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

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The agreement gives the United States a total of 200 million doses, enough to vaccinate 100 million people.
Credit…Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

The Trump administration and Pfizer reached a deal to bolster the supply of the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech for the United States by 100 million doses by the end of July.

The new agreement means the companies will supply the United States with a total of 200 million doses, enough to vaccinate 100 million Americans. The additional shots will cost $1.95 billion, the companies said.

The agreement, announced Wednesday, would help the United States at least partly offset a looming vaccine shortage that could leave millions of adult Americans uncovered in the first half of 2021.

So far, only two pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer and Moderna — have won federal authorization for emergency distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, and most of what they are capable of producing for the next six months has already been allocated through contracts with the United States and other governments.

Truck drivers and others argued with police officers in Dover, England, on Wednesday. About 4,000 Europe-bound truck were stuck this week after France closed its border.
Credit…Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ferries and trains from Britain began arriving in Calais on Wednesday morning, as France reopened its ports to Britain after a 48-hour shutdown. But the logjam of thousands of Europe-bound trucks stuck in southeast England will take days to clear because drivers must show a negative coronavirus test before they can cross the channel.

The British army was mobilized to help the National Health Service, the country’s health care system, set up facilities to offer rapid coronavirus tests to drivers, who have been stuck in Britain since Sunday night, when France blocked passage to prevent the spread of a variation of the coronavirus that has swept through parts of England. Results from the test are usually available within 30 minutes, although the test is considered unreliable by some health professionals.

But it was unclear Wednesday morning if the testing sites were up and operating. And there is mounting frustration, confusion and skepticism about the plans in Dover. Trucks are parked around the ports, on closed sections of the motorway and at Manston Airport, a closed airfield nearby that has been turned into a giant parking lot for trucks.

Drivers are reportedly being told they need to go to the airport to take the tests, but some are reluctant to leave their spots in line closer to the border. Frustrations have been building and skirmishes have broken out among drivers, other waiting passengers and the police. One man was arrested after blocking a highway. And access to the port is blocked by drivers and other travelers unwilling to move.

The Port of Dover is now telling freight drivers in the area that tests will be brought to them if they are already lined up along the motorway.

Authorities cautioned that it could take days to clear out the approximately 4,000 Europe-bound trucks.

“I think it will take a few days to work our way through,” Robert Jenkins, a government minister, said on Sky News on Wednesday morning. He also said if any drivers received a positive test result, they would be offered a more accurate test called a PCR test, which takes longer to process, and if that was also positive they would be offered hotel accommodation to self-isolate for 10 days.

Rod McKenzie, the director of policy at Road Haulage Association, which represents the British road transport industry, said there was probably 8,000 to 10,000 trucks waiting to cross the border.

“It’s a mammoth task,” he told Sky News. “The border is still effectively shut, the testing is effectively not happening.” Some drivers have already spent three nights sleeping in their trucks with limited access to food and toilets.

Trucks in Europe carrying goods to Britain were still allowed to pass this week, but their numbers had declined amid fears that the drivers would be marooned once they crossed into Britain. Lufthansa said it would fly perishable food from Frankfurt to the north of England on Wednesday.

The crisis at the border has raised concerns about food supplies around the Christmas holidays, because Britain relies on importing fresh fruit and vegetables, especially in the winter. Although supermarkets have tried to reassure customers that there is enough food, they had cautioned that some fresh goods, including lettuce and citrus fruit, could run short later in the week. Tesco emailed customers on Tuesday to say it had “good availability” on goods imported from France but there are “temporary purchasing limits” on other goods, including eggs and toilet paper.

“It is essential that lorries get moving across the border as quickly as possible,” Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium said. “Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods.”

Dr. Deborah Birx said in recent weeks that she was open to serving in the Biden administration, but on Tuesday announced plans to retire.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said in an interview on Tuesday with the media outlet Newsy that she planned to retire after concluding her role helping the federal government transition to the Biden administration.

“I will be helpful in any role people think I can be helpful in,” she said. “And then I will retire.”

