Austrian Adult Vaccine Mandate Nears Approval

Image

Credit…Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

Austria’s lower house of Parliament voted on Thursday to make Covid vaccines mandatory for almost everyone 18 and over, putting it on the path to be the first European country with such a wide-reaching mandate.

The law would take effect Feb. 1. The bill must still pass in the upper house and be signed by the president, Alexander Van der Bellen, but both are considered formalities at this point.

While Austria’s bill is the first of its kind, other European nations are pushing large segments of their population to get vaccinated. Italy has made vaccines mandatory for those over 50, with fines for those who do not comply, and Greece has mandated vaccines for those 60 and older. Other European countries have made vaccine passports compulsory for certain activities.

Under the Austrian law, people who are pregnant or cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and those who have recently recovered from Covid will be exempt.

Once the law goes into effect, all households will be notified. The government said it would begin routine checks of vaccination status in mid-March, including during traffic checks.

Once the vaccine checks begin, people who can’t immediately produce proof of vaccination will be reported to the authorities, and can be fined up to 600 euros ($685). If people contest their fine, it can increase to 3,600 euros, or about $4,000.

The law is set to last until 2024. Austria’s current rate of vaccination is 75 percent, similar to that of France and of Italy, and new cases are averaging 17,846 a day, according to The New York Times database.

7–day average

15,843

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 government announced plans to mandate vaccines in November. At the time, the country had just introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated, who were driving a surge of infections.

Europe’s vaccination campaigns have been met with protests and political jousting between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Even as studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to avoid hospitalization or death if infected, Western European governments are increasing resorting to thinly veiled coercion with a mixture of mandates, inducements and punishments.

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 unproven treatments.

Tensions in the country were aggravated by weeks of paralysis after Sebastian Kurz resigned as chancellor in early October amid a scandal, and calls to depoliticize the pandemic followed.

Austria’s interior minister, Karl Nehammer, has said that the “freedom” that many protesters insist they want can be achieved only through vaccination.

“It is not a question of ideology, it is a question of convincing; we can’t do and try enough to convince so that the unvaccinated get vaccinated,” Mr. Nehammer said late last year.

Kaly Soto

Image

Credit…Emily Elconin for The New York Times

Unvaccinated Americans ages 50 and older are significantly more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than those who are fully vaccinated and receive a booster shot, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

That booster shots keep people from becoming infected, at least for a while, has not been in dispute. But the new finding largely supports conclusions from Israel and other countries showing that boosters also are effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization, especially in older adults.

And the C.D.C.’s figures represent the first real-world data showing the effects of extra shots of a Covid vaccine in the United States.

The numbers published on the agency’s website on Thursday night suggest that in December, unvaccinated people ages 50 and older were 17 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who had completed the initial immunization series — without boosters.

But unvaccinated Americans between 50 and 64 were 44 times more likely to end up in the hospital with Covid than those in the age group who were vaccinated and received a booster shot.

The difference was even more stark for those older than 65: Unvaccinated people were at 49 times greater risk of hospitalization, compared with those who received a booster.

The agency did not release similar data for adults younger than 50. Still, the huge differences in hospitalization risk suggest that booster shots add a robust layer of protection against the coronavirus, at least in older adults.

When debating booster shot recommendations for all American adults, scientific advisers to the Food and Drug Administration and the C.D.C. repeatedly bemoaned the lack of booster shot data specific to the United States.

There are differences between Israel and the United States — for example, in the way Israel defines severe illness — that made it challenging to interpret the relevance of Israeli data for Americans, they said.

Some members of the Biden administration supported the use of booster doses even before the scientific advisers of the agencies had a chance to review the data from Israel. Federal health officials intensified their boosters-for-all campaign after the arrival of the Omicron variant.

The C.D.C. now recommends booster shots for everyone ages 12 and older, five months after getting two doses of the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna, or two months after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Earlier this week, the C.D.C. published data showing that people who had recovered from Covid had more protection from the Delta variant than those who had been vaccinated. The agency is expected on Friday to provide more recent results to show the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters against the Omicron variant.

