Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Alaska is emerging as a possible test case for what winter may be like in the U.S.

Jonathan Wolfe


A third surge of coronavirus cases has gripped the U.S. — with outbreaks across nearly the entire country — inviting fears that the approaching winter may make a dangerous situation even worse.

But how can we know what the colder months will bring?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but Alaska is emerging as a possible test case for what winter may be like in the U.S.

During the summer months, when the virus pummeled the South and the West, Alaska kept the virus in check, largely because of a top-notch containment effort. Alaska conducted more tests than almost any other state and marshaled an army of contact tracers to track every person who tested positive. At the time, Alaska was recording some of the fewest cases per capita in the U.S.

Now, temperatures are once again dropping below zero, sunset greets the evening commute, and people are heading indoors to eat, drink and socialize — giving the virus new opportunities. The weekly case average in Alaska reached its highest point of the year on Friday, and the percentage of people who have tested positive has doubled in recent weeks. Tribal villages have been forced into lockdown in parts of the state, and contact tracing has come under strain.


Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

In addition to thriving indoors, the coronavirus may be more virulent in colder weather and lower relative humidities. Research has shown that some viruses persist longer in colder and drier conditions and that aerosolized viruses can remain more stable in cooler air. Viruses can replicate more swiftly in such conditions, and human immune systems may respond differently depending on seasons.

In Alaska, winter weather has complicated efforts to send supplies to small villages with outbreaks, and may prevent medevac flights from reaching them. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that the state was continuing to build out supplemental hospital capacity should it be needed.

“It’s going to be a very tough fall and winter for the entire world,” he said.

Many Americans are concerned about the federal government’s ability to properly assess the safety and effectiveness of potential coronavirus vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration, which would approve any vaccine, has repeatedly caved to intense pressure from the White House throughout the pandemic.

And yet, reporting by our colleagues Sheila Kaplan, Sharon LaFraniere, Noah Weiland and Maggie Haberman may offer jittery Americans some solace. They uncovered a few victories for the agency in standing up to pressure campaigns from the president and his advisers.

A telling example: The White House was pushing the head of the F.D.A. to drop guidelines that would require two months of follow-up data from vaccine makers to make sure their vaccines were safe and effective. Instead, the F.D.A. published the guidelines in the appendix of briefing materials for an outside group of vaccine experts, effectively making them official. The materials were then quietly posted online. The White House was given an hour’s notice before the guidelines went up and abruptly approved them later that day.

Noah told us that such action was a positive sign for the independence of the agency.

“The push by career officials at the F.D.A. to publish new vaccine guidelines was arguably the most important sign of how difficult it will be for political pressure to compromise the process,” he said. “The career scientists have clear standards that pharmaceutical companies have embraced, and this episode showed how even the White House’s resistance to those standards did not mean much.”

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

I’m trying to do good deeds. I’m cooking and making food drops, especially to those living alone, as I know how difficult it is to cook for one. Also attempting to call folks in assisted living places, where many must stay in their rooms. Personally, catching up on my reading and allowing myself one Netflix episode a night. I am in desperate need of a schedule and more exercise.

— Judith Frank, Buffalo, N.Y.

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Jonathan Wolfe