Covid-19 and Stimulus News: Live Updates

December 28, 2020 by No Comments


Workers loading up cars at the Vida Life Ministries food distribution center in Bloomington, Calif., on Dec. 19. The pandemic relief bill was welcome news in a tough holiday season for many Americans.
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

President Trump signed a $900 billion pandemic relief bill on Sunday and funded the government through September. The measure restarts unemployment benefits that had lapsed on Saturday, extends an eviction moratorium, provides money to states for vaccine distribution and replenishes a loan program for small businesses.

It will also provide stimulus checks of $600 for most Americans, a bit of welcome news in a tough holiday season. For months, Americans, like people everywhere, have had to make difficult choices about where to go and whom to see, as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the globe. Those narrowing choices, hard even during times of lower infection rates, have been especially amplified as the holidays have coincided with record-shattering numbers.

Adding to the physical toll of the virus are the economic repercussions, as the millions who lost their jobs this year can so readily attest. Mr. Trump had withheld his support of the bill in part because he said the direct payments to many Americans should be $2,000, and not the $600 provided in the legislation.

The United States reported 225,930 new cases on Dec. 26, according to a New York Times database, continuing a slight downward trend in the numbers, but still a staggering figure. As case counts remained steady, and hospitalizations increased, California’s worsening outbreak muffled progress in other parts of the country. In parts of the state — the wealthiest and most populous in the country — every I.C.U. bed is filled.

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned again of especially challenging months ahead. “We very well might see a post-seasonal — in the sense of Christmas, New Year’s — surge,” Dr. Fauci said on the CNN program “State of the Union.”

“We’re really at a very critical point,” he said. “If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for, you know, the good warm purposes of being together for the holidays, it’s very tough for people to not do that.”

And while many people reduced the size of their gatherings or gave up travel this year, others defied the pleas of public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several days around the Christmas holiday saw some of the busiest air travel of the pandemic, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. More than one million people passed through T.S.A. checkpoints each day of the weekend before Christmas, and again on Dec. 23 and the day after Christmas — a number reached only a few times since March, including during the Thanksgiving holiday week.

Dr. Matthew Harris reported a fever and joint pain after receiving the vaccine.
Credit…via Matthew Harris

As tens of millions of Americans await their turn for a shot, many are hungering for details about what to expect. Some who have been part of the biggest vaccination program in U.S. history spoke to The New York Times.

They recounted a wide spectrum of responses, from no reaction at all — “Can’t even tell I had the shot,” said a hospital worker in Iowa City — to symptoms like uncontrolled shivering and “brain fog.” A nurse assistant in Glendora, Calif., wondered whether the fever he ran was a side effect of the vaccine or a sign that he had been infected by one of his patients.

And there was a dizzying variety of sore arms. Some likened the pain to that from a flu shot; for others, it was considerably worse.

Dr. Matthew Harris, 38, an emergency medicine doctor in Great Neck, N.Y., was up all night with a fever, shivering underneath a blanket, after receiving the first shot. He had joint pain in his wrists and shoulders that lasted into the next day.

The next day, he posted about his reaction, with the hashtag #stillworthit. “Everyone has read, ‘This is the light at the end of the tunnel,’” Dr. Harris said in an interview. “But are people going to feel great 100 percent of the time after this vaccine? No. And if we’re not honest with them, how can we expect them to trust us?”

Most vaccine recipients who spoke to The Times for this article stressed that they had no regrets about getting the shot. The Food and Drug Administration has found the vaccines to be safe and remarkably effective. And public health leaders say mass vaccination is the only hope for controlling the virus that is now claiming the lives of close to 3,000 Americans a day.

But in these first weeks of vaccination, there is an inescapable element of suspense.

For infectious disease experts, a nation down for the count with post-vaccine malaise would be the best news in a long time. The side effects dissipate within a few days, and they are a signal, the experts say, that the vaccine is working.

Prudence Dudu Khumalo, 39, of Soweto, South Africa, participated in the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trials on Dec. 8.
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

The Maryland biotech Novavax is starting a final, so-called Phase 3 clinical trial in the United States and Mexico for its experimental coronavirus vaccine, the company announced on Monday.

The little-known firm, which has never brought a vaccine to market before, received up to $1.6 billion from the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed this summer to expedite development. The company reported robust results in earlier phases of its trial, showing that the vaccine prompted strong immune responses in monkeys and people.