Image

Credit…Marietjie Venter

JOHANNESBURG — Lions at a South African zoo that caught the coronavirus from their handlers were sick for more than three weeks and continued to test positive for up to seven weeks, according to a new study that raised concerns about the virus spreading among animals in the wild.

It is not clear how much virus the lions were carrying or whether they were actively infectious for the whole period that they tested positive. But prolonged periods of infection in big cats would raise the risk that an outbreak in the wild might spread more widely and infect other species, researchers said. That might eventually make the virus endemic among wild animals, and in a worst case, give rise to new variants that could jump back to humans.

The study at the University of Pretoria is likely the first of its kind in Africa. Researchers began to monitor captive wildlife in zoos and conservation sanctuaries after a tiger at the Bronx zoo got sick with the coronavirus in April 2020, according to Professor Marietjie Venter, the principal investigator on the study.

The research team monitored two pumas that contracted the coronavirus at a private zoo in July 2020, during South Africa’s first pandemic wave. The pumas, which are not native to South Africa, started showing symptoms, including loss of appetite, diarrhea, runny noses and persistent coughs. Both cats made a full recovery after 23 days.

About a year later at the same zoo, three lions began to show similar symptoms. One of the lions, an older female, developed pneumonia. The lion’s handler and an engineer at the zoo also tested positive for the virus.

This time, researchers were able to sequence the samples and found that the lions and their handler were infected with the same Delta variant. The illness developed by the lions, particularly in the older female, showed that animals, like people, could develop severe symptoms from Delta, which drove South Africa’s deadliest pandemic wave.

7–day average

3,722

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 lions recovered after 25 days, but had positive P.C.R. tests for more than three additional weeks. P.C.R. tests amplify the virus’s genetic material and therefore can detect even very small amounts. The data suggested that the amount of virus the lions were carrying decreased over those weeks, and it was not clear precisely how long they were infectious.

In a captive environment, the animals were kept in quarantine, but in larger parks dotted around South Africa, where lions are a common public attraction, controlling an outbreak could prove “very, very difficult,” the study said, particularly if it were undetected. These lions are often fed by humans rather than hunting for themselves, increasing their exposure.

“If you don’t know that its Covid, there’s a risk that it can then spread to other animals and then potentially back to humans,” said Dr. Venter, a professor of medical virology, who teamed up with a wildlife veterinary scientist for this study. The animals were infected long enough “that the virus can actually undergo mutations,” she said, “but the risk is more that if you’re in a wildlife reserve and it spreads into the wild it can then become endemic.”

The coronavirus driving the global pandemic likely originated in bats and eventually jumped to humans, in what is known as “spillover” infections.

Scientists warn that “spillback” infections of humans infecting animals — as have occurred with mink, deer and domestic cats — could ravage whole ecosystems in the wild. Infections that reached the wild could also expand the virus’s potential to spread unchecked and mutate in animals, potentially into variants dangerous to humans.

One well-studied phenomenon involves infections among large populations of captive mink. At one mink farm in Denmark, the virus mutated into a new strain during the switch from human to mink, prompting the mass slaughter of the animals throughout that country and Europe to prevent its spread back to humans.

By contrast, the South African study involved small outbreaks, but Dr. Venter noted that the spread in mink shows the potential danger of larger outbreaks in wildlife.

Lynsey Chutel

Image

Credit…Cliff Lipson/CBS

An apologetic and teary-eyed Adele announced on Thursday that her forthcoming Las Vegas residency would be delayed, citing production problems and the toll of Covid-19.

The show, titled “Weekends With Adele,” was scheduled to open on Friday at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, with two concerts weekly running through April 16.

“I’m so sorry but my show ain’t ready,” the singer, her voice trembling, said in a video posted to her social media channels. “We’ve tried absolutely everything that we can to put it together in time and for it to be good enough for you, but we’ve been absolutely destroyed by delivery delays and Covid — half my crew, half my team are down with Covid, they still are.”

The shows will be rescheduled, she said, describing herself as “gutted” and “really embarrassed.”

