Covid-19 Live Updates: Booster Shots, Vaccines and Cases

Daily Covid Briefing

Sept. 25, 2021, 1:28 p.m. ET

Sept. 25, 2021, 1:28 p.m. ET

ImageA youth returning home from school in Franklin, Tenn., on Sept. 16. Gov. Bill Lee is one of several Republican governors who have sought to use executive powers to stop schools from implementing mask policies. 
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Two federal judges in Tennessee have dealt blows to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allows families to opt out of school mask mandates, ruling in separate cases on Friday that local districts could require face coverings to protect disabled children while legal challenges progress through the courts.

It was the third time in the last two weeks that a judge had suspended the governor’s order after parents of special education students filed lawsuits charging the order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Lee is one of several Republican governors who have used their executive powers to stop school districts from implementing mask policies, playing to conservative voters who regard such rules as an infringement on parental rights and personal liberties.

The debate over masks in schools has become highly politicized, as tens of millions of students across the country have returned to the classroom. Texas, Florida, Arizona and Iowa are among that states where governors have tried to ban mask requirements in direct opposition to local school leaders who want them.

President Biden’s administration has waded into the fray. The federal Education Department is investigating orders issued by governors in seven states, including Tennessee, to determine if allowing parents to ignore mask mandates for their children discriminates against students with disabilities by restricting their access to education.

The same legal theory is at the heart of the lawsuits in Tennessee. Earlier this month, the Knox County Board of Education had voted against requiring masks in its schools, bucking guidance from local and federal health officials. The following day, families who have children with disabilities filed a class-action lawsuit, arguing that the school board’s decision did not create a safe, in-person learning environment for children during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer, of the Eastern District of Tennessee, ruled that schools in Knox County must enforce a mask rule in order to help protect children with health problems while the lawsuit is pending. He prohibited the governor from imposing his order until the legal battle is settled.

A similar decision was handed down by U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the Middle District of Tennessee, who said on Friday that schools in Williamson County and in the Franklin Special School District can enforce mask mandates, also blocking the governor’s order.

Both school systems implemented strict mask policies through at least January of next year to combat surging infections in their districts, but Mr. Lee’s order, issued on Aug. 16, forced the school officials to amend their rules to let students forgo masks, no questions asked. Once again, parents of special education students filed a lawsuit, arguing that letting some students ignore the mask rules violated the rights of special education children.

Last week, a third federal judge, this time in the Western part of the state, indefinitely blocked the governor’s order in Shelby County, saying it was an impediment to children with health problems from safely going to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lee’s order is set to expire on Oct. 5, and he told reporters that he has not yet decided whether to renew it. A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Justin Gilbert, a lawyer representing parents who filed suits in Knox, Williamson and Franklin counties, said that three federal judges “have saved children from an Executive Order built on wedge-issue politics, not on science.”

Jack Begg contributed research. Erica Green contributed reporting.

Credit…Katie Currid for The New York Times

School mask mandates have generated controversy in many parts of the country. Now, two studies, published on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provide additional evidence that masks protect children from the coronavirus, even when community rates are high and the contagious Delta variant is circulating.

One study, conducted in Arizona, where children returned to school in July, found that schools that did not require staff and students to wear masks were 3.5 times as likely to have a virus outbreak as schools that required universal masking.

A second study looked at infections among all children in 520 different counties across the United States, and found that once the public school year started, pediatric cases increased at a far higher rate in counties where schools did not require masks.

The first study analyzed data on about 1,000 public schools in Maricopa and Pima counties, which include the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson, and account for most of the state’s population.

Only 21 percent of the schools implemented a universal mask mandate upon opening, and nearly half had no mask requirement at all. Another roughly 30 percent enacted a mask requirement about 15 days after school started.

Between July 15 and Aug. 31, there were 191 school-associated virus outbreaks that occurred about a week after school started. The majority of them — 113 outbreaks, or nearly 60 percent of the total — occurred in schools with no mask requirement.

Only 16 outbreaks, or 8 percent of the total, took place in schools that implemented mask requirements regardless of vaccination status from the start. There were 62 outbreaks, or about one-third of the total amount, in schools that implemented a mask requirement after the school year had already started.

The study defined an outbreak as two or more positive confirmed cases of infection among staff or students within a 14-day period.

