Canada has approved Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, its drug regulator said on Wednesday, opening the possibility that Canadians will start receiving it next week.
The regulator, Health Canada, said that it completed a full independent review of the data on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. While Britain approved the vaccine earlier, it did so on an emergency basis and largely relied on Pfizer’s analysis.
“Canadians can feel confident that the review process was rigorous and that we have strong monitoring systems in place,” the government department said in a statement.
Canada has ordered a total of 6 million doses from Pfizer. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive at 14 Canadian distribution centers next week. Officials said at that time that inoculations would begin as soon as regulatory approval was granted.
The approval could mean that Canadians receive injections of the vaccine from the U.S.-based company before Americans do.
The first shipment of 249,000 doses to Canada will come from plants in the United States and Belgium. Two doses are required to vaccinate each person.
For now, the Canadian regulator has approved the vaccine only for people over the age of 16; it is waiting for further data from Pfizer before approving it for children.
The United Arab Emirates approved a Chinese coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, citing preliminary data showing that it was 86 percent effective. The move, the first full approval of a Chinese vaccine by any nation including China, could bring the vaccine a step closer to widespread use around the world.
The announcement by the Emirates’ Ministry of Health and Prevention was the first official indicator of a Chinese vaccine’s potential to help stop the pandemic. If trials elsewhere produce similar findings, the Chinese vaccines could offer a lifeline to developing countries that cannot afford vaccines developed in Western nations that are likely to be more expensive and more difficult to store and distribute.
Chinese government officials and Sinopharm, the state-owned maker of the vaccine, were silent on Wednesday about the Emirati announcement. Scientists noted that the announcement was lacking in data and other critical details.
Sinopharm would not confirm or comment on the news, even hours after it was reported. A spokeswoman for the company hung up the phone when reached and did not respond to messages and calls afterward.
The news release from the Emirati government did not give important specifics, like the number of Covid-19 cases that were analyzed or the ages of volunteers, leaving it unclear to scientists how Sinopharm came to its conclusions about the vaccine’s effectiveness.
“The devil is in the details,” said Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Center at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s very difficult to judge this without seeing the number of cases. The main thing is, the trial results need to be made public.”
Still, the news that a Chinese vaccine was found to be 86 percent effective comes as a boost to China’s biomedical ambitions, even though that figure falls short of the performance reported for vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, which have said that their vaccines are more than 90 percent effective.
The vaccine could also help bring China closer to fulfilling a pledge by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to make a vaccine a “global public good.”
The Emirates is one of 10 countries where Sinopharm is testing two coronavirus vaccine candidates. The health ministry said it had reviewed an interim analysis of data from late-stage clinical trials that also showed the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing moderate and severe cases of the disease. It did not say whether it had conducted an independent analysis of the raw data. The ministry said there were no serious safety concerns.
The results announced by the Emirates bode well for Sinopharm’s vaccines to obtain full regulatory approval in China, which Sinopharm sought before final trials were complete. The company is also conducting trials in Bahrain, Jordan, Peru, Argentina and elsewhere.
“I think it could hit the market in China very soon, and there will be news within the next one to two weeks,” said Tao Lina, a vaccine expert in China and a former immunologist at the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
When Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe began to research coronavirus infections among Black and Hispanic patients, he thought he knew what he would find. Infected Black and Hispanic patients would be more likely to be hospitalized, compared with white patients, and more likely to die.
But that’s not how it turned out.
Dr. Ogedegbe, the director of the division of health and behavior at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, and his colleagues reviewed the medical records of 11,547 patients in the N.Y.U. Langone Health system who were tested for coronavirus infection between March 1 and April 8.
After accounting for various disparities, Dr. Ogedegbe found that infected Black and Hispanic patients were no more likely than white patients to be hospitalized. If hospitalized, Black patients had a slightly lower risk of dying.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open. Three other recent large studies have come to similarly surprising conclusions.
The new findings do not contradict an enormous body of research showing that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be affected by the pandemic, compared with white people.
But the new studies do suggest that there is no innate vulnerability to the virus among Black and Hispanic Americans, Dr. Ogedegbe and other experts said. Instead, these groups are more often exposed because of social and environmental factors.
