Covid-19 Live News: Updates on the Virus, Vaccines and Variants

Covid-19 Live News: Updates on the Virus, Vaccines and Variants


Children wearing masks with the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Nandigram, India, in March. A second virus wave has made India the worst-hit country in the world, shaking Mr. Modi’s image of strength.
Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

His Covid-19 task force didn’t meet for months. His health minister assured the public in March that India had reached the pandemic’s “endgame.” He boasted to global leaders that his nation had triumphed over the coronavirus.

Now, as a second wave has made India the worst-hit country in the world, its prime minister, Narendra Modi, is at the center of a national reckoning, one that comes amid India’s stark reversal from declaring victory to suffering its gravest emergency in decades.

New infections have reached about 400,000 a day, a grim world record. Vaccines are running short. Hospitals are swamped. Lifesaving oxygen is running out. Each day, cremation grounds burn thousands of bodies. And a series of accidents at hospitals have added to the grief, with the most recent one early Saturday in the western state of Gujarat killing at least 16 Covid-19 patients and two health care workers.

Even as infections rose, Mr. Modi let big groups gather to help his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. His government allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers to take place. He campaigned in state elections without a mask at rallies with thousands of supporters who also weren’t wearing masks.

Experts around the world once marveled at how the country seemed to have escaped the worst of the pandemic. But independent health experts and political analysts say that Mr. Modi’s overconfidence and his domineering leadership style bear a huge share of the responsibility for its current crisis. Critics say his administration was determined to cast an image of India as back on track and open for business despite lingering risks.

The growing national distress has tarnished Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability. Opposition leaders are on the attack, and his hold on power has increasingly made him the target of scathing criticism online. His party and his allies have moved to silence critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down critical posts and threatening to arrest ordinary people for pleading for oxygen. Countries including the United States have restricted travel from India.

Mr. Modi’s party and the government declined to answer specific questions but listed actions the government has taken, including Mr. Modi holding more than a dozen meetings in April with Air Force officers, pharmaceutical executives and many others.

In a statement, the government said it “maintained a steady pace of coordination and consultation to prepare an adequate response.” It added that the administration in February had “advised states to maintain strict vigil” and “not let their guard down.”

Any Indian leader would have faced challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live cheek by jowl, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health — a problem that predates Mr. Modi.

With parliamentary elections three years away and no signs of defections from his government, Mr. Modi’s power seems secure. His government has stepped up efforts to get supplies to desperate patients and broadened eligibility for scarce vaccines to more age groups. Still, analysts say that his dominance means that more people will hold him personally responsible for the sickness and death exploding across the country.

“The bulk of the blame lies in Modi’s governance style, where top ministers are chosen for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management is privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a research scholar at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

On Saturday, the country reported over 398,000 new virus infections and more than 3,500 deaths. Evidence suggests the official numbers vastly understate the toll. Though India is a vaccine powerhouse, producing vaccines to protect the world, it didn’t purchase enough doses to protect itself, and when infections were low, it exported more than 60 million shots. The country’s biggest city, Mumbai, just halted all vaccinations because it essentially ran out.

Members of the Indian diaspora community prepared food in the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall, West London, this week.
Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

As the coronavirus has surged in India, so has the collective grief and anxiety among the huge Indian diaspora, over loved ones lost or fighting for their lives amid a health-care system pushed past the brink.

In WhatsApp chats, video calls, Facebook groups and forums, a global community has worried, mourned and organized.

Some 17 million people from India were living outside their homeland in 2020, according to figures from the United Nations, and millions more have Indian heritage, making the diaspora the largest in the world. In the United States, some 4.8 million people were either born in India or reported Indian ancestry on the last census.

They have looked on in horror as the country records more infections per day than any other since the pandemic began. For many, the pain has been accompanied by a realization of their worst fear: That when the people they love need them the most, they can’t be there to help.

In London, many are organizing in the face of a seemingly impossible situation: pooling money to buy oxygen concentrators, connecting the sick with doctors and using community networks to share resources.

A patient received oxygen outside the emergency ward of a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Friday.
Credit…Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press

The coronavirus outbreak in India has spilled across the border into Nepal, where health officials have warned that hospital beds are unavailable, vaccines are running short and the number of new infections is rising faster than overwhelmed clinics can record them.

The situation is so dire in Nepal that the Health Ministry in the Himalayan nation issued a statement on Friday in which, in effect, it threw up its hands.

