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Covid-19 Global News: Live Updates on Variants, Cases and Deaths – The New York Times

Feb 22, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

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Boris Johnson Maps Out Plan to Lift Virus Lockdown

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain outlined a plan to remove lockdown measures as a path toward “freedom” for the region.

We cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalizations and sadly, more deaths, and this would happen whenever lockdown is lifted, whether now or in six or nine months, because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines. This roadmap should be cautious, but also irreversible. We’re setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way road to freedom, and this journey is made possible by the pace of the vaccination program. In England, everyone in the top four priority groups were successfully offered a vaccine by the middle of February. The sequence will be driven by the evidence. So outdoor activity will be prioritized as the best way to restore freedoms while minimizing the risk. At every stage, our decisions will be led by data, not dates.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain outlined a plan to remove lockdown measures as a path toward “freedom” for the region.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Geoff Caddick

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said Monday that schools in England would reopen on March 8 and that people would be allowed to socialize outdoors starting on March 29, the tentative first steps in a long-awaited plan to ease a nationwide lockdown prompted by a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus.

Mr. Johnson’s “road map” was intended to give an exhausted country a path back to normalcy after a dire period in which infections skyrocketed and hospitals overflowed with patients. At the same time, Britain rolled out a remarkably successful vaccination program, injecting 17 million people with their first doses.

That milestone, combined with a decline in new cases and hospital admissions, paved the way for Mr. Johnson’s announcement. But the prime minister emphasized repeatedly that he planned to move slowly in reopening the economy, saying that he wanted this lockdown to be the last the nation had to endure.

Under the government’s plan, pubs, restaurants, retail shops, and gyms in England will stay closed for at least another month — meaning that, as a practical matter, daily life will not change much for millions of people until the spring.

“We’re setting out on what I hope is a one-way journey to freedom,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement to the House of Commons. “This journey is made possible by the success of the vaccine program.”

The specific timetable, Mr. Johnson said, will hinge on four factors: the continued success of the vaccine rollout; evidence that vaccines are reducing hospital admissions and deaths; no new surge in cases that would tax the health service; and no sudden risk from new variants of the virus.

“At every stage,” the prime minister said, “our decisions will led by data, not dates.”

Mr. Johnson was scheduled to present the plan to the nation in an evening news conference, along with data that he said showed that the two main vaccines — from Pfizer and AstraZeneca — both reduced severe illness.

Mr. Johnson’s appearance in Parliament ended days of speculation about the government’s timetable. But it is likely to kindle a new round of debate about whether Mr. Johnson is easing restrictions fast enough.

With pubs and restaurants not allowed to offer indoor service until May, some members of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party are likely to revive their pressure campaign to lift the measures more quickly.

Mr. Johnson, however, appears determined to avoid a repeat of his messy reopening of the economy last May after the first phase of the pandemic.

Then, the government’s message was muddled — workers were urged to go back to their offices but avoid using public transportation — and some initiatives, like subsidizing restaurant meals to bolster the hospitality industry, looked reckless in hindsight.

Under Mr. Johnson’s plan, the current coronavirus restrictions would be lifted in four steps, with a gap of five weeks between steps. That way, the government would have four weeks to analyze the impact of each relaxation and another week’s notice of the changes to the public and businesses.

All the moves would be made throughout England, with no return to the regional differences in rules that applied last year, depending on local infection rates. The government warned that the dates specified are the earliest at which the restrictions would be lifted, and that the steps may happen later.

When students go back to school, they will be regularly tested for the virus while older pupils will be required to wear face masks. Those living in nursing homes will be allowed one regular visitor, but few other restrictions will be lifted.

Starting on March 29, up to six people would be allowed to meet outdoors, including in gardens. Outdoor sports will be permitted and though people will be urged to stay in their areas, they will not be urged to remain in their homes.

Then, no earlier than April 12, retail shops will reopen, along with hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, museums, and libraries, while people will be able to eat and drink outside in pub and restaurant gardens in small groups.

Starting on May 17, up to six people, and groups drawn from two households, will be able to meet indoors, including in pubs and restaurants. Hotels will also be able to reopen and spectators will be allowed into sporting events in limited numbers.

Restrictions on foreign travel could also be eased, though that will be addressed by one of several policy reviews being launched by the government. These will also focus on the possible use of vaccine passports to help open up the economy, and on guidance and rules on social distancing measures such as the use of face masks.

When movie theaters reopen in New York City, masks will be mandatory, and theaters must assign seating to patrons to guarantee proper social distancing.
Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Movie theaters in New York City will be permitted to open for the first time in nearly a year on March 5, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced at a news conference on Monday.

The theaters will only be permitted to operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity, with no more than 50 people per screening. Masks will be mandatory, and theaters must assign seating to patrons to guarantee proper social distancing. Tests for the virus will not be required.

Movie theaters were permitted to open with similar limits in the rest of the state in late October, but New York City was excluded out of concern that the city’s density would hasten the spread of the virus there.

The virus has battered the movie theater industry. In October, the owner of Regal Cinemas, the second-largest cinema chain in the United States, temporarily closed its theaters as Hollywood studios kept postponing releases and cautious audiences were hesitant to return to screenings. AMC, the world’s largest movie theater chain, has increasingly edged toward bankruptcy.

The economic effects of the pandemic have been particularly felt in New York City, one of the biggest movie markets in the United States. Theaters in the city closed in mid-March, as the region was becoming an epicenter of the pandemic in the country.

While other indoor businesses, including restaurants, bowling alleys and museums had been allowed to open in the city, Mr. Cuomo had kept movie theaters closed out of concern that people would be sitting indoors in poorly-ventilated theaters for hours, risking the further spread of the virus.

Theaters that open will be required to have enhanced air filtration systems. Public health experts say when considering indoor gatherings, the quality of ventilation is key because the virus is known to spread more easily indoors.

