Shortened C.D.C. Isolation Will Ease Staffing Woes, Businesses Say
The C.D.C. decision to cut the confinement period in half was welcomed by business representatives. But a union leader warned that workers may feel pressure to return to their jobs too soon.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new policy on Tuesday for New York City’s public schools, which he called “Stay Safe, and Stay Open.”Credit…Brittainy Newman/Associated Press
New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, will eliminate its current policy of quarantining entire classrooms exposed to Covid, and will instead use a ramped-up testing program to allow asymptomatic students who test negative for the coronavirus to remain in school.
The new policy, which Mayor Bill de Blasio referred to as “Stay Safe, and Stay Open,” will take effect on Jan. 3, when the nearly one million students who attend the city’s public schools are scheduled to return from holiday break.
Mr. de Blasio, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office on Sunday, appeared together at a news conference on Tuesday to present a united front against school closures, despite an enormous surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant that has only worsened in the days since city schools closed for winter break last week.
“Your children are safer in school, the numbers speak for themselves,” Mr. Adams said.
Instead of delaying the start of in-person school and pivoting to remote learning, as some other school districts across the state and country are doing, the city will aim to detect more infections while mitigating disruptions. Ms. Hochul thanked educators for their work during school closures, but called remote learning “a failed experiment” that was extremely difficult for many students and had caused major disruptions.
Hundreds of classrooms either entirely closed or partially closed last week. The city’s previous policy was to quarantine unvaccinated close contacts of infected students for 10 days. Many elementary school children in particular have not been vaccinated, even though they are eligible.
Now, instead of sending classes of unvaccinated students home to learn online when one or more students test positive, the students will be given rapid at-home tests. If they are asymptomatic and test negative, they can return the day after their first negative test. Students will then be given a second at-home test within seven days of their exposure.
But that does not mean that the new semester will be without disruption. New York will still close entire schools when there is evidence of major in-school spread.
“Schools remain among the safest settings in our communities,” Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said on Tuesday.
He said that even if virus rates continued to rise across the city and in schools, “we estimate that in schools about 98 percent of close contacts do not end up developing Covid-19.”
Seventeen of the city’s roughly 1,600 schools closed temporarily during the fall semester, with more than half of the closures taking place during its final two weeks.
Mr. de Blasio has faced criticism for only testing a small percentage of consenting students in schools — about 10 percent of each school each week. The city will ramp up testing to include 20 percent of students in each school weekly.
Ms. Hochul said Monday that she would send two million rapid at-home tests to New York City schools in the coming days.
In another shift, the city will now test both vaccinated and unvaccinated students, whereas for months it only tested unvaccinated students. Omicron is extremely contagious, even among vaccinated people.
But there’s a catch: Only students whose parents have allowed them to be tested are eligible, meaning many children are not involved in the effort. City officials plan to encourage more parents to opt their children into the random testing pool.
As the Omicron variant drives infection rates to their highest levels of the pandemic in many parts of the world, major cities have scaled down or canceled New Year’s Eve events for a second consecutive year.
Only months ago, expanding Covid vaccinations and loosening travel rules had promised a return of raucous New Year gatherings amid hopes that the pandemic might finally be waning. But the emergence of Omicron — the highly transmissible variant that is now dominant in the United States and fueling record surges in many nations — has prompted governments to reinstate travel restrictions, mask mandates and bans on large gatherings.
Even as early studies suggest that Omicron produces less severe illness, experts warn that the staggering caseload could still overwhelm health systems. A number of Dec. 31 events have been canceled in countries where caseloads are rising swiftly, including in Italy, where the 14-day average of new cases is up 128 percent, and in France, where cases are up by 48 percent, according to the Our World in Data Project at the University of Oxford.
In the United States, where daily cases have doubled over the past two weeks, some events have been canceled, but the annual celebration in Times Square in New York will go on, with attendance capped at 15,000.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, recommended on Monday that people “stay away” from large New Year’s Eve parties, especially when it is not clear who has been vaccinated. Speaking on CNN, Dr. Fauci said, “There will be other years to do that, but not this year.”
