Covid-19 Live Updates: News on Vaccines, the Variant

Credit…Nathan Howard/Reuters

To some, Alaska’s announcement that it would try to entice travelers by offering Covid-19 vaccinations at its airports might signal the state’s plucky resolve and determination to revive a tourism industry that has been devastated by the pandemic.

To others, it’s a sign of everything that is wrong with the way that the United States is distributing its vaccines, as calls for more doses in surge-stricken Michigan are rebuffed.

“It’s hard for me to believe that we’ve so maldistributed a vaccine as to make this necessary,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who was part of the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. “You don’t want to exchange a bad carbon footprint for a vaccination.”

Starting on June 1, any tourist traveling to Alaska will be able to receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at the Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau or Ketchikan airports. It’s part of a larger multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, funded by federal stimulus money, to attract tourists back to the state, Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, a Republican, announced.

“We believe there’s a real opportunity to get folks to come to Alaska again,” Mr. Dunleavy said at a news conference on Friday.

Alaska is the latest state to announce plans to extend vaccine eligibility to nonresidents as production and distribution have increased around the country. Twenty-one other states do not have residency requirements for vaccination, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Some U.S. experts have worried for months about the growth in “vaccine tourism” — Americans crossing state lines to get a vaccine where there are excess doses. Virologists like Dr. Brilliant say that rather than incentivizing people to fly to Alaska to get a shot from the state’s abundant vaccine supply, doses should be redistributed to states most in need and no longer be allocated strictly by population.

Alaska is not lacking vaccines, said Heidi Hedberg, the state’s director of public health. Health administrators will begin the airport vaccine program for tourists at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, with a five-day trial at the end of April to gauge interest. Some visitors may have to get their second dose of mRNA vaccines in their home states, depending on how long they remain in Alaska.

Almost 40 percent of Alaskans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to a New York Times database. Thirty-two percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The state has used 68 percent of its doses.

Alaska was the first state to open up vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older living or working in the state, on March 9. At the time of the announcement, Alaska had the highest vaccination rate in the country.

The United States has continued to speed up vaccination efforts, and is now averaging 3.2 million doses a day, up from roughly two million a day in early March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday that about 129.5 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Dr. Brilliant said states like Michigan, the center of the country’s worst surge, should be receiving larger allocations of doses.

The Biden administration and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, have been at odds over her calls for an increase in her state’s vaccine supply. But the Biden administration held fast to distributing vaccines by state population, not by triage.

“The vaccine should go where it will do the most good,” Dr. Brilliant said. “Given the scarcity of vaccine in the world, every dose should be given in a way that is most effective at stopping this pandemic.”

But the issue could be moot by the time that Alaska’s tourist vaccination program begins in earnest on June 1: most Americans who want to be vaccinated might already have received at least one dose by then, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“We’re going to reach a point where people don’t need to fly to Alaska to get vaccinated,” he said. “I think it’s going to be more of the case that, here’s an opportunity to visit Alaska and it’s convenient to get vaccinated.”

United States › United StatesOn Apr. 17 14-day change
New cases 52,391 +5%
New deaths 674 –12%

World › WorldOn Apr. 17 14-day change
New cases 528,187 +23%
New deaths 10,446 +18%

U.S. vaccinations ›

Where states are reporting vaccines given
Supplies of Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the National Jewish Health hospital pharmacy in Denver last month.
Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

A decision about whether to resume administering the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine should come this Friday, when an expert panel that is advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to meet, according to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.

“I think by that time we’re going to have a decision,” Dr. Fauci said on Sunday on the CNN program “State of the Union.”

“I don’t want to get ahead of the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. and the advisory committee,” he added, but said he expected experts to recommend “some sort of either warning or restriction” on the use of the vaccine.

Federal health agencies recommended putting injections of the vaccine on pause on Tuesday while they investigated whether it was linked to a rare blood-clotting disorder. All 50 states, in addition to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have stopped administering the vaccine.

