Though many global coronavirus trends are rapidly improving as countries emerge from surges driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the grimmest metric hit a tragic milestone on Monday.
The number of known Covid-19 deaths around the world surpassed six million, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
“Six million is really unfathomable,” said Beth Blauer, the data leader for the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins. “These are real lives.”
Five of those deaths were in the family of Ernesto Díaz, 33, an accountant in Lima, Peru, in 2020. Peru leads the world with the highest number of known deaths per 100,000 people, over the course of the pandemic.
“My father died in May, my grandfather in June, my aunt in July, my uncle and grandma on the same day, July 28,” Mr. Díaz said in an interview. “It’s been almost two years, and bit by bit you process it. Process it, in theory, because it’s still hard, especially at family gatherings.”
He said the deaths have also left his family in debt, with expenses for oxygen, medicine and funerals.
Public health experts agree that six million is a vast undercount and that the true devastation will never be precisely known. In Yemen, where a civil war has been raging for years, the government has reported only 2,100 deaths since the start of the pandemic while its population of 30 million is 99 percent unvaccinated.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know in places that don’t necessarily have the same infrastructure for fundamentally understanding the pandemic and reporting,” Dr. Blauer said.
Surges are still intensifying in Hong Kong, South Korea and New Zealand, but new death counts are dropping in many places as Omicron recedes. The world is averaging more than 7,000 new confirmed deaths a day, down from almost 11,000 a day in early February and the known pandemic peak of more than 14,000 a day in January 2021.
The death rate was “still far too high in the third year of this pandemic,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, a top World Health Organization official.
Even the United States, with ample vaccine supply, has suffered the highest known total — more than 950,000 deaths — and failed to inoculate as much of its population as other wealthy nations. The White House unveiled a plan to help transition to what some are calling a “new normal,” but an average of about 1,500 Americans are still dying each day, around a year after vaccines became readily available, according to a New York Times database.
Hong Kong, which is going through its worst outbreak yet, has also fallen short on vaccinating its people, particularly older residents. Florence Chang, a financial planner, said her 95-year-old father contracted the virus from a health aide last month and was hospitalized. He suffers from diabetes, sleep apnea and hypertension, and was advised by his doctor not to get vaccinated, she said.
“The thought that he might not be with us, with the family, is quite difficult,” said Ms. Chang, 54. “If he gets better, we will definitely spend more time together.”
And stark vaccination disparities between countries remain, leaving the entire world vulnerable to the threat of a new, deadly variant. Vaccination rates continue to lag in low-income countries, where only 14 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. In high- and upper-middle-income countries, 79 percent of the population has received at least one dose.
“Science has given us tools to fight this virus our ancestors could not even have dreamed of — the ability to track its evolution almost in real time, to test for it rapidly, to treat it, and, of course, to prevent it with safe and effective vaccines,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general. “But the global failure to distribute those tools equitably has prolonged the pandemic.”
Mitra Taj and Tiffany May contributed reporting.
Schoolchildren from the Upper East Side to East New York will turn up to classrooms on Monday morning with nothing on their faces — except, perhaps, the remnants of a milk mustache.
In other words: Masks are now optional for public school children in New York City from kindergarten on up.
It is a day some have yearned for and others think has come too soon, prompted by the decision by Mayor Eric Adams to lift the mask mandate in New York City schools. The move came hours after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she would lift the statewide mandate.
“We did our jobs as New Yorkers, and now we’re winning,” Mr. Adams said in a television interview on Monday on NY1. “Covid is no longer in control of our lives. We are in control of our lives.”
Mr. Adams said he would eventually remove the mask mandate for children under 5 once he makes sure that cases don’t increase for older students and asked parents to trust him. “We are going to get there,” he said.
The New York City Department of Education said it will continue to require daily health screenings and that students returning from suspected coronavirus infections must wear masks for several days. In addition, the Department of Education strongly recommends that students or staff exposed to the virus wear face coverings, although it does not require them to do so.
Since the Omicron surge has been ebbing, pandemic restrictions have been lifted in many states, including New York, allowing local officials to make their own determinations on masks. In Connecticut, the decision was turned over to localities late last month, while in New Jersey, rules similar to New York’s also go into effect on Monday.
Like so many virus restriction rollbacks, this one has been met with an anxious mix of excitement, hope and concern.
While New York City has a vaccination rate that is above the national figure, rates among children have continued to lag, and are not consistent across schools.
