Vaccines and Testing Bring U.S. Children Closer to Safe Return to School
After a school year rife with debate, online learning may soon be coming to an end. Here’s the latest on the pandemic.,
After a school year rife with debate over the safety of returning to classrooms, experts say that the United States is edging closer to a safe return to in-person learning in the fall.
First, there is continuing good news on the vaccine front. Children ages 12 to 15 recently became eligible to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the U.S. and in the European Union, and the vaccine was endorsed by Britain’s drug regulator on Friday to be used for the same age group. Moderna plans this month to ask the Food and Drug Administration to clear its vaccine for use in 12- to 17-year-olds.
For more than a year, parents across the United States have scrambled to adapt to online learning and keep their children focused. (And parents who balanced remote learning with work were the lucky ones. Many others lost their jobs, lacked adequate internet access or stopped work to tend to their families.)
A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday indicated that the hospitalization rate for Covid-19 in adolescents was about three times greater than hospitalizations linked to influenza over three recent flu seasons, lending urgency to the drive to vaccinate children. The findings run counter to claims that influenza is more threatening to children than Covid-19 is, an argument that has been used in the push to reopen schools.
“Much of this suffering can be prevented,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said in a statement. “Vaccination is our way out of this pandemic.”
Until vaccines are authorized for children of all ages, rapid antigen testing might be the best way to limit rare outbreaks of the virus, detect them early and keep schools open consistently.
There are signs that Abbott’s BinaxNOW, a widely available antigen coronavirus test, is highly sensitive in young children with symptoms of Covid-19, according to a small new study. Among children younger than 7, the test detected 100 percent of coronavirus cases, researchers write in a forthcoming paper in the journal Pediatrics.
The study, led by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, enrolled 199 children and young adults, ranging from 2 months to 20 years old. All participants had at least one symptom of Covid-19 and had been symptomatic for less than a week.
The Abbott test was somewhat less sensitive in older children, however, and generated a substantial number of false positives in children of all ages. Among children who did not have the virus, 8 to 10 percent tested positive on the antigen test, the researchers found.
“One hundred percent sensitivity in children less than seven years is excellent — outstanding,” said Dr. Alejandro Hoberman, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the senior author of the study. “The problem was the false positives.”
The findings suggest that while the test could help schools and day cares operate more safely, it might be more useful for ruling infections out than at definitively detecting them.
Experts say that more research is needed. “It is important data to have, but we need reinforcing studies that replicate what this study has done with larger numbers of children,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
Dr. Redlener expects that all children will be eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 toward the end of the year or early in 2022.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said in an interview with CNN on Thursday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that children younger than 12 would be eligible for vaccinations by Thanksgiving.
Until then, experts are confident that masks, distancing, hand washing, cleaning and ventilation — along with rapid tests — can enable a return to full-time in-person classroom settings.
Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, said that children had become comfortable with tests to the point of administering swabs themselves. “The perception of testing — that it was expensive, it took a long time, it was tickling your brain — none of that is true anymore,” she said. “We’ve made such progress on the technology.”
Having this kind of testing available everywhere, Dr. Redlener said, “should help reassure schools and parents that it’s safe to return to the classroom.”
The number of hospitalizations related to Covid-19 among adolescents in the United States was about three times greater than hospitalizations linked to influenza over three recent flu seasons, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.
The findings run counter to claims that influenza is more threatening to children than Covid-19 is, an argument that has been used in the push to reopen schools, and to question the value of vaccinating adolescents against the coronavirus.
“Much of this suffering can be prevented,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said in a statement. “Vaccination is our way out of this pandemic.”
Children have a much lower risk overall of Covid-19, compared with adults, but their chances of infection and severe illness are thought to increase with age. Since the start of the pandemic, the rate of hospitalizations among children ages 12 to 17 was 12.5 times lower than among adults. But the rate was higher than that seen in children ages 5 to 11, according to the new report.
The researchers tallied Covid-19 hospitalizations among children ages 12 to 17 from March 1, 2020, to April 24, 2021. The data came from Covid-Net, a population-based surveillance system in 14 states, covering about 10 percent of Americans.
The number of adolescents hospitalized for Covid-19 declined in January and February of this year, but rose again in March and April. Between Jan. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021, 204 adolescents were likely hospitalized primarily for Covid-19. Most of the children had at least one underlying medical condition, such as obesity, asthma or a neurological disorder.
None of the children died, but about one-third were admitted to the intensive care unit, and 5 percent required invasive mechanical ventilation. Roughly two-thirds of the hospitalized adolescents were Black or Hispanic, reflecting the greater risk posed by the virus to these populations.
