Covid-19 Live Updates: Biden Official Warns U.S. Virus Deaths Will Pass 500,000 Within Weeks

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Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff, coordinated the Obama administration’s Ebola response.  
Credit…Jabin Botsford/The New York Times

Officials in the incoming Biden administration braced the country for continued hardship in the days after the inauguration, with the president-elect assuming control of a struggling economy and surging coronavirus outbreak in less than three days.

Ron Klain, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s incoming White House chief of staff, had a dire forecast for the course of the coronavirus outbreak in the new administration’s first weeks, predicting that half a million Americans will have died from the coronavirus by the end of February. The current toll is nearing 400,000.

“The virus is going to get worse before it gets better,” Mr. Klain said in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “People who are contracting the virus today will start to get sick next month, will add to the death toll in late February, even March, so it’s going to take a while to turn this around.”

Daily U.S. deaths from the virus have risen to nearly 4,000 a day, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sounded the alarm about a fast-spreading, far more contagious variant of the coronavirus that it projects will become the dominant source of infection in the country by March, potentially fueling another wrenching surge of cases and deaths.

Mr. Klain, in comments directed at reports that a reserve of additional vaccines that the Trump administration had promised to states did not exist, said that his team was “inheriting a huge mess” in terms of vaccine production and distribution.

“But we have a plan to fix it,” Mr. Klain said, alluding to a federal vaccination campaign that Mr. Biden announced on Friday. “We think there are things we can do to speed up the delivery of that vaccine.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that he, too, had been trying to sort through the confusion about how many vaccine doses were held by the federal government and where they were going.

“I think there was just a misunderstanding,” Dr. Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “When doses were released, an equal amount was kept back to make sure if there was any glitches in the supply flow that the people who got their first doses would clearly get their second doses,” he said.

Once it was clear that production of the vaccines would be reliable, he added, “the decision was made, instead of just giving enough for the first dose and holding back for the second dose, that as soon as they got the doses available, they would give it because now they would have confidence that the next amount they would get.”

Brian Deese, the incoming head of the National Economic Council, also stressed the urgency of passing a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that the incoming Biden administration had unveiled last week to assist in the recovery effort, pointing to data suggesting increasing unemployment and that more Americans are going hungry.

“The truth is, we’re at a very precarious moment,” Mr. Deese said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’ve got an acute economic crisis and human crisis, and we need decisive action.”

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, left, opening the state’s first shipment of the Covid-19 vaccine on Dec. 14.
Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

After a promise from the Trump administration that it would release a stockpile of reserved coronavirus vaccine doses, several states were expecting a huge boost in doses. Some followed federal guidance to expand eligibility to wider swaths of people.

But that promise turned out to be too good to be true — most of the stockpile had already been shipped out. And now those states are scrambling, finding themselves just as mired in the morass of the country’s beleaguered vaccine distribution as they were before.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, expecting the additional doses, opened vaccine registration to people in the state 65 and older, as well as educators and child care providers. Now, she said in a news release, the state’s plan to start vaccinating all of its older residents will be delayed by two weeks.

The confusion began Tuesday, with a statement by Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of the health and human services department, who chided states for not efficiently using their vaccines and urged them to open up eligibility to people 65 and older, as well as to tens of millions of adults with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of dying from coronavirus infection.

“We are releasing the entire supply we have for order by the states, rather than holding second doses in physical reserves,” he said, adding that vaccine doses would no longer be stockpiled.

Several states then assumed that they would get an influx of new doses that could be used to vaccinate new people. Some, including New York, quickly followed the federal government’s advice and widened vaccine access, prompting a surge of interest — and confusion — as thousands of newly eligible people sought appointments to get vaccinated.

On Thursday, Oregon officials discovered that “there were no additional doses available” in the federal distribution system beyond what had been available before the Trump administration’s Tuesday announcement, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, Patrick M. Allen, wrote in a letter to Mr. Azar, which was posted by NBC News.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Brown spoke with an official from Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s vaccine program, who “informed us there is no reserve of doses,” he wrote.

“This is extremely disturbing, and puts our plans to expand eligibility at grave risk,” Mr. Allen wrote. “Those plans were made on the basis of reliance on your statement about ‘releasing the entire supply’ you have in reserve.”

