Covid-19 News: More U.S. States Lift Restrictions Despite Health Officials’ Warnings

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California announced an easing of coronavirus restrictions that will allow venues like Dodger Stadium, currently a mass vaccination site, to open with a limited number of fans in April.
Credit…Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

States have continued steadily lifting restrictions, despite warnings from top federal health officials like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci that new coronavirus cases in the United States have plateaued at a very high level after their drastic drop has stalled, and that the country urgently needed to contain the spread of more transmissible variants.

Arizona, California and South Carolina joined a growing list Friday by loosening restrictions, to varying degrees. Arizona’s governor ended capacity limits on businesses, but said they must still require masks. South Carolina’s Republican governor lifted the state’s mask mandate in government buildings, while recommending restaurants continue requiring masking.

California will allow amusement parks and outdoor sports and live events at stadiums to restart on April 1, with reduced capacity and mandatory masks.

“We’ve just now recently experienced the worst surge,” Dr. Fauci said Friday during a White House coronavirus briefing, adding that the country had plateaued at between 60,000 and 70,000 new cases per day. “When you have that much of viral activity in a plateau, it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike.”

The seven-day average of new cases was about 61,000 day as of Friday, the lowest average since October, according to a New York Times database. But that number was still close to last summer’s highest peak.

Fatalities are falling, too, in part because of vaccinations at nursing homes. Yet the nation is still routinely reporting 2,000 deaths in a single day.

Dr. Fauci warned the United States could be following the same treacherous path that Europe has recently been on.

“They plateaued,” he said. “And now, over the past week, they saw an increase in cases by 9 percent, something we desperately want to avoid.”

He warned that the virus mutates as it replicates, a process that can be extended when immunocompromised people are infected. He said that maintaining masking, hand washing and social distancing was urgent.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in Britain, is spreading so rapidly in the United States that data analysis suggest that, as of this week, it has most likely grown to account for 20 percent of new U.S. cases. And scientists in Oregon have identified a single case of a homegrown variant with the same spine as B.1.1.7 that carries a mutation that could blunt the effectiveness of vaccines.

Earlier this week, Texas and Mississippi, both Republican-led states, lifted mask mandates. President Biden denounced those moves as “a big mistake” that reflected “Neanderthal thinking,” saying it was critical for public officials to follow the guidance of doctors and public health leaders as the coronavirus vaccination campaign gains momentum.

Other Republicans have been more cautious. Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said he would lift all public health measures aimed at curbing the virus crisis, but only once new cases there drop under a certain threshold. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey said she would extend the state’s mask mandate through April 9.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has taken what he calls a “measured approach” requiring schools to offer in-person learning no later than March 15, barring local leaders from enacting measures that shut down businesses and allowing major league sports to restart if they receive approval from the state’s Department of Health Services.

Among Democrats, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan said on Tuesday that she was easing restrictions on businesses and would allow family members who had tested negative for the coronavirus to visit nursing home residents. In California, the state’s public health department also loosened some restrictions Friday, saying that amusement parks could reopen on a limited basis as soon as April 1.

In New York City, limited indoor dining has returned. And on Thursday, Connecticut’s governor said the state would end capacity limits later this month on restaurants, gyms and offices. Masks remain required in both places.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease and Prevention, has implored states not to relax their restrictions yet. A new report from the C.D.C. found that counties that allowed restaurants to open for in-person dining in the United States had a rise in daily infections weeks after. The study also said that counties that issued mask mandates reported a decrease in virus cases and deaths within weeks.




Biden Says Stimulus Plan Will ‘Meet the Most Urgent Needs of the Nation’

President Biden celebrated the Senate’s passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan on Saturday, saying it will bring urgent relief to struggling Americans and businesses, in addition to cutting child poverty by half.

Today, I can say we’ve taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise that help is on the way. I want to thank — start off by thanking — the vice president, but I want to thank all of the senators who worked so hard to reach a compromise to do the right thing for the American people during this crisis and voted to pass the American Rescue Plan. It obviously wasn’t easy, it wasn’t always pretty, but it was so desperately needed, urgently needed. This nation has suffered too much for much too long. And everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation and put us in a better position to prevail, starting with beating this virus and vaccinating the country. The resources in this plan will be used to expand and speed up manufacturing and distribution of vaccines. This plan will get checks out the door starting this month to the American people who so desperately need the help. This plan puts us on a path to beating the virus. This plan gives those families who are struggling the most the help and the breathing room they need to get through this moment. This plan gives small businesses in this country a fighting chance to survive. And one more thing — this plan is historic. Taken altogether, this plan is going to make it possible to cut child poverty in half. When I was elected, I said, “We’re going to get the government out of the business of battling on Twitter, and back in the business of delivering for the American people.” Of making a difference in their lives, giving everyone a chance, a fighting chance. Of showing the American people that their government can work for them. And passing the American Rescue Plan will do that.

