• Sun. Mar 7th, 2021

Covid-19 Live Updates: Stalled U.S. Stimulus Talks Show Signs of Life

Here’s what you need to know:

ImageTreasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifying before the Senate on Thursday.
Credit…Pool photo by Drew Angerer

Mnuchin and Pelosi say they are ready to try again for an economic stimulus measure.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had agreed to resume talks on a new economic relief package.

“I’ve probably spoken to Speaker Pelosi 15 or 20 times in the last few days on the C.R.,” said Mr. Mnuchin, referring to a continuing resolution to extend government funding. “And we’ve agreed to continue to have discussions about the CARES Act.”

The Treasury secretary’s comments, made at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, came as jobless claims rose to 825,000 and stock markets remained volatile.

Ms. Pelosi, too, said Thursday that she expected to return to the negotiating table with Mr. Mnuchin — “hopefully soon.”

“I’m talking with my caucus, my leadership, and we’ll see what we’re going to do,” she told reporters. “But we’re ready for a negotiation. That’s what we’re ready for.”

Still, it remained far from clear that Republican and Democratic negotiators would be able to reach a deal.

At the hearing, Mr. Mnuchin criticized Democrats for making talks conditional on an agreement for a broad measure that would cost more than $2 trillion. He suggested that both sides work toward passing narrower legislation aimed at those ares on which they agree.

Despite that, top Democrats continued working Thursday to put together a $2.4 trillion package.

With California leading the way, the U.S. hits a new milestone: seven million cases.

Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

More than seven million people in the United States have now been infected by the coronavirus.

Though the milestone, reached on Thursday according to a New York Times database, is sobering, it comes as infections in much the country have in fact been slowing.

The United States has been averaging around 41,500 cases daily, down from the pandemic’s midsummer peak, though states in the Midwest and West are seeing case numbers rise.

It was a day for milestones.

In California, officials recorded their 800,000th case since the start of the pandemic. That is more than any other state. But the figure is cumulative, and does not capture the state’s current situation.

With health officials in California testing enough of the population to contain the spread of the virus, the state is reporting a relatively low number of new cases a day, according to the Times database.

More broadly, California the largest state in the country, has had significantly fewer virus cases per capita than other states like Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi. It currently ranks 36th among states and territories in known new cases per capita over the past seven days, and 26th in the total number of known cases per capita since the start of the pandemic.

It was less than a month ago that the United States hit the six-million mark, on Aug. 30. It had taken more than three months for the country try to record its first million.

The story of how California came to lead the country in the total number of cases goes back to the spring and summer months, when new cases surged across the Sun Belt states. New cases in California peaked at the end of July when the seven-day average doubled from what it was a month earlier.

It was a far cry from the early days of the pandemic, when most virus cases were in the Northeast and Washington State, and California emerged as a national role model when it became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order.

But the number of cases there began to climb when that order was lifted.

Like health officials in many Sun Belt states, the authorities in California attributed the spike to a premature easing of restrictions. In early July, when virus-related hospitalizations in California were up by more than 50 percent over a two-week period, Gov. Gavin Newsom halted reopening plans and ordered bars and indoor dining closed for most residents.

University enrollment has declined in the U.S., a report finds.

Credit…Michael Conroy/Associated Press

In an early look at fall enrollment, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported Thursday that undergraduate enrollment in the United States has dropped 2.5 percent from last fall, as the threat of the coronavirus has forced education to move increasingly online and sent unemployment rates soaring.

The decline was particularly sharp for community colleges, where enrollment went down by 7.5 percent from last September, the preliminary data shows. In past economic downturns, community colleges have typically seen enrollment increase.

The overall decline so far is more modest than many education experts had projected. But the survey shows enrollment has fallen at all types of institutions, including private, nonprofit four-year colleges, which report a 3.8 percent drop, and for-profit colleges, where enrollment is down nearly 2 percent, despite intensive marketing.

Public four-year colleges also reported a small overall decline, of less than 1 percent, with the steepest losses — 4 percent — at rural institutions. Public four-year institutions in urban areas were the one undergraduate bright spot, with a very slight gain of one-half of one percent.

