Austria Enters Lockdown Amid Growing Resistance

  • by

Image

Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

VIENNA — Austria entered a nationwide lockdown on Monday, as Europe experiences a menacing fourth wave of the coronavirus, with soaring rates of infection.

The lockdown, in which people are allowed to leave their homes only to go to work or to procure groceries or medicines, will last at least 10 days and as many as 20 and comes after months of struggling attempts to halt the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions.

While Austria may be the first European country to respond with a lockdown, it may not be the last. That prospect, along with increasingly stringent vaccine mandates, has set off a backlash in Austria and elsewhere, with mass demonstrations in Vienna, Brussels and the Dutch city of Rotterdam over the weekend, sometimes punctuated with violent outbreaks.

Video

transcript

transcript

Austrians Protest Lockdown and Vaccine Mandate

Thousands in Vienna over the weekend demonstrated against the measures, which include a nationwide lockdown.

[drums] [chanting] [drums] [whistles] [drums]

Thousands in Vienna over the weekend demonstrated against the measures, which include a nationwide lockdown.CreditCredit…Lisa Leutner/Associated Press

The new Covid wave is being driven by widespread resistance to vaccines and to the growing prevalence of vaccine and mask mandates. Austrian officials have said they will enforce a nationwide vaccine mandate in February, the first European nation to do so.

Austria, where 66 percent of the population is vaccinated, reported more than 14,000 new cases of the virus within 24 hours on Sunday. Over the past week the Netherlands has been averaging more than 20,000, while Germany has seen roughly double that number.

7–day average

13,852

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.

The opposition to the lockdown and vaccine mandates in Austria is being fueled in part by the far-right Freedom Party, which has used its platform in the Austrian Parliament to spread doubt about the effectiveness of the vaccines and to promote ivermectin, a drug typically used to treat parasitic worms that has repeatedly failed against the coronavirus in clinical trials.

But the fury is not limited to far-right activists, as the throngs that filled Vienna’s streets on Saturday attested. The police estimated the crowd at 40,000, with many families and others far outnumbering the right-wing extremists.

Image

Credit…Nic Antaya for The New York Times

A month ago, new coronavirus cases in the United States were ticking steadily downward and the worst of a miserable summer surge fueled by the Delta variant appeared to be over. But as Americans travel this week to meet far-flung relatives for Thanksgiving dinner, new virus cases are rising once more, especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

Federal medical teams have been dispatched to Minnesota to help at overwhelmed hospitals. Michigan is enduring its worst case surge yet, with daily caseloads doubling since the start of November. Even New England, where vaccination rates are high, is struggling, with Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire trying to contain major outbreaks.

7–day average

93,689

Source: State and local health agencies. Daily cases are the number of new cases reported each day. The seven-day average is the average of a day and the previous six days of data.

Nationally, case levels remain well below those seen in early September, when summer infections peaked, and are below those seen last Thanksgiving. But conditions are worsening rapidly, and this will not be the post-pandemic Thanksgiving that Americans had hoped for. More than 90,000 cases are being reported each day, comparable to early August, and more than 30 states are seeing sustained upticks in infections. In the hardest-hit places, hospitalizations are already climbing.

“This thing is no longer just throwing curveballs at us — it’s throwing 210-mile-an-hour curveballs at us,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. He said that the virus had repeatedly defied predictions and continues to do so.

The new rise in cases comes at a complicated moment. Last Thanksgiving, before vaccines were available, federal and local officials had firmly urged Americans to forgo holiday gatherings. But in sharp contrast, public health officials, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, have mostly suggested this year that vaccinated people could gather in relative safety.

Image

Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

Who should get Covid-19 vaccine boosters? That depends on the public health goal, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

On Friday, the F.D.A. endorsed Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine boosters for all adults, but did not require that people have boosters to be considered fully vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed with the F.D.A. later on Friday and currently advises that those 50 years and older, or adult residents in long-term care, “should” get a Moderna or Pfizer booster, while other adults “may” get one. The agency also advises that all adults who received the Johnson & Johnson shot should get boosted.

Speaking Sunday on the CBS show “Face the Nation” about the current recommendations, Dr. Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member, said that there are two views about the goal of boosters: If vaccines are meant to protect people from severe Covid infections, they should be recommended for people over 50. Immunity from vaccines wanes in older people after six months, placing them at increased risk for a serious infection and, Dr. Gottlieb said, “a bad outcome.”