A recent study from the New York State Department of Health found that, as with adults, most children hospitalized for or with Covid-19 were unvaccinated. The report also found that children ages 4 and younger, who are ineligible for coronavirus vaccines, were overrepresented among all pediatric hospitalizations. Masks will continue to be required for children ages 2 to 4 in kindergarten and preschool classrooms.
The United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City public school educators, said on Friday that it supported the move to a system where masks are optional. President Michael Mulgrew called it “the responsible, thoughtful way to make our next transition.”
Even so, the union stressed the importance of maintaining a robust in-school and take-home testing program to ensure that the city, with more than one million children in its public schools, remained “on the right path.”
Some parents, public health experts, and local officials have said that it is too early to ease restrictions, and some have urged children and teachers to continue to wear masks.
With the statewide mandate gone, some districts began going maskless as early as last week.
The complicated mixture of emotions was on display at the Cynthia Jenkins Elementary School in the Springfield Gardens neighborhood of Queens, where about 11 percent of the school’s students are fully vaccinated.
Natalie Charles, the mother of a second-grader, Ethan Scarlett, said that she was not entirely comfortable with dropping masks. “This is what I told him, you have to keep the mask on,” she said, adding that her entire family was vaccinated.
Ms. Charles wondered why the mask mandate was ending while schools were still testing students. Those contradictory signals helped lead to her decision, she said.
A slightly shy Ethan, 7, just nodded while masked, agreeing with his mother.
Sadef Ali Kully and Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.
Like their counterparts in New York City, students in most of New Jersey’s suburban schools are allowed to attend classes on Monday without wearing masks, for the first time since schools reopened during the pandemic. But that isn’t the case in several of the state’s urban school systems.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced in early February that the state’s in-school mask mandate would end on Monday and that individual school systems had the option to set their own rules after that.
Administrators in large cities like Newark, Paterson and Trenton decided to continue requiring students and employees to wear masks in schools, at least for now. Other districts have adopted metric-based policies that can fluctuate with factors like Covid vaccination rates and rates of community spread.
For example, in the 9,400-student West Windsor-Plainsboro district near Princeton, students in middle school and high school are being permitted to go maskless this week, based on low coronavirus transmission levels. But the district’s younger students — some of whom are too young to be eligible for vaccination — are still required to wear face coverings in class.
In a survey released on Monday by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, 68 percent of New Jersey residents agreed that it was time to end the state’s school mask mandate, while 30 percent disagreed.
“Over half of New Jerseyans think that the pandemic is not technically over, but they are mentally and emotionally ready for it to be,” Ashley Konig, director of the polling center, said in a statement. “Many New Jerseyans are re-entering life and returning to normal, despite knowing the pandemic will be around for a while.”
BEIJING — China is facing its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the early days of the pandemic, with more than 800 new cases reported over the weekend — almost as many as were reported altogether during the previous week.
Most of the new infections have been fueled by the Omicron variant, which has been identified in nearly a dozen major cities, including Shanghai, Xi’an, Suzhou, Qingdao and Wenzhou. A few cases of the Delta variant have been reported near China’s borders with Mongolia and Myanmar.
“Right now the epidemic situation is severe and complex, with many uncertain factors,” said Wu Jinglei, the director of the Shanghai Health Commission.
The current surge, while smaller than recent waves in other countries like the United States, Germany and South Korea, is the biggest challenge to date to China’s “zero Covid” policy.
The rise of infections, including new cases reported over the weekend in 17 of China’s 31 provinces, has occurred as China’s leaders have gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.
China’s national news media organizations have focused their attention almost exclusively on the session over the last several days, scarcely mentioning the resurgence of the pandemic. But the weekend surge in infections, which spared the city of Beijing, has been announced by the National Health Commission and reported by local news media.
The breakout also coincides with growing concerns among Chinese financial regulators and economists that stringent Covid measures have hurt the country’s economic growth.
China’s premier, Li Keqiang, said in his annual speech to the congress on Saturday that cities should not be too quick to impose drastic measures in response to outbreaks, but should respond in a “scientific and targeted manner.” Instead of locking down entire cities, government officials have focused on quarantining housing complexes and workplaces with confirmed cases.
Xi’an, a northwestern city of 13 million people, locked down its population for nearly five weeks in response to dozens of reported cases last December. After six cases were reported there over the past three days, the city ordered 13,000 people not to leave their homes.
Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong, announced last Tuesday the introduction of extensive security measures, such as border patrols, surveillance cameras and searchlights, to ensure that visitors from Hong Kong underwent at least two weeks of quarantine when crossing the border.
A video that has drawn attention shows Chinese health workers in biohazard suits conducting house searches to make sure everyone has been tested and no one has entered from Hong Kong without quarantine.