Adele’s latest album, “30,” was released in November and topped the Billboard chart for six straight weeks.

The recent surge in coronavirus cases has led to a number of concert cancellations, including Dead & Company’s Playing in the Sand festival in Mexico, though festivals like Coachella and other high-profile tours are proceeding.

Image

Credit…Stella Kalinina for The New York Times

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday that proof of Covid-19 vaccination will be required from all foreign travelers coming via land ports of entry and ferry terminals from Mexico or Canada.

Foreign essential workers — like truck drivers, nurses, students and other workers — had previously often been except.

The change aims to align public health measures that govern land travel with those that govern incoming international air travel. And the measures, first announced in October 2021, will go into effect on Saturday.

“These updated travel requirements reflect the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to protecting public health while safely facilitating the cross-border trade and travel that is critical to our economy,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a statement.

Nonessential foreign visitors have been allowed to travel from Canada and Mexico into the U.S. across land borders since November, but only if they were vaccinated.

The U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico had previously been closed to nonessential travel for 20 months before November of last year, but international trucks had passed freely because they were considered essential to maintaining supply chains.

Earlier this month, Canada imposed a vaccine mandate for U.S. truck drivers crossing the Canadian border. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed ahead with the requirement despite warnings from critics who said it would exacerbate both driver shortages and inflation.

The U.S. and Canada share the world’s longest international border, with 120 land ports of entry. And of the over $500 billion in annual commerce, roughly two-thirds of the goods traded between the two countries travel over land.

Image

Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Live from Stamford, Connecticut, it’s the 2022 Beijing Olympics!

Or so NBC could say about its play-by-play teams for the upcoming Winter Games, following word that all of its sports announcers will call the action from the network’s studios rather than on-site because of concerns about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and restrictions in place in China for those covering the Olympics.

The news, first reported by USA Today and confirmed by NBC on Thursday, was not exactly a surprise, since the vast majority of NBC’s announcing teams for sports other than the marquee ones of figure skating and Alpine skiing were already planning to work remotely.

ESPN also announced on Thursday that the company will not be sending any news personnel to the Winter Olympics and will instead focus on remote coverage.

Indeed, many other recent major sporting events, including last summer’s Tokyo Games, have featured announcers who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the games. Still, the announcements offer the latest reminder of how fluid and unpredictable even the most highly choreographed of events have been in the pandemic era.

Case in point: NBC’s Olympic host, Mike Tirico, will be in Beijing for the Feb. 4 opening ceremony and the first few days of the Winter Games. He will then leave to cover the Feb. 13 Super Bowl outside Los Angeles, and it is unclear whether he will return to Beijing for the closing ceremony on Feb. 20.

“We’re going to continue to adjust our plans as the situation warrants,” said Greg Hughes, senior vice president of communications for NBC Sports.

About 250 NBC personnel are already in Beijing to work the games. NBC had also hoped to send a broadcasting crew of less than 10, and a couple of dozen support staff, to cover figure skating, Alpine skiing and snowboarding.

But now those personnel will join more than 1,000 people who will be working in Stamford, around the clock, to broadcast the games, just as they did during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea.

Even in the run-up to the games, the prospect of being in Beijing had worried some prominent athletes. Tara Lipinski, the former Olympic figure skating champion who has become one of NBC’s best-known commentators, told an interviewer that “I would feel very nervous” if she had been an athlete preparing for Beijing because of Covid-19.

“It’s even being worried about getting there, as you mentioned, because I have holed myself up in this house,” Lipinski said. “If I test positive, I can’t go to nationals, I can’t go to the Olympics. But imagine what’s at stake for these athletes that have worked their whole life for this moment.”

Image

Credit…Julien De Rosa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The French government set a timeline on Thursday to lift the country’s Covid-19 restrictions over the next few weeks, as pandemic indicators in France show tentative signs of improvement and a presidential election looms in April.

Jean Castex, the French prime minister, said at a news conference that there was a “clear ebbing” of the wave of coronavirus cases attributable to the Delta variant, as well as preliminary indications that another surge of cases linked to the Omicron variant was slowing down in the areas where it struck first, like the region around Paris.