“We hear this all the time — ‘Blacks are more susceptible,’” Dr. Ogedegbe said. “It is all about the exposure. It is all about where people live. It has nothing to do with genes.”
Among many other vulnerabilities, Black and Hispanic communities and households tend to be more crowded; many people work jobs requiring frequent contact with others and rely on public transportation. Access to health care is poorer than among white Americans, and rates of underlying conditions are much higher.
“To me, these results make it clear that the disparities in mortality that we see are even more appalling,” said Jon Zelner, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who led one of the new studies.
The toll on Black and Hispanic Americans “could easily have been ameliorated in advance of the pandemic by a less threadbare and cruel approach to social welfare and health care in the U.S.,” he added. “Even failing that, so much of this could have been avoided.”
A “cruise to nowhere” from Singapore has ended early — back where it started — after a coronavirus infection was discovered onboard.
When the cruise, on the ship Quantum of the Seas, left the city-state on Monday, all 1,680 passengers and 1,148 crew had tested negative for Covid-19, according to the Singapore Tourism Board. But the ship returned to port a day early on Wednesday after an 83-year-old passenger tested positive.
The tourism board said that the infected passenger took a mandatory Covid-19 test after reporting to a medical center with diarrhea. The Straits Times, a Singapore-based newspaper, reported that the ship’s captain informed guests around 2:45 a.m. on Wednesday to remain in their cabins.
The Quantum of the Seas, which is owned by Royal Caribbean, returned to the Marina Bay Cruise Center in Singapore at 8 a.m. The remaining passengers and crew were expected to disembark by 6 p.m., Annie Chang, the tourism board’s cruise director, said in a statement. Contact tracing is underway, and those who came into contact with the 83-year-old would be sent to a government quarantine facility, she said.
Cruises to nowhere have been a rare beacon of hope for an industry under mortal threat. In February, the world watched in horror as the coronavirus infected more than 200 people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, trapping its 3,600 passengers and crew. Governments later banned cruises, crews were sent home and passengers canceled their bookings.
Singapore, along with Japan and several countries in Europe, has since extended the cruise business a lifeline by allowing voyages on a limited — and highly controlled — basis.
Singapore has reported 58,285 cases and 29 deaths during the pandemic, including an average of about eight new cases per day over the past week, according to a New York Times database.
Following Singapore’s guidelines, the ships’ operators have upgraded air filters, enforced social distancing and required passengers to carry contact-tracing devices that link to government monitoring systems, among other safety precautions.
Still, the World Dream’s operator has said that the cruise offered just about everything that was available before the coronavirus hit, minus a karaoke room that has been shuttered on government orders.
Zip line? Check. Casino, two pools and a male burlesque show in a Chinese restaurant? Check, check, check.
Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with Germans to meet fewer people and stay at home over the holidays in an impassioned speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, as her country saw a record number of deaths from the coronavirus.
“I’m sorry, from the bottom of my heart, I am really sorry,” the visibly emotional chancellor said during a budget debate in Parliament. “But if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day then I have to say this is not acceptable.”
Ms. Merkel, a physicist who won praise in the spring for her detailed explanations of the science behind why Germans needed to stay at home, was frustrated five weeks ago when the governors of the country’s 16 states agreed only to partial restrictions that left most stores and schools open.
The result has been stubbornly high numbers of new infections and record numbers of people dying from the virus — as many in the first seven days of December as died in traffic accidents across the country in all of 2019, according to a report by Germany’s National Academy of Sciences that urged a strict lockdown over Christmas and New Year.
Through early testing, contact tracing and a coordinated effort from all levels of government, Germany emerged from the first wave of the virus with relatively few fatalities and enough intensive care beds to take on patients from neighboring countries.
But even as other European countries, including Belgium, France and Ireland, returned to severe restrictions on movement in October, Germany’s governors continued to squabble over how best to handle the virus, citing the different experiences in their regions.
State authorities are responsible for health policy in Germany and, without their cooperation, the chancellor has been helpless to enforce stricter measures. While some of the states with the highest infection numbers and most crowded hospitals have already tightened restrictions, ordering schools closed and imposing curfews, others have stressed the importance for people of gathering for Christmas.