International undergraduate enrollment also has dropped, marking an 11 percent decline from last year, reflecting the Trump administration’s heightened scrutiny of those students and the pandemic’s impact on travel.

But the red flag is community colleges, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group. The nation’s community college system is where most Black, Latino and low-income students enter the higher education system — members of groups that all have been disproportionately hit by the virus.

“In the 2009 recession, community college enrollment rose by more than one million students,” Mr. Hartle said. “Under normal circumstances, we’d expect community college enrollment to go up. Clearly these are not normal times.”

Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the research center, a nonprofit organization that studies enrollment trends, cautioned that the survey reflects data from only 138 of the nation’s approximately 5,000 colleges. The center expects many more to report data in its October report.

New York State is forming a panel to review federally authorized vaccines.

Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday that New York would review coronavirus vaccines that are approved by the federal government, giving the state a potentially contentious new role in the process a day after President Trump raised doubts about tougher F.D.A. guidelines.

“Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion, and I wouldn’t recommend to New Yorkers, based on the federal government’s opinion,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news briefing.

New York officials do not play a role in the approval process for a possible vaccine, but under the current plan they would help determine how it would be distributed throughout the state. In theory, officials could delay such distribution if they believed the vaccine was not safe.

Officials in the state and in New York City have said that for months they have been discussing a vaccine rollout plan.

The governor’s remarks, which echoed earlier calls for state oversight of any vaccine, threatened to further complicate a vaccine process that has become mired in political debate and for months has faced mistrust from the American public.

Mr. Cuomo said that he was alarmed when, on Wednesday, Mr. Trump suggested that the White House might reject new F.D.A. guidelines that would toughen the process for approving a coronavirus vaccine.

Mr. Trump said the F.D.A. plan sounded “like a political move,” a comment that yet again threatened to undermine government officials who have been working to boost public faith in a promised vaccine. Just hours earlier, four senior physicians leading the federal coronavirus response strongly endorsed the tighter safety procedures, which would involve getting outside expert approval before a vaccine could be declared safe and effective by the F.D.A.

Polls have shown a remarkable decrease in the number of Americans who would be willing to take a vaccine once it is approved. A survey conducted this month by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans would either probably or definitely take a vaccine, a significant drop from 72 percent in May.

The chief concern among those surveyed was that the vaccine approval process would move too quickly without taking time to properly establish safety and effectiveness.

The development and quick production of a vaccine is seen as crucial to ending the pandemic, which has claimed more than 202,000 lives in the United States, 32,000 of them in New York State.

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‘It Won’t Be Politics,’ F.D.A. Chief Says of Vaccine Approval Process

Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told lawmakers he was confident that the development of a coronavirus vaccine would be safe from political interference.

“We have not made a commitment to the timeline per se because we haven’t seen the data, and we don’t know the complexity of the data or the amount of data that will come our way. What I can tell you, sir, is we do feel the urgency of the moment. We do take very much — very seriously our responsibility to protect American lives. We will not delay, but we will not cut corners in our process.” “Dr. Hahn, you said that you have every confidence in the scientists and staff at F.D.A. And I appreciate that and I do too, by the way — is there some kind of deep state that you have seen in the F.D.A. that is any way trying to do anything other than quickly get a vaccine, get therapeutics to the American public?” “Senator, I will answer your question this way. I have 100 percent confidence in the outstanding scientists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists at F.D.A. who have remarkably stood up during this pandemic to help expedite getting medical products to the American people. I have complete confidence in their decisions. And I have complete confidence in the actions that have been taken to date.” “And that confidence is based on following the science not any political pressure, and that’s what we’re expecting with a vaccine approval.” “Yes, sir. And I’ve said that several times today, and I appreciate the opportunity to say it again, our career scientists for any medical products, and particularly vaccines, will follow the science and data and our rigorous standards. And it won’t be politics that make any part of that decision, sir.”

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Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told lawmakers he was confident that the development of a coronavirus vaccine would be safe from political interference.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings

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Novavax enters the final stage of vaccine trials.

The vaccine maker Novavax said Thursday that it would begin the final stages of testing its coronavirus vaccine in the United Kingdom and that another large trial was scheduled to begin next month in the United States.