“The school year starts very early in Arizona, in mid-July, so we had the advantage of being able to get an early look at data for the new school year a bit sooner than was possible for the rest of the country, which was important, because of the transmission of the Delta variant,” said J. Mac McCullough, associate professor at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study.

The C.D.C. recommends a layered approach to preventing coronavirus outbreaks in schools — masking, distancing, staying home when sick and vaccination for those eligible. “This study really shines a lens on the masking part of that,” Dr. McCullough said.

The second study looked at the association between school mask policies in a given county and communitywide infections among children, finding that counties with no school mask requirement experienced a larger uptick in pediatric case rates after the start of school than counties with school mask requirements.

Between the week before school started and the second week of school, the number of pediatric infections increased by 35 cases per 100,000 in counties without mask requirements, while the number increased by 16 cases per 100,000 population in counties with school mask requirements.

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been temporarily blocked from enforcing a vaccine mandate for nearly all adults in New York City public school buildings, after a federal appeals court granted a temporary injunction on Friday.

The mandate, which affects well over 150,000 people working in the nation’s largest school system, was set to go into effect on Monday at midnight. Educators, parents and union officials have been bracing for the likelihood of staffing shortages and disruption in at least some schools where significant numbers of educators and staff members are not vaccinated.

A judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted the injunction on a temporary basis and referred the case to a panel of three judges for review. City officials said they expected the review and ruling to take place in the next few days, possibly even over the weekend, and anticipated that the mandate would be upheld. But it is not clear if the issue will be resolved before the Monday deadline.

Last week, a State Supreme Court judge ruled that the city could move forward with the mandate, after considering a separate but similar lawsuit filed by a coalition of unions that represents employees in public schools. The judge, Laurence Love, said state and federal courts have consistently upheld mandatory vaccination orders.

And on Thursday, a federal judge in Brooklyn, Brian M. Cogan, declined to grant the injunction sought by a group of teachers, calling the mandate “a rational policy decision surrounding how best to protect children during a global pandemic.” The teachers then appealed, successfully, to the Court of Appeals.

At least 90 percent of teachers and 95 percent of principals are already vaccinated. The rate is lower — about 82 percent — among staff members in school buildings.

The leaders of the unions representing the city’s teachers and principals have called on Mr. de Blasio to delay the implementation of the mandate, arguing that schools are not prepared to deal with staffing crunches.

The mandate, which was announced last month, requires all educators, along with staff like custodians, school lunch helpers and safety agents to receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Monday night. It is the first vaccine mandate without a test-out option for any group of city workers.

“We’re confident our vaccine mandate will continue to be upheld once all the facts have been presented, because that is the level of protection our students and staff deserve,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Danielle Filson, said in a statement.

Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

State health officials are rushing to roll out campaigns to provide coronavirus booster shots for millions of vulnerable people who got the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and to help a confused public understand who qualifies for the extra shots.

Among their challenges: making sure that recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines know that they are not yet eligible for boosters, reaching isolated older people, and informing younger adults with medical conditions or jobs that place them at higher risk that they might be eligible under the broad federal rules.

“Those of us overseeing vaccine rollouts don’t have a clear idea of what to do,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s Covid czar.

In his state, pharmacies sent staff members into the largest nursing homes on Friday to administer booster doses. In Vermont, health officials opened booster shot appointments to people 80 and older on Friday, and said many other eligible people could get them starting next week. In virus-battered North Dakota, officials struggling to make sense of the federal guidance delayed a broad booster rollout until next week.

Many more people became eligible for boosters early Friday after the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said people at greater risk of exposure to the virus “because of occupational or institutional setting” would qualify, opening up boosters to millions of people her advisory committee had left out.

People 65 and older and residents of long-term care facilities and adults who have certain medical conditions also qualify for the boosters.

President Biden said on Friday that 20 million people could get boosters immediately because they had gotten their second Pfizer-BioNTech shot at least six months ago. In all, he said, 60 million people will be eligible for a Pfizer-BioNTech booster over the coming months.

State and federal officials said the booster program would look much different than earlier coronavirus vaccination drives, which relied heavily on mass inoculation sites at sports stadiums and convention centers. Instead, pharmacies, primary care physicians and smaller vaccination clinics that have become accustomed to offering shots will deliver boosters.

As a practical matter, the official recommendations were unlikely to deter millions of Americans who might not be eligible yet from pursuing booster doses, by claiming medical conditions or weakened immune systems. The C.D.C. said on Thursday that millions of Americans had already received an extra shot.

