Covid-19 Live News: Updates on the Virus and Vaccines

Covid-19 Live News: Updates on the Virus and Vaccines

Here’s what you need to know:

Doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in a refrigerator at a hospital in Klerksdorp, South Africa.
Credit…Phill Magakoe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to formally approve Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine on Saturday, making a third shot available in the United States.

The vaccine will be the first of the approved vaccines to require one dose instead of two. Shipments are expected to start within days, adding to the effort already underway to administer millions of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

“We’re going to use every conceivable way to expand manufacturing of the vaccine — the third vaccine — to make even more rapid progress at getting shots in people’s arms,” President Biden said on Friday in Houston, where he had traveled to showcase the government’s latest mass vaccination site.

The shots can’t come fast enough.

As Saturday dawned, the United States had recorded about 28.5 million coronavirus cases — representing more than 8 percent of the population — and a staggering 510,373 deaths. And it will be many weeks before vaccinations make a dent in the pandemic. Meanwhile, the virus has been mutating, creating variants that may partly sidestep the immune system.

Daily case numbers are about where they were in October, far below the single-day record of about 300,000 infections set in early January. And daily vaccination numbers have started to increase again after a decline brought on by severe weather.

Yet federal health officials warned impatient governors against relaxing pandemic control measures, saying that the recent steep drop in cases and deaths could be leveling off.

The seven-day average for new cases — 69,483 as of early Saturday — has been ticking up. Progress has largely stalled in New York City, where the latest coronavirus variant was discovered only this week. And another concerning version of the virus is spreading at a rapid pace through California.

“Things are tenuous,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Friday. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

More than 68 million shots have been given since vaccinations began in December. The country is averaging about 1.5 million reported vaccinations a day.

The Johnson & Johnson shot, which was unanimously endorsed on Friday by a panel of experts advising the F.D.A., had an overall efficacy rate in clinical trials of 72 percent in the United States and 64 percent in South Africa, where a concerning variant emerged in the fall. It also showed 86 percent efficacy against severe Covid-19 in the United States, and 82 percent in South Africa.

Those are strong numbers, albeit lower than the roughly 95 percent efficacy rates of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines against mild, moderate and severe cases of Covid.

Trials are underway to determine if a second dose of the Johnson & Johnson shot would increase its protective effects — as scientists found it did during early clinical trials — although results will not be available until July at the earliest.

“The big question mark still is, how long does protection last?” said Dr. Johan Van Hoof, the global head of vaccine research and development at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the drug development arm of Johnson & Johnson.

Mr. Van Hoof said it would be important to track trial volunteers who receive a single dose to see if their immunity changes.

In Houston on Friday, Mr. Biden described the federal government’s mass inoculation drive as “the most difficult operational challenge this nation has ever faced logistically.” He said he expected challenges in reaching people in remote areas, and in persuading others who are “hesitant to take the shots.”

“We all know there’s a history in this country of subjugating certain communities to terrible medical and scientific abuse,” Mr. Biden said. “But if there’s one message that needs to cut through all this: The vaccines are safe. I promise you.”

Military personnel at Fort Bragg going through a medical screening process before vaccinations on Wednesday. 
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Americans who go into the military understand the loss of personal liberty. Many of their daily activities are prescribed, as are their hairstyles, attire and personal conduct.

So when it comes to taking a coronavirus vaccine, many troops — especially younger enlisted personnel as opposed to their officers — see a rare opportunity to exercise free will.

“The Army tells me what, how and when to do almost everything,” said Sgt. Tracey Carroll, who is based at Fort Sill, an Army post in Oklahoma. “They finally asked me to do something and I actually have a choice, so I said no.”

Sergeant Carroll, 24, represents a broad swath of members of the military — a largely young, healthy set of Americans from every corner of the nation — who are declining to get the shot, which for now is optional among personnel. They cite an array of political and health-related concerns.

But this reluctance among younger troops is a warning to civilian health officials about the potential hole in the broad-scale immunity that medical professionals say is needed for Americans to reclaim their collective lives.

“At the end of the day, our military is our society,” said Dr. Michael S. Weiner, the former chief medical officer for the Defense Department, who now serves in the same role for Maximus, a government contractor and technology company. “They have the same social media, the same families, the same issues that society at large has.”

Roughly one-third of troops on active duty or in the National Guard have declined to take the vaccine, military officials recently told Congress. In some places, such as Fort Bragg, N.C., the nation’s largest military installation, acceptance rates are below 50 percent.

Members of the Kansas State University marching band maintained social distance as they played before a college football game in October 2020.
Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Colleges and universities across the country are pledging to reopen more fully in the fall, with some administrators worried that students won’t return to campus if normality, or some semblance of it, isn’t restored by September.

Schools from large state institutions to small private ones have announced they are laying plans to bring students back to dormitories, deploy professors to teach most (if not all) classes in person and restart extracurricular activities, in stark contrast to the past academic year of largely virtual courses and limited social contact. The announcements of these changes coincide with the sending of acceptance letters to the class of 2025.

Some schools have taken a financial hit because of deferred admissions or lost room-and-board fees.

Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., which has 5,600 undergraduate and graduate students, said earlier this month that it would return to “traditional residential education” in the fall, with in-person classes and activities on campus.

