Home World United States U.S. Passes 250,000 Deaths, With Government in Disarray

U.S. Passes 250,000 Deaths, With Government in Disarray
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Mobile morgue trailers sit next to a cemetery in El Paso last week. Credit…Joel Angel Juarez for The New York Times

With coronavirus cases on the rise in all but one state and a newly reached American death toll of 250,000, this would not seem the moment for the United States to take a patchwork response to the pandemic.

But that is what it has done, and that was perhaps never clearer than this week as mayors, school board and governors struggled to fend off the onslaught.

In Ohio, it was a nightly curfew. In Mississippi, it was an expanded mask mandate, and in Iowa a statewide one — the state’s first ever. In Maryland, all bars, restaurants and night clubs were ordered closed by 10 p.m. And in Pennsylvania, the authorities said anyone traveling to the state would need to be tested before arrival.

“The new normal is no longer sustainable,” Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, said Wednesday evening as he announced sweeping new restrictions. “The ground is literally shifting under our feet.”

New York City, just eight weeks after opening its schoolhouse doors, said it was closing them again. Denver, too, said it would move to all-remote teaching, as did the state of Kentucky.

A day after the governor of California said the state was “pulling the emergency brake” on its reopening, Los Angeles County went a step further and announced a curfew for businesses. Illinois, too, imposed new restrictions.

Only in Hawaii were cases reported to be staying relatively flat.

Early in the week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said the nation needed “a uniform approach,” not a “disjointed” state-by-state, city-by-city response. Public health experts say the lack of a coordinated strategy has been a primary reason that the United States leads the world in infections and deaths.

But there has been a notable lack of national direction.

Even before the election, there was squabbling within the Trump administration over how to contain the virus. The disarray has become even more pronounced in the aftermath of the election, with President Trump directing his aides not to cooperate with the transition.

On Wednesday, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. asked that the government give him access now to federal resources to help him plan a coronavirus response. “This is like going to war,” he said. “You need a commander in chief.”

As the day drew to a close, more than 172,000 new cases had been announced in the United States — the second-highest daily total of the pandemic. And more than 1,900 more Americans were dead.

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With many countries under some version of a less severe lockdown than the ones in the spring, the World Health Organization official said on Thursday that there is hope.CreditCredit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

The spread of the virus in Europe appears to be slowing.

With many countries under some version of a less severe lockdown than in the spring — with many businesses closed and gatherings limited in size but schools open and restrictions on movement less severe — the World Health Organization said on Thursday that, for the first time in months, new infection rates were falling.

Two weeks ago, the agency reported that there were around two million new infections detected across Europe. Last week, that number fell to 1.8 million — a drop of 10 percent.

“It is a small signal, but it is a signal nevertheless,” Dr. Hans Kluge, the W.H.O. regional director for Europe, said at a news conference. Europe, he said, is capable of turning the tide, but he cautioned that the virus remained a serious threat.

Since deaths tend to lag behind new infections by several weeks, hospitals across the continent will remain under great strain, and the number of deaths is still rising, with 4,500 lives lost every day in Europe.

“One person is dying every 17 seconds,” Dr. Kluge said.

Acknowledging public weariness and anxiety ahead of the holiday season, he said that while people can take comfort from the promise of better days ahead, “it will be six tough months.”

“Your country, community, family and friends need you like they have never needed you before,” he said.

Collective action today, and the promise of vaccines on the horizon, was a reason for optimism.

“There is more hope ahead of us than despair behind us,” he said.

The W.H.O. remained opposed to lockdowns except as a last resort, and Dr. Kluge said that better mask compliance could help avoid the most draconian restrictions.

Dr. Kluge estimated that mask compliance across Europe was at about 60 percent. If it were above 90 percent, he said, lockdowns would be avoidable.

The W.H.O. was working to help develop guidelines for a tiered system, he said.

In March, he said, the lockdowns came suddenly and were so sweeping that they “crunched the virus” but also “crunched the people.”

The goal now, he said, should be “coherence and predictability” with restrictions based on epidemiological markers and an assessment of health care systems’ capacity.

A playground in Queens on Wednesday, when New York City announced that its public school system would stop in-person instruction.
A playground in Queens on Wednesday, when New York City announced that its public school system would stop in-person instruction.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

Michigan shut down indoor dining and in-person classes at high schools and colleges. Washington banned indoor gatherings with anyone outside your household without a weeklong quarantine. And officials in Oregon closed offices to the public and are limiting the number of people in grocery stores.