The company began a Phase 3 trial of 15,000 people in Britain in September and expects to report preliminary results from that study in the first quarter of next year. It had intended to start its U.S. trial in October but delayed it because of manufacturing problems.

The Novavax vaccine, known as NVX-CoV2373, works differently than the ones by Pfizer and other companies that have already been shown to be effective. It contains artificially produced viral proteins, along with an immune-boosting compound derived from the soapbark tree.

The vaccine, given in two doses, three weeks apart, is designed to teach the immune system to recognize the protein. Later, if vaccinated people get infected with coronaviruses, their antibodies can attack them, while immune cells can destroy virus-harboring cells.

NVX-CoV2373 must be kept refrigerated but does not require freezing, making its storage easier than the vaccines from Moderna and from Pfizer and BioNTech, which have to be transported at ultracold temperatures.

Three other protein-based coronavirus vaccines are also in Phase 3 trials in Australia, Canada and India.

Novavax will run its trial at 115 sites in the United States and Mexico, enrolling as many as 30,000 people. Two-thirds will receive the experimental vaccine, and the rest a placebo. Novavax said it would recruit a diverse group, including Black and Latino volunteers. They plan for one-quarter of their participants to be older than 65.

“With the Covid-19 pandemic raging around the globe, this trial is a critical step in building the global portfolio of safe and effective vaccines to protect the world’s population,” Stanley C. Erck, the president and chief executive of Novavax, said in a statement.

Gravediggers at a cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil, in May.
Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

Since surfacing in a seafood and poultry market in China in December 2019, the coronavirus has spread to nearly every country, upended daily life and derailed the global economy. It has killed more than 1.6 million people and sickened more than 76 million worldwide over the last year. The World Health Organization has declared the situation a pandemic.

Several world leaders, including President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, contracted the virus as they worked to mitigate its spread within their borders, proving even the most powerful could fall to the virus’s grip.

Scientists around the world moved quickly to produce an effective vaccine, and by this month several nations had started administering inoculations to their most vulnerable residents in an effort to bring the virus under control.

We’ve put together a timeline, charting the pandemic’s course over the past year.

GLOBAL ROUNDUP

A doctor examining a coronavirus patient at at a hospital in Neave, just outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in late November.
Credit…Samantha Reinders for The New York Times

On Sunday, reported coronavirus infections in South Africa surpassed one million since the start of the pandemic.

The country has now recorded 1,004,413 cases and 26,735 deaths.

With one of the strictest initial lockdowns in the world, South Africa avoided the high death toll that many experts feared. As restrictions eased in the last quarter of the year, however, the death toll climbed steadily, beginning to spike as the holiday season approached.

Many South Africans also traveled from cities to more rural provinces to celebrate the holidays. Officials recorded a daily increase of more than 14,000 cases on Christmas Day and the two days before, though the number fell to 9,502 on Sunday.

Physicians and nurses described overwhelmed hospitals. “For many of the young doctors at the front line, it’s an incredibly traumatic experience, the moral trauma of having to, if you will, decide who lives and dies,” said Dr. Ntobeko Ntusi, chair and head of medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, a large public institution in Cape Town.

Dr. Ntusi said there had been some patients who were “28, 32 years old” without other health conditions who had extremely low oxygen levels from Covid-19 pneumonia. But because of the overwhelming demand for resources, “We are not able to offer them the treatment that we know can save their lives.”

Some medical professionals urged the government to return to stricter lockdown measures and restrict gatherings. “There’s a huge problem regarding adequate staff, nurses as well as doctors,” Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the president of the South African Medical Association, told SABC News, the public broadcaster, on Sunday.

As the number of infections climbed, President Cyril Ramaphosa held an emergency meeting with the National Coronavirus Command Council and would be submitting their proposals to the country’s Cabinet, according to local news reports. Mr. Ramaphosa is expected to announce new measures soon.

Early in December, South Africa tried to curb the spread of infections in hot spots by imposing a curfew, banning the sale of alcohol on weekends and closing beaches. Masks were made mandatory at all gatherings.

Scientists from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal discovered a variant of the virus that accounts for the vast majority of samples tested in the current wave. It has one change in common with a distinct variant recently discovered in Britain that has led to travel bans; scientists believe both new lineages may be more easily transmissible. So far there is no evidence that they are associated with more severe disease.

Doctors began noting an increased number of younger patients who had no vulnerabilities, or comorbidities, Zweli Mkhize, the minister of health, said in a statement announcing the discovery earlier this month. That may be at least in part related to large gatherings of young people, including student parties, that officials say have been amplifying the spread of the virus.