Mr. Cuomo’s announcement was applauded by the National Association of Theater Owners.

“New York City is a major market for moviegoing in the U.S.; reopening there gives confidence to film distributors in setting and holding their theatrical release dates, and is an important step in the recovery of the entire industry,” the association said in a statement.

The move came just days after Mr. Cuomo said that indoor family entertainment centers and places of amusement could reopen statewide, at 25 percent maximum capacity, on March 26. Outdoor amusement parks will be allowed to open with a 33 percent capacity limit in April.

The governor also said that the state was working on guidelines to allow pool and billiards halls to reopen after the state lost a lawsuit from pool hall operators. Those establishments will be allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity with masks required, he said.

Cases in New York remain high despite climbing down from its January peak. Over the last seven days, the state averaged 38 cases per 100,000 residents each day, as of Sunday. That is the second-highest rate per capita of new cases in the last week in the country, after South Carolina.

Preparing a dose of the Moderna vaccine this month at a community center in the Bronx.
Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration said on Monday that vaccine developers would not need to conduct lengthy randomized controlled trials to evaluate vaccines that have been adapted to target concerning coronavirus variants.

The recommendations, which call for small trials more like what’s required for annual flu vaccines, would greatly accelerate the review process at a time when scientists are increasingly anxious about how the variants might slow or reverse progress made against the virus.

The guidance was part of a slate of new documents the agency released on Monday, including others addressing how antibody treatments and diagnostic tests might need to be retooled to respond to the virus variants. Together, they amounted to the federal government’s most detailed acknowledgment of the threat the variants pose to existing vaccines, treatments and tests for the coronavirus and come weeks after the F.D.A.’s acting commissioner, Dr. Janet Woodcock, said the agency was developing a plan.

“We want the American public to know that we are using every tool in our toolbox to fight this pandemic, including pivoting as the virus adapts,” Dr. Woodcock said in a statement Monday.

Most of the vaccine manufacturers with authorized vaccines or candidates in late-stage trials have already announced plans to adjust their products to address the vaccine variants. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use mRNA technology that the companies have said can be used to alter the existing vaccines within six weeks, although testing and manufacturing would take longer.

Moderna has already begun developing a new version of its vaccine that could be used as a booster shot against a virus variant that originated in South Africa, known as B.1.351, which seems to dampen the effectiveness of the existing vaccines.

A fast-spreading coronavirus variant first observed in Britain has also gained a worrisome mutation that could make it harder to control with vaccines. That variant with the mutation was found in the United States last week.

Still, the guidance did not appear to be written with the assumption that new vaccines were imminent, or would be needed at all. Despite the recent indications that some variants — and particularly B.1.351 — make the currently authorized vaccines less effective, the shots still offer protection and appear to greatly reduce the severity of the disease, preventing hospitalizations and death.

An updated Covid-19 vaccine can skip the monthslong process of a randomized clinical trial that would compare it with a placebo, the agency said. But a tweaked vaccine will still need to go undergo some testing. In trials proposed by the F.D.A., researchers will draw blood from a relatively small group of volunteers who have been given the adapted vaccine. Scientists will then observe what percentage of volunteers’ samples produce an immune response to the variants in the lab, and how large that response is. The vaccines will be judged acceptable if they produce an immune response that is relatively close to what is prompted by the original vaccines.

The volunteers will also be monitored carefully for side effects. The agency said the testing can be done in a single age group and then extrapolated to other age groups.

The guidance also encouraged the use of animal studies to support the case for modified vaccines, in case immune response studies come up with ambiguous conclusions.

The F.D.A. acknowledged that many questions remain unanswered, such as what type of data would trigger the need for an adapted vaccine and who would make that decision. The agency also noted that scientists have not yet determined what level of antibodies in a vaccinated person’s blood would protect someone from the virus.

Some other vaccines are regularly updated in a similar way. Because the influenza virus evolves rapidly from one year to the next, vaccine developers have to come up with new recipes annually.

The newly tweaked Covid-19 vaccines would be authorized under an amendment to the emergency authorization granted to the original vaccine, regulators said.

Patricia Carrete, a nurse, during a night shift at a field hospital in Cranston, R.I., this month.
Credit…David Goldman/Associated Press

The number of Americans hospitalized for Covid-19 is at its lowest since early November, just before the surge that went on to ravage the country for months.

There were 56,159 people hospitalized as of Feb. 21, according to the Covid Tracking Project. That’s the lowest since Nov. 7. It’s a striking decline for a nation that is approaching 500,000 total deaths and once had some of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots.

On Monday evening, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to have a moment of silence for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from Covid-19.

While deaths remain high, because it can take weeks for patients to die from Covid-19, the number of U.S. hospitalizations has steadily and rapidly declined since mid-January, when the seven-day average reached about 130,000, according to a New York Times database. Experts attributed that peak to crowds gathering indoors in colder weather, especially during the holidays, when more people traveled than at any other time during the pandemic.

Experts have pointed to a variety of explanations for why the country’s coronavirus metrics have been improving over the past few months: more widespread mask use and social distancing after people saw friends and relatives die, better knowledge about which restrictions work, more effective public health messaging, and, more recently, a growing number of people who have been vaccinated. The most vulnerable, like residents of nursing homes and other elderly people, were among the first to receive the vaccine.

While scientists hope the worst is behind us, some warn of another spike in cases in the coming weeks, or a “fourth wave,” if people become complacent about masks and distancing, states lift restrictions too quickly or the more contagious variants become dominant and are able to evade vaccines.

The change can be felt most tangibly in intensive care units: Heading into her night shift in the I.C.U. at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, N.M., Dr. Denise A. Gonzales, the medical director, said she had seen a difference in her staff.

“People are smiling. They are optimistic,” she said. “They’re making plans for the future.” During the worst of the crisis, “working in such a highly intense environment where people are so sick and are on so much support and knowing that statistically very few are going to get better — that’s overwhelming.”

