Less bad: News about the pandemic is better, or at least less bad. In most areas of the country, new Covid infections and hospitalizations have dropped sharply from their early January peaks, leading indicators of a probable decline in deaths in the coming days. Even so, at least 1,547 people in the U.S. died of the coronavirus yesterday, according to The New York Times. And progress could stall with the spread of new virus variants, the easing of restrictions, and the possible impact of  Super Bowl gatherings. Following Sunday night’s victory by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, thousands of maskless Tampa fans poured into the streets to celebrate the win despite a mask mandate in the city, The Washington Post reports. There have been more than 1.7 million coronavirus cases and over 28,000 deaths in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has fought many restrictions. A report posted on medRxiv found that a more contagious and possibly more dangerous mutation of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom is rapidly spreading in Florida, which has the most cases of the variant in the U.S., according to The Post.

  • Also: The U.S. has recorded more than 27.1 million cases of the virus, and over 466,000 deaths. Worldwide there have more than 106.6 million cases and more than 2.3 million deaths.

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Rent descent: Millions of renters who’ve lost income during the pandemic have depleted their savings or run up big credit card debt to pay the rent. Even when temporarily saved by eviction moratoriums, they face overdue payments they may never be able to meet, Conor Dougherty reports in The New York Times. Housing instability, a big problem before the pandemic, has become that much worse. Even before last year, about 11 million households—one in four U.S. renters—were spending more than half their pretax incomes on housing, with overcrowding on the rise as many families moved in together, Dougherty writes. Moody’s Analytics estimated that tenants who lost jobs in the pandemic as of January had run up $53 billion in debts for back rent, utilities and late fees. Some help has come: in one of his first acts after the inauguration, President Biden extended by two months a moratorium on evictions that was about to expire, and $25 billion in federal rental aid approved in December will soon be distributed, helping tenants and landlords alike.

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Desperation in Mexico: Suffering the world’s third highest Covid death toll after the U.S. and Brazil, Mexico faces shortages of oxygen tanks and vaccines and a devastated economy, the Los Angeles Times reports, even as deaths and infections keep spiking. About 167,000 Mexicans have died from the virus and January was the deadliest month so far, with almost 33,000 deaths, according to official numbers, which are widely considered to be an undercount due to a serious lack of testing for the virus, writes the Times. Mexico had expected to get about 400,000 doses of vaccine a week through March, but Pfizer cut back, citing rising global demand. By last weekend, the country of 126 million people had administered only 711,000 doses. At least 2,850 health workers have died, due in part to a lack of enough protective equipment, many doctors and nurses say. “It feels like a horror film that never ends,” said Evelyn Beltrán, 39, a nurse in the city of Puebla. “What an awful sense of hopelessness and desperation.”

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Prison tops the list: Since last summer, California’s job safety agency Cal/OSHA has cited more than 130 employers for failing to adequately protect workers from Covid-19. Topping the list is San Quentin State Prison, which has seen 2,200 confirmed cases and the deaths of 28 inmates and a corrections officer, according to the Los Angeles Times. Now the prison is facing the single largest proposed penalty for Covid-related violations, $421,880, Cal/OSHA says. The prison was cited for failing to provide staff with adequate training and equipment to work around infected individuals, along with other violations. The agency has also targeted restaurants, retailers and health care facilities in recent weeks, including three Kaiser Permanente medical centers in the cities of San Leandro, Antioch and Walnut Creek.

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Selective selections: For at least a decade, the U.S. Department of Education has called on a disproportionate number of college students from Black and Latino neighborhoods to give further proof that information on their financial aid applications is accurate, an analysis of federal data by The Washington Post found. Requests to verify data are meant to reduce fraud and improper payments, but the audits can be time-consuming and fall mainly on low-income students, according to The Post. The Education Department would not share its methodology, but said it uses machine learning to target applicants with the highest probability of errors. Experts said applicants who qualify for the most federal grant dollars are most often selected. University of Richmond senior Jesse Amankwaah, a 21-year old political science major, told The Post that he has been selected for verification almost every year, even though his award amount remains the same. “Being selected once, okay. But three times? It started to feel like they didn’t trust me, like they thought I was lying,” Amankwaah said.

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In “Cancer Alley”: With Louisiana bracing for an influx of heavy industrial operations along a stretch of the Mississippi River that some call “Cancer Alley,’’ environmental officials must do a better job of cracking down on air pollution violations, a state audit says. According to ProPublica, many of the audit’s findings tracked those of a joint 2019 investigation by The Times Picayune, The Advocate and ProPublica, which showed that emissions of cancer-causing chemicals from large industries along the lower Mississippi increased health risks for the mainly Black and low-income people living nearest to the plants.

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Bingeing on guns: January was the third highest month for gun sales on record, as Americans bought 2.19 million guns, 79 percent more than in January, 2020, according to The Trace. Three of the five busiest weeks for FBI gun background checks occurred after the January 6 invasion of the Capitol.

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Better economies, better air?: Regions experiencing rapid economic growth often see spikes in air pollution. But a new study of air quality in Africa finds that in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, levels of hazardous nitrogen oxides are falling even as wealth and population increase, The New York Times reports. The reason is that an increase in pollution from industry and transportation in the study area–from Senegal and Ivory Coast in the west to South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya in the east — appears to be more than offset by a decrease in fires set by farmers to clear land in preparation for planting.

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