Covid-19 Live Updates: States Announce Crackdowns as Virus Numbers Reach New Highs

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia.
Credit…Steve Helber/Associated Press

Pennsylvania announced statewide restrictions on Thursday that ban indoor dining and close gyms, theaters and casinos for three weeks to stem a “dire” surge in coronavirus cases, and Virginians were asked to stay home from midnight to 5 a.m. until the new year.

The clampdowns came as states across the country reported deaths and cases in numbers never seen before, and hospitals filled beyond capacity. Through Wednesday, there were seven-day records in both cases and deaths.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf was unsparing Thursday in his characterization of the threat facing his state.

“This virus continues to rage in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Wolf said at a news conference. “Clearly we need to take future mitigation actions and stop the spread of Covid-19. We all hoped it would not come to this. The current state of the surge in Pennsylvania will not allow us to wait.”

And in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a new executive order that imposes a nightly curfew, but it was unclear how — and how vigorously — it would be enforced.

The order lists categories of activity that will still be permitted during the curfew, including obtaining food, goods or services; seeking medical or law enforcement help; taking care of people or animals; child care; exercise; traveling to work, school or a house of worship; volunteering for charity; and leaving home to seek safety.

The governor urged residents not to go out without good reason. “We need to take this seriously,” Mr. Northam said. “We need to stay at home.”

But asked how the curfew would be enforced, the governor said it was “about messaging.”

Virginia reported at least 21 new coronavirus deaths and 4,398 new cases on Wednesday. Over the past week, the state has reported an average of 3,521 cases a day, an increase of 41 percent from the average two weeks earlier.

The new order also prohibits all public and private in-person gatherings of more than 10 people who do not live together, with exceptions for work and education, and requires people to wear masks “if they are in an indoor setting shared by others.” The state already requires masks outdoors.

Oklahoma also limited indoor activity, restricting indoor youth sporting events and public gatherings — which includes weddings, funerals and holiday parties held at event centers — to 50 percent capacity for the next 30 days. Places of worship are excluded.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania reported 8,626 new cases and an additional 247 coronavirus deaths. The daily average over the past week has hovered near 10,000 cases per day, an increase of 51 percent from the average two weeks earlier.

Dr. Jaewon Ryu, the president and chief executive officer of Geisinger Health System, a regional hospital system, said the network was “operating pretty close to 100 percent capacity.”

Mr. Wolf, who announced on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and would be performing his duties remotely, said he was feeling well and that he had tested negative on Thursday. Mr. Wolf’s wife, Francis Wolf, also tested negative.

It was not immediately clear what type of test Mr. Wolf took, or if he had previously felt sick. Some types of coronavirus tests are prone to delivering incorrect results, especially when they are taken by people who are not experiencing symptoms.

Even before Governor Wolf issued his new order, the Pennsylvania House majority leader, Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican, pushed back against what many suspected was coming.

“Governor Wolf, do not cancel Christmas,” Mr. Benninghoff said in a statement. “Do not use your executive order pen to devastate lives and livelihoods. Government mandates will not cure COVID-19 and unilateral shutdowns will not create personal responsibility.”

In Virginia, speaking on the first night of Hanukkah, the governor also called on citizens to remember service members and essential workers during the holiday season.

“I know that Christmas and Hanukkah are truly cherished times,” he said. “The holidays look a bit different this year, and some of the traditions we treasure just aren’t possible.”

But he added, “As we look ahead to a new year, I see reason for hope and optimism that in the coming months, things will be better.”

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine being administered at a London hospital this week.
Credit…Pool photo by Victoria Jones

Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine passed a critical milestone on Thursday when a panel of experts formally recommended that the Food and Drug Administration authorize its use.

The F.D.A.’s vaccine advisory panel, composed of independent scientific experts, infectious disease doctors and statisticians, voted in favor of emergency authorization for people 16 and older.

Although the F.D.A. does not have to follow the advice of its advisory panel, it usually does, and it is likely to do so within days, giving health care workers and nursing home residents first priority to begin receiving the first shots early next week.

The agency may act as soon as Saturday, though officials cautioned that last-minute legal or bureaucratic requirements might delay an announcement.

