May 20, 2022, 5:30 a.m. ET

Daily Covid Briefing

A surge in cases puts most of New York State on high alert.

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Credit...Benjamin Cleeton for The New York Times

New coronavirus cases surged in most counties in New York State this week, putting them on “high” alert under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and triggering recommendations for indoor masking, including inside schools.

The state refrained from imposing an indoor mask mandate, but health officials on Friday afternoon did urge residents living in counties that have been placed on “medium” or “high” alert to wear masks in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

“These public health measures, as well as ensuring proper air ventilation when gathering, will help reduce Covid-19 transmission in communities and lower the risk of serious illness and hospitalization for individuals,” the state health commissioner, Dr. Mary T. Bassett, said in a statement.

As of Thursday, the average of new cases stood at more than 10,000 a day, according to a New York Times database. New cases have increased 47 percent over the past two weeks, and hospitalizations have increased 28 percent over that time period, to an average of more than 2,600 a day.

As of Thursday, the seven-day average of daily deaths stood at 20, up from 15 two weeks ago, according to the Times database.

New York City was one of the few places in the state where transmission rates have not risen high enough to trigger a higher alert level, according to the C.D.C.’s data. But new virus cases have increased 82 percent in New York City over the past 14 days, with the daily average standing at over 4,300, according to the Times database. Hospitalizations have increased 30 percent in the city over the same time period, to a daily average of 835.

Mayor Adams, who has focused on rolling back a number of pandemic policies in an effort to reopen the city, called the rise a “slow uptick.”

“Our hospitals and deaths — those numbers are really at a solid place,” he said at a news conference on Friday. “We’re going to be prepared and not panicked.”

Case counts in New York City’s school system have moved steadily upward, too. The daily average of new cases reported last week in the public school system was 1,216, raising alarm among some parents.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is our top priority,” Jenna Lyle, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in a statement. “We will continue to follow the science and adjust if needed, putting the health and safety of our students and staff first.”

Known cases are far lower than they were during the winter, when the state was first struck by the highly contagious variant of the virus, Omicron, and cases in city schools reached around 14,000 in January.

However, Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, noted that testing is much lower than it once was. And widely used home tests are not usually reported. Both factors mean that case numbers could be much higher than the official counts.

About 77 percent of people are fully vaccinated in the state, a figure that rises to 79 percent in New York City. Covid-19 treatments available to certain at-risk populations may also be reducing the number of serious cases and keeping hospitalization rates relatively low.

“We have very good vaccination coverage and, although booster coverage hasn’t been so great, it’s been stable for a while,” said Dr. Nash.

“I think that we don’t yet know if we could absorb a big surge in transmission without seeing a substantial increase in hospitalizations and deaths,” he added.

If hospitalizations and deaths begin to rise quickly, government officials should consider “some reinstatement of measures to protect New Yorkers,” Dr. Nash said.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

Tracking the Coronavirus ›

Jacinda Ardern, whose restrictions buffered New Zealand from the worst of the pandemic, tests positive.

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Credit...Pool photo by Mark Mitchell

Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand who led the island nation through the pandemic, has tested positive for the coronavirus, her office said on Saturday.

Ms. Ardern has had moderate symptoms since Friday evening, her office said, adding that she has been in isolation since her partner, Clarke Gayford, tested positive last Sunday.

Ms. Ardern will be required to isolate until the morning of May 21 and will not be in Parliament this week for the release of an emissions reduction plan on Monday or the budget on Thursday, according to her office.

“This is a milestone week for the government and I’m gutted I can’t be there for it,” Ms. Ardern said in the statement. “Our emissions reduction plan sets the path to achieve our carbon zero goal and the budget addresses the long-term future and security of New Zealand’s health system.”

The positive test will not “at this stage” affect a trade mission to the United States set for later this month, her office said. Ms. Ardern is also scheduled to deliver a commencement address at Harvard on May 26, according to the university.

