Covid-19 and Delta Variant News: Live Updates – The New York Times

Soldiers receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in February.
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will seek to order mandatory coronavirus vaccines for 1.3 million active duty American troops, even if the Food and Drug Administration has not issued full approval for the inoculation, administration officials said Monday.

Mr. Austin said in a memo to the staff that he would seek to speed up a vaccine mandate if the F.D.A. approved the Pfizer vaccine before the middle of September.

The decision is the latest shift in the Biden administration’s response to the surging Delta variant.

Mr. Austin advised President Biden last week that a vaccine mandate is one of the few weapons left to try to protect troops from the virus.

But Mr. Biden balked at putting a mandate in place without full approval from the F.D.A. His caution came as a surprise to some administration officials because the president had already announced that all federal employees and on-site contractors must be vaccinated against the coronavirus, or submit to regular testing and other measures. But that requirement affected the 766,372 civilians working for the Defense Department, not active-duty service members.

I.C.U. beds across the United States are filling up. In states like Louisiana, they’re already at or above capacity.
Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

For the first time since February, the United States is averaging more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day, a resurgence that is hitting especially hard in states where large portions of the population remain unvaccinated.

The pace of new case reports slowed in the spring as vaccination efforts picked up speed. A cautious optimism returned, and the summer was supposed to bring a joyous rebound to normalcy.

But the seven-day average of new case reports has doubled in the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database, and deaths have nearly doubled, to an average of 516 a day.

The surge is tied to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. Vaccines provide a high degree of protection against the variant, which was first detected in India, but only half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the current stage as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

The rise in cases has reignited debates around mandates for masks and vaccinations. In a reversal, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, said on Sunday that a state law banning mask mandates had been a mistake.

“It was an error to sign that law,” he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “I admit that.”

Mr. Hutchinson signed the bill in April, but “facts change,” he said, “and leaders have to adjust to the new facts and the reality of what you have to deal with.”

Randi Weingarten, the head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, also urged a reversal of her union’s position against vaccine mandates. The rising caseloads are a “public health crisis,” she said Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

Ms. Weingarten recently traveled to Missouri and Florida, two of the hardest-hit states. “I do think that the circumstances have changed and that vaccination is a community responsibility,” she said.

She said that Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, two of the most powerful opponents of mask mandates had spread disinformation that is “hurting people in terms of their public health.”

The charge against Mr. Abbott was echoed earlier in the weekend, when officials in Austin, Texas, warned that the situation was desperate.

“We are in the single digits of I.C.U. beds available,” said Bryce Bencivengo, a spokesman for Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said patients in emergency rooms were being forced to wait for space.

The mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, said that the crisis could have been avoided if Mr. Abbott had not barred local government officials from issuing mandates on masking.

The nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said on “Meet the Press” that vaccine mandates for adults were necessary to give children who were not yet eligible for inoculation a “shield of vaccinated people.” The United States has yet to authorize a vaccine for children under 12.

Pediatric cases of Covid are still a fraction compared with adults, but they have risen sharply, just as schools are preparing to reopen.

No major school districts have abandoned plans to reopen, but Dr. Fauci was blunt in his assessment. “You’ve got to protect the children,” he said.

Global Roundup

Journalists at the National Ski Jumping Center in Zhangjiakou, China, during an organized trip last month to venues for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Guards in biohazard suits, ready to stop anyone from leaving. Athletes giving interviews from behind plastic walls, speaking through microphones. All-day armpit thermometers, with tiny transmitters to sound the alarm should someone develop a fever.

With the Winter Olympics in Beijing just six months away, the Chinese authorities are planning elaborate precautions against Covid-19. The measures are expected to go far beyond those taken at the Tokyo Games, which ended Sunday with more than 400 reported cases.

China has made clear that containing the virus is its top priority. On July 30, as case numbers were climbing in Tokyo, Beijing organizers announced plans to redesign their 39 Olympic venues. Workers are now dividing passageways lengthwise and installing new toilets and other facilities.

The design changes are supposed to ensure that athletes have practically no contact with referees, spectators or journalists, groups that will be kept separate from one another as well. The goal is to minimize cross-infection.

China has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus since bringing it largely under control last year. The borders are almost completely sealed, and the authoritarian government has quashed sporadic outbreaks by locking down entire cities and mobilizing large numbers of people to test and trace infections. Scattered outbreaks of the Delta variant in recent days have officials even more concerned than usual.

In Tokyo, the authorities barred almost all Olympic spectators and had participants from overseas stay in designated hotels and ride special buses to events. But enforcement was haphazard, and news outlets found many violations.