With that formal blessing, the nation may finally begin to slow the spread of the virus just as infections and deaths surge, reaching a record of more than 3,000 daily deaths on Wednesday.

The initial shipment of 6.4 million doses will leave Pfizer warehouses within 24 hours of being cleared by the F.D.A., according to federal officials. About half of those doses will be sent across the country, and the other half will be reserved for the initial recipients to receive their second dose about three weeks later.

It is the beginning of a complex, monthslong distribution plan coordinated by federal and local health authorities, as well as large hospitals and pharmacy chains.

If successful, the vaccine campaign should help return a grieving and economically depressed country back to some semblance of normal.

“With the high efficacy and good safety profile shown for our vaccine, and the pandemic essentially out of control, vaccine introduction is an urgent need,” Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice president and the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, said at the meeting.

The recommendation vote caps a whirlwind year for Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, which began working on the vaccine 11 months ago, shattering all speed records for vaccine development, which typically takes years.

The Pfizer vaccine has already been given to people in Bahrain and Britain. Canada approved it on Wednesday. A U.S. authorization for it is expected to be followed soon by one for Moderna’s vaccine, which uses similar technology and has also shown promising results in clinical trials.

A Covid-19 victim at the Perches Funeral Home in El Paso this month.
Credit…Paul Ratje/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The new daily record of coronavirus deaths is a stunning number in and of itself.

But it’s not just that at least 3,055 deaths were reported on Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic began, far surpassing the spring peak of 2,752 deaths. It’s that the nation lost 3,055 people who once blew out birthday candles, had triumphs and stumbles, and laughed and cried — before succumbing to the virus.

In a single day, the country, numbed and divided, lost more Americans to the coronavirus than were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks or the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And it appears far from over.

“The worst is yet to come in the next week or two or three,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “What happens after that is going to depend on our behavior today.”

Dr. Troisi, said she expected the death toll to accelerate in part because current numbers most likely do not reflect infections from Thanksgiving gatherings.

During yet another week of loss, the virus took the lives of the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the prominent and the ordinary people known best by those who loved them.

They include Lillian Blancas, a proud daughter of immigrants, part of the first generation in her family to attend college and a lawyer in El Paso who was on the brink of fulfilling her dream of becoming a judge.

Ms. Blancas, 47, died alone in her hospital room this week, just before a runoff election on Saturday in which she was the favorite.

In Ms. Blancas’ hometown of El Paso, Linda Azani, the assistant manager of Perches Funeral Homes, said the virus toll was so steep that “there’s not enough of us to go around.”

“Not enough directors to see families,” she said. “Not enough facilities to have funerals. Not enough chapels.”

But the virus surge is no longer isolated to any one place. Across the country, officials and funeral homes are sounding the alarm.

Barbara Ferrer, a seasoned public health director in Los Angeles County, choked up this week while recounting the cumulative death toll in her area: over 8,000 people. So many people are dying in Amarillo, Texas, that there is a two-week wait to be cremated.

Almost every call coming into the Bauer Funeral Home in Effingham, Ill., involves a request for a service for a Covid-19 victim. In the last week, nine of the 13 deaths were from the virus.

“It seemed like every time I answered the phone it was somebody passing at a nursing home or a hospital from Covid,” said Mr. Young. Sometimes there were two or three a day. With cases rises after Thanksgiving, he is bracing for even more.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifying before Congress in September.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

The editor in chief of a weekly report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told House Democrats that she was ordered to destroy an email showing that Trump political appointees attempted to interfere with its publication — and that she believes the order came from Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the agency’s director.

The explosive allegation from Dr. Charlotte Kent, the editor of the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report — the so-called “holiest of the holy” of health reports — is contained in a letter that Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, sent Thursday morning to Dr. Redfield and the health secretary, Alex M. Azar II.

The email in question, dated Aug. 8, was sent by Dr. Paul Alexander, then a senior H.H.S. adviser, Mr. Clyburn’s letter said. In it, Dr. Alexander demanded that the C.D.C. insert new language in a previously published scientific report on coronavirus risks to children, or “pull it down and stop all reports immediately.”