Joy Dong and Li You contributed research.
No vaccine card?
For diners in New York City restaurants starting this week, that is no problem.
To mark the occasion, Rocco Sacramone is planning to put 300 balloons outside his restaurant, Trattoria L’incontro in Astoria, along with speakers that will play Frank Sinatra’s iconic “New York, New York.”
“Spring is in the air, and it could not be a better time for us right now,” Mr. Sacramone said, adding: “We’re back!”
Last week, Mayor Eric Adams confirmed that beginning Monday the city would no longer require patrons in restaurants, bars and gyms and other places indoors to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus, part of a sweeping rollback of restrictions that includes lifting a mask requirement in public schools.
New Yorkers will still be required to wear masks in a number of settings, including on the subway, and in taxis. Masks and vaccination are still required at Broadway shows through April 30, and individual business owners may continue to require either as they see fit. The city’s vaccine mandates for private employers and municipal workers remain in place.
“We are open for business and N.Y.C. has its groove back,” Mr. Adams said on Friday in Times Square, declaring that the city was winning its battle with the virus that has killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers.
The announcement has been met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Some public health experts and local officials have raised concerns that easing restrictions is premature and could send the message that Covid is no longer a risk.
“Like everything else to help the pandemic, specifically, when it comes to Covid mandates, there’s a lot of different opinions and feelings,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants and nightlife venues. “But the vast majority of people I’ve heard from are relieved.”
The restaurant industry has been one of those hardest hit by the pandemic, forcing many owners to drastically rethink their businesses in order to survive. Many leaned on delivery, some for the first time. Temporary approvals for to-go drinks and more outdoor dining also helped get businesses through the toughest days, and there have been efforts to make both permanent.
But the city’s unemployment rate is still stubbornly high — inflated, Mr. Rigie said, by the many jobs in restaurants and hospitality that have not yet returned.
For many, simply surviving to this point is cause for celebration.
“I feel very grateful to be in our community, because we were being rooted for,” said Kalkin Narvilas, who owns the restaurants Saggio and Uptown Garrison in Upper Manhattan. “So even if it wasn’t enough to let’s say thrive, it was enough to survive.”
Over the past two years, Mr. Narvilas has watched as restaurants that had anchored neighborhoods, and that he had looked up to, closed their doors. He and his staff leaned into creative solutions during the early days of the pandemic, he said, and worked hard to make the most tentative patron comfortable — even using a hospital grade air filter. But even so, he said, keeping up with changing rules had strained the businesses, and he welcomed the lifting of the mandate.
“We have to undo some damage, and it’s not going to be overnight,” Mr. Narvilas said. “But when are you going to start that?”
For some, the change will mean little.
Matthew Chan, who owns the Kosher Chinese restaurant Chop Chop, in the Fort George neighborhood of Manhattan, had to get creative to keep the lights on at his business, which relied heavily on Yeshiva University across the street.
He found himself scouring Facebook groups to find people seeking Kosher Chinese food in communities as far-flung as Silver Spring, Md., and Boston, a pivot he has made permanent. The mandate change has less of an impact now that he spends his days driving orders to customers all over the Northeast.
“People think I’m crazy, but I’m alive and I still can help all my family,” he said.
Covid-19 may cause greater loss of gray matter and tissue damage in the brain than naturally occurs in people who have not been infected with the virus, a large new study finds.
The study, published Monday in the journal Nature, is believed to be the first involving people who underwent brain scans both before they contracted Covid and months after. Neurological experts who were not involved in the research said it was valuable and unique, but they cautioned that the implications of the changes were unclear and did not necessarily suggest that people might have lasting damage or that the changes might profoundly affect thinking, memory or other functions.
The study, involving people aged 51 to 81, found shrinkage and tissue damage primarily in brain areas related to sense of smell; some of those areas are also involved in other brain functions, the researchers said.
“To me, this is pretty convincing evidence that something changes in brains of this overall group of people with Covid,” said Dr. Serena Spudich, chief of neurological infections and global neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
But, she cautioned: “To make a conclusion that this has some long-term clinical implications for the patients I think is a stretch. We don’t want to scare the public and have them think, ‘Oh, this is proof that everyone’s going to have brain damage and not be able to function.’”
Queen Elizabeth II met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Monday in her first in-person official meeting after testing positive for the coronavirus last month, giving further reassurance about her recovery.
Queen Elizabeth, 95, first tested positive for the virus on Feb. 20, but only reported experiencing mild cold-like symptoms. Buckingham Palace announced her return to work on March 1.