“This exceptional wave is not over, but the situation is starting to evolve more favorably,” Mr. Castex said.

France has averaged more than 300,000 new cases a day over the past week, and reported 525,000 cases on Monday, the most known cases in a single day since the pandemic began. There are more than 27,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals around the country, but the number in intensive care units has declined in the past few days, from a peak of nearly 4,000 patients last week.

Mr. Castex announced that the easing of restrictions in February would be done in stages. First to go will be outdoor mask mandates, capacity limits in public establishments and mandatory work-from-home rules for some companies, he said.

By the middle of February, when the government said it expected the Omicron surge to peak, night clubs will be allowed to reopen and people will once again be allowed to eat and drink in settings like movie theaters and stadiums.

“We must be confident, while remaining vigilant,” Mr. Castex said.

Starting Monday, he said, France will begin enforcing a rule barring most people who do not show proof of full vaccination or recent recovery from Covid from entering public establishments like bars, restaurants and museums. The government has not said specifically when that restriction would end, only that officials would wait to consider doing so until after the pressure on hospitals has lessened significantly.

“We will apply the vaccine pass as long as necessary, but no longer than necessary,” Olivier Véran, the French health minister, said at the news conference.

7–day average

156,470

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.

In a report published this week, the scientific council that advises the French government on Covid-19 was cautious, saying that the Omicron surge was not over and that “its impact on the health system will remain high, but partly manageable, until mid-March.”

The council warned that social distancing rules would remain paramount, and it urged the authorities to put more resources into detecting cases in schools, where there is “very active circulation” of the virus. The government has taken pride in keeping schools open despite the surge.

Teachers and school employees across France staged protests on Thursday over what they say is a lack of equipment needed to keep classrooms safe, like air-quality monitors and highly protective masks. The protests were notably smaller than the large walkouts by teachers’ unions last week over the same issue.

After last week’s demonstrations, the government promised to distribute five million FFP2 masks — the European equivalent of N95 — and to hire thousands of substitute teachers.

The teachers’ unions have also been angered by recent revelations that the education minister was vacationing on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza while a contested new testing protocol for schools was taking shape.

Image

Credit…Asonance via YouTube

PRAGUE — The story of an unvaccinated Czech folk singer who died after she celebrated catching the coronavirus has gripped the nation after her son said her death should serve as a warning to those resisting vaccination.

Soon after the singer, Hana Horka, 57, died on Sunday, her bereaved son, Jak Rek, poured his heart out on social media and to Czech news outlets — offering both a plea for people to be vaccinated and a warning against taking the virus lightly.

Despite what the son described as her family’s strong encouragement, Ms. Horka refused to get vaccinated and rejoiced once her husband and her son, both vaccinated, contracted Covid over the Christmas holiday.

Instead of isolating herself, she deliberately exposed herself to the virus, her son said. She was ill for a couple of days but then appeared to be recovering.

In a Facebook post, she celebrated her apparent recovery and naturally acquired immunity, saying she looked forward to “sauna, swimming, cultural life” — all denied to her under virus regulations because of her refusal to be vaccinated, but potentially available once she could present proof of recovery from infection.

Two days later, her condition swiftly declined and she died.

The only warning the family had that something was wrong, her son said, was her complaining about an aching back.

“We rubbed it with an ointment, and she went to rest for a little while,” he told the Czech news media, adding that she had died within minutes. “This is how fast it was.”

Family members have said they consider her death to have been from the virus, though official autopsy results have yet to be published.

Mr. Rek, 23, took to social media, blaming those who spread lies about vaccines for his mother’s death.

“You took away my mom, who based her arguments on your convictions,” he said, directing his comments to the opponents of vaccination. “I despise you.”

Vaccine skepticism runs deep across Central and Eastern Europe and only 63 percent of Czechs are fully vaccinated, far lower than most Western European nations, according to government figures collated by Our World in Data. With some 30,000 new infections reported Wednesday, the country is now recording more cases than anytime in the pandemic.

7–day average

16,647

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.

