Covid Live Updates: Officials in U.S. Warn of Virus Testing Scams

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Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Even as New York State prepared for a significant snowfall on Sunday, Gov. Kathy Hochul told New Yorkers that the state’s coronavirus forecast was improving:

“The Covid clouds are parting,” Ms. Hochul said.

For the past week, New Yorkers have watched with tentative optimism as the skyrocketing rate of new coronavirus cases began to slow, then fall. Test positivity rates are down as well, with just 13 percent of statewide tests on Saturday coming back positive compared to 23 percent a few weeks ago. In every region but one, seven-day averages of new cases were lower than the past three days.

This and other recent data show that the latest surge in New York driven by the Omicron variant may be starting to trend downward, and that several Northeast states — including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island — may be heading in the same direction.

“Overall, the prognosis, the forecast for Covid is much brighter than it has been before,” Ms. Hochul said at a briefing, giving one of her clearest messages yet that the crush of cases caused by the Omicron variant might be beginning to lift. She went on: “That is very positive news, if our hospitalizations continue to go down as well.”

The caveat was an important one — while officials say that the number of people admitted to hospitals for Covid is slowing, hospitals remain under tremendous strain, struggling to manage staffing shortages that leave doctors and nurses no choice but to make difficult decisions about whose care to prioritize.

Although scientists believe Omicron can cause less severe disease than previous variants, the sheer number of cases has created a tsunami of patients seeking care. Cases remain extremely high in New York and elsewhere, and the United States is averaging a staggering 805,000 daily cases.

About half of all patients in hospitals across the city have Covid-19.

On Thursday, nurses working at overwhelmed city hospitals held a news conference and issued a plea for help. They shared stories of emergency rooms overrun and patients lying on stretchers in hallways as they wait for care — stories that could have been from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Hochul has deployed the National Guard to help out in understaffed hospitals, but most of them have been directed upstate where the need was even greater. On Thursday, President Biden announced that two teams of military medical teams would be deployed to help New York City public hospitals. Ms. Hochul has requested an additional 800 clinical staff from the federal government to be deployed across the state as “strike teams,” according to her office.

Statewide, New York reported 51,264 new cases on Saturday, down from the peak of more than 90,000 a week earlier, according to a New York Times database. The average number of hospitalizations across the state appear to be leveling off as well.

Even so, the governor noted, there are many parts of the state where case numbers are high. She urged vigilance, and preparedness, once again asking people to get vaccinated and stay home if they felt ill. She ended her briefing on a hopeful note:

“Upstate is still not out of the woods yet, but it’s going to get there,” she said, adding: “Let’s do the right thing — get through this together.”

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Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned on Sunday that the Omicron surge of coronavirus cases had not yet peaked nationally, saying that the next few weeks would be very difficult in many parts of the country as hospitalizations and deaths rise.

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Dr. Murthy noted the “good news” of the plateaus and drops in known cases in the Northeast, especially in New York City and New Jersey.

But “the challenge is that the entire country is not moving at the same pace,” he said, adding “we shouldn’t expect a national peak in the coming days.”

“The next few weeks will be tough,” he said.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has fueled an explosive surge of known cases, with an average of more than 800,000 new cases a day reported on Saturday, according to a New York Times database.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, also expressed concerns that the next several weeks would overwhelm hospitals and staff. “Right now we’re at about 150,000 people in the hospital with Covid,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That’s more than we’ve ever had. I expect those numbers to get substantially higher.”

In Kansas City, Mo., Omicron has overwhelmed hospitals since the holiday season, the city’s mayor, Quentin Lucas, said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We have seen incredible challenges in our health care network, even getting employees that are working in our EMS services, fire department and in public safety,” Mr. Lucas said. “It is a substantial concern.”

In addition, Omicron has brought into sharp relief the longstanding lack of adequate testing supplies, with consumers now depleting pharmacies of costly rapid tests — a boxed set of two tests ranges from $14 to $24 — and creating long lines at testing sites.

The federal government has promised to distribute one billion rapid at-home coronavirus tests to Americans, limiting each household to request four free tests. And new federal rules require private insurers to cover up to eight at-home tests per member a month.

But with the test orders and reimbursement processes hampered by delays, Americans will likely not have tests in hand for weeks, which may be too late in some places where demand is high as infections spread.

