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Just three days after classrooms reopened for in-person learning, teachers in the Houston Independent School District, the seventh-largest public school system in the nation, staged a sickout to protest what they view as lax Covid-19 safety procedures.
The move came a day after the district loosened its strict policy regarding the closure of schools when cases are detected in them. The protest is the latest example of the difficulties that school districts and teachers around the country are navigating as they attempt to resume in-person instruction. On Wednesday, Boston public schools suspended the phased reopening of in-person classes.
Houston schools reopened its 280 schools on Monday. The next day, 16 of them were forced to close again because someone had tested positive on campus, according to the district. Administrators responded with an announcement on Wednesday that schools would no longer be closed when just a single person tests positive, a stricter policy than many other large districts across the nation had adopted.
Now it will take two sick people to close a campus. When there is just one, the infected person and others who were directly exposed will be isolated and “if possible, sent home,” and the campus will be disinfected overnight.
“Learning will continue as normal, with students and staff remaining in their assigned classrooms throughout the day to limit movement and contacts,” the district said in a statement. “If two or more confirmed positive cases are reported on a campus, the campus will close and shift to virtual learning to adequately identify contacts of positive cases.”
Dozens of teachers in at least 35 campuses called in sick on Thursday to protest the district’s policies on social distancing — including allowing students to be within three feet of one another — and on class size, according to one of the leaders involved. Teachers with chronic health conditions have been forced to report to work while their applications for accommodations are reviewed, and requests to switch to virtual teaching are being denied even for people with cancer, the leader said.
Responding to a request for comment about the sickout, the school district said it was working on a response.
There have been more than 220,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States, and each one represents years of potential life lost.
They are years that might otherwise have been filled with moments rich and mundane: Time spent with family and friends. Trips to the grocery store. Late-night conversations on the phone. Tearful firsts with a newborn baby.
Staggering as the 220,000 number is, it may not fully capture the true toll of the pandemic, according to a recent analysis.
Tabulating the ages of Americans known to have died of Covid-19, and tallying the number of years they might have lived had they reached a typical life expectancy, the report concluded that the virus had claimed more than 2.5 million years of potential life in the United States.
“Think of everything that a person does in a year,” said the author of the report, Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard. “Who among us would not give anything to have one more year with a parent, a spouse, a son or daughter, a close friend?”
The report, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, comes as 37 states continue to see sustained increases in new infections, according to a New York Times database. Twelve have been roughly flat over the past couple of weeks. Only Hawaii is seeing consistent declines. On Wednesday, at least four states broke their single-day records for new cases reported.
Just last week, scientists published a high-profile and discredited declaration arguing that businesses and schools should be quickly opened and that people “who are not vulnerable” to the virus — presumably the young and healthy — should return to “life as normal” while older Americans remain cloistered from the coronavirus.
Dr. Elledge’s analysis found that nearly half of the years lost were taken from people younger than 65.
“These are everyday people who are dying,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, a physician and health equity researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was not involved in the analysis. “They’re losing time with their kids, their grandkids, their opportunities to build their futures.” Dr. Essien was one of several experts who reviewed the study at the request of The New York Times.
With the U.S. case count and hospitalization rates approaching a third peak, none of the country’s biggest hotspots are currently in a large city. Almost all the counties with the largest outbreaks have populations under 50,000, and most have populations under 10,000. Nearly all are in the Midwest or the Mountain West.
Among the counties with the worst per capita outbreaks, seven of the top 20 were in South Dakota — six of which have fewer than 10,000 people.
Leading the nation was Norton, Kan., — population 5,486 — with an average of 44 new daily cases a day per 10,000 people.
The shift to rural areas is a stark contrast to earlier in the pandemic, when previous peaks saw virus cases concentrated mainly in cities and suburbs. The current surge is the most geographically dispersed yet, and it is hitting hard remote counties that often lack a hospital or other critical health care resources.
Since late summer, per capita case and death rates in rural areas have outpaced those in metropolitan areas.
The total number of coronavirus cases and deaths in rural places remains smaller than those in cities because of the comparatively low population in rural areas. But the rural share of the virus burden has grown over time.
Now, about one in four deaths from the virus is recorded in a rural county. In March and April, almost every death was in a metropolitan area, as the virus tore through the Northeast, after early clusters in the Seattle area and populous parts of California.
When the pandemic hit in March, a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., began providing paid leave to workers at high risk of serious illness.
But last month, shortly after the plant was cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a serious virus-related safety violation and given two initial penalties totaling about $15,500, it brought the high-risk employees back to work.
