Covid-19 Live Updates: First Case of Brazil-Based Virus Variant Found in U.S.

The Brazil P.1 variant is thought to be more contagious but it is unclear if it causes more severe illness.
Credit…Jim Mone/Associated Press

A case of a more contagious coronavirus variant first found in Brazil has been confirmed in Minnesota, the state’s department of health said in a statement on Monday. It is the first confirmed case of the variant in the United States.

The case was identified in a Minnesota resident who had recently traveled to Brazil, the department said, which could suggest that the variant may not yet be widely circulating.

It was only a matter of time before the variant was detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a Covid adviser to President Biden. “With the world travel that you have, and the degree of transmissibility efficiency, it’s not surprising,” he said.

The variant, known as B. or P.1, shares many mutations with one first identified in South Africa. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines still protect from the variant circulating in South Africa, the companies have said, but they are slightly less effective. They are expected to perform similarly against the variant identified in Brazil.

The variant identified in Britain is more transmissible, but just as susceptible to vaccines as the original form of the virus. But the variants in Brazil and South Africa have additional mutations that may help elude the vaccines. “The amount of concern that I have between the U.K. variant, and the South African/Brazilian is much, much different,” Dr. Fauci said.

The variant identified in Britain has been confirmed in 22 states, and the variant found in South Africa has not yet been confirmed in the United States.

The P.1 variant is also thought to be more contagious but it is unclear if it causes more severe illness. The Minnesota Department of Health identified it through its variant surveillance program, which collects 50 random samples from laboratories in the state each week. Minnesota has one of the lowest daily caseloads relative to its population in the country, following a surge in the fall.

The person with the confirmed case is a resident of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the department said. The patient became ill during the first week of January and the specimen was collected Jan. 9, it said.

Investigators from the health department had spoken with the person after the test was positive for Covid-19, and the person had traveled to Brazil before becoming ill. The person was told to isolate and have household members quarantine. Health officials are conducting additional interviews with the person to learn more about the illness, travel and close contacts.

The United States is flying blind, scientists have warned, as the country navigates the spread of the new variants without a large-scale, nationwide system for checking virus genomes for new mutations. Instead, the work of discovering the variants has fallen to a patchwork of academic, state and commercial laboratories.

Scientists say that a national surveillance program would be able to determine just how widespread the new variant is and help contain emerging hot spots, extending the crucial window of time in which vulnerable people across the country could get vaccinated.

The daily U.S. coronavirus caseload and number of hospitalized patients have fallen recent days, but the introduction of the variants into the country threatens to undermine that progress. The weekly average of new cases per day in the United States was down 33 percent on Sunday since two weeks prior, as states like California start to get a hold on their outbreaks.

California officials on Monday announced that they were lifting severe coronavirus restrictions on large portions of the state, allowing outdoor dining and personal care businesses to resume limited operations.

But the virus has for weeks been raging in Arizona, as well as South Carolina and Rhode Island. New York now has the fifth-worst outbreak in the country, though daily deaths from the virus are far from the levels seen there in the spring.

President Biden’s press secretary said on Monday that he would extend the Trump administration’s ban on travel by noncitizens into the United States from Brazil, along with similar restrictions on Britain and 27 other European countries, where other variants have been identified. It also added South Africa to the list.

Concern over the variants’ spread led to discussions in Europe of restricting nonessential travel. Proposing the new restrictions, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, tweeted that the new variants had “led us to take difficult but necessary decisions.”

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to announce an extension and tightening of lockdown rules in England this week amid growing concern.

Experts point to Britain as a model for what the U.S. could do to monitor the variants. British researchers sequence the genome — that is, the complete genetic material in a coronavirus — from up to 10 percent of new positive samples.

Even if the U.S. sequenced just 1 percent of genomes from across the country, or about 2,000 new samples a day, that would shine a bright light on the new variant, as well as other variants that may emerge.

Customers waiting in line to order food for take out at a restaurant in Salinas, Calif., on Sunday.
Credit…Joel Angel Juarez for The New York Times

Hours after California public health officials abruptly lifted a strict order to stay at home that had been in place for weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom defended the decision, saying that the state’s models showed pressure on intensive care units easing significantly in the next month.

By Feb. 21, the state reported, intensive care unit capacity is projected to reach 30.3 percent across California, with 33.3 percent of intensive care unit space available in Southern California, 22.3 percent in the San Joaquin Valley and 25 percent in the Bay Area.

State officials, Mr. Newsom said, rushed to lift restrictions as quickly as possible once the numbers indicated it would be safe.

“We did a lot of comprehensive outreach, and we’re pleased to move in this direction,” he said in a news conference on Monday.

He described accusations that he was making pandemic response decisions based on political considerations as “complete, utter nonsense.”

The governor has faced mounting political pressure from a recall effort, and experts have said that the regional reopenings and the vaccination effort are crucial tests for his administration.

Mr. Newsom highlighted that California’s overall positivity rate recently compared favorably to those of Texas and Arizona. And he emphasized that reporting delays had contributed to what he described as misconceptions about the speed of California’s vaccine rollout.

“We’re just getting going,” Mr. Newsom said. California, he said, is like a massive ship: “It takes a little time to shift course, but when it shifts course, it builds tremendous momentum.”

The governor also clarified the state’s vaccine prioritization: Along with health care workers and anyone 65 and older, the state will prioritize emergency medical workers, food and agricultural workers, and teachers and other school staff.

After that, he said, the state will “transition to age-based eligibility,” and will focus on getting vaccines to communities suffering disproportionately.

But the problem, experts have said in recent weeks, is that the implementation of such detailed plans rests on county public health departments, and the details have differed community by community.