But, he added, if the goal of boosters is to slow or stop transmission of the coronavirus, they should be recommended for younger people. Boosters may not help those individuals avoid severe disease because their immunity is already good, Dr. Gottlieb said, but they can prevent younger people from infecting others.

“You’re recommending the booster as a tool to try to make them less likely to pass on the virus,” he explained.

That sort of strategy is not new to the infectious disease world. Boys are immunized against rubella, or German measles. But the goal is not to protect them — the disease is mild in children. Instead, it is to prevent boys from spreading the virus to pregnant women — rubella can cause severe birth defects.

Girls, too, are immunized against rubella to prevent them from spreading the virus, but also to protect their fetuses when they are older, if they become pregnant.

For now, the booster situation is unsettled, and recommendations can vary state to state. Only the governors of Connecticut and New Mexico have said that, to be fully vaccinated, everyone needs three doses of a Covid vaccine. Dr. Gottlieb said he did not think the C.D.C. would recommend that everyone get three doses any time soon because of the debate among public health experts over the goal of vaccination.

He added, “the C.D.C.’s sort of stuttering approach to how they’ve embraced boosters is sort of reflective of that debate.”

Image

Credit…Joel Carrett/EPA, via Shutterstock

Australia, 20 months after shutting its borders, will allow skilled workers and international students to enter the country next month, the government announced on Monday.

The move comes as the Australian government, faced with a severe labor shortage, turns its focus to economic recovery, with 72 percent of the country fully vaccinated.

The new rules go into effect on Dec. 1, the beginning of summer in Australia. Some categories of visa holders, including skilled workers, international students, and those on working holiday and prospective marriage visas, will be allowed to enter Australia for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Over 200,000 people will fall into those categories.

“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday at a news conference. “The steps that we are taking today are about securing our economic recovery.”

At the start of the pandemic, Australia shut its borders to noncitizens, leaving hundreds of thousands of visa holders stranded outside the country and contributing to a significant worker shortage. Australia has relied on temporary workers for many industries, such as hospitality and agriculture. The travel restrictions also created a severe funding shortfall for universities.

Most tourists are still barred from traveling to Australia, except those from Singapore, South Korea and Japan, all countries that have established travel bubbles with Australia.

Visitors entering Australia will need to be fully vaccinated and return a negative PCR test within three days of boarding their flight. Upon arrival, they will need to follow some quarantine restrictions, depending on the state in which they arrive.

On Sunday, the first planes from Singapore arrived in Sydney and Melbourne under the new travel bubble arrangement, bringing the first tourists into the country since the start of the pandemic.

Image

Credit…Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via Associated Press

The Walt Disney Company has paused a coronavirus vaccine mandate for employees of its Florida theme park after the State Legislature and the governor made it illegal for employers to require all workers get the shots, a company spokesperson confirmed Saturday.

Walt Disney World could have been facing fines under the policy, illustrating how even one of the most well-known tourism brands in the state has to deal with the headwinds of political debate over the pandemic response.

7–day average

1,437

Source: State and local health agencies. Daily cases are the number of new cases reported each day. The seven-day average is the average of a day and the previous six days of data.

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature delivered the bill blocking Covid-19 vaccine mandates on Wednesday and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on Thursday, casting the measures as an effort to protect workers who could lose their jobs for lack of compliance.

Governor DeSantis, also a Republican, has been at the forefront of the political fight to curtail mask and vaccine mandates, saying the push against those restrictions counters overreach from the federal government. “Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed Covid mandates, and we had a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida,” the governor said in a statement.

The Biden administration has ordered vaccinations for workers in large companies and members of the federal work force, but the effort has met resistance across the country. Florida is among states that have challenged federal mandates in court.

The new Florida law prohibits employers from enforcing strict vaccine mandates, allowing employees to choose exemptions that include health or religious concerns, pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy, and having had the virus and recovered from it. Unvaccinated workers could instead undergo periodic testing or wear protective equipment, at the employers’ cost. Fines for violation could cost $10,000 a day per employee violation for businesses with fewer than 99 employees or up to $50,000 per employee violation for larger businesses.

Government entities and school districts are also restricted by the Covid mandate ban.

Disney World previously struck a deal with employees to require theme park workers to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to keep their jobs, and the company defended that rule in a statement Saturday. “We believe that our approach to mandatory vaccines has been the right one as we’ve continued to focus on the safety and well-being of our cast members and guests,” the statement said.

More than 90 percent of active cast members in Florida have verified they are vaccinated, the company said, before it sent a memo to employees halting the mandate.