“Since coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system and hospitals have run out of beds, the situation is unmanageable,” the ministry said after the government recorded 5,657 new infections on Friday, the highest daily total since October.

And with more than one-third of tests returning a positive result, officials worry that the actual number of cases is much higher. Nepalis who are infected but have only minor symptoms have been told to stay home to keep hospitalizations down.

Experts believe the outbreak is being fueled by Nepali migrant workers who returned home in recent weeks from India as lockdowns were imposed there. The 1,100-mile border between the countries is porous, and hardly any of the returnees were tested for the coronavirus or placed into quarantine.

Within weeks, many of them began falling ill.

“Just a few days after returning from India, one of my relatives died in an ambulance,” said Narendra Singh, a local leader from Bajhang, a western district near the Indian border. “More and more people returning from India are getting sick. And the virus is spreading here. We don’t have any quarantine or isolation facilities in the villages.”

Nepal has since closed its border crossings with India, but the virus is already spreading. In early March, Nepal was recording fewer than 100 cases a day. Now, the daily average exceeds 4,000 reported cases, according to a New York Times database.

At the same time, Nepal’s vaccination drive has slowed. India donated one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Nepal signed an agreement to purchase two million more from an Indian manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India. But India curtailed vaccine exports last month after its outbreak worsened, and Nepali officials say that the company has shipped only half the amount.

As a result, after 1.7 million people out of a population of nearly 30 million received the first dose of the vaccine, only 380,000 have received a second shot.

In late March, China donated 800,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. Nepalis flocked to vaccination centers, prompting some officials to worry that the crowds could spread the virus. This week, the government imposed a new two-week lockdown, bringing vaccinations to a halt.

“We were vaccinating people even as vaccination centers became overcrowded,” said Dr. Jhalak Sharma Gautam, head of the national immunization program. “But we stopped when the government announced lockdown.”

Many Nepalis now wonder if they will ever be inoculated. Ram Kumar Nepali, a sanitation worker in the capital, Kathmandu, has continued his early-morning shifts collecting garbage during the lockdown, usually without any protective equipment.

“I often think I will never get the chance” to be vaccinated, said Nepali, 43. “We have to go around the capital to collect waste even during this terrific pandemic. It’s risky.”

Worldwide, the number of new coronavirus cases has shot up since the beginning of March, more than doubling in two months. For the past two weeks, new global cases have exceeded their previous high point in early January. The average daily rate of new cases has now been above 800,000 for more than a week.

Read the full examination of the data.

Health workers collecting specimen samples at a testing center in Medan, Indonesia, this week. The police raided a lab in the country and are investigating the reuse of swabs at an airport site.
Credit…Dedi Sinuhaji/EPA, via Shutterstock

The idea was simple: Why throw away used rapid antigen test kits for the coronavirus when they could be used again and again?

All it took was washing the cotton swabs used to take nasal samples, repackaging them as if they were new and reusing them on other people.

The fraud unraveled this week when five laboratory workers were arrested in the Indonesian city of Medan and accused of reusing nasal swabs in administering as many as 20,000 tests. They face up to six years in prison for violating consumer protection, medical waste and contagious disease laws.

The authorities said they were investigating whether any people were infected with the coronavirus as a result of the contaminated tests given at an airport testing site operated by Kimia Farma, a giant state-owned company.

They were also investigating how many people received tainted test results as they prepared to board flights at Kualanamu International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest. A negative test result is required in Indonesia before a passenger can board a flight.

The police announced that they would conduct random checks of labs around the country to ensure that others were not conducting similar frauds.

Erick Thohir, the minister who oversees state-owned enterprises, said on Friday that such practices by “unscrupulous” company employees would not be tolerated.

“Such action must be subject to very strict punishment,” he tweeted.

The five workers were believed to have pocketed about $2,000 a day since mid-December by charging people for the tainted tests. The lab employees administered legitimate tests using sterile cotton swabs to about 100 people a day and reused swabs for tests on about 150 others, which would amount to thousands of tests over the period.

After the police received tips about the operation, an undercover officer went to the airport lab for a test and submitted to a nasal swab. He received a false positive result, said Hadi Wahyudi, a spokesman for the North Sumatra police.

Back at the police station, the undercover officer received another test that came back negative.