The unusual disorder includes blood clots in the brain combined with low levels of platelets, blood cells that typically promote clotting. The combination, which can cause clotting and bleeding at the same time, was initially documented in six women between the ages of 18 and 48 who had received the vaccine one to three weeks prior. One of the women died, and another was hospitalized in critical condition.

This pattern has prompted questions about whether vaccinations could resume in men or in older people. But because women fill more of the health care jobs for which vaccinations have been prioritized, it is not clear how much the problem might affect men, too. On Wednesday, two more cases of the clotting disorder were identified, including one in a man who had received the vaccine in a clinical trial.

Of the 129.5 million people who have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the United States, more than seven million have received Johnson & Johnson’s. If there is a link between the vaccine and the clotting disorder, the risk remains extremely low, experts say.

“It’s an extraordinarily rare event,” Dr. Fauci said on the ABC program “This Week.” The pause was intended to give experts time to gather more information and to warn physicians about the clotting disorder so that they can make more informed treatment decisions, said Dr. Fauci, who appeared on four TV news programs on Sunday morning.

European regulators have been investigating similar cases of the unusual clotting disorder in people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine. Some European countries have since stopped administering that vaccine altogether, while others have restricted its use in younger people.

Dr. Fauci also expressed frustration that “a disturbingly large proportion of Republicans,” who have been critical of many coronavirus restrictions, have expressed a reluctance to be vaccinated. “It’s almost paradoxical,” he said. “On the one hand they want to be relieved of the restrictions, but on the other hand, they don’t want to get vaccinated. It just almost doesn’t make any sense.”

Dr. Fauci said that he expected all high school students to become eligible for vaccination before school begins in the fall, with younger children eligible no later than the first quarter of 2022.

Worshippers praying on the first Friday of the holy fasting month of Ramadanat the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey.
Credit…Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

ISTANBUL — Turkey hit another record high in new cases of Covid-19, reporting more than 62,000 new infections and 288 deaths in a single day, according to figures released by the Health Ministry on Saturday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced new restrictions last week for the two first weeks of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, in recognition of the serious spike in new infections. He extended a nightly curfew and ordered early closing of shops.

The spike is being driven partly by more transmissible variants of the virus, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said recently. The variant first identified in Britain is now present in all of Turkey’s provinces, officials said, and those identified in South Africa and Brazil are present in a few provinces as well.

Yet doctors say the government is to blame for failing to impose a stricter lockdown from the beginning of the pandemic, and for failing to act sooner to curb the latest wave with tighter regulations.

“We need a full lockdown that would be economically and socially supported,” said Dr. Kayihan Pala, a public health official and member of the Turkish Medical Association. He said it was not sufficient to rely on vaccinations, which have not reached enough of the population to stem the surge.

Medical workers are overstretched in Istanbul, where the largest number of cases have been identified, he said, and the availability of hospital beds was become an issue.

The Health Ministry data released Saturday showed that just under 70 percent of intensive care beds across the country were filled. The ministry did not release a figure specifically for Istanbul.

Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Erdogan has resisted calls for a total lockdown, and has insisted on allowing private industry and large businesses to keep operating, in order to sustain an economy that was already in recession before the pandemic. Turkey has continued to welcome foreign tourists, and allows them to ignore weekend lockdown rules.

Residents of Istanbul have increasingly flouted restrictions, many of them by exercising outdoors on weekends despite the threat of fines. The interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, warned foreign residents in comments published Sunday that he would confiscate their residency permits if they were found breaking the weekend lockdown rules.

The health minister, Mr. Koca, has resorted to gentle pleading. “Let’s not leave all the work to the vaccine,” he tweeted last week. “Let’s reduce cases until vaccination. Partial closure is an opportunity.”

A police offcer talks to demonstrators as they protest against new coronavirus restrictions in Toronto, Canada, on Saturday.
Credit…Chris Helgren/Reuters

Just a day after extending and expanding its stay-at-home orders, Ontario — Canada’s most populous province — limited sweeping new powers that it had granted to the police to enforce the mandates in an effort to curb rising case numbers and hospitalizations.