On Monday morning, California officials announced that they were lifting severe coronavirus restrictions on huge swaths of the state. The decision would allow restaurants in those areas to reopen for outdoor dining, and would let hair salons and other personal care businesses resume limited operations.

However, local officials can still opt to keep restrictions in place, based on conditions in individual communities.

Effective immediately, state officials said, they were ending regional stay-at-home orders, which banned gatherings of any size and required residents to stay home except for essential work. The orders came into force when intensive-care units in the region were projected to become dangerously full.

Such orders had been in effect for Southern California, a huge region encompassing Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, as well as for the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. Counties in those regions will now return to a tiered system of rules tied to the prevalence of the virus in each county.

The news came on the heels of a weekend of mixed signals from the state about its strategy to curb the rampant spread of the virus.

While California’s overall case numbers have been declining, hospitals in Southern California are still overwhelmed, and experts worry that new variants of the virus — including one that researchers recently found in more than half of test samples in Los Angeles — could threaten progress.

In the Bay Area, available intensive care capacity had risen to 23.4 percent as of Sunday, according to the state. The stay-at-home order for the region was triggered when the figure fell below 15 percent.

The Sacramento region has just 11.9 percent of its intensive care capacity free, but it was allowed to exit its strict regional order more than a week ago.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Saturday that officials in the region were hopeful that the Bay Area order would be lifted soon, but the state’s department of public health said on Sunday that, based on its projections, the region was not eligible.

Mr. Newsom has repeatedly said that the state’s reopening would be guided by transparent data. But The Associated Press reported that Mr. Newsom’s administration has refused to disclose key figures.

Even after President Biden announced a national strategy for controlling the pandemic, which experts have said was desperately needed, there are still hurdles in the national vaccination program. In California, those hurdles have contributed to continuing chaos, with eligibility rules differing county by county.

The state set up a promised website to help people find vaccination appointments. But it’s still described as a pilot site.

Federal health officials and corporate executives said last week that it would be impossible to increase the immediate supply of vaccines before April because there is a lack of manufacturing capacity in the United States.
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

President Biden, under pressure from an anxious public to speed up the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations, said Monday that he is now aiming for the United States to administer 1.5 million doses a day — a goal that the nation already appears on track to meet.

The president made his comments just hours after he banned travel by noncitizens into the United States from South Africa because of concern about a coronavirus variant spreading in that country, and moved to extend similar bans imposed by his predecessor on travel from Brazil, Britain and 27 European countries. Those bans had been set to expire on Tuesday.

Mr. Biden has vowed to get “100 million Covid-19 shots in the arms of the American people” by his 100th day in office. Because two doses are required, and some Americans have already been vaccinated, his promise would cover about 67 million Americans. To realize it, the United States would have to administer one million shots a day.

The pace of vaccinations is already picking up, and the United States already seems to be vaccinating well over a million people per day, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The current average is about 1.2 million over the past six days.

With frustration rising across the country over vaccine supply shortages and canceled appointments, Mr. Biden has drawn criticism for not setting his sights higher. Last week, he expressed exasperation — “C’mon, man!” — at a reporter who suggested his 100 million shot promise was not ambitious enough. On Monday, he appeared to revise it.

“I think that with the grace of God and good will of a neighbor and creek not rising, we may get it to 1.5 million a day rather than one million a day,” the president said. “But we have to meet that goal of one million a day.”

Mr. Biden’s comments came as the United States has recorded 25 million coronavirus cases — a staggering tally that the nation reached Saturday afternoon, according to a New York Times database. That works out to about one in every 13 people in the country, or about 7.6 percent of the population — a number that experts say is almost surely lower than the true number of infections.

The move comes as officials in the new Biden administration are trying to get their hands around a fast-changing pandemic, with public health officials racing to vaccinate the public — and to expand the supply of vaccine — as more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease specialist, said at the White House last week that “we’re following very carefully” the variant of the virus in South Africa because it appears to be more highly contagious.

The variant first discovered in South Africa has not yet reached the United States, but it has been reported in more than two dozen countries.

The first U.S. case of the variant found in Brazil was confirmed in Minnesota, health officials there said on Monday. The variant, known as B. or P.1, shares many mutations with the one first identified in South Africa.

On Monday, Moderna said its vaccine was effective against new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in Britain and South Africa. But the immune response is slightly weaker against the variant discovered in South Africa, and so the company is developing a new form of the vaccine that could be used as a booster shot against it.

And Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered a blunt assessment of the vaccination campaign on Sunday, predicting that supply would not increase until late March.

Federal health officials and corporate executives agree that it will be impossible to increase the immediate supply of vaccines before April because of a lack of manufacturing capacity. A third vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson, is expected to report the results of its clinical trial soon; if approved, that vaccine would also help shore up production.

A dose of the Moderna vaccine being filled into a syringe in Mountain View, Calif., on Friday.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

As the coronavirus assumes contagious new forms around the world, two drug makers reported on Monday that their vaccines, while still effective, offer less protection against one variant. That new information is causing the drug makers to begin revising plans to turn back an evolving pathogen that has killed more than two million people.

The news from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech underscored a realization by scientists that the virus is changing more quickly than once thought, and may well continue to develop in ways that help it elude the vaccines being deployed worldwide.

The announcements arrived even as President Biden is banning travel to the United States from South Africa, in hopes of stanching the spread of one variant. And Merck, a leading drug company, on Monday abandoned two experimental coronavirus vaccines altogether, saying they did not produce a strong enough immune response against the original version of the virus.

Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech both said their vaccines were effective against new variants of the coronavirus discovered in Britain and South Africa. But they are slightly less protective against the variant in South Africa, which may be more adept at dodging antibodies in the bloodstream.

The vaccines are the only ones authorized for emergency use in the United States.

As a precaution, Moderna has begun developing a new form of its vaccine that could be used as a booster shot against the variant in South Africa. “We’re doing it today to be ahead of the curve, should we need to,” Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. “I think of it as an insurance policy.”

Moderna said it also planned to begin testing whether giving patients a third shot of its original vaccine as a booster could help fend off newly emerging forms of the virus.

Dr. Ugur Sahin, the chief executive of BioNTech, said in an interview on Monday that his company was talking to regulators around the world about what types of clinical trials and safety reviews would be required to authorize a new version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that would be better able to head off the variant in South Africa.

Studies showing decreased levels of antibodies against a new variant do not mean a vaccine is proportionately less effective, Dr. Sahin said.

BioNTech could develop an adjusted vaccine against the variants in about six weeks, he said. The Food and Drug Administration has not commented on what its policy will be for authorizing vaccines that have been updated to work better against new variants.

But some scientists said that the adjusted vaccines should not have to go through the same level of scrutiny, including extensive clinical trials, that the original versions did. The influenza vaccine is updated each year to account for new strains without an extensive approval process.

“The whole point of this is a rapid response to an emerging situation,” said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

Dr. Sahin said a similar booster shot eventually might be necessary to stop Covid-19. The vaccine’s reduced efficacy may also mean that more people would need to get the shots before the population achieves herd immunity.

Scientists had predicted that the coronavirus would evolve and might acquire new mutations that would thwart vaccines, but few researchers expected it to happen so soon. Part of the problem is the sheer ubiquity of the pathogen.

Merck was slower than other companies to get into the Covid-19 vaccine race.
Credit…Tom Mihalek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Merck announced on Monday that it was abandoning a pair of Covid-19 vaccines in clinical trials.

The news came as a disappointment at a time when the United States and other countries are struggling to accelerate their sluggish vaccination campaigns and new coronavirus variants threaten to bring surges over the next few months.

The two projects are the second and third vaccines to be abandoned in clinical trials. The University of Queensland in Australia abandoned its own effort in December. Sanofi and other vaccine makers have paused some projects after getting disappointing initial results but are now regrouping to move forward.

Merck was slower than other companies to get into the Covid-19 vaccine race. In June, it acquired the Austrian firm Themis Bioscience to develop a vaccine originally designed at Institut Pasteur, based on a weakened measles virus. Researchers began a Phase 1 trial in August. In a second effort, Merck partnered with IAVI, a nonprofit scientific organization that develops vaccines and treatments, on another vaccine. For that one, they used the same design that they successfully employed to make a vaccine for Ebola.

Merck and IAVI were awarded $38 million for their vaccine research, but neither of Merck’s projects earned the lavish support that Operation Warp Speed showered on other efforts from companies such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. In its announcement, Merck said that both vaccines looked safe in early clinical trials. But neither produced a strong response from the immune system. They decided that it was not worth going forward with large-scale trials that would demonstrate whether the vaccines protected people from Covid-19.

“We are grateful to our collaborators who worked with us on these vaccine candidates and to the volunteers in the trials,” Dr. Dean Y. Li, the president of Merck Research Laboratories, said in a statement.

Merck will instead focus its Covid-19 efforts on an experimental antiviral drug known as molnupiravir, in partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Originally designed for influenza, it has shown promising effects in studies on animals and in early clinical trials. The trial is set to finish by May, although preliminary results could come out as early as March.

IAVI said it would continue searching for Covid-19 vaccines. “Our scientists will continue to evaluate other candidates to see if other routes of administration or changes to the construct could lead to improved immune response,” said Karie Youngdahl, senior director and head of global communications at IAVI.

A health care worker tending to a patient at a temporary ward set up during the coronavirus outbreak at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, last week.
Credit…Pool photo by Phill Magakoe

President Biden will ban travel by noncitizens into the United States from South Africa because of concern about a coronavirus variant spreading in that country, and will extend similar bans imposed by his predecessor on travel from Brazil, 27 European countries and Britain, his press secretary said on Monday.

The move comes as officials in the new Biden administration are trying to get their hands around a fast-changing pandemic, with public health officials racing to vaccinate the public — and to expand the supply of vaccine — as more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread.

Mr. Biden’s travel ban is a presidential proclamation, not an executive order; typically, proclamations govern the acts of individuals, while executive orders are directives to federal agencies. It will go into effect Saturday and apply to non-U.S. citizens who have spent time in South Africa in the last 14 days. The new policy, which was earlier reported by Reuters, will not affect U.S. citizens or permanent residents, officials said.

On his last full day in office, President Donald Trump tried to eliminate the Covid-19-related ban on travel from Brazil, Britain and much of Europe, saying it was no longer necessary. Jen Psaki, now the White House press secretary, said at the time that ending the ban was the wrong thing to do; on Monday, she announced during her regular briefing that it would remain intact.

“With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading, this isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she said.

Ms. Psaki also said the Biden administration intended to hold regular public health briefings three times a week, beginning on Wednesday. She said Mr. Biden would be “briefed regularly” on the pandemic, adding, “I suspect far more regularly than the past president.”

The first confirmed case of the Brazilian variant in the United States has been identified in Minnesota, the state’s health department said on Monday. It was found in a Minnesota resident who had recently traveled to Brazil.

The variant now spreading in South Africa has not yet reached the United States, but it has been reported in more than two dozen countries.

In addition to the travel bans, Mr. Biden issued an executive order last week requiring that all international travelers present negative coronavirus tests before leaving for the United States. The move extended a requirement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was issued by the Trump administration but set to expire on Tuesday.

