Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Progress against the virus stalls in the U.S.

Jonathan WolfeAmelia Nierenberg


Credit…The New York Times

Across the United States the vaccine rollout is revving up, governors are lifting restrictions and more Americans are traveling by air than at any other time during the pandemic.

It seems as though many people see the end of the pandemic within reach, but our colleague Mitch Smith, who tracks the virus for The Times, told us that the country was actually in a precarious moment. “After six weeks of really extraordinary progress, we’ve now kind of stalled out,” he said. “And we don’t have a good sense of where it goes.”

The U.S. is averaging about 55,000 new cases and 1,200 deaths per day, vastly better than the 250,000 daily cases and 3,300 daily deaths the country saw on average only two months ago, but what had been a rapid decline in case rates has slowed considerably since late February.

In the last few weeks, some regions of the country have greatly improved, including California, the Northern Plains and the South. However, Mitch said there were strong causes for concern. Cases have remained stubbornly high in the Northeast, putting experts and public officials there on edge, and cases have recently surged again in Michigan.

We don’t know exactly why the country’s progress has seemed to hit a wall, but there are a few theories. More states have relaxed restrictions, which could be stalling further progress.

The other big factor could be the more contagious variants, which have been turning up in the U.S. in greater numbers, including in some of the hardest-hit regions. Public health experts have likened the current moment in the U.S. to a footrace between those variants and the vaccines. “And right now,” Mitch said, “it seems like a bit of a tie.”

There has been one undeniably positive development over the last few weeks: Hospitalization rates have dropped by nearly half. That means that hospitals are generally not as overwhelmed, which frees up more resources to treat Covid patients and may translate to fewer deaths going forward.


Credit…The New York Times

Over all, as we enter spring, Mitch said he was feeling “tempered hope.” But he added that the recently stalled progress was worrisome.

“We don’t know whether this is a blip before we resume really fast progress, or just an extended plateau, or kind of a harbinger of something much worse,” he said.

After more than a dozen countries halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the European Union’s drug regulator said it was safe and effective on Thursday. Officials hope the finding will alleviate concerns about possible rare side effects involving blood clots and allow countries to add the vaccine back into their arsenal against the resurgent coronavirus.

“Its benefits continue to be far greater than its risks,” said Sabine Straus, the chair of the safety committee for the regulator, the European Medicines Agency.

The green light could not come at a more dire time.

The World Health Organization said that Europe was not inoculating people quickly enough to slow transmission of the virus. New infections have risen for three successive weeks, and more European residents are dying from the coronavirus than a year ago. At a country level, new variants have crested third waves: On Thursday, France’s prime minister announced that several regions, including the Paris area, would go under a new lockdown on Friday for at least a month. Paris faces a dire shortage of hospital beds, Italy is also in lockdown and Poland is running out of ventilators.

And the AstraZeneca vaccine does appear to be safe: The regulator found that no causative link had yet emerged between the vaccine and blood clots or severe bleeding. In fact, AstraZeneca reported this week that a review of 17 million people found those who received the vaccine were less likely than others to develop dangerous clots.

Still, the pauses have shaken public confidence in AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Despite reassurances and minute numbers, Europeans reeling from policy whiplash may roll down their sleeves.

In France, where skepticism toward Covid-19 vaccines late last year was widespread, a recent poll found that only 20 percent of respondents trusted the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“I feel like we are being used as guinea pigs,” said Khady Ballo, 21, a law student in the southern French town of Montpellier. “I would not get the AstraZeneca vaccine even if it is approved again.”

For a deep dive on vaccine hesitancy in France, check out this piece from Yasmeen Serhan, in The Atlantic.

Large institutions — like universities, the National Football League and major corporations like Amazon or Tyson Foods — could reduce the number of Covid-19 cases among their populations by as much as 25 percent if they expanded testing to the wider community, a new study found.

“Testing in a box doesn’t makes sense,” said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist at Harvard University and the Broad Institute who led the analysis. “These things are communicable, and they’re coming in from the community.”

The researchers used real-world data from Colorado Mesa University. They created a baseline scenario in which 1 percent of the university and 6 percent of the surrounding county were infected by the coronavirus.

After assuming responsible contact tracing, quarantines and testing parameters, the researchers found strong support of altruism. If the university used all of its tests on its own members, it would have roughly 200 cases after 40 days. If it parceled out some tests to close contacts of students and staff members, the number of cases dropped by one-quarter.

“You’re in a drought in a place with a lot of forest fires, and you have a shortage of fire alarms,” Dr. Sabeti said, explaining a metaphor she often uses. “And if you run out and buy every fire alarm and install it in your own house, you’ll be able to pick up a fire the moment it hits your house.”

“But at that point,” she said, “it’s burning to the ground.”

  • Angola, Ethiopia and Ghana said they would continue administering the AstraZeneca vaccine. Several African public health experts said at a briefing on Thursday that the benefits far outweighed the risks, Reuters reports.

  • Illinois will open appointments to all residents 16 years and older on April 12, but Chicago will set its own timeline.

  • In the U.S., President Biden promised to reach 100 million shots in 100 days. He announced today that the country would have administered 100 million vaccine doses by Friday, the 58th day of his presidency.

  • New research found most people who recover from a Covid infection remained shielded from the virus for at least six months, and reinfection appeared uncommon.

  • The number of new daily coronavirus cases in Turkey reached a new high of over 20,000 on Wednesday, Reuters reports.

  • Here’s how two lonely generations are helping each other heal in the pandemic.

  • New York will allow large outdoor sports and performing arts venues to open at limited capacity starting on April 1, just in time for the Yankees’ first home game of the season.

  • Pediatric vaccinations are a long way away. “But the best available research indicates that families with young children don’t, in fact, have to live like it’s 2020 until 2022,” Dr. Emily Oster writes in The Atlantic.

  • Daniel Ruiz died of the coronavirus in a California prison. Now, his family is suing, calling it a wrongful death, The Guardian reports.

Right now, all I am doing is trying to cope with the death of my wife and companion of almost 41 years, Brenda. I know the death percentage is low, but that is no consolation to the 535,000 American families who lost loved ones. I know we should have been more careful. I know we didn’t take it as serious as we should have, until it was on our doorstep. But it’s one of those things that you don’t think will happen to you. It happens to other people, not us. Believe me, it can happen to anyone.

— David H. Countryman, St Johnsville, N.Y.

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Jonathan Wolfe and Amelia Nierenberg