China plans a stricter approach. For the Winter Games, to be held from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, the authorities intend to wall off China’s 1.4 billion people from essentially all athletes, judges, drivers, guides, journalists and others associated with the event.

In other developments around the world:

  • On Monday, France began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for access to cafes, restaurants, bars and long-distance trains as part of a push against the Delta variant. The restrictions went into effect as France’s health pass — already required for entering cinemas, theaters, concert halls, museums, discos and a host of other venues — is now being more broadly applied. Protests against the measures have been held weekly even as vaccination rates have risen.

  • The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been canceled, officials said Sunday, citing the “exponential growth of new Covid cases in New Orleans and the region.” The festival, normally held in the spring, had been rescheduled for Oct. 8 to 17 in the hope that more people would be vaccinated by then. Cases in Louisiana hit a record high this month, with the state reporting an average of 4,600 new cases a day in the past week, according to a New York Times database.

  • Health authorities in Germany say vaccines prevented more than 38,300 deaths over the pandemic’s third wave in the spring. According to a scientific study released on Friday, as many as 706,000 infections were prevented. More than 60 percent of people have received at least one dose, and nearly 55 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas during a visit to the border wall near the city of Pharr in June.
Credit…Sergio Flores/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The dilemma sounded familiar. A prominent, ambitious red-state governor, who had staked out a firm position opposed to mask mandates and other aggressive measures to combat the spread of the virus, suddenly found himself on the defensive as cases and hospitalizations soared in his state.

First, it was Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Now it is Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who is facing withering criticism as I.C.U. beds have dwindled to the single digits in Austin and health officials in San Antonio have labeled its risk level just a step below critical. But Mr. Abbott remains firm in his refusal to enact any statewide mandate while he prohibits local officials from doing so in their own communities.

The fear and frustration comes as schools prepare to reopen in the nation’s second most populous state, raising worries about further spread of the virus.

“The governor has shown a callous disregard for life and safety in defiance of clear medical guidance and is risking the safety of our children and the recovery of our economy,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott said he was focusing on personal responsibility, but she did not address the specifics of the state’s Covid crisis.

“Governor Abbott has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates,” the statement said. “Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated.”

The statement also said that while all eligible Texans were urged to get vaccinated, the vaccine itself “will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”

Pilar Villarraga, right, with her daughter Sophia. Sophia was unable to get vaccinated until she turned 12 and was hospitalized with complications from the coronavirus last month.
Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

Pilar Villarraga had spent much of the summer counting down the days until her daughter Sophia’s birthday. In early August, Sophia would turn 12 — and become officially eligible for a Covid-19 vaccination. “I didn’t want her to start school without the vaccine,” said Ms. Villarraga, who lives in Doral, Fla.

And then, in late July, just two weeks before the milestone birthday, Sophia caught the coronavirus. At first, she just had a fever, but on July 25, after four quiet days convalescing at home, her ribs began to hurt. The next day, Ms. Villarraga took her to the emergency room, where chest X-rays revealed that Sophia had developed pneumonia. She soon began coughing up blood.

Sophia was promptly admitted to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, in Miami. Her parents and their friends were in shock. “I didn’t think that kids could get that sick,” Ms. Villarraga said.

Sophia was one of roughly 130 children with Covid-19 who were admitted to U.S. hospitals that day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations of children have been climbing since early July; from July 31 to Aug. 6, 216 children with Covid were being admitted a day, on average, nearly matching the figure of 217 daily admissions during the pandemic’s peak in early January.

Hospitals in coronavirus hot spots have been particularly hard hit. On a single day last week, Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock admitted 19 children with Covid; Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Fla., had 15; and Children’s Mercy Kansas City, in Missouri, had 12. Each hospital had multiple children in its intensive care unit.

These reports have raised concerns that what once seemed like the smallest of silver linings — that Covid-19 mostly spared children — might be changing. Some doctors on the front lines say they are seeing more critically ill children now than at any previous point of the pandemic, and that the highly contagious Delta variant is probably to blame.

Police officers and workers in Nanjing, China, where an outbreak of the Delta variant of the virus began late last month.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

China has fired or reprimanded dozens of officials nationwide, saying they mishandled a coronavirus outbreak that is the country’s worst in more than a year.

More than 30 people in four provinces, including government leaders, hospital staff and airport and tourism personnel, have been punished over the outbreak, according to the state-backed tabloid Global Times. At least 15 were in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province, where the outbreak began late last month at the city’s international airport.