A White House official said Sunday that the C.D.C. would not issue waivers from that policy as some airlines had requested.

A mass coronavirus vaccination site had been set to open this week at Citi Field in Queens.
Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City announced on Monday that the openings of planned mass coronavirus vaccination sites at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field would be postponed because of the low supply of doses available.

“We want to get those to be full-blown, 24-hour operations,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference, “but we don’t have the vaccine.”

The site at Citi Field had been set to open this week, while plans for the one in the Bronx were still being developed. Another site at the Empire Outlets on Staten Island was initially scheduled to open last week, but will also be postponed, the mayor said.

The city had a total of 19,032 first doses in inventory on Monday morning, Mr. de Blasio said, and expected to receive just under 108,000 doses this week. But he continued to warn that figure was not nearly enough to keep up with the pace at which New Yorkers were being inoculated: If the supply was greater, the mayor said, New York City would be on pace to administer roughly 500,000 doses per week.

Instead, he said many inoculation appointments would continue to be canceled or rescheduled as they were last week.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the Biden administration was reviewing state and local officials’ capacity to administer vaccines as it considered how to bolster the vaccination effort. She noted that mass vaccination sites, like football fields, could be “quite efficient.”

“Infrastructure is pivotal,” she said. “It’s not just about the science.”

Some public health experts have worried that the limited supply could undermine goals of state and city officials to prioritize communities hard hit by the virus — Black and Latino people and low-income New Yorkers — in the vaccine rollout.

The state has not released demographic information on the distribution, but Mr. de Blasio said on Monday that data would come “this week,” adding that “it’s part of making sure that we act to address the disparities that have pervaded the Covid experience.”

The crunch in supply came as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that a statewide spike in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, fueled by holiday gatherings, appeared to be ebbing.

While 46 ZIP codes in New York City have seven-day average positive test rates of over 10 percent, according to city data on Monday, and other areas like Long Island are still struggling with higher hospitalization rates, Mr. Cuomo said there was a downward trend in cases statewide. He said on Monday there were 8,730 hospitalizations in New York, down from more than 9,000 more than a week ago.

Mr. Cuomo said the state was considering easing restrictions in specific areas that had previously seen high rates of positive test results. He said that elective surgeries in Erie County, for example, could start again, as worries about hospital capacity have decreased.

“We are seeing that spike come down,” he said. “Now we can start making adjustments.”

He said other restrictions could be eased on Wednesday, though he said the changes would probably not include the resumption of indoor dining in New York City, which he barred in December.

Mr. Cuomo also acknowledged, however, that the supply of vaccinations was far lower than the demand and the state’s capacity to administer doses. He warned vaccine distributors not to schedule appointments for more vaccinations than the state had allotted.

“It’s a national supply issue; it’s not a New York issue,” he said. “It’s a problem across the globe. Every country is trying to get more vaccine.”

Mr. de Blasio also sent a letter to President Biden last week requesting more doses, along with the “flexibility” to use second doses to increase the pace of vaccinations. He did not discuss any specific progress made on Monday, but appeared hopeful that an update could come soon.

“What is so clear now is the commitment of the Biden administration,” Mr. de Blasio said, “to finding every conceivable way to get us more vaccine quickly. We are waiting in the course of this week for more detailed information.”

Mr. Cuomo said on Monday that he thought that second doses should not be used as first doses, and he reassured people who had received their first dose that a second dose would be available to them.

“That appointment will be fulfilled,” he said.

The European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, speaking at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels on Monday.
Credit…Pool photo by John Thys

The European Union escalated a war of words with AstraZeneca on Monday over the company’s sudden announcement on Friday that it would have to drastically cut the number of vaccine doses delivered to the bloc and its 27 members.

The European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said a call with the company’s leadership on Monday had not yielded sufficient answers as to why the company was breaking its contractual obligation and said another call would be held on Monday evening.

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca, said: “Our C.E.O. Pascal Soriot was pleased to speak with the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier today. He stressed the importance of working in partnership and how AstraZeneca is doing everything it can to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.”

The AstraZeneca debacle delivers a serious blow to the bloc’s sluggish vaccination rollout, and comes days after Pfizer notified E.U. members and several other countries that it would slow down deliveries until mid-February as it upgraded its Belgium factory to increase production.

The twin disappointments have left several E.U. countries hamstrung, and have thwarted the bloc’s collective effort to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by this summer, as Britain and the United States are making better progress with their inoculation programs.

“The European Union has pre-financed the development of the vaccine and its production, and wants to see the return,” Ms. Kyriakides said, implying that the E.U. was concerned the company had sold the vaccines the bloc had funded to other countries.

“The European Union wants to know exactly which doses have been produced, where by AstraZeneca so far, and if, or to whom, they have been delivered,” she added.

Ms. Kyriakides also said that the European Commission, the executive branch of the E.U., was proposing its members approve a system in which pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca that produce vaccines in plants in E.U. territory would need to register any intention to export part of that production outside the bloc.




E.U. Recommends Travel Restrictions to Curb Virus Cases

The European Commission proposed on Monday to restrict nonessential travel to slow the spread of the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

The new, more transmissible variants of the virus have surfaced. There is currently a very high number of new infections across many member states, and there is an urgent need to reduce the risk of travel-related infections to lessen the burden on overstretched health care systems. First, the commission proposes that all non-essential travel to and from high-risk areas, is strongly discouraged. In this context, we also invite member states to ensure consistency between the measures they take regarding cross-border travel and travel within their territories. We are suggesting stricter measures for dark-red areas because we must recognize the high level of cases. It is why member states should require individuals coming from these areas to do a test prior to arrival and quarantine after arrival if needed.

