New Virus Cases Rise Sharply in Upper Midwest
Health officials say that a fourth surge of cases could hit the United States despite the vaccination push. Here’s the latest on the pandemic.,
As states lift restrictions and coronavirus variants spread, scientists and federal health officials have warned that a fourth surge of cases could arise in the United States even as the nation’s vaccination campaign gathers speed. The seeds of such a surge may now be sprouting in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast.
Michigan is in tough shape. New cases and hospitalizations there have more than doubled in the last two weeks, and the six metro areas in the United States with the greatest number of new cases relative to their population are all in Michigan.
Several other states in the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota and Illinois, have also reported significant increases in new cases and hospitalizations. And in the Northeast, New York and New Jersey have continued to see elevated case counts.
Illinois is seeing a spike in cases as well. The daily average for new cases there has jumped about 56 percent in the past two weeks, to about 2,832 a day. Hospitalizations have risen about 28 percent from two weeks ago. Wisconsin and North Dakota have also seen their average case counts jump 50 percent or more in the last two weeks.
While new cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide have declined from their peaks in January, new infections have increased after plateauing.
Further progress in reducing new cases has stalled, hospitalizations have leveled off and deaths remain near an average of about 800 a day, according to a New York Times database. The average number of new cases had reached nearly 65,000 a day as of Tuesday, up 19 percent from two weeks ago.
Scientists are particularly concerned about the rising prevalence of variants, which they say could draw out the pandemic. On Wednesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that a highly infectious variant first identified in Britain had become the most common source of new infections in the United States.
That variant, B.1.1.7, has been found to be most prevalent in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota, according to the C.D.C.
Until recently, the variant’s rise was somewhat camouflaged by falling rates of infection over all, lulling Americans into a false sense of security and leading to prematurely relaxed restrictions, researchers say.
The C.D.C.’s efforts to track down variants have substantially improved in recent weeks and will continue to expand, in large part because of the $1.75 billion in funds for genomic sequencing in the stimulus package. By contrast, Britain, with a more centralized health care system, began a highly touted sequencing program last year that allowed it to track the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant.
On Wednesday, Michigan’s troubles drew attention at a White House news conference on the pandemic.
The C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said that a team from her agency was in the state working to assess outbreaks in correctional facilities and to improve testing among participants in youth sports.
And Andy Slavitt, a senior health policy adviser to President Biden, said the administration had not ruled out sending extra vaccine doses to Michigan. He said he was in direct touch with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her aides about what federal assistance might be helpful.
“Nothing is off the table in those conversations,” he said.
Other states, including Minnesota, could soon follow Michigan’s path.
Minnesota is averaging 1,826 new cases a day, according to the Times database. It surpassed 2,000 new confirmed cases on April 1, a daily figure not seen since early January. Hospitalizations have also climbed about 41 percent from two weeks earlier. Minnesota’s health department has attributed recent outbreaks in schools to the variant.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, a state epidemiologist, said there had been a notable rise in cases in people ages 10 to 19, who accounted for about one in six new cases from mid-February to the end of March, compared with just one in nine over a similar period in October and November.
“It’s a race of vaccine against variants,” Dr. Lynfield said. “People really need to work hard and be patient, and continue to wear masks and continue to socially distance.”
A day after European regulators described a “possible link” between AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine and rare blood clots, the drug faced increasing hurdles on Thursday as countries around the world move to restrict its use in younger people. The decisions are the latest setback for AstraZeneca, the world’s most widely used coronavirus vaccine.
Although European regulators said that the vaccine’s benefits outweighed the risks for most people, several countries are now using the AstraZeneca shot only on older people who are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus. The Philippines said that it would temporarily stop administering the vaccine to people age 60 and under.
South Korean officials said that they would decide this weekend whether to resume administering the shot to people 60 and younger after a panel of experts reviewed the information on blood clots on Thursday.
