Covid Live Updates: Canadian Province Is Now North America’s Virus Hot Spot

Credit…Shannon VanRaes/Reuters

The coronavirus is now spreading faster in Manitoba than in any other province or state in Canada, the United States or Mexico, with Indigenous people and people of color hit disproportionately hard.

Figures released on Wednesday show that over the last two weeks, the prairie province in the middle of Canada reported an average of 35 new cases a day per 100,000 population. Canada as a whole is averaging about 10 a day per 100,000; the United States, 7 per 100,000; and Mexico, 2 per 100,000. The next highest states or provinces are Alberta at 16 and Colorado at 15.

Dr. Marcia Anderson, the public health lead of the Manitoba First Nation Pandemic Response Coordination Team, told reporters on Wednesday that from the beginning of the month until May 19, Indigenous people and other nonwhite people accounted for 61 percent of cases in Manitoba, even though they make up 37 percent of the province’s population.

People of Southeast Asian descent are the most disproportionately affected, with a rate of 146 per 1,000 people, 13 times the rate among white people.

The surge in Covid-19 cases has overwhelmed intensive care units in Manitoba’s hospitals, forcing some patients to be evacuated by air to other provinces. Eighteen patients have been flown to neighboring Ontario, including some to Ottawa, about 1,000 miles away. Saskatchewan, the province to the west, was expected to receive an evacuated patient from Manitoba on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, a group of doctors called on the province to follow the lead of Ontario and others by introducing a stay-at-home order and closing nonessential businesses. Those steps have allowed other provinces to rein in their most recent waves of infections.

Stores in Manitoba have been limited to 10 percent of capacity, and gyms and hair salons have been closed for several weeks. On Tuesday, the province’s premier, Brian Pallister, extended limits on outdoor gatherings that were put in place for last weekend; they now last until the end of this week.

Mr. Pallister suggested on Tuesday that the worsening situation in the province was being caused not by too few restrictions but rather by people failing to comply with restrictions already in place.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy left for people who disobey public health orders knowingly and willingly,” he said.

Regan Raeth after her vaccination in Kent, Ohio, last month. Ohioans with at least one dose are eligible for the state’s million-dollar lotteries.
Credit…Phil Long/Associated Press

After the state of Ohio announced with great fanfare that residents who got at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine would be eligible to win a hefty $1 million, Jack Pepper saw something remarkable happen at his sleepy rural vaccination clinic.

For the first time in a while, there was a line at the door. Officials, who had been strategizing about how they might give away extra doses, were suddenly operating at full capacity.

“I think we did close to 400 people in four hours,” said Mr. Pepper, the administrator for the health department in Athens County, home to about 65,000 people in southeastern Ohio. “Anywhere I go, people are joking with me, ‘Hey, when am I going to win my million dollars?’”

Anticipation approached a peak as the Ohio lottery campaign — deemed “Vax-a-Million” (including a cheeky bandage on the X) — announced its first winner on television on Wednesday night. Abbigail Bugenske of Silverton, Ohio, near Cincinnati, won the initial $1 million prize.

It was among the first of several chances for Americans to win big money — if they have been vaccinated.

Colorado announced its own $1 million vaccine lottery this week, and Oregon is offering a $1 million jackpot, in addition to $10,000 prizes. Elsewhere, state and local officials are getting creative with simple approaches (free beer in Erie County, N.Y.) and fancy ones (dinner with the governor of New Jersey, anyone?).

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, in Wuhan, China. Some scientists have pointed to the possibility that the coronavirus somehow escaped from the laboratory.
Credit…Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In today’s edition of the Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt offers a guide to the newly revived debate over the idea that the coronavirus accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory. He writes:

The origin of the virus remains unclear. Many scientists have long believed that the most likely explanation is that it jumped from an animal to a person, possibly at a food market in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Animal-to human transmission — known as zoonotic spillover — is a common origin story for viruses, including Ebola and some bird flus.

But some scientists have pointed to another possibility: that it escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As in other laboratories, researchers there sometimes modify viruses to understand and treat them.

The subject is gaining attention because some scientists who were once skeptical of the laboratory theory have expressed new openness to it.

Two weeks ago, 18 scientists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for a new investigation and describing both the animal-to-human theory and the lab-leak theory as “viable.” And three scientists who last year dismissed the lab-leak explanation as a conspiracy theory have told The Wall Street Journal that they now consider it plausible.

Among the reasons: Chinese officials have refused to allow an independent investigation into the lab and have failed to explain some inconsistencies in the animal-to-human hypothesis. Most of the first confirmed cases had no evident link to the food market.