Kansas State University announced on Wednesday that it too is planning a “more normal” fall semester, with largely in-person classes, events and activities. Ohio State announced on Thursday that it plans to offer “robust” in-person activities and classes, allowing students to live in residence halls and fans to attend football games.

Katherine Fleming, New York University’s provost, told colleagues in an email on Tuesday of plans to have “all faculty teaching their classes in-person, in the classroom, in the fall 2021.” She conceded, however, that this would depend in part on whether enough professors were vaccinated by then.

Indeed, most school officials said that whether they can deliver on these promises hinges on factors like how much the virus can be suppressed, the availability of the vaccine — which is still in scarce supply, even for those who are eligible — and guidance from government authorities.

Despite their hopefulness about the fall, schools have struggled with keeping the virus in check. Positivity rates rose among college students, as among the general population, over the holidays, when people traveled. Administrators have put out many stern warnings that small parties and gatherings have been a source of infection. Many have noted, however, that the classroom itself has not proven to be a vector of infection, as long as students and teachers follow safety guidelines like wearing masks and social distancing.

More than 120,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to American colleges and universities since Jan. 1, and more than 530,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times survey. The Times has identified more than 100 deaths, but the vast majority involved employees, not students.

Ohio’s Dayton Arena last March. The N.C.A.A. received $270 million in insurance payments after the 2020 basketball tournament was canceled.
Credit…Aaron Doster/Associated Press

The money came in wire transfers, each one a boon for a beleaguered N.C.A.A.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic had eviscerated the Division I men’s basketball tournament, which had been poised to bring in more than $800 million. But by the end of June, N.C.A.A. executives knew that a crucial lifeline, one burrowed in the black-and-white language of five insurance policies, would soon come through: $270 million in cash — among the largest pandemic-related payouts in all of sports.

“It was one of the simpler claims processes,” Brad Robinson, the N.C.A.A. official who coordinates insurance matters, said in an interview in early February, soon after the association acknowledged that insurance proceeds tied to event cancellations accounted for more than half of its revenues during its 2020 fiscal year.

The specialized insurance policies, which cover cancellations because of communicable disease outbreaks, have historically been scarcely noticed but have proved crucial for parts of the sports world to weather the pandemic. Ordinarily, products purchased to guard against the financial fallout of terrorism, severe weather and other unexpected setbacks, have helped salvage the balance sheets of events as small as local road races to competitions as wealthy and mighty as the sprawling N.C.A.A. tournament.

Now, insurers are bracing to see whether the Tokyo Olympics, already postponed from 2020, will happen, and industry experts said a cancellation would fuel several billions of dollars in losses across a number of organizations.

But pandemic policies are now largely unavailable or extraordinarily expensive when they can be found because few, if any, new policies are being written to accommodate potential future claims related to the virus.

John Q. Doyle, the president and chief executive of Marsh, a global insurance brokerage firm, warned Congress in November that the industry was “seeing exclusions for communicable diseases coverage going forward” with event cancellation policies after “considerable losses on these policies related to Covid-19.” Brokers said that future policies could include deductibles, which have been rare in the past.

This means events that did not already have coverage for 2021 may be at risk of financial collapse if they cannot be held.

“If you have a $20 million event, you may only be able to get $1 or $2 million” of it covered for infectious disease, said John Beam, executive vice president for the sports and entertainment practice at the risk management firm Willis Towers Watson and a broker whose clients have included the N.C.A.A., Major League Baseball and the College Football Playoff. “That doesn’t really address what we want.”

Mark Machin, the chief executive of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., in April 2019.
Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The head of Canada’s largest pension fund stepped down on Thursday evening after news broke that he had flown to the United Arab Emirates to receive a coronavirus vaccine, despite federal rules banning inessential travel and a long line of older and immunocompromised citizens across the country waiting for their shots.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board announced in a news release on Friday that it had accepted the resignation of its chief executive, Mark Machin, who had “decided to travel personally to the United Arab Emirates where he arranged to be vaccinated against Covid-19.” The board added: “We take that responsibility of leadership very seriously.”

At about $375 billion, the fund is Canada’s largest, with more than 20 million contributors and beneficiaries.

Mr. Machin, who last year earned about $4.2 million at the helm of the crown corporation, is the latest public figure in the country to be publicly sanctioned for traveling abroad for personal reasons, while much of the country is hunkered down during the pandemic’s second wave.

His trip was perceived as not just selfish, but as queue-jumping by many Canadians, who have grown increasingly impatient with the sluggish rollout of vaccinations across the country. Less than 4 percent of the country’s 38 million people have received a dose — far fewer than most Western nations.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is an independent corporation, but the country’s finance minister appoints its directors. Through her spokeswoman, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, called Mr. Machin’s decision “very troubling” and said Canadians expect the organization to “be held to a higher standard.”

Mr. Machin’s trip was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Thursday night. Soon after, he sent an internal memo to staff stating the trip was supposed to be “very private” and that he was disappointed it has become the focus of “expected criticism,” The Globe and Mail reported.

The C.D.C. is urging communities to reopen schools as quickly as possible, but parents and teachers have raised questions about the quality of ventilation available in public school classrooms to protect against the coronavirus.

We worked with a leading engineering firm and experts specializing in buildings systems to better understand the simple steps schools can take to reduce exposure in the classroom.

These simulations offer examples based on specific inputs, but they show how ventilation and filtration can work alongside other precautions like masking and social distancing.

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