Earlier this month, thousands of people demonstrated in Prague and other cities against its possible introduction of vaccine mandates. In the face of public pressure, the government said on Wednesday that it would cancel the plans for mandatory vaccination for some segments of society.

As Ms. Horka’s story gained international attention, her son said he was not going to make any further comments. But he told reporters that he hoped his personal experience might shake the public.

“People are not interested in numbers and graphs,” he said. “Unless there is a legitimate reason not to get vaccinated, in health-related matters, I believe we can’t pretend it is a question of individual responsibility.”

Hana de Goeij

Image

Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Omicron was probably present in New York City’s wastewater more than a week before the first case of the new variant was detected in the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers across the country.

The samples suggest that someone in New York City may have had the Omicron variant as early as Nov. 21, four days before South African scientists first announced cases of the variant and ten days before the first U.S. case was reported. Researchers in California and Texas also found evidence of Omicron in wastewater samples from late November.

The findings suggest that at the time, the Omicron variant was more widespread in the United States than the case data alone would indicate, and provide more evidence that wastewater surveillance can serve as an early warning system about the spread of new variants.

“At first it was uncertain whether this variant was going to come to the United States,” said Alexandria Boehm, an environmental engineer at Stanford and an author of the paper. “The wastewater answered that question way before the clinical samples could, and the answer was yes.”

The research does not provide conclusive evidence that Omicron was present in these cities. The virus present in wastewater is fragmented, and while the researchers detected many of Omicron’s telltale mutations, the findings do not prove that they were all present on the same genome.

Still, the results are highly suggestive, and are consistent with what scientists have learned about how quickly Omicron spreads and where it was likely to pop up first, said Amy Kirby, the program lead for the C.D.C.’s National Wastewater Surveillance System and an author of the paper.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised to see a new variant show up in a major city like New York first,” she said.

A team of scientists from several institutions — John Dennehy at Queens College, Monica Trujillo at Queensborough Community College, Davida Smyth at Texas A&M University and Marc Johnson at the University of Missouri — have been tracking the coronavirus in New York City’s wastewater since the summer of 2020. The team typically collects samples weekly and then sequences the virus they find.

The scientists collected one of their routine samples on Nov. 21 and sent it for sequencing two days later. By the time they got the results, in early December, the Omicron news had broken, and they “immediately recognized” the new variant’s distinct mutations, Dr. Dennehy said.

Dr. Boehm’s team took a different approach in California, using P.C.R. tests capable of detecting some of Omicron’s specific mutations. They got their first hit on Nov. 26, from a sample collected in Merced the previous day, Dr. Boehm said. They got another on a sample collected in Sacramento on Nov. 30.

The first confirmed case of Omicron in the U.S. was announced on Dec. 1.

“We have really rapid turnaround and really frequent sampling,” Dr. Boehm said. She added, “This just gives information way earlier than clinical sequencing can.”

Image

Credit…Morgan Lee/Associated Press

With the Omicron variant depleting school staffs as it sweeps across the country, some states are resorting to increasingly creative measures to find the substitute teachers needed to keep schools open, in one case even calling on the National Guard.

State workers can now serve as substitute teachers in some hard-hit districts, while other states are loosening rules to speed the hiring of substitutes or draw retirees back into the classroom.

In New Mexico, where new cases have more than tripled over the past two weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked the National Guard and state workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

“Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty,” Governor Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Wednesday, “and the state stands ready to help keep kids in the classroom.”

Under New Mexico’s initiative, National Guard members and state workers must become licensed as substitute teachers or child care workers and fulfill the usual requirements for substitute teachers, such as background checks and a teaching workshop.

In recent weeks, about 60 school districts and charter schools in New Mexico have moved to remote learning, and 75 child care centers have partially or completely closed because of staffing shortages, state officials said.

Keeping schools open during the Omicron wave has become a fiercely debated issue nationally, especially among parents. President Biden was asked about school closings at a White House news conference on Wednesday, and he was quick to point out that most schools were open.

“Let’s put it in perspective: 95 percent, as high as 98 percent, of the schools in America are open, functioning and capable of doing the job,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he encouraged states and school districts to use funding to keep schools open.