Video player loading
The European Commission proposed on Monday to restrict nonessential travel to slow the spread of the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus.CreditCredit…Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, recommended on Monday restricting nonessential travel in a bid to curb the spread of new more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

At the same time, the commission’s proposal aims to prevent blanket border closures, which would obstruct trade and the movement of cross-border workers. Traveling without restrictions would still be possible for family, work and health reasons, which are deemed essential.

“The situation in Europe with the new variants have led us to take difficult but necessary decisions,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the commission, wrote on Twitter. “We need to keep safe and discourage nonessential travel.”

Also on Monday, Moderna announced that while its vaccine is effective against new variants, it appears to be less protective against the one that emerged in South Africa, raising further concern.

President Biden’s press secretary said Monday that he would ban travel by noncitizens into the United States from South Africa because of concern about a coronavirus variant spreading in that country, and will extend similar bans imposed by his predecessor on travel from Brazil, 27 European countries and the United Kingdom.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to announce an extension and tightening of lockdown rules in England this week amid growing concern.

In the E.U. plan, countries and regions where the 14-day infection rate is more than 500 per 100,000 inhabitants would qualify as “dark red,” or high-risk zones, and moving between them should be limited to essential reasons, the commission said. At the same time, those coming in from outside the bloc, even for essential reasons, would have to undergo testing and quarantines. “The first recommendation is: don’t travel,” said Ylva Johansson, the bloc’s commissioner for home affairs.

The commission’s proposal is nonbinding and needs to be endorsed by national governments, who will discuss it Monday afternoon. It comes after last week’s meeting of the leaders of 27 European Union nations, who agreed in principle to selectively restrict nonessential travel, but did not decide on the details.

“There is currently a very high number of new infections across many member states,” said Didier Reynders, the bloc’s commissioner for justice. “There is an urgent need to reduce the risk of travel-related infections, to lessen the burden on overstretched health care systems.”

Freedom of movement is the cornerstone of the bloc, but travel restrictions remain the province of national governments and vary from country to country, creating a chaotic patchwork of measures. Belgium, for example, has announced a ban on nonessential travel coming into force this Wednesday, with fines for those who don’t comply.

Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Credit…Jessica Hill for The New York Times

Students flooded the nation’s most competitive colleges with a record number of applications to be part of the Class of 2025 — so many, in fact, that all eight Ivy League universities have agreed to delay their decision date by about a week, until April 6, so admissions officers will have time to review them all.

Harvard said more than 57,000 students had applied by the January deadline, an increase of about 42 percent over last year, according to The Crimson, the student newspaper. Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said the decision date was being postponed “to give full and fair review” to everyone who applied.

The surge was attributed in large part to the decision by Ivy League schools — along with nearly 1,700 other colleges and universities nationwide — to make it optional for students to submit SAT and ACT scores with their applications for fall 2021 admissions.

Standardized dates had to be canceled last year for thousands of students because of the pandemic, making it hard for many to even get a test score. Experts said students who in the past might not have dared to apply to elite schools, assuming they would be automatically screened out by their performance on the tests, are now applying.

“They’re saying, let me put my name in the hat,” said Hafeez Lakhani, a college consultant.

Over all, the volume of college applications submitted by January deadlines was 10 percent higher than last year, amounting to almost 5.6 million applications through Jan. 18, the Common Application, which is used by most American colleges, reported Monday.

The increase was driven largely by an increase in applications to the most selective universities, which rose 17 percent, and to the largest universities, which rose 16 percent, the Common App reported.

“Based on my long career in college admissions, I know that students often don’t apply to certain selective schools because they think a test score might keep them out,” said Jenny Rickard, the president and chief executive of the Common App.

She added: “Hopefully those colleges will use it as an opportunity to increase equity and expand the diversity of their incoming classes.”

Meghan Hayes, a teacher at John Hay Community Academy, teaching her class outside the school board president’s home earlier this month. 
Credit…Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

With roughly 70,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students scheduled to return to public school classrooms in Chicago next week, the district and the teachers’ union remain locked in a battle over the reopening plan, with the union saying that a majority of its members voted to authorize a strike if the district seeks to force teachers back into buildings.

All staff working in kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms were originally supposed to report to buildings on Monday to prepare for students’ return next week. But late last week, the union asked its members to vote on a resolution calling on them to refuse to report in-person and to authorize a strike if the district locked them out of its electronic systems.

Over the weekend, the two sides jockeyed for leverage. The district sent a message to families and staff saying that it had agreed to a request from the union to postpone the date for staff to return to Wednesday. Shortly after, the union sent its own message denying that there had been any agreement and saying that its members had voted to continue working remotely indefinitely.

The district said that the union was making several requests that it disagreed with, including delaying reopening until all staff members had been able to receive at least one dose of the vaccine or until the citywide positivity rate fell below 3 percent. Over the last week, the citywide positivity rate has been 7.2 percent. The district has said it will begin vaccinating teachers in mid-February and that it hopes to vaccinate all employees in the coming months.

According to the district, the union was also requesting weekly surveillance testing of staff as well as regular testing of students in parts of the city with high positivity rates. Currently, the district is planning to test up to a quarter of staff each week and is not planning to do surveillance testing of students.

Prekindergarten students and some special education students returned to school buildings on Jan. 11, in the first wave of the district’s reopening. The district said on Friday that roughly 60 percent of the 5,352 students who were expected to attend in person actually did in the first week. Overall about a third of families in the district who have been given the option to have their students return in person have signed up to do so.