On Friday, Doug Ford, the premier, announced that the police would be able to randomly stop and question people, including those in vehicles, to make sure that their trips outside home were essential. Anyone outside their home and not following the rules could face fines.

While polls suggest that there is general public support for restrictions throughout Canada, Mr. Ford’s plan for the police to conduct random checks immediately provoked a backlash.

In announcing that his organization would begin a legal challenge on Saturday, Michael Bryant, the president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said in a statement that “the regulation brings back the odious ‘driving while Black’ police stop, and introduces a ‘walking while Black’ offense.”

On Saturday evening, Sylvia Jones, the province’s solicitor general, said in a statement that rules had been modified to allow the police to question only people they believe are “participating in an organized public event or social gathering.” The current restrictions allow only members of the same household to meet outside their homes with some exemptions for events like funerals.

In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Bryant said that his group accepted the new plan, because it was “tied to a public health objective and avoids arbitrary detention.”

On Friday, the Ontario government said it would restrict travel between neighboring Manitoba and Quebec, and it would set up checkpoints at the provincial borders.

The new measures come amid a sluggish vaccine campaign in Canada and the latest virus wave there, driven largely in Ontario by the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first detected in Britain. The increasing case numbers have strained the capacity of intensive care units in many parts of the country.

Canada has inched ahead of the United States in new daily coronavirus cases per capita, and officials warned that worse is to come. By Friday, hospitalizations were up by 22 percent; I.C.U. admissions rose by 34 percent; and each day, 41 people died from Covid-19, a 38 percent increase from the previous week.

“It now falls on me to do what is necessary,” Mr. Ford said on Friday, adding that aside from restricting border crossings with Manitoba and Quebec, he was also closing playgrounds, golf courses, basketball courts and other outdoor sports facilities, along with a variety of other measures. On Saturday, Mr. Ford wrote on Twitter that the regulations would be changed to allow playgrounds to reopen. Schools were closed during the past week for a delayed March break. But the government had said on Monday that they would remain closed for in-person learning indefinitely.

The measures announced on Friday were met with criticism, including from public health experts, the mayor of Toronto and several police departments, including the Toronto Police Service, which said on Twitter that it would “not be doing random stops of people or cars.” There were also concerns that asking the police to impose such measures could result in racial profiling.

“I know you are all sick and tired of Covid-19,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday as he urged Canadians to follow their provinces’ rules. “We all just want to be done with this.”

Emergency rooms, particularly in Ontario, are reaching their breaking points, as are intensive care units. In a bid to ease the strain, children’s hospitals in both Ottawa and Toronto opened their I.C.U. beds to adults.

Many factors are behind the increasing numbers. Among them is the arrival of more infectious variants of the virus. An outbreak of P.1, the variant first found in Brazil, spread throughout British Columbia and then into Alberta. Manitoba discovered its first case of the variant this week.

And the vaccine campaign has taken a hit: Moderna is cutting deliveries of its vaccine shipment to Canada and other countries, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has yet to arrive in Canada, has come under safety scrutiny.

Pfizer will sell Canada an additional eight million doses of the vaccine it has developed with BioNTech, half of which will arrive next month, and all of which will arrive by the end of July.

Many Canadians are frustrated as they see higher vaccination rates in Britain and the United States.

Canada’s vaccination strategy has been to delay second doses to allow more residents to gain the protection from at least one shot. About 2 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated compared with 25 percent of Americans, and 19 percent have received at least one dose compared with 39 percent in the United States. Yet the scheduled increases in vaccine shipments — the Moderna slip up aside — should help Canada catch up over the next few weeks.

Farah Mohamed contributed reporting.

The blood clotting condition seen in patients who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is rare. Millions have been inoculated with the vaccine without complication.
Credit…Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun, via Associated Press

An 18-year-old woman was stricken with severe headaches, vomiting, seizures, confusion and weakness in one arm early this month, strokelike symptoms that doctors at a Nevada hospital were shocked to see in someone so young.