In recent weeks Dr. Birx, 64, indicated publicly and privately that she was open to serving in the Biden administration. It was unclear what prompted her to announce her plan to retire. In the interview with Newsy, she called her time at the White House “overwhelming” and difficult on her family. She suggested that recent coverage of a trip she made over the Thanksgiving holiday had unduly dragged her family into the spotlight.

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that after Dr. Birx recommended limiting gatherings to the “immediate household,” she traveled to a vacation home in Delaware over Thanksgiving weekend with three generations of her family, which included several households. Dr. Birx told The A.P. that she traveled not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather to winterize the property before a potential sale. She said that those on the trip were part of her immediate household but lived in two homes.

“I think what was done in the last week to my family — you know, they didn’t choose this for me,” she said in her interview with Newsy. “They’ve tried to be supportive.”

Neither the White House nor Dr. Birx responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a tweet on Tuesday that Mr. Trump “has great respect for Dr. Birx and likes her very much.”

“We wish her well,” she wrote.

Dr. Birx arrived at the White House in late February as Vice President Mike Pence assumed control of the coronavirus task force, and quickly developed a niche as a numbers maven. She worked long hours overseeing a team of specialists gathering data on infections and hospitalizations, whose work she would organize into daily presentations for senior White House officials and the task force. She has also been the point of contact for state and local officials, and oversees the drafting of detailed reports offering guidance to the states.

In recent months, she has traveled around the country, appealing to Americans to wear masks and limit their contact with others, a message that clashed with the White House’s relaxed approach to pandemic restrictions.

Her time in the West Wing, where she keeps an office, elicited broad criticism from public health experts. Senior administration officials said that she ingratiated herself with President Trump and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, often presenting an optimistic picture of the pandemic. She also alienated officials at the C.D.C. with an aggressive campaign to overhaul the way the agency collects data on the spread of the coronavirus. And she clashed with officials on Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s vaccine development program, over the selection of vaccine candidates and the development of antibody treatments.

A colonel in the Army, she began her career in the early 1980s as an immunologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She spent time training as a fellow in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lab. The two remain close.

Before she arrived at the White House this year, she spent six years at the State Department, where she oversaw the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, created in 2003 by President George W. Bush when antiretroviral drugs saving lives in developed countries were not available in other nations.

President Trump said on Tuesday that the government should distribute $2,000 in direct payments to Americans.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

President Trump threatened on Tuesday to derail months of bipartisan work in Congress to deliver $900 billion in pandemic relief, demanding checks to Americans that are more than three times larger than those in the bill, which he called a “disgrace.”

The president, who has been preoccupied with the baseless claim that the election was stolen from him, seized on congressional leaders’ decision to pass the relief bill by combining it with a broader spending plan to fund government operations and the military. That plan includes routine provisions like foreign aid and support for Washington institutions like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian.

But Mr. Trump portrayed such spending items as “wasteful and unnecessary” additions.

“It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” Mr. Trump said in a video posted online. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people.”

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000,” he added.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who had been pressing for similarly sized checks, welcomed Mr. Trump’s intervention, though it was not clear whether she was really open to changing the bill or simply trolling her Republican adversaries.

“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!” she wrote on Twitter.

In recent weeks, congressional leaders and a bipartisan group of moderates have worked around the clock to deliver a relief package aimed at saving businesses from closure, funding distribution of coronavirus vaccines and providing President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a stable economy when he takes office in January.

The $900 billion relief package revived supplemental unemployment benefits for millions of Americans at $300 a week for 11 weeks and provided for a round of $600 direct payments to adults and children. Republican and Democratic leaders hailed the bill as a badly needed stopgap measure until a new Congress can convene next year to consider providing more stimulus.

The bill passed with an overwhelming, veto-proof margin.

“Help is on the way,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.

But Mr. Trump, who sat out the negotiations, demanded on Tuesday that the government distribute much larger direct payments, despite opposition to such spending from Senate Republicans.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, enlisted the president in the Democrats’ push to get larger coronavirus relief checks to Americans next year.

“Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open,” he wrote on Twitter, “and we’re glad to pass more aid Americans need. Maybe Trump can finally make himself useful and get Republicans not to block it again.”

