change: Updated science. CDC published three new studies Friday that offer further evidence that schools can operate safely in person, even when community transmission of the virus is high and if distancing is less than six feet. Three feet is the minimum distance endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. For many schools, keeping students six feet apart is not feasible. In some cases, there’s no distancing at all.

Unions not happy: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the union was “concerned this change has been driven by a lack of physical space rather than the hard science on aerosol exposure and transmission.” 

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, called on the CDC to provide far more details about its rationale.

“We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students,” Pringle said in a statement.

Read more here.

But Scott Gottlieb thinks there are better uses of the CDC’s time and effort 

The former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner said the agency should be making more of an effort to evaluate new variants of COVID-19, instead of reviewing rules for social distancing.

Gottlieb’s remarks came during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” after being asked about the data on vaccines offering protections from new coronavirus strains.

“This is what the CDC should be doing, not still arbitrating three feet versus six feet a year later,” he said. “We should be on top of these new variants, evaluating what their clinical course is. We shouldn’t have to wait months to get this information.”

Schools matter: Gottlieb has a point, and CDC has been criticized for moving too slowly. But the agency caught heat for being too restrictive in its school guidance last month, and they’re attempting to rectify that. Daniel Benjamin, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Duke University, said anything to get schools open for in-person learning helps. “I don’t know what’s more important for the CDC to do right now,” Benjamin said. Children “have been totally disenfranchised by a completely failed public policy of school closures, which has been a disaster. So absolutely, this should be happening right now.” 

Read more on Gottlieb here.

Surging COVID-19 cases in Europe, Brazil signal warning for US

Substantial surges in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Europe and Brazil offer a worrying preview of what the United States faces in the coming weeks and months as the plummeting number of cases here begins to level off.

The United States has reported an average of 54,740 cases per day over the past week, a steady decline from the apex of the outbreak in January, when the daily case count was about five times higher. Daily case counts stand about where they were in mid-October, and close to the apex of the summer surge that hit Sun Belt states particularly hard.

But the precipitous drop that occurred through February is now nearing a plateau, one that could presage yet another spike in cases just as optimism about the course of the pandemic begins to take hold.

Variant concern: The increase appears to be driven by spread among younger people, and by the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant that studies show is substantially more infectious, even among children. That raises the specter that the variant will continue spreading widely even as older and more vulnerable people receive doses of vaccine. 

Optimism: But data from Israel, which leads the world in vaccinating its population, shows that the vaccines work against the 1.1.7 variant. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Biden says country will pass 100 million COVID-19 shots this week | US to send surplus AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mexico, Canada | Senate confirms Becerra for HHS in tight vote Biden says country will hit 100 million COVID-19 shots this weekFauci clashes with Rand Paul over masksMORE this week said the U.S. is in a race, pitting the pace of vaccination against the increasing spread of variants. The race to vaccinate as many Americans as quickly as possible represents the first time in the entire pandemic that the United States has been on the leading edge of the battle against the coronavirus.

Read more here.

Biden jabs Trump in first visit to CDC

President BidenJoe BidenThe Hill’s Morning Report Presented by Facebook Biden delivers 100 million shots in 58 days, doses to neighborsAdvocates demand transparency in Biden migrant facilitiesThe Memo: America faces long war with extremismMORE on Friday made his first visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters since taking office to thank scientists and workers there for their efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

“We owe you a gigantic debt of gratitude, and we will for a long, long, long time,” Biden told a small group of CDC officials gathered in an operations room.

Biden repeatedly focused on his administration’s respect for science, and broader support for a science-based approach to the virus among the public.

The comments appeared to be a subtle jab at former President TrumpDonald TrumpAdvocates demand transparency in Biden migrant facilitiesThe Memo: America faces long war with extremismNYPD investigating anti-Asian incident against teenMORE, who repeatedly undermined his CDC director and other top health officials by offering unproven ideas about coronavirus treatments and misleading comments about the severity of the pandemic.

“The public is thankful to you, because its about science,” Biden said. “Thats what they understand. They understand. And were not going back to the old days, even if tomorrow the whole administration changed. I think you’ve changed things. You’ve changed them in a way that are going to make everybody healthier in this country …  because you speak truth and science to power.”

Read more here.

Poll: Only half of front-line health workers have been vaccinated

Just over half of all front-line health workers in a new poll said they have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a figure that highlights challenges ahead as the nation drastically scales up its vaccination effort.

Health workers were the first groups of people prioritized for getting vaccines when the first doses began being administered. But three months in, just 52 percent of front-line health workers said they received a shot, according to the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll.

A large majority of unvaccinated health care workers who either have not decided if they will get vaccinated, or say they do not plan to get vaccinated, expressed worries about potential side effects as well as the newness of the vaccine.

The Biden administration is working on national education campaigns to try to counter the concerns of the vaccine-hesitant. Experts and federal health officials have acknowledged the hard work ahead to ensure enough of the country gets vaccinated in order to bring the pandemic under control.

Read more here.

Democrats unveil bill to prevent Sackler family from evading lawsuits through bankruptcy

Democratic Reps. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyHouse Oversight Committee demands release of B USPS vehicle contractSchumer, Gillibrand call on Cuomo to resignHow two controversies collided for CuomoMORE (N.Y.) and Mark DeSaulnierMark James DeSaulnierBipartisan group of lawmakers backs bill ‘to save local news’Pelosi wins Speakership for fourth time in dramatic voteDozens of Democrats plan to vote remotely in a first for the HouseMORE (Calif.) unveiled legislation on Friday aimed at preventing the Sackler family from evading lawsuits over the opioid crisis through bankruptcy proceedings.

By ensuring that individuals cannot use bankruptcy court to evade responsibility for their misconduct, the SACKLER Act would hold members of the Sackler family accountable for their significant role in fueling an opioid crisis that has claimed nearly half a million lives, Maloney and DeSaulnier said in a joint statement.

Read more here.

What we’re reading

Groceries and rent money: why support for COVID isolation is more important than ever (NPR)

COVID-19 vaccine supply will remain flat through March, followed by a surge (McClatchy DC)

Vaccine studies are expanding. Thats good news for children, pregnant women and those over 65. (Washington Post)

State by state

FEMA vaccine sites wind down in Florida as vaccine supply tightens (Tampa Bay Times)

Maryland adds more than 1,000 COVID cases for second consecutive day (Baltimore Sun)

New federal guidance supports what Mass. school officials said for months: 3 feet of distance between most students can be enough (Boston Globe)