According to Burbio, a data company that has tracked how schools are responding to the pandemic, for the past five schools days an average of 3,631 of the 98,000 public schools have been disrupted each day, a relatively low figure.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, said on Wednesday that the teacher staffing shortage was a “nationwide crisis.”

“I think ‘dire’ is an appropriate word,” Ms. Holland said, adding that she supported Governor Lujan Grisham’s initiative to keep schools open for students.

“As long as there’s a positive adult that they can build connections with — whether it’s a National Guard member or a state employee or a substitute — and we’re keeping our schools open, that’s our top priority,” she said.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order on Tuesday which allows state agencies to let their workers serve as substitute teachers without affecting their regular job, pay or benefits.

“I’ve said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open,” Governor Stitt said. “The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen.”

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last week that loosened rules for substitute teachers, citing the Omicron surge. Set to run through March, the order speeds up hiring for qualified short-term substitutes, lets current substitutes have their assignments extended, and makes it easier for retired teachers to return.

Teachers are not the only school employees in short supply. Last year in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to help with a shortage in bus drivers. And in North Carolina, legislators gave districts federal funding to cover signing bonuses to help ease a shortage of cafeteria workers.

Image

Credit…Flightradar24

An American Airlines flight to London from Miami turned around about an hour into its journey on Wednesday night because of a passenger who refused to wear a mask, the airline said.

Police officers met Flight AAL38 at Miami International Airport when it returned, and escorted a woman in her 40s off the plane, said Lea Gonzalez, a public information officer for the Miami-Dade Police Department. She was not arrested, Ms. Gonzalez said.

The Boeing 777, carrying 129 passengers and 14 crew members, was about 500 miles into its 4,400-mile flight when it reversed course off the coast of North Carolina, flight trackers show.

American Airlines said in a statement that the flight had been diverted because of “a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement.”

The episode was another in a long list of midair mask disputes that have erupted during the pandemic.

In October, a passenger was accused of punching an American Airlines flight attendant in her nose, giving her a concussion, after a mask dispute. The airline’s chief executive called the violent encounter on the California-bound flight from New York “one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we’ve ever witnessed.”

In May, a California woman on a Southwest Airlines flight repeatedly punched a flight attendant, bloodying her face and chipping three teeth, after she was asked to buckle her seatbelt, put up her tray table and “wear her face mask properly.”

Thousands of other episodes involving unruly passengers have taken place in recent years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Tuesday, the agency said, it had received 151 reports of unruly passengers, 92 related to face masks, since Jan. 1. Last year, it received 5,981 reports of unruly passengers and 4,290 mask-related incidents.

Andrés R. Martínez contributed reporting.

Image

Credit…Darko Bandic/Associated Press

The Federal Court of Australia on Thursday released the ruling of a three-judge panel that supported the immigration minister’s revocation of Novak Djokovic’s visa, revealing for the first time the judges’ reasoning.

The minister’s justifications for revoking the visa were not “irrational or illogical or not based on relevant material,” the ruling said. The minister had argued that Mr. Djokovic’s position as a role model who chose to remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 could “foster anti-vaccination sentiment.”

The court’s decision, which ended Mr. Djokovic’s chance of winning a record 21st men’s Grand Slam title in Melbourne this year, concluded a volatile saga that prompted debate over immigration law, celebrity entitlement and Covid vaccinations.

“An iconic world tennis star may influence people of all ages, young or old, but perhaps especially the young and the impressionable, to emulate him,” the panel of three judges found. “This is not fanciful; it does not need evidence.”

Once held up as an example of how nations could keep Covid cases low, Australia is now tackling its most severe surge since the pandemic began.

7–day average

71,333

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 court noted the broad authority of the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, to control entry into the country and found he was well within his rights to cancel Mr. Djokovic’s visa on the grounds of “health and good order.”

The legal question, the judges said, was not whether Mr. Djokovic actually posed a risk to health, safety and good order to the country, but whether Mr. Hawke was “satisfied” that his presence in the country might amount to one.