Dr. Kent was on vacation when it arrived; the request to delete the message, she told investigators, was passed on to her by the woman who was filling in for her. She considered the request “very unusual,” she said. And when she tried to comply, she discovered the email had already been deleted — but she told investigators she had “no idea” by whom.

Dr. Redfield has said that the scientific integrity of the M.M.W.R., as the reports are known, has never been compromised — a point he reiterated in a statement on Thursday. He did not deny the order to delete the email, but said he had “instructed C.D.C. staff to ignore” Mr. Alexander’s comments.

“As I testified before Congress, I am fully committed to maintaining the independence of the M.M.W.R., and I stand by that statement.” Dr. Redfield said.

A separate statement from the C.D.C.’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, called Mr. Clyburn’s letter “irresponsible” and said it mischaracterized Dr. Kent’s testimony. House Republicans then released excerpts from Dr. Kent’s testimony in which she said she was “very committed to maintaining the scientific integrity of the M.M. WR.,” and would never let anything interfere with that.

Mr. Clyburn, who leads a committee that is investigating political interference with the C.D.C., wrote that after Dr. Kent spoke to the panel on Monday, the Trump administration abruptly canceled four more interviews with top C.D.C. scientists and officials, a move the congressman said amounted to obstructing his investigation.

“I am deeply concerned that the Trump administration’s political meddling with the nation’s coronavirus response has put American lives at greater risk,” Mr. Clyburn wrote, “and that administration officials may have taken steps to conceal and destroy evidence of this dangerous conduct.”

He told Mr. Azar and Dr. Redfield that if theydid not produce documents requested by his panel by Dec. 15, he would subpoena the records.

The issue of political interference in the weekly reports burst into the news in September, when current and former senior health officials disclosed that H.H.S. political appointees had repeatedly asked the C.D.C. to revise, delay and even scuttle reports on the coronavirus that they believed were unflattering to President Trump.

One point of contention was the C.D.C.’s guidance on school openings.

Mr. Clyburn’s letter quoted Mr. Alexander’s email as saying: “C.D.C. tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school reopening. … Very misleading by C.D.C. and shame on them. Their aim is clear. … This is designed to hurt this Presidnet [sic] for their reasons which I am not interested in.”

Mr. Alexander was dismissed from the department in September.

The committee is now seeking to interview the four other C.D.C. officials whose appearances were canceled: Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director; Nina Witkofsky, the acting chief of staff; Trey Moeller, the acting deputy chief of staff; and Kate Galatas, the acting associate director for communications.

Volunteers for coronavirus vaccine trials in Soweto, South Africa.
Credit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Wealthy nations have a firm upper hand in securing a coronavirus vaccine compared with developing countries, a global coalition of organizations and activists warned on Wednesday.

In about 70 developing countries, only one in 10 residents is expected to receive a Covid-19 vaccine within the next year, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which consists of organizations such as Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now and Oxfam.

“The hoarding of vaccines actively undermines global efforts to ensure that everyone, everywhere can be protected from Covid-19,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice. “Rich countries have clear human rights obligations not only to refrain from actions that could harm access to vaccines elsewhere, but also to cooperate and provide assistance to countries that need it.”

Rich countries representing 14 percent of the global population have bought over 50 percent of promising Covid-19 vaccines, according to data collected by Airfinity, a London-based software company tracking deals between countries and manufacturers. It looked at supply deals that included eight vaccine candidates in Phase 3 clinical trials.

The alliance called on pharmaceutical companies along with researchers to “share the science, technological know-how and intellectual property” of their vaccines. They also asked governments to ensure their Covid-19 vaccines are free to the public and equitably available.

Recently, countries including South Africa and India have pushed for loosened restrictions on intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, proposing that the World Trade Organization end global enforcement of the rights in the interest of accessibility.

“Governments must also ensure the pharmaceutical industry puts people’s lives before profits,” said Heidi Chow, a senior campaign and policy manager at Global Justice Now.

Developing countries that the alliance focused on currently have access to the vaccine only through Covax, a global initiative to vaccinate much of the world population. (The United States declined to be a part of the effort.)