The president’s move surprised even senior administration officials and represented an embarrassment for his top economic lieutenant, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped negotiate the agreement.

“We are fully committed to ensuring that hardworking Americans get this vital support as quickly as possible and to further strengthening our economic recovery,” Mr. Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday in which he thanked Mr. Trump for his leadership.

He had said hundreds of dollars in direct payments authorized by the bill could begin reaching individual Americans as early as next week.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Mnuchin also cited his role in the negotiations earlier Tuesday, noting that he had participated in 190 calls about the legislation between Dec. 14 and Dec. 20 that included the president, Treasury staff members and congressional leaders. During the talks, Mr. Mnuchin pushed for bigger direct payments on behalf of the president in exchange for cutting supplemental unemployment benefits.

Workers from Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless visiting camps in Oakland, Calif. Isolation and lack of indoor shelter appear to have helped slow the spread of the virus in the city’s homeless populations.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Early in the pandemic, health officials were terrified that the virus would decimate America’s homeless populations, the half-million people who live in shelters or on the streets. Those same specialists now say they are relieved that street encampments and homeless shelters did not suffer the same devastation as nursing homes.

The living conditions of homeless people — isolation and lack of indoor shelter — appear to have helped prevent the most dire predictions about the spread of the coronavirus in homeless populations from coming true.

Experts caution that the transitory nature of homelessness makes it challenging to gather precise data. And they remain anxious because overall infection rates soared throughout the fall. A recent outbreak at a shelter in San Diego served as a reminder that homeless populations, especially those sheltered indoors, are still very vulnerable to the dangers of Covid-19.

“It’s been pretty clear in sheltered settings that when infections enter they spread very rapidly,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, the director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious-disease specialist in Seattle, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of homelessness, has helped conduct 2,500 tests in shelters during the pandemic. Only 15 tests, less than 1 percent, came back positive for the coronavirus.

“I had assumed it would be terrible in the homeless population because of how other viruses circulate,” Dr. Chu said. “It pretty much has turned out to be not as bad as I would have thought.”

Experts say that among the reasons for the better-than-expected outcomes are programs in California and New York, the states with the largest homeless populations, to provide thousands of hotel rooms for the most vulnerable people. Hotel rooms are also made available for people experiencing homelessness who exhibit symptoms or come into close contact with those who are infected.

“Ventilation is good,” and the outdoors are safer, Dr. Kushel said. “It’s a perverse advantage that so many people are unsheltered.”

In late April, bodies were stored in rental trucks outside the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home in Brooklyn.
Credit…Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

Sharon Escobar paid a Brooklyn funeral home to tend to the remains of her father, Elisha Magosha, after he died from complications of Covid-19 in April.

Two weeks later, she learned that his body had been disintegrating alongside more than a dozen others inside two U-Haul trucks parked in front of the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home, a small building squeezed between a sex shop and a dollar store.

The discovery in early May, as the pandemic held a firm grip on New York, shocked and angered a traumatized city, and in November, the home’s director, Andrew Cleckley, had his license revoked by the state for improperly handling the remains of the deceased.

Odors seeping from the trucks prompted passers-by to complain to the authorities, ultimately leading to the discovery of what was happening.

Mr. Cleckley said he was overwhelmed by the deluge of bodies his home received and said that even though he was the principal leaseholder, five other funeral services operated from the building, and he could not be responsible for overseeing how all of them treated remains.

Still, a large part of his job involved embalming bodies for those other firms, raising questions about the extent of his role.

“Everything I did was out of compassion — helping the other funeral homes, embalming their bodies, picking up bodies for them,” he said.

What unfolded at the Cleckley home was perhaps the most extreme episode when the pandemic engulfed the city’s system for handling the dead — reflecting the tragedy, chaos and overall lack of resources in the face of the biggest public health crisis in a century.

“It was the craziest time I’ve ever been alive,” said John D’Arienzo, president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association. “After Mr. Cleckley’s actions came to light, the medical examiner realized how overwhelmed funeral services were.”

Global roundup

Masked shoppers in Milan’s city center this month.
Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Across Europe, people who have lost loved ones face an empty chair or an agonizing void this holiday season. That is hard enough. But a surge in infections, a new fast-spreading variant of the virus and mounting deaths have led the authorities to shut down Christmas, too.