The outbreak, which is driven by the more contagious Delta variant of the virus, has since grown to hundreds of cases and spread to more than half of mainland China’s 31 provinces, challenging the government’s zero-tolerance approach toward the virus.

Officials have also been disciplined in Zhangjiajie, a tourist city in Hunan Province; Yantai, a coastal city in Shandong Province; and Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, which was recently hit by deadly flooding.

In Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu Province that has replaced Nanjing as the country’s biggest virus hot spot, at least eight officials were punished or reprimanded after mismanagement at a testing site caused more than 20 infections, the government said.

“The epidemic is in a concentrated outbreak period,” Wu Zhenglong, the governor of Jiangsu, said on Saturday, according to Yangzhou Daily. “The situation of epidemic prevention and control is very serious and complicated.”

After largely eradicating the virus early last year, China has responded to periodic outbreaks with mass testing and strict lockdowns of neighborhoods or entire cities. The central city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, tested all of its 11 million residents over the weekend after reporting its first Delta cases earlier this month. Mass testing is also being carried out in Yangzhou, Zhengzhou and other cities.

While countries like Singapore are shifting their strategies after concluding that it’s unrealistic to insist on zero virus cases, Chinese officials have resisted that idea. Gao Qiang, the former health minister, wrote in the official People’s Daily on Saturday that China’s antivirus measures were “a double insurance strategy” that combines precise epidemic control with widespread vaccination, rather than trying to achieve herd immunity, let alone “living with the virus.”

Mr. Gao said the approach to the virus in countries like Britain and the United States, which he characterized as “coexistence,” had had serious consequences for the world. “We must not make the same mistakes,” he wrote.

Ethan Chandra, 7, has heart and lung defects that make him especially vulnerable to Covid-19. His family in Lehi, Utah, has spent much of the past year and a half at home to keep him safe.
Credit…Alison Chandra

On the July evening that he was diagnosed with Covid-19, 7-year-old Ethan Chandra lay in bed with a high fever next to his mother, holding her hand and whispering, “I’m scared I’m going to die.”

His mother, Alison Chandra, didn’t know what to say. Although a vast majority of children his age who test positive for the virus either don’t have symptoms or fully recover, Ethan has heart and lung defects that make him especially vulnerable.

His family in Lehi, Utah, has spent much of the past year and a half at home to keep him safe. In November, Ethan’s parents tested positive for the virus after his father briefly returned to work in person, but they managed to avoid infecting their children. But recently, Ethan got Covid-19 anyway.

The Delta variant has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations across the country, leaving families with high-risk children who are not eligible to be vaccinated especially concerned. A growing number of parents have shared their stories online, accompanied with desperate pleas for people to get inoculated.

Many parents say they are angry and exhausted from trying to keep their children safe while balancing the emotional trauma of more than a year of isolation.

Case counts among U.S. children have increased over the summer. In the last week of July, the number of new cases doubled to 71,726 from 38,654 the previous week, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There is no estimate for the number of American children who are at higher risk from the virus because of medical conditions, said Dr. Dennis Z. Kuo, a former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children With Disabilities. But he estimates about 19 percent of children have special health care needs, and 1 percent have severe medical complications.

Within those groups, he said, children with heart, lung or immune system disorders are especially at risk from the virus, as well as those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

The removal of Dr. Rick Bright last April as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency created upheaval within the Department of Health and Human Services in the early days of the pandemic.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Rick Bright, the virologist who claimed the Trump administration retaliated against him last year by ousting him from his job, has settled his whistle-blower complaint against the federal government and will receive back pay and compensation for “emotional stress and reputational damage,” his lawyer said Monday.

Dr. Bright’s removal last April as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency created upheaval within the Department of Health and Human Services in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said he was removed from his post after he pressed for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug embraced by President Donald J. Trump as a coronavirus treatment, and that the administration had put “politics and cronyism ahead of science.”

Those allegations are still being investigated by the Office of Special Counsel, which protects federal whistle-blowers. Under Mr. Trump, H.H.S. officials denied any wrongdoing.

The Biden administration confirmed the settlement of the case on Monday in a statement praising Dr. Bright, who advised President Biden during his transition.

“The agency would like to thank Dr. Bright for his dedicated public service and for the contributions he made to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic while he served as BARDA director,” the statement said. “We wish him well in his new endeavors.”