Walt Disney’s website tells visitors it has been “very intentional and gradual” in operating safely, recommending guests exercise caution: wearing face coverings, checking for symptoms and getting the shots. “We encourage people to get vaccinated,” it says.

Todd Gregory contributed to this report.

Víctor Manuel Ramos

Image

Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

Germany is facing a dwindling supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which was partly developed in the country, as it races to provide booster shots, the German health ministry said on Monday.

And while the European Medicines Agency is poised to approve the vaccine for use on children 5 to 11 this week, first doses will not begin until Dec. 20, when shots for children are scheduled to be delivered to European Union countries, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said.

A strong fourth Covid wave — as well as repeated advice by the authorities to get vaccinated or get a booster shot — has led to a renewed run on vaccines.

On Thursday, 553,000 vaccines were administered in Germany in one day, a daily total not seen since early August. Three quarters of those shots were boosters, according to the health ministry.

“Probably by the end of this winter, as is sometimes cynically said,” Mr. Spahn said, “pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, recovered or dead.”

Pfizer-BioNTech was the first coronavirus vaccine to be licensed in Germany and makes up roughly three quarters of the doses administered in the country. A vast majority of older Germans, who were vaccinated first, received that vaccine and are now looking for it as a booster shot.

On Monday, the authorities stressed that Moderna boosters would be just as effective and that the two could be used in combination.

Separately, Germany will receive a delivery of 2.4 million specially prepared doses for children ages 5 to 11, Mr. Spahn said. More shipments are expected early next year.

Image

Credit…Christopher Occhicone for The New York Times

As a company in India tests a cheap and possibly highly effective Covid-19 vaccine, a large group of researchers, most of whom are at Harvard, made the same vaccine and figured out how and why it could work so well, especially in vulnerable older adults.

The Harvard group began with a crucial question about Covid: Which population is most important to protect?

The answer, of course, is older people who are most at risk for severe disease and death.

The Harvard group began testing the vaccine with old mice. Like older people, old mice are much more susceptible to the coronavirus and much more likely to die.

The researchers made a vaccine that included a fragment of the virus’s spike protein, the part that latches onto cells, allowing the virus to enter. Vaccines like the ones made by Moderna and by Pfizer-BioNTech spur cells to make complete copies of the spike, prompting the immune system to make antibodies to block it if a coronavirus tried to infect the person.

But those vaccines are expensive to make and store. In contrast, a snippet of the spike is cheap and can be stored at room temperature. The problem was that it does not elicit much of an immune response.

The Harvard group, led by David Dowling, turned to adjuvants — chemicals that enhance the immune system’s response to vaccines — trying one adjuvant combination after another until they found one that seemed spectacularly successful. With that adjuvant, the vaccine protected mice at least as well as the Pfizer vaccine, said Dr. Ofer Levy, the director of Harvard’s Precision Vaccines Program.

But what about people? Dr. Levy recruited volunteers from his Cambridge synagogue — people in their 60s, 70s and 80s — to provide blood for lab tests to see if the adjuvant that was so good in mice also stimulated the immune system in older people.

It did.

Now the question is what will happen in the trial in India? If the vaccine works, the hope is that it could help solve one of the thorniest problems in stemming the pandemic — how to make vaccines accessible to everyone worldwide.

The Indian government seems to be betting on success. In June, while clinical trials were in their early stages the government preordered 300 million doses. Its maker, Biological E Limited, estimates it will cost $3 a dose.

In contrast, Pfizer’s price is $19.50 a dose but is expected to rise after its pandemic pricing phase ends.

Image

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The lines are getting longer at the Halal Guys food cart in the heart of Manhattan. The number of international visitors buying Statue of Liberty tickets has jumped more than 50 percent. And a few thousand more people are walking through Times Square.

After more than 18 months, the United States reopened its borders on Nov. 8 to vaccinated foreign travelers. Early indications suggest that they have been trickling back to New York, the top American destination city for international tourists.

But many businesses that depend on international visitors, including hotel operators and restaurants, see signs that even more tourists could start streaming in as the year-end holiday season approaches, providing a badly needed boost as the city’s labor force struggles to recover from the pandemic.

The tourism industry has increasingly become a pillar of New York’s economy. A record 66.6 million travelers visited the city in 2019, and their spending supported hundreds of thousands of jobs, from restaurant workers to museum security guards to bus drivers.