How difficult the situation has been for the chancellor, as a scientist, was apparent, as she pounded her fist in anger and pressed her palms together in supplication, urging people to begin scaling down their activities in the coming 14 days and calling for schools to break early for Christmas and shun outdoor stands selling seasonal treats such as mulled wine or fresh waffles.
“If we have too many contacts before Christmas and then later this becomes the last Christmas we celebrate with our grandparents, then we missed something,” Ms. Merkel said. “We would do well to really take seriously what scientists tell us.”
In other developments across the world:
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet has extended funding until June for a program that subsidizes domestic tourism, a Transport Ministry official said on Wednesday. The government has already scaled back the nearly $13 billion “Go to Travel” program in places where infection rates are high, and the Tokyo metropolitan government has asked the elderly and people with underlying illnesses not to participate. Preliminary figures suggest that those who participate experience a higher incidence of symptoms associated with Covid-19.
The period of self-isolation and quarantine will be reduced to 10 days from 14 days in Wales beginning Dec. 10, officials said Wednesday. “We know that self-isolating is hard for people and we believe families, communities and business will welcome the announcement today to safely reduce the days in which people have to isolate,” said Vaughan Gething, the minister for health and social services.
In El Paso, hospitals reported that just 13 of 400 intensive care beds were not occupied last week. In Fargo, N.D., there were just three. In Albuquerque, there were zero.
More than a third of Americans live in areas where hospitals are running critically short of intensive care beds, federal data show, revealing a newly detailed picture of the nation’s hospital crisis during the deadliest week of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Hospitals serving more than 100 million Americans reported having fewer than 15 percent of intensive care beds still available as of last week, according to a Times analysis of data reported by hospitals and released by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many areas are even worse off: One in 10 Americans — across a large swath of the Midwest, South and Southwest — lives in an area where intensive care beds are either completely full, or fewer than 5 percent of beds are available. At these levels, experts say maintaining existing standards of care for the sickest patients may be difficult or impossible.
“There’s only so much our frontline care can offer, particularly when you get to these really rural counties which are being hit hard by the pandemic right now,” said Beth Blauer, director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University.
Sharp increases in Covid-19 patients can overwhelm smaller hospitals, she said. “This disease progresses very quickly and can get very ugly very fast. When you don’t have that capacity, that means people will die.”
The new dataset, released on Monday, marks the first time the federal government has published detailed geographic information on Covid-19 patients in hospitals, something public health officials have long said would be crucial to responding to the epidemic and understanding its impact.
With a rising tide of Covid-19 patients threatening to overwhelm hospitals, public health officials across the United States are reaching for a safety valve that the Northeast used in the spring: borrowing beds in children’s hospitals to care for adults.
U.S. hospitalizations are at a record-high of 104,600, according to the Covid Tracking Project, and the nation set a record this past week for the most deaths in a seven-day period.
“As the fall came into play and the second surge hit, I think we’re seeing a lot more of that happening now,” said Amy Knight, president of the Children’s Hospital Association, a national group representing more than 200 U.S. facilities.
It’s rare for American children’s hospitals to admit adult patients or loosen their admittance criteria, so the fact that it is being done now speaks to the severity of the crisis, according to Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine and the co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
“I don’t even know if this was done during H1N1 in 2009, so I can’t think of too many modern precedents,” he said.
Because coronavirus infections seem to largely spare younger children, compared with teenagers and adults, children’s hospitals and the pediatric wards of general hospitals tended not to become swamped early in the pandemic.
“It was more like a trickle of kids that needed to be hospitalized,” Ms. Knight said.
Since then, however, the number of children becoming infected and needing hospital care has risen sharply, and children’s hospitals may have less room and resources to spare at a time of year when the need for pediatric beds tends to rise anyway because of influenza.
“We’re much more limited in capacity for pediatric critical illness throughout the country,” said Dr. Brian Cummings, who works in the intensive care unit at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. “Clearly we’re overwhelming the adult I.C.U. capacity, and then to use an even scarcer resource really does concern all of us that advocate for children.”
