Several countries in Europe and Asia are lifting pandemic protocols. But public health experts urge caution about relaxing rules too hastily.
A number of nations are shifting their pandemic approaches. The W.H.O. warns that may be ‘premature.’
Tonga, struck by twin disasters, goes into lockdown over five virus cases.
Who’s out? The coronavirus jeopardizes some Olympic dreams.
Covid is killing people in the U.S. at far higher rates than those in other wealthy nations.
A study finds that vaccines provide robust protection against Omicron.
U.S. parents of young children, still wary, gradually accept vaccines.
Nightclubs in Denmark are reopening. Norway is dropping its coronavirus test requirements for fully vaccinated travelers to enter the country. France is ending its outdoor mask mandate. Unvaccinated Austrians are no longer confined to their homes.
Pandemic protocols are being eased in several European nations, as public support for them has waned and shifted instead to treating the virus as endemic, or a manageable part of life. Now some parts of the United States, where the Omicron wave has crested, are heading in that direction, with several state leaders saying it is time to be realistic about pandemic fatigue.
“We’re not going to manage this to zero,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said on Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” “We have to learn how to live with this.”
The Danish government has said it no longer considers Covid a “socially critical disease.” And the eased restrictions in Norway are among the world’s broadest yet. There is no longer a limit on how many people can gather at events, both indoors and outdoors. At movie theaters, churches, kindergartens and primary schools, social distancing rules are gone. Restaurants can serve drinks past 11 p.m. Colleges and universities are being urged to strive for full in-person instruction. And working from home is no longer required.
As of Tuesday, Norway has also exempted fully vaccinated travelers entering the country from Covid-19 testing requirements, becoming one of the first countries to reverse a rule that had been an integral part of international travel since the pandemic began. (Those not fully vaccinated must provide proof of a negative test taken less than 24 hours before entry and have to get tested at border crossings.) In addition, people infected with the virus but showing no symptoms need to isolate for only four days.
And on Wednesday, France moved to lift Covid restrictions, easing mandates on outdoor face masks and capacity limits for concert halls, stadiums and other events. Finland and England are also expected to phase out Covid restrictions this month.
But public health leaders at the World Health Organization have urged caution about relaxing restrictions too hastily.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general, said at a Tuesday news conference that it was “premature for any country either to surrender, or to declare victory” over the virus.
“We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines, and because of Omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary,” Dr. Tedros said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Still, as in Europe, some countries in Asia have been scaling back restrictions, including reducing or even fully cutting quarantine times. Thailand resumed quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated overseas travelers on Tuesday after a five-week suspension. After two years, the Philippines will reopen its doors to tourists from most countries on Feb. 10; fully vaccinated travelers will no longer need to quarantine in a government facility. As of Feb. 5, Hong Kong’s quarantine period for international travelers will be reduced to 14 days from 21. South Korea cut the quarantine time for incoming international travelers to seven days from 10.
Malaysia reduced the mandatory quarantine for arriving travelers who have had booster shots to five days from seven on Jan. 24. And Indonesia will open the tourist island of Bali to all international travelers on Friday.
In the United States, indoor mask mandates have recently expired in several cities, including Denver, Hartford, Baltimore and San Francisco. New York State’s mask mandate is effective through Feb. 10, and it is unclear whether it will be extended. Gov. Kathy Hochul has said no decision has been made.
Before Omicron’s arrival, Dr. Seema Lakdawala, a respiratory virus expert at the University of Pittsburgh, had estimated that masks could come off by February. Now, she said, she is surprised more states haven’t put mask mandates in place.
“I’m not sure anywhere at the moment is in a place that there is sufficient decrease in cases at least in the U.S. to warrant taking off mask mandates,” Dr. Lakdawala said, adding that she was “hopeful we’ve turned a corner” but wanted to see more weeks of the virus trending down.
The daily average of U.S. cases is down to about 424,000, falling fast but still far higher than any other period, according to a New York Times database. Nationwide, an average of about 140,000 patients with the virus are hospitalized, down from the previous two weeks, but higher than in any previous surge. Daily deaths are above 2,600, below last winter’s peak levels but rising.
When asked in December whether he would make masks mandatory, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, declared, “The emergency is over.”
— Christine Chung and John Yoon
Tonga went into lockdown on Wednesday evening after recording its first community transmission of the coronavirus, weeks after being battered by a powerful volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami. The eruption shrouded buildings in ash, swamped the island with water, cut off digital communication and prompted an international humanitarian aid effort.
