Virus Updates: 3 Great Plains States Recover After Staggering Spikes

Credit…Janie Osborne for The New York Times

Not three months ago, the coronavirus had so ravaged South Dakota that its packed hospitals were flying patients to other states for treatment. An analysis of data collected by Johns Hopkins University had shown that the mortality rates from Covid-19 in North and South Dakota were the world’s highest. In one Montana county, the rate of hospitalization for the virus was 20 times the national average.

As in some earlier hot spots like Arizona and Florida, the surge mushroomed as most leaders and residents in these states resisted lockdowns and mask mandates for months. In South Dakota, no statewide mask mandate was ever issued.

The spike in these states was as brief as it was powerful. Today, their rates of new cases are back roughly to where they were last summer or early fall. In North Dakota, which mandated masks at the height of its surge in mid-November, the turnaround has been especially dramatic: the daily average deaths per person is now the country’s second lowest, according to a New York Times database.

By some measures, the three-state hot spot’s trajectory has mirrored the nation’s. After the daily U.S. average for new cases peaked on Jan. 9, it took 37 days — until last Monday — for the rate to drop by two-thirds. It took South Dakota and Montana 35 days to reach the same mark after cases peaked in those two states in November. (North Dakota did it in 24.)

Deaths remain high nationally, because it can take weeks for Covid-19 patients to die. The country continues to average more than 2,000 deaths each day and is on pace to reach 500,000 deaths in the next week.

Experts say the spikes in the Northern Great Plains ebbed largely for the same reason that the U.S. caseload has been falling: People finally took steps to save themselves in the face of an out-of-control deadly disease.

“As things get worse and friends and family members are in the hospital or dying, people start to adjust their behavior and cases go down,” said Meghan O’Connell, an epidemiologist in South Dakota and an adviser on health issues to the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board, which represents Native American populations in the area. Native Americans, who represent about 5 percent to almost 10 percent of the population all three states, have been infected by the virus at far higher rates than the general population.

During the outbreak’s worst weeks, from early November to late December, mask use rose 10 to 20 percentage points in South Dakota and 20 to 30 percentage points in North Dakota, according to survey data from the University of Maryland.

Since then, the U.S. vaccination drive has been gathering speed. North Dakota ranks fifth among states for giving its residents at least one shot; South Dakota is seventh and Montana is 11th.

Some experts see the coronavirus’s race through these states as a rough test of the widely rejected idea that the pandemic should be allowed to run its course until the population gains herd immunity.

While the region did not reach herd immunity, it may have come closer than anywhere else in the United States.

The outbreak in November vaulted North and South Dakota to the top of the list in cases per person, where they remain, according to a New York Times database, with 13 and 12.5 percent of their residents known to have been infected. Montana, at about 9.2 percent, is close to the middle of the national pack.

Just over 8 percent of Americans — about 27.9 million — are known to have had the coronavirus, but for many reasons, including that asymptomatic infections can go undetected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the real rate is 4.6 times that.

By those measures, as least six in 10 Dakotans — and most likely more — could have gained some immunity to the virus by the end of 2020, according to Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University professor of environmental health sciences who is modeling the future spread of the virus. And in some places, he noted, the share could be even higher.

Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

With the vaccine rollout gaining steam and coronavirus cases declining after a dark winter surge, it may seem as though the end of the pandemic is in sight for the United States. In reality, how soon could we get there?

One answer lies in herd immunity, the point when enough people are immune to the virus that it can no longer spread through the population. Getting there, however, depends not just on how quickly we can vaccinate but on other factors, too, like how many people have already been infected and how easily the virus spreads.

The exact threshold for herd immunity for the coronavirus is unknown, but recent estimates range from 70 percent to 90 percent.

If the rate of vaccinations continues to grow, one model shows we could reach herd immunity as early as July. But a lot could happen between now and then. The speed and uptake of vaccination, and how long immunity lasts are big factors. The rise of new virus variants and how we respond to them will also affect the path to herd immunity.

In most scenarios, millions more people will become infected and tens or hundreds of thousands more will die before herd immunity is reached.

Matthew Conlen and

Credit…Matt Chase

There are many ways to assess how the coronavirus has affected the U.S. economy. The pandemic has decimated the labor market, driving the unemployment rate to 6.3 percent in January, nearly twice what it was a year earlier. Restrictions on activities led Americans to spend less money, pushing the savings rate to extraordinary heights. As people have fled to places with more space and fewer people, home prices have surged.

Another way the pandemic has affected the economy is by making people bored.

By limiting social engagements, leisure activities and travel, the pandemic has forced many people to live a more muted life. The result is a collective sense of ennui — one that is shaping what we do and what we buy.

Boredom’s impact on the economy is under-researched, experts say, possibly because there has been no modern situation like this one, but many agree that it’s an important one. How people spend money is a reflection of their emotional state — the answer to “How are you?” in Amazon packages and Target receipts.