Though Mr. Hawke did not have to provide his reasons for canceling Mr. Djokovic’s visa, the judgment said they were “carefully drafted,” and showed that he had exercised the discretionary power lawfully.

Mr. Djokovic accepted the decision and left the country, returning on Monday to his home in Serbia.

Image

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Many public health officials have taken heart in early evidence that suggests infections from the Omicron variant tend to cause less severe illness than other versions of the coronavirus. But another important question looms: whether infection with Omicron, including breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, can result in long Covid — the constellation of physical, neurological and cognitive symptoms that can last for months and impair people’s daily lives.

It is too early for scientists to know much about the relationship between Omicron, vaccination and long Covid. Research from earlier in the pandemic does not yield definitive clues. Here is a sketch of what scientists have learned and the many questions still to be answered.

Image

Credit…Zhao Xiaoqing

When Zhao Xiaoqing first met Zhao Fei on a blind date, the sparks didn’t really fly.

When they met for a second time at his home in northwest China in December, it lasted longer than they both expected.

Facing a new outbreak of coronavirus cases, the health authorities announced a lockdown so sudden and severe that she didn’t have time to scurry home.

So for nearly four weeks, Zhao Xiaoqing has lived in the city of Xianyang, in Shaanxi Province, with the family of Zhao Fei, a man she had barely known. (They share a last name but are not related.)

“Initially, I was quite worried about things being awkward,” said Ms. Zhao, who is from Baoji, about 93 miles away, or a two-hour drive by car. “But I got along well with his family.”

Chinese officials have employed swift lockdowns across the country as one of its top strategies to rapidly stamp out infections. Last month, officials locked down 13 million people in the city of Xi’an, which borders Xianyang, for mass testing after an outbreak. The scale and the length of that lockdown led residents to complain about running out of food and their treatment by the authorities. A pregnant woman lost her baby after she had to wait for hours at a hospital because she was unable to prove she did not have Covid-19.

But at Mr. Zhao’s house, a romance was blossoming. Ms. Zhao spent her days working on her family’s business, promoting her father’s fresh apples on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.

“Sometimes I lost track of time when working; he would remind me to take a break,” she said of her date.

His consideration impressed her.

Mr. Zhao, who runs his own e-commerce business selling hair products, sometimes cooked fried rice for her. She, in turn, encouraged him to take online lessons in his free time.

He said that because circumstances forced them to spend time together, they got to know each other better. “We were able to move forward in a speedy fashion,” he said.

When the authorities lifted the lockdown on Friday, Ms. Zhao was free to leave. Instead, she plans to stay until Lunar New Year, and that’s not the end of the story.

“Lots of friends were curious about whether the blind date was a success,” Ms. Zhao said beaming in a video on Douyin last week. “Of course, it was.”

She announced that they planned to get engaged in two weeks and hoped to marry in the summer. Her parents were supportive, she said.

As for Mr. Zhao, he said he had found true love.

“I’m quite happy,” he said. “We basically found each other by an accident of fate.”

Image

Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

New Zealand, one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world, has cut off the only path for citizens and visa holders abroad to return in an effort to minimize the risk of an outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The tightened border controls, announced on Wednesday, come almost two years after the country shut down almost all incoming traffic, except for a small number of exempted visa holders and returning citizens. Since October 2020, New Zealanders wishing to return home have had to compete for limited spots in hotel quarantine. Last year a lottery was introduced to manage the demand.

Booking of spots for March and April has been put on hold indefinitely, Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for New Zealand’s pandemic response, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

“No decisions have been made on the date, sequence and conditions for the border reopening, and cabinet will consider options within the next couple of weeks based on the most up-to-date advice,” he said.

Residents who had already booked slots to return in January and February would still be able to enter, he added.

7–day average

56

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 decision highlights how the variant has changed the calculus even for countries with high rates of vaccination, like Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

New Zealand has fully inoculated more than 93 percent of people 12 and older, and it has not had a widespread outbreak of Omicron. The variant has been detected in a few people working either at Auckland Airport or in quarantine facilities. But those cases have prompted fears of community transmission.

