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

A staff member of the World Health Organization receives a Covid vaccine in March in Gaza City.
A staff member of the World Health Organization receives a Covid vaccine in March in Gaza City.Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Israel’s airstrikes and shelling of Gaza have stopped all Covid-19 vaccinations and testing in the Palestinian enclave and raise the risk of super-spreading as civilians cram into shelters for safety, United Nations officials said.

In an interview over Zoom on Friday as the sound of Israeli explosions shook their headquarters, the leaders of the U.N. Palestinian relief agency’s operations in Gaza and the head of the World Health Organization’s Gaza sub-office said they feared that a severe worsening of Covid-19 infections would be a side-effect of the death and destruction from the latest surge in hostilities.

The number of people in Gaza sickened from Covid-19 had been “just leveling off, and then this hit,” said the U.N. agency official, Matthias Schmale. “It is a grim situation.”

He said that unvaccinated Gazans were crowding into the schools run by his agency, known as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, because the Israelis do not intentionally target those buildings — in effect making them bomb shelters. Now, Mr. Schmale said, those schools “could turn into mass spreaders.”

Last month, severe and critical cases of Covid hit record highs in Gaza, which health experts attributed to the proliferation of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in Britain. In early May, Doctors Without Borders reported that the territory’s infections were topping 1,000 a day.

Sacha Bootsma, the W.H.O. official, said that before the vaccinations had stopped, 38,000 people in Gaza had received at least one dose of vaccine. That is less than 2 percent of the population of two million. Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were given at three Gaza hospitals, and AstraZeneca’s vaccine was being administered at smaller health centers.

But now, Ms. Bootsma said, “People are not daring to visit health facilities. We are fearing this will have a major negative impact.”

By contrast, more than 60 percent of the Israeli population has received at least one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, and more than 55 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. However, the pace of vaccinations has slowed tremendously in recent months.

Under Covax, the international collaboration to provide vaccines to poor parts of the world, Gaza is supposed to receive enough vaccine to protect 20 percent of its population, the officials said.

But the deliveries, flown to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport and then sent by land across the border to Gaza, have been indefinitely suspended because air service into Israel has been curtailed by the hostilities. Assuming they resume soon, it still remains unclear when Gaza’s border crossings might reopen.

“The biggest problem now is the borders are closed,” Mr. Schmale said. “Even if there were a delivery, we would not be able to receive any supplies.”

Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, last year in Oakland, Calif. Ms. Castillo is condemning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lifting of mask recommendations for vaccinated people.
Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, last year in Oakland, Calif. Ms. Castillo is condemning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lifting of mask recommendations for vaccinated people.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The nation’s largest union of registered nurses condemned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday for lifting mask recommendations for vaccinated people and called on the agency to “do the right thing” and revise its guidance.

Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and executive director of the union, National Nurses United, said the most recent guidance, which was issued on Thursday and rolled back mask recommendations and other precautions for those who are fully vaccinated, “is not based on science.” Ms. Castillo said the new guidance would jeopardize the health of frontline workers and the general public and would disproportionately harm people of color.

“This is a huge blow to our efforts at confronting this virus and the pandemic,” said Ms. Castillo, whose union represents 170,000 nurses nationwide. Although vaccination is vitally important to stopping the virus’s spread, she noted that millions of Americans still had not been vaccinated.

“The mask is another lifesaving layer of protection for workers,” she said.

The union also criticized the C.D.C. for other actions, including its decision to stop monitoring breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals and to investigate such cases only if they result in a hospitalization or death. The agency announced that, as of May 1, it would no longer track or investigate all infections among vaccinated people so that it could “maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance.”

The nurses said that meant the C.D.C. would not gather the data necessary to understand whether vaccines prevent mild and asymptomatic infections, how long vaccine protection lasts and what role variants play in breakthrough infections.

The union also called on the agency, which recently recognized that the virus could be transmitted through aerosolized particles, to update its guidance about ventilation and respiratory protection accordingly. The union also called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to immediately issue emergency temporary standards on infectious diseases to protect people in the workplace.

The C.D.C. did not immediately respond to the criticisms. Introducing the new recommendations on Thursday, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, cited two recent scientific findings as significant factors: Few vaccinated people become infected with the virus, and transmission seems rarer still; and the vaccines appear to be effective against all known variants of the coronavirus.