“We’ve ordered too few testing kits, so our testing capacity has continued to lag behind each wave,” Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser to President Trump, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s too little and too late, but noteworthy for the next wave.”

While many people infected with Omicron have had no or mild symptoms, others — especially those who were not vaccinated and those with chronic conditions — suffered more serious illnesses that were already overwhelming hospitals in some states late last year.

Dr. Murthy disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision last week that rejected President Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers that would have applied to more than 80 million workers.

“Well, the news about the workplace requirement being blocked was very disappointing,” Dr. Murthy said. “It was a setback for public health. Because what these requirements ultimately are helpful for is not just protecting the community at large; but making our workplaces safer for workers as well as for customers.”

Nearly 63 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but only 38 percent of those have received a booster shot, which some have argued should be the new definition of full vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed the definition of full vaccination, but said recently it considers three doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna’s vaccines to be “up-to-date,” as well as Johnson & Johnson’s shots with a second dose, preferably of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech.

Last week, the C.D.C. finally acknowledged that cloth masks do not offer as much protection as a surgical mask or respirator, which some experts have urged the agency to recommend for the general public. The advent of Omicron with its highly transmissible rate pushed public health officials to promote higher mask shields, like KN95 and N95 masks that offer more than 90 percent protection.

Muddled and inconsistent messaging from the C.D.C. and other agencies have made it harder for Americans to understand the state of the virus and know how to respond, Dr. Jha said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I think the White House needs to get its messaging discipline together, needs to make sure that people are speaking from the same page,” Dr. Jha said. While science has changed, the messaging “has not kept up,” he added.

“Please, please get vaccinated,” Dr. Murthy said on ABC, issuing a reminder that the shots still provide good protection against severe illness. “It’s still not too late.”

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More than a week after President Emmanuel Macron of France shocked his nation by using a vulgarity to urge the unvaccinated to get their coronavirus shots, Parliament passed a law that would make proof of vaccination a requirement to eat in restaurants, attend sporting events and enter public venues.

The National Assembly approved the law on Sunday by a vote of 215 to 58, according to The Associated Press. It is expected to take effect in the coming days. About a quarter of the population will be affected — about 75 percent of the French population are vaccinated.

A week earlier, Mr. Macron said, “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” using a French word that is more vulgar. He explained that a new and reinforced vaccine pass would make it impossible for the unvaccinated to go to restaurants and cafes, or the theater and cinemas. He made the comment just three months before presidential elections, trying to capitalize on the growing public anger against the unvaccinated.

Their recalcitrance, as well as a surge in cases in France, is threatening to undermine Mr. Macron’s success so far in tackling the pandemic.

France is averaging about 297,000 coronavirus cases a day, according to a New York Times database, driven by a surge of the Omicron variant across Europe. That’s an 89 percent jump over two weeks.

The vaccination law comes as France has ruled out lockdowns, curfews or closures, unlike some other European nations. France has bet that high vaccine and booster coverage, along with earlier restrictions it put in place, will be enough to keep the coronavirus variant manageable.

Juston Jones

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Federal and state officials warned this week of coronavirus testing scams that have taken advantage of the United States’ strained testing infrastructure and have left Americans with invalid test results, wrongful medical bills and overpriced at-home tests.

Fraud related to the virus has persisted since the onset of the pandemic, but the rapid spread of the Omicron variant has created opportunities for scammers preying on the high demand for tests.

On Friday, the Better Business Bureau issued an alert about phony websites and pop-up testing sites that collect people’s personal information, swab them for a test and then never provide results.

Attorneys general in Oregon, New Mexico and Illinois advised residents this week to use only authorized virus testing centers — which are typically listed on city, state and county government websites or recommended by a primary care doctor — because of scams at pop-up testing sites and online.

“The huge demand for Covid-19 testing of all kinds — at-home tests, rapid antigen tests, P.C.R. tests — brings bad actors and some businesses trying to make a quick buck out from the shadows,” said Ellen Rosenblum, the Oregon attorney general, in a statement on Wednesday.

Ms. Rosenblum said residents should be cautious about pop-up testing sites that ask for personal information, such as a Social Security number, which is not necessary for testing or billing. She said the state was also seeing price gouging for at-home tests sold online.