The United Kingdom started vaccinations this week, after becoming the first Western country to authorize a Covid-19 vaccine. On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates approved China’s coronavirus vaccine, signaling a win for that country’s vaccine ambitions. Canada approved Pfizer and BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine, which was also approved in Britain. Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted their applications for emergency approvals the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and vaccinations in the U.S. could start before next month.

However, the news of vaccination success in wealthy nations hasn’t necessarily equated to access for developing countries: Wealthy nations have purchased enough doses to vaccinate their populations three times over by the end of 2021, the alliance said.

“By buying up the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply, rich countries are in breach of their human rights obligations,” Mr. Cockburn said. “Instead, by working with others to share knowledge and scale up supply, they could help bring an end to the global Covid-19 crisis.”

Weekly initial jobless claims through the week ending Dec. 5

Pandemic Unemployment

Assistance claims

Jump in claims the week after Thanksgiving

Regular state


Weekly initial jobless claims through the week ending Dec. 5

Pandemic Unemployment

Assistance claims

Jump in claims the week after Thanksgiving

Regular state


Applications for jobless benefits resumed their upward march last week as the worsening pandemic continued to take a toll on the economy.

More than 947,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was up nearly 229,000 from the week before, reversing a one-week dip that many economists attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Applications have now risen three times in the last four weeks, and are up nearly a quarter-million since the first week of November.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the week’s figure was 853,000, an increase of 137,000.

Nearly 428,000 applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular state benefits.

Unemployment filings have fallen greatly since last spring, when as many as six million people a week applied for state benefits. But progress had stalled even before the recent increases, and with Covid-19 cases soaring and states reimposing restrictions on consumers and businesses, economists fear that layoffs could surge again.

“It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”

Jobless claims rose in nearly every state last week. In California, where the state has imposed strict new limits on many businesses, applications jumped by 47,000, more than reversing the state’s Thanksgiving-week decline.

The monthly jobs report released on Friday showed that hiring slowed sharply in early November and that some of the sectors most exposed to the pandemic, like restaurants and retailers, cut jobs for the first time since the spring. More up-to-date data from private sources suggests that the slowdown has continued or deepened since the November survey was conducted.

“Every month, we’re just seeing the pace of the recovery get slower and slower,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with the job site Indeed. Now, she said, the question is, “Are we actually going to see it slide backward?”

Many economists say the recovery will continue to slow if the government does not provide more aid to households and businesses. After months of gridlock in Washington, prospects for a new round of federal help have grown in recent days, with congressional leaders from both parties signaling their openness to a compromise and the White House proposing its own $916 billion spending plan on Tuesday. But the two sides remain far apart on key issues.

The stakes are particularly high for jobless workers depending on federal programs that have expanded and extended unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Those programs expire later this month, potentially leaving millions of families with no income during what epidemiologists warn could be some of the pandemic’s worst months.

Richard Hinch was elected speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives at an outdoor meeting Dec. 2. He died a week later.
Credit…Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The New Hampshire State Legislature was already fiercely divided over the coronavirus when the new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard Hinch, died suddenly on Wednesday. Then came the news on Thursday that the cause of his death was Covid-19.

Mr. Hinch, who was 71, died just a week after he was sworn in as speaker — and about three weeks after an indoor meeting of his caucus that led to several members contracting the virus, an event that Mr. Hinch had tried to play down in public remarks. It was not clear whether he, too, had caught the virus at the caucus meeting.

The news will undoubtedly heighten tensions among state lawmakers, who have been at odds over the refusal of many Republican lawmakers to wear masks or take other pandemic precautions seriously. Splits have opened not just along partisan lines but also within the Republican ranks.

William M. Marsh, a Republican state representative, said the responsibility for Mr. Hinch’s death lies on the shoulders of a group of Republican members who refused to take precautions like wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and who leaned on others to do the same. “The peer pressure from colleagues is the root cause of what happened to my friend,” Mr. Marsh said of Mr. Hinch.

Democratic lawmakers, who held a majority before the Nov. 3 election, have been in an uproar over the Republican caucus meeting, which was held on Nov. 20 at a ski area. Democrats say they were kept in the dark about the infected lawmakers while Republicans were informed.