The union noted that more than 35,000 new cases of coronavirus were being reported each day and that more than 600 people were dying each day. “Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the C.D.C. has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century,” Ms. Castillo said.

An unmasked woman and a masked woman chatting in Manhattan on Friday, the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted mask requirements in most settings for people who are fully vaccinated. 
An unmasked woman and a masked woman chatting in Manhattan on Friday, the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted mask requirements in most settings for people who are fully vaccinated. Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

CHICAGO — The sudden loosening of federal health guidance on masks left Americans with options — and lots of questions. Would they leave the mask behind for a jog? What about the coffee shop? What about the neighbor’s house? The office?

The new rules have left Americans with a new calculation to make. And it isn’t just one calculation, but a maze of many. As people walked through their days, hour by hour, errand by errand, some wondered at every new doorway: Mask or no mask?

In interviews this weekend with dozens of residents from Los Angeles to Atlanta, people said they were mostly encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s finding that masks were no longer needed for fully vaccinated people in most indoor and outdoor situations.

But the details, many said, were perplexing, and had stirred new questions about science, but also about trust, social norms and even politics. How can one be certain that people no longer wearing masks have actually gotten a vaccine? What will the neighbors think if you take yours off? (And what will they think if you don’t?) And what if, some asked, you just feel more comfortable in a mask?

Since the start of the pandemic, many conservatives bristled at being told they should wear face coverings, while liberals often took pride in masking, making mask mandates a constant source of debate and division. But now, as something close to the opposite of a mandate was arriving, that, too, was creating tumult within shops, neighborhoods and even families in the parts of the country where masks had remained common.

“At first, as a citizen, I was like, ‘Wow, these are so great. I haven’t been out to eat in a year,’” Angela Garbacz, 34, a pastry shop owner in Lincoln, Neb., said of the new recommendations, which have begun filtering out to states and cities and stores. “But as a private business owner, it has been like panic and, ‘What do we do?’ Are people just going to think they can come in without masks? Do I get rid of my mask requirement? It’s just so much uncertainty with the one thing that’s helped us feel safe in a really scary time.”

Jenea Edwards helps her son with his mask before heading into school in Pittsburgh in March.
Jenea Edwards helps her son with his mask before heading into school in Pittsburgh in March.Credit…Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via Associated Press

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday clarified coronavirus advice for U.S. schools, recommending the continued, universal use of masks and physical distancing, after the agency’s sudden announcement that vaccinated Americans could forego masks indoors.

All schools teaching students from kindergarten through grade 12 should continue to implement proper mask-wearing through the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the C.D.C. said. The agency also kept in place its suggestions to observe physical distancing and to test for coronavirus infections.

About 122 million people had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in the U.S. as of Saturday, but the average number of vaccinations per day has dropped since its peak in April, according to C.D.C. data. News of the C.D.C.’s sweeping change to mask rules that were introduced a year ago came suddenly last week, prompting elation among many Americans but also some confusion over how to respond to the new guidance.

The C.D.C.’s advice for schools attempts to clear up some of the confusion. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds in the United States. But some parents are still hesitant about the vaccine. And no vaccines have been authorized yet for children under 12.

Two recent scientific findings were significant factors in the C.D.C.’s decision to change its advice on maskwearing for vaccinated people: few of those vaccinated become infected with the virus and transmission seems rarer still, and the vaccines widely used in the United States appear to be effective against all known variants of the coronavirus.

Australians who were stranded in coronavirus-ravaged India have touched down in Darwin on the first post-ban repatriation flight. 
Australians who were stranded in coronavirus-ravaged India have touched down in Darwin on the first post-ban repatriation flight. Credit… STEWART GOULD/EPA, via Shutterstock

Days after ending its divisive ban on allowing citizens to return from India, Australia carried out its first repatriation flight from that country, with the plane departing from New Delhi and arriving in Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, on Saturday.

The flight had been scheduled to carry 150 passengers, but just 80 people were on it, after 70 people were barred from travel because they or their close contacts had tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Australian government. The new arrivals in Australia now face two weeks of quarantine in a converted mining camp outside Darwin.

Because of Australia’s rigorous preflight testing, in which passengers must show two negative tests for Covid-19, the seats could not be given to other passengers. At least 9,500 Australians in India have registered as wanting to return home. Around 1,000 of those people are classified as “vulnerable” for health or financial reasons.