Two workers who were helping to distribute aid shipments at the Tongan wharf tested positive for the virus on Tuesday, prompting Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni to announce a lockdown that night. Three more positive cases were recorded on Wednesday among relatives of the workers, who are asymptomatic and in quarantine, local news media reported.
The outbreak occurred despite efforts by countries and aid groups to deliver relief without direct contact with the island nation, which had managed until now to remain mostly coronavirus free.
The initial two cases were detected in Nuku’alofa, the capital, during routine testing of frontline wharf workers, local news media reported.
Mr. Sovaleni said at a news conference on Tuesday night that the authorities were in the process of identifying from which ship the transmission had spread.
“We are working on it, and we have the record of ships that had been here at a time that could have spread this virus. We are looking at goods that were offloaded,” he said, according to the local newspaper Matangi Tonga.
Officials in Australia said the cases were not linked to the Australian Navy ship the H.M.A.S. Adelaide, which has been stranded at Nuku’alofa since last week because of a power outage. The Australian government said that 23 crew members had tested positive for the coronavirus and were in isolation. The vessel had docked to deliver aid, and its cargo was being offloaded by machines, a United Nations spokesman said.
Greg Bilton, chief of Australia’s Defense Force, said on Wednesday that the ship had unloaded at a different wharf from the one where the two port employees worked, and that it had done so in a coronavirus-safe way.
“I don’t think there’s any connection; there’s no evidence of that,” he told Sky News.
Mr. Bilton added that the ship would return to Australia with coronavirus samples so that scientists could help the Tongan authorities identify the virus strain and trace the outbreak.
Tonga went into lockdown from 6 p.m. on Wednesday, with schools shut, mass gatherings forbidden and travel banned among the country’s 169 islands. Officials said they hoped that the lockdown, which will be reviewed every two days, would stop transmission between the capital and the other islands.
The lockdown is another blow to a nation that is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption on Jan. 15, which unleashed tsunami waves of up to 50 feet that hit several islands. The eruption damaged the country’s single fiber optic cable. Many residents are still without internet, as repairs are expected to take weeks.
Tonga previously reported one coronavirus case that emerged in quarantine last October, after the person had arrived on an Air New Zealand flight. The country requires arriving travelers to quarantine for 21 days, and about 60 percent of the population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.
— Yan Zhuang
The Beijing Olympics will open on Friday without several athletes and at least one International Olympic Committee member who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the final days before the Games.
The athletes come from a variety of sports and at least a half-dozen countries, and include at least two American medal contenders.
Elana Meyers Taylor, a three-time Olympic medalist and one of the most decorated American bobsledders in history, revealed on Tuesday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after arriving in Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Meyers Taylor, 37, who revealed her positive test in a post on Instagram, must return two negative test results to be released and to compete.
She is at least the second U.S. bobsledder affected in recent days. Josh Williamson, a member of the men’s two-man and four-man sleds, tested positive last week, part of what has been reported to be a larger outbreak involving coaches and others close to the team. “This has not been an easy pill to swallow,” Williamson wrote of missing the chance to accompany his teammates to China.
The I.O.C. member who tested positive, Emma Terho of Finland, announced her result on Instagram and said she would continue her work remotely while in isolation. Terho serves as chair of the I.O.C.’s Athletes’ Commission.
Not all of those who have tested positive but who are still feeling well are certain to miss out on their Olympic moments, however. Meyers Taylor, for example, could benefit from a schedule that won’t see her events start until later in the Games.
Among the latest cases:
Marita Kramer, an Austrian ski jumper who was expected to contend for a gold medal at the Beijing Games, will not compete because of a lingering coronavirus infection. “No words, no feelings, just emptiness,” Kramer wrote on Instagram. “Is the world really this unfair?” Kramer, 20, tested positive on Saturday and had hoped that the infection would ebb in time for her to compete this week. But the Austrian Ski Federation said Kramer had recorded another positive test after returning home and would not be able to clear China’s stringent protocols in time.
The Russian skeleton racer Nikita Tregubov, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, announced on Instagram that he had tested positive and would not travel to Beijing. He and his teammate Vladislav Semenov will be replaced on the team, the president of the Russian bobsled federation told the state news agency Tass.
An outbreak on Norway’s powerful cross-country ski teams grew to include Heidi Weng, a nine-time world medalist, and her teammate Anne Kjersti Kalva. Earlier, a coach on the men’s team tested positive, briefly sending that entire squad into isolation as close contacts.