The Democratic former speaker, Steve Shurtleff, said he was troubled by Mr. Hinch’s support of Republican lawmakers who refused to wear masks on the House floor, whom Mr. Hinch had called the “patriot section” and the “freedom group.”

“It’s so ironic, looking back,” Mr. Shurtleff said on Thursday. “I know he was just doing his job as a Republican leader, defending his members and his caucus, but it seems so senseless now.”

Mr. Shurtleff said he hoped that the acting speaker would arrange for the House to meet remotely when its next session convenes in January, because he did not expect the mask-resistant Republicans to change their behavior. “I don’t think there will be any remorse,” he said. “There may be remorse at his passing, but not so much at the cause.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said on Wednesday that Mr. Hinch was “a fierce defender” of the state, “a close friend and a respected public servant.” He, too, was critical of lawmakers who refuse to wear masks. “For those who are out there doing just the opposite, just to make some sort of bizarre political point, it’s horribly irresponsible,” he said. “Use your heads, don’t act like a bunch of children.”

The State Senate and House each held their organizational meetings outdoors in 40-degree weather last week. About 130 members of the 400-seat House did not attend in person and were sworn in remotely, according to The Associated Press.

Republican lawmakers in at least two other states where mask wearing and other restrictions have been politically contentious have tested positive in recent days:

  • A South Dakota state senator who attended a dinner with the governor on Monday, and then joined dozens of lawmakers for a budget speech on Tuesday, tested positive on Wednesday. Senator Helene Duhamel of Rapid City posed for a group photo, shoulder to shoulder with Gov. Kristi Noem and more than two dozen other women who attended the dinner. Governor Noem has fiercely resisted imposing a mask mandate or any other restrictions throughout the pandemic, even as the coronavirus raged through the state in the fall, overwhelming its hospitals. The governor’s office insisted that she had not had close contact with Ms. Duhamel, even though they were photographed standing only a few feet apart.

  • The chairman of the appropriations committee in the North Dakota State Senate, Ray Holmberg, confirmed to The Bismarck Tribune on Thursday that he had tested positive, and said he believed he was infected with the virus during the legislature’s organizational session last week. Three employees of the legislature’s nonpartisan research agency have also tested positive, The Associated Press reported.

Ellen DeGeneres announced in a tweet on Thursday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Credit…Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has paused filming after its host said on Thursday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Fortunately, I’m feeling fine right now,’’ Ms. DeGeneres wrote in a statement she posted to Twitter.

Ms. DeGeneres said that anyone who had been in close contact with her had been notified, and that she was following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’ll see you all again after the holidays,’’ she wrote. “Please stay healthy and safe.’’

The production company Telepictures, which is a unit of Warner Bros. Television, said in a statement that it had paused filming until January.

The talk show, which films in Burbank, Calif., has been a staple of daytime television since 2003.

After shifting to virtual audiences amid the pandemic, Ms. DeGeneres had resumed filming with a limited live audience in late October. Attendees were required to wear face masks and sit six feet apart.

Ms. DeGeneres had faced accusations of leading a toxic workplace earlier this year, after BuzzFeed News published an article in July in which former staff members said they faced “racism, fear and intimidation” on set. Warner Bros. announced an investigation, three producers left the show, and Ms. DeGeneres apologized on camera and to employees.

The European Medicines Agency, located in Amsterdam, did not disclose who was behind the cyberattack.
Credit…Remko De Waal/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s top drug regulator, whose approval is necessary for countries in the bloc to begin rolling out the coronavirus vaccine, has begun an investigation after it was hit by a cyberattack, it said on Wednesday.

The agency, which is reviewing vaccine candidates, did not provide details about the target or the date of the attack. But shortly after the announcement, Pfizer and BioNTech said in their own statement that some documents related to the regulatory submission of their vaccine and which were hosted on a server of the European agency, had been “unlawfully accessed.”

Pfizer and BioNTech said their systems had not been breached, and that no study participants appeared to have been identified as a result of the cyberattack.

The breach comes at a time of heightened threats faced by pharmaceutical companies, health care institutions and agencies involved in the production, approval and distribution of the vaccine.

