Dr. Deborah Birx says she will retire. President Trump demands a larger pandemic payout for Americans. The virus upends Italy’s Christmas rituals. Here’s the latest on the pandemic.
After blocking freight traffic from Britain in an attempt to stop the spread of a possibly more contagious variant of the coronavirus, France reopened its border on Wednesday to truck transport.
The action was contingent on virus testing, and the British Army was dispatched Wednesday morning to help in the laborious process administering tests to scores of truck drivers who were left stranded outside British ports when the borders closed.
But in the early morning hours, with traffic largely at a standstill, there was more frustration and confusion for the hundreds of drivers who have spent days sleeping in their rigs, with no way of knowing whether they would make it home for Christmas. As tensions boiled over police officers and angry drivers faced off, and news networks captured scenes of pushing and shoving as desperation for movement deepened.
There was concern that the early morning chaos could be a prelude for the logistical nightmare to come, with the Road Haulage Association warning that even “a short delay in the process is going to mean huge delays in the supply chain.”
Under the agreement with France, rapid tests with “lateral flow devices” will be administered by workers from the National Health Service with the military providing logistical assistance.
The tests, which were developed by Public Health England and the University of Oxford, are a relatively new weapon in the fight against the virus.
They can detect the new variant and give a result in about 30 minutes, according to Public Health England.
Freight drivers will receive their test result by a text message, which then gives them the right to cross the Channel. Anyone who tests positive will have to take another test, but isolation protocols were still being worked out.
France also agreed to allow select groups of people to travel from Britain to France if they could produce proof of a recent negative coronavirus test. They included noncitizens with a permanent residence in the European Union and people whose travel is deemed essential. Among them are diplomats, health workers helping in France’s fight against the virus, and the drivers and crew members of passenger planes, trains and buses.
The late-night deal came as a relief to merchants across Britain, who were increasingly concerned that the impasse could lead to shortages of essential goods, especially perishable items like fruit and vegetables.
But more than 50 other governments are continuing to block travelers from Britain in an effort to stop the spread of the new variant, according to a tally kept by the BBC.
The discovery of the variant had led in recent days to a lockdown across much of southeastern England and as well as the bans around the world for flights and trains from Britain.
Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said in an interview on Tuesday with the media outlet Newsy that she planned to retire after concluding her role helping the federal government transition to the Biden administration.
“I will be helpful in any role people think I can be helpful in,” she said. “And then I will retire.”
In recent weeks Dr. Birx, 64, indicated publicly and privately that she was open to serving in the Biden administration. It was unclear what prompted her to announce her plan to retire. In the interview with Newsy, she called her time at the White House “overwhelming” and difficult on her family. She suggested that recent coverage of a trip she made over the Thanksgiving holiday had unduly dragged her family into the spotlight.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that after Dr. Birx recommended limiting gatherings to the “immediate household,” she traveled to a vacation home in Delaware over Thanksgiving weekend with three generations of her family, which included several households. Dr. Birx told The A.P. that she traveled not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather to winterize the property before a potential sale. She said that those on the trip were part of her immediate household but lived in two homes.
“I think what was done in the last week to my family — you know, they didn’t choose this for me,” she said in her interview with Newsy. “They’ve tried to be supportive.”
Neither the White House nor Dr. Birx responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a tweet on Tuesday that Mr. Trump “has great respect for Dr. Birx and likes her very much.”
Dr. Birx arrived at the White House in late February as Vice President Mike Pence assumed control of the coronavirus task force, and quickly developed a niche as a numbers maven. She worked long hours overseeing a team of specialists gathering data on infections and hospitalizations, whose work she would organize into daily presentations for senior White House officials and the task force. She has also been the point of contact for state and local officials, and oversees the drafting of detailed reports offering guidance to the states.
In recent months, she has traveled around the country, appealing to Americans to wear masks and limit their contact with others, a message that clashed with the White House’s relaxed approach to pandemic restrictions.
Her time in the West Wing, where she keeps an office, elicited broad criticism from public health experts. Senior administration officials said that she ingratiated herself with President Trump and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, often presenting an optimistic picture of the pandemic. She also alienated officials at the C.D.C. with an aggressive campaign to overhaul the way the agency collects data on the spread of the coronavirus. And she clashed with officials on Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s vaccine development program, over the selection of vaccine candidates and the development of antibody treatments.