Scans found several large blood clots blocking veins that drain blood from the brain, a condition that can disable or kill a patient.

Doctors performed a procedure to suction huge clots from her brain, only to find that new ones had formed.

The patient is one of six women ages 18 to 48 who developed clots in the brain within two weeks of receiving the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. One died, and their devastating cases led U.S. health officials to recommend on Tuesday that use of the vaccine be paused.

Prisoners walked free from Chikurubi Female Prison in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on Saturday.
Credit…Jekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe released at least 320 prisoners from its jails on Saturday to ease congestion in the country’s notoriously overcrowded jails as a second wave of the coronavirus devastates the country.

The move comes amid growing allegations that a government crackdown has sent dozens of activists, journalists and opposition leaders to prisons.

The prisoners were released under an amnesty program established by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2018, the year after he seized power, ending decades of the strongman rule of Robert G. Mugabe. The amnesty does not include prisoners convicted of crimes that include murder, human trafficking, sexual offenses and treason.

Most of those released on Saturday had been convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to Zimbabwe’s Prison and Correctional Service, but were being held in the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. That is the country’s largest correctional facility, and it is known for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

For years, Zimbabwean officials have grappled with severely strained jails that human rights organizations have slammed for unsafe conditions. The country’s prisons have the capacity to house 17,000 prisoners at most, but they held around 22,000 when Mr. Mnangagwa established the amnesty.

Concerns about prison overcrowding grew more urgent when the pandemic struck last year, and the virus threatened to engulf the prison population. From March 2020 to June 2020, the government released 4,208 prisoners under the amnesty order.

The decision to release the latest round of prisoners comes after the variant first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, flooded into Zimbabwe at the start of the year, straining a system that already lacked enough drugs, equipment and medical staff. To date, Zimbabwe has recorded nearly 38,000 coronavirus infections, including 1,551 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In February, the country started a national vaccine campaign with 200,000 doses donated by the Chinese vaccine maker Sinopharm. The country is set to receive an additional 1.1 million doses as part of Covax, a global sharing program that is distributing vaccines to poor and middle-income countries.

Zimbabwean officials have portrayed the vaccine rollout as a major win in the government-led response to the pandemic. But in recent months, human rights organizations have accused leaders of using coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to arrest opposition leaders in a crackdown on dissent.

The crackdown stretches back to at least last summer, when security services shut down the capital, Harare, and arrested several government critics in response to planned protests over alleged corruption and the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of opposition activists have gone into hiding since.

A U.S. State Department human rights report released last month accused Zimbabwe’s security forces of engaging in serious human rights violations last year — including arbitrary killing and torturing of civilians. The report also noted harsh and life-threatening conditions for political prisoners and detainees inside the country’s prisons.

On Saturday, human rights investigators commended the latest release of some prisoners and called on the Zimbabwean government to expand upon the initiative immediately.

“The Zimbabwe authorities should also release those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, many of whom are political activists whose continued detention is unnecessary and unjustified,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

Inoculating a Buddhist monk last month at a school in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, on the first day of the country’s vaccination campaign. The Health Ministry said this month that more than 93 percent of eligible adults had received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Credit…Upasana Dahal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

THIMPHU, Bhutan — There’s a quiet vaccine success story in one of Asia’s poorest countries. As of Saturday, Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom that has emphasized its citizens’ well-being over national prosperity, had administered a first vaccine dose to more than 478,000 people — over 60 percent of its population. The Health Ministry said this month that more than 93 percent of eligible adults had received their first shots.

A vast majority of Bhutan’s first doses were administered at about 1,200 vaccination centers over a weeklong period in late March and early April. As of Saturday, the country’s vaccination rate of 63 doses per 100 people was the sixth highest in the world, according to a New York Times database.

That rate was ahead of those of Britain and the United States, more than seven times that of neighboring India and nearly six times the global average. Bhutan is also ahead of several other geographically isolated countries with small populations, including Iceland and the Maldives.