Last week, IBM said it had detected a series of cyberattacks in September against companies involved in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines across the world and against a branch of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm.

The European Medicines Agency is set to announce a decision on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by Dec. 29. Although each country in the bloc will be in charge of its own rollout, the agency’s approval will pave the way for the largest vaccination campaign in the West, dwarfing the rollout that started this week in Britain and most likely posing more considerable logistical and security challenges.

Canada approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday, becoming the second Western country to do so. Russia began the rollout of its own Sputnik 5 vaccine on Saturday.

The European Medicines Agency didn’t disclose who was behind the cyberattack, saying that it “cannot provide additional details whilst the investigation is ongoing.” Pfizer and BioNTech said in their statement that they were awaiting further information from the agency.

Cybersecurity experts have said that only state actors could carry out such operations. Microsoft revealed last month that hacker groups backed by Russia and North Korea had targeted several vaccine makers in the United States, Canada and France, among other countries.

“The intentions behind those attacks are to parasite Western efforts on the vaccine,” said Julien Nocetti, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations who studies cybersecurity with a focus on Russian activities.

By breaking into the system of key actors involved in the vaccine or by disrupting distribution efforts, attackers could exact considerable damage, said Claire Zaboeva, a senior cyberthreat analyst at IBM’s Security X-Force.

Ms. Zaboeva said about the production and delivery of the vaccine: “If you manage to get the key to the whole kingdom, you have 500 options on the menu: collecting key timetables, which nations will get the vaccine, how it will get there, what companies will be associated with the delivery, or how it will be handled.”

Healthcare workers and the Connecticut National Guard administering coronavirus tests in Stamford, Conn., on Wednesday.
Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Months into the pandemic, many people still are frustrated and confused about virus testing.

Long lines at testing sites, delays in getting results and even surprise testing bills have discouraged some people from getting tested.

And many people don’t understand what a test can and can’t tell you about your risk, and wrongly think a test result that comes back negative guarantees they can’t spread the virus to others.

We asked some of the nation’s leading experts on testing to help answer common questions about how to get tested, what to expect and what the different tests and results really mean.

Among them:

  • When should be people be tested?

  • What are the tests like?

  • What type of test should people get?

  • And how do you interpret the results?

Airlines are just one piece of a massive global machine cranking up to tackle one of the biggest logistical challenges in recent memory.
Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Months before anyone knew which of the coronavirus vaccine candidates would pull ahead or when they’d be available, airlines were trying to figure out how to transport doses around the world.

Over the summer, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines spoke with government officials, pharmaceutical companies and experts to understand where vaccines might be produced, how they would be shipped and how best to position people and planes to get them moving. More recently, they have flown batches of vaccines for use in trials and research or to prepare for wider distribution.

The industry will play a vital role in moving billions of doses in the months ahead, putting underused planes and crews to work while circulating the very medicine that airlines hope will get people to book tickets again.

“When a request comes in, it’s going to be urgent and we have to act immediately,” said Manu Jacobs, who oversees shipments of pharmaceuticals and other specialty products for United.

One of the biggest challenges for airlines has been ensuring that vaccines are transported at frigid temperatures. Pfizer’s must be stored at an incredibly low minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. Moderna’s can be kept at a more easily managed minus-4 degrees.

For its vaccine, Pfizer designed special cooler containers that can be stuffed with dry ice, which is solid carbon dioxide. But aviation authorities limit how much dry ice can be carried on planes because it turns to gas, making the air potentially toxic for pilots and crews.

After running tests that showed it was safe, United last month asked the Federal Aviation Administration to raise the limit so it could fly the Pfizer vaccine from Brussels International Airport to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, according to an F.A.A. letter. The agency allowed the airline to carry up to 15,000 pounds of dry ice aboard a Boeing 777-224 plane, compared to the previous limit of 3,000 pounds, according to the letter. A single 777 can carry up to one million doses, the airline said.