As record numbers of virus cases emerge across the United States, cities and states are implementing tough new restrictions. But in New York State, once the epicenter of the pandemic, the response to a second wave has been far more measured, with officials banking on a variety of less disruptive, targeted actions, often reliant on voluntary compliance.

Ominous signs are everywhere: In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio closed in-person classes at the city’s schools starting Thursday when the seven-day positivity rate rose above 3 percent on Wednesday. Thousands of new cases are emerging every day statewide, and hospitalizations have more than quintupled since early September, topping 2,200 on Wednesday. Deaths have also been trending upward, with the state reporting nearly 200 deaths in the past week, and 35 just on Wednesday, the highest one-day total since mid-June.

The numbers are also spiking in some areas that were spared the worst in the spring: Western New York has seen about 3,700 new cases in the past week alone, with rates of positive test results running above 5 percent.

All told, 12 counties around the state are seeing significant outbreaks, from Brooklyn to Buffalo.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says his response to the pandemic continues to be aggressive and highlights his state’s achievements: New York is still seeing much lower rates of infection than most states. And the number of daily deaths and hospitalizations pales in comparison to the spring, when thousands died for several weeks running, and tens of thousands were sickened.

Still, some public health experts and officials worry that without a broader shutdown, the state might not be able to limit the virus’s spread, particularly as residents tire of restrictions and the holidays near.

“The odds are against us at this stage in terms of keeping it under control,” said Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a former New York City deputy health commissioner.

At a school in Barcelona, Spain, in September.
At a school in Barcelona, Spain, in September.Credit…Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

One of the small mercies of the coronavirus is that the risk of serious illness in children has so far been relatively small. But that does not mean that the toll has not been devastating.

Even with the promise of a vaccine on the horizon, a new report by UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, warned that “the future of an entire generation is at risk,” with the threat to children “increasing, not decreasing” as the world deals with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The report, based on surveys from 140 countries, paints an alarming picture of a generation facing “a trifecta of threats: direct consequences of the disease itself, interruption in essential services and increasing poverty and inequality."

If the interruption to basic services including vaccinations and health care does not improve, UNICEF said that as many as two million children could die in the next 12 months and there could be an additional 200,000 stillbirths.

The report also found that school closures did little to slow the spread of the virus while causing long-term harm. While higher education institutions have played a role in community transmission, studies cited in the report showed “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

“Unless the global community urgently changes priorities, the potential of this generation of young people may well be lost,” UNICEF warned.

At the peak of the first wave of pandemic, 90 percent of students around the world — 1.5 billion children — saw classroom learning disrupted. And some 463 million children were not able to access remote learning.

“The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long term negative impacts, including future income and health,” the report found.

As of November, according to the study, nearly 600 million students are still affected by school closures, with more governments considering renewed closures as the virus surges, the report found.

New York City is closing its entire public school system starting Thursday, and other cities are considering similar closures, but UNICEF found that such measures have not proven effective in slowing the spread of the virus.

“Children and schools are not the main drivers of the epidemic across countries,” the report found. “Evidence shows that the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them. Data from 191 countries show no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

People buying disinfectant at a shopping mall in Hong Kong.
People buying disinfectant at a shopping mall in Hong Kong.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

At Hong Kong’s deserted airport, cleaning crews constantly spray baggage trolleys, elevator buttons and check-in counters with antimicrobial solutions. In New York City, workers continually disinfect surfaces on buses and subways. In London, many pubs spent lots of money on intensive surface cleaning to reopen after lockdown — before closing again in November.

All over the world, workers are soaping, wiping and fumigating surfaces with an urgent sense of purpose: to fight the coronavirus. But scientists increasingly say that there is little to no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus. In crowded indoor spaces like airports, they say, the virus that is exhaled by infected people and that lingers in the air is a much greater threat.

Hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds — or sanitizer in the absence of soap — is still encouraged to stop the virus’s spread. But scrubbing surfaces does little to mitigate the virus threat indoors, experts say, and health officials are being urged to focus instead on improving ventilation and filtration of indoor air.

“In my opinion, a lot of time, energy and money is being wasted on surface disinfection and, more importantly, diverting attention and resources away from preventing airborne transmission,” said Dr. Kevin P. Fennelly, a respiratory infection specialist with the National Institutes of Health.

