Vaccinations against Covid-19 may be accelerating in the United States, but the Biden administration’s intervention at a troubled plant that ruined millions of vaccine doses, along with the continuing threat of dangerous variants of the coronavirus, suggest that the road to defeating the virus is likely to take many unpredictable twists and turns.
Saturday marked the first time the country reported more than four million Covid-19 doses in a single day, bringing the average to higher than three million people for the first time, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the same day, the fallout continued over a debacle at a Baltimore contract plant that ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Biden administration put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the facility and moved to stop the facility from making another vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, senior federal health officials said.
The move comes as Mr. Biden has aggressively pushed to produce enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult by the end of May. It will leave the Baltimore facility solely devoted to making the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine and is meant to avoid future mix-ups, according to two senior federal health officials. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the changes, saying it was “assuming full responsibility” for the vaccine made by Emergent BioSolutions, its manufacturing partner, which accidentally mixed up the ingredients from the two different vaccines.
Federal officials are worried that the mix-up will erode public confidence in the vaccines, just as there’s been a steady increase in the capacity of states to deliver shots into arms. In early March, the nation surpassed an average of two million doses administered each day, up from around 800,000 doses a day in mid-January. Nearly a third of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as more states expand eligibility and production ramps up.
And while new virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations are far below their January peak, the average number of new reported cases has risen 19 percent over the past two weeks. Cases are increasing significantly in many states, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast, as variants spread.
On the Sunday morning news shows, experts disagreed about whether regional spikes over the past two weeks amounted to a “fourth wave” of the virus.
On the NBC program “Meet the Press,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who is a member of the Biden administration’s Covid-19 advisory board, predicted that the next two weeks will bring “the highest number of cases reported globally since the beginning of the pandemic.”
But on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump and who now is on the board of Pfizer, said he did not foresee a fourth wave.
“What we’re seeing is pockets of infection around the country,” he said, “particularly in younger people who haven’t been vaccinated and also in school-age children.”
Pope Francis delivered his annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”) Easter message to a small group of the faithful inside St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, while coronavirus pandemic prohibitions kept the usual audience of about 70,000 pilgrims away from St. Peter’s Square for a second year.
The pope delivered the message after presiding over Easter Mass in the presence of about 200 worshipers.
Francis spoke of the economic and social hardships that many people, and especially the poor, are experiencing because of the pandemic, which has worsened recently in Italy and much of Europe. He also addressed the continuing armed conflicts, unrest and increased military spending in Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and other regions and nations.
As he has in the past, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics called on the international community “in a spirit of global responsibility” to ensure that everyone has access to vaccines, which he called “an essential tool” in the fight against the pandemic. Delivery delays had to be overcome to “facilitate their distribution, especially in the poorest countries,” Francis said.
He called on all governments to look after the many people who have lost jobs and experienced economic hardship because of the pandemic, as well as those who lack “adequate social protection.”
“The pandemic has, unfortunately, dramatically increased the number of the poor and the desperation of thousands of people,” he said.
The pope also noted the difficulties of the young, “forced to go long periods without attending school or university or spending time with their friends.” He acknowledged the children who had written meditations for the torchlit Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, held this year in front of the Basilica instead of the Colosseum, that spoke of loneliness and grief stemming from the pandemic.
“The risen Christ is hope for all who continue to suffer from the pandemic, both the sick and those who have lost a loved one,” Francis said.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi added his voice on Sunday to a chorus of conservative opposition to “vaccine passports,” the proposed credentials showing a person’s vaccination status for purposes like traveling, attending indoor public events and the like.
“I don’t think it’s necessary, and I don’t think it’s a good thing to do in America,” Governor Reeves said on the CNN program “State of the Union.”
He echoed the sentiments of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who issued an executive order on Friday banning private businesses in the state from requiring vaccine documentation, or risk losing state grants or contracts. Both governors are Republicans.
Governor DeSantis said requiring such a credential would create “two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.”
A number of proposed vaccine passports are being developed in the United States and abroad — New York State has already introduced its version — and many businesses in the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries are eager to see them introduced, to help speed full reopening.
Even so, Republican lawmakers in several states, including Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Montana, are introducing bills to ban their use.