In normal times, about half of all air cargo is transported by airlines, often beneath the feet of passengers. The steep decline in flights this spring removed much of that capacity, but the urgent need for masks, gloves and ventilators created a big opportunity for cash-starved carriers, allowing them to recapture at least some of that lost business.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy advised the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice for surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, had a central role in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s decision in March to cancel this year’s national basketball tournaments — one of the earliest and most culturally significant signs that the virus would upend ordinary life in America.

The work of Dr. Murthy, a member of the association’s powerful Board of Governors who was surgeon general during part of the Obama administration, offers a view into how he approached the pandemic’s initial threat in the United States, and how he might help shape the federal government’s response under Mr. Biden.

A newcomer to the insular world of college athletics, Dr. Murthy proved a cautious, deliberate expert who was wary of making drastic decisions prematurely, interviews with more than a dozen people who participated in the N.C.A.A.’s meetings suggest. But they said that as the tournaments approached and more data and scientific research emerged, Dr. Murthy was a forceful and effective champion of measures that had been unthinkable to most of society only days or weeks earlier.

Indeed, it was Dr. Murthy who urgently told board members that they risked fueling a deadly crisis if they allowed the tournaments to proceed as scheduled.

“He was instrumental in convincing the board that the time to act was now,” said Kenneth I. Chenault, a former chairman of American Express who sits on the N.C.A.A. board.

But board members like Mr. Chenault said that it was plain that Dr. Murthy understood the cultural and financial repercussions of a decision like canceling the basketball tournaments, which generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

The reopening of theaters, museums and cinemas in France will be delayed for another three weeks.
Credit…Abdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The French government on Thursday said that it will delay relaxing some Covid-19 lockdown restrictions because rates of new cases were not falling as fast as expected.

The reopening of theaters, museums and cinemas, which was planned for Dec. 15, will be pushed back another three weeks, and a curfew that will replace the current lockdown will run earlier than planned.

The authorities had announced that a reprieve from the restrictions would be implemented on the condition that France reached a target of 5,000 new cases per day and fewer than 3,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care.

Although the target of 3,000 patients in intensive care is within sight, France on Wednesday reported about 15,000 new cases, dampening hopes that daily new cases could fall to 5,000 by next Tuesday.

“We are not yet at the end of this second wave and we will not reach the objectives we had set,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said at a news conference on Thursday.

“The battle is far from won,” he said, adding that although the health situation improved for the past few weeks, it has plateaued in recent days.

The health minister Olivier Véran said that “we know that from plateau to peak sometimes things can go very fast.”

France will stick to a previously announced plan to end the lockdown on Dec. 15 and replace it with a nightly curfew. But in a departure from the plan, the curfew will start one hour earlier, at 8 p.m., and will not be waived for New Year’s Eve.

An exception will be made for Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, when people will be allowed to move freely during the night.

“The risk is that if we don’t change anything, the second wave will start again in the next few weeks,” Mr. Véran said.

On Thursday, the French Senate released a scathing report of a parliamentary commission that dissected the government’s failures in its handling of the coronavirus crisis and denounced “late and uncoordinated decisions” that delayed the government’s response to the pandemic.

The report specifically pointed to the failure of the government’s management of critical stocks of face masks. “The shortage of masks will remain the unfortunate symbol of the unpreparedness of the country and the lack of anticipation of the health authorities in the face of the crisis,” the report said.

It pointed out that Jérome Salomon, a top official at the health ministry, chose not to replenish stocks of masks in 2018, despite being warned about risks of shortages, and lobbied to retrospectively amend a scientific report in order to justify this decision. In a statement sent on Thursday night, Mr. Salomon denied that any pressure was exerted on the authors of the report.

“The mask fiasco was deliberately concealed by the government during the crisis,” the report said, adding that “a communication crisis has undermined the credibility of public and scientific discourse, the effects of which will be lasting.”

The parliamentary commission added that France’s strategy to test, trace and isolate in order to prevent a second wave of the virus proved unsuccessful, because of backlogs of test results, a limited contact tracing operation and an almost nonexistent isolation strategy.

Mr. Castex did not comment on the report, but acknowledged that a sense of fatigue surrounding the pandemic was growing in the country.

“I know your weariness, your doubts, your suffering,” Mr. Castex said. “I share them.”