The palace posted a photograph to Twitter on Monday of the queen, who is also queen of Canada, receiving Mr. Trudeau at Windsor Castle for an in-person audience, or one-on-one meeting.
Some observers on Twitter pointed out that the flowers behind the queen were blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
In recent days, the Disasters Emergency Committee, which distributes relief money in Britain, thanked the Queen for making a generous donation to their humanitarian fund-raiser for Ukraine.
Mr. Trudeau is traveling across Europe this week to signify Canada’s solidarity with European countries “in the face of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau also met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain. They were joined by the Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands.
Lauren McLean, the mayor of Boise, Idaho, said that she has faced “real and grave” threats during her term, which has been marked by aggressive demonstrations against Covid-19 restrictions that she and other state officials put in place.
In a nearly 900-word statement that her office shared on Thursday, Ms. McLean, a Democrat, said she had faced protests with torches and pitchforks outside her home and “sinister thwarted plots” against her. Ms. McLean said she was discussing the threats in public because violent intimidation had driven other officials to resign from their posts.
“I understand the decision to leave public office because I still feel intensely the fear, frustration, and helplessness of watching my two children quietly take in news of thwarted threats against me and learning that they, too, were being targeted and tracked online,” Ms. McLean’s statement said.
Ms. McLean said that, after consulting with her family, she had decided to stay in office. She also said that she had made changes to her professional and personal life, including traveling with a security detail, ending her early morning trail runs and sharing less information about her family online.
Ms. McLean did not specifically mention the coronavirus in the statement, though several of the protests she described taking place outside her home in 2020 were against Covid restrictions.
Boise is lifting its mask mandate in city buildings and ending restrictions on the size of gatherings on Monday. The changes follow a significant drop in Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Idaho in recent weeks.
About this data
Sources: State and local health agencies (cases, deaths); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
In Idaho, coronavirus vaccines and pandemic public health rules have been especially divisive. Only 53 percent of Idaho residents are fully vaccinated, which is one of the lowest rates in the country, according to a New York Times database.
In August 2020, dozens of unmasked protesters, some of them armed, forced their way into the state’s House of Representatives chamber, pushing past state troopers to protest laws related to the pandemic. Among them was Ammon Bundy, who led an armed standoff against federal agents in Oregon in 2016. Mr. Bundy was acquitted of federal conspiracy and weapons charges in the Oregon case. He was convicted of trespassing in the Idaho protest but returned to the Idaho Capitol building repeatedly.
In December 2020, Ms. McLean and the Boise police ended a virtual meeting held by the city’s public health agency out of concern over protests outside the agency’s headquarters and the homes of at least three members of its board.
Ms. McLean’s statement said that she had tried not to call attention to “militia-affiliated” crowds that gathered outside her own home, but that she wanted to describe the threats against her and her family so that other public leaders experiencing harassment would feel less isolated.
Ms. McLean, the first woman elected mayor of Boise, was a member of the Boise City Council from 2011 until 2019, when she won the mayoral election. She assumed office in January 2020, with the pandemic dominating much of her tenure.
Back in 2005, when low-cost Chinese manufacturers were taking over the personal protective equipment industry, Mike Bowen joined a friend who had started a small surgical-mask company called Prestige Ameritech. The plan was to market his company’s masks to American hospitals and distributors as a way to provide resilience — a means of ensuring domestic supply, if the global supply chain ever faltered.
“Every company had left America,” he recalled recently. “The entire U.S. mask supply was under foreign control.” He remembers warning customers, “If there’s a pandemic, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Soon after the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, the supply chain for protective equipment broke down, creating severe shortages that cost lives. A handful of U.S. entrepreneurs responded by starting to manufacture masks domestically.
In Miami, a family-owned surgical device company, DemeTech, spent several million dollars to expand its facilities, build machines and hire hundreds of employees; by the fall of 2020, it was capable of churning out five million masks a day, according to Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of the company. “We took a risk as a family,” he said.
It is hard to know precisely how many similar efforts were born during the pandemic; 36 companies are now members of the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association, formed to lobby Washington.
At first, customers who could no longer obtain enough masks through their usual channels were beating down their doors, and business boomed again during the Delta and Omicron waves. But once those waves crested, and Chinese companies that wanted to regain market share began exporting masks to the U.S. below cost, the customers disappeared.
Today, the small U.S. mask manufacturers are in dire straits, if they haven’t gone out of business already. DemeTech has laid off nearly all the employees it hired to make masks, and it has shut most of its mask manufacturing center.