As another 12 months living with the pandemic draws to a close, here’s a look at how Omicron has forced some cities to change their plans for Dec. 31:
New York City
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a downsizing of the celebration in Times Square to at most 15,000 guests, nearly a quarter of the usual amount, who will be allowed in at 3 p.m. at the earliest. Attendees will be required to wear masks and show proof of full vaccination. Fox canceled its “New Year’s Eve Toast & Roast 2022” live broadcast from Times Square. The network said in a statement that “the recent velocity of the spread of Omicron cases has made it impossible to produce a live special in Times Square that meets our standards.”
Several Los Angeles County holiday events have been canceled, including the New Year’s countdown in Grand Park, which will now be streamed.
For the second year in a row, there will be no crowds allowed at the Space Needle’s fireworks show. People can watch on a livestream instead.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, announced last week that the New Year’s Eve event in Trafalgar Square was canceled, saying: “The safety of Londoners must come first.”
In London last week.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times
According to the broadcaster France24, Paris has canceled its celebration, which was to include fireworks over the Champs-?lys?es. Prime Minister Jean Castex also announced that large public parties would be banned on New Year’s Eve.
Celebrations have been scrapped in several Italian cities, including Rome and Venice. Outdoor events have been banned and nightclubs will be closed for the month of January.
Berlin’s annual New Year’s Eve party at the Brandenburg Gate will go on, but without any audience members. The performances will be live on television. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also announced that gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people starting Dec. 28.
Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo typically attracts tens of thousands of people for one of the biggest New Year celebrations in the world. This year, like last year, the revelry has been called off. Public drinking has been banned in Shibuya on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
The Delhi Disaster Management Authority has banned all social, political and cultural gatherings, including Christmas and New Year celebrations, according to The Economic Times newspaper. Restaurants and bars are allowed to operate only at half capacity.
Cape Town is still allowing New Year’s Eve gatherings, but several restrictions are in place. There is a curfew from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m., masks are required in public areas and nightclubs are closed.
The authorities banned New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout the country, including in Casablanca, the most populous city. Restaurants will close 30 minutes before midnight, and there will be a curfew from midnight to 6 a.m.
The national police force on Monday announced a ban on New Year’s Eve fireworks across the country, including in Kampala, the capital. Nighttime religious services will also be prohibited.
New federal guidance shortening the recommended isolation periods for many infected Americans will provide relief to companies struggling with staffing shortages, businesses said on Tuesday, but labor representatives warned that the move could push some employees back to work too soon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reduced the number of days that infected patients should remain isolated — and for many workers, sidelined — to five days, from 10. Anyone leaving isolation must be free of symptoms and should wear a mask when near others for an additional five days.
The updated policy was embraced by representatives for industries including air travel, food and retail. The Omicron variant has torn through already short-staffed sectors, temporarily shutting restaurants and causing the cancellation of thousands of flights that disrupted Christmas travel.
“The aviation work force is essential to maintaining the operations of air travel and cargo supply chains,” the trade group Airlines for America said in a statement. “The decision is the right one based upon science.”
But the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents nearly 50,000 flight crew workers, had argued that employees should not be expected to return to work unless they had no symptoms and tested negative.
“Already the lack of paid sick leave creates pressure on workers to come to work sick,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the union. “Corporations that fail to recognize this with paid sick leave, or pressure workers to come to work sick or face discipline, are failing their workers and their customers.”
“The updated guidance allows more flexibility for Delta to schedule crews and employees to support a busy holiday travel season and a sustained return to travel by customers,” the airline said in a statement.
A spokesperson for American Airlines referred questions about the new C.D.C. recommendations to Airlines for America. United Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives for two other sectors that employ vast numbers of workers who interact with the public and have struggled with staff shortages for months lauded the C.D.C.’s decision.
The Food Industry Association, whose members include major grocers as well as manufacturers, said that the revised guidance would help the industry “responsibly address” its labor shortage. The trade group urged “federal, state and local governments to work off the same C.D.C. playbook.”
Stephanie Martz, the chief administrative officer of the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, called the change “welcome news.”
Many of the policy experts who had urged the C.D.C. to update its isolation guidelines had argued that a new approach should incorporate rapid tests, as in Britain. In the United States, demand for tests has soared while manufacturers are still scrambling to ramp up production and distribution.
Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, said that testing was necessary because of the vagaries of the coronavirus infection.
“I can’t see how this could go forward without having testing, with assurance of at least a negative rapid antigen test, before circulating,” Dr. Topol said. “This goes against the science, and the fact the time it takes for people to clear their virus is quite variable.”
Emma Goldberg contributed reporting.
Demonstrations against Covid rules across Germany on Monday, featuring thousands of marchers, underscored the growing frustration as states prepare to introduce tighter regulations and lawmakers look to introduce mandatory vaccinations.
Rallies on Mondays have had special resonance in Germany since weekly demonstration walks on that day helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a northeastern state, about 15,000 marchers took part in protests in several cities, according to police estimates. On Monday, the state closed nightclubs, banned private meetings of more than 10 people and placed further restrictions on movie theaters and on cultural and sporting events. Other states imposed similar restrictions on Tuesday as part of an agreement with the federal government to counter an expected rise in infections from the Omicron variant.
Those measures will add to rules targeting particularly the unvaccinated that were introduced as case numbers in Germany rose in the fall.
In Bautzen, a town in the eastern state of Saxony, protesters attacked the police with bottles and fireworks when officers tried to stop a demonstration on Monday, the force said on Twitter.
While most of the rallies occurred in eastern Germany, some sizable demonstrations took place in cities in the west as well. In Saarbr?cken and Fulda, in the central state of Hesse, about 1,000 marched. In Wolfsburg, in the northern state of Lower Saxony, 800 turned out.
As Germany braces for Omicron, lawmakers plan to discuss a general vaccine mandate in the opening parliamentary session of 2022. A vaccine requirement for medical workers and care facility employees passed this month and will go into effect in mid-March.
After a renewed emphasis on the national vaccine drive, which included a task force led by an army general, 71 percent of the German population is fully vaccinated and around 44 percent of adults have received a booster shot. But vaccination rates in some states in the east of the country are significantly lower. In Saxony, only 63 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
The country’s constitutional court also ruled on Tuesday that legislation should be introduced to protect disabled people when hospital resources are stretched. The decision was in response to a suit brought by disability activists more than a year ago and aims to guard against discrimination in triage decisions should hospitals become overwhelmed.
At the moment, hospital admission rates are actually declining in Germany, but during a wave of infections in November, medical centers in some hot spots were forced to transfer patients to other regions to relieve pressure on I.C.U. staff.
A Delta Air Lines flight that was en route from Seattle to Shanghai turned back in midair last week because the Chinese airport had imposed new cleaning rules that would have caused delays, the airline said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The new cleaning procedures require significantly extended ground time and are not operationally viable for Delta,” the airline said.
Details of the new cleaning regulations in place at Shanghai Pudong International Airport were not immediately clear, but China has rolled out increasingly strict Covid-19 travel rules amid a growing outbreak in the northern city of Xian and before the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
The scrapped flight left passengers with out-of-date Covid-19 test results and expired U.S. visas, according to Chinese news reports. The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, which did not name Delta, said in a statement that it “had made a stern representation to the airline.”
The new sanitation protocols also led EVA Air of Taiwan to suspend passenger services to Shanghai Pudong from the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung until Feb. 3, Taiwan’s semiofficial Central News Agency reported. Another Taiwan-based carrier, China Airlines, is suspending flights from one city to Shanghai until the end of January and reducing flights on another route, according to news reports.
The Chinese Embassy in the United States said in a statement that reports that the Delta plane had been turned around because of a ban on incoming flights were incorrect. Many domestic and international flights in the United States had been canceled because of staff shortages, the embassy noted, adding that it was “communicating with relevant airlines to actively understand the specific technical issues and discuss solutions to avoid similar incidents from happening again.”
The outbreak in Xian remains small by global standards. On Tuesday, Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid in China, said that the city of 13 million people, where the local authorities last week imposed a lockdown, had reported 175 cases in one day, its highest daily count since the outbreak began this month.
In total, 810 cases have been recorded in Xian.
Covid-19 deaths have declined since vaccines became widely available in April, yet nearly a quarter million people in the United States have passed away from the virus in the last eight months.
