October 27, 2020

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Covid-19 Live Updates: White House Embraces ‘Herd Immunity’ Declaration

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Credit…Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The White House has embraced a declaration by a group of scientists arguing that authorities should allow the coronavirus to spread among young healthy people while protecting the elderly and the vulnerable — an approach that would rely on arriving at “herd immunity” through infections rather than a vaccine.

Many experts say “herd immunity” — the point at which a disease stops spreading because nearly everyone in a population has contracted it — is still very far off. Leading experts have concluded, using different scientific methods, that about 85 to 90 percent of the American population is still susceptible to the coronavirus.

On a call convened Monday by the White House, two senior administration officials, both speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to give their names, cited an October 4 petition entitled The Great Barrington Declaration, which argues against lockdowns and calls for a reopening of businesses and schools.

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the declaration states, adding, “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

The declaration has more than 9,000 signatories from all over the world, its website says, though most of the names are not public. The document grew out of a meeting hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian-leaning research organization.

Its lead authors include Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at Stanford University, academic home of Dr. Scott Atlas, President Trump’s science adviser. Dr. Atlas has also espoused herd immunity.

The declaration’s architects include Sunetra Gupta and Gabriela Gomes, two scientists who have proposed that societies may achieve herd immunity when 10 to 20 percent of their populations have been infected with the virus, a position most epidemiologists disagree with.

Last month, at the request of The New York Times, three epidemiological teams calculated the percentage of the country that is infected. What they found runs strongly counter to the theory being promoted in influential circles that the United States has either already achieved herd immunity or is close to doing so, and that the pandemic is all but over. That conclusion would imply that businesses, schools and restaurants could safely reopen, and that masks and other distancing measures could be abandoned.

“The idea that herd immunity will happen at 10 or 20 percent is just nonsense,” said Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which produced the epidemic model frequently cited during White House news briefings as the epidemic hit hard in the spring.

Credit…Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune, via Associated Press

Uncontrolled coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. Midwest and Mountain West have strained hospitals, pushed the country’s case curve to its highest level since August and only heightened fears about what the winter might bring.

Sixteen states each added more new cases in the seven-day period ending Monday than they had in any other weeklong stretch of the pandemic. North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting more new cases per person than any state has previously. And in Wisconsin, home to 10 of the country’s 20 metro areas with the highest rates of recent cases, crews are preparing a field hospital at the state fairgrounds.

“While we are hopeful we can flatten the curve enough to never have to use the facility, Wisconsinites across our state are struggling and they are rightfully scared of this virus,” Gov. Tony Evers wrote to legislative leaders this week in a letter seeking support for his mask order and limits on public gatherings.

About 50,000 new cases are being reported each day on average in the United States for the week ending Monday. That is still far less than in late July, when the country averaged more than 66,000 daily cases.

But the country’s trajectory is worrisome — and worsening. Many experts fear what could happen as cold weather encroaches on more of the country and drives people indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.

Hospital beds are filling with virus patients, especially in the Northern Plains states, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. Their data shows that 36,034 people are hospitalized right now with Covid-19, a higher number than at any time since Aug. 29. Testing remains insufficient in much of the country. And new cases are trending upward in 36 states, including much of the Northeast, which is starting to backslide after months of progress, and in Illinois, which surpassed 9,000 total deaths this month.

“After 9 months of battling this virus and hearing the updates each day, many of us forget that the hospitalizations and deaths are more than just numbers,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said Tuesday. “They are our family, friends, and loved ones who have been directly impacted by Covid-19, which continues to spread.”

Credit…Darron Cummings/Associated Press

A government-sponsored clinical trial testing an antibody treatment made by the drug company Eli Lilly has been paused because of a “potential safety concern,” according to emails that government officials sent on Tuesday to researchers at testing sites, and confirmed by the company.

The news comes just a day after Johnson & Johnson announced the pause of its coronavirus vaccine trial because of a sick volunteer, and a month after AstraZeneca’s vaccine trial was halted over concerns about two participants who had fallen ill after getting the company’s vaccine.

The Eli Lilly trial was designed to test the benefits of the therapy on hundreds of people hospitalized with Covid-19, compared with a placebo. All of the study participants also received another experimental drug, remdesivir, which has become commonly used to treat patients with Covid-19. It is unclear how many volunteers were sick, and what the details of their illnesses were.