Though the winter wave that hit her hospital system was “twice as bad” as the summer surge, she said it seemed more manageable because hospitals had prepared to move patients around, staff had more knowledge about P.P.E. and treatment therapies, and facilities had better airflow.

At the CoxHealth hospital system in Springfield, Mo., there was a “moment of celebration” as staff emptied the emergency Covid-19 I.C.U. wing built last spring. “We have not defeated this disease,” said Steve Edwards, the system’s chief executive. “But the closing of this unit, at least for now, is a tremendous symbolic victory.”

Staff members wearing biohazard suits and heavy-duty masks were pictured in a rare occasion of relief and joy that Mr. Edwards shared on Twitter.

Dr. Kyan C. Safavi, the medical director of a group that tracks Covid-19 hospitalizations at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the number of newly admitted patients has dropped sharply. The hospital is admitting about 10 to 15 new patients daily, a decline of about 50 percent from early January, Dr. Safavi said.

“Everybody’s physically exhausted — and probably a little bit mentally exhausted — but incredibly hopeful,” Dr. Safavi said.

Preparing a dose of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in Edinburgh this month.
Credit…Pool Photo by Jane Barlow, via AFP–Getty Images

Scotland’s vaccination program substantially reduced Covid-19 hospital admissions, according to the results of a study released on Monday, offering the strongest real-world signal of the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine that much of the world is relying on to end the pandemic.

The study, encompassing both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, examined the number of people who were hospitalized after receiving a single dose of the vaccine. Britain has delayed administering the second dose for up to three months after the first, opting to offer more people the partial protection of a single shot.

But the study sounded a cautionary note about how long high protection levels from a single dose would last. The risk of hospitalization dropped starting a week after people received their first shot, reaching a low point four to five weeks after they were vaccinated. But then it appeared to rise again.

The scientists who conducted the study said it was too early to know whether the protection offered by a single dose waned after a month, cautioning that more evidence was needed.

The findings in Scotland bolstered earlier results from Israel showing that the vaccines offered significant protection from the virus. The Israeli studies have focused on the Pfizer vaccine, but the Scottish study extended to the AstraZeneca shot, which has been administered in Britain since early January. The AstraZeneca shot is the backbone of many nations’ inoculation plans: It is far cheaper to produce, and can be shipped and stored in normal refrigerators rather than the ultracold freezers used for other vaccines.

“Both of these are working spectacularly well,” Aziz Sheikh, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was involved in the study, said at a news conference on Monday.

The researchers in Scotland examined roughly 8,000 coronavirus-related hospital admissions, and studied how the risk of hospitalization differed among people who had and had not received a shot. Over all, more than 1.1 million people were vaccinated in the period the researchers were studying.

The numbers of vaccinated people who sought care in hospitals was too small to compare the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, or to give precise figures for their effectiveness, the researchers said.

But from 28 to 34 days after the first shot, the AstraZeneca vaccine reduced the risk of Covid-19 hospital admissions by roughly 94 percent. In that same time period, the Pfizer vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalizations by roughly 85 percent. In both cases, those figures fit within a broad range of possible effects.

Because the Pfizer vaccine was authorized in Britain before the AstraZeneca shot, the researchers had more data on the Pfizer vaccine, and found that the protection against hospital admissions was somewhat reduced at longer periods after the first shot.

“The peak protection is at four weeks, and then it starts to drop away,” said Simon Clarke, a professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading who was not involved in the study.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has faced skepticism in parts of Europe after many countries chose not to give it to older people, citing a lack of clinical trial data in that group. The Scottish study could not offer precise figures on that vaccine’s effectiveness in older people. But the combined effect of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines substantially reduced hospital admissions in people over 80. Many older people were given the AstraZeneca vaccine.

A boom in gym memberships is likely as soon as people are sure it’s safe.
Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

The U.S. economy remains mired in a pandemic winter of shuttered storefronts, high unemployment and sluggish job growth. But attention is shifting to a potential post-Covid boom.

Forecasters have always expected the pandemic to be followed by a period of strong growth as businesses reopen and Americans resume their normal activities. But in recent weeks, economists have begun to talk of something stronger: a supercharged rebound that brings down unemployment, drives up wages and may foster years of stronger growth.

There are hints that the economy has turned a corner: Retail sales jumped last month as the latest round of government aid began showing up in consumers’ bank accounts. New unemployment claims have declined from early January, though they remain high. And measures of business investment have picked up.

Economists surveyed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia this month predicted that U.S. output would increase 4.5 percent this year, which would make it the best year since 1999. Some expect an even stronger bounce: Economists at Goldman Sachs forecast that the economy would grow 6.8 percent this year and that the unemployment rate would drop to 4.1 percent by December, a level that took eight years to achieve after the last recession.

“We’re extremely likely to get a very high growth rate,” said Jan Hatzius, Goldman’s chief economist. “Whether it’s a boom or not, I do think it’s a V-shaped recovery,” he added, referring to a steep drop followed by a sharp rebound.

The growing optimism stems from several factors. Coronavirus cases are falling in the United States. The vaccine rollout is gaining steam. And largely because of trillions of dollars in federal help, the economy appears to have made it through last year with less structural damage than many people feared last spring.

Consumers are also sitting on a trillion-dollar mountain of cash, a result of months of lockdown-induced saving and rounds of stimulus payments.

“There will be this big boom as pent-up demand comes through and the economy is opening,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist for Morgan Stanley. “There is an awful lot of buying power that we’ve transferred to households to fuel that pent-up demand.”

Even if there is a strong rebound, however, economists warn that not everyone will benefit.