Among the most vivid examples of boredom’s economic influence occurred late last month when amateur traders piled into shares of GameStop, a down-for-the-count retailer for gamers. These investors pushed its stock to astronomical highs before it crashed back to earth.

“Im bored i have 8k in free money what can i invest in that will make at least a little profit,” a Reddit user who goes by biged42069 wrote on Wall Street Bets at the height of the stock market frenzy. The response was unanimous: GameStop.

Of course, millions of people have been busier than ever during the pandemic. Essential workers have hardly experienced lockdown tedium. Women who have left the work force to take care of children who cannot go to school are frequently overwhelmed, their days a stream of Zoom classes and dinners and bedtimes. Boredom, in some ways, is a luxury.

And some groups of people are more likely to experience boredom than others. People who live alone, for instance, are more likely to be bored, said Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at Barnard College who has studied loneliness during the pandemic lockdowns.

Early in the pandemic, bread-making fervor prompted stores across the country to sell out of yeast. Puzzle sales have skyrocketed. Gardening has taken off as a hobby.

Home improvement, too, has boomed. According to the NPD Group, 81 percent of consumers in the United States purchased home improvement products in the six months than ended in November. Sherwin-Williams said it had record sales in the fourth quarter and for the year, in part because of strong performances in its do-it-yourself and residential repaint businesses.

Pandemic boredom evidently has nothing on watching paint dry.

A Covid vaccination being administered in Fargo, N.D., in December.
Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

New studies show that people who have had Covid-19 should only get one shot of a vaccine, a dose that is enough to turbocharge their antibodies and destroy the coronavirus — and even some more infectious variants.

Some researchers are trying to persuade scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend only one dose for those who have recovered from Covid-19, a move that could free up millions of doses at a time when vaccines are in high demand.

At least 30 million people in the United States — and probably many others whose illnesses were never diagnosed — have been infected with the coronavirus so far.

The results of these new studies are consistent with the findings of two others published over the past few weeks. Taken together, the research suggests that people who have had Covid-19 should be immunized — but a single dose of the vaccine may be enough.

A person’s immune response to a natural infection is highly variable. Most people make copious amounts of antibodies that persist for many months. But some people who had mild symptoms or no symptoms of Covid-19 produce few antibodies, which quickly fall to undetectable levels.

The latest study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, analyzed blood samples from people who have had Covid-19. The findings suggested that their immune systems would have trouble fending off B.1.351, the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa.

But one shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine significantly changed the picture: It amplified the amount of antibodies in their blood by a thousandfold.

In another new study, researchers at New York University found that a second dose of the vaccine did not add much benefit at all for people who have had Covid-19 — a phenomenon that has also been observed with vaccines for other viruses.

In that study, most people had been infected with the coronavirus eight or nine months earlier, but saw their antibodies increase by a hundredfold to a thousandfold when given the first dose of a vaccine. After the second dose, however, the antibody levels did not increase any further.

what we learned

President Joe Biden makes remarks after touring the Pfizer manufacturing site in Kalamazoo, Mich. on Friday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In his first trips as president, President Biden traveled to Wisconsin and Michigan to promote his vaccination rollout plan and the $1.9 trillion relief bill he hopes can restore the American economy.

After an optimistic vow on Tuesday that any American who wanted a vaccine “could have one by the end of July this year,” Mr. Biden was asking for patience on Friday, saying the United States could be“approaching normalcy” by the end of the year. The week ended as winter storms hitting much of the country delayed the delivery of six million vaccines.

Mr. Biden addressed the virtual G7 summit and said that his administration would make good on a U.S. promise to donate $4 billion to the global vaccination campaign over the next two years. Mr. Biden’s engagement in the global fight against the pandemic is in stark contrast to the approach of former President Donald J. Trump, who withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization.

In other news this week:

  • Israel has raced ahead with the fastest Covid vaccination campaign in the world, inoculating nearly half its population with at least one dose. Now, new government and business initiatives are moving in the direction of a two-tier system for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, raising legal, moral and ethical questions.

  • Cuba is getting closer to achieving the mass production of a coronavirus vaccine invented on the island. If the vaccine proves safe and effective, it would hand the Cuban government a significant political victory — and a shot at rescuing the nation from economic ruin.

  • Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year, the federal government reported Tuesday. The report also showed a deepening of racial and ethnic disparities between Black and white Americans. Life expectancy of Black population declined by 2.7 years in the first half of 2020. Another study, released Tuesday, showed that Latino and Black residents of New York City have fallen behind in vaccination rates.

  • Two developments this week could potentially expand access to the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine: The vaccine works well after one dose, and doesn’t always need ultracold storage. A study in Israel showed that the vaccine is 85 percent effective 15 to 28 days after receiving the first dose, raising the possibility that regulators in some countries could authorize delaying a second dose instead of giving both on the strict schedule of three weeks apart. And Pfizer and BioNTech also announced on Friday that their vaccine can be stored at standard freezer temperatures for up to two weeks.