Even so, children’s hospitals are pitching in to help with the coronavirus surge in various ways. The Children’s Hospital Association released guidelines in April for several possible approaches, including taking in pediatric patients from general hospitals to free up space in those facilities, and raising their maximum admission ages.
The St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a part of BJC HealthCare, started opening its doors to adult patients in November, and another pediatric hospital in St. Louis, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, has been accepting adult transfers who do not have Covid-19. Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo said it would temporarily raise its admission ceiling to admit patients up to 25 years old.
During the first big surge in the Northeast, from April to June, MassGeneral Hospital for Children took adult patients in its 14-bed intensive care unit. “As we watched hospitals become overwhelmed, everyone wanted to step up and do their part,” Dr. Cummings said.
The unit went back to normal over the summer, but with cases trending upward again in Massachusetts, he said, “we are definitely worried that we’re going to have patients again in the next week or two.”
With the coronavirus re-emerging in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans to start holding his popular news briefings virtually on Wednesday, rather than in person with reporters in the same room.
The shift, months after the virus first devastated the state, will put Mr. Cuomo in sync with other leaders who transitioned away from in-person briefings long ago, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.
Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said that “given the new stricter C.D.C. guidelines released Friday and the reality of rising cases in New York, going remote is now the most prudent action.”
While none of the directives released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week were new, the stark warnings in the guidance reflected deepening concern at the agency that the pandemic is spiraling out of control. The agency urged Americans to wear masks indoors and avoid indoor spaces outside the home, labeling indoor dining as a “high-risk” scenario.
Despite months of mounting evidence of the virus’s airborne transmission indoors and the effectiveness of proper face coverings, Mr. Cuomo did not wear a mask when he addressed reporters from behind a dais, flanked by aides who tended to remove their masks after entering the room.
“We have sat in these seats six feet apart, socially distanced, without masks, since Covid started,” Mr. Cuomo said in October when confronted by a reporter about his decision to not wear a mask. “The rule is six feet apart. And that’s what we do.”
Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey continues to hold in-person briefings regularly in Trenton, wearing a mask before standing up from the dais but taking it off when answering questions from reporters, who are masked and socially distanced.
At the peak of the New York outbreak in the spring, Mr. Cuomo’s daily briefings were televised nationally, elevating the governor’s profile and offering viewers a rare window into his relationship with the press as he fended off question after question from local reporters.The briefings were typically held in the State Capitol in Albany or in a cramped room in his Manhattan office, with capacity capped and chairs for reporters spaced to ensure social distance.
As the virus waned in New York, however, Mr. Cuomo has held in-person briefings less frequently, opting instead for conference calls with reporters.
During an in-person briefing in his Midtown office on Monday, plexiglass partitions were placed between the governor and his aides for the first time, a last-ditch attempt at creating a safe environment. His staff wore masks during the presentation, but Mr. Cuomo did not.
The next day, Mr. Cuomo’s office said his briefings would be held through Zoom “until further notice.”
“We are making every effort to protect public health and balance it with the need for reporters across the state to continue to have access, so they can continue to do their jobs,” Mr. Azzopardi said in a statement.
One man left the house after an argument with his wife and walked 280 miles to cool off, breaching Italy’s national curfew.
Another man wandered outside his quarantine room in Taiwan for eight seconds and caught the attention of the authorities.
Still another drove 19 miles for a butter chicken curry during a strict lockdown and was apprehended by the Australian police.
All those actions ended up costing them thousands of dollars in penalties.
During the global pandemic, with entire cities locked down, travel heavily restricted and isolation fatigue setting in, thousands of people have been caught, fined or jailed for breaching coronavirus restrictions that have made once normal activities taboo.
Some have intentionally broken the rules to make a political statement. Others have claimed they are immune to the disease and from the consequences of breaking those restrictions. Others have simply blundered into breaches because they apparently didn’t understand the rules or were acting in a moment of desperation.
“Everyone is operating in a crazy world where our normal rational decision making goes out the window,” said Robert Hoffmann, a professor of economics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. “A pandemic is a perfect storm.”
Another unusual case occurred in the port city of Kaohsiung, in the south of Taiwan, where a migrant worker from the Philippines was caught on surveillance cameras briefly stepping into the corridor of a hotel while he was under quarantine in November.