Standard economic statistics like the unemployment rate and gross domestic product could mask persistent challenges facing many families, particularly the Black and Hispanic workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic pain. That could lead Congress to pull back on aid when it is still needed.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey will allow 10 percent seating capacity at indoor sports and entertainment venues with 5,000 or more seats, and 15 percent at outdoor venues.
Credit…Mike Stobe/Getty Images

New Jersey, home to several major league sports teams, will allow a limited number of fans to attend sports and entertainment events at venues with 5,000 or more seats as soon as next week, Gov. Philip D. Murphy said on Monday.

Indoor venues will be limited to 10 percent of their seating capacity, while outdoor venues will be limited to 15 percent capacity, Mr. Murphy said in a radio interview on WFAN. The events can begin next Monday at 6 a.m.

Mr. Murphy’s announcement comes two weeks after a similar decision by New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, whose plan allowed fans at venues with 10,000 or more seats starting this week, provided that seating is limited to 10 percent of the venue’s capacity.

Mr. Cuomo’s announcement covered several New York City-area sports franchises, like the Nets, Knicks, Rangers and Islanders, which can begin to have fans in the stands as soon as Tuesday. Attendees in New York have to show proof of a negative P.C.R. test for the coronavirus taken within 72 hours of the event.

Mr. Murphy said that New Jersey would not require test results, but people at the venues will be required to wear face coverings at games and remain socially distanced. Public health experts say when considering indoor gatherings, the quality of ventilation is key because the virus is known to spread more easily indoors.

Cases in New Jersey, while still high, are now on the decline, nearing levels reported in early November. Over the last seven days the state averaged 33 cases per 100,000 residents each day, as of Sunday. That was the third-highest rate per capita of new cases in the last week, after New York and South Carolina.

The governor’s announcement will allow his state’s pro hockey team, the Devils, to play home games starting next Tuesday, the team’s first home game after the change takes effect.

“This is a day toward which our entire staff has been planning, working, and looking forward to for the past 11 months,” said the team’s president, Jake Reynolds, in a statement.

The state also has two pro football teams, the Giants and the Jets, and a Major League Soccer team, the Red Bulls. Mr. Murphy said he hoped those teams would still be able to have fans when their seasons began later this year.

“I’ll be shocked if we’re not at a higher level of capacity for Jets, Giants, Rutgers football, you name it, as we get into the summer and fall,” Mr. Murphy said.

Several other states have already permitted sports fans inside venues during the pandemic, especially at outdoor stadiums for football and baseball. But Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Murphy had resisted until December, when Mr. Cuomo worked with the N.F.L. to allow a limited number of fans at a Buffalo Bills playoff game in their open-air stadium.

Mr. Murphy also said that New Jersey would start to allow parents and guardians to watch their children play both indoor and outdoor college sports, provided venues meet capacity limits, on Monday. The state reopened high school sports to parents earlier this month, with indoor attendance limited to 35 percent or 150 people.

New Jersey will also allow houses of worship and religious services to operate at 50 percent capacity effective Monday, the governor said. The limit is an increase from the previous cap of 35 percent maximum capacity up to 150 people.

Alison Saldanha contributed reporting.

A performance by Jon Batiste, center, and his band Stay Human in New York on Saturday was the first in a series of “pop-up” shows meant to give the arts a jolt.
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

It seemed at first like a small, no-frills concert in a carefully controlled environment: the jazz musician Jon Batiste sitting at a piano in an auditorium at the Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side, performing for an audience of about 50 health care workers — some wearing scrubs, others Army fatigues.

But about half an hour in, Mr. Batiste and other performers stepped off the stage and exited the room, turning what had begun as a formal concert into a rollicking procession of music and dancing that grooved through the sterile building — the convention center was turned into a field hospital early in the pandemic and is now a vaccination site — where hundreds of hopeful people had come on Saturday afternoon to get their shots.

This concert-turned-roaming-party was the first in a series of “pop-up” shows in New York intended to give the arts a jolt by providing artists with paid work and audiences with opportunities to see live performance after nearly a year of darkened theaters and concert halls.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans for the series, called “NY PopsUp,” last month, declaring that “we must bring arts and culture back to life,” and adding that their revival would be crucial to the economic revival of New York City.

Because the program is wary of drawing crowds, most of the performances will be unannounced, emerging suddenly at parks, museums, parking lots and street corners. The idea is to inject a dose of inspiration into the lives of New Yorkers.

As the musicians moved through the convention center, the audience of health care workers followed them, clapping to the beat and recording the spectacle on their phones.

Shortly before the music ended, some health care workers rushed off to continue their work day (this concert was happening during their break time, after all).

Bernard Gonzalez, a regional official, announced new restrictions for the French Riviera on Monday. The area has the country’s highest infection rate.
Credit…Valery Hache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The French Riviera, the famed strip along the Mediterranean coast that includes jet-setting hot spots like Saint-Tropez and Cannes, will be locked down over the next two weekends in an attempt to fight back a sharp spike in coronavirus infections.

France has been under a nighttime curfew since mid-January and restaurants, cafes and museums remain closed, but the government of President Emmanuel Macron has resisted putting a third national lockdown in place.

It has been a calculated gamble, with Mr. Macron hoping that he could tighten restrictions just enough to stave off a new surge of infections without resorting to the more severe rules in place in many other European countries.

The strategy has largely worked, but infection rates remain at a stubbornly high level of about 20,000 new cases per day. Officials have made it clear that the existing national restrictions would not be loosened and that more local lockdowns could be enforced in the coming days.

The French Riviera, which includes the city of Nice, has the country’s highest infection rate, and officials have grown increasingly alarmed as they surged to 600 cases per week per 100,000 residents — about three times the national rate.

“The epidemic situation has sharply deteriorated,” Bernard Gonzalez, a regional official for the Alpes-Maritimes area, said on Monday as he announced the lockdown, which will affect the coastal area between the cities of Menton and Théoule-sur-Mer.

Officials said that controls at the border with Italy, in airports and on roads would be toughened and that the police would carry out random coronavirus tests. New measures also include a closure of all larger shops and an acceleration of the vaccination campaign.