Late Wednesday, Belgium said that it would temporarily halt use of the vaccine in people under 56, and that younger people will be offered alternative vaccines — measures that the country’s health ministry said would be reviewed in four weeks. Others, including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark and Norway, have suspended use of the vaccine altogether until more information about the clotting risk is available.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said at a news conference late Thursday that the country had changed its guidance on the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger people out of an abundance of caution. It now recommends that adults under 50 be given an alternative vaccine.
“We expect that this will require some changes to the arrangements we have as part of the vaccination rollout,” Mr. Morrison said during the briefing. Public health experts and the prime minister were clear that the decision was based on weighing the very low risks of complications from the vaccine against the risk of the coronavirus.
“Our purpose here tonight is to reassure Australians — to reassure them that we’ve been very clear about what the very low level of risk is here,” Mr. Morrison said.
In the Philippines, Rolando Enrique Domingo, the director general of the country’s Food and Drug Administration, said that there had been no local reports of blood clots, but that the government was taking a precautionary step after the European Medicines Agency’s decision to list clots as a rare side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the meantime, he said, inoculations using the Chinese-produced Sinovac vaccine will continue.
“We await results of the review being done by our local experts, as well as the official guidance of the W.H.O.,” Mr. Domingo said, referring to the World Health Organization.
Slovakia, one of only two European Union countries that have signed up to use Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, delivered a potentially serious blow to Russia’s product and also its pride on Thursday, with medical regulators disclosing that doses sent to the East European nation are different from a version that received a thumbs-up from a respected British medical journal.
A peer-reviewed article published in The Lancet in February showed that Sputnik V had an 91.6 percent efficacy rate against Covid-19, an endorsement that Moscow has used to raise confidence in the vaccine and strengthen the Kremlin’s hand in vaccine diplomacy.
Slovakia’s regulator, however, said in a statement that vaccine batches imported into the country did “not have the same characteristics and properties” as the version of Sputnik V reviewed by The Lancet.
Noting that about 40 countries are using or scheduled to use the Russian vaccine, the Slovak regulatory agency, the State Institute for Drug Control, asserted that “these vaccines are only associated by the name.” That claim suggests serious quality control issues.
“The comparability and consistency of different batches produced at different locations has not been demonstrated,” the regulator said. “In several cases, they appear to be vaccines with different properties (lyophilisate versus solution, single-dose ampoules versus multi-dose vials, different storage conditions, composition and method of manufacture).”
The Slovak statement could damage Russia’s efforts to establish Sputnik V as a reliable brand. It could also exacerbate lingering doubts left by the vaccine’s highly politicized rollout in Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin announced that the drug was ready for use in August, before clinical trials had finished.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund that financed of Sputnik V’s development and has spearheaded a push for the vaccine’s use abroad, had no immediate comment on the Slovak claims.
Several countries in Europe have expressed an interest in using Sputnik V, but in the absence of a green light from the European Union’s regulatory agency, Slovakia and Hungary are the only countries in the bloc that have placed orders. Serbia, which is not a member of the union, has also ordered the Russian vaccine and started using it widely in a successful mass inoculation program.
Slovakia’s decision to import Sputnik V has been marred by controversy, and last week set off political squabbling that prompted the prime minister and finance minister to trade jobs in an effort to keep a fragile coalition government afloat.
Fellow ministers had accused the prime minister, who negotiated a vaccine deal with Russia in secret, of opening up the country to a “tool of hybrid war.” Slovakia received 200,000 doses of Sputnik V in March, but has not yet started using them.
On a visit to Moscow on Thursday, former Prime Minister Igor Matovic complained on Facebook of a “dirty game” in Slovakia and accused his country’s politicians of “barking” like little dogs.
Kristina Hamarova contributed reporting.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City announced a plan on Thursday that he said would significantly reduce the temporary public school closures that have frustrated parents and educators across city over the last few months.
Starting on Monday, public schools will have to close for 10 days only if four or more coronavirus cases in separate classrooms are confirmed within a seven-day period, and only if the city’s contact tracing program determines that the infections originated inside the school. Until now, schools had to close for 10 days when two unlinked cases were detected, regardless of the source of infection.