Credit…Tomas Ovalle for The New York Times

Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic — and weeks into another Covid-disrupted school year — school systems across the nation are struggling with the role of testing in keeping children safe and in class.

Some have gone all in on testing. Others offer no Covid testing at all. The numerous school districts in the San Antonio area reflect that stark divide.

Fox Tech High School, for example, offers weekly testing to every student and staff member. And a single positive result can prompt a contact-tracing effort that lasts for days.

But the program is largely voluntary, and despite the district’s efforts, many families have not enrolled; about 30 percent of students are participating.

But in the Boerne Independent School District, where masks are optional, testing is also optional and only available in the campus clinic by appointment.

While the district says that anyone who is sick should not come to school, symptomatic people will not be referred for testing or even sent home unless they are “unable to participate in instruction.”

Elsewhere in San Antonio, the Northside has taken a middle ground: rapid-testing students and staff members who are symptomatic, although students can only be tested if parents consent.

And about 290 miles north on San Antonio, in Grapevine, the school district’s testing center saw so much demand in early September that appointments were booked up days in advance. Amy Taldo, who runs the site, said she lacked the staff to expand. “I need an army,” she said.

Texas is a microcosm of the patchwork of programs at schools across the country.

In Illinois, for example, all public schools outside of Chicago are eligible for free SHIELD testing: weekly saliva tests developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The program was bombarded by last-minute sign-ups; as of Sept. 21, 43 percent of participating public schools opted in after Aug. 23, a SHIELD representative said.

And in Fresno, Calif., the school district has been unable to replenish its stock of rapid antigen tests and has had to cut back on its testing of student athletes as a result.

Credit…Jacques Nkinzingabo for The New York Times

KIGALI, Rwanda — Bars in Rwanda resumed operations on Friday night, almost two years since they were forced to close as part of strict measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time since March 2020, dozens of bars and alcohol stores reopened for business, bringing a frisson of life to parts of the capital, Kigali. Dressed-up friends reunited, people shared their first drinks in groups, and disc jockeys welcomed back customers. Parking spots were full at some drinking locales, and motorcycles and taxis dropped off more delighted patrons.

“It’s like a new year,” said Alex Ndahiro, a radio host who was out in Remera, a Kigali neighborhood whose trendy, reopened bars and restaurants were popular with revelers.

As a group of friends swayed to pulsating music and took selfies nearby, he added: “I am having goose bumps as we speak.”

As the coronavirus swept into the country last year, Rwanda instituted one of the most stringent lockdowns in the African continent: closing borders and businesses, suspending learning and deploying drones to not only spread anti-Covid messaging but also catch those flouting rules. The lockdown and social distancing measures curtailed economic growth, pushing Rwanda into its first recession, according to the World Bank.

While authorities eased some of those restrictions along the way, infections fueled by the Delta variant and a shortage of vaccines pushed health officials to institute tighter lockdowns.

But a recent bump in inoculations and the reduction of positivity rates pushed the cabinet this week to ease limits. As of Friday, this hilly Central African nation of 13 million people had administered Covid-19 vaccines to more than two million — and more than 1.5 million of them have had two doses. That makes Rwanda one of the few African nations that have attained the World Health Organization’s goal for countries to vaccinate 10 percent of their population by September.

To reopen bars, authorities instituted rules including requiring that there be 1.5-meters, or five feet, between seats; that handwashing services be available, and that all bar employees be masked and vaccinated.

Owere Godfrey, who manages the Skylux Lounge in Kigali, said that he was happy to comply with the regulations to be able to fully reopen. The level of restrictions still in place until Friday meant that, even though he had 300 seats at the bar and restaurant, he was only able to fill 50.

“It’s been so bad,” Mr. Godfrey said. But in the coming days and weeks, he said, he hoped that business would pick up and that he would be able to hire more workers.

“Tonight is the beginning,” he said. “It will get better. It has to get better.”

Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As he announced on Friday that booster shots would be available to some Americans, President Biden made a prediction: His administration was likely to soon provide third doses of the vaccine “across the board” to anyone who wanted one.

“In the near term, we’re probably going to open this up,” he told reporters at the White House.

That statement — a politically popular one in a country where most vaccinated people say they are eager for a booster — was the latest example of how Mr. Biden and some of his team have gotten ahead of the nation’s top public health scientists, who have emphatically said in recent days that there is simply not enough evidence that boosters are necessary for the entire American population.