The researchers compared the numbers for Covid-19 with hospitalizations for flu in the same age group during the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 flu seasons. From Oct. 1, 2020, to April 24, 2021, hospitalization rates for Covid-19 among adolescents were 2.5 to 3.0 times higher than for seasonal flu in previous years.
The rate may have increased this spring because of the more contagious variants of the coronavirus in circulation, as well as school reopenings that brought children together indoors, and looser adherence to precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, the researchers said.
The data lend urgency to the drive to get more teenagers vaccinated, said Dr. Walensky, who added that she was “deeply concerned” by the numbers.
A sudden, sharp rise in coronavirus cases in many parts of Africa could amount to a continental third wave, the World Health Organization warned on Thursday, a portent of deeper trouble for a continent whose immunization drives have been crippled by shortfalls in funding and vaccine doses.
The W.H.O., an arm of the United Nations, said test positivity had risen in 14 African countries over the last seven days, with eight reporting a surge of over 30 percent in new cases. Infections are steadily climbing in South Africa, where four of nine provinces are battling a third wave. There has also been a sharp increase in cases in Uganda, with hospitals overwhelmed with Covid patients and the authorities mulling a lockdown.
The W.H.O. attributed the rise to loose compliance with social restrictions, and increasing travel along with the arrival of the winter season in southern Africa.
Experts also believe the spread of new coronavirus variants — like those first identified in Britain, India and South Africa — is contributing to the surge and the ensuing rise in deaths. While Africa has reported less than 3 percent of global coronavirus cases, the W.H.O. said the continent accounted for 3.7 percent of total deaths. And that is almost certainly a severe undercount, since in the vast majority of countries on the African continent, most deaths are never formally registered.
“The threat of a third wave in Africa is real and rising,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the W.H.O. regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “It’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of Covid-19.”
While many wealthier countries have vigorous vaccination campaigns and some are on track to fully reopen, many of Africa’s poorer countries face a huge challenge in accessing vaccines.
Out of a continental population of 1.3 billion people, only 31 million have received at least one dose, Dr. Moeti said. Seven million are fully vaccinated. In Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, with more than 50 million people, only 1,386 have received two doses of a vaccine.
Countries like Ghana and Rwanda have run through their first deliveries of vaccines through Covax, the global facility working to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines.
Vaccine hesitancy has afflicted the rollout in nations like Malawi, while concerns over rare blood clots and limitations in inoculation capacity pushed the Democratic Republic of Congo to donate millions of doses to other African states before they expired.
The rising cases, the W.H.O. warned, could overwhelm already creaky health care systems that are struggling with limited intensive care beds, oxygen and ventilators. To forestall a full-blown crisis, Dr. Moeti urged “countries that have reached a significant vaccination coverage to release doses and keep the most vulnerable Africans out of critical care.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was endorsed by Britain’s drug regulator on Friday to be used for 12- to 15-year-olds, as the country reported its highest rate of coronavirus cases since late March.
That puts the final decision on including young people in the country’s vaccination campaign in the hands of a committee advising the government on vaccinations and immunizations. But Britain has been expanding eligibility by age gradually, and currently allows shots for those aged 30 and up. So even with the committee’s approval, it could be weeks, if not months, before 12- to 15-year-olds will be able to get the shots.
The United States and the European Union both cleared the way for the use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds last month. The United States began vaccinating the age group last month, and Germany said it would begin next week.
Britain engineered one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts. Since Covid vaccinations began last December, more than 75 percent of the Britain’s adult population has received at least one dose, and half have been fully vaccinated, according to public data.
Yet the pace of vaccinations has slowed down in recent months, and Britain now lags behind several European countries in the number of daily doses being administered.
June Raine, the chief executive of Britain’s drug regulator, said on Friday that clinical trial data for 12- to 15-year-olds showed that the Pfizer vaccine was safe and effective. “The benefits of this vaccine outweigh any risk,” Dr. Raine said in a statement.
The drug regulator’s decision comes as Britain has faced a surge of reported cases driven by the variant first detected in India, now known as Delta. The seven-day average of new cases has been rising sharply, and more than 6,200 cases were reported on Friday, according to public data, up from 3,400 cases last week. Deaths have so far remained low, with 11 deaths reported on Friday, but they are still increasing from the single-digit numbers reported in recent weeks.
The spike in cases has prompted several European countries to ban nonessential travel from Britain, and experts in the country have urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay the lifting of almost all restrictions scheduled for June 21. “I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map, but we may need to wait,” Mr. Johnson said this week.