These concerns were reflected by officials in other states.

Hector Balderas, the New Mexico attorney general, said his office had received reports of testing sites that were providing negative results without actually testing people. “New Mexicans must remain cautious during these very difficult times,” Mr. Balderas said in a statement on Friday.

In Michigan, there has been an increase in calls and complaints about fake at-home tests sold online, according to the attorney general’s office. In New York, the attorney general’s office is investigating reports that people were wrongfully billed for tests in New York City.

Earlier this month, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning about scammers using text messages, telemarketing calls, social media and door-to-door visits to commit Covid-related fraud.

The United States has struggled to consistently and efficiently test people during different waves of the pandemic.

In an effort to lessen this pressure in the current surge, President Biden promised to deliver free tests to Americans’ homes and ordered private insurers to cover the costs of tests bought in stores or online. The Biden administration said on Friday that Americans would have to wait nearly two weeks after placing orders to receive the at-home rapid tests.

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The chairman of the Credit Suisse Group, António Horta-Osório, is stepping down immediately after an investigation involving breaches of Covid protocol.

Mr. Horta-Osório, who has been in the position for less than a year, reportedly broke quarantine rules in traveling on a London-to-Zurich flight in November and in attending the Wimbledon finals in July. The board later commissioned an investigation into his conduct. The bank announced his resignation on Sunday.

“I regret that a number of my personal actions have led to difficulties for the bank and compromised my ability to represent the bank internally and externally,” Mr. Horta-Osório said in statement.

“I therefore believe that my resignation is in the interest of the bank and its stakeholders at this crucial time,” he added.

Mr. Horta-Osório will be succeeded by Axel Lehmann, a former senior executive at the Swiss investment bank UBS. Mr. Lehmann joined the Credit Suisse board last year, where he has been the chairman of the risk committee. Before his time at UBS, he spent nearly two decades at Zurich Insurance Group.

Mr. Horta-Osório, a former chief of the Lloyds Banking Group, took over as chairman in April. He was tasked with a turnaround after the bank lost $5 billion over soured trades that a small unit of its investment bank made with Archegos Capital Management. It was just one in a string of recent body blows. Credit Suisse will lay off 69 employees in New York in the wake of the Archegos collapse because it plans to close its U.S. prime services division by Aug. 1.

“I have worked hard to return Credit Suisse to a successful course, and I am proud of what we have achieved together in my short time at the bank,” he said.

Shares of Credit Suisse are down 22 percent over the past year, giving it a market capitalization of $28 billion.

Lananh Nguyen contributed reporting.

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A three-week-old baby has died from Covid-19 in Qatar, the country’s ministry of public health said in a statement on Sunday, another fatality in a string of rare infant deaths around the globe from the disease.

The baby had no other known medical or hereditary conditions, the ministry said, and was the second child in the country to have died from the disease during the pandemic.

“This a stark reminder that people of all ages are at risk of being infected by Covid-19,” the authorities said in the statement, adding that during the country’s current wave a greater number of children were being infected and requiring medical care.

“This is not because Omicron is more severe for children than previous variants; it is because Omicron is more contagious and infecting higher numbers of people,” the statement said.

Among the 3.5 million global deaths from the coronavirus, just 0.4 percent of those have occurred in people under the age of 20, according to data from Unicef. Less than half of those deaths were in children 9 years old or younger.

In the United States, the deaths of 259 children aged 4 years old or younger had been linked to Covid by early January, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the Omicron variant, extremely contagious and with the capacity to dodge vaccines, has also caused a surge in hospitalizations of young children, according to data from the C.D.C. and a study published on Friday in the British Medical Journal.

The rise may be partly explained by the surge of Omicron cases, which affects all populations, and the spread of other respiratory infections.

But the data do not show a similar steep rise in coronavirus infections among hospitalized children of other ages, and federal health officials were considering the possibility that Omicron may not be as mild in young children as it is older children.

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As the Omicron surge spreads across the country, sending coronavirus case counts to new heights and disrupting daily life, some universities are preparing for a new phase of the pandemic — one that acknowledges that the virus is here to stay and requires a rethinking of how to handle life on campus.