Mr. Reeves emphasized in his CNN appearance that “the vaccine is our path to normalcy,” and he called on fellow Republicans to advocate getting the vaccine and help overcome vaccine hesitancy, which he said was a problem in Mississippi. “I am hopeful that as we move forward, more of my constituents will recognize the importance of it,” he said.
Still, he said, proof of vaccination should not be required by businesses.
Only about 26 percent of Mississippi’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine so far, among the lowest rates in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Mr. Reeves said that nearly 75 percent of the state’s senior citizens have been vaccinated, and that was why he has been relaxing restrictions on gatherings and businesses in the state, even though public health experts are warning about rising case counts across the country.
“We’re protecting those most vulnerable,” he said. “But at some point we have to let Americans make the decisions they think are best for them and their family.”
More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic suddenly brought down the curtain at theaters and concert halls across the city, darkening Broadway and comedy clubs alike, the performing arts are beginning to bounce back.
Like budding flowers awakening just in time for spring, music, dance, theater and comedy began a cautious return this week as venues were allowed to reopen with limited capacity — in most cases, for the first time since March 2020.
Audiences came back, too. With face coverings and health questionnaires, they returned to an Off Broadway theater in Union Square, streamed into the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village and took in live music at the Shed. Broadway was lit up again with the dancer Savion Glover and the actor Nathan Lane performing inside the St. James Theater; the Green Room 42 hosted cabaret; Jerry Seinfeld did stand-up in Chelsea. And more events, including a concert by New York Philharmonic musicians that will inaugurate Lincoln Center’s outdoor programming, are scheduled for next week.
New York City is still a coronavirus hot spot, with new cases holding stubbornly at around 25,000 a week. At least one set of performances have already been postponed because of positive tests. Arts institutions are trying to strike a delicate balance between persistent public health concerns and the desire to serve wearied New Yorkers eager for a sense of normalcy.
Reporters from The New York Times visited some of the first indoor performances, and spoke with the pioneering audience members and staff who took them in. Here is what they saw:
A dance show — a fusion of street dance, ballroom, and hip-hop — in the rotunda of the Guggenheim.
An off-Broadway sound show, “Blindness,” at the Daryl Roth Theater, attended by Mayor Bill de Blasio and about 60 others.
Stand-up performances at the West Village’s Comedy Cellar, where the microphones were covered in disposable covers that looked like miniature shower caps.
A concert of ambient sound, classical cello, operatic vocals and pop music at The Shed, a cultural center in Hudson Yards, where a cavernous indoor-outdoor venue held an audience of about 150.
Colleges of all types are struggling under the shadow of the pandemic, but the nation’s community college system has been disproportionately hurt, with tens of thousands of students being forced to delay school or drop out because of the pandemic and the economic crisis it has created.
Enrollment is down by 9.5 percent at the more than 1,000 two-year colleges in the United States, compared with numbers from last spring, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that found a similar drop last fall. That is more than double the loss experienced by four-year schools.
Community college enrollment among Black and Hispanic students has declined even more sharply, with a 19 percent drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020 among Black students and a 16 percent drop among Hispanic students.
Many community college students are adults — the average age is 28 — and for those students, the pandemic upset an already difficult balancing act, leaving many just plain exhausted. For Corey Ray Baranowski — a 33-year-old father of five — the breaking point came last year.
Before the health crisis, Mr. Baranowski and his wife juggled their large family, several jobs and studies at Jackson State Community College, another school that was hit hard by the pandemic, in Jackson, Tenn., 90 miles northeast of Memphis.
The dominoes started tumbling last spring, when the pandemic reached his small community of Lexington, Tenn.
First, the school system where both Mr. Baranowski and his wife, a photographer, had worked as substitute teachers shut down. Then, that same day, their three school-age children were sent home to learn remotely. Their community college also suspended in-person classes.
“It was unsettling,” Mr. Baranowski recalled. He and his wife, then expecting their fifth child, struggled to keep up their own schoolwork while making sure the children did theirs, overloading the family’s home computer capacity — and their multitasking skills.
“There were some bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly going on, trying to manage money,” Mr. Baranowski said. Overwhelmed, he dropped two classes last spring and decided not to re-enroll this year.
But in August, Mr. Baranowski found a job at a juvenile correctional center. The couple hopes to return to college next fall.
“My goal is to graduate and become a teacher,” he said.
The nomadic movement loosely known as van life was already a growing trend before the pandemic, but over the past year, life on the open road has appealed to even more people.