Staff aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that most Republicans are unlikely to support the bipartisan plan.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Staff aides to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, have informed other congressional leaders that it is unlikely that the majority of Republicans could support compromise provisions addressing liability protections and state and local government funding in a $908 billion stimulus deal being hammered out by a bipartisan group of moderates.

Their warning reflected the deep resistance among several Republicans for another large round of federal relief. For months their reluctance has helped to stymie agreement on an economic recovery plan to help struggling businesses and individuals amid the pandemic. Mr. McConnell and Republicans have been particularly resistant to providing billions of dollars to cash-strapped state and local governments, a top Democratic priority that would receive $160 billion under the moderates’ emerging outline.

That package is likely to contain some form of limited liability protection to businesses, schools and hospitals, which most Democrats have dismissed as a nonstarter, but the shield could be temporary and not as sweeping as the one that Mr. McConnell has demanded, which prompted the private skepticism.

The potential Republican antipathy for the compromise that was conveyed by Mr. McConnell’s staff was first reported by Politico, and was relayed on condition of anonymity by a senior Democrat familiar with the conversation. Mr. McConnell’s office declined to comment.

“My view is that the best thing that could happen is the pieces of this that everybody agrees on, take that out — take the funding for state local governments out — and pass the rest of it,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, told reporters, offering a suggestion Democrats have panned.”

The bipartisan group is still struggling to finalize its agreement, let alone produce legislation that could be voted on in the coming days.

With just a handful of days before the end of the 116th Congress and a number of critical programs established in previous coronavirus legislation set to expire, lawmakers agree that both chambers should not leave Washington until they reach consensus on both an omnibus government spending package and a pandemic aid deal.

The Senate is expected to approve a one-week stopgap bill before funding lapses on Friday, intended to buy additional time for negotiators on both issues. But the timing of the vote was unclear as of Thursday afternoon.

Top Democrats have signaled support for the bipartisan discussions, led by a handful of moderate lawmakers in both chambers, as a possible avenue for a final agreement. But in doing so, Democrats also rejected a proposal from Mr. McConnell to remove the provisions related to state and local government and liability protections and focus on approving funding for schools, education and small businesses.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, presented Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday with a $916 billion alternative, but she and other Democrats rejected it given that it failed to revive lapsed federal supplemental jobless payments. Instead, it would include a round of $600 stimulus checks, half the amount initially approved earlier this year.

A student attending class online in the Bronx. Remote classes are being targeted by hackers.
Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

American officials warned Thursday that hackers are targeting K-12 schools in a new wave of cyberattacks that is disrupting distance learning even as coronavirus cases spike across the country.

The F.B.I. and the cybersecurity division of Homeland Security issued a joint advisory warning of a new wave of ransomware and so-called DDoS, or distributed denial of service, attacks on K-12 schools that are slowing or disrupting student and teacher access to distance learning.

Some of the hackers behind the ransomware, officials said, held school data hostage or threatened to leak confidential student data if a payment was not made.

Over the past month, the attacks have taken more than a hundred schools in Baltimore offline. They have also hit dozens of schools in Texas and Alabama, as well as a handful of schools in Georgia and Ohio, according to public reports collected by Emsisoft, a security firm.

More than half of all ransomware attacks reported to a multistate analysis center in August and September involved attacks on K-12 schools, officials said.

“Schools have always been targets because there is a high likelihood they’ll pay a modest ransom to get their data back,” said Alex Holden, the chief executive at Hold Security, which specializes in cybercrime.

The F.B.I. has advised ransomware victims not to pay, but some schools are ignoring that advice.

Officials in Yazoo County, Miss., recently revealed that they had paid $300,000 to recover data from a ransomware attack last October. In July, officials in Athens, Texas, paid $50,000 to keep their data from being published online.

Cybersecurity experts say K-12 schools are particularly vulnerable, given that younger children are not as well versed in password management and in not clicking on phishing emails.

Many school districts have worked with FireEye, the security firm, which has offered school districts in Texas and elsewhere access to their security tools through the end of 2020. But earlier this week, FireEye revealed that its systems had been penetrated by nation-state hackers that appeared to be Russian.

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