“Now the company knows where the ceiling is,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union local that represents the workers, about half a dozen of whom have died of Covid-19. “If other workers die, it’s not going to cost them that much.”
JBS USA said the return of the vulnerable workers in late September had nothing to do with the citation. “It was in response to the low number of Covid-19 cases at the facility for a sustained period of time,” a spokesman said, noting that the company began informing workers of the return in late July.
The JBS case reflects a skew in OSHA’s coronavirus-related citations, most of which it has announced since September: While the agency has announced initial penalties totaling over $1 million to dozens of health care facilities and nursing homes, it has announced fines for only two meatpacking plants for a total of less than $30,000. JBS and the owner of the second plant, Smithfield Foods, combined to take in tens of billions of dollars worldwide last year.
The meat industry has gotten the relatively light touch even as the virus has infected thousands of its workers — including more than 1,500 at the two facilities in question — and dozens have died.
The disparity in the way OSHA has treated health care and meatpacking is no accident. In April, the agency announced that it would largely avoid inspecting workplaces in person outside a small number of industries deemed most susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks, like health care, nursing homes and emergency response.
As part of efforts to stop the spread of false information about the coronavirus pandemic, Wikipedia and the World Health Organization announced a collaboration on Thursday: The health agency will grant the online encyclopedia free use of its published information, graphics and videos.
The collaboration is the first between Wikipedia and a health agency.
“We all consult just a few apps in our daily life, and this puts W.H.O. content right there in your language, in your town, in a way that relates to your geography,” said Andrew Pattison, a digital content manager for the health agency who helped negotiate the contract. “Getting good content out quickly disarms the misinformation.”
Since its start in 2001, Wikipedia has become one of the world’s 10 most consulted sites; it is frequently viewed for health information.
The agreement puts much of the W.H.O.’s material into the Wikimedia “commons,” meaning it can be reproduced or retranslated anywhere, without the need to seek permission — as long as the material is identified as coming from the W.H.O. and a link to the original is included.
“Equitable access to trusted health information is critical to keeping people safe and informed,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general.
His agency translates its work into six official languages, which do not include, for example, Hindi, Bengali, German or Portuguese, so billions of people cannot read its documents in their native or even second language.
Wikipedia articles, by contrast, are translated into about 175 languages.
The first W.H.O. items used under the agreement are its “Mythbusters” infographics, which debunk more than two dozen false notions about Covid-19. Future additions could include, for example, treatment guidelines for doctors, said Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, which produces Wikipedia.
If the arrangement works out, it could be extended to counter misinformation regarding AIDS, Ebola, influenza, polio and dozens of other diseases, Mr. Merkley said, “But this was something that just had to happen now.”
Faced with a frightening surge in coronavirus cases, some cities in hard-hit Great Plains states where governors have refused to issue statewide mask mandates are taking matters into their own hands.
Mayor Tim Mahoney of Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota, used his emergency powers to issue a mandatory mask order on Monday, the first city in the state to do so. Hours later, the City Council of Minot, the state’s fourth-largest city, followed suit.
“We were hoping we had escaped the Covid-19,” Mr. Mahoney, who is also a practicing surgeon, said in an interview. “Now we’re just like everybody else in the country. It has hit us with a vengeance. We kind of thought we’d outsmart it, and you can’t outsmart this virus.”
Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota has implored residents to wear masks but has resisted ordering them to do so, arguing that a “light touch of government” is the best way to handle the pandemic.
Though the state had few coronavirus cases in the spring and summer, it is being hammered in the fall. In recent weeks it has consistently reported more new cases relative to its population than any other state, filling its hospitals to capacity and overwhelming its public health resources. Earlier this week, the state gave up trying to do contact tracing, and asked people who test positive to do their own instead.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Missouri. Reports of new cases there have been climbing since July, and Gov. Mike Parson contracted the virus himself in September, but the state has still not issued a statewide mask mandate.
The mayors of two small cities south of Springfield — Nixa and Ozark — issued local mask orders this week using emergency powers. Over the summer, city councils in both cities had rejected proposed mandates. But the mounting strains of Covid-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks prompted hospitals in the area to appeal to the cities to take action.
The reaction to the new mandates has been mixed, said Drew Douglas, spokesperson for the city of Nixa.
“I think our mayors really want to be careful in prioritizing the public health of our community,” Mr. Douglas said. “And balancing that with people’s concerns about personal freedom and people’s concerns about local government not imposing more than necessary.”
European countries that had enjoyed relative success in containing the coronavirus in the spring are now struggling against a new wave, as Germany reported a record number of new daily cases and Greece and Poland were expected to tighten restrictions.