In large clinical trials, pauses are not unusual, and illnesses in volunteers are not necessarily the result of the experimental drug or vaccine. Such halts are meant to allow an independent board of scientific experts to review the data and determine whether the event may have been related to the treatment or occurred by chance.

Enrollment for the Eli Lilly trial, which was sponsored by several branches of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other organizations, had been continuing. But on Tuesday, multiple officials sent emails to researchers telling them to stop adding volunteers to the study out of an “abundance of caution.”

In a statement sent over email, Molly McCully, a spokeswoman for Eli Lilly, confirmed the pause. “Safety is of the utmost importance to Lilly,” she said. “Lilly is supportive of the decision by the independent D.S.M.B. to cautiously ensure the safety of the patients participating in this study” she added, referring to the independent panel of experts, or the data and safety monitoring board.

The N.I.H. and the V.A. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Eli Lilly is one of several companies pursuing experimental treatments for Covid-19 that use monoclonal antibodies — mass-produced mimics of immune molecules the human body produces in reaction to the virus.

Eli Lilly’s product is similar to a treatment designed by the drug company Regeneron, which developed an antibody therapy given to President Trump after he tested positive for the coronavirus this month. Mr. Trump has promoted such treatments, without evidence, as a “cure” for his condition, and has suggested that their approval and widespread distribution could be imminent.

The week after the president was treated, both companies applied for emergency clearance for their products from the Food and Drug Administration. (Eli Lilly has applied for authorization of its drug for mild or moderate cases of Covid-19, not for use in hospitalized patients like those enrolled in the halted trial.)

Antibodies can block the coronavirus from infecting cells, and preliminary data from Eli Lilly and Regeneron have hinted they may be able to tamp down the amount of virus in infected people and reduce their symptoms. Eli Lilly also hopes to collect data to figure out whether antibodies can protect certain people from developing Covid-19 after encountering the virus.

Still, if monoclonal antibodies end up being linked to an unexpected side effect — which has not yet been conclusively shown — it will be crucial to figure out how and why these immune molecules are sickening people, said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale.

In a statement, an N.I.H. spokeswoman said the trial, which had enrolled 326 Covid-19 patients, was paused when the independent safety board found that after five days of treatment, the group of patients who had received the antibodies showed a different “clinical status” than the group who had received a saline placebo — a difference that crossed a predetermined threshold for safety.

The N.I.H. statement did not specify the nature of the participants’ conditions. But the so-called stopping rules for the trial lay out the conditions for “futility” — the idea that a treatment has a very low chance of working, based on the data so far. A trial could also be halted if there is evidence that patients in one group are faring much worse than those in the other.

The news of the trial’s pause prompted a small decline in Eli Lilly’s stock on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, Johnson & Johnson paused the large late-stage clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine because of an “unexplained illness” in one of the volunteers.

The company did not say whether the sick participant had received the experimental vaccine or a placebo. The pause was first reported by the health news website Stat. On Tuesday morning, shares of Johnson & Johnson fell about 2 percent on the S&P 500.

Credit…Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch, via Associated Press

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was discussed as a possible target by members of an anti-government group charged last week with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, the F.B.I. said on Tuesday.

During a hearing in Grand Rapids, Mich., Special Agent Richard J. Trask II of the F.B.I. said that Mr. Northam and other officials were targeted because of their aggressive lockdown orders to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, 13 men accused of involvement in the alleged plot were charged with a variety of state and federal crimes including terrorism, conspiracy and weapons possession.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the authorities revealed that the suspects also spoke about “taking” the Virginia governor “based” on coronavirus lockdown orders that restricted businesses.

The F.B.I. alerted members of Mr. Northam’s security team throughout their investigation, Alena Yarmosky, Mr. Northam’s press secretary, said in a statement. The governor was not informed, “per security protocols,” Ms. Yarmosky said, but added that “at no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger.”

Mr. Northam, a Democrat, issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, instructing residents to leave their homes only for work, medical appointments, family care, shopping for essentials and “outdoor activity with strict social distancing requirements.”

In April, President Trump had openly encouraged right-wing protests of social distancing restrictions in Virginia, Michigan and other states with stay-at-home orders, a day after his administration had announced guidelines for governors to set their own timetables for reopening. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment,” the president wrote on Twitter at the time. “It is under siege!”