Christian Schaffer is a photographer whose Instagram page and YouTube channel chronicle the nuts and bolts of life on the road. Viewers turn to her videos for straightforward advice on things like “Toilet, Shower & Laundry” and “How to Get Internet.”
“It’s grown from all angles,” Ms. Schaffer said. Traveling full time may sound like a luxurious lifestyle reserved for the wealthy, but the cohort of people living out of their vehicles includes some who were displaced by rising rents and young couples priced out of the housing market, she said, as well as remote workers with nothing tying them to any one ZIP code.
As people realize “the need for more space and fresh air” during the pandemic, Ms. Schaffer said, “the community is growing exponentially.”
Parker and Jessica Caskey, a Denver-based couple who bought their van in January 2019, eloped to Loveland Pass in Colorado, snowshoeing in their wedding attire from their van to a mountaintop.
They estimated that they had seen “more than double or triple” the number of vans on highways compared with last year. “It’s picked up a lot since Covid,” Mr. Caskey said.
The phenomenon has manifested physically, too: An array of Sprinter vans towered over the Land Rovers and Teslas parked near the town square in Jackson, Wyo., this winter, and the winding streets of Taos, N.M., were buzzing with the converted vehicles. Residential neighborhoods in Denver are lined with vans, which are now a common sight in the parking lots of ski resorts, national parks and trailheads across the country.
For longtime vanlifers, that means fewer parking spaces and more trash, but the potential for positive changes.
More than three months after the nation’s health care workers were among the first Americans to be eligible for the lifesaving vaccines, long-term-care facilities across the country continue to face the daunting challenge of getting their staff members inoculated.
The federal program that sent vaccinators from Walgreens and CVS into tens of thousands of nursing homes and assisted living residences has by one measure been strikingly successful, inoculating nearly all of the vulnerable residents of the facilities. Deaths in nursing homes have plummeted since the program began in late December.
But reaching the mostly low-wage employees of the facilities has proved far more difficult. A poll by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation conducted from Feb. 11 to March 7 found that half of the workers at nursing homes had yet to get even a first shot, and only 15 percent of that group said they definitely planned to.
At Forest Hills of D.C., a nursing home in a prosperous neighborhood of the nation’s capital, the workers who turned down the vaccine during the center’s first vaccination event in early January included nurses, certified nursing assistants, members of the kitchen and activities staffs, and a security officer.
Most were Black, reflecting the overall makeup of the home’s work force; many were immigrants from African countries, such as Nigeria, Liberia and Cameroon.
Across the country, vaccine hesitancy has been receding — a Pew poll conducted in late February found that 30 percent of Americans said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated, down from the 39 percent who said the same in November. The poll also found that far more Black Americans were willing to get the vaccine than they were before.
Still, the challenges remain. The Times took a closer look at Forest Hills and its efforts to vaccinate the employees over the first three months of this year.
Someday, when the history of the pandemic is written, it may be a narrative told partly in images: the despair of crowded hospitals and body bags, the fear and isolation of the masks. And then the balm of a smiling individual, one sleeve rolled up practically to the collarbone, with a medical worker poised to jab a needle into their upper arm. Log in to any social platform, and the picture — not to mention The Pose — is almost impossible to miss.
The vaccine selfie has gone viral.
“I started seeing vaccine selfies almost as soon as the vaccines were available,” said David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University. “It was an almost immediate meme.” And rather than petering out, it seems only to be picking up steam.
Indeed, said Jeanine D. Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University focusing on public health and health communications, “it may end up being one of the iconic images of this time.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has incited its own bizarre sub-trend: the topless (or partially topless) vaccine selfie, as most often modeled by European politicians, but also the occasional celebrity.
The designer Marc Jacobs posed in pink sparkling shorts with his pink shirt entirely off half of his torso, leopard coat, and some pearls.
“It’s a look, and a moment, worth celebrating,” Vogue chortled.
As Ms. Guidry pointed out, the vaccine selfie is both a new phenomenon — and a very, very old one.
Before there was either the vaccine selfie or the topless vaccine selfie, there was the vaccine photo op. And before that, the vaccine engraving.
For weeks, the mood in much of the United States has been buoyant. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have fallen steeply from their highs, and millions of people are being newly vaccinated every day. Restaurants, shops and schools have reopened. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have abandoned precautions altogether.