The mayor said earlier this week that he would get rid of the so-called two-case rule, which had prompted more than 200 temporary school closures during the last two weeks of March.
The new rule now applies to individual schools, rather than entire buildings. Because many school buildings in New York house multiple schools, two virus cases in one middle school could force an elementary school with no cases on another floor to switch to remote learning for days under the old rule.
Schools with suspected cases will no longer close for 24 hours while health detectives determine whether cases are linked, a change that will eliminate the frequent short-term closures that were sometimes announced just a few hours before the start of the school day. One or more cases found in individual classrooms will continue to prompt temporary closures of that classroom, but not necessarily the whole school.
The city will increase testing in schools where at least two cases are found.
Fully vaccinated teachers — along with older high school students who will be eligible for vaccines this week — will no longer have to isolate even when classrooms quarantine. As of last Friday, well over 65,000 of the roughly 147,000 Department of Education employees had been vaccinated.
New York City parents have until the end of the day Friday to decide if they want to switch their children from remote learning to in-person classes.
As office vacancies climb to their highest levels in decades with businesses giving up office space and embracing remote work, the real estate industry in many American cities faces a potentially grave threat.
Businesses have discovered during the pandemic that they can function with nearly all of their workers out of the office, an arrangement that many intend to continue in some form. That could wallop the big property companies that build and own office buildings — and lead to a sharp pullback in construction, steep drops in office rents, fewer people frequenting restaurants and stores, and potentially perilous declines in the tax revenue of city governments and school districts.
In only a year, the market value of office towers in Manhattan, home to the country’s two largest central business districts, has plummeted 25 percent, according to city projections released on Wednesday. That has contributed to an estimated $1 billion drop-off in property tax revenue.
JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, Salesforce and Target are giving up expensive office space, and others are considering doing so. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, the largest private sector employer in New York City, wrote in a letter to shareholders this week that remote work would “significantly reduce our need for real estate.” For every 100 employees, he said, the bank “may need seats for only 60 on average.”
Across the country, the vacancy rate for office buildings in cities’ downtown areas has steadily climbed over the past year to reach 16.4 percent, according to Cushman & Wakefield — the highest in about a decade. That number could climb further, even as vaccinations allow some people to go back to work, if companies keep giving up office space because of hybrid or fully remote work.
Senior executives at property companies claim not to be worried. They say that working from home will quickly fade once most of the country is vaccinated.
Their reasons to think this? They say many corporate executives have told them that it is hard to effectively get workers to collaborate or train young professionals when they are not together.
Landlords also argue that even if employees don’t come into the office every day, they’ll still want their own desks and cubicles that will have to be socially distanced.
So far, the cities with the lowest return-to-office rates are on the coasts — including New York, San Francisco and Washington — where long commutes, often on dysfunctional transit systems, are common, according to the security company Kastle Systems.
Moody’s said in March that office landlords with many buildings in coastal cities would come under the most financial pressure in the coming years.
The French Open has been postponed by one week and will be played from May 30 to June 13, the latest major sports event to be affected by the pandemic. Organizers said on Thursday that they hoped the new dates would allow spectators to attend in a safe way and give the public health situation more time to improve.
France, which has faced a third wave of coronavirus infections, on Saturday entered a new nationwide lockdown that could last for more than a month. Nonessential shops and schools have been shut, and the authorities have maintained a nighttime curfew that has been in place for months.
“Every week is important and can make a difference,” the French Open organizers said in a statement.
The event could set the tone for two other major sports events scheduled for this summer: the European Championship soccer tournament, which is set to take place across 12 European cities in June and July, and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The authorities in Britain, where the final games of the European Championship are scheduled to be held, said they hoped to welcome some spectators in stadiums. But visitors from abroad won’t be allowed to attend the Summer Olympics, that event’s organizers said last month.