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President Biden celebrated the Senate’s passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan on Saturday, saying it will bring urgent relief to struggling Americans and businesses, in addition to cutting child poverty by half.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed a deeply divided Senate on Saturday, as Democrats pushed through a pandemic aid plan that includes an extraordinary increase in safety net spending in the largest antipoverty effort in a generation.

The session was paralyzed for most of Friday as Democrats haggled with Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a moderate holdout, to trim the unemployment benefits so the measure could proceed. Then senators slogged overnight through a series of rapid-fire amendment votes as Republicans pelted Democrats with politically fraught amendments. The process lasted well past sunrise on Saturday, and the vote on the bill came shortly before 12:30 p.m. A groggy and bleary-eyed Senate approved the package 50 to 49, with one Republican absent: Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who returned to his state on Friday for the funeral of his father-in-law.

The pandemic aid package seeks at once to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, boost the sluggish economy, and protect the neediest people within it. Republicans voted unanimously against it and assailed it as unnecessary and unaffordable. The bill must return to the House before it heads to Mr. Biden’s desk to be signed into law, and Democrats are racing to get the bill to him in time to prevent a lapse in unemployment benefits set to begin on March 14.

Titled the American Rescue Plan, it is the first major legislative initiative of Mr. Biden’s presidency. It would inject vast amounts of federal resources into the economy, including direct payments of up to $1,400 for hundreds of millions of Americans, jobless aid of $300 a week to last through the summer, money for distributing coronavirus vaccines and relief for states, cities, schools and small businesses struggling during the pandemic.

Beyond the immediate aid, it would also have a huge effect on poverty in the United States. It would potentially cut child poverty in half, through a generous expansion of tax credits for Americans with children, increases in subsidies for child care, a broadening of eligibility under the Affordable Care Act and an expansion of food stamps and rental assistance.

Its eye-popping cost is just shy of the $2.2 trillion stimulus measure that became law last March, as the devastating public health and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis was only beginning to come into view. It is the sixth in a series of substantial spending bills Congress has enacted since then, and the only one to pass without bipartisan support, although it is broadly popular with members of both parties outside Washington.

“Today I can say we’ve taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise, that help is on the way,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House. “It wasn’t always pretty, but it was so desperately needed, urgently needed.”

Yet with Democrats newly in control of both houses of Congress and Mr. Biden embarking on his first major legislative push, the party-line vote was an early indicator of the Republican opposition that threatens the new president’s agenda in a 50-50 Senate.




Senate Narrowly Passes Biden’s Pandemic Relief Plan

The Senate passed President Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on Saturday, with a party-line vote of 50-49. The package must now move back to the House before being signed into law.

“The pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life, so this bill spans the gamut and provides support to every part of our country. For Americans who doubted that the government can help them in this time of crisis, you’ll be getting direct checks. Your schools will receive assistance to reopen quickly and safely. Your local businesses will get another lifeline. And the day when you receive the vaccine will be a lot sooner. The American Rescue Plan will go down as one of the most sweeping federal recovery efforts in history. Our job right now is to help our country get from this stormy present to that hopeful future. And it starts with voting ‘aye’ on the legislation before us. Vote ‘yes’ on the American Rescue Plan.” “Voters gave Senate Democrats the slimmest possible majority. Voters picked a president who promised unity and bipartisanship. Democrats’ response is to ram through what they call, quote, ‘the most progressive domestic legislation in a generation’ on a razor-thin majority in both houses. We could have worked together to speed up victory, but our Democratic colleagues made a decision. Their top priority wasn’t pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish— wish list. So Mr. President and colleagues, I strongly recommend a ‘no’ vote.” “The yeas are 50. The nays are 49. The bill as amended is passed.”