In some ways, not much has changed. From the beginning, the virus’s origin has been unclear. All along, some scientists, politicians and journalists have argued that the lab-leak theory deserves consideration.

But these voices were in the minority. The World Health Organization initially dismissed the lab-leak theory as implausible.

It appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization.

Global health officials seemed unwilling to confront Chinese officials, who insist the virus jumped from an animal to a person.

In the U.S., one of the theory’s earliest advocates was Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas who often criticizes China — and who has a history of promoting falsehoods (like election fraud that didn’t happen). In this case, though, Cotton was making an argument with plausible supporting evidence.

The news media’s coverage of his argument was flawed, Matthew Yglesias of Substack has written. Some coverage exaggerated Mr. Cotton’s comments to suggest that he was claiming that China had deliberately released the virus as a biological weapon. (Mr. Cotton called that “very unlikely.”) And some scientists and others also seem to have decided that if Mr. Cotton believed something — and Fox News and Donald Trump echoed it — the idea had to be wrong.

The result, as Mr. Yglesias called it, was a bubble of fake consensus. Scientists who thought a lab leak was plausible received little attention. Scientists who thought the theory was wacky received widespread attention. It’s a good reminder: The world is a complicated place, where almost nobody is always right or always wrong.

The virus’s origin does not affect many parts of the fight against Covid. The best mitigation strategies — travel restrictions, testing, contact tracing, social distancing, ventilation and masking — are still the best mitigation strategies.

But there are at least three concrete ways, in addition to the inherent value of truth, in which the origin matters.

First, if the virus really did come from a lab, an immediate airing of the details might have led to even faster vaccine development and more effective treatments. Second, a leak that caused millions of deaths could lead to widespread change in laboratories’ safety precautions. Third, confirmation of a leak would affect the world’s view of China — and would put pressure on the country to bear the burden of vaccinating the world as quickly as possible.

We don’t know. Both animal-to-human transmission and the lab leak appear plausible. And the obfuscation by Chinese officials means we may never know.

A testing site in Melbourne, Australia, on Thursday.
Credit…James Ross/EPA, via Shutterstock

The state of Victoria, Australia, announced a seven-day lockdown beginning Thursday night to stem a coronavirus outbreak in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, the country’s second-most populous city, after Sydney.

After nearly three months without a new infection, state health officials have detected 26 cases in the Melbourne-area cluster. The outbreak is believed to have begun when a man became infected while serving a 14-day hotel quarantine in the city of Adelaide, then traveled to Melbourne, where he tested positive for the virus.

The authorities said that more than 10,000 primary and secondary contacts had been identified, as they rushed to trace contacts at dozens of sites where people may have been exposed. Officials said that the virus circulating in the Melbourne area was the variant first detected in India.

“In the last day, we’ve seen more evidence that we’re dealing with a highly infectious strain of the virus, a variant of concern which is running faster than we have ever recorded,” James Merlino, the acting premier of Victoria, told reporters on Thursday morning.

Australia has all but eliminated community transmission of the virus, but several smaller outbreaks this year have led cities and states to impose temporary lockdowns. Mr. Merlino said that this outbreak, one of the largest in recent months, was partly the result of a sluggish vaccination campaign that has left a large proportion of Australians exposed to new strains of the virus. Less than 2 percent of Australia’s 25 million people have been fully inoculated.

“If more people were vaccinated we might be facing a very different set of circumstances,” he said. “That is a fact.”

Others criticized the Australian government for failing to implement an effective quarantine system and relying on hotels to house incoming travelers.

In a report released this week, the authorities said that the man first diagnosed in Melbourne most likely contracted the virus after he and another infected guest opened their hotel room doors within minutes of each other, allowing the virus to spread by aerosol transmission between their rooms.

“This is the 17th outbreak from hotel quarantine in just the last six months,” Mark Butler, the opposition health minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday. “We’re dealing with these outbreaks almost every week or two at the moment.”

Mr. Butler said that Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, had failed to heed the advice of experts who called for the government to set up dedicated quarantine facilities “to take the pressure off hotels that were built for tourism.”

Last year, after an infection in a quarantine hotel led to an outbreak in the state, Melbourne’s five million residents endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, lasting 111 days.

Under the new lockdown, Victorians are restricted from leaving their homes except to shop, work, exercise, care for others or get vaccinated.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Morrison warned that the lockdown was a grave reminder of how rapidly the virus could resurge.

“There are no certainties, there are no guarantees, in a global pandemic, and against a virus, an insidious virus such as this,” he said.