The unidentified man wanted to leave something outside the door of a friend, who was quarantining at the same hotel, according to the Central News Agency, the official Taiwanese news agency, citing the health department.
In a video clip that circulated online, the man, wearing shorts and flip-flops, could be seen taking six lumbering strides between his room and that of his neighbor, before turning around.
The breach cost him $3,550.
Until late last month, outdoor dining — no masks required — was the closest thing to pre-pandemic normal for the 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. But amid a record-busting surge in hospitalizations and cases of the coronavirus, the county’s health department recently said outdoor dining must come to a complete halt for the first time since May.
This time, angry at the order and worried it would be the death knell for many of the 30,000 eateries sprawled across the vast county’s patchwork of 88 independent jurisdictions, several cash-strapped municipalities have pushed back and banded together — with votes to form their own health departments.
“It’s kind of like a mini secession,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Their complaint is the county has a one-size-fits-all prescription.”
The discussions speak to the growing frustration over a countywide order that many elected officials said was inherently a hyperlocal issue.
While largely symbolic because there is no process for local jurisdictions to easily create their own health departments, city councils across the county have in recent days passed resolutions to do exactly that — or to annex and join a city that already has its own.
West Covina’s City Council was among the first to take such a vote. Lancaster, home to 158,000 in the high desert, followed suit last week, as did Beverly Hills. Now hard-hit Hawaiian Gardens, Commerce, Inglewood, West Hollywood and others are debating similar moves.
Across the state, daily case reports have tripled in the past month, with more than 25,000 new infections reported on Tuesday. About 8,500 of them were in Los Angeles County, which now has more daily cases than at any point in the pandemic, setting daily records for nearly a week straight. On Tuesday, the county had about 3,000 people hospitalized, with nearly a quarter in intensive care units.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a three-week lockdown order, which went into effect for much of the state on Monday, that also banned outdoor dining and superseded the Los Angeles County restrictions.
New York City’s sewers, whose lore has spawned films, children’s books and fantastical tales of alligator infestation, have now seized a role in the pandemic: Scientists are tracking outbreaks by monitoring the smelly, gray effluent that flows through underground pipes in hopes of identifying coronavirus clusters days before they appear through patient testing.
The undertaking, which has ramped up in recent weeks, has mirrored efforts across the country to surveil waterways for viral components, flushed down toilets by infected Americans who are excreting it in feces.
Rising traces of the virus were detected in New York in recent months in wastewater samples scooped from sewage treatment plants near coronavirus hot spots in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. But now, scientists say, increases are being seen citywide, as infection rates reach their highest levels since the spring.
This kind of wastewater testing is especially challenging in New York, where 7,500 miles of pipes handle 1.3 billion to three billion gallons of wastewater a day, depending on rainfall levels, making it nearly impossible for the scientists to pinpoint exactly which neighborhoods the viral remnants are actually coming from.
This is one reason that city health officials say person-by-person testing is still the best tool to track the virus. On Tuesday, the seven-day average positive test rate was 4.94 percent, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Monitoring the sewers is “just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and we are still trying to figure out where it fits,” said Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health. “It is absolutely worth pursuing.”
The samples are all analyzed at Newtown Creek, the wastewater treatment plant in North Brooklyn that is the city’s largest and is notable for its huge, gleaming digestion tanks that break down organic materials in sewage.
A microbiology lab that was long used to measure bacteria in wastewater, as well as viruses like the poliovirus and norovirus, was expanded to include the coronavirus analyses.
Sewer work is not glamorous, but the department’s employees take pride in maintaining a system that most New Yorkers know little about yet rely heavily upon. Michael Radano, a deputy chief at the plant, said he was a third-generation worker for the department.
Vincent Sapienza, commissioner of the Environmental Protection Department, chuckled and said, “He’s got sewage running through his veins.”
In New Jersey and in many suburban towns across the Northeast, youth hockey is an all-consuming ritual of the cold weather months. Players and their families devote nights and weekends and routinely drive hundreds of miles to compete in multiday tournaments.
“This is a way of life,” said Vincent Cucci III, a lawyer from Scotch Plains, N.J., whose two sons and daughter play on three different teams.