For many younger Americans and white Americans, in fact, Covid is now responsible for a higher share of deaths from all causes than it was earlier in the pandemic.
How the Omicron variant will affect these trends remains to be seen. Scientists are still hopeful that vaccines — and especially boosters — will stave off Omicron’s worst effects.
Covid has been particularly deadly for older people, but the group was among the first to be eligible for vaccines. Now, people 65 and older have the highest vaccination rate, with nearly 90 percent of them fully vaccinated, and the share of deaths attributed to the virus in that age group has declined.
Here, in charts, is a look at how vaccines have shifted the proportion of deaths to different populations in the United States:
A 19-year-old man who kept partying at a nightclub in South Australia despite being notified that he had tested positive for the coronavirus was charged with failing to comply with public health orders, the police said on Tuesday.
The health authorities told the man on Dec. 17 that he had tested positive, but he “remained at a city nightclub and did not quarantine,” the police said in a statement.
The man, who was not identified, stayed at the nightclub in Adelaide until the morning hours, according to local news reports. More than 100 patrons and staff members of the nightclub were forced into isolation because they were considered to have been in close contact with him.
He faces a maximum penalty of two years in jail or a fine of up to 20,000 Australian dollars, about $14,500. He was released on bail and is expected to appear in court in February.
In other news around the world:
India granted emergency-use authorization for Merck’s Covid-19 pill, molnupiravir, and two domestically produced vaccines, Covovax and Corbevax, the country’s health minister, Dr. Mansukh Mandaviya, said on Twitter.
Bangladesh on Tuesday started administering booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines to health workers and residents age 60 and older, joining the growing ranks of countries racing to administer extra doses as coronavirus cases rise. Robed Amin, a Health Ministry spokesman, said that the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines would be used for the booster campaign. More than 35 percent of Bangladesh’s adult population of 138 million has been fully inoculated so far, according to government data.
Hong Kong said that it would require all school employees who have not been vaccinated to undergo testing via nasal swabs, at their own expense, every three days starting on Jan. 10. The government has said that the same rule will apply to government employees starting on Jan. 3.
The N.B.A. has altered its coronavirus protocols to allow players and coaches who have tested positive but are asymptomatic to return to their teams sooner as a surge in cases has depleted several teams of their best players.
The new rules will also permit those with low viral loads to follow this new protocol, even if they still test positive, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.
Players and coaches who have positive or inconclusive tests will be able to return after six days in isolation instead of 10 if they are asymptomatic by then and meet the requirements on tests for infectiousness.
The N.B.A. and its players’ union agreed on the new rules.
To leave isolation on the shorter timeline, players and coaches must test with a low enough viral load on the fifth and sixth days after their initial positive tests.
Players and coaches can also emerge from isolation through one of the two previous methods — by isolating for 10 days and not having symptoms, or by returning two negative tests 24 hours apart.
The N.B.A.’s announcement coincided with the recommendation from the C.D.C. on Monday that isolation times be reduced to five days from 10 for people without symptoms.
More than 100 players entered the league’s health and safety protocols — triggered by a positive or inconclusive coronavirus test, or potential exposure — in December alone, with the Omicron variant sweeping through the league. The league increased testing for several days after Thanksgiving, leading to a rise in cases, and will now begin another period of increased testing following Christmas Day.
Several teams have competed without multiple key players because of the coronavirus protocols. The Nets beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas despite having seven players out because of the protocols, including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo missed five games while in the protocols, but cleared just in time for his team’s Christmas game.
The Atlantic Coast Conference — one of college sports’ Power 5 leagues — also announced Monday it had added two options to shorten isolation for vaccinated people.
When Congress created a grant program early this year to help battered bars and restaurants survive the pandemic, one thing was immediately clear: The money would not be enough. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund contained $28.6 billion, far below the $100 billion that industry groups estimated was needed.
That made the rules about priority treatment — which were upended midstream by lawsuits from white male business owners who called them unfair — a crucial factor in determining who received relief.
But Small Business Administration records obtained by The New York Times reveal a capricious methodology for determining winners and losers. In the most extreme cases, applicants whom lawmakers intended to favor — women and business owners from certain racial and cultural groups — ended up effectively locked out. Even those unaffected by the litigation found themselves in a race for cash in which later applicants sometimes beat out those who had applied much earlier.
