Coronavirus cases are nearing record levels in West Virginia, and the state’s schools are closing and its hospitals are choked with patients stricken by the perniciously infectious Delta variant.
Just seven months ago, as the Covid vaccine was still being rolled out, the state was a national leader. By late June the state’s governor, Jim Justice, a Republican, had removed a statewide mask requirement.
But West Virginia has since fallen far behind, and its pandemic status has deteriorated, a situation shared with other states with large unvaccinated populations. Just under 48 percent of West Virginia’s 18 and over population is fully vaccinated, the lowest of any state, according to federal data compiled by The New York Times.
President Biden tried to push the roughly 80 million eligible but unvaccinated people in the United States to be inoculated when he announced on Thursday a sweeping plan that included vaccine requirements he said would cover some 100 million American workers.
Federally authorized vaccines greatly decrease the risk of hospitalization and death, even from the Delta variant, according to three studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.
Governor Justice has been more outspoken about vaccinations than many other Republican governors.
“We can stop this, West Virginia, we can stop it,” Mr. Justice said at a news conference on Friday. “The vaccines are safe. The vaccines are not an invasion on anyone.”
Even though Mr. Justice regularly beseeches his constituents to get a shot, vaccine mandates are “something that I absolutely do not believe in,” he said. Mr. Justice also suggested that Mr. Biden’s announcement of new vaccine mandates was a ploy to try to distract the public from the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the crush of migrants at the southern border.
The latest surge has enveloped West Virginia with a ferocity the virus had not shown before there, said the official running the state’s coronavirus response, Dr. Clay Marsh.
“The rapid rate of growth and the level of severity of illness has really been much greater than we’ve ever seen before,” Dr. Marsh said.
West Virginia’s seven-day average of new reported cases has neared record levels for all of September, hovering above 1,500 per day for most of the past week, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The state recently surpassed a total of 200,000 cases, more than four times the population of Charleston, the capital and largest city.
Hospitalizations are nearing the state’s pandemic high, pushing its understaffed health centers to near capacity, and record numbers of Covid patients are being treated in intensive care units. Dr. Marsh said the state was reducing the number of elective procedures and taking steps to ensure that hospitals were adequately staffed.
And while deaths are averaging just 12 a day, that is more than 41 percent of the state’s peak average for the pandemic, reached in January.
Last January, when the state faced the worst conditions it had seen up to that point, West Virginia’s vaccine rollout was the envy of other states. But demand for the vaccine fell off, as it did in much of the country. Since then Mr. Justice has turned to a number of incentive programs, including $100 savings bonds for young people and a vaccine sweepstakes in which West Virginians can win cash, a scholarship, a sports car or a pontoon boat.
Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer, a retired National Guard officer who leads the interagency task force that coordinates West Virginia’s vaccination efforts, said multiple approaches were necessary.
“Somebody said, ‘What’s the one thing that worked?’” Major General Hoyer said. “And there wasn’t one thing that worked. There was a whole series of things.”
The recent surge spurred more vaccinations, Major General Hoyer said, but the pace has slowed somewhat in recent days. Surveys showed that less than 20 percent of the people in the state were adamantly opposed to vaccination, he said, and direct outreach from health care providers was one important way to reach people who were hesitant.
Mr. Justice said that even with more West Virginians vaccinated there was no guarantee that the current surge was near its peak.
“Maybe we won’t peak until Halloween or Thanksgiving, and in all of that how many more are going to die, and die a horrible death, a death where you can’t breathe?” He asked.
Sarah Cahalan and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.
An Alaska lawmaker has asked to be excused from legislative sessions until next year, saying she has no way to fly to the state capital after she was barred from Alaska Airlines for violating mask policies.
The lawmaker, Lora Reinbold, a Republican state senator, was captured on video in April arguing with employees at Juneau International Airport about mask rules.
After the confrontation, Alaska Airlines said it had notified Ms. Reinbold that she was “not permitted to fly with us for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy.”
Ms. Reinbold had previously complained about Alaska Airlines on Facebook, saying it was “part of mask tyranny.”
She had also been scolded by Alaska’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, who accused her of spreading misinformation about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and of having “abdicated the tenets of your oath as a public servant.”
Speaking on the floor of the Alaska State Senate on Thursday, Ms. Reinbold asked that she be excused from Senate business from Sept. 11 through Jan. 15 “because there’s no airline other than Alaska Airlines that flies into Juneau during that period that I’m aware of.”
“The political ban is still in place as long as Biden’s illegitimate mask mandate is in place on private and public transportation,” she told her colleagues.
The Republican-led Senate accepted her request without objection and indicated that she would be shown as “excused on those dates.”
Ms. Reinbold represents Eagle River, Alaska. If she cannot fly, a trip from her district to Juneau, the state capital, could require her to travel more than 19 hours by car and ferry, and to cross over the Canadian border.
Alaska Airlines said on Saturday that Ms. Reinbold had been told on April 24 that she was not permitted to fly on the airline.