Two panels of scientists — one for the Food and Drug Administration and the other for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — voted in recent days against recommending boosters for everyone after fierce public debates.

The president’s remarks were the second time in two months that he had suggested boosters would be available to everyone. And they came the same day that Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director and one of the president’s political appointees, came under fire for allowing boosters for a broader group of people than her agency’s own immunization panel recommended.

The announcements by Mr. Biden and Dr. Walensky did not sit well with all of the scientists who advise them, raising questions about the president’s pledge to always “follow the science.” Some warned that politics had intruded on scientific decisions — something that Mr. Biden had promised to avoid after the blatant pressures seen during the Trump administration.

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Benjamin Mueller from New York. Noah Weiland contributed reporting from Washington.

Renters living in apartment buildings with federally backed mortgages may get an eviction reprieve — even though a broad federal moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic expired last month.

The federal agency overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the two big government-controlled mortgage finance firms — on Friday extended the time period for those firms to grant mortgage relief to apartment owners. Landlords that accept the relief cannot evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent.

Sandra L. Thompson, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Authority, said the extension was needed given the “uncertain nature of this pandemic.” The forbearance period for apartment owners with federally backed mortgages was set to expire this month; it also includes an eviction ban.

The F.H.F.A. did not put an end date on the program, which is available to landlords showing a financial hardship because of the pandemic.

It is unclear how many owners would accept the forbearance offer and how many renters would be covered. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late August that the Biden administration could not extend the federal eviction moratorium without congressional approval, it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were in immediate danger of eviction.

The extension comes as the federal government and states are struggling to deliver $46 billion in emergency rental assistance approved earlier this year as part the administration’s pandemic relief package. The Treasury Department on Friday said that as of the end of August, it had distributed $7.7 billion in aid to more than one million households.

Fannie and Freddie do not make home loans but instead buy mortgages and package them into government-backed securities that are guaranteed in the event of default.


Credit…Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via Associated Press

Millions of Americans became eligible for booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine this week, after federal regulators recommended it for people inoculated with that vaccine more than six months ago and who fall into one of three categories: over 65; having underlying medical conditions; or working that put them at risk for infections.

Whether to include that last category was hotly debated among regulators.

On Wednesday, the Federal Drug Administration recommended booster shots for Americans in all three categories. But the following day, the Centers for Disease Control’s advisory committee on immunization practices issued its own recommendations, which excluded frontline workers.

On Friday, the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, overruled her agency’s advisers and said frontline workers should be able to get the booster shots. “This was a scientific close call,” she said told reporters at a White House briefing on Friday. “In that situation, it was my call to make.”

Dr. Walensky added that “it was a decision about providing rather than withholding access.”

President Biden on Friday welcomed Dr. Walensky’s decision and encouraged eligible people to get the booster shots. At the White House briefing, he also lamented that there were about the 70 million Americans who have chosen not to get vaccinated, and complained about what he called the “elected officials actively working to undermine with false information the fight against Covid-19.”

Here’s what else happened this week:

  • Pfizer-BioNTech announced on Monday that its vaccine had been shown to be safe and effective in low doses in children ages 5 to 11. If the F.D.A. authorizes the Pfizer vaccine for those ages, that could be a game changer for millions of American families and could help bolster the U.S. response to the highly contagious Delta variant. Vaccine uptake among older children has lagged and polling indicates that a significant number of parents have reservations about vaccinating their children.

  • A World Health Organization panel endorsed the use of a monoclonal antibody treatment for Covid patients at the greatest risk of being hospitalized or those who are not producing antibodies to fight off the disease. The expensive treatment, developed by the U.S. drug maker Regeneron and the Swiss biotech company Roche, has garnered attention as an alternative therapy for Covid-19, particularly among some who have shunned vaccines.

  • African public health experts on Thursday hailed Mr. Biden’s plan to expand global vaccine donations, but warned that his ambitious goals would not be met without timelier deliveries and greater transparency about the amount of doses sent. The continent, which has the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rate, has suffered not only from a shortage of doses but from delayed and inconsistent deliveries. African countries have still received only one-third of the doses they were promised for this year.

  • Two hosts of “The View” television show were directed to leave the set live on the air on Friday after both had apparently tested positive for the coronavirus. The hosts, Ana Navarro and Sunny Hostin, had been on the verge of introducing Vice President Kamala Harris for an in-person interview.

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