Farmers loading a truck with culled minks from their farm near Naestved, Denmark, this month.
Farmers loading a truck with culled minks from their farm near Naestved, Denmark, this month.Credit…Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix, via Associated Press

The slaughter of minks in Denmark to prevent the spread of a potentially dangerous new strain of the coronavirus has prompted a political crisis in the country, with the minister of agriculture forced to step down and the government in danger of collapse.

The cull has led to a political crisis in Denmark, with right-wing parties accusing the government of using the pandemic to try to end mink farming in the country. Denmark is home to some of the world’s largest mink farms, with an estimated population of more than 15 million.

The opposition is calling for Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to resign after a hurried decision to cull the animals after a mutated strain of the virus was found to have made the leap from the animals to humans.

The Danish health authorities were alarmed because one set of mutations — which had infected at least 12 people — could make a potential coronavirus vaccine less effective.

The mutation affected the spike protein in the virus — something targeted by many potential vaccines. Lab studies, while not conclusive, suggested that cells with this variant of the virus did not act as strongly to antibodies as other coronavirus variants.

Mink — which are part of the weasel family — are prized for their fur and are kept in crowded conditions ideal for the spread of the virus. Unlike other animals, including cats and dogs, mink can become quite sick and die. Outbreaks in mink populations have been infected in other countries as well, including the United States and the Netherlands.

“The mink farms are a reservoir where the coronavirus is thriving,” Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, said on Thursday.

The mutation found in Denmark has not been found in any other mink population in Europe and the 12 human cases reported to the W.H.O. in September remain the only reported cases, officials said. Still, biosecurity around mink farms needed to be stepped up, officials said.

Dr. Kluge also praised Denmark for its work in both tracing the genomic sequencing of the virus in about 14 percent of the Covid-19 patients in the country and making that information public.

Last week, minks on at least two farms in northern Greece were found to have the coronavirus, and the W.H.O. said it was working with local health authorities to assess the situation.

When Ms. Frederiksen ordered the killing of all the animals in Denmark two weeks ago, the military had to step in to assist the country’s approximately 1,100 mink farmers in the slaughter.

Mogens Jensen, the minister of agriculture, condemned the rapid action taken by the government, saying it had no legal basis to kill the animals and destroy the industry.

On Thursday, a Danish newspaper, B.T., reported that Mr. Jensen and five other ministers had warned in September that culling beyond the infected areas was illegal.

The slaughter was halted midway through the effort and the focus shifted to culling minks only in the vicinity of the outbreak tied to the mutated strain of the virus.

But Mr. Jensen had already lost the support of the government and was forced to step down.

The culling of the minks has been met by a broad public backlash, with a study by Aarhus University finding support for the government falling by 20 percent.

Danish authorities said on Wednesday that minks on all farms known to have been infected had been culled.

But they added that another 25 farms are still under suspicion of being infected.

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Video by everymaskup.com

“Our shields are worn. Our resolve is being tested.”

So say the most immediate, frontline health care workers in a new ad campaign as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the United States, breaking records nearly every day for deaths — and cases — in state after state.

The campaign, in print and video, by about 100 of the nation’s largest and best-known hospital groups began on Thursday, and aims to counter public resistance to mask-wearing.

The message beseeches Americans to protect everyone, including those on the forefront of the battleground in so many states where incoming patients are waiting for beds in overwhelmed hospitals with staff members fatigued from the unrelenting march of death during the pandemic.

Major hospital groups are sponsoring print ads in prominent newspapers, including The New York Times, and backing a social media push featuring a powerful video that expresses the frustration felt by some of the nation’s health care workers over the refusal of so many Americans to wear masks, an action that could potentially prevent tens of thousands of deaths.

The video, with stark black-and-white photographs of doctors and nurses leaning over Covid-19 patients in the midst of this crisis, urges the public to do more, to step up, to prevent the exponential rise of cases in their communities. It’s a call to arms.

“We put our lives on the line daily to keep you safe. So, do something for us. Wear. A. Mask,” the caption reads.

The hospital groups that are participating represent a broad array of organizations and companies with facilities across the country, including major academic medical centers like Johns Hopkins Medicine, Mass General Brigham, NewYork-Presbyterian and U.C.L.A. Health; large for-profit chains like HCA Healthcare; and religious hospital groups like Adventist Health and CommonSpirit Health.

A Covid-19 treatment center near Nairobi, Kenya, this month. The World Health Organization said Africa has now surpassed two million coronavirus cases.
A Covid-19 treatment center near Nairobi, Kenya, this month. The World Health Organization said Africa has now surpassed two million coronavirus cases.Credit…Brian Inganga/Associated Press

Africa is experiencing a concerning uptick in confirmed coronavirus cases and has now passed the two million mark, said the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, in a news briefing Thursday, warning that travel during the coming holiday season created more risk of outbreaks.