Neither side disclosed details or specifics of the settlement. But Dr. Bright’s lawyer, Debra S. Katz, said her client had been compensated to the fullest extent allowed by the law. She said he will receive back pay, as well as damages to cover the costs of private security and temporary housing that he required after receiving threats. He will also receive compensation, Ms. Katz said, for distress “associated with the disparaging comments and threats” made by administration officials including Mr. Trump, who had blasted Dr. Bright on Twitter as a “creep” and a “disgruntled employee.”

Dr. Bright now works for the Rockefeller Foundation, where he is developing a new institute devoted to pandemic prevention that will function as a hub for scientists in government, the private sector and academia. The goal is to identify new pathogens, he said in an interview. He said he was glad to have the episode behind him.

“Going through the assault that I experienced from the last administration, going through the public criticism from the White House and H.H.S. leadership when I was just trying to do my job, put a lot of stress on me,” he said. “They were trying to find anything they could to disparage me and discredit me.”

After clashing with his bosses, Dr. Bright was assigned to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health to work on a “Shark Tank”-style program to develop coronavirus treatments. He later went on sick leave because of hypertension, a spokeswoman said at the time. In the interview Monday, Dr. Bright said that at the height of the controversy, he also received a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Ultimately, he quit the government — a departure that Ms. Katz characterized as effectively a termination, because, she said, he had not been given any meaningful work.

Ms. Katz said the settlement was especially satisfying to her. “Many times, whistle-blowers come forward and that’s the end of their career,” she said. But Dr. Bright, she said, has “gone from being persona non grata under the Trump administration to being a respected and important subject matter expert.”

A vaccination center in Seoul on Thursday.
Credit…Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press

South Korea on Monday will open its vaccination booking system to adults ages 18 to 49, a major step forward in its troubled vaccine drive as it struggles to contain its worst outbreak of the pandemic.

Inoculations for this age group, which encompasses about 16 million people, will take place through Sept. 30, and recipients will have a choice of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Previously, the only way people in this age group could get inoculated was to sign up for leftover vaccine doses as the government focused on immunizing older people.

South Korea’s vaccination program, which began in February, has been hampered by supply shortages and technical issues. When the booking system was opened to adults in their 50s in July, as many as 10 million people logged on to the government website simultaneously, crashing the system.

“Registering as fast as possible is my first priority,” said Shin Minseo, an office worker in Seoul, the capital. “But if the age range is 18 to 49, I’m worried about the sheer number of people applying and the site crashing.”

To prevent that from happening, the government said that newly eligible people would be allowed to register for appointments only on designated days based on their birth dates.

About 40 percent of South Korea’s population has received at least one shot of a vaccine, according to a New York Times database, making it among the least vaccinated in the Group of 20 industrialized economies. Officials say their goal is for 70 percent of the population, or 36 million people, to receive at least one shot by the end of September.

South Koreans have become more anxious for shots as the country faces a fourth wave of infections driven by the Delta variant. The capital region, where the cases have been concentrated, is under the most restrictive level of social distancing regulations, with gatherings of more than two people prohibited after 6 p.m. Last week the government said those restrictions would be extended for two weeks through Aug. 22.

Norwegian Cruise’s Gem cruise ship was docked at the Port of Miami on Monday. A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Florida law that prevents cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination from passengers.
Credit…Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

A federal judge on Sunday granted Norwegian Cruise Line’s request for a preliminary injunction, temporarily allowing the company to require proof of vaccination from passengers despite a Florida law that bans businesses from doing so.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office said in an emailed statement on Monday that it plans to appeal the ruling. Mr. DeSantis signed a state law in May that set fines for businesses requiring customers to provide proof of vaccination.

Norwegian’s next cruise ship to sail from Florida is set for Aug. 15, out of Miami. In a statement on Sunday, the company said the ruling would allow it to “operate in the safest way possible.”

“We welcome today’s ruling that allows us to sail with 100 percent fully vaccinated guests and crew, which we believe is the safest and most prudent way to resume cruise operations amid this global pandemic,” said Frank Del Rio, the president and chief executive.

In the order, Judge Kathleen Williams of U.S. District Court noted that scientific research shows that “cruise lines are hotbeds for Covid-19 transmission.” She also cited the potential for the cruise line to suffer financially if Norwegian was forced to cancel trips or reroute around Florida.

Judge Williams wrote that the “defendant fails to articulate or provide any evidence of harms that the state would suffer if an injunction was entered,” and added that Norwegian “has demonstrated that public health will be jeopardized if it is required to suspend its vaccination requirement.”

A preliminary injunction generally will stay in effect until there is a final ruling in a lawsuit.

The judge’s order came as coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Florida. Over the past two weeks, cases have increased 84 percent and hospitalizations have doubled, according to New York Times data.