In other news from around the world:
In Japan, Tokyo’s governor asked the central government to impose emergency measures in the city amid a surge of infections arising just over 100 days before the Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin there. With Japanese experts warning of a rise in more infectious strains of the virus, the governor, Yuriko Koike, said that a targeted lockdown was needed to curtail travel during the upcoming “Golden Week,” a national holiday that begins on April 29.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro said there would be no nationwide lockdown even as the country on Wednesday reported its highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic. Mr. Bolsonaro said that he would not “accept a policy of stay at home, shut everything down,” according to local news outlets. Brazil has recorded more than 340,000 coronavirus deaths, according to a New York Times database, the world’s second highest death toll.
In Britain, the authorities said the country had “more than enough” doses after announcing on Wednesday that adults under 30 would be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine amid warnings of rare blood clots. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Thursday that 8.5 million young adults who haven’t received their first doses could ask for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines if they don’t want to receive the AstraZeneca dose. More than 31.5 million people have received a first vaccine dose in Britain.
The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday that the issuing of vaccine passports would deepen inequalities between countries that have inoculated large portions of their populations and those that have not. “We’re already in a situation where we don’t have vaccines,” John Nkengasong, the agency’s director, said at a news conference. With many African nations having lower Covid-19 inoculation rates than richer nations, Mr. Nkengasong said: “It’s not because the continent doesn’t want to get vaccinated. They just don’t have the vaccines.”
India has become the world’s biggest coronavirus trouble spot, reporting more than 242,000 new infections over the past two days. And on Thursday, New Zealand announced a temporary ban on travel from the South Asian country, after 17 people who had arrived from there tested positive while in isolation.
It is the first time since the start of the pandemic that New Zealand — which has all but eliminated local transmission of the virus — has said it would close its borders to its own citizens. Many travelers from India are returning New Zealand nationals; others are workers in health care or other critical sectors.
The ban will run from Sunday through April 28, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters.
“Cases of the virus have been on the rise internationally, with surges particularly in Brazil and India,” Ms. Ardern said. “We are starting to see this global trend mirrored here.”
New Zealand has reported more than 60 cases in its isolation facilities in the last two weeks, she said.
Just days ago, Ms. Ardern announced that a long-awaited travel bubble with Australia would begin on April 19. The decision to bar arrivals from India, even temporarily, underscores the continued risks of cross-border travel even for countries that have tamed the coronavirus.
New Zealand’s border is currently open only to citizens and permanent residents and their families, as well as holders of certain “critical purpose” visas. The ban on travelers from India could open up some spaces in New Zealand’s two-week hotel quarantine program, which has a long waiting list.
About 130,000 people have come through New Zealand’s isolation facilities since they were introduced in March 2020, according to a government website. The country of five million has administered about 90,000 vaccinations, mostly to frontline health and border workers.
A top federal pandemic official warned last June that Emergent BioSolutions, the government contractor that last month threw out millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines because of contamination, lacked enough trained workers and had a record of problems with quality control.
A copy of the official’s assessment, obtained by The New York Times, cited “key risks” in relying on Emergent to handle the production of vaccines developed by both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca at Emergent’s Bayview plant in Baltimore.
The assessment, which has not been released publicly, was based in part on a visit to the plant days after the government awarded Emergent a contract worth up to $628 million, mostly to prepare its factories to make coronavirus vaccines as part of Operation Warp Speed.
Addressing the problems “will require significant effort,” and the company “will have to be monitored closely,” said the report, which was written by Carlo de Notaristefani, a manufacturing expert who has overseen production of Covid-19 vaccines for the federal government since May.
Ten months after his report, the plant has become a major headache for the team named by President Biden to oversee the pandemic response. The Times reported on Monday on a host of quality control problems, flagged in audits and investigations by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, two federal agencies and Emergent’s own quality evaluators.
Federal officials ordered major changes to the plant after revelations late last month that Emergent had to jettison 13 million to 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. It is not clear what will happen to another 62 million doses of the vaccine produced at the plant, or whether Johnson & Johnson will be able to deliver the 24 million doses it has promised to the federal government by the end of the month.