It is the fifth late-stage trial from a company supported by Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to speed a coronavirus vaccine to market, and one of 11 worldwide to reach this pivotal stage. Novavax, a Maryland company that has never brought a vaccine to market, reached a $1.6 billion deal with the federal government in July to develop and manufacture its experimental vaccine, which has shown robust results in early clinical trials.

Although Novavax is months behind the front-runners in the vaccine race, independent experts are excited about its vaccine because its early studies delivered particularly promising results. Monkeys that were vaccinated got strong protection against the coronavirus. And in early safety trials, published early this month in The New England Journal of Medicine, volunteers produced strikingly high levels of antibodies against the virus.

It is not possible to make a precise comparison between early clinical studies of different vaccines, but John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, said that the antibodies from Novavax were markedly higher than any other vaccine with published results. “You just can’t explain that away,” he said.

Studies hint at why men are more likely than women to die from complications of the virus.

Problems with the body’s inborn response to infection may explain severe illness and death from the coronavirus in roughly 14 percent of patients, according to two studies published on Thursday in the journal Science.

These problems occur more often in men than in women, offering a potential explanation for why the virus seems to affect men more severely.

Both studies focused on Type I interferon, a set of 17 proteins that appear when the body is confronted with a virus. Interferons are produced within hours of exposure and signal to the rest of the immune system that there is an intruder.

Genetic flaws in some people hobble the Type 1 interferon response, according to one study. The virus provokes the production of “auto-antibodies” — molecules that misguidedly attack and destroy Type I interferons, instead of the virus, which buys the virus crucial time to gain a foothold and wreak havoc.

The researchers found auto-antibodies in 101 of 987 people with severe Covid-19, but in none of the 663 people with mild or asymptomatic illness. And they were found in only four of 1,227 healthy control participants.

The auto-antibodies were seen predominantly in men: 95 of the 101 patients in the study were men.

The findings have implications for treatment. People with auto-antibodies should be excluded from donating convalescent plasma, for example, and they may benefit from therapies that strip them of the harmful antibodies.

A second study analyzed DNA from 659 severely ill patients and 534 with mild or no symptoms. The researchers found that 3.5 percent of the severely ill group harbor mutations in eight genes that prevent the body from making Type I interferons.

None of the patients with mild or asymptomatic illness had these mutations.

While the two studies describe different errors in the immune response, ”the mechanism at the end is the same,” said Jean-Laurent Casanova, a pediatrician at Rockefeller University who led both studies. “It is insufficient interferon.”

A virtual meeting in Argentina bared a revealing scene: A lawmaker kissing his partner’s breast.

A lawmaker in Argentina’s lower house caused a social media frenzy on Thursday when he took a break from an online congressional session to fondle and kiss his partner’s breast.

The lawmaker, Juan Emilio Ameri, was attending a virtual session on pension funds when he put his hands around a woman sitting on his lap, touched her breast, pulled down her shirt and buried his head in her chest.

Mr. Ameri, who is from the northern province of Salta, was suspended after video of the incident went viral. A commission will decide whether he should be expelled.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Mr. Ameri said that his internet connection had dropped as his partner was getting out of the shower and that he did not notice when it returned.

“I’m very embarrassed,” he said.

Politicians around the world have found themselves in embarrassing situations as they try to adapt to virtual lawmaking sessions. In Spain, a city councilor was filmed showering during a meeting. In Mexico, a senator went topless. And in Wales, the health minister was caught swearing at a colleague.

In Argentina, one lawmaker apparently fell asleep, another was caught changing on camera, and a third placed a photo of himself as the virtual background. But none of those incidents sparked the level of outrage as Mr. Ameri’s kiss.

U.S. ROUNDUP

Keeping track of U.S. cases is a massive task made harder by glitches, delays and outdated equipment.

Credit…Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Public health officials in Houston made a startling disclosure this week: New virus cases in Harris County, the third-most populous county in the United States, had jumped sharply.

But it turns out the vast majority of the cases — 13,110 of the 13,875 reported on Monday — weren’t recent at all. They were at least 28 days old, yet another anomaly in virus data surfacing around the country.