“Since then, a review did happen and the suspension was upheld,” the airline said in a statement. It added that the suspension would remain in effect “while the federal mask policy is in place.”
Referring to a previous statement from April, Alaska Airlines said: “Federal law requires all guests to wear a mask over their nose and mouth at all times during travel, including throughout the flight, during boarding and deplaning, and while traveling through an airport.”
On Thursday, Ms. Reinbold defended her request to be excused from Senate business.
“To be excused does NOT mean you will not be here, it means the legislative process cannot be inhibited if you are not there,” she wrote on Facebook.
If the only major airline offering flights to Juneau “can unconstitutionally impede a legislators ability to get to the Capital in a safe and timely fashion,” she added, “it could undermine our representative republic.”
Last month, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it was extending the requirement that travelers in the United States wear masks at airports, on airplanes, and on commuter buses and trains through Jan. 18.
Mask mandates have become a major flash point on airplanes, contributing to a surge in unruly and sometimes violent behavior from passengers who refuse to comply.
The T.S.A. first announced in February that everyone — except children under 2 and people with some disabilities — would be required to wear masks on airplanes and in airports in the United States. The agency has received more than 4,000 reports of mask-related incidents since then.
On Thursday, President Biden announced that the agency would double fines for travelers who refused to wear masks in airports and on commercial airplanes. The minimum penalty for first-time offenders was raised to $500. Second-time mask refusers may be fined as much as $3,000.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay — and by the way, show some respect,” Mr. Biden said.
In the video that was posted on Twitter in April, Ms. Reinbold is seen at the airport in Juneau, wearing a mask but arguing with employees about it.
“We need you to pull the mask up, or I’m not going to let you on the flight,” an employee tells Ms. Reinbold.
“It is up,” Ms. Reinbold responds.
“It is not,” the employee says. “It’s down below your nose. We can’t have it down.”
It was not clear if Ms. Reinbold had been permitted on the flight. One of the videos shows her leaving the boarding area.
In March, Ms. Reinbold said on Facebook that she had been asked to leave a committee hearing because she was not wearing an approved face shield. After that, Ms. Reinbold was barred from the State Capitol until she complied with health and safety protocols. She later returned to the Capitol in a clear face mask.
“My actions are to protect my constitutional rights, including civil liberties and those who I represent, even under immense pressure and public scrutiny,” Ms. Reinbold wrote in March.
She did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
A fourth wave of the pandemic is looming in Afghanistan — just as the nation’s health care system teeters on the verge of collapse.
The country’s health care has been propped up by aid from international donors. But after the Taliban seized power, the World Bank and other organizations froze $600 million in health care aid.
The Biden administration, too, is struggling with how to dispense donor money to a country now being run by several senior Taliban leaders whom the United States has designated to be terrorists.
If World Bank funding is not restored quickly, an exodus of health care workers may result. Many have remained on the job despite significant personal risks; already some have not been paid for months. Along with the loss of supplies, the cutoff would effectively end health care services in 31 of the nation’s 34 provinces, humanitarian groups say.
Assuming that health care coverage is cut by half because of the funding loss, deaths among women and children will increase by at least 33 percent over the next year — nearly 2,000 women and more than 26,000 children per year — according to one analysis.
“We are losing personnel, we are losing lives, and the morale and momentum we had,” said Dr. Wahid Majrooh, who was health minister under the previous government and has stayed on. “The crisis is very, very extensive.”
Afghanistan emerged from a third wave of virus infections just a few weeks ago, but it is already seeing a small uptick in cases, this time of the highly contagious Delta variant. Only 5 percent of the population have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
“It’s terrible timing that this would happen, when right now we’re faced with a situation where humanitarian needs are escalating,” said Dr. Richard Brennan, the regional emergency director for the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean region.
Major religious traditions, denominations and institutions are essentially unanimous in their support of the vaccines against Covid-19. But as more employers across the United States begin requiring Covid vaccinations for workers, they are butting up against the nation’s sizable population of vaccine holdouts who see their resistance in religious terms.
The conflict was picking up steam even before President Biden announced sweeping new workplace vaccine mandates last week.
Interest in religious exemptions is clearly rising. Mat Staver, the founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization, said his group had received more than 20,000 queries on religious exemptions in recent weeks.
Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs.
For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader, but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.
“People who have already made up their minds are now looking for ways to continue to exempt themselves from the Covid vaccine,” said Joshua Williams, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado.
Crisann Holmes of Indiana is seeking a religious exemption to her employer’s vaccine mandate.
A few weeks after she submitted her exemption request, her employer requested more information, sending her a form for a religious leader to fill out to back up her account of her beliefs. “Religion doesn’t require a leader,” she said. But a pastor at her church, EUM Church in Greenville, Ohio, agreed to fill out the form.
As schools resume in-person classes across the United States, many parents have grown increasingly anxious for their children under 12, who remain ineligible for Covid vaccinations. And so some of those parents are taking extraordinary steps to get their younger children vaccinated in one available channel: enrolling them in clinical trials.