Germany on Thursday reported 11,287 new cases of the virus in the past 24 hours, the first time the country — widely lauded for its ability to manage the pandemic — broke the 10,000 mark. The country’s seven-day case average is now above 7,200 cases, according to a New York Times database.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose health minister tested positive on Wednesday hours after a meeting with other members of her government, had urged Germans to “meet far fewer people” and “stay at home,” but did not announce any official nationwide restrictions.
Most of the new cases can be traced to private meetings and celebrations, such as weddings or birthday parties, Dr. Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health authority, said at a news conference on Thursday. Young people now account for most of the new cases, he said, but they are increasingly spreading it to those who are older than 60. (Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post misspelled Dr. Wieler’s given name.)
“Those places where people are eager to come together and do so intensively,” are the places where the infection is currently spreading, Dr. Wieler said. “Where people sit closely together and laugh and are enjoying themselves, that is where the virus spreads intensively.”
In Greece, where cases are spiking, the authorities said the city of Kastoria would go into lockdown on Friday. The nearby region of Kozani was quarantined last week. The prime minister is expected to announce new restrictions on Thursday that could include a curfew and new rules on face masks. Like Germany, Greece had done well in initially controlling the virus, but cases have been steadily rising. The country has recorded 27,334 total cases and 534 deaths.
Poland, which has seen cases explode in recent weeks, set another record on Thursday, reporting more than 12,000 cases, according to Reuters. To control the spread of the virus, the country has made masks mandatory and limited hours for bars and restaurants, but more restrictions were expected Thursday. Poland’s deputy prime minister and de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is in quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person.
Belgium, which had managed to contain the virus over the summer, has also been seeing cases spike since mid-September. On Thursday, the country’s foreign minister, Sophie Wilmes, was admitted to an intensive care unit with the virus. A spokesperson said she was stable and conscious, but required professional help. Ms. Wilmes had served as prime minister until the beginning of October.
The Netherlands reported at least 9,000 new daily cases on Thursday, a record.
In other developments around the world:
Russia’s health minister, Mikhail Murashko, will self-quarantine after a member of his family tested positive for the coronavirus, an aide said on Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency. Several other Russian government ministers have already recovered from the virus, including Mikhail V. Mishustin, the prime minister, and Alexander Novak, the energy minister. Russia is in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic, but the authorities are resisting reimposing lockdowns. The government reported 15,971 coronavirus cases on Thursday, the fifth day in a row that the country has seen more than 15,000 new infections.
Four students at a university in Britain were fined a total of 40,000 pounds (about $52,000) for breaking the law on gatherings and holding a house party of more than 30 people. The students at Nottingham Trent University, in the Midlands of England, held the party in an area where mixing indoors with anyone from another household had been banned and said to the police officers who broke up the party that they were spoiling their fun. They have been suspended pending an investigation. Financially strapped British universities had encouraged students to return to campus, with predictably dire results.
Spain’s Parliament rejected an attempt by Vox, a far-right party, to oust the left-wing coalition government over its management of the pandemic. Lawmakers voted down a motion of no-confidence presented by Vox by 298 votes against 52, with only representatives from Vox in favor. The vote underlined the political tensions generated by Covid-19 in Spain, but it also ended up giving the conservative Popular Party an opportunity to distance itself from the more radical demands of Vox, which is now Spain’s third-largest party.
The federal government reported on Thursday that 757,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, a drop of 73,000 from the previous week but still a stubbornly high rate as the incipient economic recovery struggles to maintain a foothold.
Another 345,000 new claims were filed under a federal jobless program that provides benefits to freelancers, part-time workers and others during the pandemic. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 787,000.
The latest evidence of continuing stress in the labor market comes as coronavirus cases are again surging in the United States and as a second round of federal relief faces opposition from Senate Republicans over a possible $2 trillion price tag.
“The claims remain very elevated, and the lack of continuing fiscal aid for the unemployed is going to weigh on consumer attitudes and consumer spending,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. “It’s a very painful reality for those households who were relying on it.”
Seven months into the pandemic, the nature of the job losses is changing. The hope that business interruptions would be brief and that most laid-off workers would quickly be rehired has faded. Every week, more Americans join the ranks of the long-term unemployed, defined as those out of work for more than 27 weeks.
“We’re in a new phase of jobless claims,” said Ernie Tedeschi, managing director and policy economist for Evercore ISI. “More and more people are exhausting their initial 26 weeks of state unemployment.”
Puerto Rico’s two 911 emergency call centers were shut down Wednesday night after two employees tested positive for Covid-19, the public safety secretary announced.
