New Zealand has a fresh outbreak. Can it beat the virus again?
As the week began, New Zealanders were celebrating 100 days without community spread of the coronavirus. Now residents of the country’s largest city, Auckland, are back under lockdown as health officials battle a fresh outbreak.
Four new cases in Auckland were reported on Wednesday, and by Thursday the cluster had grown to 17. Epidemiologists are now racing to solve the mystery of how the virus found its way back into the isolated island nation.
One theory is that it entered through cargo and spread through a cold storage warehouse where some of the infected New Zealanders worked. But epidemiologists say that is a long shot because human-to-human contact was the most likely source.
Another focus is quarantine facilities for returning travelers — the source of a recent outbreak in Melbourne, Australia.
Either way, New Zealand is rolling out a huge testing, contact tracing and quarantine blitz that aims to quash Covid-19 for the second time.
“Going hard and early is still the best course of action,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday, at what will once again be a daily coronavirus news briefing. “We have a plan.”
Many other places — including Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam — have confronted second waves after early triumphs. But New Zealand has responded with a level of urgency and action that it hopes will be a model for how to eliminate a burst of infection and rapidly reopen.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who was a leading proponent of New Zealand’s efforts to eliminate the virus, said that the country’s prior success, and the sustained elimination of the virus in places like Taiwan and Fiji, suggested room for optimism. He said the latest outbreak could be small and quickly brought under control.
“The government moved incredibly fast and decisively with the lockdown,” he said. “If there are any undetected chains of transmission, they will peter out.”
New Zealand has at least learned what not to do from its neighbor and rival, Australia, where 800 people who had tested positive in Melbourne were recently found to not be at home during random checks from officials. Australia’s missteps have also led New Zealand to focus on quarantine facilities, which is how the virus moved from travelers to the community in Melbourne — through hotel workers who interacted with guests and then carried it home.
Officials across the United States reported at least 1,470 deaths on Wednesday, the highest single-day total yet in August, according to a New York Times database, and a reflection of the continued toll of the early-summer case surge in Sun Belt states.
With the exception of three days this summer, Wednesday’s death total was the country’s highest since late May. The figure was higher on each of those three days because a single state — New Jersey on the first day, followed by New York and Texas — reported large numbers of backlogged deaths from unspecified days.
For the past two weeks, the country has averaged more than 1,000 deaths per day, more than twice as many as in early July. Tuesday’s death toll of 1,450 was also the highest since late May, excluding the three anomalous summer days.
The deaths reported on Wednesday were concentrated largely in Sun Belt states that saw the most dramatic case spikes in June and July. Even as case numbers have started to drop in some of those places, deaths have remained persistently high. More than 300 deaths were announced Wednesday in Texas, and more than 200 in Florida. Arizona, California and Georgia all reported more than 100 each.
Still, Wednesday’s death total remained far below the peak in April, when more than 2,000 people died from the virus on many days.
The rebound in deaths had been feared since early this summer: Because some people do not die until weeks after contracting the virus, reports of additional deaths can remain high even after new case reports start falling.
In June, as the coronavirus crisis appeared to hit a lull in the United States, teachers and parents across the country finally began feeling optimistic about reopening schools in the fall. Going back into the classroom seemed possible. Districts started to pull together plans. Then came a tweet.
“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” President Trump declared on July 6, voicing a mantra he would repeat again and again in the coming weeks, with varying degrees of threat, as he sought to jump-start the nation’s flagging economy.
Around the same time, caseloads in much of the country started to climb again. In the weeks since, hundreds of districts have reversed course and decided to start the school year with remote instruction.
By some estimates, at least half of the nation’s children will now spend a significant portion of the fall, or longer, learning in front of their laptops.
Rising infection rates were clearly the major driver of the move to continue remote learning. But Mr. Trump’s often bellicose demands for reopening classrooms helped harden the view of many educators that it would be unsafe.
“If you had told me that Trump was doing this as a favor to the schools-must-not-open crowd, I’d believe you,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Indeed, as the president has pushed for schools to reopen, parents have largely moved in the other direction. A recent Washington Post poll found that parents disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of school reopening by a two-thirds majority. And a new Gallup poll shows that fewer parents want their children to return to school buildings now than did in the spring.