House Republican leaders have called Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan a “payoff to progressives.”
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Republicans are struggling to persuade voters to oppose President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan, which enjoys strong, bipartisan support nationwide even as it is moving through Congress with just Democratic backing.

Democrats who control the House are preparing to approve the package by the end of next week, with the Senate aiming to soon follow with its own party-line vote before unemployment benefits are set to lapse in mid-March. On Friday, the House Budget Committee unveiled the nearly 600-page text for the proposal, which includes billions of dollars for unemployment benefits, small businesses and stimulus checks.

Republican leaders on Friday said the bill spends too much and includes a liberal wish list of programs like aid to state and local governments — which they call a “blue state bailout,” though many states facing shortfalls are controlled by Republicans — and increased benefits for the unemployed, which they argued would discourage people from looking for work.

The arguments have so far failed to connect, in part because many of its core provisions poll strongly — even with Republicans.

More than 7 in 10 Americans now back Mr. Biden’s aid package, according to new polling from the online research firm SurveyMonkey for The New York Times. That includes support from three-quarters of independent voters, 2 in 5 Republicans and nearly all Democrats.

In the poll, 4 in 5 respondents, including nearly 7 in 10 Republicans, said it was important for the relief bill to include $1,400 direct checks. A similarly large group of respondents said it was important to include aid to state and local governments and money for vaccine deployment.

On Friday, House Republican leaders urged their rank-and-file members to vote against the plan, billing it as Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California’s “Payoff to Progressives Act.” They detailed more than a dozen objections to the bill, including “a third round of stimulus checks costing more than $422 billion, which will include households that have experienced little or no financial loss during the pandemic.” Ms. Pelosi’s office issued its own rebuttal soon after, declaring, “Americans need help. House Republicans don’t care.”

Mr. Biden has said he will not wait for Republicans to join his effort, citing the urgency of the economy’s needs.

The Republican pushback is complicated by the pandemic’s ongoing economic pain, with millions of Americans still out of work and the recovery slowing. It is also hampered by the fact that many of the lawmakers objecting to Mr. Biden’s proposals supported similar provisions, including direct checks to individuals, when Mr. Trump was president.

Taylor Erexson greeted a student in Chicago this month. Many states have included teachers in the most highly prioritized category for vaccination, allowing them to receive shots immediately. Still, many have not.
Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

This week, with vaccine production continuing to ramp up, President Biden declared that vaccines would be available for 300 million Americans “by the end of July” — enough to reach a critical mass. And on Friday, as Mr. Biden was headed to Michigan to tour a Pfizer vaccine plant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating that the available vaccines were quite safe, with only minor side effects.

Mr. Biden had put coronavirus relief at the center of his campaign, and his promise of additional stimulus checks for Americans was seen as particularly crucial to the Democratic Senate candidates’ wins in Georgia last month.

The president is working to deliver on his promises before voters lose faith — and he’s also facing down a stark deadline: Some key provisions in the latest round of economic relief, passed just before he took office, will run out in less than a month.

House Democrats on Friday released a nearly 600-page proposal for the legislation, and the president virtually dared Republicans in Congress to oppose the bill. “Critics say that my plan is too big, that it costs $1.9 trillion,” Mr. Biden said. “Let me ask them: What would they have me cut? What would they have me leave out? Should we not invest $20 billion to vaccinate the nation? Should we not invest $290 million to extend unemployment insurance for the 11 million Americans who are unemployed, so they can get by?”

But there’s one big campaign promise that continues to be particularly thorny: the dilemma of how quickly to reopen schools. As he was careful to note on Friday, those decisions will ultimately be made at the state and local levels, but Mr. Biden has stood by a promise to safely reopen most schools nationwide within the first 100 days of his presidency — meaning by late April.

But some experts remain skeptical about the feasibility of classrooms fully reopening by April without more concerted federal action to bring vaccines into schools. Some states have included teachers in the most highly prioritized category for vaccination, allowing them to receive shots immediately. Still, many have not.

“I can’t set nationally who gets in line when, and first — that’s a decision the states make,” Mr. Biden said in response to a reporter’s question, adding, “I think it’s critically important to get our kids back to school.”

Raymundo Armagnac a teacher in Gardena, Calif., fills out forms before getting his first dose of the Moderna vaccine, in Los Angeles on Wednesday. The governor said he would set aside 75,000 doses weekly for educators planning to return to public school campuses in person.
Credit…Dean Musgrove/The Orange County Register, via Associated Press

Under pressure to reopen classrooms in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Friday that, starting March 1, the state will reserve 10 percent of its first doses of Covid-19 vaccines for teachers and school employees.