Workers were moved to the emergency management bureau headquarters, and Puerto Ricans were given two different telephone numbers to call the police or an ambulance. On Thursday morning, the agency announced that it had enabled call forwarding, so residents could once again dial 911 for an emergency.
Employees who were in contact with the sick co-workers were isolated and were to be tested in the coming days, the public safety secretary, Pedro Janer, said in a statement.
The alternative numbers were quickly overloaded by people testing to see if they worked. In a sign of just how chaotic the situation had become, island officials reached out to an American journalist with a large social media following in Puerto Rico for help.
I’m being asked by officials in Puerto Rico to ask everyone to not call the numbers for emergency management and police in Puerto Rico unless you have a emergency – the lines are being swamped right now – I’m told – by people who are testing the numbers to see if they’re working pic.twitter.com/XxpEoip54w
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) October 22, 2020
Mr. Janer said both call centers would be decontaminated. “The date on which they will resume operations will be reported shortly,” he said.
Puerto Rico has reported nearly 60,000 total cases of the coronavirus and 783 deaths, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has categorized the island as “warning level three,” because the risk there is considered high. Nonessential travel should be avoided, the C.D.C. said.
For months now, the extraordinary challenges of schooling during the coronavirus pandemic have dominated life in communities large and small across the United States, yet the topic has not been at the forefront of the presidential campaign.
Communities are battling over whether and how to reopen schools closed since March. Superintendents are warning of drastic budget cuts on the horizon. Teachers’ unions are calling for standardized tests to be canceled for a second straight year. And millions of children are learning remotely — with little known about the long-term effects on their intellectual growth.
Yet none of this has been a big campaign talking point for either President Trump or former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“It should really be a pivotal topic,” said Kisha Hale, principal of the upper grades at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington.
Just this week, parents in one major city school system — Boston’s — had hopes dashed that their pre-K and kindergarten children might soon find themselves back in the classroom. With cases rising, the city put a hold on its school reopening plans and even ended what little in-person teaching there already was, for so-called high-needs students.
It was a microcosm of the disarray across the country as school districts try to get back to normal, or something resembling it. Several recent polls have suggested that the issue is a leading concern for many voters.
With the lives of schoolchildren upended across the country, the presidential campaign’s lack of focus on the issue has frustrated parents and educators alike.
The subject of school reopening is not a major theme of either candidate’s ad campaigns, and it got less than a minute of airtime at the first debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump last month. Nor is it among the topics that Kristen Welker of NBC News plans to question them on at Thursday’s debate, though “Fighting Covid-19” is.
To the dismay of parents and educators, the discussion has been limited partly because states and local districts have a larger role than the federal government in running — and funding — schools.
When Mr. Trump brings up schools at rallies, he can generally be counted on to say that he will fight for school choice and protect charter schools. And he has consistently called for schools to reopen, threatening at one point to withhold federal funds from districts that resist. But he has said little to nothing about the role of federal funding in helping districts reopen safely.
Mr. Biden has presented ideas on how and when school districts should reopen. But he has not addressed the divisions that exist within his own party about what conditions need to be in place before sending students and teachers back to classrooms.
Nor has either campaign put forth ideas on improving remote learning, or on how colleges should handle the return to campuses — deeply relevant issues to huge slices of the electorate.
President Trump complained about the news media’s intensive coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at a campaign rally in Gastonia, N.C., on Wednesday evening, describing the disease as an annoying inconvenience even as the country’s case count and death toll continue to soar.
Attacking two television networks, CNN and MSNBC, with barbed epithets, Mr. Trump insisted for the second night in a row, “That pandemic is rounding the corner. They hate it when I say it.”
“All you hear is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” Mr. Trump said, repeating the word 11 times. “That’s all they put on, because they want to scare the hell out of everyone.”
Mr. Trump’s lament about television news followed a familiar line in his recent speeches, defiantly insisting despite all evidence that the coronavirus is rapidly disappearing as an issue. It is not a perspective shared by most voters: A national poll published Monday by The New York Times found that 51 percent of likely voters believed the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, compared with 37 percent who said the worst was over.
And that was not the full extent of Mr. Trump’s dissembling on the pandemic. He repeated a familiar — and false — line claiming that the country appears to have so many cases only because there is so much testing, and telling supporters that his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., was seeking to “prolong the pandemic” and “shut down your country,” even though the former vice president has presented a public-health agenda aimed at doing the opposite.
The president also continued taunting Democratic governors who have imposed restrictions on gatherings and commercial activity to counter the spread of the virus, including Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat seeking re-election whose popularity has risen in response to his handling of the pandemic.