Across the country, tension among unions, school officials, local authorities and governors over who should call the shots has led to mixed messages about whether students will be attending in-person classes, with many districts only weeks, or even days, away from scheduled reopenings.
On Wednesday, New York City’s bid to become the only major district to bring students back into physical classrooms hit a snag. The city’s influential principals’ and teachers’ unions called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay the start of in-person instruction by several weeks before phasing students back into buildings throughout the fall. Students are scheduled to return to classrooms one to three days a week starting Sept. 10.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris vowed on Wednesday to lead the United States out of the coronavirus crisis during their first appearance together as running mates, drawing attacks from President Trump.
Ms. Harris, whom Mr. Biden announced on Tuesday as his running mate for the Democratic ticket, made clear that part of her campaign role would be demonstrating her skills as a prosecutor to build a case against Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, methodically detailing what she cast as the administration’s failures in combating the coronavirus, reopening the economy and creating conditions under which schools could reopen safely this fall.
“Let me tell you, as somebody who has presented my fair share of arguments in court, the case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open-and-shut,” she said.
Mr. Trump defended his administration’s response to the virus, citing the number of tests that have been administered and bragging about the government’s efforts to ramp up production of ventilators to help gravely ill patients.
“We have better testing than any country in the world,” he said, adding that “when you look at the job that we’ve done compared to others, we’ve done a great job.”
In an appearance in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris laid out the staggering toll that the coronavirus crisis has taken on every facet of American life, suggesting that they will try to make the election a referendum on Mr. Trump’s handling of the outbreak.
“This virus has impacted almost every country, but there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation,” Ms. Harris said. “It’s because of Trump’s failure to take it seriously from the start. His refusal to get testing up and running. His flip-flopping on social distancing and wearing masks. His delusional belief that he knows better than the experts.”
A 68-year-old woman in the Chinese province of Hubei, where the global coronavirus outbreak was first detected, tested positive again this month after recovering from the virus in February, officials said. Another man who had recovered from an infection in April was also found to be an asymptomatic carrier in Shanghai this week.
The two cases, which came months after their original diagnoses, have revived concerns about mysterious second-time infections that have baffled experts since the early days of the pandemic, with some blaming testing flaws.
The authorities in Jingzhou, a city near Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak, said on Wednesday that the woman had tested positive again on Aug. 9, after having recovered for several months from a virus infection first recorded in early February. The nucleic acid test results for her contacts were all said to be negative.
“There have been very few reports of cases of possible ‘relapses’ or second-time Covid-19 infections, and we still don’t fully understand the risk of this,” said Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “But we would expect that some infected persons could be vulnerable to reinfection, particularly as time passes.”
“It’s a feature of other respiratory infections that we can be reinfected with similar viruses throughout our lives, and it is unlikely that a Covid-19 infection (or a vaccination) would provide lifelong immunity against a subsequent infection,” Dr. Cowling added. “What we have not yet understood is the duration of immunity.”
Other experts have said it is highly unlikely that the coronavirus would strike the same person twice within a short window, and reports of reinfection may instead be cases of drawn-out illness, with the virus taking a slow burn even months after their first exposure.
Government data on Thursday morning is expected to show that layoffs in the United States remained exceptionally high last week, even as the pace of rehiring has slowed.
Forecasters surveyed by FactSet expect data from the Labor Department to show that about 1.1 million Americans filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits last week. That would mark the 21st straight week that filings have topped one million.
Unemployment filings have fallen sharply since late March, when nearly 6.9 million Americans applied for benefits in a single week. But filings still dwarf those in any previous recession: Before the coronavirus pandemic, the worst week on record was in 1982, when 695,000 people submitted claims.
Unlike the temporary layoffs and furloughs that dominated in the first weeks of the crisis, most of the new job losses are likely to be permanent.
“It’s even more frightening now,” said Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “There’s no silver lining of quick recalls like the higher levels that we saw back in March.”