Noting that the federal government has been steadily increasing the state’s vaccine allotment, the governor said he would set aside 75,000 doses each week for teachers and staff planning to return to public school campuses in person. Although California prioritizes teachers for the vaccine, supply has been an issue. Only about three dozen of the state’s 58 counties have had enough doses on hand to immunize those who work at public schools.

Most of California’s large school districts — including those in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco — have been operating remotely for the majority of students for almost a year. Mr. Newsom said reopening schools would be particularly important for single parents whose children have been learning from home.

As big school districts up and down the West Coast have mostly kept their buildings closed, Boston, New York, Miami, Houston and Chicago have been resuming in-person instruction.

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urge school districts to reopen have not changed the minds of powerful teachers’ unions opposed to returning students to classrooms without more stringent precautions.

In Oregon, the governor prioritized teachers and school staff members for vaccination — ahead of some older people, which went against C.D.C. guidelines.

Mr. Newsom’s announcement was aimed at appeasing California’s teachers’ unions, which have demanded vaccination as a condition of returning to what they regard as a potentially hazardous workplace. The California Teachers Association this week began airing statewide television ads noting that the coronavirus is still a threat and demanding that the state not reopen classrooms without putting safety first.

The governor, who faces a recall effort over the state’s lockdowns, was also responding to fellow Democrats who control the Legislature and who on Thursday introduced a fast-track bill to reopen schools by April 15, using prioritized vaccines for teachers and hefty financial incentives.

The legislative plan calls for spending $12.6 billion in state and federal funding to help districts cover reopening costs, summer school, extended days and other measures to address learning loss. It largely aligns with the priorities of the unions, and state lawmakers said they expect it to pass swiftly.

On Friday, Mr. Newsom said he was very pleased with the plan but felt it didn’t push districts to open fast enough, and threatened to veto the bill if it passes.

“April 15!” he exclaimed. “That’s almost the end of the school year.”

The governor also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new guidelines saying that teacher vaccination need not be a prerequisite to reopening schools, as long as other health measures were enforced.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, issued an emergency order on Friday requiring schools to offer in-person instruction to all students starting March 8.

“The data and science is clear — kids can and should learn in-person, and it is safe to do so,” said Mr. Sununu in a statement. “I would like to thank all school districts, teachers and administrators who have been able to successfully navigate this path.”

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At a news conference on Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York pushed back on accusations that there had been a purposeful delay in reporting coronavirus deaths in nursing homes across the state.CreditCredit…Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Trying to quell a growing outcry over the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday launched into a 90-minute defense of his actions while lashing out at critics he said were operating in a “toxic political environment.”

Mr. Cuomo said he understood the outrage over his monthslong undercounting of deaths in those facilities, but insisted no state policy contributed to that toll. At the same time, however, the governor unveiled a series of reforms to address the management and safety of nursing homes, saying, “that is the only way families will have peace of mind.”

Mr. Cuomo’s remarks, during an hour-and-a-half news conference in the State Capitol, came as he faced one of the biggest political crises of his decade-long tenure, including a federal investigation of his administration and a move by the governor’s fellow Democrats to strip him of the unilateral emergency powers he has exercised during the pandemic.

On Friday, another prominent Democrat, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens, joined a chorus of lawmakers backing investigations into the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, noting that “thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers lost their lives.”

“Their loved ones and the public deserve answers and transparency from their elected leadership,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement, issued during Mr. Cuomo’s news conference.

The count of deaths is at the heart of the issues confronting the Cuomo administration. For months, the state now concedes, the official death tally of residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities was greatly underreported. The state counted the total losses, but they were attributed to the hospitals where the patients died, not the facilities where they had lived, effectively hiding the toll the pandemic took on those facilities.

But in the wake of a scathing report three weeks ago from the state attorney general, Letitia James, suggesting a major undercount of deaths of nursing home and long-term care residents, the state has now updated those numbers, to more than 15,000 from about 8,500 in late January.

On Friday, Mr. Cuomo again said he accepted blame for that undercount — “I take responsibility for all of it, period,” he said. In particular, the governor has said repeatedly, his lack of candor in releasing accurate data had created a space for false information to be propagated.

“We created a void by not producing enough public information fast enough,” Mr. Cuomo said, adding, “and conspiracy theories, and politics and rumors fill the void.”

But he simultaneously sought to reframe the debate, saying the criticism of him constituted politically motivated attacks by Republicans and others operating in a “toxic political environment.”

Mr. Cuomo had repeated a similar message for much of the week, but the crisis did not show signs of abating.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Cuomo verbally attacked a Queens assemblyman, Ron T. Kim, after he told reporters for The New York Times and CNN that Mr. Cuomo had berated him during a call, threatening to publicly tarnish the assemblyman and urging him to issue a statement to change remarks he had made about the nursing home issue.


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