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The Senate passed President Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on Saturday, with a party-line vote of 50-49. The package must now move back to the House before being signed into law.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The Senate passed its version of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on Saturday. The pandemic relief bill now goes back to the House of Representatives, which must approve the Senate’s changes before it can go to President Biden’s desk. Here are some answers to some frequently asked questions.

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children.

To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below.

If you’re already receiving unemployment benefits, payments would generally be extended for another 25 weeks, until Sept. 6. The weekly supplemental benefit, which is provided on top of your regular benefit, will remain $300 but run through Sept. 6.

Although unemployment benefits are taxable, the new law would make the first $10,200 of benefits tax-free for people with income less than $150,000. This applies to 2020 only.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper.

COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive.

Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30.

A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either.

Pope Francis, 84, met with Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, on Saturday in the holy city of Najaf.
Credit…Ayatollah Sistani’s Media Office/Afp

Neither Pope Francis nor Iraq’s most revered and most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was pictured wearing a mask when they met privately in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday, the second day of the pope’s history-making trip to the country.

Francis is vaccinated, as is his entourage. Ayatollah Sistani is not. His office said he believes vaccination is religiously permitted but he did not want to jump in front of others.

Even before the pope arrived in Baghdad on Friday, public health experts had worried about the signal his appearances would send, and feared for the crowds of Christians he would attract, the very people his trip is meant to console and strengthen after years of persecution following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

But Francis’ purpose — to improve the security situation for the country’s Christians and other religious minorities — outweighed any Vatican hesitation over the risks the trip posed either over the pandemic or the pope’s safety. There have been recent suicide bombings in Baghdad, rocket attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces, and retaliatory airstrikes by the Biden administration.

From Najaf, Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and attended an open-air interfaith service, with carefully spaced chairs.

Later Saturday, Francis delivered a sermon at a crowded cathedral in Baghdad, where most people in congregation wore masks, though the choir did not.

The pope’s three-day trip has raised broader concerns that it could worsen a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Iraq by drawing crowds. Few Iraqis have been vaccinated against the virus, and social distancing is largely ignored.

“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk — this is evident,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”




Dalai Lama Receives His First Covid-19 Vaccine Shot

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, received his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine on Saturday, in Dharamsala, India. He urged others to “have courage” to get vaccinated.

In order to prevent some serious problems, this injection is very, very helpful. Very good. So those other patients, also, you should take this injection. I want to share: More people, they should have courage to take this injection.

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The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, received his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine on Saturday, in Dharamsala, India. He urged others to “have courage” to get vaccinated.CreditCredit…Press Office of Dalai Lama/via Reuters

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, received his first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Saturday in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

He used the moment to also encourage people to take the vaccine, saying it would prevent “some serious problem.”

“This injection is very, very helpful,” the 85-year-old, a leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said in video message after the inoculation, indicating that he hoped his example would inspire more people to “have courage” to get themselves vaccinated for the “greater benefit.”

The Dalai Lama received the shot at a hospital in Dharamsala, which has served as the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile for more than 50 years after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

India has hosted Tibetan refugees since the Dalai Lama’s exodus in 1959, on the condition that they not protest against the Chinese government on Indian soil. China considers the Tibetan leader to be a dangerous separatist, a claim that he denies.

Videos showed the spiritual leader being driven to the hospital and his followers, who were masked, lining up on both sides of the road, with hands folded and heads down as he waved.

Dr. G.D. Gupta, an official at the hospital where the shot was administered, said that the spiritual leader “volunteered to come to the hospital” and that 10 others who live in his residence also received the Covishield vaccine, which was developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

As of Saturday, India has more than 11.1 million confirmed cases and the third-highest virus death toll in the world, after the United States and Brazil, at 157,656 deaths, according to a New York Times database. India began its nationwide vaccination campaign in mid-January with health care and frontline workers.

The country recently expanded eligibility to older adults and those with medical conditions that put them at risk, but the ambitious drive to vaccinate its vast population has been slow.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks with reporters at the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday.
Credit…Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser, via Associated Press

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama has proved, in her four years in office, to be a reliably conformist Southern Republican, with a record of defending former President Donald J. Trump, the Second Amendment and monuments to the Confederacy.

But this week, Ms. Ivey, a 76-year-old veteran of Southern politics, demonstrated a pronounced maverick streak on the emotionally charged matter of mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic. Bucking pressure from fellow Alabama Republicans, Ms. Ivey declared on Thursday that she would extend the state’s mask mandate until April 9, even as Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi lifted such requirements in the name of personal freedom.