New reported cases by day
Mar. 2020
Aug.
Jan. 2021
Jun.
Nov.
Apr. 2022
10,000
20,000 cases
7–day average
7,938
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
New reported cases by day
Mar. 2020
Aug.
Jan. 2021
Jun.
Nov.
Apr. 2022
5
10
15 deaths
7–day average
12
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

New Zealand maintained some of the world’s tightest coronavirus restrictions, especially regarding international travel, in an effort to keep the pandemic that was sweeping the rest of the world at bay. And it was largely successful, until an outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant took hold this spring.

But by the time Omicron arrived, the country was well protected. New Zealand’s vaccination rate is high: 83 percent of the entire population is fully vaccinated. Coronavirus cases have remained flat over the last two weeks, and the population of five million is averaging about 7,600 new daily cases, and fewer than 14 daily deaths.

With New Zealanders increasingly unhappy with pandemic restrictions, the country recently loosened its Covid-19 rules. Earlier this month, travelers from around the world poured into the island nation after it began admitting visitors from more than 60 countries for the first time in two years. New Zealand reopened to tourists from its nearest neighbor, Australia, in April.

24 states press a federal judge to continue migrant expulsions under a pandemic-related public policy.

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Credit...Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

LAFAYETTE, La. — Lawyers for 24 states critical of the Biden administration’s immigration policies argued on Friday for a nationwide injunction to maintain the swift expulsions of migrants under a pandemic-related public policy, and a federal judge said he planned to issue an order before the policy is set to be rescinded on May 23.

Judge Robert R. Summerhays of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana did not say how he would rule, but he has previously been supportive of the arguments brought by the 24 mostly Republican-led states to force the measure, known as Title 42, to remain in place.

Scott St. John, Louisiana’s deputy solicitor general, said after the hearing that he was “confident” based on the judge’s comments during the hearing that the states that had sued were “in a good position.”

Mary Yanik, a lawyer for the Tulane Immigration Rights Clinic, said that Judge Summerhays’s posture appeared consistent throughout the more than two-hour hearing in Lafayette, La.

“The judge seemed skeptical that this is a purely public health order,” she said. “And he does not seem convinced that the federal government can ignore immigration consequences.”

Most of the principal lawyers in the case declined to comment after the arguments.

At stake is whether the Biden administration can proceed with its announced plans to lift Title 42, given the recent easing of the coronavirus pandemic, a move that would allow thousands of migrants a day who currently are being turned away to instead enter the country and submit claims for asylum.

The Department of Homeland Security has said that it was preparing for the possibility that 18,000 migrants would show up daily, once the measure is lifted, compared with 8,000 currently. State leaders who filed the lawsuit said local officials are unprepared for such an influx at a time when migration on the southern border already is reaching record levels.

About two million people have been expelled since March 2020 under the order, many of whom would have otherwise been admitted to the United States for an evaluation of their asylum claims or placed into deportation proceedings. Those processes often take months or years.

The judge has already issued a temporary restraining order, renewed this week, prohibiting the government from taking steps to unwind the policy before he rules on the case.

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Credit...Callaghan O'Hare for The New York Times

The arguments offered by both sides at Friday’s hearing centered on whether Title 42 was a public health policy or an immigration policy. Lawyers for the federal government continued to argue that the policy was narrowly limited to protecting against coronavirus transmission while lawyers for the states that sued listed the costs that states would bear if Title 42 were lifted — to health care systems, law enforcement, education, social services, and even agencies that would be issuing more drivers’ licenses.

The Biden administration has said its plans to lift the measure were based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement on April 1 that it was no longer needed given the widespread availability of vaccines.

“The C.D.C. did exactly what an agency must do,” Jean Lin, a lawyer representing the federal government, told the judge, noting that the agency has reassessed virus conditions in the country every 60 days. Dealing with “downstream consequences of Title 42 is outside of the C.D.C.’s statutory authority,” she said.