Chicago is not the only district where opposition from teachers’ unions is threatening reopening plans: Over the weekend, plans to reopen schools in Montclair, New Jersey, were postponed indefinitely after the superintendent said he did not have enough teachers to properly staff the schools.

The decision capped a tense week in a community known for its liberal politics: Elementary teachers, citing coronavirus safety concerns, boycotted in-school prep sessions in defiance of the superintendent, and a heated board of education meeting on Wednesday lasted until nearly midnight.

The decision to return to in-person learning is made more complex in New Jersey, where coronavirus infections have been surging and teachers are not among the first groups prioritized for vaccines — a policy that the statewide teachers’ union, a close ally of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, has refrained from strenuously criticizing. Yet over the last week, some union leaders and superintendents have cited the policy to justify efforts to keep schools closed.

The company announced a series of measures to help accelerate vaccination efforts.
Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Google said it will make company buildings, parking lots and open spaces available to serve as temporary vaccination clinics in partnership with health care providers and public health officials.

In a blog post on Monday, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said the company will start by opening sites in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City, with plans to expand to other sites nationwide.

The move is part of a series of measures to help accelerate vaccination efforts. Google also said it plans to contribute $100 million in ad credits to health organizations to educate people about the vaccine and $50 million for groups working on fair access to the vaccine.

It will also include more information in search results and maps to help people find vaccination locations with details about who is eligible and whether appointments are necessary. Google said it will provide local distribution information in search results in the coming week so people can determine whether they are eligible to receive a vaccine.

The Flaming Lips have used plastic bubbles at concerts to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus, but some experts were unsure about the effectiveness of those measures.
Credit…Scott Booker

There are Covid-19 bubbles — small clusters of friends or family who agree to socialize exclusively with each other during the pandemic — and then there are the kinds of bubbles the Flaming Lips used at recent concerts.

Band members and concertgoers alike rocked out and bounced while encased in large individual plastic bubbles amid bright swirling lights in trippy scenes at concerts on Friday and Saturday in Oklahoma City.

The band has taken the elaborate precautions at its live performances to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus, but some health experts were unsure about the effectiveness of those measures.

“I’d need to see how the air exchange was occurring between the outside and the inside of the bubbles to be able to say if it were safe over all or reduced risk of transmission,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, the director of global health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

The Flaming Lips, an indie rock band founded in the early 1980s, who are known for their exuberant live shows and recording experiments, performed a similar concert in October. They also performed their song “Race for the Prize” in June using the spheres on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

The concerts on Friday and Saturday were originally scheduled for December, but the band postponed them because of rising Covid-19 cases in the Oklahoma City metro area.

“It’s a very restricted, weird event,” the band’s frontman, Wayne Coyne, told Rolling Stone last month. “But the weirdness is so we can enjoy a concert before putting our families and everybody at risk.”

A woman in Oakland, Calif., holds mail that was received at her home addressed to people who presumably tried to defraud the California Employment Development Department.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

As much as $30 billion of the unemployment claims paid last year in California during the pandemic may have gone to swindlers, state officials said Monday, reporting that at least one-tenth of benefits were fraudulently collected by organized crime rings, prison inmates and identity thieves.

The breathtaking losses are far more than initially estimated in November, when a task force of district attorneys made the situation public in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, calling it “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Focused mostly on the pandemic unemployment insurance program initiated in spring, when layoffs soared early in the pandemic, the frauds were confirmed to have siphoned off at least 9.7 percent of the record $114 billion in benefits paid out between March 2020 and the middle of this month, said Julie Su, California’s labor secretary.

Another 17 percent of payments remain under investigation, even as existing and new screening measures have blocked some $60 billion in bogus claims. By comparison, in 2019, fraud accounted for about 6 percent of California’s total unemployment insurance payments.

Most of the fraud occurred in the federally funded pandemic assistance program, which expedited benefits for independent contractors, gig workers, self-employed people and others who did not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance, according to state officials. Because of the hasty rollout of the program, they said, benefits were less secure.

But Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney leading the prosecutors’ task force, said the system’s security also has suffered from the lack of a way to cross-index, say, its roster of jail inmates with unemployment claimants.

“While I appreciate the great strides we are now taking,” she said, “the fact is that California had no cross-match system, despite 35 other states having one. It’s bad enough that California state prison and jail inmates ripped off the state, but even out-of-state inmates were able to target California because the system failed to stop this.”

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said cross-checking is now possible for prison inmates. But Ms. Su said, “There is no sugarcoating the reality. California did not have enough security measures in place.”

The scandal has thrown the state’s unemployment program into turmoil, forcing the state to suspend benefits in December for some 1.4 million Californians while investigators confirmed the identities of the claimants. State lawmakers have lashed out at the Employment Development Department, which oversees claims, as constituents have complained about backlogged benefits.

News accounts since November have reported one outrage after another, with death row inmates, year-old toddlers, a rapper and someone impersonating Senator Dianne Feinstein, among others, fraudulently collecting unemployment checks.

Blake Hall, the chief executive of, a security firm hired to do fraud prevention for the Employment Development Department, said California is just one of the largest and earliest states to address pandemic aid frauds, which have eviscerated benefits programs across the nation. North Dakota, for example, has about 500,000 workers and yet received 400,000 claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, he said.

Mr. Hall said most of the fraud in the state appears to have been run by crime syndicates in Nigeria, Russia and Hong Kong. But much of it was also communicated on the dark web, he said, where fraudsters posted open-source playbooks with detailed instructions on how to game the state’s system with identity theft.