When the numbers of new cases of the coronavirus began a perilous ascent in India last month, Australia followed in the footsteps of New Zealand and imposed a temporary ban on travel from India. Those who defied the ban faced the threat of jail time or large fines. The policy was heavily criticized and labeled a breach of human rights by lawmakers, advocacy groups and those in the Indian diaspora.

Australia has taken a stringent approach to managing the pandemic, including closing its borders and imposing travel restrictions that are expected to be in place until well into 2022, according to the most recent government guidance. Many Australian citizens are still stranded abroad, unable to secure spots in isolation facilities or afford flights home that may run into the tens of thousands of dollars for a one-way ticket. The measures have all but eliminated community transmission of the virus.

India, by contrast, is experiencing one of the world’s most dangerous outbreaks, with hospitals unable to accommodate the thousands of people who require urgent medical attention. Crematories in the country, which has so far reported 24 million cases and more than 250,000 deaths, are overloaded, while dozens of bodies have washed up on the banks of the Ganges River.

In a televised briefing over the weekend, Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said that the government’s priority was to protect Australians within their own country. “We’re following the medical advice,” he said, adding, “We’ve got to maintain our health settings because we know how damaging to the lives and livelihoods of Australians an outbreak here would be.”

Further repatriation flights are scheduled for later this month, with about 1,000 people planning to return by the end of June.

A Walmart in Washington, D.C., last year. The retail giant is one of a number of major U.S. companies that is dropping mask mandates after new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Walmart in Washington, D.C., last year. The retail giant is one of a number of major U.S. companies that is dropping mask mandates after new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Credit…Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A growing number of major retailers are lifting mask requirements for those who are fully inoculated after new federal guidance, largely moving to an honor system in which they trust that only vaccinated people will bare their faces.

The guidance lifts the masking requirement for fully vaccinated people in most settings — though not on transit, in health care facilities or in certain crowded areas — while affirming that local regulations should still be respected. Fully vaccinated, according to the guidance, means two weeks after receiving a second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s or Moderna’s vaccine, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s.

Walmart announced on Friday that fully vaccinated customers would no longer need to wear masks, and that fully vaccinated employees would no longer need to as of Tuesday. Costco and Publix are also lifting mask requirements for vaccinated people. Starbucks will also make masks optional for vaccinated customers starting on Monday, unless local regulations require them.

Many retailers said they would not require proof of vaccination. Costco, for instance, said it would instead “ask for members’ responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy.”

Trader Joe’s will no longer make vaccinated customers wear masks, although face coverings are still required for employees, Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson, said in a statement.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board also issued updated mask guidance on Thursday that follows the new federal guidelines, noting that it would not require casinos to confirm the vaccination status of patrons but would also not prevent them from doing so.

Some retailers like Target and CVS, though, plan to continue mandating face coverings for shoppers for now.

“CVS Health is currently re-evaluating its position on masks given the C.D.C.’s new guidance,” Joe Goode, a spokesman, said in a statement. “Until that evaluation is complete, the existing company policies on face coverings and maintaining social distance in stores and clinics remain in effect.”

The new guidance, released on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came as a surprise to many Americans. For months, federal officials warned that wearing masks and social distancing were necessary to control the spread of the virus. The guidance raised some disquiet, because there is no obvious way for retailers, their employees or their patrons to determine who has been vaccinated and who has not.

Some public health experts expressed concerns that unvaccinated people may also choose to shed their masks.

“CDC is betting that by giving wide freedom to vaccinated people it’ll encourage the hesitant,” Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “But there’s no behavioral evidence for that. What’s more likely to happen is that both vaccinated AND unvaccinated people will take off their masks.”

Union leaders have also pointed to the health risks that workers could face.

“Today’s C.D.C. guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement on Thursday.

“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local Covid safety measures,” he added.

There are alternatives to an honor system, in the form of documentation of vaccination. However, vaccine cards can be forged, and “vaccine passports” have become a contentious topic, with many Republican governors pushing back on them. Although the passports could help businesses operate more safely, critics argue that they raise privacy and equity concerns. Still, hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new, electronic versions.

On the question of a possible federal vaccine passport, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing on Friday that the Biden administration remained focused on the vaccination campaign and was “not currently considering federal mandates.” But she left open the possibility that private-sector companies might want to require some kind of vaccine documentation, citing those “running a stadium, if you are a sports team or something like that.”

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