Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

A reporter in South Africa shares her experience with the country’s battle with AIDS.,


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This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

The coronavirus pandemic has now claimed five million lives globally, although experts say that number is almost certainly an undercount. As we pass this bleak milestone, we asked our colleague Lynsey Chutel, based in Johannesburg, to reflect on the legacy of another pandemic.

Summer is approaching in South Africa, and like the purple jacaranda trees blossoming all over Johannesburg, the country is yearning to open up. South Africa has been under varying levels of lockdown since March 2020, and has had the highest number of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Africa.

It is not the first time in recent memory that a pandemic has made South Africans face our collective mortality. In the early 2000s, South Africa was at the center of the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic. If the coronavirus turned our world upside down in less than two years, H.I.V./AIDS shook South Africa’s foundation for more than a decade.

The two pandemics moved at very different speeds through society, creeping into every aspect of the culture. While the coronavirus pandemic quickly ripped through the world, AIDS moved stealthily, quietly killing thousands before doctors and officials could decide how to respond.

The lessons from the earlier pandemic helped to inform South Africa’s fight against Covid-19. Many of the scientists who have led the response were the same faces we saw trying to make sense of H.I.V./AIDS. Covid also primed South African society to more readily accept a science-based response. While misinformation has still been common, it was not as widespread as it was two decades ago, when the country’s health minister suggested that fruit and vegetables could be used to treat AIDS.

Death from AIDS often took many months or years. At funerals, few dared to name the cause of death, which carried a heavy stigma. By contrast, Covid-19 deaths were often quick and lonely, with victims isolated in hospital rooms away from friends and family. By December, as South Africa struggled to contain a second wave driven by the Beta variant, which was first discovered here, we learned how to mourn in small, muted funerals.

In both pandemics, fresh graves mushroomed. During the second and third waves of the coronavirus pandemic, the sprawl of cemeteries felt relentless, as my colleague, veteran photographer Joao Silva, has documented. Silva was also in South Africa years ago to document the AIDS crisis.

This is also why the pace at which vaccines have arrived has been reassuring. About 21 percent of South Africans have been vaccinated. And although fewer than 6 percent of Africans have been fully vaccinated, this is still faster than the arrival of antiretroviral drugs in Africa during the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic.

“With H.I.V. there was no political will,” said Sibongile Tshabalala, the chairwoman of the Treatment Action Campaign, the group that lobbied for access to H.I.V./AIDS drugs. Although some of the stigma against AIDS remains, she said that this time the government has worked hard to acquire Covid-19 vaccines, with limited but tangible success.

Scientists have warned that we may never be fully rid of Covid-19. But by ensuring that the lessons of the past do not go unheeded, South Africa seems better equipped to handle the public health disasters of the present — and of the future.

About 9,000 unvaccinated New York City municipal employees were placed on unpaid leave today.

The Police Department estimated that as many as 2,500 employees out of its staff of 55,000 would be placed on leave, but officials were confident they could manage the absences. The Sanitation Department put workers on 12-hour shifts and told many to plan to come in on Sundays.

An additional 12,000 workers, including about 6,500 police officers, have applied for a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine. They are allowed to continue to work, while being tested weekly, until their cases are decided.

The vaccine mandate has been especially contentious within the Fire Department. More than 2,000 New York City firefighters — out of a total uniformed force of about 11,000 — have taken sick days over the past week in what city officials describe as a large-scale protest against the mandate.

Some 91 percent of municipal workers had gotten at least one shot by Monday, the mayor said. About 84 percent of the Police Department had received at least one dose of the vaccine, up from 70 percent on Oct. 19.

In Chicago: A judge blocked a vaccine mandate for police officers until the issue can be addressed in arbitration.

What to Know About Covid-19 Booster Shots

The F.D.A. has authorized booster shots for millions of recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna recipients who are eligible for a booster include people 65 and older, and younger adults at high risk of severe Covid-19 because of medical conditions or where they work. Eligible Pfizer and Moderna recipients can get a booster at least six months after their second dose. All Johnson & Johnson recipients will be eligible for a second shot at least two months after the first.

Yes. The F.D.A. has updated its authorizations to allow medical providers to boost people with a different vaccine than the one they initially received, a strategy known as “mix and match.” Whether you received Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer-BioNTech, you may receive a booster of any other vaccine. Regulators have not recommended any one vaccine over another as a booster. They have also remained silent on whether it is preferable to stick with the same vaccine when possible.

The C.D.C. has said the conditions that qualify a person for a booster shot include: hypertension and heart disease; diabetes or obesity; cancer or blood disorders; weakened immune system; chronic lung, kidney or liver disease; dementia and certain disabilities. Pregnant women and current and former smokers are also eligible.

The F.D.A. authorized boosters for workers whose jobs put them at high risk of exposure to potentially infectious people. The C.D.C. says that group includes: emergency medical workers; education workers; food and agriculture workers; manufacturing workers; corrections workers; U.S. Postal Service workers; public transit workers; grocery store workers.

Yes. The C.D.C. says the Covid vaccine may be administered without regard to the timing of other vaccines, and many pharmacy sites are allowing people to schedule a flu shot at the same time as a booster dose.

Our colleague Jessica Grose, who recently moved her coverage of parenting from the newsroom to the Opinion desk, has been looking into when — or if — schools should stop requiring children to wear masks.

“Because the masking issue has been so divisive, I fear we haven’t been able to have a practical, nuanced and data-driven conversation about what a good masking policy would look like now that nearly all school-age kids can soon be vaccinated,” she wrote.

Some experts believe that school masks are still necessary, especially to protect immunocompromised children and those under 5. But others point out that there is a cost to children wearing masks — especially those with speech difficulties, autism or sensory challenges.

“We need to figure this out,” Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who studies the airborne transmission of viruses, told Jessica. “The vaccine should change things for us, and we don’t want kids to wear masks in school indefinitely.”

We encourage you to read Jessica’s piece in full, but here are a few key takeaways:

  • Set a date: Some experts suggested beginning to lift mask mandates after children have time to get both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. (That’s about eight weeks after authorization.) Marr suggested waiting until after the holidays, when kids could pick up other bugs. Others proposed tracking variants before laying out a timeline.

  • Flexibility: Some experts espoused data-driven mask policies based on the level of virus spread in communities. Nevada has both an off-ramp and an on-ramp for school masking, contingent on surges and case numbers.

  • A measure of certainty: Concrete benchmarks are necessary to ground a community after a shaky year. Parents are suffering from decision fatigue, and a promise of certainty could make the present feel less stressful.

In general, though, experts were unanimous in urging parents to vaccinate their children.

“Every person I spoke to said children 5 and up should get the vaccine,” Jessica wrote. “Maybe the carrot of mask-free schools will inspire some more hesitant families to get their children vaccinated.”

Related: A White House official said the Pfizer pediatric vaccination program is set to be “at full strength” next week.

My son graduated from college during the pandemic in 2020 and managed to get a job working virtually for a tech company. After a few months, and many dozens of Zoom sessions with his new colleagues, one of his online calls began with a team-building exercise in the form of the game, “Two truths and a lie.” My son told two truths about himself and, having never met any of his fellow employees in person, chose as his lie: “I’m 6 foot 8.” Apparently, Zoom can be deceptive because none of his co-workers knew that was his lie.

— Robert Golden, Greenwich, Conn.

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