“E.D.D. was clearly underprepared for the type and magnitude of criminal attacks and the sheer quantity of claims,” Rita Saenz, the department’s new director, said in a statement. “We are focused on making the changes necessary to provide benefits to eligible Californians as quickly as possible and stopping fraud before it enters the system.”

Mr. Hall commended California for moving quickly. “There will be many states that will be far worse off,” he said.

Outside a cafe in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, the first day after lockdown restrictions were lifted.
Credit…Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukraine reopened schools, restaurants and movie theaters on Monday after testing showed the coronavirus was spreading less rapidly after just one week of a strict lockdown.

The health minister, Maksym Stepanov, pointed to the improving statistics as a clear indication that a strict lockdown, even if brief, can tamp down numbers. The rate of new infections declined about a third after the first seven days of closures, he said.

The cumulative number of infections nationwide last week was just over 30,000, nearly 14,000 less than the week before, Mr. Stepanov said. “The statistics are relatively optimistic and point to an improvement in the situation,” he said, local media reported.

Mr. Stepanov also pointed to a decline in hospitalizations, which typically trail infections by several weeks, suggesting that the downward trend had begun before the lockdowns and that New Year celebrations had not shifted the dynamic.

President Volodymyr Zelensky quickly imposed lockdowns last spring before easing them over the summer. The country retained a system that can close businesses in cities or regions with flare-ups.

Though the government lifted some restrictions on Monday, not all businesses can open. Nightclubs and sports stadiums remain closed. Schools are not allowed convene large gatherings of students, such as for performances or schoolwide meetings.

Ukraine, which aspires to join the European Union but is not in the bloc, has struggled to find vaccines and may not be able to inoculate its population until well into the year, forcing it to rely on quarantines, lockdowns and other restrictions until then.

Protesters clashed with the police during a demonstration against coronavirus restrictions in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Sunday.
Credit…Rob Engelaar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands said on Monday that anyone involved in riots over the weekend protesting the country’s coronavirus measures had engaged in “criminal violence” and warned that perpetrators would be treated accordingly.

Hundreds of people were detained during unrest in Amsterdam, Eindhoven and at least eight other cities after the start of a 9 p.m. curfew on Saturday, the police said. Officers used tear gas, attack dogs and water cannons to disperse crowds in the southern city of Eindhoven, where shops were looted and cars set on fire. In Urk, a staunchly protestant fishing village young people burned down a Covid test facility.

The riots repeated for a third night on Monday evening in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam and Geleen, Reuters reported.

“This has nothing to do with protest or fighting for freedom,” Mr. Rutte, told reporters on Monday. “This is criminal violence, and we will treat it as such.”

His caretaker government implemented harsh new lockdown measures last week, vetted by Parliament, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Flights to Britain, South Africa and most of South America were halted on Saturday. It also implemented a nationwide curfew, the first since World War II.

The mayor of Eindhoven, John Jorritsma, was visibly upset when he spoke to reporters about the violence in the city. He called the rioters “scum of the earth” and said he feared the Netherlands, normally one of the quietest countries in the European Union, was “on a path of civil war.”

A spokesman for the Dutch police union said the group feared that the illegal protests and riots were just the start of the curfew-related unrest. “I hope it was a one-off, but I’m afraid it was a harbinger for the coming days and weeks,” the spokesman, Koen Simmers, said, according to the public broadcaster NOS. “We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” he added.

The protesters also gathered last week in Amsterdam after calls on social media to “resist” the lockdown rules and the government’s policies overall. Mr. Rutte is one of the longest-serving European leaders. Elections in the Netherlands are scheduled for March.

Protests also erupted over the weekend in Denmark. Five people were arrested on Saturday during an anti-lockdown demonstration in Copenhagen, local news outlets reported. Around 1,000 protesters gathered to demonstrate against what they said were limitations of their freedoms, after a call for protest by a Facebook group. Protesters tied an effigy of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to a pole and burned it, Danish channel TV2 reported. A sign was hung around the effigy’s neck saying, “She must and should be killed.”

A parking lot of the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., which has been turned into a mass vaccination site.
Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

An 8-year-old girl in Missouri is getting an earful from frustrated Arizonans who are trying to get inoculated against Covid-19 and mistakenly calling her instead.

Sophia Garcia of Sullivan, Mo., who used to live in Arizona, has been receiving dozens of calls from people in the state on her hand-me-down phone, whose Phoenix number is just one digit different from the Arizona health department’s vaccine help line.

“Every five minutes my phone keeps ringing,” she told Phoenix’s CBS affiliate, KPHO/KTVK. Callers have been complaining about scheduling difficulties and asking how to book an appointment, her family said. In response, Sophia has recorded a voice mail message directing callers to the appropriate number.

Her story offers a glimpse of the struggles and at times desperation of people seeking vaccination in Arizona and elsewhere. People across the United States have complained of their second dose appointments being canceled after vaccination sites ran out of supplies. And there are concerns that President Biden’s goal of 100 million shots in 100 days may not be ambitious enough.

Arizona, which has the worst infection rate in the country, is speeding up vaccinations after a slow start, with the Department of Health Services announcing on Sunday that more than 400,000 doses had been administered. Over 61,000 people have received both doses, the health department said. A New York Times tracker monitoring the vaccine rollout in each state places Arizona in the top 20 for doses administered.

After earlier glitches and staff shortages, the state attributes the turnaround partly to round-the-clock use of the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, as a site for inoculations in the past few weeks. “The success of our State Farm Stadium vaccination site has made it clear that Arizona can efficiently and effectively administer vaccine to large numbers,” Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said in a statement.

Another vaccination site at the Phoenix Municipal Stadium is set to open next week.