Infection rates surged as many French people flocked to the coast, attracted by the temperate Mediterranean weather as they sought to escape gloomy cities like Paris.

“We will be happy to receive lots of tourists this summer, once we win this battle,” Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, said last week. “But it is better to have a period while we say ‘Do not come here, this is not the moment.’”

President John Magufuli of Tanzania in 2016. Having cast doubt on coronavirus vaccines and other measures to curb the spread of the pandemic, he is now changing course.
Credit…Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

NAIROBI, Kenya — Officially, Tanzania has not reported a single coronavirus case since April 2020. According to government data, the country has had only 509 positive cases and 21 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Almost no one believes those numbers to be credible. But they fit with President John Magufuli’s declaration that the pandemic was “finished.”

Now, facing criticism from the World Health Organization and skepticism from the public as Tanzanians take to social media to voice concern about a growing number of “pneumonia” cases, Mr. Magufuli is changing course and asking people to take precautions against the coronavirus and wear masks.

Speaking during a church service in the port city of Dar es Salaam, the president asked congregants to continue praying for the disease to go away but also urged them to follow “advice from health experts.”

In a statement released by his office, Mr. Magufuli said his government had never barred people from wearing masks but urged them to use only those made in Tanzania.

“The masks imported from outside the country are suspected of being unsafe,” the statement said.

Mr. Magufuli’s comments come a day after the director-general of the World Health Organization urged the country to start reporting coronavirus cases and share data.

Mr. Magufuli, 61, who was re-elected last October, has derided social distancing, publicized unproven treatments as a cure for the virus, questioned the efficacy of coronavirus testing kits supplied by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said that “vaccines don’t work.”

Yet health experts, religious entities and foreign embassies have issued warnings about the rising number of cases — and as deaths follow, the reality is harder to dismiss.

The vice president of the semiautonomous island of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died last week after contracting the virus, according to his political party. The United States Embassy in Tanzania also said in a statement it was “aware of a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases” since January.

Lawmakers are increasingly asking the health authorities to explain why so many people were dying from respiratory problems.

Speaking on Friday at the funeral of a government official, however, Mr. Magufuli said that citizens should put God first and not be instilled with fear about the virus.

“It is possible that we wronged God somewhere,” he said. “So let’s stand with God, my fellow Tanzanians.”

In his statement, the W.H.O. chief, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he had spoken to “several authorities” in the country about their plans to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus but had yet to receive any response.

“This situation remains very concerning,” he said.

Originally from Lebanon, Tarek Wazzan is against any vaccines. He is the owner of Lebanese Eatery, a restaurant in Port Richmond. Before the pandemic, Wazzan refused to vaccinate his children and subsequently was not able to send them to school so they are home-schooled.
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Around the United States, the vaccine rollout has reflected the same troubling inequalities as the pandemic’s death toll, leaving Black, Latino and poorer people at a disadvantage. In New York City, home to more than three million immigrants from all over the world, data released last week suggests that vaccination rates in immigrant enclaves scattered across the five boroughs are among the city’s lowest.

This month, The New York Times interviewed 115 people living in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods about the rollout and their attitudes toward the vaccines.

Only eight people said they had received a shot. The interviews revealed language and technology roadblocks: Some believed there were no vaccine sites nearby. Others described mistrust in government officials and the health care system. Many expressed fears about vaccine safety fomented by news reports and social media.

The broader public may find it difficult to understand why people in communities ravaged by the coronavirus would be reluctant to line up to get vaccinated, said Marcella J. Tillett, the vice president of programs and partnerships at the Brooklyn Community Foundation.

“This is where there has been a lot of illness and death,” said Ms. Tillett, whose foundation is distributing funds to social service organizations for vaccine education and outreach. “The idea that people are just going to step out and trust a system that has harmed them is nonsensical.”

To be sure, thousands of immigrant New Yorkers have gotten vaccinated, navigating the system with patience, if not ease. Others have relied on social service organizations. BronxWorks recently held a five-day vaccine pop-up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, administering hundreds of shots each day.

To increase participation in immigrant enclaves and communities of color, the city has opened vaccine mega-sites at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and Citi Field in Queens, which offer vaccinations to eligible residents of each borough. (There have been reports of suburbanites coming in to claim doses.)

The state is holding online “fireside chats” in several languages, opening new sites in Brooklyn and Queens, and continuing to bring pop-up sites to neighborhood organizations.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would boost bus service to the two new vaccine sites from public housing projects and community centers in Brooklyn and Queens to better serve Black, Latino and poorer New Yorkers who are most vulnerable to the virus.

Still, obstacles remain.

Shipping delays related to winter storms last week left New York City with fewer than 1,000 first doses of a coronavirus vaccine on hand, but the city expects to get a new shipment on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. All the doses the city had been expecting last week should arrive by Wednesday, officials said.

The stall in deliveries interrupted the city’s vaccination effort, with officials halting the scheduling of appointments as they awaited fresh supplies.

“We basically lost a full week in our vaccination efforts,” Mr. de Blasio said.

So far, New York City has administered more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine. Mr. de Blasio wants to have at least five million New Yorkers vaccinated by June.

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Biden Changes Paycheck Protection Rules for Small Businesses

President Biden announced on Monday several changes to the Paycheck Protection Program loan rules, including a 14-day freeze on loans to companies with 20 or more employees.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, 400,000 small businesses have closed — 400,000 — and millions more are hanging by a thread. It’s hurting Black, Latino and Asian-American communities the hardest. But when the Paycheck Protection Program was passed, a lot of these mom-and-pop businesses got muscled out of the way by bigger companies who jumped in front of the line. On Wednesday, the Small Business Administration is going to establish a 14-day exclusive P.P.P. loan application period for businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 20 employees. Small Business Administration will also remove barriers that have stopped many businesses from being able to apply for these loans. For example, we’re making it so that a student loan default or a non-fraud related criminal record does not prohibit someone from applying for the program. We’re also making it easier for those one-person businesses like the home repair contractors, beauticians, small independent retailers, to secure forgiveable P.P.P. loans. Getting our economy back means bringing our small businesses back. And that’s what we’re going to do.