Governor Brown said on Twitter: “This is a deception on a national scale.”

On Friday, the public learned that the Trump administration had already been distributing all available doses since the end of December, after The Washington Post reported the news.

“Who’s going to be prosecuted for this?” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota asked at a news conference on Friday. Mr. Walz said he was “not sleeping” over concerns that Minnesotans would be unable to get their second doses.

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said his state would get 79,000 doses this week instead of the 210,000 he had been expecting.

“We should’ve known not to believe a word” from the Trump administration, Mr. Polis said.

Senior Trump administration officials told The New York Times on Friday that the reserved doses were already being distributed to states and that they were never intended to be used toward vaccinating additional people.

Shipments of eight to 12 million doses per week will be sent out over the next several weeks, a senior administration official said on Friday. Those shipments will be divided among those getting their first and second shots.

Daniel Larremore, an assistant professor at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that for governors creating distribution plans, “having the sands constantly shifting beneath your feet makes it really hard to make those plans and get people lined up to get the vaccine.”

Federal, state and local officials have traded blame for the faulty rollout. Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it had been “chaotic,” tweeting on Friday that the Trump administration’s current plan “seems to be pointing fingers at states.”

The “only route to success is a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach,” he said. “If we’re divided, the virus will continue to conquer us.”

A patient arriving at a hospital  in Manaus, Brazil, on Thursday. 
Credit…Michael Dantas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The more contagious coronavirus variant discovered in Britain has now been detected in more than 50 countries, including Argentina on Saturday, and is believed to be driving surges in at least two.

But how widely that version of the virus has actually spread — and whether it could already be a factor in other countries’ surges — may not be clear for some time, because the necessary genomic testing remains rare. And at least three other troubling variants are spreading less widely, according to available data: one identified in South Africa and two in Brazil.

Britain, one of Europe’s worst-hit countries during the pandemic, leads the world in identifying the exact genetic sequence of virus samples, known as genomic surveillance. That capacity enabled it to put the world on notice with an announcement on Dec. 14 that it had detected the variant scientists call B.1.1.7, along with the disturbing news that it was most likely the cause of skyrocketing infections in London and the surrounding area.

That version of the virus, which has been widely referred to as “the U.K. variant,” though its origin is unknown, has so far left the most evident trail. It is believed to have helped push Ireland’s positivity rate past Britain’s to become the third highest in the world — over just a few weeks.

Antoine Flahault, the director of the Institute of Global Health in Geneva, said the variants were causing concern all over Europe. He said that several countries were now trying to put in effect more frequent and systematic sequencing to get a clearer picture of their impacts.

None of the variants is known to be more deadly or to cause more severe disease, but increased transmissibility adds to caseloads that further strain hospitals and result, inevitably, in more deaths. Their emergence adds to the urgency of mass vaccination campaigns, which have had troubled starts in Europe and the United States; are only beginning in many other countries, like India; and are at minimum months away in many others.

Dr. Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said that outside of Britain and Ireland, scientists remained cautious about linking recent surges in Europe to B.1.1.7. “For most of Europe, the expected prevalence of the variant is still under 5 percent — likely too small to be making a big difference in case numbers,” she said.

“We do not need new variants to see increase in cases,” Ms. Hodcroft added. “We’ve seen many, many surges in cases around the world that we can confirm did not seem to be associated with variants.”

The timing of the variant’s spread is a crucial question for countries like Portugal, which has found fewer than 80 cases of B.1.1.7 but has a fragile health care system that could be easily overwhelmed. In the last seven days, its infection rate has been among the world’s highest, with an average of more than 8,800 new infections, or 86 per 100,000 people. On Saturday, the country reported nearly 11,000 cases and 166 deaths, its worst day of the pandemic. The authorities imposed a monthlong lockdown on Friday.

Many countries expect that B.1.1.7’s impact still lies ahead.

That is a disturbing possibility in the United States, which has long had the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak and is in the midst of a post-holiday surge. On Friday, federal health experts warned in dire terms that B.1.1.7 would most likely be the dominant source of infection in the country by March.

Nearly 20 European countries have found B.1.1.7 so far. In Denmark on Saturday, the authorities said more than 250 cases had been detected in samples taken since November. The country’s health minister has predicted that the variant will predominate by mid-February. The country’s coronavirus monitor also reported that it had identified a case of the variant found in South Africa, Reuters reported.