Credit…Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Countries across Europe are desperately trying to hold at bay a fast-growing wave of new virus cases, employing targeted closures and travel restrictions to avoid the large-scale lockdowns that crippled economies in the spring.

The European Union on Tuesday adopted new guidelines aimed at coordinating members’ varying travel measures. The bloc will now use a single map with a color-coded system to denote the scale of outbreaks: green at the low end of risk, orange in the middle and red at the high end.

Other measures include unifying how quarantines and testing are done to smooth travel between E.U. countries, and ensuring ample warning when national travel advisories are about to change to ensure that travelers aren’t left stranded.

But the measures are not mandatory, and individual member states said they wanted to reserve the right to take unilateral action, including stepping up restrictions or changing the risk category for regions based on their own assessments.

The action came amid a flood of announcements of tightened policies and pointed warnings from national leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Tuesday voiced concern about the rise in cases “in almost every part of Europe,” Reuters reported.

Officials in the Netherlands announced a four-week partial lockdown on Tuesday. Bars, pubs and restaurants will close, but takeout will be allowed and hotels can stay open. The government is planning to make face masks mandatory in public places, including high schools and shops. Group sports for adults will also be prohibited, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

The Czech Republic, which has reported more cases per capita in the last seven days than most other European countries, announced that it will close schools on Wednesday. Dozens had already been forced to suspend classes after teachers and students fell ill.

The country is also closing theaters, cinemas and zoos. Restaurants and bars will be restricted to takeout orders starting Wednesday, and will have to close at 8 p.m.

The health minister, Roman Prymula, said the new rules should reverse the rise in two to three weeks.

Neighboring Slovakia, which has seen a smaller increase in new cases, announced the closure of high schools on Monday. Most universities had already moved online.

Slovakia is also considering limiting travel to the Czech Republic, which would be an extraordinary development for the two countries, which until 1993 formed one nation, Czechoslovakia.

And in Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was in quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. His office said he had not been experiencing any symptoms, and he urged Poles to act responsibly in a video message posted on Facebook on Tuesday.

The virus has also surged again in the countries that were hit hardest in the first wave. Italy announced on Tuesday that it would prohibit parties and recommended that indoor gatherings be limited to six people.

The decree, signed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, represents a second crackdown in less than a week as the second wave, which seemed to have hit Italy less violently than other European countries, is now gaining strength.

Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo, one of soccer’s biggest stars and among the world’s most famous athletes, has tested positive for the coronavirus, Portugal’s soccer federation announced Tuesday.

Ronaldo, 35, was removed from Portugal’s training camp in Lisbon and will miss his country’s Nations Cup game Wednesday against Sweden, the federation said. The team said Ronaldo was not displaying symptoms and was in isolation.

“Following the positive case, the remaining players underwent new tests Tuesday morning,” the federation said in a statement. “All tested negative.”

Ronaldo played in Portugal’s scoreless draw against France on Sunday, and posted a photo of himself dining on his social media accounts on Monday.

“United on and off the field,” the caption read.

Ronaldo is not the first soccer star to test positive this fall as Europe’s top leagues start new seasons and players journey home for national team duty. The Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba was found to be positive when he turned up for a training camp with France’s national team in August. And weeks before, the Brazilian star Neymar and two of his teammates from the French club Paris St.-Germain tested positive after a postseason vacation in Spain.

While many of Europe’s top leagues were able to resume their seasons after pausing play for several months this spring, the coronavirus remains a significant threat because — and unlike in the restricted environments set up for this summer’s Champions League knockout rounds or the recently completed N.B.A. season — players are free to circulate in their communities.

Credit…Kevin J. Fitzsimons for The New York Times

Ohio Wesleyan University is cutting 18 majors and consolidating several departments, reflecting the devastating impact the pandemic is having on the budgets of many colleges.

The move, announced last week in an email to students, will save about $4 million annually and limit faculty layoffs to just one tenured position, the university’s president, Rock Jones, wrote. But it also will sharply reduce academic offerings at the university, which enrolls about 1,425 students.

Black world studies and women and gender studies programs will be consolidated into a single “critical identity studies” department. Classics and modern foreign language will merge to form a new world languages department. Religion and philosophy will become a single department. And majors in comparative literature, Middle Eastern studies, urban studies, journalism, neuroscience and many other areas will be eliminated or phased out.