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President Biden announced on Monday several changes to the Paycheck Protection Program loan rules, including a 14-day freeze on loans to companies with 20 or more employees.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Aiming to steer more federal aid to the smallest and most vulnerable businesses, the Biden administration is altering the Paycheck Protection Program’s rules, increasing the amount sole proprietors are eligible to receive.

But that change — along with a 14-day freeze on loans to companies with 20 or more employees — is yet another rework that poses logistical hurdles for lenders.

The change involves a program rule that could make a P.P.P. loan far more attractive to solo ventures that employ just the owner, like sole proprietorships and independent contractors. Previously, the aid program based the size of the loan on the annual profit these kinds of companies reported on their taxes. That made unprofitable businesses ineligible for aid and left thousands of other applicants with tiny loans — some as small as $1.

The new formula, which Small Business Administration officials said would be released soon, will focus instead on gross income. That calculation, which is made before many expenses are deducted, will make many more businesses eligible for loans and increase the size of the loans available to others.

In brief remarks on Monday afternoon, President Biden cast the shifts in the program as a salve for hard-hit business owners who have struggled to benefit from the government’s aid efforts thus far.

“Getting our economy back means bringing our small businesses back,” Mr. Biden said. He also called on Congress to pass his American Rescue Plan, which is on track to pass the House this week and includes $50 billion for hard-hit small businesses — though no additional money for P.P.P.

Mr. Biden said the program would still expire at the end of March, even with the two-week pause on applications for all but the smallest businesses, which will take effect on Wednesday.

Mr. Biden said the freeze would allow more government resources to be devoted to helping the kinds of small businesses that don’t have employees dedicated to navigating the loan process.

The current edition of the P.P.P. program was approved as part of December’s economic relief package, in which Congress allocated $284 billion to restart the aid program. Banks and other financiers, which make the government-backed loans, have disbursed $134 billion to 1.8 million businesses since lending resumed last month. The money is intended to be forgiven if recipients comply with the program’s rules.

Companies with up to 500 workers are generally eligible for the loans, although second-draw loans — available to those whose sales dropped 25 percent or more in at least one quarter since the coronavirus pandemic began — are limited to companies with 300 or fewer employees.

The agency is also changing several other program rules to expand eligibility. Those with recent felony convictions not tied to fraud will now be able to apply, as will those who are delinquent or in default on federal student loan debt. The agency also updated its guidance to clarify that business owners who are not United States citizens but lawful residents are eligible for loans.

The changes, Mr. Biden said, “will bring much-needed long overdue help to small businesses who really need help staying open, maintaining jobs and making ends meet, and this is a starting point, not the ending point.”

People waiting to receive the Moderna vaccine in San Diego last month.
Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

A coronavirus testing campaign in San Francisco has found more evidence that a variant first observed in California may be more contagious.

Looking at more than 600 cases in one of the city’s predominantly Latino communities, scientists found that the proportion of virus samples carrying this variant greatly increased from late November to late January.

Although the study was relatively small, and no one knows whether the variant affects the effectiveness of vaccines, “this is not the time to let down the guard,” said Joe DeRisi, the co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub and one of the scientists involved in the new study. A more contagious variant could threaten to reverse the decline in cases seen over the past couple of months in California and elsewhere.

The results were announced on Monday by the University of California at San Francisco, which carried out the research in collaboration with the ​Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the ​Latino Task Force for Covid-19. The data have not yet been published.

The variant first came to light on Jan. 17, when the California Department of Public Health reported that it had become noticeably common in several communities across the state. The variant, which has gone by several names, is now known as B.1.429.

The variant might have become common in one of two ways. It might be more contagious, or it might simply have gone through a superspreading event, fueling its spread. “Just by random chance, a bad wedding or choir practice can create a large frequency difference,” Dr. DeRisi said.

Soon after the announcement, researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported that B.1.429 was rapidly becoming more common around that city. But those findings were based on a limited sample of just 185 coronavirus genomes that had been fully sequenced.

To get more samples, Dr. DeRisi and his colleagues focused their efforts on the predominantly Latino community in the Mission District neighborhood. There they have been running a community testing program since last April, called Unidos en Salud​.

Looking at their samples from late November, the researchers found that 16 percent of the coronaviruses belonged to B.1.429. By January, after sequencing 630 genomes, the team found 53 percent were B.1.429.

Because the researchers were running their tests in a community, they could investigate how the B.1.429 variant spread from person to person. In some cases, entire families came to get tested. In other cases, the researchers followed up on positive tests to ask if they could test other people in the same household. The researchers studied the spread of B.1.429 and other variants in 326 households.

The researchers found that B.1.429 was more likely to spread among people living in the same house than other variants were. People had a 35 percent chance of getting infected if someone else in their home was infected with the B.1.429 variant. If the person was infected with another variant, the rate was only 26 percent.

“What we see is a modest, but meaningful difference,” Dr. DeRisi said.

A nursing home employee got a coronavirus vaccination in Versailles, France, this month. France trails neighbors like Germany and Italy in the proportion of people vaccinated. 
Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

As France raced to complete a complex blueprint in December for vaccinating its population, the government quietly issued millions of euros in contracts to the consulting giant McKinsey & Company.

The contracts, which were not initially disclosed to the public, were intended to help ensure that vaccines would make their way quickly to distribution points for nursing homes, health care providers and the elderly. Additional contracts were hastily awarded to other consultants, including Accenture and two firms based in France.

But within weeks, the country’s vaccination campaign was being derided for being far too slow. In early January, France had inoculated only “several thousand people,” according to the health minister, compared with 230,000 in Germany and more than 110,000 in Italy.