Schools are asking: Should there still be mass testing? Does there need to be contact tracing? What about tracking the number of cases — and posting them on campus dashboards? And when there is a spike in cases, do classes need to go remote?

Universities from Northeastern in Boston to the University of California-Davis have begun to discuss Covid in “endemic” terms — a shift from reacting to each spike of cases as a crisis to the reality of living with it daily. And in some cases, there has been backlash.

“I think we’re in a period of transition, hopefully to an endemic phase,” Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University, said. “I say hopefully because with this pandemic, we don’t know what’s coming next.”

Most universities are still acting with caution. They are delaying the start of in-person classes and warning students that case counts could explode because of Omicron. They are encouraging, if not requiring, students to get booster shots. Many are handing out self-testing kits and KN95 masks. And for the most part, they are following basic protocols for quarantine and isolation, albeit for reduced periods of time, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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SYDNEY, Australia — The day before the Australian Open was set to begin, Novak Djokovic, possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, ran up against a group of determined opponents that no amount of talent, training, money or willpower could overcome.

He lost his final bid to stay in Australia on Sunday when a three-judge panel upheld the government’s decision to cancel his visa.

More broadly, he lost to a government determined to make him a symbol of unvaccinated celebrity entitlement; to an immigration law that gives godlike authority to border enforcement; and to a public outcry over what was widely seen as Djokovic’s reckless disregard for others, particularly after he said that he had tested positive for Covid last month and met with two journalists anyway.

“At this point,” said Brock Bastian, a social psychology professor at the University of Melbourne, “it’s about social norms and enforcing those norms to continue to get people to move in the same direction to overcome this pandemic.”

“In this culture, in this country, a sense of suddenly upending those norms has a great cost politically and socially,” he added.

Only in the third exasperating year of a pandemic could the vaccination status of one individual be invested with so much meaning.

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Skeptics have seized on the rapid development of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines — among the most impressive feats of medical science in the modern era — to undermine the public’s trust in them.

But the breakthroughs behind the vaccines actually unfolded over decades, little by little, as scientists across the world pursued research in disparate areas, never imagining their work would one day come together to tame the pandemic of the century.

The pharmaceutical companies harnessed these findings and engineered vaccines that could be made at scale, partly the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar program to their development.

For years, though, the scientists who made the vaccines possible scrounged for money and battled public indifference. Their experiments often failed. When the work got too crushing, some of them left it behind. And yet the science slowly built upon itself, squeezing knowledge from failure.

The vaccines were possible because of advances in three areas. The first began more than 60 years ago with the discovery of mRNA, a genetic molecule that helps cells make proteins. A few decades later, two scientists in Pennsylvania pursued using the molecule to command cells to make tiny pieces of viruses that would strengthen the immune system.

The second effort took place in the private sector, as biotechnology companies in Canada in the budding field of gene therapy — the modification or repair of genes to treat diseases — searched for a way to protect fragile genetic molecules so they could be safely delivered to human cells.

The third crucial line of inquiry began in the 1990s, when the U.S. government embarked on a quest to find a vaccine to prevent AIDS. That effort funded scientists who tried to target the all-important “spikes” on H.I.V. viruses that allow them to invade cells. Though the work did not result in a successful H.I.V. vaccine, some of these researchers eventually unlocked secrets that allowed the spikes on coronaviruses to be mapped.

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In early 2020, these different strands of research came together to create vaccines. The spike of the Covid virus was encoded in mRNA molecules. Those molecules were wrapped in a protective layer of fat and poured into small glass vials. When the shots went in arms less than a year later, recipients’ cells responded by producing proteins that resembled the spikes — and that trained the body to attack the coronavirus.

The extraordinary tale proved that once in a great while, old discoveries can be plucked from obscurity to make history.

“It was kind of miraculous,” said Dr. Elizabeth Halloran, an infectious disease biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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A week before Christmas, Skylar Peak, a busboy at ZiZi, a Mediterranean restaurant in Chelsea, learned in a text message from his manager that a co-worker had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr. Peak took time off to be tested, and it took five days to get a negative report. During that time, several more employees at ZiZi tested positive. The owner closed the restaurant for a week because there weren’t enough people to run it.