A colonel in the Army, she began her career in the early 1980s as an immunologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She spent time training as a fellow in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lab. The two remain close.
Before she arrived at the White House this year, she spent six years at the State Department, where she oversaw the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, created in 2003 by President George W. Bush when antiretroviral drugs saving lives in developed countries were not available in other nations.
President Trump threatened on Tuesday to derail months of bipartisan work in Congress to deliver $900 billion in pandemic relief, demanding checks to Americans that are more than three times larger than those in the bill, which he called a “disgrace.”
The president, who has been preoccupied with the baseless claim that the election was stolen from him, seized on congressional leaders’ decision to pass the relief bill by combining it with a broader spending plan to fund government operations and the military. That plan includes routine provisions like foreign aid and support for Washington institutions like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian.
“It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” Mr. Trump said in a video posted online. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people.”
“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000,” he added.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who had been pressing for similarly sized checks, welcomed Mr. Trump’s intervention, though it was not clear whether she was really open to changing the bill or simply trolling her Republican adversaries.
“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!” she wrote on Twitter.
In recent weeks, congressional leaders and a bipartisan group of moderates have worked around the clock to deliver a relief package aimed at saving businesses from closure, funding distribution of coronavirus vaccines and providing President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a stable economy when he takes office in January.
The $900 billion relief package revived supplemental unemployment benefits for millions of Americans at $300 a week for 11 weeks and provided for a round of $600 direct payments to adults and children. Republican and Democratic leaders hailed the bill as a badly needed stopgap measure until a new Congress can convene next year to consider providing more stimulus.
“Help is on the way,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.
But Mr. Trump, who sat out the negotiations, demanded on Tuesday that the government distribute much larger direct payments, despite opposition to such spending from Senate Republicans.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, enlisted the president in the Democrats’ push to get larger coronavirus relief checks to Americans next year.
“Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open,” he wrote on Twitter, “and we’re glad to pass more aid Americans need. Maybe Trump can finally make himself useful and get Republicans not to block it again.”
The president’s move surprised even senior administration officials and represented an embarrassment for his top economic lieutenant, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped negotiate the agreement.
“We are fully committed to ensuring that hardworking Americans get this vital support as quickly as possible and to further strengthening our economic recovery,” Mr. Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday in which he thanked Mr. Trump for his leadership.
He had said hundreds of dollars in direct payments authorized by the bill could begin reaching individual Americans as early as next week.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Mnuchin also cited his role in the negotiations earlier Tuesday, noting that he had participated in 190 calls about the legislation between Dec. 14 and Dec. 20 that included the president, Treasury staff members and congressional leaders. During the talks, Mr. Mnuchin pushed for bigger direct payments on behalf of the president in exchange for cutting supplemental unemployment benefits.
Early in the pandemic, health officials were terrified that the virus would decimate America’s homeless populations, the half-million people who live in shelters or on the streets. Those same specialists now say they are relieved that street encampments and homeless shelters did not suffer the same devastation as nursing homes.
The living conditions of homeless people — isolation and lack of indoor shelter — appear to have helped prevent the most dire predictions about the spread of the coronavirus in homeless populations from coming true.
Experts caution that the transitory nature of homelessness makes it challenging to gather precise data. And they remain anxious because overall infection rates soared throughout the fall. A recent outbreak at a shelter in San Diego served as a reminder that homeless populations, especially those sheltered indoors, are still very vulnerable to the dangers of Covid-19.
“It’s been pretty clear in sheltered settings that when infections enter they spread very rapidly,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, the director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious-disease specialist in Seattle, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of homelessness, has helped conduct 2,500 tests in shelters during the pandemic. Only 15 tests, less than 1 percent, came back positive for the coronavirus.
“I had assumed it would be terrible in the homeless population because of how other viruses circulate,” Dr. Chu said. “It pretty much has turned out to be not as bad as I would have thought.”
Experts say that among the reasons for the better-than-expected outcomes are programs in California and New York, the states with the largest homeless populations, to provide thousands of hotel rooms for the most vulnerable people. Hotel rooms are also made available for people experiencing homelessness who exhibit symptoms or come into close contact with those who are infected.