As the consulting contracts came to light, McKinsey has become a magnet for controversy in a country where an elite civil service is expected to manage public affairs, and private-sector involvement is viewed with wariness.

The contracts — totaling 11 million euros ($13.3 million), of which €4 million went to McKinsey — were confirmed by a parliamentary committee this month. The government of President Emmanuel Macron, which has been under fire for months for stumbling in its handling of the pandemic, was forced to admit it had turned to consulting firms.

On Wednesday, 18 lawmakers from the conservative party Les Républicains sent a letter to Mr. Macron seeking further answers about why McKinsey was hired.

The letter cited McKinsey’s recent agreement to pay nearly $600 million to the authorities in the United States to settle claims that it contributed to “the devastating opioid crisis” as a concern for its involvement in French health matters.

A spokesman for McKinsey declined to comment.

Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, came into office promising to operate one of Europe’s biggest governments with greater efficiency. Its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized inside France for being the opposite, with repeated lockdowns, supply shortages and a failure last summer to put in place a critical triptych of testing, tracing and isolation.

No one is accusing McKinsey of wrongdoing. The company has rolled out its pandemic consulting services in other countries, including Britain and the United States. But to critics of the French government’s strategy, the performance raises questions over the value that consultants add to the process.

Frédéric Pierru, a sociologist and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research who has studied the impact of consulting firms, said that the companies tended to import operating models used in other industries that weren’t always effective in public health.

“It’s too early to tell if McKinsey and others are adding value in this campaign,” he said. “But I think we’ll never really know.”

Signs set up in Washington last month called for more support for small businesses.
Credit…Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When the Paycheck Protection Program began last year, the Trump administration — eager to get money out the door as quickly as possible — eliminated most of the safeguards that normally accompany business loans. With applications approved almost instantly, thieves and ineligible borrowers siphoned billions of dollars from the $523 billion the program distributed last year.

In December, Congress approved $284 billion for a new round of lending, including second loans to the hardest-hit businesses. This time, the Small Business Administration was determined to crack down. Instead of immediately approving applications from banks, it held them for a day or two to verify some information.

That caused — or exposed — a cascade of problems. Formatting applications in ways that will pass the agency’s automated vetting has been a challenge for some lenders, and many have had to revise their technology systems almost daily to keep up with adjustments to the agency’s system. False red flags, which can require time-consuming human intervention to fix, remain a problem.

The problems can be even more complicated for applicants seeking second loans who flew through the process the first time despite errors that are being discovered only now.

Nearly 5 percent of the 5.2 million loans made last year had “anomalies,” the agency said last month, ranging from minor mistakes like typos to major ones like ineligibility. Even tiny mistakes can spiral into bureaucratic disasters.

In mid-February, the agency began allowing lenders to essentially override many of its error flags and self-certify the eligibility of borrowers tangled in red tape. It also has a dedicated help line for lenders, but that, too, has been overwhelmed.

Lenders and government officials believe the program’s funding will be enough to meet demand. The first Paycheck Protection Program ran out of funding in less than two weeks. This time, more than one month in, the program has disbursed less than half of the available money.

But the clock is ticking: Lending is scheduled to end March 31. That deadline has spooked some borrowers who fear they will not get their problems resolved in time.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, receiving the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine on Monday.
Credit…Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and other top officials received the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine on Monday as the semiautonomous Chinese territory prepares to begin its mass inoculation campaign this week.

Hong Kong has made deals to buy 7.5 million doses each of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, more than enough to inoculate its population of 7.5 million people. While the Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines have both been authorized by the Hong Kong government, AstraZeneca is still awaiting approval.

Widespread vaccinations are set to begin on Friday, with health care workers, people over 60, and nursing home residents and staff members receiving them first. But the Hong Kong public has shown growing hesitancy toward vaccines, with one survey last month showing that more than half of respondents did not plan to get vaccinated. An even larger proportion of residents said they would not take the Sinovac shot, which was developed by a private Chinese company and has faced scrutiny over a lack of data from late-stage clinical trials.

Mrs. Lam has urged all Hong Kong residents to get vaccinated and said that they would be able to choose which vaccine they receive.

Unlike Mrs. Lam and many other world leaders, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has not publicly received a vaccination. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined to say whether Mr. Xi or the premier, Li Keqiang, had been vaccinated. But she noted that officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries had publicly received the Sinovac vaccine.

Separately, the Philippines said on Monday that it had granted emergency use authorization for the Sinovac vaccine, with the first shipment of 600,000 doses set to arrive within days. Eric Domingo, director of the Food and Drug Administration, said that because the Sinovac vaccine had a lower efficacy rate among health care workers at risk of exposure to the virus, it was not recommended for that group, local news outlets reported. It is the third coronavirus vaccine to be approved in the Philippines, after Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

A vaccination center in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Monday. Officials said they had set a goal of administering 10,000 shots a day.
Credit…Vassil Donev/EPA, via Shutterstock

When vaccines arrived this winter in Bulgaria, which had one of the highest excess mortality rates in Europe, the authorities hoped people would clamor for a shot.

Instead, they were greeted by many with a shrug and skepticism.

Just 1.4 percent of the nation’s seven million people have been inoculated with the first dose, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

The rollout of mass vaccination programs has been slow in many parts of Europe, but Bulgaria is lagging even further behind.

In an effort to speed up progress, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov called for “green corridors” allowing anyone who wanted a vaccination to get one, regardless of whether they were in a priority group under the country’s vaccination plan.

The goal was to administer around 10,000 shots per day, he said. The reaction appears to be better than expected: The lines evoked the period of communist rule, when people would spend hours waiting to get basic supplies like oil or meat.

Since Friday, 30,000 people received their first vaccination, according to data provided by the health ministry.

In comparison, around 120,000 total doses have been administered since vaccination campaign began in December.

Apostol Dyankov, a 38-year-old environmental expert in Sofia, received his shot on Sunday.