While the continent largely escaped some of the dire predictions made early in the pandemic — including that up to 190,000 people could die of it in the first year, or that at least 29 million could be infected — officials warned that countries needed to be prepared for a second wave of infection.

Testing data remains low in Africa, and the pandemic might have taken hold to a much larger degree than the figures show.

There are three main factors driving the second surge, according to a global health professor who also took part in the W.H.O.’s briefing, Salim S. Abdool Karim: superspreading events, especially at universities in South Africa; the approaching December vacation period; and complacency.

Pandemic fatigue is a reality and is quite widespread, and people are just not maintaining social distancing and wearing their masks to the same extent,” he said.

Indeed, masks are being worn under chins, if at all, in many places across the continent. It is possible to cross Africa’s biggest city, Lagos in Nigeria, without seeing a single mask. The W.H.O. in Africa has introduced a social media campaign, Mask Up Not Down, to try to tackle this problem, and is aiming to reach 40 million young people by the end of the year.

Vaccines developed in Europe should be effective in African countries, too, as the virus circulating there originated from people traveling from Europe. But vaccine nationalism, and a $4 billion gap in financing for vaccine procurement in Africa, could mean that countries there do not get the vaccines they need.

If we all work at prioritizing the most vulnerable, the most critical to health care, to economies, then I believe we could have a fair process of more equitable access,” said Dr. Moeti. “And not the usual African countries at the back of the queue which we have experienced in the past.”

In all, about 1,000 workers — about a third of the workforce — tested positive for the virus.
In all, about 1,000 workers — about a third of the workforce — tested positive for the virus. Credit…Brenna Norman/Reuters

The manager of the Tyson pork plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, that was the site of a deadly coronavirus outbreak this spring, allegedly organized a betting pool among supervisors to wager on how many of the employees would get sick, according to a lawsuit filed by the family of one of workers who died.

The lawsuit, filed by the son of Isidro Fernandez, a meatpacking worker who died in late April, said the betting pool was a “cash buy-in, winner take-all.”

Tyson declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit, but a spokesman said in an email that the company had introduced multiple steps to protect its workers in Waterloo. Those included taking employee temperatures, relaxing attendance policies and erecting barriers on the production floor to create social distance.

At the time of Mr. Fernandez’s death, the Tyson plant was a virus hot spot, though the plant’s leadership initially denied that there was an outbreak and rebuffed efforts by local officials to close the facility, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Iowa.

The workers were told to continue working despite showing symptoms of being sick. One worker was told to stay on the production line even after he vomited, the lawsuit said.

In all, about 1,000 workers — about a third of the work force — tested positive for the virus. Some of the issues at the Waterloo plant were detailed in a New York Times article in May. But the allegation about the betting pool among supervisors and managers was revealed this week after lawyers for Mr. Fernandez’s family amended their original lawsuit. The allegation of the betting pool was first reported by The Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families,” the company said in a statement. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers.”

Commuters packed Shinagawa Station in Tokyo on Thursday, as the government announced that it was raising the alert level.
Commuters packed Shinagawa Station in Tokyo on Thursday, as the government announced that it was raising the alert level.Credit…Behrouz Mehri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Japan has managed to keep coronavirus numbers low, but its strategy for success is being tested as cases reach record highs across the country.

While total case numbers remain low, they have begun to multiply rapidly, prompting Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to warn on Thursday that the country is on “maximum alert” in an effort to prevent infections from running out of control.

Mr. Suga requested that people be more vigilant about wearing masks, especially while dining out, and said he might request stronger measures based on the advice of a panel of experts that will report to him this week.

Japan reported over 2,000 new cases on Wednesday, the first time it has crossed that threshold since the pandemic began.

Tokyo on Thursday announced that it would go on red alert, the highest level of a four-tier system, as it reported over 500 new cases, setting a record for the second day in a row. The change in alert is a largely symbolic measure meant to remind people to exercise heightened caution to prevent the virus’s spread.

In his remarks, Mr. Suga said he would not ask businesses to shorten their hours or stop government subsidies for travel and eating out, which were implemented after the virus’s first wave demolished the country’s service sector. Some health experts have argued that the program may have helped spread the virus.

This is the country’s third wave of infections.