The public health order has required the U.S. Border Patrol to turn away migrants who crossed land borders since March 2020, when it was introduced, without allowing them to request asylum, by either expelling them by bus to Mexico or by plane to their countries of origin.

Two days after the C.D.C. announcement, Arizona, Louisiana and Missouri filed a suit in federal court seeking to keep the policy in place, arguing that its termination would cause them irreparable harm. They were later joined by 21 other states.

The judge on Friday denied a motion from a family seeking asylum at the California-Mexico border and a nonprofit to join the lawsuit in order to argue that the judge, should he decide that Title 42 be kept in place, apply his ruling only to states that are part of the litigation.

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Credit...Callaghan O'Hare for The New York Times

That would theoretically allow the administration to begin accepting asylum applicants in several border states, including California, New Mexico, Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont and New York. North Dakota and Idaho were the only northern border states that joined in the litigation; on the southern border, Texas and Arizona were part of the lawsuit.

“Texas and Arizona should not be permitted to dictate immigration policy for the entire country,” said Talia Inlender, deputy director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, which was counsel to the family seeking asylum and the organization.

“We still remain hopeful that the judge, should he issue an injunction to keep Title 42 in place, will limit it to the states that are suing,” she said.

Republicans campaigning on immigration and moderate Democrats facing tight races in the November midterms have called for keeping Title 42 in place, citing the potential for overcrowding and turmoil at the southern border.

Republican lawmakers have sought a vote on an amendment that would preserve the policy, which has already held up a separate Covid-19 aid package.

Eileen Sullivan and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

North Korea says 6 are dead as Covid-19 spreads ‘explosively.’

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Credit...Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

​SEOUL — The coronavirus has been spreading across North Korea “explosively” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 people in quarantine, the country’s state media reported on Friday.

Health officials made the rare admission of an emerging public health crisis after the country reported its first outbreak of the virus — after long insisting it had no infections and refusing outside humanitarian aid to fight any spread. The announcement of fatalities came as the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was visiting the national disease-control headquarters on Thursday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

In a sign of growing urgency, the state-run Central Television for the first time showed Mr. Kim wearing a mask during a Workers’ Party meeting.

Mr. Kim criticized his heath officials, saying that the simultaneous spread of fever, with the capital as a center of the outbreak, “shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system,” the North Korean news agency said.

Some analysts warned that North Korea could be headed into a major humanitarian crisis unless the international community persuades it to open up for outside aid to fight the virus.

“We are in the early stage of the spread of vast human misery,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “The nature and scale of the illnesses, deaths, hunger and starvation can only be established much later.”

North Korea said it had learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms such as a fever. They were infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, it said.

The country declared a “maximum emergency” and ordered all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down, and told them to isolate “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”

North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered. The reports on the outbreak so far have been vague​, blaming “a fever whose cause couldn’t be identified.” They did not clarify, for example, how many people with the fever had tested positive for the virus. But they said that one of the six who died had tested positive for the BA.2 subvariant.

“Like any other data from North Korea, the figures are up to debate, and we cannot fully trust them,” said Ahn Kyung-su, who operates the Seoul-based DPRKHealth.org, a website and network of public health experts who study North Korea. “But what’s clear is that North Korea has the Covid phenomenon, and by publicizing those figures, North Korea appears to be sending out signals that it is finally ready to accept Covid-related aid from the outside.”

So far, North Korea has not accepted any Covid-19 vaccine donations from world health organizations. South Korean officials hope that humanitarian shipments, including vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the United States and allies.

The danger posed by the Covid outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its people are unvaccinated. In addition, the outbreak could increase the strain on the economy, which already has been hit by years of U.N. sanctions and North Korea’s decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner.

“North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable to deal with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The international community should offer medicine for Covid-19 related symptoms, Covid-19 treating anti-viral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for vaccine preservation, including fridges, generators and gasoline.”