New York has banned games and scrimmages since the beginning of the pandemic. New Jersey and Connecticut stopped competitive hockey and other youth sports until January. And interstate tournaments in the Northeast have been suspended.
In places where youth hockey has not been halted, the normal rhythms have been tossed out the window — no spectators allowed in arenas, locker rooms off limits to players and teams subject to mandatory quarantine if even one athlete tests positive for the virus.
Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, dean of Rutgers University’s School of Public Health and an expert in infectious diseases, said the way hockey is played and its indoor setting made the sport a risky activity.
“It’s really an ideal transmission vector” because of factors like sweat, spit and physical proximity, Dr. Halkitis said.
But to players and parents, canceling hockey means giving up a cherished pastime and the chance to connect with peers when many young people are isolated at home because of remote learning.
Mr. Cucci’s son, Vincent Cucci IV, a 17-year-old senior, said he understands the need for safety but believes that the precautions teams and rink operators have taken are sufficient.
“I’m scared of losing my last season, scared of losing the last opportunity to play with friends I’ve played with since I was 8 years old,” Mr. Cucci said.
Russia has made its coronavirus vaccine available for free in recent days to teachers, medical workers and social-service employees younger than 61 in Moscow. But a lack of trust is hobbling Russia’s rollout: the country’s scientists may well have made great strides in battling the pandemic, but many Russians are not ready to believe it.
President Vladimir V. Putin proclaimed in August that Russia had become the first country in the world to approve a vaccine for the coronavirus, even though it had not been tested in a large-scale medical trial.
In research afterward, an independent polling institute found that the first-in-the-world bombast may have only deepened Russians’ suspicions: 59 percent of respondents said they would not get the vaccine, even if it was free of charge.
Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader now recuperating in Germany from a nerve-agent attack, voiced doubts about the vaccine’s safety on Saturday, calling on top government officials to get vaccinated “under the eye of doctors and journalists.”
While many members of the Russian elite have said they have already gotten the vaccine, Mr. Putin has not, though he says one of his daughters has.
The government entity that makes the vaccine says its product is 95 percent effective, but outside experts are skeptical. The name of the vaccine, Sputnik V, suggests the Kremlin views the vaccine as part of its competition with the West: Sputnik was the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union, in 1957, a high point for Moscow during the Cold War.
But the volunteers have generally concluded that the Sputnik V vaccine does appear to coax the body to produce Covid-19 antibodies. The organizer of one Facebook group of trial volunteers, Vera Smirnova, said she often criticized the government but was disappointed that many Russian liberals reflexively rejected the vaccine because of its association with the Kremlin.
“The price of this will be human lives,” said Ms. Smirnova, who works as a university instructor in Moscow. “I think this is a moment in which, perhaps, we need to try to trust the authorities, because in the coming months we won’t have any other option.”
Oleg Matsnev, Ivan Nechepurenko and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.
Chris Hurn wasn’t surprised scammers were trying to get government money. An enormous relief effort like the $523 billion Paycheck Protection Program is bound to attract grifters.
As thousands of applications for government-backed loans flooded into his firm, Fountainhead Commercial Capital, it reported at least 500 suspicious cases to federal officials, Mr. Hurn said. But what shocked him was the brazen glee of the scammers who got money anyway.
At least a dozen times, “someone tried to defraud us, got turned down and then followed up to taunt us that they got their loan,” said Mr. Hurn, Fountainhead’s chief executive.
Four months after the federal government’s signature coronavirus relief program for small businesses expired, investigators and lawmakers have only scratched the surface of schemes that illicitly tapped its forgivable loans. The program’s hastily drafted and frequently revised rules, its removal of normal lending guardrails and governmental pressure to swiftly approve applications created the ideal conditions for thievery to thrive.
“We couldn’t believe how many people were trying to take advantage and game the system,” said Mr. Hurn, whose firm made more than 8,000 loans. “A lot of my employees, including me, were a little frustrated with humanity.”
So far, the Justice Department has brought criminal charges against more than 80 people accused of stealing at least $127 million from the relief program, but there’s far more to uncover. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said it had identified more than $4 billion in potentially improper loans, and some bankers believe the total will be much higher.