“We need to get past Easter and hopefully allow more Alabamians to get their first shot before we take a step some other states have taken to remove the mask order altogether and lift other restrictions,” Ms. Ivey said at a news conference. “Folks, we are not there yet, but goodness knows we’re getting closer.”

Ms. Ivey’s supporters say the move is rooted in her practical-minded approach to governing, though they also acknowledge that it could create primary vulnerabilities for her if she runs for re-election next year in a profoundly conservative state, particularly since President Biden has amped up the partisanship on the matter, blasting governors of Texas and Mississippi for their “Neanderthal thinking.”

None of this has seemed to faze the governor since she first issued the mask mandate in July, and she has insisted that her moves are based in a thoughtful, science-based analysis of a pandemic that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in Alabama.

“Now y’all, I’m not trying to be Governor Meemaw, as some on social media have called me,” Ms. Ivey said when she extended the order in December. “I’m simply trying to urge you to use the common sense the Good Lord gave each of us to be smart and considerate of others.”

A beloved brother-in-law: Hector Elfante Jr. of Readington, N.J., died on May 6, 2020. 

One in 670 Americans has died of the virus. Millions of Americans are adjusting to a new reality without their loved ones that would have been unimaginable only a year ago.

For the bereaved, just as they are trapped in the pandemic, they are trapped in their grief.

The young have lost the old — parents and grandparents who could have lived for decades more.

Gone is their loving presence, their wisdom, their comfort.

Cathrine Solomon’s parents, Antonio and Estelita Solomon, from Queens, N.Y., died on March 26 and April 10, 2020. “I miss my mom and dad calling me, I miss them bothering me, I miss their voices,” she said. “I still listen to the voice mails that I have from them on my phone. ‘Where are we going to go out to eat?’ ‘Are you going to come over? I miss you.’”

More than half of the deaths have occurred since November, and for many people, the grief is achingly fresh.

By early March, Americans were lining up in all 50 states to be vaccinated. Deaths across the country have slowed. There is hope that the pandemic has finally loosened its grip. But for those who have lost someone, their own lives are permanently redrawn.

We spoke to the people coping with the immeasurable sorrow of loss.

The Viola Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday, when  the country reported that daily deaths had hit a record 1,910. More than 260,000 people have died with the virus in Brazil. 
Credit…Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA, via Shutterstock

Brazilians are dying in record numbers from Covid-19. Intensive care units in a growing number of cities are full or near capacity as more contagious variants drive up cases. Elderly people have begun sleeping outside vaccination centers hoping to get a shot from the country’s limited supply.

But this is no time for new restrictions on businesses and transit, President Jair Bolsonaro said defiantly this week. Instead, his government is placing tremendous hope in an experimental nasal spray, under development in Israel to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients, that the president has called a “miraculous product.”

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo is scheduled to travel to Israel to meet the scientists who are developing the spray, which has undergone only preliminary tests and is not being used in routine patient care. Mr. Bolsonaro’s government says it intends to test it on gravely sick patients in Brazil, where more than 260,000 people have died from the virus and where daily deaths hit a record 1,910 on Thursday.

Health experts see the government’s pursuit of an unproven remedy as the latest in a jarring series of missteps that have turned Brazil into a pandemic cautionary tale and a breeding ground for more contagious variants.

Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign is off to a slow and chaotic start because the government was late to start negotiating access to vaccines, whose safety and efficacy Mr. Bolsonaro has called into question.

On Wednesday, the president sought to reassure Brazilians that help was on the way by announcing that his administration intended to sign a memorandum of understanding in Israel to test the nasal spray, which he said could emerge as “the real solution to treating Covid.”

The Israeli scientists who are developing the nasal spray say it’s too early to tell whether it will prove to be a pandemic game changer.

The drug, called EXO-CD24, aims to prevent “cytokine storms,” which are overwhelming immune-system responses to Covid-19 that can cause serious inflammation of the lungs, organ failure and sometimes death.

Brazil’s outbreak, among the worst in the world, has become a source of global concern as new, more contagious variants have become dominant in much of the country. Scientists say there is worrisome evidence that the variants can make re-infections more likely and they are urgently studying whether these variants reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

On Friday, officials at the World Health Organization called the surge of cases in Brazil deeply troubling and warned that it could wreak havoc well beyond the country’s borders.