Hours after admitting to the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang toward the sea off its east coast. It was the North’s 16th missile test this year.

In South Korea, the government of the newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol, condemned the test as a “grave threat” and “provocation,” and accused the North of “duplicity” for testing weapons while its people were threatened by the coronavirus. But it said it was willing to ship vaccines, therapeutics and other humanitarian aid to the North.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that “the United States does not currently have plans to share vaccines” with North Korea. She said the country was “continuing to exploit its own citizens” through its policy of not accepting humanitarian aid during the pandemic.

“Instead, they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs,” Ms. Psaki said, repeating Washington’s assessment that North Korea could be ready to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month. President Biden is scheduled to meet with Mr. Yoon in Seoul on May 21.

The world tries to move beyond Covid. China may stand in the way.

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Credit...Liu Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the rest of the world learns to live with Covid-19, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to keep striving to live without it — no matter the cost.

China won a battle against its first outbreak in Wuhan, Mr. Xi said last week, and “we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai,” he added, referring to the epicenter of the current outbreak in China.

New reported cases by day
Feb. 2020
Jul.
Dec.
May 2021
Oct.
Mar. 2022
10,000
20,000
30,000 cases
7–day average
5,404
Source: Data for China comes from the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China and includes all confirmed cases, including asymptomatic infections. Population data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Data does not include Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

But pressure is mounting for a change to the zero-Covid strategy that has left Shanghai at a standstill since March, kept hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens under lockdown nationwide and is now threatening to bring Beijing to a halt.

This week, the World Health Organization called China’s current pandemic strategy “unsustainable.” An economist summarized it as “zero movement, zero G.D.P.” Multinational companies have grown wary of further investments in the country.

For more than two years, China kept its Covid numbers enviably low by doggedly reacting to signs of an outbreak with testing and snap lockdowns. The success allowed the Communist Party to boast that it had prioritized life over death in the pandemic, unlike Western democracies where deaths from the virus soared.

More transmissible variants like Omicron threaten to dent that success, posing a dilemma for Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Harsher lockdowns have been imposed to keep infections from spreading, stifling economic activity and threatening millions of jobs. Chinese citizens have grown restless, pushing back against being forced to stay home or to move into grim, government-run isolation facilities.

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Credit...Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Yet abandoning the strategy risks a surge in deaths, especially among the country’s tens of millions of unvaccinated older people. Researchers this week warned of a “tsunami” of deaths if the virus surged unchecked, leaving China’s fragile national hospital system overwhelmed and raising the possibility of social unrest.

Fearing any dissent during a politically important year for Mr. Xi, China’s censors have moved quickly to muffle calls for a change in course on Covid-19. The head of the World Health Organization, whose recommendations China once held up as a model, was silenced this week when he called on the country to rethink its strategy.

Photographs and references to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., were promptly scrubbed from the Chinese internet after the statement. The foreign ministry responded by calling Mr. Tedros’s remarks “irresponsible,” and accusing the W.H.O. of not having a “proper understanding of the facts.”

China’s state-controlled media has also glossed over the draconian measures officials have deployed to deal with outbreaks. This week, as some authorities in Shanghai erected new fences around quarantine zones, boarded up more homes and asked residents not to leave their apartments, state media painted a picture of a city slowly returning to normal.

One article described the “hustle and bustle of city life” returning, while another focused on statistics for how many stores had reopened.

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Credit...Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But rosy state media reports cannot hide a looming challenge facing Mr. Xi.

To date, the coronavirus has claimed 569 lives and infected about 777,565 people since March 1, according to official statistics. If unchecked, the outbreak could lead to 112 million infections and nearly 1.6 million deaths between now and July, according to a study from researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai and Indiana University in the United States.

“The situation is pretty grim, and the study shows clearly the huge importance in vaccinating and boosting the elderly,” said Marco Ajelli, an infectious disease modeler at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, who contributed to the study.