“I spent the weekend, browsing Twitter to figure out where this was for real,” he said. “The news was so unexpected that I couldn’t believe it’s actually happening. The lines I saw on the news reminded me of socialist times, when a store would receive a shipment of bananas.”

Donka Popopa, an owner of a construction business, described a chaotic scene at a vaccination site in Plovdiv, the country’s second-largest city, where medical workers were vaccinating all comers.

“We waited for several hours, even though we were told to come in the morning,” she said, adding that it had been difficult to figure out whether and when her employees were eligible for vaccination.

The health minister, Kostadin Angelov, told reporters in Sofia on Sunday that the turnout was a triumph.

“I would like to thank all the people who believed in science,” he said. “To those who have not been vaccinated, I would like to say something loud and clear: Bulgarians, hope is in your hands, the decision is yours. Please, trust the science, trust the doctors.”

Officials acknowledge, however, that maintaining the early burst of enthusiasm will be a challenge.

Credit…Maxime Mouysset

The U.S. economy remains mired in a pandemic winter of shuttered storefronts, high unemployment and sluggish job growth. But on Wall Street and in Washington, attention is shifting to an intriguing if indistinct prospect: a post-Covid boom.

In recent weeks, economists have begun to talk of a supercharged rebound that brings down unemployment, drives up wages and may foster years of stronger growth, Ben Casselman reports for The Times.

There are hints that the economy has turned a corner: Retail sales jumped last month. New unemployment claims have declined from early January, though they remain high. Measures of business investment have picked up.

Economists surveyed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia this month predicted that U.S. output will increase 4.5 percent this year, which would make it the best year since 1999. Economists at Goldman Sachs forecast that the economy will grow 6.8 percent this year and that the unemployment rate will drop to 4.1 percent by December, a level that took eight years to achieve after the last recession.

The growing optimism stems from several factors. Coronavirus cases are falling. The vaccine rollout is gaining steam. And largely because of trillions of dollars in federal help, the economy appears to have made it through last year with less structural damage — in the form of business failures, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies — than many people feared last spring.

Lastly, consumers are sitting on a trillion-dollar mountain of cash, a result of months of lockdown-induced saving and successive rounds of stimulus payments.

“There will be this big boom as pent-up demand comes through and the economy is opening,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist for Morgan Stanley. “There is an awful lot of buying power that we’ve transferred to households to fuel that pent-up demand.”

Bottles of disinfectant sit on a table at Hickory Hills Elementary School in Marietta, Ga.
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Coronavirus clusters at six elementary schools in Georgia resulted from poor social distancing and, to a lesser extent, inadequate mask use by students, public health officials reported on Monday.

Teachers played a role in transmitting the virus in all but one of the clusters, and two of the clusters probably involved teacher-to-teacher transmission that was followed by teacher to student transmission, the study found.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined nine clusters of three or more linked infections involving teachers and students in Cobb County, Ga., between Dec. 1 and Jan. 22, a period when the county, in suburban Atlanta, was experiencing a surge in cases.

Some 2,600 elementary school students — about 80 percent of the district’s total — were going to school in person at the time, and some 700 staff members were working in person.

The researchers identified transmission clusters involving 13 educators and 32 students at six schools in the county; some schools had more than one cluster.

In four of the nine clusters, an educator was identified as the index patient, or original source of infection. One cluster had a student as the index patient, and the researchers could not determine who the index patient was in the rest.

The study was limited in many ways, the investigators conceded. They said it was “challenging” to try to distinguish between infections acquired at school and those that were acquired in the community.

Some clusters may have been missed, they said, because almost half the people who were identified through contact tracing as having possibly been exposed refused to be tested.

Because infected adults are more likely to have symptoms and be tested, teachers may have been identified more frequently than students as index cases, the researchers said, while instances of student-to-student or student-to-teacher transmission may have gone undetected.

Even so, the authors said, their findings were consistent with studies in other countries. One in Britain found that transmission at schools happened most often from teacher to teacher; a German study found that in-school transmission rates were three times as high when the cluster began with an educator, rather than a student.

The C.D.C. investigators urged teachers to follow precautions to prevent coronavirus infection when they are not in school, and to limit their interactions with colleagues at meetings and over lunch.

They also called for teachers to be vaccinated. “Although not a requirement for reopening schools, adding Covid-19 vaccination for educators as an additional mitigation measure, when available, might serve several important functions, including protecting educators at risk for severe Covid-19 associated illness, potentially reducing in school SARS-CoV-2 transmission and minimizing interruption to in-person learning,” the researchers said.

The Biden inauguration’s memorial for the 400,000 lives lost to the coronavirus in the United States. On the day after his inauguration, President Biden said that the memorial would not be the country’s last and projected that “the death toll will likely top 500,000” in February.
Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to have a moment of silence during a candle lighting ceremony at the White House this evening to remember the nearly 500,000 people in the country who have died from Covid-19. They will ask Americans to join them.

Mr. Biden will also call for lowering federal flags to half-staff for the next five days, when the number of deaths is expected to pass the somber milestone. About 100,000 of these deaths have occurred since Jan. 18.

“Tonight’s events, including the president’s remarks, will highlight the magnitude of loss at this milestone marked for the American people and so many families across the country,” Jennifer Psaki, the White House press secretary, said during a briefing Monday afternoon. “It will also speak to the power of the American people to turn the tide on this pandemic by working together, following public health guidelines and getting in line to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.”

Even as the number of deaths each day remains high, there are signs of improvement across the country. Since mid-January, the number of U.S. hospitalizations has steadily and swiftly declined. And the number of new cases has decreased more than 40 percent over the past two weeks and is down 70 percent since its high point on Jan. 8, according to a New York Times database.

Experts credit the declines, in part, to widespread mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccinations. About 12 percent of people in the country have received at least one vaccine dose, and about 5 percent are fully vaccinated.

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