Signs offering COVID-19 vaccinations this month outside of a CVS pharmacy in Washington, D.C.
Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Facing a national decline in Covid-19 vaccination rates and an underwhelming response to vaccines in its own stores, the U.S. pharmacy chain CVS will offer a chance at money, vacations and a Super Bowl trip to persuade the unvaccinated to start going in for their shots.

CVS said in April that it could administer 25 million shots each month, but as of this week it had only administered about 17 million doses in total as mass vaccination sites ended up playing a bigger role in the nation’s early vaccination campaign.

The CVS incentives could not only help get more people vaccinated, but provide a boost to the company: The Medicare payment to administer each dose is $40.

Nationally, the average number of doses administered daily has slowed to 1.7 million, down from a peak of more than 3.3 million in April.

CVS said in a statement that in an effort to “provide a positive reminder of the activities that are possible once vaccinated,” it had joined with other companies to offer prizes to people who get a shot at one of its pharmacies.

Among the incentives: Weeklong Norwegian Cruises, $100 dates sponsored by the dating app Hinge and a trip to Super Bowl LVI next year.

CVS will give 125 people $500 and five people $5,000 to host family reunions.

People 18 and older who “received a vaccination or certify that they’ve registered to receive a vaccination from CVS Health” are eligible for the sweepstakes, which runs from June 1 to July 10, the statement said.

CVS isn’t the first to offer inducements to the unvaccinated. Ohio, Colorado and Oregon are offering residents a chance at $1 million for getting vaccinated, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York on Wednesday said that residents ages 12 to 17 who get vaccinated would be entered to win a full-ride scholarship to a public university in the state. (Other incentives include free beer in New Jersey and $50 gift cards in Detroit for driving someone to a vaccination site.)

More than 165 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, only 40 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, leaving a significant portion of the country vulnerable to infection.

With the Memorial Day holiday looming, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, warned unvaccinated Americans on Tuesday that they “remain at risk of infection” and should still take precautions like distancing and wearing a mask.

California’ s CA Notify app is based on the Apple-Google software. About 65,000 people have used it to notify others of possible exposures to the virus.
Credit…Paresh Dave/Reuters

When Apple and Google collaborated last year on a smartphone-based system to track the spread of the coronavirus, the news was seen as a game changer. The software uses Bluetooth signals to detect app users who come into close contact. If a user later tests positive, the person can anonymously notify other app users whom the person may have crossed paths with in restaurants, on trains or elsewhere.

Soon countries around the world and some two dozen American states introduced virus apps based on the Apple-Google software. To date, the apps have been downloaded more than 90 million times, according to an analysis by Sensor Tower, an app research firm. Public health officials say the apps have provided modest but important benefits.

But Natasha Singer of The New York Times reports that some researchers say the two companies’ product and policy choices have limited the system’s usefulness, raising questions about the power of Big Tech to set global standards for public health tools.

Computer scientists have reported accuracy problems with the Bluetooth technology. Some of the app users have complained of failed notifications, and there has been little rigorous research on whether the apps’ potential to accurately alert people of virus exposures outweighs potential drawbacks — like falsely warning unexposed people or failing to detect users exposed to the virus.

“It is still an open question whether or not these apps are assisting in real contact tracing, are simply a distraction, or whether they might even cause problems,” Stephen Farrell and Doug Leith, computer science researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, wrote in a report in April on Ireland’s virus alert app.

Activists held a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong in June last year.
Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The Hong Kong police, citing the continuing threat of the coronavirus, rejected a request to hold a march and candlelight vigil to remember those killed in the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen protest, event organizers said on Thursday.

Pro-democracy activists said that they believe the authorities used the pandemic as a pretext to block the politically sensitive events, scheduled for May 30 and June 4, which are the only large-scale Tiananmen memorial observances held on Chinese soil. The organizers said that they would appeal the decision.

The police also blocked the march and vigil last year because of the pandemic. Thousands of people gathered anyway at Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. Four activists, including Joshua Wong, were given prison sentences ranging from four months to 10 months for participating in the unauthorized assembly. Another 20 people are scheduled to appear in court on related charges next month.

Hong Kong has kept coronavirus cases relatively low, with just 24 infections reported over the past two weeks in the city of 7.5 million people. Public events including Art Basel and professional soccer matches have recently been held with some restrictions, such as reduced capacities, contact registration and required use of face masks.

Global Roundup

Preparing a Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Antwerp, Belgium, last month.
Credit…Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

Belgium said on Wednesday that it would pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson shots for people under 41 over clotting concerns after the death of a woman who received the vaccine.