“So many of the people who needed this the most were left out,” said Matt Buskard, the owner of Bobcat Bonnie’s, a small chain in and around Detroit. Three of his locations had six-figure grants approved and then canceled a month later, after lawsuits threw the program into turmoil.
In the United States, over 204 million people are fully vaccinated, but that’s still only 62 percent of the population, much lower than in most other wealthy countries.
At the county level, vaccination rates range from about 83 percent in places like Montgomery County, Md., a populous area just outside Washington, D.C., to around 15 percent in rural places like McPherson County in northern South Dakota.
As the Omicron variant surges, and experts say that vaccinations strongly protect against severe illness, U.S. public health officials are closely examining ways to reach the least-vaccinated areas. But the roadblocks are not the same everywhere. Some clearly have to do with politics: Republican-leaning areas have generally been vaccine laggards. But pockets of the country can have their own quirks unrelated to partisanship.
Here is a look at the challenges faced by three counties where, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, vaccination rates are among the lowest in the nation. (State figures for those counties may vary from the C.D.C. data because of differences in methodology, reporting lags and other factors.)
LaGrange County, Ind.
Resistance to vaccines is not new in LaGrange County, a rural area along Indiana’s border with Michigan. Just 22 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and, according to Dr. Tony Pechin, the county health officer, only 15 percent of children in the county are up-to-date on standard vaccines by the age of 2.
Dr. Pechin said that he had encountered the usual conspiracy theories about vaccines, and that even some longtime patients would not heed his advice to get the shots.
But the most important factor, he said, is that about half the county’s 40,000 residents are Amish, a group that overwhelmingly rejects the vaccines. Among non-Amish residents, he said, the vaccination rate is 45 to 48 percent.
Dr. Pechin said that a pharmacy frequented by Amish residents was among the first in LaGrange County to receive doses but had vaccinated just eight people in six months.
The state health commissioner sent a delegation to meet with Amish leaders in the spring, and the C.D.C. sent another over the summer.
“When they were done,” Dr. Pechin said of the envoys, “they called me and just said, ‘Good luck, Tony.'”
Cameron Parish, La.
When Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron Parish in August 2020, many residents left damaged homes behind and took refuge inland — and have yet to return.
According to the C.D.C., the vaccination rate is just 17 percent. But Louisiana health officials say that those figures do not take account of the population shift.
“Although the numbers look awful, they’re not as bad as they appear, because of an outflux of people due to the natural disasters,” said Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, a regional health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health.
Sifting through debris of a home damaged by Hurricane Laura in Cameron Parish, La., in August 2020.Credit…Bryan Tarnowski/Bloomberg, via Getty Images
But if the statistics were calculated to reflect the current populations of Cameron Parish and others ravaged by recent storms, she said, they would probably still show vaccination rates below national averages. Laura destroyed much of the parish’s limited health infrastructure, so for months, health officials administered vaccines in a tent in a hospital parking lot. And for residents consumed by the work of repairing homes and businesses, getting vaccinated fell low on the priority list.
State health officials have worked to bring vaccines directly to disaster recovery events, and advised residents that getting sick with Covid-19 could make the road back even harder.
“Once you’re protected” from the virus, Dr. Cavanaugh said, “that’s one less thing for you to worry about.”
Winston County, Ala.
A rural county with a history of going its own way — it refused to join Alabama in seceding from the Union during the Civil War — faces many of the challenges that have hampered the state’s vaccine uptake.
Vaccine misinformation is still spreading on social media, said Dr. Karen Landers, a regional officer with the state’s Public Health Department, despite months of efforts with local leaders, faith-based organizations and pharmacies. The county’s vaccination rate has stalled at around 21 percent, according to the C.D.C.
A meeting of the local Republican Party in October 2020 in Double Springs, Ala. The state hasn’t had a mask mandate since April.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images
Persuading young people that they are vulnerable to the disease and need a vaccine can be a particularly acute problem, she said. But Dr. Landerssaid she remained determined: “We know that not everyone will listen to us, but that does not alleviate our responsibility.”