Several outbreaks have been reported in British schools in recent weeks, but the country’s health authorities said on Thursday that they were not a source of major concern.
“Infection and outbreak trends in schools have remained consistent with the expectations of public health and education experts and in line with what is happening nationally,” Public Health England said in a statement.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California kicked off the state’s Covid-19 vaccine lottery on Friday, drawing the first batch of $50,000 winners on a livestream.
“There are real winners here,” remarked the governor, standing in front of a lottery wheel, a ball machine and a glittering gold lame curtain at the headquarters of the California Lottery. He also happens to be facing a Republican-led campaign to recall him.
The 15 prize recipients in the “Vax for the Win” program were pulled from the state’s anonymous registry of more than 21 million Californians — 70 percent of Californians who are 18 and older — who have received at least one dose of a vaccine against Covid-19. (If a winner has only received the first of two shots, that person must complete the vaccination to claim the prize.)
They were publicly identified only by county and registry number; state privacy laws prohibit the release of any names without permission from the winner. Registration is automatic through the state’s immunization database.
The winners came mostly from urban and coastal population centers, a reflection of the state’s ongoing problems with vaccine hesitancy in rural and more conservative areas. Three winners were from Los Angeles County, three were from San Diego County, three were from Santa Clara County and two were from San Francisco County. The remaining winners came from Alameda, Mendocino, Orange and San Luis Obispo Counties.
Assisting the governor were State Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician who led the tightening of the state’s vaccine regulations in 2015, and Claudio Alvarado, a pediatric emergency nurse at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center.
“Round and round she goes!” said Mr. Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, as he reached into the ball machine.
A second batch of 15 names will be drawn next Friday for another set of $50,000 cash prizes and a final group of 10 grand prizes — $1.5 million apiece — will be drawn on June 15. The governor has said the state will lift most of its pandemic health restrictions on that date, but noted on Friday that until the virus is “extinguished,” he will not completely lift the emergency declaration that has underpinned most of his pandemic policies.
The $116.5 million lottery, underwritten by California’s general fund and federal pandemic relief dollars, is so far the nation’s largest vaccine incentive program. A growing number of cash giveaways have been initiated by states from the time Ohio began offering $1 million prizes and four-year college scholarships in May.
Washington, Oregon and Colorado, among others, are offering $1 million jackpots and New Mexico is offering $5 million. West Virginia’s governor this week announced a $1.6 million grand prize, saying that if residents couldn’t get vaccines for themselves, they should do it for his bulldog, Babydog.
The states’ efforts are part of a larger push by the Biden administration to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the country by President Biden’s self-imposed July 4 deadline. Mr. Biden has laid out an aggressive campaign that includes incentives like free tickets to the Super Bowl and to Major League Baseball games, free ride-sharing and child care for those going to vaccine appointments, free airline tickets and free beer for adults on Independence Day — if the nation meets his goal.
“That’s right, get a shot and have a beer,” Mr. Biden declared this week.
California’s vaccine prize drawings offer odds of about 1 in 2 million for the $1.5 million prizes, substantially better than the 1 in 11.7 million odds of winning $1 million in Powerball.
Asked on Friday by reporters whether the recall had influenced his pandemic policies, Mr. Newsom replied that “every single decision I’ve made is consistent with the work I’ve done for decades and what I’ve campaigned on.”
A steady wave of new coronavirus infections in Taiwan is straining the island’s health system, which is regarded as one of the world’s most effective.
“Our intensive-care beds are full every day,” said Dr. Lee Chi-yu, a physician at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Taipei. The hospital has been converting ordinary treatment rooms into Covid wards, Dr. Lee said, but serious cases keep streaming in.
“Medical workers are becoming more and more anxious,” he said.
Health officials in Taiwan reported 472 local infections on Friday, continuing a three-week streak of daily case counts in the triple digits. Before the surge, the island had managed to shield itself from the pandemic for over a year. But with less than 3 percent of Taiwan’s 23.5 million residents vaccinated, health experts say it could be awhile before the spread of the virus abates significantly.
Taiwan’s inoculation efforts received a boost on Friday with a donation of 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Japan. The United States says it will provide vaccines to Taiwan as part of a donation of 25 million doses to countries and regions worldwide.
Taiwan is trying to ease the burden on hospitals by directing only seriously ill Covid-19 patients to be treated there. People with milder cases are being ordered to isolate in quarantine hotels or at home. Health officials said this week that less than half of the island’s 4,900 hospital rooms dedicated to Covid patients were occupied.
Facilities are more stretched in the northern cities of Taipei and New Taipei, where the recent cases have been concentrated. Overburdened hospitals in those cities have sent some patients to facilities elsewhere on the island.
