Vaccinations Rise, but Variants and Factory Mix-Up Present Hurdles

Officials worry that the debacle at a Baltimore plant that ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will erode public confidence just when states are expanding capacity to deliver shots.,

LiveUpdated April 4, 2021, 9:20 a.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 9:20 a.m. ET

Officials worry that the debacle at a Baltimore plant that ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will erode public confidence just when states are expanding capacity to deliver shots.

Doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being prepared in Houston last week.
Doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being prepared in Houston last week.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

Vaccinations against Covid-19 may be accelerating in the United States, but the Biden administration’s intervention at a troubled plant that ruined millions of vaccine doses, along with the continuing threat of dangerous variants of the coronavirus, suggest that the road to defeating the virus is likely to take many unpredictable twists and turns.

Saturday marked the first time the country reported over four million Covid-19 doses in a single day, bringing the average to more than three million people for the first time, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the same day, the fallout continued over a debacle at a Baltimore contract plant that ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Biden administration put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the facility and moved to stop the facility from making another vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, senior federal health officials said.

The move comes as Mr. Biden has aggressively pushed to produce enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult by the end of May. It will leave the Baltimore facility solely devoted to making the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine and is meant to avoid future mix-ups, according to two senior federal health officials. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the changes, saying it was “assuming full responsibility” for the vaccine made by Emergent BioSolutions, its manufacturing partner, which accidentally mixed up the ingredients from the two different vaccines.

Federal officials are worried that the mix-up will erode public confidence in the vaccines, just as there’s been a steady increase in the capacity of states to deliver shots into arms. In early March, the nation surpassed an average of two million doses administered each day, up from around 800,000 doses a day in mid-January. Nearly a third of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as more states expand eligibility and production ramps up.

And while new virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations are far below their January peak, the average number of new reported cases has risen 19 percent over the past two weeks. Cases are increasing significantly in many states, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast, as variants spread.

As some governors relax mask mandates and other restrictions, federal health officials fear that complacency about the virus could bring on another severe wave of infections. Officials in states like Connecticut and Colorado have tried to head that off by accelerating their rollout schedules.

The end of the pandemic could also be postponed by the spread of variants that are potentially more contagious or even deadlier, with new ones appearing in California, New York and Oregon in recent months.

At the moment, most vaccines appear to be effective against the variants. But public health officials are deeply worried that future iterations of the virus may be more resistant, requiring Americans to line up for regular rounds of booster shots or even new vaccines.

“We don’t have evolution on our side,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This pathogen seems to always be changing in a way that makes it harder for us to suppress.”

Half-empty pews at a Palm Sunday Mass at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens.
Half-empty pews at a Palm Sunday Mass at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

The Rev. Henry Torres told his parishioners, who had gathered on Palm Sunday in socially distanced rows of half-empty pews, that God had not abandoned them.

The coronavirus had killed dozens of regulars at the church, St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y., and the pandemic forced it to close its doors for months last year. But the parishioners were there now, he said, which was a sign of hope.

“Even through difficulties, God is at work,” Father Torres said. “Even when people are suffering, even if it may seem that God is silent, that does not mean that God is absent.”

That is a message that many Christians — and the cash-strapped churches that minister to them — are eager to believe this Easter, as the springtime celebration of hope and renewal on Sunday coincides with rising vaccination rates and the promise of a return to something resembling normal life.

Religious services during the Holy Week holidays, which began on Palm Sunday and end on Easter, are among the most well-attended of the year, and this year they offer churches a chance to begin rebuilding their flocks and regaining their financial health. But the question of whether people will return is a crucial one.

Across New York City, many churches have still not reopened despite state rules that would allow them to do so.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a nationally prominent Black church, said concerns over the virus, and its disproportionate impact on the Black community, would keep his church from reopening until at least the fall.

Nicholas Richardson, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said many of its churches had also not reopened. When the diocese introduced a program last fall to allow its 190 parishes to pay a reduced tithe to the diocese, roughly half of them applied.

“It varies church by church,” he said. “Pledges are not necessarily dramatically down, but donations given to the collection plate are hopelessly down.”