The measures come as universities around the country confront the immense price being exacted by the virus, which has forced campuses to retool instruction, scale up health precautions, suspend sports programs and empty or retrofit dining areas and dorms.

Like many small, private liberal arts colleges, Ohio Wesleyan was facing budget shortfalls even before the pandemic. Demographic shifts have decreased student populations in much of the country. The school had forecast a $7.5 million operating deficit for the 2020-21 academic year and was already reviewing cost-cutting measures in May when Mr. Jones announced the virus had added another $4.5 million in projected red ink.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. turned his attention on Tuesday to older Americans, making a case in South Florida that seniors were paying the price for the president’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The only senior that Donald Trump cares about — the only senior — is senior Donald Trump,” Mr. Biden said in a speech at a community center in Pembroke Pines, a city in the vote-rich Democratic stronghold of Broward County.

Older people are a crucial voting bloc in Florida, a haven for retirees, and they were an important part of President Trump’s winning coalition in 2016 across the nation’s battleground states. But waning support from seniors now poses a serious threat to the president’s re-election bid, and Mr. Biden’s pitch to them on Tuesday was his latest attempt to maximize his standing with those voters.

Mr. Biden, who wore a mask during his speech, offered an unsparing critique of Mr. Trump’s management of the nation’s monthslong public health crisis, assailing the president over his response to the virus as well as his own behavior.

“I prayed for his recovery when he got Covid, and I had hoped at least he’d come out of it somewhat chastened,” Mr. Biden said. “But what has he done? He’s just doubled down on the misinformation he did before.”

He went on to say that Mr. Trump’s “reckless personal conduct since his diagnosis is unconscionable.”

“The longer Donald Trump is president, the more reckless he seems to get,” Mr. Biden said. “Thank God we only have three weeks left to go.”

And he alluded to the Rose Garden ceremony held at the White House last month for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Some of those in attendance, including Mr. Trump and the first lady, later tested positive for the virus.

“While he throws super-spreader parties at the White House where Republicans hug each other without concern of the consequences, how many of you have been unable to hug your grandkids in the last seven months?” Mr. Biden said.

He told the crowd that two of his grandchildren lived near his Delaware home, adding that he bribed them during socially-distanced visits with Häagen-Dazs bars. “I can’t hug them,” he said. “I can’t embrace them. And I’m luckier than most, because they’re nearby.”

Patricia Mazzei reported from Pembroke Pines, and Thomas Kaplan from Washington.

NEW YORK ROUNDUP

Credit…Johannes Eisele/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s book on his own handling of the coronavirus crisis debuted on Tuesday, amid a series of hot-spot outbreaks in New York and criticism that it may be too soon for such reflections.

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” is largely drawn from the governor’s streak of daily press briefings given from March to mid-June, during which time tens of thousands of New Yorkers died related to the virus.

Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, describes the early days of the discovery of the virus in his state as a wake-up call for both state and federal governments. “I knew the country wasn’t prepared,” he writes.

Published by Crown, the book, which is Mr. Cuomo’s second memoir, speaks in detail about his decision-making as well as what he describes as a way of “reintroducing myself to the people of the state.”

“Yes, they knew me, but today everything was different. We were going to a new and different place,” he writes. “Today, I was not just the governor; I was the governor in a historic crisis.”

Mr. Cuomo’s critics have noted that the book coincides with a surging number of new cases and hospitalizations because of clusters of infections in New York City and its suburbs, something that health officials worry may signal a second wave in the city and state.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo reported a statewide daily rate of positive test results of 1.4 percent. Hospitalizations jumped again, to 923, the highest figure since June 26 when the state reported 951.

On Monday morning on the “Today” show, Willie Geist pressed Mr. Cuomo on this issue, asking whether “celebrating the things that you did right feels off and strange” while the virus continues to kill hundreds of Americans a day.

“It’s not a celebration at all,” Mr. Cuomo responded. “The game isn’t over. It is halftime.”

He added, “We had some success. But we are also making a lot of mistakes,” saying the nation had to be ready for “the second half.”

The governor was also asked about his handling of the virus in nursing homes, in particular. More than 6,000 New Yorkers have died in such facilities and a late March memo from his health department — directing homes to take in patients who had tested positive — has been the subject of scrutiny.