South Africa does not have access to any vaccines yet, but Mr. Ramaphosa has said that the country will have soon enough vaccines for 10 percent of the population. They will arrive via an agreement with Covax, an international body established to promote equitable access to vaccines. Unlike 92 low- and middle-income countries, which will be receiving support to make their purchases, as a higher-middle income country, South Africa will finance its doses.

In other developments around the world:

  • Indonesia will bar entry to international visitors for two weeks from New Year’s Day to stem the spread of new, potentially more contagious strains of the coronavirus, Reuters reported, with an exemption only for high-level government officials. The country barred travelers from Britain a few days ago, and tightened rules for those arriving from Europe and Australia, expanding on an earlier tourism ban.

  • South Korea has discovered three cases of the variant first detected in Britain, officials said on Monday. All were in members of a family who arrived in the country from London on Dec. 22, Agence France-Presse reported, citing the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. All three have been in isolation since testing positive on arrival. South Korea, which is struggling to contain a third wave of infections, is among dozens of countries that have temporarily banned flights from Britain in response to the new variant. The country of about 50 million people reported 808 new cases on Monday, bringing the national total to 57,680, with 819 deaths.

  • Frontline workers in Sydney, Australia, will not be allowed to watch the New Year’s Eve firework display from the harbor as planned, Gladys Berejiklian, premier of the state of New South Wales, said Monday, citing a growing coronavirus outbreak in the city’s northern suburbs. “We’ll find another opportunity during the year to recognize what you’ve done,” Ms. Berejiklian said to the workers, about 5,000 of whom would have been invited. Other restrictions announced for Dec. 31 include lowering a limit on outdoor gatherings to 50 from 100 and barring people who live outside the central business district from entering unless they have a venue booking and an entry permit. The city reported five locally transmitted cases on Monday, bringing the total in the cluster to 126.

Doctors, nurses and health care assistants began receiving the coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Piacenza, Italy, on Sunday.
Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

This has been an ugly year for Italy.

The first wave of the coronavirus took the country by surprise and killed tens of thousands. The second wave somehow took the government by surprise and has killed thousands more. Italians, who have been under tough restrictions this holiday season, have struggled to get their hands on simple flu shots, let alone a Covid vaccine, which just began being administered in the country.

To brighten things, the government has turned to the urban planner and architect Stefano Boeri. Mr. Boeri has sought to help his country with architectural flower power, designing 1,500 pavilions with a primrose theme where the vaccine will be distributed when the mass inoculation campaign begins.

“The primrose is the first flower after the winter, it’s something even a child knows,” Mr. Boeri said in an interview, calling his vision for the building design “a strong message that everyone can understand.”

Italy has run with the proposal. Its official Italian slogan for vaccination is: “With a flower, Italy comes back to life.”

So have the critics, many of whom found the government’s emphasis on Milanese design a little misplaced in a pandemic. “Idiots,” one prominent commentator offered. “I don’t want a primrose,” said a top Italian economist, Carlo Cottarelli. “I want an anti-Covid vaccine!”

But Mr. Boeri rejects the cynicism. “Flowers are serious,” he wrote on Twitter, and in the interview he explained why the primrose was the ideal image for Italy’s vaccination program, which started on Sunday. “It’s one thing to go get vaccinated in a container or in a military field hospital, and it’s another to go into a luminous space in the form of a flower,” he said.

He and his team sought an image, he said, that could be universally understood as positive “by a 4-year-old or an intellectual in the North or a young migrant.”

Mass testing in Dalian, China, last week. The virus is once again set to interrupt Lunar New Year celebrations.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last January, when the government of China imposed an unprecedented lockdown on the city of Wuhan in a belated effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it was right before the start of the Lunar New Year, the country’s most important holiday. Soon the shutdown was extended to encompass all 60 million people in the surrounding province of Hubei, and fear of the virus led millions more to cancel their holiday plans. Now the virus is likely to disrupt the holiday for a second year, with officials advising the public not to travel as they battle outbreaks in two major cities.

After months of near-zero case numbers that have allowed life in China to largely return to normal, the country of 1.4 billion people has recorded 42 locally transmitted cases in the past week, many of them of unknown origin. Most appeared in Dalian, a northern port city, but there have also been a few in Beijing, the capital.