Taiwan’s physician- and nurse-to-patient ratios are low by rich-country standards. In recent weeks, Taipei hospitals have enlisted doctors from all departments and specialties to help with frontline testing and care.
“They generally have been trained, but maybe they haven’t actually done it before, so they’re out of practice,” said Dr. Chen Liang-fu, a spokesman for the Taipei Doctors Union. “The psychological pressure is very great.”
So far, Taipei has not had to press medical students into service to care for Covid patients, as happened last year in United States hospitals.
“We at least don’t want to repeat the same sacrifices that other countries made,” said Dr. Vincent Yi-fong Su, a respiratory disease specialist at the Yang-Ming campus of Taipei City Hospital.
The Australian softball players who arrived in Japan this week for the Tokyo Olympics have spent most of their lives trying to reach the world’s pre-eminent sporting event.
Now they will experience much of their Olympic moment living in small hotel rooms far from Tokyo, being tested daily for the coronavirus and doing gym workouts in groups no larger than six. All fully vaccinated, they cannot go to bars, restaurants or shrines.
The team is the first to touch down in the host country before the Games, which open in seven weeks, and its constricted arrival offers a preview of an Olympics like no other, held as much of the globe remains in the clutches of a deadly pandemic.
“We’re the guinea pigs at this point,” said Tahli Moore, 27, who plays second base and outfield. “We’re showing it’s possible, and we’re showing it’s really safe.”
Despite assurances from Olympic organizers and Japanese government officials, close to a quarter of the 528 communities that had initially signed up to host Olympic teams from abroad will no longer do so. Some towns have withdrawn their invitations.
In many cases — about 100 — international teams have decided not to come to Japan in advance of the Games because of coronavirus concerns, said Yasuhiro Omori, an official with the Cabinet Secretariat division that is overseeing the host town initiative.
As Vietnam faces its worst outbreak of the coronavirus, its one-party government is asking businesses and residents to help it buy vaccines and other supplies. And people appear to be listening.
The official Vietnam News Agency reported this week that the equivalent of nearly $152 million had been raised in May from “agencies, organizations and individuals” in Vietnam and beyond. The campaign is a project of the Health Ministry and the Vietnam Fatherland Front, a powerful state-backed organ that includes organizations for workers, women and other groups.
The campaign, like the outbreak, is far from over. The government sent a mass text on Friday seeking donations to help “prevent and control” Covid-19, linking to a website that said the fund-raising campaign would run through August.
It is hard to gauge the extent to which the fund-raising campaign reflects public support for the government’s efforts. Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party does not tolerate dissent, and the Fatherland Front is hardly independent — its duties include drawing up lists of candidates for the country’s rubber-stamp National Assembly.
Still, a number of Vietnamese celebrities, public figures and corporations have donated to the campaign, the local news media reported. Dominic Scriven, the founder of Dragon Capital, an investment company in Ho Chi Minh City, said on Twitter that his company and its staff had contributed $2.1 million.
Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, has kept its total coronavirus caseload in the thousands, even as those of other Southeast Asian countries spiraled into the hundreds of thousands or millions. Its success stems from a combination of border closures, strict quarantine measures, localized lockdowns and diligent contact tracing.
But more than half of Vietnam’s roughly 8,000 cases have been reported in the past month, and it is now averaging more than 200 cases a day.
The authorities are especially concerned about a cluster linked to a church in Ho Chi Minh City and outbreaks at factories in the north. They are also tracking the emergence of a coronavirus variant that is part of a strain first found in India, recently renamed the Delta variant.
The outbreak is a threat in part because Vietnam has administered just over one million vaccine doses, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to a New York Times database.
The government has said that it will need 150 million vaccine doses to inoculate about 75 percent of the population and that buying them will cost about $1.1 billion. As of Wednesday, it had received donations worth about $1.2 million.
The local news media reported on Friday that Vietnam had approved use of the Sinopharm vaccine, making it the third to be authorized after the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines.
The New Delhi suburb of Nangli Vihar is not the poorest or the most crowded in India’s capital, nor is it the worst-hit by Covid-19. But in recent weeks, as the coronavirus ricocheted from house to house, it did more than kill.
With hospitals full and the government largely absent, fear began to spread. People shut their doors, shattering many of the relationships that make up a neighborhood.
New Delhi is starting to reopen after suffering one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks. New York Times journalists Karan Deep Singh and Atul Loke spent a week with the residents of a few blocks in Nangli Vihar as they begin to emerge from fear and isolation — and often after tremendous loss.