“Ventilation is good,” and the outdoors are safer, Dr. Kushel said. “It’s a perverse advantage that so many people are unsheltered.”
Sharon Escobar paid a Brooklyn funeral home to tend to the remains of her father, Elisha Magosha, after he died from complications of Covid-19 in April.
Two weeks later, she learned that his body had been disintegrating alongside more than a dozen others inside two U-Haul trucks parked in front of the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home, a small building squeezed between a sex shop and a dollar store.
The discovery in early May, as the pandemic held a firm grip on New York, shocked and angered a traumatized city, and in November, the home’s director, Andrew Cleckley, had his license revoked by the state for improperly handling the remains of the deceased.
Odors seeping from the trucks prompted passers-by to complain to the authorities, ultimately leading to the discovery of what was happening.
Mr. Cleckley said he was overwhelmed by the deluge of bodies his home received and said that even though he was the principal leaseholder, five other funeral services operated from the building, and he could not be responsible for overseeing how all of them treated remains.
Still, a large part of his job involved embalming bodies for those other firms, raising questions about the extent of his role.
“Everything I did was out of compassion — helping the other funeral homes, embalming their bodies, picking up bodies for them,” he said.
What unfolded at the Cleckley home was perhaps the most extreme episode when the pandemic engulfed the city’s system for handling the dead — reflecting the tragedy, chaos and overall lack of resources in the face of the biggest public health crisis in a century.
“It was the craziest time I’ve ever been alive,” said John D’Arienzo, president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association. “After Mr. Cleckley’s actions came to light, the medical examiner realized how overwhelmed funeral services were.”
Across Europe, people who have lost loved ones face an empty chair or an agonizing void this holiday season. That is hard enough. But a surge in infections, a new fast-spreading variant of the virus and mounting deaths have led the authorities to shut down Christmas, too.
The upending of holiday rituals has had a particularly disruptive effect in Italy, which has within it the Vatican, panettone and pandoro Christmas cakes, Neapolitan Nativity scenes and multigenerational family reunions.
Since at least October, the country has focused on rules for the festive season with the obsession of a child counting down the days on a chocolate-filled Advent calendar. Government ministers and virologists, celebrity entrepreneurs and influencers held forth on striking the right balance between health and mirth.
But the months of Christmas mania coincided with a dizzying increase in contagions that put a renewed burden on hospitals and catapulted Italy back to the ignoble position of deadliest country in Europe.
About 600 people die of the virus on average every day in Italy, more than any country other than the much larger United States and Brazil. Italy has lost more than 69,000 people to the virus and experienced more deaths generally than in any year since 1944, during World War II.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte himself started the holiday countdown in October, asking Italians to respect restrictions to enjoy “Christmas holidays with more serenity.” But by last Friday, he had switched the talk from saving Christmas for Italians to saving Italians from Christmas. In an almost apologetic speech to the nation, Mr. Conte introduced restrictions that limited movement and closed bars and restaurants from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6.
Monica Mazzoleni, whose mother died of the virus, decided with her father to spend Christmas Day away from the family table, avoiding the empty chair where her mother would sit. Instead, they had intended to go to a restaurant near the northern city of Calusco d’Adda.
“We wanted to get away,” she said. But even those plans had to be canceled when the government restaurants. “There will be no Christmas for us,” she said.
Dubai will start inoculating people at no cost on Wednesday, using the Covid-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, Reuters reported. Saudi Arabia is the only other Arab country using the Pfizer vaccine, but the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have rolled out a vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm, to the general public. A message on the Dubai Health Authority’s hotline said the first phase of the vaccine would be for citizens and Dubai residents age 60 and above, as well as for individuals with chronic illness who were older than 18.
When the Whitestone Republican Club held a holiday party at Il Bacco, an Italian restaurant in Little Neck, Queens, on Dec. 9, more than a dozen people formed a conga line as part of the revelry, shimmying through a glitzy banquet room.