Lab technicians preparing to sequence positive coronavirus samples in Durham, N.C., in February.
Lab technicians preparing to sequence positive coronavirus samples in Durham, N.C., in February.Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

For weeks, the mood in much of the United States has been buoyant. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have fallen steeply from their highs, and millions of people are being newly vaccinated every day. Restaurants, shops and schools have reopened. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have abandoned precautions altogether.

But it is increasingly clear that the next few months will be painful. Concerning variants of the virus are spreading, carrying mutations that make the virus both more contagious and in some cases more deadly.

Even as vaccines were authorized late last year, variants were trouncing Britain, South Africa and Brazil. New variants have continued to pop up — in California one week, in New York and Oregon the next. And as they take root, they threaten to postpone an end to the pandemic.

At the moment, most vaccines appear to be effective against the variants. But public health officials are deeply worried that future iterations of the virus may be more resistant, requiring Americans to line up for regular rounds of booster shots or even new vaccines.

“We don’t have evolution on our side,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This pathogen seems to always be changing in a way that makes it harder for us to suppress.”

Health officials see an urgent need to expand vaccinations, which reduce transmission and therefore the virus’s opportunities to mutate. They also acknowledge the importance of tracking the variants. Already, B.1.1.7, the highly contagious variant that walloped Britain and is wreaking havoc in continental Europe, is rising exponentially in the United States.

The variant is about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus, according to the most recent estimates. Infected people seem to carry more of the B.1.1.7 virus and for longer, said Katrina Lythgoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. “You’re more infectious for more days,” she said.

Limited genetic testing has turned up more than 12,500 U.S. cases, many in Florida and Michigan. As of March 13, the variant accounted for about 27 percent of new cases nationwide, up from just 1 percent in early February.

“The best way to think about B.1.1.7 and other variants is to treat them as separate epidemics,” said Sebastian Funk, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’re really kind of obscuring the view by adding them all up to give an overall number of cases.”

Other variants identified in South Africa and Brazil, as well as some virus versions first seen in the United States, have been slower to spread. But they, too, are worrisome, because they contain a mutation that diminishes the vaccines’ effectiveness. Just this week, an outbreak of P.1, the variant that crushed Brazil, forced a shutdown of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia.

Christian worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, during a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem.
Christian worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, during a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

JERUSALEM — In the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday morning, in the alleys of the Christian quarter, it was as if the pandemic had never happened.

The winding passageways that form the Via Dolorosa, along which Christians believe Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion, were packed with over 1,000 worshipers. The Good Friday procession, where the faithful retrace the route Jesus is said to have taken, was back.

“It is like a miracle,” said the Rev. Amjad Sabbara, a Roman Catholic priest who helped lead the procession. “We’re not doing this online. We’re seeing the people in front of us.”

Pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony and required priests to hold services without congregants present. Now, thanks to Israel’s world-leading vaccine rollout, religious life in Jerusalem is edging back to normal. And on Friday, that brought crowds back to the city’s streets, and relief to even one of Christianity’s most solemn commemorations: the Good Friday procession.

For much of the past year, the pandemic kept the Old City eerily empty. But with nearly 60 percent of Israeli residents fully vaccinated, the city’s streets were once again thrumming, even if international tourists were still absent.

At the gathering point for the procession on Friday, there was scarcely space to stand. The crowd moved slowly off, singing mournful hymns as they proceeded along what Christians consider a re-enactment of Jesus’ last steps.

In the alley outside the chapel of St. Simon of Cyrene, the marchers trailed their fingers over an ocher limestone in the chapel wall. According to tradition, Jesus steadied himself against the stone after a stumble.

Finally, they reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which believers think was the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and, ultimately, resurrection.

For some, the Good Friday procession carried even more resonance than usual — its themes of suffering, redemption and renewal seeming particularly symbolic as the end of a deadly pandemic appeared finally in sight.

“We have gained hope again,” said George Halis, 24, who is studying to be a priest and who lives in the Old City. “Last year was like a darkness that came over all of earth.”

But for now, that togetherness continues to face limits. There are still restrictions on the number of worshipers at Easter services. Masks are still a legal requirement. And foreigners still need an exemption to enter Israel — keeping out thousands of pilgrims, at the expense of local shopkeepers who depend on their business.

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