The police raided the laboratory on Tuesday, arrested the five employees and confiscated hundreds of recycled cotton swabs. They also seized more than $10,000 in cash and a laptop used to produce the documents given to people to certify their test results.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, has reported nearly 1.7 million coronavirus cases and more than 45,000 deaths, the most in Southeast Asia, according to a New York Times database. Health experts have estimated that the totals are actually many times higher because of limited testing.

The country has recovered somewhat from a surge that peaked in late January but is still averaging more than 5,000 new cases a day. A nationwide vaccination campaign is underway and more than 19 million doses have been administered.

Waiting to receive the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine earlier this week in Nairobi. As of Saturday, over 884,000 people had been vaccinated, according to the ministry of health.
Credit…Monicah Mwangi/Reuters

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, under pressure to reopen the economy, lifted coronavirus restrictions on Saturday that he had imposed more than a month ago. He cited the sharp decrease in the country’s caseload from its third wave.

During a speech delivered during May Day celebrations honoring the nation’s workers, Mr. Kenyatta said that schools, bars and restaurants could reopen. Sports activities will resume nationwide, while places of worship will be allowed to host only a third of their capacity. Mr. Kenyatta also lifted the lockdown in five counties, including the capital, Nairobi, and revised the overnight curfew hours from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hospitals were directed to limit visitors for to one per hospitalized patient a day.

Political gatherings remained prohibited nationwide. Large rallies had been blamed for contributing to the third wave.

The announcement came after citizens protested in downtown Nairobi and used the hashtag #UnlockOurCountry to push for restrictions to be lifted. The police set up roadblocks with spikes on major highways in Nairobi to catch and punish those flouting curfew rules, leading to gridlocked traffic that impeded trips home or to hospitals. The roadblocks were criticized by human rights groups.

Kenya has so far recorded over 160,000 positive cases and 2,744 fatalities from the virus, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Health. While the overall number of cases has decreased from last month’s peaks, the East African nation is still among the top five nations in reported case numbers continentwide, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average number of deaths in Kenya increased by an average of 8 percent, the Africa C.D.C. said last Thursday.

But in a continent where most nations are seeing slow rollouts of Covid vaccines, Kenya is a leader in inoculations, thanks to being one of the first countries to receive vaccine shipments from the Covax global initiative, as well as to a relatively strong health care system and support from international donors, including the United States.

As of Saturday, over 884,000 people had been vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Health. That is less than 2 percent of the population of more than 52 million.

The United Kingdom banned travelers from Kenya in early April, while the United States warned its citizens from visiting the country, citing Covid and security concerns. This week, Kenya issued its own travel restrictions, suspending flights for a period of 14 days to and from India, which is suffering the world’s worst outbreak.

In his speech, Mr. Kenyatta warned that reopening the country did not mean that the authorities would not lock down again if people did not adhere strictly to precautions like mask wearing, social distancing, hand sanitizing and temperature checks.

“Our staying power in the fight against this pandemic is our greatest arsenal,” he said, adding that “if public responsiveness to the health protocols goes up, then the possibility of further de-escalating the containment measures is within reach.” And he cautioned that “a surge of infections will necessitate an escalation of the containment measures, a possibility we all dread.”

A nationwide mask mandate and other new restrictions took effect in Thailand on Saturday as the country attempts to bring its worst coronavirus outbreak under control.

The government declared Bangkok, Chiang Mai and four other provinces as zones with the highest level of restrictions, including a ban on dining in restaurants, private parties and gatherings of more than 20 people.

Nationwide, schools, bars and entertainment venues are closed and employers are asked to reduce the number of employees coming to work. Vaccinated people arriving from abroad will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

Going out in public without a mask can bring a maximum fine of about $635. One of the first to violate the mask mandate was Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who paid a fine of about $190 on Monday, the day the rule took effect in Bangkok.

Mr. Prayuth decided against imposing travel restrictions in early April for the Songkran holiday and, as some health experts feared, the number of cases has soared. According to government statistics, Thailand has recorded more than 67,000 infections, with more than half coming in the last three weeks, after reporting fewer than 7,000 cases in all of 2020.

An amusement park attraction at a pier in Wildwood, N.J., last July. Employers who hire foreign seasonal workers are having difficulty filling positions.
Credit…Mark Makela/Getty Images

With the U.S. summer tourist season looming and vaccinations gathering steam, summer camps, amusement parks, beachside hotels and restaurants — anticipating an influx of visitors — are confronting a dramatic shortage of seasonal workers. It is threatening to sabotage their best efforts to stay financially afloat after more than a year of pandemic-fueled economic hardship.