Many countries in Europe are redoubling their efforts at mitigation. A nationwide 6 p.m. curfew went into effect in France on Saturday, and the authorities have warned that they could reimpose strict lockdown measures. Scotland tightened already strict restrictions, including banning drinking outside and barring customers from stepping inside establishments to buy takeaway food or coffee. Britain and Germany have closed schools.

In a stark contrast, the authorities in Spain have refused to impose a new nationwide lockdown, arguing that the recent discovery of dozens of cases of the variant was not to blame for a record surge in infections.

On Saturday, Britain reported eight cases of one of the variants found in Brazil, hours after the British authorities imposed a travel ban from Latin American countries and Portugal, which is linked to Brazil by its colonial history and by current travel and trade ties. Italy also suspended flights from Brazil, its health minister, Roberto Speranza, announced on Facebook.

A leading epidemiologist said that a second variant discovered in Brazil was most likely already present in Britain.

“We are one of the most connected countries in the world, so I would find it unusual if we hadn’t imported some cases into the U.K.,” Professor John Edmunds, a member of a group of scientists advising the government on the pandemic, said about the second variant, which was found in the Brazilian city of Manaus.

People arriving at a Disneyland parking lot to receive Covid-19 vaccines on Jan. 13.
Credit…Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The coronavirus has brought the travel industry to its knees. The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that promotes travel to and within the country, estimates that nearly 40 percent of all travel jobs have been eliminated since the virus took hold in March.

With hotels at record-low occupancy, some airports running on skeleton crews and fairgrounds emptied of guests, many domestic travel companies and operators have become part of an ad hoc relief effort, donating their resources and newly vacant spaces to help get the pandemic under control.

Disneyland has been closed since mid-March, but last week the theme park in Anaheim, Calif., began serving as a vaccination super site.

On Wednesday, a section of its Toy Story parking lot was full. Emergency medical workers and local residents over the age of 75 lined up for the first of five Orange County, Calif., “Super POD” (Point of Dispensing) sites, and Andrew Do, chairman of Orange County’s board of supervisors, says they will soon be able to inoculate 7,000 people a day there.

The site is being run by the county, but in addition to providing space, Walt Disney Co. is providing some staffing assistance.

Many other corners of the travel industry are looking for a way to pitch in to help end the pandemic.

More than a dozen U.S. airports now double as Covid-19 testing sites, including Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway, Los Angeles International, Tampa, Newark and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Sharon Decker is president of North Carolina’s Tryon Resort, which is set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and includes a 300,000-square-foot indoor arena. She wasn’t surprised when Polk County, N.C., officials reached out to see if she would be willing to donate that arena as a vaccination site, although she knew it would present logistical challenges. The site opened in mid-December.

Those robust public-private partnerships will be key to getting the United States out of the pandemic, said Steven Pedigo, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in urban economic development.

When it comes to a large-scale mobilization effort like nationwide vaccination, there is probably no sector better qualified than the travel industry, he said.

“This is what they do — they move people, and they move large amounts of goods and services,” Mr. Pedigo said. “They’re in the business of crowd control. So it makes sense to do this at a Disney World or an Alamodome. They have the expertise for it.”

Representative Lou Correa, Democrat of California, at a House hearing in July. He plans to skip the inauguration after testing positive.
Credit…Pool photo by Matt McClain

Representative Lou Correa, Democrat of California, announced on Saturday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus the day before, becoming the latest lawmaker to contract the virus in the first two weeks of the 117th Congress.

Mr. Correa, who disclosed his test results on Twitter, gave few details about his symptoms, but he said he would “be responsible & self-quarantine, away from my family, for the recommended time.”

He was at the Capitol during last week’s siege by a pro-Trump mob, but was not among the lawmakers corralled into secure rooms with some of the Republicans who refused to wear masks, an action that has created concerns of a super-spreader event. According to a statement from his office, he stayed outside and tried to help the Capitol Police.

But Mr. Correa was among the lawmakers on the House floor who voted to impeach President Trump, for a second time, after the siege. The day after, he was accosted by Trump supporters at Dulles International Airport. He later told CNN that he was surprised that security was not tighter.

Mr. Correa received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 19, according to a statement from his office.