Some airlines reported that their first flights carrying tourists to New York in 20 months were fully booked.

“It really seems like the city is happy to show itself to the world again,” said Christiaan Vander Kuylen, who arrived recently from Brussels. “The energy is amazing.”

Nicole Hong, Patrick McGeehan and Chelsia Rose Marcius

Image

Credit…Brian Inganga/Associated Press

Kenya will require proof of vaccination for those seeking in-person government services starting next month, a major policy decision that could face resistance as the East African nation looks to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Beginning Dec. 21, unvaccinated people will be denied access to visit government agencies, including those providing immigration, tax, education and transport services, the cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, said on Sunday. The vaccine mandate will also extend to those planning to visit hospitals, prisons, eateries, bars, national parks and any business serving 50 or more people daily. Drivers of public transportation, along with pilots and air hostesses, will be expected to always carry proof of vaccination.

Mr. Kagwe said the government was concerned about a slowdown in vaccine uptake, particularly in several high-density counties, and hoped the new measures would push more people to get inoculated. The authorities plan to start a 10-day, mass vaccination exercise on Friday.

7–day average

59

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.

With schools closing and the country heading into the festive season, he said there were concerns that many people would get complacent about adhering to public health measures, including social distancing and wearing masks. He also pointed to the new wave of Covid infections in Europe as a warning sign and referenced as an example Austria’s decision to mandate Covid vaccinations and institute a new lockdown. Under the new rules, visitors from Europe will be required to be fully vaccinated to enter Kenya.

“It’s becoming increasingly apparent that as countries battle the pandemic, a lot more emphasis is being placed on the need to have more and more people vaccinated,” Mr. Kagwe said at a news conference on Sunday. “The global consensus is that convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated should be a top priority.”

Kenya has recorded over 254,700 cases and 5,328 deaths from the coronavirus. While average case rates have dropped in recent weeks, the lag in vaccinations and the spread of the more contagious Delta variant had overwhelmed the country’s health care system.

Kenya hopes to vaccinate at least 30 million people before the end of 2022, but like many African countries, it has also struggled to gain access to vaccines. The country has so far received 10.7 million doses and just 2.4 million people out of its total population of 50 million have been fully vaccinated, according to its Health Ministry. Mr. Kagwe said Kenya would begin administering Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to those 15 to 18 starting on Tuesday.

The vaccine mandate was met with skepticism on Monday, with many lamenting its practicality. Some pointed to the low vaccination rates among the adult population, with just 8.8 percent of them fully vaccinated. Others said the mandate could open the door to more corruption, bribery and the proliferation of fake vaccine certificates.

Activists said the government should not only make sure that vaccines are available to all, but also come up with better strategies to address vaccine hesitancy.

“A generalized mandatory vaccination, especially one that gives such a short notice within which people must be vaccinated in order to access even basic services, is unconstitutional,” Waikwa Wanyoike, a prominent constitutional lawyer, wrote on Twitter.

Image

Credit…Andrew Kutan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Papua New Guinea will have vaccinated only a third of its adult population by 2026 if it continues at its current rate, according to new research by an Australian think tank that predicts that some countries in the Pacific will take years to vaccinate their populations.

The research by the think tank, the Lowy Institute, using modeling based on existing vaccination rates and factors such as demography, vaccine acceptance rates and health sector capacity, found that while some countries in the Pacific are leading the world in vaccination rates, others are lagging far behind.

“The Pacific is divided when it comes to vaccinations,” said Alexandre Dayant, the author of the study and a Lowy Institute research fellow, warning that the slow vaccination speed in some nations raised the risk of new variants emerging.

Palau has given 99 percent of residents at least one vaccine dose. Tonga and Samoa are set to vaccinate their adult populations before the end of the year, according to the modeling, which is subject to change.

However, the Solomon Islands are not expected to fully vaccinate their adult population until April 2026, while it is estimated to take Vanuatu until then to vaccinate 86 percent of its adult population. And Papua New Guinea, the slowest in the region, will have vaccinated only about 16 percent of its population by December 2022.

These countries have been hampered by overstretched health care systems and rampant vaccine misinformation, Mr. Dayant said.

Facebook is often people’s primary source of information there, and unsubstantiated theories of Western plots to inoculate people with microchips and black magic circulate on social media, he said, adding: “misinformation spreads much quicker than the virus in the Pacific.”

He said wealthy countries could do more, like bolstering local health care systems. “It is in the interest of the world to vaccinate developing countries,” he said.