He demurred on that question, saying instead that the death toll in the state was the result of failed federal policy. “The reason New York’s numbers were so high was because the virus was coming here for months, undetected,” he said.

In August, Mr. Cuomo declined to discuss his advance for the book, saying “you’ll see it on my financial disclosure.” He said he would make a contribution “to a Covid-related entity,” adding “a lot of it depends on whether or not the book sells.” On Tuesday afternoon, it ranked 160th on Amazon’s best-sellers list.

Elsewhere in the New York area:

  • In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that he hoped to know soon whether newly imposed restrictions on parts of the city where the virus positivity rate has spiked could soon be relaxed. “By the end of this week I think we’re going to have a clear sense of whether this is working and whether we’re in range to relax these restrictions after about two weeks,” the shortest amount of time the new rules could be kept in place, he said. “Obviously, that’s a decision we’ll make with the state.” Over the weekend, city agents had issued more than 100 summonses and more than $150,000 in fines, according to Mr. de Blasio. As of Oct. 11, the most recent date for which data was available, the citywide seven-day average positivity rate was 1.48 percent.

  • Mr. Cuomo also said on Tuesday that travelers from Ohio, Michigan and Virginia are now required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, joining a long list of other states and territories. Travelers to Connecticut and New Jersey are also now subject to a 14-day quarantine if they are coming from those same places, though compliance is voluntary in New Jersey and there is a testing alternative in Connecticut.

  • The New York State comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, warned in a report released on Tuesday that if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, buses and two commuter rails, does not receive federal aid it will be forced to slash service, raise fares and borrow billions of dollars — causing damage that would affect the region’s transportation system for decades. “Without additional help from Washington, the agency is approaching a cliff,” Mr. DiNapoli told reporters Tuesday morning. If the federal government does not provide aid, “it would mark the end of regional transportation as we know it,” he said.

Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Outbreaks on farms in Canada have spurred national protests about the systemic vulnerability of migrant farm laborers, a population unknown to many Canadians until they began to fall ill at a rate 11 times that of health workers.

Canadians pride themselves on a liberal immigration system welcoming to an array of ethnicities and nationalities, contrasting their attitude with what many see as xenophobia in the United States.

The reality does not always match the rhetoric, but Canada encourages different groups to maintain their cultures, and an embrace of multiculturalism is enshrined in Canada’s charter and self-image. When other world leaders shunned refugees from Syria’s civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed them in person, handing them winter coats.

But in importing large numbers of seasonal farm laborers from abroad and offering them no path to residence or citizenship, Canada looks disturbingly un-Canadian to many of its people. Canada admits temporary workers who stay for most of a year but requires them to return home when their contracts end.

As in the United States, farm workers live for months on their employers’ property, often in large bunkhouses where disease can spread easily.

“In no other immigration category do you have people who come only from certain countries, are trapped in certain occupations, living only on their work sites and must absolutely leave the country at the end,” said Jenna Hennebry, the director of the International Migration Research Center at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Credit…Mohamed Messara/EPA, via Shutterstock

Eighteen members of Tunisia’s Parliament have tested positive for the virus, the body’s doctor, Maher Ayadi, announced on Tuesday.

Several cases among lawmakers were reported following a full parliamentary session on Oct. 2, one of only two such meetings held such July. A number of lawmakers had announced that they tested positive on Facebook.

Tunisia has seen a sharp spike in virus cases in recent days. Of the 32,556 cases reported since the start of the outbreak, more than 10,000 were reported in the last seven days, according to a Times database.

The country had been an exception in the region, reporting very few cases at the start of the pandemic. Tunisia quickly imposed a strict lockdown, including a nationwide curfew and the closure of international borders for almost two months.

But after reopening the borders in June, the country began to report new cases linked to international travel. The authorities imposed a two-week nightly curfew in several cities last week to halt the uptick.

Only a few hundred intensive care beds are available throughout Tunisia, and doctors have expressed concern that the health care system is at risk of being overloaded.

In a meeting of officials tasked with fighting the coronavirus on Tuesday, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced that people who do not wear masks in public spaces will be fined starting this weekend.

He added that it was important to balance health and economic concerns as the country confronts the surge in cases, and to “help every sector over the economic crisis.”

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