A series of pretournament positives left the Czech men’s hockey team struggling to find enough players to practice last weekend, their coach said, and the Swiss women’s team flew to Beijing without at least two players, Alina Müller and Sinja Leemann. The coaches of both teams said they remained hopeful that their players would be cleared in time to travel and to compete. The women’s tournament begins Thursday; the men don’t play until next Wednesday.
Russia’s bobsled team arrived in Beijing with half of its four-man squad after Aleksei Pushkarev and Vasily Kondratenko recorded positive tests at a training camp in Sochi on the eve of their team’s departure. The head coach of the Russian team, Danil Chaban, said neither man would be replaced, in the hope that they would be cleared in time for the bobsled competition, which begins Feb. 13.
— Andrew Das and Alan Blinder
Two years into the pandemic, the coronavirus is killing Americans at far higher rates than people in other wealthy nations, a sobering distinction to bear as the country charts a course through the next stages of the pandemic.
The ballooning death toll has defied the hopes of many Americans that the less severe Omicron variant would spare the United States the pain of past waves. Deaths have now surpassed the worst days of the autumn surge of the Delta variant, and are more than two-thirds as high as the record tolls of last winter, when vaccines were largely unavailable.
With American lawmakers desperate to turn the page on the pandemic, as some European leaders have already begun to, the number of dead has clouded a sense of optimism, even as Omicron cases recede. And it has laid bare weaknesses in the country’s response, scientists said.
Despite having one of the world’s most powerful arsenals of vaccines, the country has failed to vaccinate as many people as other large, wealthy nations. And it has fallen even further behind in administering booster shots.
And more Americans have also come to express distrust — of the government, and of one another — in recent decades, making them less inclined to follow public health precautions like getting vaccinated or reducing their contacts during surges, said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The resulting American death toll has set the country apart — and by wider margins than has been broadly recognized. Since Dec. 1, when health officials announced the first Omicron case in the United States, the share of Americans who have been killed by the coronavirus is at least 63 percent higher than a number of other large, wealthy nations, according to a New York Times analysis of mortality figures.
The only large European countries to exceed America’s Covid death rates this winter have been Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, poorer nations where the best Covid treatments are relatively scarce.
— Benjamin Mueller and Eleanor Lutz
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be more infectious than its predecessors, but a report published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms what researchers in other countries have found: vaccines provide solid protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death, and boosters greatly multiply those benefits.
The study, which followed the fate of thousands of Los Angeles residents infected by the virus in late December and early January — a time period when Omicron eclipsed Delta — found that unvaccinated individuals were more than three times likely to get infected and 23 times more likely to be hospitalized with serious illness compared with those who were vaccinated and boosted.
Overall, nearly 3 percent of unvaccinated Angelenos infected with either virus variant between November and January were sick enough to be hospitalized, compared with .7 percent for those who were fully vaccinated and boosted, according to the study, which was conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Although cases have been declining across much of the country, an average of about 140,000 Americans remain hospitalized with Covid-19 — slightly above the pre-Omicron peak — and an average of about 2,500 people are dying each day, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
Dr. Sharon Balter, the study’s senior author, said the findings underscored the importance of getting both vaccinated and boosted. County residents who were fully vaccinated but not boosted, she noted, were roughly four times more likely to be hospitalized than those who had been vaccinated and boosted.
“When boosters were first recommended, a lot of people said, ‘Do we really need to get them?’ and I think this study clearly shows they really do make a difference,” said Dr. Balter, who leads the county health department’s division of communicable diseases.
Only about 40 percent of Americans eligible for a booster have received one, according to the C.D.C.
The study, which followed 422,000 people 18 and older who tested positive between early November and early January, offers a telling snapshot of the pandemic in the weeks when Omicron began muscling out Delta in Southern California. In the 14-day period ending Dec. 11, Delta was responsible for nearly all infections; by the week ending Jan. 8, Omicron accounted for 99 percent of new cases, according to the report.
But Delta, the authors found, caused far more severe illness. Unvaccinated residents were 83 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who had been vaccinated and boosted — nearly four times the rate of Omicron-fueled infections.
Even if Omicron is less dangerous than Delta, its ability to rapidly and efficiently infect people helped to fuel record-breaking hospitalizations. “The coronavirus isn’t going away,” Dr. Balter said, “so the best thing people can do is to get vaccinated and if you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted.”
— Andrew Jacobs
BEIJING — The strategy is audacious and stifling, and that is very much the point.
To Chinese officials, the creation of a vast bubble was their best (and maybe only) hope to stage the Olympic Games safely and preserve the kind of “zero Covid” policy that has been a priority for the government and a point of national pride.