Less than half of people aged 70 or older in Shanghai have received two jabs, according to the study. Across China, the number is 72 percent, a figure that health experts say should be 95 percent or higher. In dozens of cities where there have been outbreaks or partial lockdowns in anticipation of rising cases, resources have been devoted to stamping out the virus rather than to vaccinations.

Currently the vaccines available in China are also not as potent as foreign ones available in other countries. Chinese vaccines use traditional technology that has been shown to be less effective than breakthrough mRNA technology. China said last year that it was close to approving BioNTech, a German mRNA shot made in partnership with Pfizer, but that has not happened. Several Chinese companies are in the testing phase of a homegrown mRNA option, and China also recently approved for emergency use a Covid-19 antiviral pill made by Pfizer called Paxlovid.

Administering three vaccine shots, using antiviral therapies and offering more effective vaccines could help China find a path out of zero Covid, Mr. Ajelli said.

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Credit...Ding Ting/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Investors and business leaders worry that China’s rigid adherence to its zero-Covid policy could send the economy into free fall. “It is high time for the government to change its strategy,” said Fred Hu, a prominent Chinese investor. The benefits of zero Covid no longer outweigh the economic costs, he added. “Sticking to the zero-Covid strategy would decimate its economy and undermine public confidence.”

By one estimate, nearly 400 million people in 45 cities have been under some form of lockdown in China in the past month, accounting for $7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. Economists are concerned that the lockdowns will have a major impact on growth; one economist has warned that if lockdown measures remain in place for another month, China could enter into a recession.

European and American multinational companies have said they are discussing ways to shift some of their operations out of China. Big companies that increasingly depend on China’s consumer market for growth are also sounding the alarm. Apple said it could see a $4 billion to $8 billion hit to its sales because of the lockdowns.

Howard Schultz, the interim chief executive of Starbucks, said the company has “virtually no ability to predict our performance in China.”

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Credit...Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Foreign investments have nearly dried up, and some projects have been on hold for more than two years because pandemic restrictions have made it essentially impossible for foreign executives to visit China. When executives at multinational companies appeal to senior Chinese officials, their calls are met with silence, said Michael Hart, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

“China has been very steadfast in its views that it has the right strategy and it doesn’t want people to criticize it,” Mr. Hart said.

Some of China’s top leaders have also started to share concerns about the economy. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, described the employment situation as “complicated and grave” as migrant workers and college students struggle to find and keep jobs during lockdowns.

Even as daily virus cases in Shanghai are steadily dropping, authorities have tightened measures in recent days following Mr. Xi’s call last week to double down. Officials also began to force entire residential buildings into government isolation if just one resident tested positive.

The new measures are harsher than those early on in the pandemic and have been met with pockets of unrest, previously rare in China where citizens have mostly supported the country’s pandemic policies.

In one video widely circulated online before it was taken down by censors, an exasperated woman shouts as officials in white hazmat suits smash her door down to take her away to an isolation facility. She protests and asks them to give her evidence that she has tested positive. Eventually she takes her phone to call the police.

“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “I’d still be the one coming.”

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Credit...Via Reuters

Isabelle Qian contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.

As known cases climb in southern Africa, testing on the continent has fallen off.

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Credit...Joao Silva/The New York Times

Public health officials in Africa raised concern on Thursday that a dip in surveillance and testing for the coronavirus, as well as the loosening of public health measures, would make it harder to detect and respond to new waves as cases rise in parts of the continent.

The surge has mostly come in southern Africa, where cases have risen significantly over the previous week, according to the World Health Organization. As of Wednesday, new reported cases in South Africa have increased 80 percent from the average two weeks ago and deaths have increased 44 percent, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

New reported cases by day
Apr. 2020
Aug.
Dec.
Apr. 2021
Aug.
Dec.
Apr. 2022
10,000
20,000 cases
7–day average
5,600
Source: Data for South Africa comes from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Population data from the World Bank. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.