Although layoffs have slowed, the broader economic recovery has lost momentum. Employers brought back 1.8 million jobs in July, the Labor Department reported last week, well below the 4.8 million in June. More timely data from private-sector sources suggests that the slowdown has continued in August, and economists warn that it could worsen now that key federal programs to help households and businesses weather the pandemic have expired.
Germany’s daily infections rose to a level not seen since the country successfully flattened the curve in May, with the country reporting 1,445 new cases on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the state of Bavaria, which had promised free tests to all returning holiday travelers, was under scrutiny for failing to deliver timely results.
Cases have slowly risen over the past few weeks as holidaymakers return from heavily affected areas and schools restart. In August alone, there have been six days when Germany has registered more than 1,000 new cases.
The growth is especially noteworthy because it is linked not to a single cluster, but to a general rise of infections in the population. Five districts, including one in central Berlin, reported more than 25 cases per 100,000 in the past week, according to figures released Wednesday. The seven-day reproduction value is at 1.04, meaning more people are becoming infected than are recovering.
Also on Wednesday, the Bavarian authorities admitted that they had failed to promptly deliver 44,000 test results to returning travelers. Among those were 900 positive tests for the virus. The state has set up free testing centers in airports and some major train stations. The state’s governor, Markus Söder, called the breakdown in transmitting test results “really, really annoying.”
Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister, warned that many of the new infections are seen in young people. The average age of infected people was 34 last week, the lowest it has been since the beginning of the pandemic.
In other news from around the world:
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who offered this week to be “injected in public” with Russia’s coronavirus vaccine to allay concerns about its safety, may be cleared to do so as early as May 1, 2021, his government said on Thursday.
Mr. Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president would not take part in Russian-funded clinical trials of the vaccine that are expected to begin in the Philippines in October, but that his offer to be a test subject was genuine. Mr. Duterte has previously claimed that gasoline can kill the virus, and advised people to douse themselves and their face masks with it.
Several cities in China announced this week that they had detected the coronavirus on imported food packaging. Officials in two cities — Wuhu, in eastern Anhui Province, and Xi’an, in central Shaanxi Province — announced separately this week that the virus had been found on the packaging of shrimp imports from Ecuador.
Officials in the southern city of Shenzhen also said on Thursday that a sample of frozen chicken wings imported from Brazil had tested positive. And officials from the coastal city of Yantai, said earlier this week that the virus had been detected on the packaging of imported frozen seafood products, according to state media. The Yantai officials did not specify where the seafood originated.
Some conferences postponed college football. Not so fast in the South.
By Wednesday, the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences had all publicly broken with the Big Ten and Pac-12 and reinforced their ambitions to play beginning next month. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 concluded on Tuesday that it was simply too dangerous to try to play sports this fall.
“Reasonable people can disagree on it, and the Pac-12 and the Big Ten are seeing much of the same information that we’re seeing,” Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, said after his league released its football schedule on Wednesday morning. “But our board believes in our scientists and has come to a conclusion that’s different, and so have the leadership of the SEC and the A.C.C.”
For officials in the SEC, the Big 12 and the A.C.C., the collective home of 14 of the last 15 national champions in football, salvaging a season is the lone route to delivering on what they pledged for players and pulling in the many hundreds of millions of shared dollars that help keep athletic departments, including lower profile sports, afloat. And as skeptics say those goals and needs collide with medical science and the notion of amateur athletics, conference and university officials insist that they would change their approaches if circumstances warranted.
The Big 12 will allow nonconference games in September before advancing to league play on Sept. 26, the day the SEC season is to open.
Does it seem as if everyone’s got it better than you?
A beach house, a suburban home, a home without children, a home filled with family: These days, everyone wants something that someone else has. You are not alone if you are filled with “quarantine envy.” Here are some ways to deal with it.
Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Ben Casselman, Damien Cave, Katie Glueck, Jason Gutierrez, Mike Ives, Thomas Kaplan, Amy Qin, Christopher F. Schuetze, Eliza Shapiro, Mitch Smith, Serena Solomon and Elaine Yu.