On Thursday, in her first address of the year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told New Zealanders to prepare for higher numbers of virus cases that “we haven’t experienced before.”

“Omicron is in every corner of the world at the moment,” she said. “We also know that there will be other variants.”

The country previously announced plans for a phased reopening in February. Ms. Ardern did not roll back those plans but laid out a strategy should a wave of Omicron cases emerge.

“When we have evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community, we won’t use lockdowns,” she said. “Instead, the whole country will move into ‘red,’” she added, referring to the highest level of restrictions in New Zealand’s “traffic light” alert level system.

Businesses will remain open, with limited capacity to serve unvaccinated customers and some restraints on how many people may gather. Masks will be compulsory, and there will be limits on public gatherings. Antigen and P.C.R. tests will be free. The country also hopes to distribute boosters and vaccinate children between ages 5 and 11.

“Not many countries have had a chance to roll out a booster before Omicron hits,” Ms. Ardern said. “We have, and we are. It’s an opportunity we need everyone to take up.”

In other news from around the world:

  • Hong Kong suspended in-person classes at secondary schools from Monday until Feb. 7, after the Lunar New Year holiday beginning on Feb. 1, because of rising coronavirus cases in schools. The city’s Education Bureau had already suspended classes at primary schools and kindergartens. To boost the city’s vaccination rate of about 70 percent, children ages 5 to 11 will be allowed to get doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine starting on Friday, and the Pfizer-BioNTech shots as of Feb. 16.

  • Thailand will restart its quarantine-free visa program for vaccinated tourists and other foreign visitors on Feb. 2, the government said on Thursday, after a decline in new cases. “Infections have increased but at a manageable rate,” the authorities said, adding that they expected a decrease soon. Under the so-called Test and Go program, travelers will have to take two P.C.R. tests: one on entry and another on the fifth day.

Video

CreditCredit…By Jinhwa Oh

Nearly 800,000 new coronavirus cases are being reported in the United States each day, according to a New York Times database, most caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, and the true number is likely much higher.

Although many people are quickly recovering, the Omicron surge poses a particular risk to the unvaccinated and has put enormous strain on hospitals and health care workers.

But among the vaccinated and boosted, getting infected with the Omicron variant also appears to be contributing to a psychological shift, as people realize they have probably gained at least a short-term natural boost to their immune system.

Scientists call it “hybrid immunity,” which results from the combined protection of pre-existing vaccine antibodies and natural antibodies from a breakthrough infection. It can vary by individual and may wane over time, experts say.

Experts also caution against trying to get infected on purpose as a way to gain hybrid immunity. The virus is unpredictable, they say, and even young people can become very sick. In addition, it’s impossible to know who might develop long Covid after an infection.

Image

Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Employees returning to the office in the midst of the pandemic are bound to arrive with questions. To ease their adjustment, office managers are using mobile apps that offer the answers that workers seek.

Building apps are customizable and designed to connect office workers to maintenance, security and logistics systems and community-building programs, Julie Weed reports for The New York Times.

  • Employees can use the app to enter a building, reserve conference rooms or request maintenance like getting a light bulb changed or a copier unjammed.

  • Safety information, such as in a building emergency or a natural disaster, can be disseminated quickly.

  • Building managers can monitor the use of workrooms and other locations.

In the pandemic, the apps can also help the office feel safer by communicating building-wide health information and reducing physical interactions. Coronavirus protocols, contact tracing information and emergency alerts can be disseminated via an app.

Rosalyn Griffin, an office manager for Rothschild & Company, an investment bank, uses the TranswesternHub app in her office at 77 West Wacker in Chicago for simple tasks like submitting repair orders.

One of her favorite features is calling for the elevator from the app. “You turn the corner and it’s there,” she said. “It’s super easy.”

But because these apps monitor employee movements in the office, they have raised some concerns over privacy.

These apps “take employee surveillance to a new level,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, an engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.

Companies should be transparent about what information they are tracking, how they are using it, who will have access to it and why, Dr. Cranor said. It’s also important to anonymize the data whenever possible.