A realtor sharing hand sanitizer with a client after a visit to a home for sale in Montreal in June.
Credit…Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The head of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Evan Siddall, issued an unusual apology on Twitter this week, acknowledging that the federal agency had erred last year when it forecast that the pandemic-induced economic collapse might cause house prices to fall by as much as 18 percent.

Instead, Canada is talking again about whether most of the country is in a soon-to-burst real estate bubble.

In Vancouver last month, the benchmark price for detached homes rose by 13.7 percent compared with a year earlier, reaching 1.6 million Canadian dollars. In the Toronto area, the average selling price for detached homes rose by 23.1 percent over the same time period, and a composite price that includes all kinds of housing topped 1 million Canadian dollars.

A sellers’ market prevails in many parts of the country, even at a time of economic distress for many.

In Toronto this week, a rundown, one-car garage sold in three days for 729,000 Canadian dollars, its value being the land underneath it.

But the pandemic didn’t start this way. Mr. Siddall noted in his tweets that the real estate market had severely contracted during the first months of the health crisis.

“Times were uncertain and I felt that a warning about house prices was responsible,” he wrote about last year’s caution.

About a quarter of Canadians were on emergency income support after their jobs were suspended because of shutdowns to curb the spread of the virus, and large numbers of Canadians were deferring their mortgage payments. Mr. Siddall’s agency had stepped in to buy 150 billion dollars in mortgage securities to keep the market afloat. And on top of that, prices in many places were, in Mr. Siddall’s view, already unsustainable.

A new report from his agency shows why, despite those factors, the market soared instead of floundering — one factor is that the pandemic didn’t hit the earnings of high-income people as hard as it hit those of others.

And when the market nearly shut down early in the pandemic, the report found, it created pent-up demand that meant buyers soon outnumbered sellers on the market in many regions, the report concludes — a perfect situation for sellers.

A Catholic pastor receiving the first dose of a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Chicago in December.
Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

After some Roman Catholic bishops recently instructed American Catholics to receive the Pfizer or Moderna Covid-19 vaccine rather than Johnson & Johnson’s if given the choice, other Catholic leaders are now saying that taking any vaccine is crucial to stopping the spread of the virus — and morally ethical.

The bishops had cited concerns over the use of cells with a remote connection to abortion.

On Friday, a group of leading anti-abortion Catholic scholars said in a statement that people taking the Johnson & Johnson shot should not be led to think that they are taking a vaccine that is “more morally tainted” than the other two choices.

And on Thursday, the Archdiocese of Boston, described “the need to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible” as “urgent.” The archdiocese said in a written statement that there is a duty to save lives at every chance, particularly when the virus endangers so many people.

“We have a moral obligation to save lives, to support public health and to contribute to the common good,” the statement said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops previously drew a subtle moral distinction between the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — which used an abortion-derived cell line only in testing the vaccines’ efficacy — and those produced by Johnson & Johnson, which used an abortion-derived cell line not just in testing but also in development and production, which raises “additional moral concerns,” the bishops said.

Both the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, in Vermont, have called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “morally compromised” in recent statements, and advised Catholics to choose the Pfizer or Moderna shot over Johnson & Johnson’s if they have an option.

In Boston, the archdiocese emphasized that the church should “always oppose abortion.” But it noted that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be transported and stored more easily and requires only a single shot, which will encourage “efficient and equitable access to immunization.”

Cells derived from human fetuses taken from elective abortions that took place decades ago have been used in vaccine research and manufacturing since the 1960s, according to Science magazine. Vaccines that rely on cell lines derived from fetal tissue also include those against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A.

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, any abortion not aimed at saving the mother’s life is immoral. But the Vatican says that the connection between the vaccines and abortion is distant and has emphasized the “grave danger” of the pandemic.

The Catholic scholars — including Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton University and Prof. O. Carter Snead of the University of Notre Dame said in a statement that the cell line used for scientific research does not contain the remains of any human being. Using it does not “show disrespect for human remains, any more than the contemporary use of products,” the scholars wrote, “such as roads or train lines, that were constructed by unjustly enslaved human beings, or use of land unjustly taken, shows disrespect for those victims in the distant past.”

People with access to these vaccines, they wrote, have formidable moral reasons for taking them.

Ruth Graham contributed reporting.

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