All of the anomalies raise red flags about relying heavily on daily case counts to assess where the virus is surging or ebbing. Looking at a longer stretch of time offers a more clear and accurate picture, statisticians say.

Texas has had repeated virus data problems, but it is not alone. Sudden backlog dumps are complicating the picture of what the virus is doing in one state after another. A day after Houston’s data surge, South Carolina reported about 2,000 positive test results, some of them dating to March.

Officials in South Carolina laid the blame on an out-of-state laboratory. But public health authorities say such spikes often reflect various factors such as incomplete, erroneous or duplicative testing information — sometimes meaning employees need to manually re-enter data — as well as a reluctance to stop using outmoded technology like fax machines.

(The Times has been tracking cases in an extensive database, and excludes anomalies from its seven-day averages when possible.)

“We’re never going to get ahead of this unless we work towards data reconciliation and automation,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, director of Harris County’s public health department.

An accumulation of testing data is not the only kind of inconsistency that can cloud virus-tracking efforts. Some counties in Texas, for example, only count cases as confirmed based on polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., tests, conducted in a laboratory. Other counties hew to C.D.C. guidance by also reporting probable cases based on a doctor’s assessment of a patient’s symptoms, or on less sensitive rapid tests.

  • Applications for jobless benefits in the United States remained at staggeringly high levels last week as employers continued to lay off workers six months after the coronavirus pandemic first rocked the economy. About 825,000 Americans filed for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

  • As the virus cases remained persistently high across much of the United States, President Trump on Thursday announced his long-awaited health care plan, but one of its core provisions — protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions — is already part of the Affordable Care Act, which he is trying to repeal. Another, a push to end surprise medical billing, is largely symbolic and would require legislation passed by Congress.

  • Days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted and then withdrew significant new guidance on airborne transmission of the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Thursday about the threat of aerosol transmission of the virus as cooler weather approaches and many people spend more time indoors.

  • Michael R. Caputo, the top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, who recently took a leave of absence after accusing federal scientists of “sedition,” has learned he has cancer, a person briefed on his condition said on Thursday.

  • From June through August, the incidence of Covid-19 was highest among adults aged 20 to 29 years old, according to research published on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young adults accounted for more than 20 percent of all confirmed cases.

  • Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, a Republican, has canceled campaign events in his bid for office and is isolating at the governor’s mansion after he and his wife, Terersa, tested positive on Wednesday.

  • The Pac-12 Conference on Thursday decided to play football as soon as Nov. 6, reversing an earlier decision to not compete until at least 2021. Its decision came eight days after the Big Ten, which had also elected not to compete this fall, changed its approach and announced that games would begin in October.

  • After weathering the worst months of the lockdown, many immigrants are back on the job and sending their relatives even more money than before the downturn, according to newly compiled estimates.

  • New York City intends to create a new public health corps and will work on infrastructure for vaccine distribution, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday, without offering specific details, as he laid out four broad pillars he saw as key for the city’s eventual recovery. The mayor said that his plan would rely on continuing to fight the virus, investing in innovation, creating new jobs that help boost public health, and focusing on historically underserved communities.

As a new wave hits Iran, emergency pandemic funds have gone missing.

Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Iran has complained that in combating the pandemic, its hands are tied because its pockets are empty — the result of a punishing U.S. sanctions.

But there may also be another reason. Emergency government funds set aside to battle the virus are unaccounted for, according to health ministry officials.

The Iranian health minister, Saeed Namaki, said Wednesday that his ministry had received about 27 percent of the money from the country’s emergency funds but that nobody seems to know where the rest of it, about $800 million, has gone.

“I don’t know what other important cause this money went to,” said Mr. Namaki, according to Iranian media on Wednesday.

Health officials said that the country’s stockpile of medical gear is emptying out and that health workers had not been paid for two to three months. They warned that both doctors and patients were exhausted — and fed up.

The disclosures about the missing funds and the unpaid health workers came as Iran is being battered by another third surge of the virus.

Earlier in the week, the health ministry said the entire country was now considered a red zone as hospitalizations and deaths spiked, but singled out the capital, Tehran, as an “extra red zone” area. In Tehran, at least 70 to 100 people are dying each day, according to a report from the City Council.