But it is increasingly clear that the next few months will be painful. Concerning variants of the virus are spreading, carrying mutations that make the virus both more contagious and in some cases more deadly.
Even as vaccines were authorized late last year, variants were trouncing Britain, South Africa and Brazil. New variants have continued to pop up — in California one week, in New York and Oregon the next. And as they take root, they threaten to postpone an end to the pandemic.
At the moment, most vaccines appear to be effective against the variants. But public health officials are deeply worried that future iterations of the virus may be more resistant, requiring Americans to line up for regular rounds of booster shots or even new vaccines.
“We don’t have evolution on our side,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This pathogen seems to always be changing in a way that makes it harder for us to suppress.”
Health officials see an urgent need to expand vaccinations, which reduce transmission and therefore the virus’s opportunities to mutate. They also acknowledge the importance of tracking the variants. Already, B.1.1.7, the highly contagious variant that walloped Britain and is wreaking havoc in continental Europe, is rising exponentially in the United States.
The variant is about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus, according to the most recent estimates. Infected people seem to carry more of the B.1.1.7 virus and for longer, said Katrina Lythgoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. “You’re more infectious for more days,” she said.
Limited genetic testing has turned up more than 12,500 U.S. cases, many in Florida and Michigan. As of March 13, the variant accounted for about 27 percent of new cases nationwide, up from just 1 percent in early February.
“The best way to think about B.1.1.7 and other variants is to treat them as separate epidemics,” said Sebastian Funk, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’re really kind of obscuring the view by adding them all up to give an overall number of cases.”
Other variants identified in South Africa and Brazil, as well as some virus versions first seen in the United States, have been slower to spread. But they, too, are worrisome, because they contain a mutation that diminishes the vaccines’ effectiveness. Just this week, an outbreak of P.1, the variant that crushed Brazil, forced a shutdown of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia.
A beloved superfan of the University of Alabama’s men’s basketball team died from complications of Covid-19, his mother said Saturday.
Luke Ratliff rarely missed a game and was known by the Crimson Tide community as “Fluffopotamus.” He died Friday evening, his mother, Pamela Ratliff, said. A senior at the University of Alabama, Mr. Ratliff was set to graduate in August. He was 23.
“He had a personality that was bigger than this world, never met a stranger,” Ms. Ratliff said on Saturday.
Mr. Ratliff traveled to the men’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament in Indianapolis to cheer on the Crimson Tide until they lost to U.C.L.A. last weekend. He had recently gone through rapid coronavirus testing multiple times, Ms. Ratliff said, and the tests had come back negative.
“He didn’t have any of the typical symptoms until the cough set in this week,” she said.
Mr. Ratliff was eventually treated for bronchitis and it was later discovered he had contracted Covid-19.
Fans were allowed to fill venues for the tournament up to 25 percent of their normal capacity. In response to Mr. Ratliff’s death, the Marion County Public Health Department said in a statement that it would be investigating to determine “if anyone in Indianapolis may have been exposed to Covid-19 by any Alabama resident who visited Indianapolis in recent days.”
“We continue to encourage residents and visitors to practice the simple and important habits that keep us all safe: wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing,” the department said.
There has been an outpouring of tributes from the Crimson Tide community celebrating Mr. Ratliff.
“We will forever remember our #1 fan,” Alabama Men’s Basketball said on Twitter. “We love you.”
Nate Oats, Alabama’s coach, said Mr. Ratliff’s death “doesn’t seem real.”
“Fluff has been our biggest supporter since day one,” Oats said on Twitter. “Put all he had into our program. Loved sharing this ride with him. You’ll be missed dearly my man! Wish we had one more victory cigar and hug together. Roll Tide Forever.”
Mr. Ratliff described his love for college basketball to The Tuscaloosa News earlier this year.
“College basketball is different because it’s literally right in front of you: You can see it, you can touch it, you can go to it 16 home games a year. It’s tangible, that’s what’s endeared me to it,” Mr. Ratliff told the outlet, discussing his preference for the game over football.
On March 31, Mr. Ratliff chronicled the Alabama men’s basketball season on Twitter, posting his own personal highlights from the season.
“I will finish college having attended 44 of the tide’s past 45 conference and postseason games, including 42 in a row,” Mr. Ratliff wrote. “What a freaking ride it’s been.”
Mr. Ratliff is survived by his parents and two brothers.