Games organizers said they had conducted more than 500,000 tests since Jan. 23 and uncovered at least 232 virus cases, most of them as people arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport. Eleven people have been hospitalized, the authorities said.
Here is a journey through 48 hours in the Olympic bubble:
— Alan Blinder
Three in 10 parents of children younger than age five now say they intend to get their children vaccinated against the coronavirus as soon as shots become available for that age group, according to a survey published Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
That acceptance figure reflects parental caution about the shots, but also growing acceptance of vaccinating young children.
The foundation’s Vaccine Monitor, which tracks attitudes toward Covid-19 vaccines, found an uptick in parents’ willingness to have their children get the shots across all child age groups. Still, the pace of vaccination among children is much lower than health experts would like. The younger the child, the more cautious the parents, experts say.
Among parents of 12- to 17-year-olds, the foundation reported, 61 percent said their child has received at least one shot, up from 49 percent in November. Among parents of 5- to 11-year-olds, a third said their child has received at least one shot, up from 16 percent in November.
And 31 percent of parents of children younger than five said they would let their children get the shots as soon as they become available, up from 20 percent in July. Roughly a third of those parents said they would wait and see whether their children would get the shots; about one quarter said they definitely would not allow them to get vaccinated.
“Parents do seem to be proceeding with more caution when it comes to vaccinating their kids than making decisions for themselves,” said Liz Hamel, who directed the Kaiser research.
“Where parents of the under fives are right now is pretty similar to where parents of 5-to 11-year-olds were the month before it was approved for that age group,” she added.
Parents of young children will soon have to decide. On Tuesday, Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize coronavirus vaccines for children under 5 years old as a two-dose regimen while the regulators continue to research how well three doses work. Federal regulators are eager to review the data and authorize the shots on an emergency basis, perhaps by the end of February.
With children back in school amid a coronavirus surge fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant, “many parents report concerns about illness, exposures, and shutdowns,” the Kaiser researchers wrote. Four in 10 parents said they had experienced school disruptions tied to Covid-19, the survey found.
Half the parents surveyed reported being worried that their child will become seriously sick from the coronavirus, and a quarter of them said they are “very worried.”
The rate of vaccination among young children has remained lower than health experts had feared. According to another recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation based on federal data, only 19 percent of children ages 5 to 11 are now fully vaccinated, and only 28 percent have received one dose.
Ms. Hamel said the foundation dug into parents’ attitudes with a deeper survey in November. Although they did not ask about the under five group at that time — because the vaccines for them were not close to being available — attitudes among parents of 5- to 11-year-olds provided strong clues, she said.
“Parents’ confidence in the safety was lower at each lower age group,” she said. “A lot of parents were saying they didn’t have enough information, they didn’t think the vaccines had been around long enough, they wanted to see more.”
— Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, asked the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to authorize two doses of their coronavirus vaccine for children younger than 5 while the companies continue to research whether three doses would be more effective for the age group.
In a highly unusual move, federal regulators pressed the companies to submit the request even though two doses failed to produce the hoped-for immune response among children 2 to 4 years old in a clinical trial. Only children between 6 months and 2 years old demonstrated an immune response comparable to that of older teenagers and young adults, the standard for a successful trial.
The request for emergency authorization comes as the highly contagious Omicron variant has led to record numbers of infections. The under-5 group includes more than 19 million children, the only Americans not yet eligible for vaccination.
The disappointing trial results, announced in December, prompted the companies to test a third low dose of the shot in that age group. But rather than wait until the end of March for the results, federal regulators decided to encourage Pfizer to apply for authorization of a two-dose regimen now in hopes of getting a head start on the vaccination effort.
In meetings about the strategy, government officials argued that two doses had proved safe, even if they failed to produce an immune response in the whole age group, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions. Children in the trial received one-tenth of the adult dose.
If children can get an initial injection this month, some officials reasoned, they will be ready for a third dose by the time researchers get what they hope will be successful results from the three-dose trial. The first two doses would be spaced three weeks apart, followed by a third dose two months after the second.
Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting F.D.A. commissioner, and Dr. Peter Marks, an agency regulator who oversees its vaccines office, said on Tuesday that it was important to act quickly given the surge in Omicron cases, which has now peaked in many parts of the country, and the likelihood that other variants would follow.
An emergency meeting of the F.D.A.’s advisory group of outside experts is scheduled for Feb. 15, when they will discuss the request and make a recommendation. In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Paul A. Offit, a member of the group and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, suggested that regulators could be short-circuiting the normal process without a clear rationale.
Apoorva Mandavilli contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett contributed research.
— Sharon LaFraniere and Noah Weiland