Dr. Tina Sosa, a pediatric hospitalist and mother of two, was able to get her 3-year-old son vaccinated by enrolling him in a Pfizer trial at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center during her fellowship there. He had no side effects from the two shots he received in April, she said. “I even squeezed his arm and asked did it hurt, and he said no.”
Now at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York, Dr. Sosa enrolled her 7-month-old in a Moderna trial set to there begin next month.
Another parent, Leng Vong Reiff of Clive, Iowa, jumped when she heard of openings in a Pfizer trial taking place hours away at a Nebraska clinic.
But spots in clinical trials are relatively rare, and it will be months before the F.D.A. can fully assess the results and decide whether lowering the age of eligibility is warranted — so some parents have even sought, through their pediatricians, off-label shots that are adult doses, a practice the F.D.A. discouraged on Friday.
This summer has been particularly trying for parents, especially after public health experts warned that the Delta variant was highly transmissible — even from vaccinated household members. Although children still are less likely than adults to be hospitalized or die from Covid, nearly 30,000 children with Covid were admitted to hospitals in August, the highest level to date.
As many as 48 million U.S. children are under 12, and Covid concerns about them extend beyond their immediate health. They form a sizable pocket of vulnerability for the nation, one that will remain even if President Biden succeeds in vaccinating 80 million people or more under the mandates he announced on Thursday.
Japan initially struggled to get its Covid-19 vaccination program into full gear, but now that it has, the percentage of its population that has received at least one dose has edged past the level achieved in the United States — leaving Americans last for that category among the world’s seven wealthiest large democracies.
The turning point came on Thursday, when Our World in Data, a project by the University of Oxford in England, reported that 62.16 percent of Japanese people were at least partially vaccinated, compared to 61.94 percent of Americans.
For the moment, the United States retains a slightly larger percentage of fully vaccinated people than Japan, 52.76 percent compared to 50.04 percent, according to Our World in Data, ranking sixth out of the Group of 7 nations, after Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy. But the United States appears all but certain to fall to last place among the Group of 7 nations shortly, given the rapid pace of achieving full vaccinations in Japan and the extremely slow rate in the United States.
Between July 24 and Sept. 9, the full vaccination rate in the United States grew by around 4 percent, while in the same period Japan lifted its level by 25 percent, a jump that doubled the size of its fully vaccinated population. Using doses made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, Japan is administering more than a million vaccine doses per day, some 300,000 above the U.S. average, even though the U.S. population is more than 2.6 times the size of Japan’s.
In Japan, new cases have fallen sharply from a peak of 23,083 on Aug. 25 to 11,347 on Friday, though Japan did confront a dramatic rise in new cases in July and August, coinciding with the Olympics. In the United States, cases spiked starting in early July.
Canada leads the G7 countries in vaccination rates, with almost three-quarters of its population at least partially vaccinated as of Thursday, according to Our World in Data. France, Italy and Britain follow, with percentages between 70 and 73. Germany’s rate is just ahead of Japan’s, at around 65 percent.
The U.S. vaccination curve has leveled dramatically since an initial surge in the first half of this year, when the vaccine first became widely available. In a push to vaccinate the roughly 80 million Americans who are eligible for shots but have not gotten them, President Biden on Thursday mandated that two-thirds of American workers, including health care workers and the vast majority of federal employees, be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Denmark has lifted the last of its coronavirus restrictions, effectively declaring that the virus was no longer a “critical threat to society” and allowing the country to get back to a semblance of prepandemic normal.
“This can only be done because we have come a long way with the vaccination rollout, have a strong epidemic control, and because the entire Danish population has made an enormous effort to get here,” Magnus Heunicke, Denmark’s health minister, said in a statement on Friday about the lifting of restrictions.
The Danish government announced late last month that it would allow the restrictions to lapse, and pointed to Denmark’s high vaccination rates. As of Saturday, about 76 percent of the country’s population had received one dose of a vaccine, and 73 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
While the rules lifted on Friday allow Danes to go more freely about their lives, foreign travelers will still be subject to some restrictions, including presenting a negative coronavirus test upon arrival or possibly even isolating for 10 days, depending on where they are coming from.
The Danish government had been gradually easing its coronavirus restrictions for weeks, including lifting a public transportation mask mandate in mid-August. But the rules lifted this week included the expiration of the coronavirus passport requirement that it had in place for entry into venues like nightclubs.
Mr. Heunicke said that the Danish government would continue to monitor the pandemic, and that it would be “ready to act quickly” if the situation were to deteriorate.
Denmark was one of the hardest hit countries of Scandinavia, though its northern neighbor Sweden, which shunned hard lockdowns, fared far worse. But cases have fallen in both, and Sweden expects to loosen most of its restrictions starting at the end of the month.
By contrast, Norway, which like Finland had kept cases low through most of the pandemic, is experiencing is worst outbreak to date. However, deaths remain low thanks to Norway’s high vaccination rates — 74 percent of the population have had at least one shot and 64 percent are fully vaccinated.
Source: NYT > Top Stories