“You got to get your governor to open up your state here,” Mr. Trump said, prodding Mr. Cooper. “Open up your state, governor. It’s time.”
A rash of provocative headlines this week flooded social media platforms with a tantalizing idea: that mouthwash can “inactivate” coronaviruses and help curb their spread.
The idea came from a new study that found that a coronavirus that causes common colds — not the one that causes Covid-19 — could be killed in a laboratory by dousing virus-infected cells with mouthwash. The study’s authors concluded that the products they tested “may provide an additional level of protection against” the new coronavirus.
But outside experts warned against overinterpreting the study’s results, which might not have practical relevance to the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans. Not only did the study not investigate this deadly new virus, but it also did not test whether mouthwash affects how viruses spread from person to person.
“I don’t have a problem with using Listerine,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “But it’s not an antiviral.”
The study, which was published last month in the Journal of Medical Virology, looked only at a coronavirus called 229E, which causes common colds — not the new coronavirus.
The researchers flooded 229E coronaviruses grown in human liver cells in the lab with several types of mouthwash and nasal rinses for 30 seconds, one minute or two minutes — longer than the typical swig or spritz into a nose or mouth. Around 90 to 99 percent of the viruses could no longer infect cells after this exposure, the study found.
But because the study didn’t recruit any human volunteers to gargle the products in question, the findings have limited value for the real world, other experts said. The human mouth, full of nooks and crannies and a slurry of chemicals secreted by a diverse cadre of cells, is far more complicated than the inside of a laboratory dish.
Researchers warn people not to misuse mouthwash or nasal rinses or ingest large quantities of the liquids, because they can be dangerous.
In early March, when coronavirus testing was still scarce, Maggie Flannery, a Manhattan sixth-grader, and both her parents fell ill with the symptoms of Covid-19. After three weeks, her parents recovered. Maggie also seemed to get better, but only briefly before suffering a relapse that left her debilitated.
“It felt like an elephant sitting on my chest,” Maggie said. “It was hard to take a deep breath, I was nauseous all the time, I didn’t want to eat, I was very light-headed when I stood up or even just lying down.” She also experienced joint pain and severe fatigue.
She tested negative for both the coronavirus itself and for antibodies to it. But viral tests taken long after the initial infection are generally negative, and antibody tests are frequently inaccurate.
“They didn’t know anything about ‘long-Covid’ at that point,” said Amy Wilson, Maggie’s mother. “They said it was anxiety. I was pretty sure that wasn’t true”
Maggie’s pediatrician, Dr. Amy DeMattia, has since confirmed the Covid-19 diagnosis, based on the child’s clinical history and the fact that both her parents tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.
More than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, it has become increasingly apparent that many patients with both severe and mild illness do not fully recover. Weeks and months after exposure, these Covid-19 “long-haulers,” as they have been called, continue experiencing a range of symptoms, including exhaustion, dizziness, shortness of breath and cognitive impairments. Children are generally at significantly less risk than older people for serious complications and death from Covid-19, but the long-term impacts of infection on them, if any, have been especially unclear.
Although doctors recognize that a small number of children have suffered a rare inflammatory syndrome shortly after infection, there is little reliable information about how many who get Covid-19 have prolonged complaints like Maggie. That could change as the proportion of children who are infected rises.
During the summer, the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the Rio Grande Valley, in the southern tip of Texas along the border with Mexico. In July, ambulances lined up in a grim parade, waiting to drop patients at emergency rooms. Some funeral homes ordered refrigerated trucks to store bodies.
As of Wednesday, more than 63,200 coronavirus cases had been reported and more than 3,200 people had died in the four counties that constitute the valley — more fatalities than in any of the urban centers of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
The valley’s predominantly Latino population is among the poorest in Texas and among the most susceptible to the worst effects of the virus.
During such a crisis, holding a football season might seem inconsequential. But the game is perhaps more urgent and galvanizing in Texas than anywhere else. As towns along or near the Rio Grande have shut off their Friday night lights, or left them flickering in uncertainty, there has been a sense of cultural casualty.
In late August, the school district that includes Palmview High, La Joya High and Juarez-Lincoln High decided to cancel fall sports. But some parents and athletes protested, and in late September officials reconsidered. In the end, though, only Palmview decided to proceed with football — and only with severe limitations and precautions.
Jeré Longman, a sports reporter for The New York Times, spoke to players, their families and coaches about the decision.
“We have to be very cautious,” said Ernesto Lerma, an assistant coach for Palmview who, at 78, would be especially vulnerable to the virus. “This is a deadly disease.”