The upending of holiday rituals has had a particularly disruptive effect in Italy, which has within it the Vatican, panettone and pandoro Christmas cakes, Neapolitan Nativity scenes and multigenerational family reunions.

Since at least October, the country has focused on rules for the festive season with the obsession of a child counting down the days on a chocolate-filled Advent calendar. Government ministers and virologists, celebrity entrepreneurs and influencers held forth on striking the right balance between health and mirth.

But the months of Christmas mania coincided with a dizzying increase in contagions that put a renewed burden on hospitals and catapulted Italy back to the ignoble position of deadliest country in Europe.

About 600 people die of the virus on average every day in Italy, more than any country other than the much larger United States and Brazil. Italy has lost more than 69,000 people to the virus and experienced more deaths generally than in any year since 1944, during World War II.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte himself started the holiday countdown in October, asking Italians to respect restrictions to enjoy “Christmas holidays with more serenity.” But by last Friday, he had switched the talk from saving Christmas for Italians to saving Italians from Christmas. In an almost apologetic speech to the nation, Mr. Conte introduced restrictions that limited movement and closed bars and restaurants from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6.

Monica Mazzoleni, whose mother died of the virus, decided with her father to spend Christmas Day away from the family table, avoiding the empty chair where her mother would sit. Instead, they had intended to go to a restaurant near the northern city of Calusco d’Adda.

“We wanted to get away,” she said. But even those plans had to be canceled when the government restaurants. “There will be no Christmas for us,” she said.

In other developments from around the world:

  • Dubai will start inoculating people at no cost on Wednesday, using the Covid-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, Reuters reported. Saudi Arabia is the only other Arab country using the Pfizer vaccine, but the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have rolled out a vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm, to the general public. A message on the Dubai Health Authority’s hotline said the first phase of the vaccine would be for citizens and Dubai residents age 60 and above, as well as for individuals with chronic illness who were older than 18.

  • President Emmanuel Macron of France is “showing signs of improvement” after he tested positive for Covid-19 last week, his office said on Wednesday. Previous updates on his health had said he was stable, with minor symptoms like coughing, fever and headaches.

Video of the Whitestone Republican Club’s holiday party circulated on social media this past week. The Dec. 9 party was held at Il Bacco, an Italian restaurant in Little Neck, Queens.
Credit…Matt Binder/Twitter

When the Whitestone Republican Club held a holiday party at Il Bacco, an Italian restaurant in Little Neck, Queens, on Dec. 9, more than a dozen people formed a conga line as part of the revelry, shimmying through a glitzy banquet room.

No one in that line wore a mask.

Video of the conga line was shared on Twitter on Monday by Matt Binder, a journalist who said it was initially posted on a private local Facebook group. The video showed the conga line snaking past a D.J. booth with a spinning disco ball as the Bee Gees blasted in the background. A man hoisting a Trump 2020 campaign flag led the dance before Vickie Paladino, a staunch conservative who is the club’s president and a City Council candidate, took over.

The video, which circulated on social media this week, has led to an outcry that culminated with criticism from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and an investigation by the State Liquor Authority.

“Covid conga lines are not smart, that’s my official position,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news briefing on Tuesday.

“There will be significant fines for this incident, and we’re looking at both the group that held the event and the establishment that hosted it,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the State Liquor Authority, confirmed on Tuesday that the agency was investigating Il Bacco. Mr. Crowley said that the state has suspended 279 liquor licenses for violations of coronavirus-related regulations.

Thomas Paladino, Ms. Paladino’s son and her campaign strategy director, said that the restaurant and the club took precautions, like providing hand sanitizer and taking temperatures at the door.

“We’re not the mask police,” Mr. Paladino said on Tuesday. “We’re all grown adults, and if somebody chooses to put a mask on, they can put a mask on.”

A doctor sanitized between administering Covid-19 tests at a mobile testing unit in Sacramento.
Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Since the start of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency green lights to more than 200 types of coronavirus tests, each with its own curiosities and quirks. Yet we tend to talk about all of them in the same binary way, with identical terms: positive, negative, true, false.