Now small business and industry groups are pressuring the Biden administration to relax international travel restrictions and visa application protocols that would allow for more foreign workers to do the jobs that they say American citizens are unwilling to take.

Morey’s Piers, a seaside amusement park in Wildwood, N.J., needs to fill 1,500 jobs, including roller coaster operators, lifeguards and ticket sellers by the middle of June. To recruit, the company has advertised openings on 12 billboards in the region, joined virtual jobs fairs at high schools and tapped its network of former employees.

But so far, it has managed to fill less than a quarter of the positions, and a key source of its seasonal work force in previous years — foreign students from more than 30 countries — is unavailable because of pandemic restrictions. Now executives worry they may have to limit hours or keep certain rides closed for the entire season.

“We have about 350 filled right now so I’m not sleeping at night,” said Denise Beckson, the company’s vice president of human resources. “We’re really optimistic about visitor demand this summer, but we’re very concerned about staffing.”

In March, President Biden allowed a ban on foreign worker programs imposed by former President Donald J. Trump to expire, and approved an additional 22,000 HB-2 seasonal, nonagricultural worker visas. In late April, over 500 companies and industry groups that depend on the J-1 foreign student work visa program, urged in a letter to the State Department to relax travel restrictions and waive certain requirements like applicant interviews in an effort to supplement their American work force.

But even as vaccinations increase in the United States, the push for more foreign workers is colliding with public health concerns over a global coronavirus surge fueled by the rapid spread of more contagious variants. Last month, the State Department announced it will expand its “do not travel” guidance to about 80 percent of countries worldwide, including many that are sources of seasonal foreign workers, citing “unprecedented risk to travelers” from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What we’re hearing universally from employers and sponsors is that there are not enough Americans interested in what they’re able to employ for the summer,” said Ilir Zherka, the executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, a lobbying group which sent the letter. “They’re trying to look for ways to incentivize more American employees, but also for support from the State Department.”

Transportation Security Administration officers at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport last week.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The Transportation Security Administration extended a mandate Friday that requires travelers to wear masks at airports, on airplanes and on commuter bus and rail systems, through Sept. 13. The mandate was set to expire on May 11.

“Right now, about half of all adults have at least one vaccination shot and masks remain an important tool in defeating this pandemic,” Darby LaJoye, a T.S.A. spokesperson, said in a statement.

The original order took effect in February and was part of the Biden administration’s goal to require masks for 100 days. Exceptions to the mandate are travelers under the age of 2 and those with certain disabilities that don’t allow them to wear a mask safely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask rules earlier this week, saying that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear a mask outdoors while doing activities alone or in small gatherings. But the C.D.C. stopped short of not recommending masks outside altogether and still recommends wearing a mask indoors.

Airlines started requiring passengers to wear masks nearly a year ago, but they had no federal mandate to back up their rules. As the order’s expiration date got closer, leaders in the airline industry began to push for an extension. The Association of Flight Attendants applauded the extension in a statement. Earlier this month, it called for the directive to be extended to make it easier to deal with passengers who were not complying with mask rules set by airlines and airports.

in case you missed it

Leah Vogt leading an outdoor learning group called Team Nature at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver, Colo., on Tuesday.
Credit…James Stukenberg for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 no longer need to wear a mask outdoors in most cases, except in crowded outdoor venues like sports stadiums.

Everyone should still wear a mask when attending a packed outdoor event, like a parade, sporting event or live performance and when doing almost anything indoors that involves contact with people who are not members of your household, the C.D.C. said.

The order had immediate ripple effects in the states. Governors in California, New York, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia all relaxed outdoor mask mandates after the announcement. Some states, including Arizona and Texas, have already done away with mask rules.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, went much further, ignoring the federal government’s advice as he declared it was “time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms” to take place “without limits on gathering sizes.”

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said that starting Friday, people in his state would no longer have to wear masks outdoors and that by June 1, he planned to do away with rules on social distancing and limits on mass gatherings. North Carolina will also drop its indoor mask requirement once at least two-thirds of the adults in the state have been at least partly vaccinated.

By Friday, about 145 million Americans had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 101 million people who have been fully vaccinated by Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine or the two-dose series made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.

Here’s what else you may have missed this week:


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