So far, the Food and Drug Administration has not certified the factory to distribute any doses for public use, and the agency is not expected to do so until it conducts a thorough review, which can take weeks.
Asked about the June report, a company spokesman said on Wednesday night that “Emergent’s top priority continues to be the strengthening of the supply chain for Johnson & Johnson’s vitally needed Covid-19 vaccine.”
Biden administration officials insist that the government has enough doses from the other two federally authorized vaccine makers — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — to cover most of the nation’s roughly 260 million adults. Yet federal officials are still concerned about Emergent’s problems, not only because the federal government has invested heavily in the plant, but also because there may be implications for the world’s vaccine supply if the issues are not resolved.
Transforming a deadly virus into a comic effigy might strike some as a risky business move, especially in a country with the world’s third-highest Covid-19 death toll, but that is exactly what one Mexico City pinata maker did as business plummeted during the lockdown.
Ivan Mena Alvarez’s creation is painted lime-green, has a gold crown and spikes erupting in all directions, and glares at all who pass by the shop.
Naturally, the coronavirus pinata has become one of his most popular items.
“We Mexicans laugh even at death,” Mr. Mena said. “It’s become just another monster.”
Still, the past year has been a very rough for Mr. Mena, a fourth-generation pinata maker, and many of his fellow tradespeople.
Pinata makers, often close-knit families whose business depends on the social gatherings that have largely halted during the pandemic, have, like many people, suffered both financially and personally for the past year.
Mr. Mena said that his business losses had put him in a dire economic situation. But the personal losses have been even worse. Eleven members of his extended family have died of Covid-19, as well as more than two dozen others he knows of in the industry.
“It’s so hard for a lot of us,” he said. “It just never crossed your mind that there would be so many dead in so little time.”
Last month, the Mexican government updated its official figures, showing that the virus may have claimed more than 300,000 lives, an astonishing toll for the country of 126 million people.
The effect of the pandemic on the economy has been almost as ruinous. Last year, Mexico suffered its biggest annual economic slump since the Great Depression, and the financial fallout may push millions into poverty.
That makes a pandemic pinata particularly appealing. His customers, Mr. Mena said, welcome a chance to pummel a stand-in for an adversary that has been giving their country such a beating.
Every Hawaiian adult will become eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine by April 19, as Hawaii becomes the 50th state to heed President Biden’s calls to accelerate vaccinations, a health official there said Wednesday.
The news came with a note of caution.
“This does not mean everyone will be able to get vaccinated on April 19, and people must continue to be patient,” Brooks Baehr, a health department spokesman, said in a statement. “Supply still does not meet the tremendous demand.”
In March, Mr. Biden announced that he would direct states to make all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1. Then on Tuesday, with more states ramping up their vaccination efforts and expanding eligibility, he moved the target date to April 19.
Even before the president’s announcement on Tuesday, residents in Hawaii County, Kauai County and Maui County had opened up their eligibility to adults 16 years and older. That took place on Monday. Honolulu County has not yet expanded its eligibility.
As of Tuesday, about 35 percent of Hawaii’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 22 percent were fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.
Over the past two weeks, Hawaii has reported a 33 percent increase in coronavirus cases, most recently averaging 113 cases a day.
In the United States over all, about three million vaccine doses are being administered a day, on average. Mr. Biden has said he hopes for 200 million doses to be administered by his 100th day in office.
As vaccination becomes more common and some states relax restrictions, scenes resembling prepandemic life have begun re-emerging in the U.S., including in Hawaii, where throngs of tourists have returned.
The state has reopened to travelers, with visitors needing only a negative coronavirus test from the past 72 hours in most places to skip the state’s mandated quarantine order. Last Saturday, almost 29,000 visitors — a number comparable to prepandemic levels — arrived in the state, according to state travel data.
John Yoon contributed reporting.