In April, as Iran experienced its first wave of the pandemic, President Hassan Rouhani requested to withdraw about $1.2 billion from the National Development Fund savings meant for development projects. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved, and the government announced that the money would go toward purchasing medical equipment, training, treatment and the domestic production of equipment and gear.

Six months later, a big chunk of the money has yet to be delivered.

“You can’t fight coronavirus with empty hands,” the deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, said in a television interview on Wednesday.

GLOBAL ROUNDUP

Israel will tighten its national lockdown as infection rates soar.

Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

The Israeli government said on Thursday that it was tightening its second national lockdown after coronavirus cases soared to about 5,000 per day in the last week, the highest rate per capita in the world.

The new measures, which go into effect on Friday, will remain in place at least until the end of the Jewish High Holy Days in mid-October. Most businesses will have to close, and all gatherings, including protests and communal prayers, will be restricted to groups of up to 20 people outdoors within about 1,100 yards of home.

An exception has been made for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, which begins at sundown on Sunday.

The government was still mulling whether to halt outbound flights allowing Israelis to travel abroad from Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The new restrictions were largely meant to address a heated dispute roiling Israel. On one side are those who say they have the right to hold mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the protests have been taking place weekly in the streets near his official residence in Jerusalem. On the other are Orthodox politicians who oppose restrictions on prayer as long as the protests are allowed to continue.

The Israeli Parliament must approve any measures limiting the freedom to protest, which is anchored in law.

In other developments around the world:

  • Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most visible pro-democracy activists, has been arrested multiple times for taking part in antigovernment protests that erupted over the past year and roiled the Chinese territory before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Mr. Wong, 23, was arrested again on Thursday — in part, the police said, for violating a government ban on wearing a mask while attending an unauthorized demonstration last October.

  • Summer ended in Europe this week with a heavy thud amid signs that a spike in virus cases might send another wave of patients into hospitals. In Munich, normally brimming with boisterous crowds for Oktoberfest this month, the authorities just banned gatherings of more than five people. In Marseille, France, all bars and restaurants will be closed next Monday. In London, where the government spent weeks encouraging workers to return to the city’s deserted skyscrapers, it is now urging them to work from home.

  • Suresh Angadi, 65, on Wednesday became the first high-ranking official to die from the coronavirus in India. He was a junior minister for the Indian Railways and was the fourth Indian lawmaker to die from Covid-19. Mr. Angadi was a powerful politician from the southern state of Karnataka, where he worked to strengthen the base of Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party that rules India. With 5.7 million confirmed cases, India has the world’s second-highest caseload after the United States.

  • China National Biotec Group, a front-runner in developing a coronavirus vaccine, will donate 200,000 doses of its vaccine to health care workers in the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged nine months ago, the chairman of the company said on Thursday. The vaccine, which is developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has only cleared two phases of clinical trials but has been approved for emergency use. It is currently in the final stage of trials in more than 10 countries.

  • Germany on Thursday added the cities of Copenhagen, Dublin and Lisbon to a list of high-risk areas in the European Union that travelers are being encouraged to avoid. Germany has a seven-day average of about 1,700 new cases a day. The country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has also gone into quarantine after a person on his staff tested positive for the virus.

Reporting was contributed by Matt Apuzzo, Pam Belluck, Aurelien Breeden, Ben Casselman, Choe Sang-Hun, Melissa Eddy, Farnaz Fassihi, Michael Gold, Maggie Haberman, Christine Hauser, Mike Ives, Miriam Jordan, Isabel Kershner, Gina Kolata, Mark Landler, Apoorva Mandavilli, Jeffery C. Mays, Jesse McKinley, Sarah Mervosh, Raphael Minder, Christina Morales, Eshe Nelson, Benjamin Novak, Richard C. Paddock, Azi Paybarah, Elian Peltier, Daniel Politi, Monika Pronczuk, Roni Caryn Rabin, Simon Romero, Adam Satariano, Anna Schaverien, Christopher F. Schuetze, Dera Menra Sijabat, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Eileen Sullivan, Sui-Lee Wee, Sameer Yasir and Elaine Yu.