In line with the government response to previous outbreaks this year, officials have been testing hundreds of thousands of people in Beijing and millions in Dalian, and residents of Dalian have been advised not to leave the city.

Officials in Beijing are looking even further ahead to the Lunar New Year, during which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to their hometowns in what has been called the world’s largest annual human migration. Citing concerns that holiday travel could spread the virus, the government is discouraging Beijing residents from traveling and gathering for the holiday, especially the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions. Travel companies have also been told not to organize any group tours to Beijing during the holiday, which this year falls on Feb. 12.

Other parts of the country are taking precautions as well. Anhui Province, home to many of China’s migrant workers, plans to test and monitor all those who return for the holiday. The governments of Anhui Province and Shanxi Province have also advised residents to limit private gatherings to 10 people during the holiday period.

Chinese officials and health experts say they are confident that China will not have a major outbreak in the new year, citing plans to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year as well as the greater experience they have in testing and contact tracing compared with a year ago.

Since the pandemic began, China has reported almost 97,000 coronavirus cases and 4,634 deaths.

Pfizer factory in Puurs, Belgium, this month. The vaccine delivered from there has to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius.
Credit…Ksenia Kuleshova for The New York Times

The delivery of a small number of vaccine doses from Pfizer to several countries in the European Union suffered a minor delay after concerns about the temperature controls being used to keep the doses super cold. The issue forced shipments from a factory in Belgium to be pushed back a day, according to the Spanish health authorities.

Pfizer’s factory in Puurs, Belgium, told the company’s Spanish division on Monday night that shipments to eight European countries would be delayed “because of a problem in the process of loading and sending,” the Spanish ministry said in a news release.

The release did not specify which countries beside Spain were affected. When asked about the delay on the Spanish radio broadcaster Ser, Salvador Illa, the health minister, said that the problem was linked to the “control of the temperature” of the shipments and had been resolved.

The doses, he said, should arrive on Tuesday, one day late.

The delay underscored the logistical challenges of speeding millions of doses of vaccine that need to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius around the world as fast as possible.

On Sunday, the first day of the vaccination campaign in Europe, there was also a minor problem with the cold-chain process in Germany: Concerns about 1,000 shots not being cold enough delayed efforts around Lichtenfels, in Bavaria.

“When reading the temperature loggers that were enclosed in the cool boxes, doubts arose about the compliance with the cold chain requirements,” the district of Lichtenfels said in a statement.

By late Sunday, the problems were resolved and the campaign commenced.

then & now

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CreditCredit…Justin Hamel for The New York Times

As 2020 comes to a close, we are revisiting subjects whose lives were affected by the pandemic. When Manny Fernandez first encountered Holly Montoya in November, he wasn’t able to catch her name or talk to her. Later, she reached out and shared her story.


Families of those infected with the virus stood outside a New Mexico hospital that November night, staring in pain through windowpanes. This was as close as they could get to their loved ones at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces. I watched as they put their palms and crucifixes against the glass, Duct-taped crosses in the City of Crosses.

A stranger approached on the sidewalk.

She hardly said a word as she walked up behind two families. She carried two pizza boxes. She handed a pizza to one family and the second pizza to the other. She wore a mask, but her eyes were filling with tears. She was gone in seconds, walking quickly back down the sidewalk.

One of the families, the relatives and friends of Sylvia Garcia, 60, turned around, stunned, their focus on the I.C.U. windows interrupted by a warm gift on a cold night from an anonymous stranger.

I never caught the woman’s name. After we wrote about that moment in Las Cruces, she contacted me and my colleague, Jack Healy.

Her name is Holly Montoya, 55. She and her husband had driven by the hospital the night before. They saw the families huddled outside the windows.

“I just wanted to do something nice for them,” she told me recently. “I knew how they felt.”

Ms. Montoya’s mother, Sherry Baca, 78, had Covid-19, too.

“I feel kind of silly because it was such a little thing,” Ms. Montoya said. “I’m reading about all these people giving out 1,500 meals. I wanted to tell them why I was doing it and about my mom and all that, but I just couldn’t. I’m not a good cry talker. My eyes hopefully told them my story.”

It was Nov. 18 when I saw Ms. Montoya outside the hospital. She lost her mother to the coronavirus soon after, on Nov. 22. Ms. Garcia died days later, on Nov. 29.

We are a divided country, in the grip of a deadly pandemic. But our unspoken connections outnumber our spoken divisions. We stand suffering at our individual walls, until strangers approach from behind, bearing love and pizza.



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