But this surge is the most alarming yet, a panel of experts working for the Tokyo government said Thursday. While the two previous waves were mostly limited to young people, this one has hit a more diverse group, including middle-aged and older people, a change that could put more strain on the country’s hospitals. Additionally, an increasing number of cases have been traced back to homes.

So far, Japan has largely managed to avoid the large-scale outbreaks that have hit the United States and Europe. Experts say the country’s success comes from public education that has encouraged people to avoid the so-called three Cs — closed spaces, crowded places and close contact — and a high level of social compliance that has made mask-wearing and social distancing ubiquitous.

A closed theater in Albuquerque, where a statewide stay-at-home order is in effect. Jobless claims have been drifting lower lately, despite new restrictions on business activity in some states.
A closed theater in Albuquerque, where a statewide stay-at-home order is in effect. Jobless claims have been drifting lower lately, despite new restrictions on business activity in some states.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

New claims for unemployment insurance in the United States remained elevated last week amid a surge in coronavirus cases, the government reported Thursday.

More than 743,000 workers filed new claims for state benefits last week, before adjusting for seasonal factors, an increase of 18,000 from the week before. With seasonal swings factored in, the latest figure was 742,000, virtually unchanged from the previous week, the Labor Department said.

Claims had drifted lower in recent weeksbut remain far above the levels reached in previous recessions. What’s more, the coronavirus resurgence in much of the country in recent weeks has caused new restrictions on business activity, leading to more job cuts.

“The economy has made significant progress in healing from the Covid shock, but there is still more work to be done, and layoffs are persisting,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America.

New claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program aimed at self-employed workers and independent contractors, totaled 320,000.

News that competing vaccines from two companies had shown strong evidence of efficacy against the virus has led the stock market higher and fueled hopes that the virus could be brought under control next year. That would clear the way for renewed growth, many experts say.

“We’re potentially entering a period of softness, but the medium term is more promising,” Ms. Meyer said.

On Monday, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. called on the two parties to “come together” and enact a stimulus package along the lines of a $3 trillion proposal passed by the Democratic-controlled House.

For all the body blows of the last year, consumer demand remains relatively healthy, according to Ms. Meyer. “We are still seeing incredible strength in housing, and auto sales remain strong,” she said. “Consumers are still spending on bigger-ticket items.”

The Daily Poster

Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Pandemic Economy in 7 Numbers

As several areas in the U.S. start to reimpose coronavirus restrictions, we look at some landmark figures that illuminate the depth of the recession and the prospects for recovery.

Visitors arriving at Dublin Zoo after it reopened in June. It closed again in October, when Ireland imposed a new coronavirus lockdown.
Visitors arriving at Dublin Zoo after it reopened in June. It closed again in October, when Ireland imposed a new coronavirus lockdown.Credit…Niall Carson/PA, via Associated Press

With a second pandemic lockdown underway in Ireland, many businesses have struggled to stay afloat.

Among them is Dublin Zoo, which issued a fund-raising appeal this week to prevent it from closing permanently. By Wednesday evening, just hours after launching the appeal, the zoo had received more than one million euros (about $1.2 million) in donations from the public, as well as pledges from the government.

“We find ourselves closed for a second time this year and we’re sad to say the future of Dublin Zoo is uncertain,” read a post on the zoo’s Facebook page, accompanied by a video of staff members asking for donations. The zoo has been closed for five months this year.

The closures have had a devastating impact on Dublin Zoo, where the costs for care run upward of €500,000 a month. The 69-acre zoo, inside Dublin’s Phoenix Park, is a major attraction, with more than 1.2 million people visiting last year. Since its opening in 1831, it has become something of a national treasure, staking its claim as the third most-visited attraction in Ireland and a regular destination for families.

The mayor of the city, Hazel Chu, was among the Dubliners who donated, and posted on Twitter about sponsoring a baby elephant. Irish celebrities and politicians also threw their support behind the campaign, alongside thousands of others who posted on social media, many sharing their own memories of childhood visits to the zoo, under the hashtag #SaveDublinZoo.

But the campaign also triggered calls from political parties demanding that the government come up with a long-term funding solution for the zoo.

The government has already begun working toward a sustainable solution. Malcolm Noonan, the minister who oversees heritage in Ireland, said in a tweet that he met with representatives from Dublin Zoo and Fota wildlife park, another zoo in County Cork, to assess the scale of the funding challenges. He was hopeful his ministry could offer short term financial support to “help tide the two main zoos past this immediate challenge,” but said the public donations were “testament to the high regard that these places have in our public consciousness.”

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