State officials said the federal government had denied a request for an additional 300,000 doses each week. “Now the federal government has to step up its game and provide additional vaccine to support Arizona’s proven momentum,” Dr. Christ said.

In the meantime, Arizonans who inadvertently call Sophia in Missouri will get this firm but encouraging message: “Hopefully, if you try carefully, you could get the right number.”


A man crossed a street under lockdown in the neighborhood surrounding Renji Hospital in Shanghai on Sunday.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

An official in the northeastern Chinese city of Tonghua, where residents are barred from leaving their homes amid a strict lockdown, apologized to residents who said they had not been receiving enough food.

Tonghua, an industrial city of about two million people in Jilin Province, went into lockdown on Jan. 20 after the number of recent cases grew to nearly 100. Since then the local outbreak has been largely brought under control, with just two new symptomatic cases reported on Saturday.

As China observes the one-year anniversary of the lockdown in Wuhan, the central city where the virus was first discovered, other parts of the country are confronting smaller outbreaks. The government has responded with mass testing and citywide lockdowns that at one point affected more than 28 million people, almost three times the size of the population that was initially locked down in Wuhan.

On Monday, China reported 124 new cases in the previous 24 hours, including 117 local cases and seven among travelers in quarantine after returning from overseas. That is an increase from 80 cases reported a day earlier, though still vastly lower than other large countries. Mainland China, which has a population of 1.4 billion people, has recorded a total of about 100,000 coronavirus cases and 4,635 deaths, according to a New York Times database.

In Tonghua, the tough restrictions on movement have led to widespread complaints, with residents taking to social media to vent and seek help. Jiang Haiyan, a deputy mayor, acknowledged the problems on Sunday, saying that a lack of personnel had hindered the distribution of supplies.

“At present, there are problems of untimely and inadequate distribution of household materials for citizens, which has caused great inconvenience to everyone’s lives,” Ms. Jiang said.

The city’s Communist Party committee and local government “express their sincere apologies to everyone,” she added.

The city had since recruited a large number of community workers and volunteers to ensure adequate supply distribution, Ms. Jiang said.

But on the social media accounts for The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, some people continued to express dissatisfaction with the situation.

“Before the residents weren’t treated humanely, they didn’t tell us anything and in one night went from house to house sealing everything up,” read one popular reply. “Now grass-roots officials and volunteers are treated inhumanely, and in one night all the food must be distributed door to door.”

Salman Masood and Lin Qiqing contributed reporting.

In other developments around the world:

  • Australia on Monday approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use among people 16 and older, the country’s first vaccine approval. Vaccinations are expected to start late next month. The announcement came one year to the day after Australia reported its first coronavirus case.

  • Pakistan is likely to approve the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, officials said. It would be the third to get such approval, joining Oxford University’s AstraZeneca and the Chinese SinoPharm vaccines. Pakistan, which has an approximate population of 212 million, has yet to start its rollout. Dr. Faisal Sultan, the de facto health minister, said last week that one million dosages would be distributed in the first three months of 2021. Trials of the Chinese CanSino vaccine are currently being conducted in the country, and the results are expected in the first week of February, officials said.

  • Spain registered its worst weekend since it first got hit by the pandemic last March, according to data released on Monday by the country’s health ministry, which showed that there were almost 94,000 new cases since Friday. Spain’s Covid-19 patients now occupy about 40 percent of the beds in the country’s intensive care units, a situation that was described as “critical” on Monday by the director of Spain’s center for health emergencies, Fernando Simón. A handful of Spanish regions announced further lockdown measures on Monday, including northwestern Galicia, which is closing all its restaurants, bars and universities.

  • The pandemic has inflicted the greatest labor crisis since the Great Depression, Guy Ryder, the head of the United Nations International Labour Organization, said on Monday. Mr. Ryder said the coronavirus has caused a loss of working hours equivalent to some 255 million jobs last year. There is still massive uncertainty about when the global economy will return to pre-pandemic levels of employment, but it won’t be in 2021, the agency said. Its analysis also pointed to the unevenness of the pandemic’s impact, with growth in the finance and I.T. sectors, underscoring the need for a targeted response to the crisis.

  • After delays, Turkey received 6.5 million more doses of a Chinese-produced coronavirus vaccine Monday morning, the state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported. Turkey was expecting to receive at least 10 million doses of the vaccine in December, and 20 million more in January. But the batches were delayed and the number of doses remained below expectations, an apparent blow to China’s vaccine diplomacy. Turkey has given more than 1.2 million inoculations, according to Health Ministry data, using the CoronaVac shot from the Chinese company Sinovac. Almost 2.5 million people in Turkey are infected with the coronavirus and more than 25,000 people have died, government data shows.

  • Officials in New Zealand confirmed on Monday a case of the South African variant of the coronavirus in a returned traveler a week after she left hotel quarantine. Officials have said the 56-year-old, who had tested negative twice before being allowed to return home, was probably infected by a fellow returned traveler while in quarantine. People who were at the same hotel have been urged to self-isolate immediately. It is the first case New Zealand has recorded outside quarantine since November. The Australian government announced on Monday a 72-hour suspension of its quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand. All travelers from the country would be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival, the Australian health ministry said.

  • The presidential election in Portugal on Sunday was marked by record-low voter turnout amid a nationwide lockdown and the country’s highest one-day death toll from the coronavirus. Turnout was about 39 percent, according to the preliminary results, despite an easing of restrictions on movement and an increase in the number of polling stations. In the last presidential election in 2016, turnout was more than 48 percent. On Sunday, officials reported a record 275 coronavirus deaths, one day after reporting 15,333 cases, also a single-day record. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s center-right president, was re-elected to a second five-year term with about 61 percent of the vote.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>