At least three Democratic lawmakers tested positive after sheltering in place, and all blamed the unmasked Republicans. Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, also cited Republicans after her husband, who was with her during the riot, tested positive. And Representative Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New York, announced on Thursday he had also tested positive, but it was unclear whether he took shelter in the secure room.

Capitol Hill has long struggled to curtail the spread of the virus, with haphazard guidance and a failure to enforce and adhere to a uniform set of health protocols across both chambers and the complex. After the riot, the House enacted a fine system for those who refuse to wear masks in the House chamber.

Tennis players and their support teams disembarking on Thursday from one of 17 flights that the organizers of the Australian Open chartered to bring participants to Melbourne.
Credit…Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Organizers of the Australian Open tennis tournament are facing a rebellion after nearly four dozen players learned that they would have to observe a strict 14-day quarantine because passengers on their charter flights to Australia for the event had tested positive for the coronavirus.

All of the players in the Open, the first major tennis tournament of the year, had been told that for their first two weeks in Australia they would be allowed to spend five hours daily at the tennis center to practice, train and eat; for the remainder of each day they would have to remain in their hotel rooms.

Travelers to the tournament were expected to have negative results from virus tests within 72 hours of takeoff. They were tested again after landing in Melbourne, and four people on two flights were found to have the virus as of Sunday afternoon. As a result, 47 players on those two flights have been told they are forbidden to leave their hotel rooms at all for those two weeks, while their competitors may still train. Several of the players facing tighter restrictions said that they could not prepare properly for the Open, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 8.

“It’s about the idea of staying in a room for two weeks and being able to compete,” Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine told a fellow player, Paula Badosa of Spain, in a livestream on Instagram on Saturday night. Kostyuk said she could not remember the last time she had not picked up a racket for two weeks.

Tennis Australia, the organization that runs the Open, chartered 17 flights from seven countries to bring players and support personnel to the tournament, limiting capacity to 25 percent on each plane. The 47 players facing a full quarantine were aboard two of the flights — one from Los Angeles, the other from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — along with some journalists, coaches and others.

Tennis officials appealed for less stringent restrictions on players who repeatedly test negative in their first days in Australia, but government officials declined to soften the rules. Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, said Sunday that players were warned that coming to Australia involved the risk of being considered in close contact with someone who had tested positive, resulting in a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Chris Panayiotou, the owner of Gee Whiz diner.
Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Chris Panayiotou, a burly man with a kind smile, was always known for his playful side. When he wasn’t tending to the family business, the 30-year-old Gee Whiz Diner in Lower Manhattan, he loved to get together with his father to tinker with cars and computers, or build Legos with his sons.

But all that changed when Mr. Panayiotou’s father died of Covid-19 last spring.

Peter Panayiotou had kept Gee Whiz thriving through the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Sandy and years of gentrification and soaring rents. The pandemic proved too much, though, and the diner closed in March; a few weeks later, the elder Mr. Panayiotou died of Covid-19.

Chris Panayiotou was deep in mourning. Gee Whiz remained locked up and untouched for three months. Mr. Panayiotou wondered whether he should just give up and sell it.

When protests over the police killing of George Floyd began in late spring, setting off sporadic violence and looting in Manhattan, Mr. Panayiotou got a call from a handyman who worked in the diner’s building, suggesting he should shore up the property.

To his surprise, Mr. Panayiotou arrived to find that the restaurant was perfectly fine. Indeed, the diner’s doors had been covered with messages and memories by customers, its entry filled with dandelions, orchids and roses.

Mr. Panayiotou entered the diner for the first time since his father’s death. A few minutes later, David Morales, a concierge from a building next door, rushed in. “They put your dad’s name on the sidewalk,” Mr. Morales told him.

Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

In the previous few days, a man had been seen welding at night, Mr. Morales told Mr. Panayiotou, engraving the name Peter Panayiotou on the sidewalk. The mystery welder told a passer-by, “Peter was a good friend.”

“This is a sign,” he thought. “We’re going to reopen no matter what. No matter what. This is what Dad would want.”

Gee Whiz reopened in August. The brand-new outdoor space — exploding with the elder Mr. Panayiotou’s favorite color, forest green — was built by the family and employees to evoke a typical diner interior.

The welder’s identity remains unknown.

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