Video of the conga line was shared on Twitter on Monday by Matt Binder, a journalist who said it was initially posted on a private local Facebook group. The video showed the conga line snaking past a D.J. booth with a spinning disco ball as the Bee Gees blasted in the background. A man hoisting a Trump 2020 campaign flag led the dance before Vickie Paladino, a staunch conservative who is the club’s president and a City Council candidate, took over.
The video, which circulated on social media this week, has led to an outcry that culminated with criticism from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and an investigation by the State Liquor Authority.
“Covid conga lines are not smart, that’s my official position,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news briefing on Tuesday.
“There will be significant fines for this incident, and we’re looking at both the group that held the event and the establishment that hosted it,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.
Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the State Liquor Authority, confirmed on Tuesday that the agency was investigating Il Bacco. Mr. Crowley said that the state has suspended 279 liquor licenses for violations of coronavirus-related regulations.
Thomas Paladino, Ms. Paladino’s son and her campaign strategy director, said that the restaurant and the club took precautions, like providing hand sanitizer and taking temperatures at the door.
“We’re not the mask police,” Mr. Paladino said on Tuesday. “We’re all grown adults, and if somebody chooses to put a mask on, they can put a mask on.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency green lights to more than 200 types of coronavirus tests, each with its own curiosities and quirks. Yet we tend to talk about all of them in the same binary way, with identical terms: positive, negative, true, false.
But when it comes to interpreting results, not all positives and negatives are equally reliable. Factors like whether you had symptoms, or the number of people in your neighborhood who are infected, can influence how confident you should be in your results.
“It’s about context,” said Andrea Prinzi, a clinical microbiologist and diagnostics researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Graduate School. “Your test doesn’t end when you get your result.”
Now that fully at-home rapid tests are trickling into the market, Americans may need to confront these testing conundrums regularly. Two of the three home tests cleared by the F.D.A. to date are antigen tests, which hunt for pieces of coronavirus proteins, or antigens. Antigen tests tend to be faster, but are worse than molecular tests — which look for the coronavirus’s genetic material, or RNA, and are often processed in a lab with a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R. — at identifying cases, especially when the virus is present at relatively low levels.
Wherever you get a test result, think about how you’ve been feeling and where you’ve been. If there’s reason to think your test should detect the virus, such as symptoms, a recent exposure or a current outbreak in your community, a positive result is probably correct. That probability increases if the test you’re using has a reputation of being very accurate, such as a laboratory test.
A surprise positive shouldn’t be dismissed, though, especially as the number of coronavirus cases continues to balloon — increasing the pretest probability for millions of people nationwide.
If you’ve truly been cloistered away, and you’re not feeling sick, a negative is more likely a negative. Still, no single test result should clear a person’s path to travel, mingle unmasked or shirk other measures like physical distancing, said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Tests are there to spot the virus after it’s already taken hold, and can’t by themselves thwart its ability to spread, said Hannah Getachew-Smith, a health communication expert at Northwestern University. While testing is powerful, she said, “it has to be coupled with other mitigation strategies.”
New economic data on Wednesday is expected to show the precarious state of the economy before a new injection of federal aid.
Forecasters expect the Labor Department to report that applications for state jobless benefits remained high last week as the surge in coronavirus cases prompted a new round of layoffs. Separate data from the Commerce Department is expected to show that personal income and consumer spending both fell in November.
Help could be on the way. After months of delays, Congress on Monday passed a $900 billion economic relief package providing aid to unemployed people, small businesses and most households. Most urgently, it would prevent jobless benefits from expiring at the end of this week for millions of people. But on Tuesday evening, President Trump demanded sweeping changes to the bill, throwing into doubt whether he would sign it.
Recent data shows the toll that the delays in aid — along with rising infections — have taken on the economy. After making rapid gains in the spring and summer, a variety of economic measures showed slower growth this fall, and some recent indicators have suggested that the recovery could be going into reverse. Some forecasters expect the December employment report to show a net loss in jobs.
“That huge looming cliff that everyone’s been talking about for months on end, that’s been averted,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the hiring site Indeed. “But there’s no momentum forward. It feels like we’re just stuck. Hopefully the new stimulus package will help get a little more wind in our sails.”
News – Covid-19 Latest Updates: France Ends Blockade Over Virus, but Confusion and Scuffles Ensue