The woman was under 40 and was admitted to the hospital with “severe” clotting and blood platelet deficiency, a statement from a group of regional health authorities said. She died on Friday and had been vaccinated by her employer outside of the country, the statement said.

Supplies of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been limited in Belgium, the group noted, adding that 80 percent of the doses administered there had been to people over 45 years old.

The group said that the short-term impact of the pause would be “very limited” because it plans to use an uptick in the supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines next month to vaccinate 18- to 40-year-olds.

The Johnson & Johnson shot’s single dose gives it a “significant advantage” for vaccinating older people at home and for vulnerable groups like the homeless, the group said, adding that it was awaiting a “more detailed benefit-risk analysis” by the European Medicines Agency.

The United States briefly halted the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April, citing the risk of blood clots. After ending the pause, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration added a notice on the vaccine’s label saying that most of those who developed the rare clots were women between the ages of 18 and 49, and that the “chance of having this occur is remote.”

In other news from around the world:

  • In more than seven hours of testimony before Parliament, Dominic Cummings, the former top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, described a government paralyzed by chaos, confusion and incompetence, which he said crippled Britain’s handling of the pandemic and contributed to tens of thousands of needless deaths. Mr. Johnson flatly rejected several of the assertions.

  • Lawyers representing the European Union said that they would seek penalties from AstraZeneca that could run into billions of euros if the pharmaceutical company fails to deliver tens of millions of vaccine doses that it is contractually required to supply.

  • South Korea will no longer require masks outdoors come July for people who have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, Reuters reported.

  • Amid a spike in infections, the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives enacted a curfew from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., allowing people to leave their homes during the day only for essential supplies.

From the magazine

A doctor at a hospital near Paris wearing a button that says, “I am vaccinated against Covid-19.”
Credit…Mohammed Badra/EPA, via Shutterstock

In this week’s Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah answered readers’ questions about dealing with people who have differing views on vaccination against Covid-19.

Here is one example of the queries, with the response, edited and condensed for clarity, below:

Recently, I asked my chiropractor if he had received his Covid vaccine. He said no. He and his assistant do wear masks, but they see patients in a small room with a closed door. When I asked him again several weeks later, he said: “Well, we have to talk. I am not going to get the vaccination. I don’t believe in vaccinations. My family and I are all healthy and see no need for it.”

The chiropractor later called and asked me if I would please respect his privacy and not tell anyone else about his decision not to be vaccinated. I was appalled. Isn’t this an unethical request? — Name Withheld

A number of questions have recently have recently arisen about how to negotiate a social and professional world in which vaccination against Covid-19 is both common and contested.

Many people think that getting vaccinated is simply about protecting yourself. Yet there’s also a public-spirited, altruistic reason for getting vaccinated: There’s now bountiful evidence that vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit the virus to others.

Moving from the chiropractor’s ethics to yours, I’d point out that he didn’t tell you about his decision in confidence, which means you don’t have a duty to respect a later request to stay mum. Why does your chiropractor want you to keep this to yourself?

Outside Twitter’s offices in New Delhi this week. The company has been told to remove Covid-related content that the government considers subversive or a threat to public order and national security.
Credit…Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Twitter said on Thursday that it had received a notice of noncompliance with India’s information technology laws, in connection with official requests to remove content related to the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under Indian law, Twitter’s India executives could face up to seven years in prison if the San Francisco-based social media service fails to abide by government orders to remove content that it considers subversive or a threat to public order and national security.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under mounting pressure for its handling of a devastating second wave of the coronavirus, which is killing thousands of people a day and stretching the country’s social safety net beyond its capacity. Many of those complaints have been aired online, and the government has moved to reclaim the narrative by ordering Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to take down posts critical of its coronavirus response.

In its statement on Thursday, Twitter said that it planned to push leaders in India to change new regulations that have given the authorities greater say over online media and internet platforms, citing “the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.”

The company said that it was especially concerned about the government’s requirement under the new rules to appoint a “compliance officer” who would be “criminally liable” for content on the platform. It described the requirement as “dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.”

Twitter’s statement came days after antiterrorism police officers visited the company’s offices in New Delhi, which were closed because of the outbreak, to deliver a notice disputing a warning label that Twitter had assigned to some posts by senior officials in Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P.

Those officials had posted documents on Twitter that they said proved that opposition politicians were planning to use the government’s coronavirus response for political purposes. But Twitter labeled them “manipulated media” after accusations that the documents had been forged.

On Thursday, Twitter said that it was concerned about “the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global terms of service.” Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

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