But when it comes to interpreting results, not all positives and negatives are equally reliable. Factors like whether you had symptoms, or the number of people in your neighborhood who are infected, can influence how confident you should be in your results.

“It’s about context,” said Andrea Prinzi, a clinical microbiologist and diagnostics researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Graduate School. “Your test doesn’t end when you get your result.”

Now that fully at-home rapid tests are trickling into the market, Americans may need to confront these testing conundrums regularly. Two of the three home tests cleared by the F.D.A. to date are antigen tests, which hunt for pieces of coronavirus proteins, or antigens. Antigen tests tend to be faster, but are worse than molecular tests — which look for the coronavirus’s genetic material, or RNA, and are often processed in a lab with a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R. — at identifying cases, especially when the virus is present at relatively low levels.

Wherever you get a test result, think about how you’ve been feeling and where you’ve been. If there’s reason to think your test should detect the virus, such as symptoms, a recent exposure or a current outbreak in your community, a positive result is probably correct. That probability increases if the test you’re using has a reputation of being very accurate, such as a laboratory test.

A surprise positive shouldn’t be dismissed, though, especially as the number of coronavirus cases continues to balloon — increasing the pretest probability for millions of people nationwide.

If you’ve truly been cloistered away, and you’re not feeling sick, a negative is more likely a negative. Still, no single test result should clear a person’s path to travel, mingle unmasked or shirk other measures like physical distancing, said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Tests are there to spot the virus after it’s already taken hold, and can’t by themselves thwart its ability to spread, said Hannah Getachew-Smith, a health communication expert at Northwestern University. While testing is powerful, she said, “it has to be coupled with other mitigation strategies.”

Boarded-up storefronts in Los Angeles. The stimulus package approved by Congress may not do enough for millions of jobless Americans if hiring does not pick up significantly.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

New economic data from the federal government on Wednesday highlighted the recovery’s precarious state.

A report from the Commerce Department showed that personal income fell in November for the second straight month and that consumer spending fell for the first time since April.

Separately, the Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits remained high last week ahead of a new injection of federal aid.

About 869,000 people filed new claims for state jobless benefits. That was down from a week earlier but is significantly above the level in early November, before a surge in coronavirus cases prompted a new round of layoffs in much of the country.

Another 398,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, one of two federal programs to expand jobless benefits that were set to expire this month without congressional action.

Help may be on the way. After months of delays, Congress on Monday passed a $900 billion economic relief package providing aid to unemployed people, small businesses and most households. Most urgently, it would prevent jobless benefits from expiring at the end of this week for millions of people. But on Tuesday evening, President Trump demanded sweeping changes in the bill, throwing into doubt whether he would sign it.

The data released Wednesday showed the toll that the delays in aid — along with rising virus cases — have taken on the economy. Personal income fell 1.1 percent in November and is down 3.6 percent since July, as waning federal assistance more than offset rising income from wages and salaries. Consumer spending, which helped drive the initial recovery after lockdowns lifted last spring, also faltered, falling 0.4 percent as the weather cooled and virus cases rose. Spending on dining and travel both fell last month, the Commerce Department said.

The income and spending data was just the latest evidence that after rapid gains in the spring and summer, the recovery has stalled and could be going into reverse. Some forecasters expect the December employment report to show a net loss of jobs.

“That huge looming cliff that everyone’s been talking about for months on end, that’s been averted,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the hiring site Indeed. “But there’s no momentum forward. It feels like we’re just stuck. Hopefully the new stimulus package will help get a little more wind in our sails.”

The relief bill was smaller than many economists said was needed to carry the economy through the pandemic and ensure a robust recovery. It won’t revive industries that have been ravaged by the pandemic or undo the damage left by months of lost income for many households.

But the recent deterioration in the economy shows why economists across the ideological spectrum were urging Congress to act quickly even if that meant accepting a smaller bill.

“Without the aid, it seemed like we were on the precipice and there was definitely concern that we could have had a double-dip recession,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist with the career site Glassdoor. “The position that we find ourselves in now is significantly stronger than where we were even a week ago.”

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