ZiZi has reopened, like many New York City restaurants that temporarily shuttered in December during the sudden onslaught of the Omicron variant. But the decisive moves those businesses took last month, and in earlier stages of the pandemic, have given way to something murkier — a time in which both employees and owners are deeply unsure what to do when they or co-workers test positive for the virus. Keep working and risk infecting others? Call in sick and miss out on crucial income? Close the restaurant to protect staff and customers, or take steps to safeguard them and stay open?

Mr. Peak agreed with ZiZi’s decision to close last month, but the continuing uncertainties have left him feeling bewildered and frustrated. When Sharon Hoota, an owner of the restaurant, and his manager recently called the city’s 311 help line three times to ask what to do if a worker tested positive for Covid, Mr. Hoota said they received differing advice on how soon that person should be allowed to return to work.

“To be honest, in the beginning it was very clear what we should do,” Mr. Hoota said. “But now it’s changing a lot.”

While businesses throughout the country have had to calibrate their response to the Omicron variant, few places have been as hard hit as New York City, or as strict in requiring proof of vaccination, for all workers and anyone dining indoors. Many restaurants impose numerous safety precautions, including requirements that staff and customers wear masks.

Yet many New Yorkers in the hospitality business say that the absence of other mandates or even consistent recommendations has left them to figure out how to react when workers become infected — and led to some stark disagreements about whether employers are acting responsibly.

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The fast spread of the infectious Omicron variant has prompted many people to try to upgrade to a higher-quality medical mask. But that’s easier said than done.

Early in the pandemic, high-quality medical masks were in short supply. Now the problem is there are so many different masks for sale, it’s tough to know which ones have been tested and certified by government agencies, and which are counterfeit. We interviewed mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials and independent researchers for advice on choosing a medical mask. Here are some tips.

Buy from a reputable supplier.

Big retailers like Home Depot and Lowes typically work directly with manufacturers approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or their distributors, so if you find an N95 mask in a major retail store you can be confident you’re getting the real thing.

Finding a reliable mask on Amazon is trickier because you’ll see legitimate masks mixed in with counterfeits, although the differences won’t alway be obvious. If you must use Amazon, try to shop directly in the on-site stores of mask makers like 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find a link to a maker’s online store right below a product name.)

If you’re buying a KF94 on Amazon, look closely at the packaging to make sure it’s made in Korea and includes the required labeling (see below for more details). Aaron Collins, an engineer who routinely tests masks and who has gained a YouTube following as “Mask Nerd,” recommends buying KF94s from Korean beauty product importers like Be Healthy or KMact.

Check labels and printing.

Legitimate N95s and KN95s are required to have specific text stamped on the front of the mask. Although you may find one in a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy designs or don’t have text stamped on them are probably fake.

Your N95 should be stamped with “NIOSH,” as well as the company name, the model and lot numbers, and something called a “TC approval” number, which can be used to look up the mask on a list of approved ones. The C.D.C. has created an infographic showing you the printing to look for on your N95.

A legitimate KN95 should also be stamped with text, including the name of the manufacturer, the model, and “GB2626-2019,” which is a reference to a quality control standard approved by the Chinese government.

The KF94 won’t be stamped with text, but the package should say “Made in Korea” and include the product name, manufacturer and distributor name. The package will also have an expiration date and a lot number printed on it.

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Credit…Kim Raff for The New York Times

New Yorkers have become accustomed to waiting in the cold to get coronavirus tests, sometimes for hours. But some, instead of looking into their phones, are striking up conversations, taking the opportunity to interact and network in a city that has stayed in a mostly cautious and protective mode for almost two years.

Among them is Deni Bonet, an electric violinist and singer-songwriter who had watched many friends and colleagues move out of the city over the past two years and was considering leaving New York herself.

“I needed a New York moment to remember why I live here,” she said, and she got it in an unlikely place: a two-hour-long Covid testing line.

Last month, while lining up to get a P.C.R. test in Manhattan, she started talking to the man in front of her, who had walked there from the Bronx. “He worked for the D.M.V., and he wanted to make sure he didn’t infect anybody when he went back to work after the holidays,” she said.

An older couple who knew the history of the Art Deco buildings on the street started telling Ms. Bonet and the D.M.V. worker about them, as if they were on a walking tour. A young woman shared recommendations for books and television shows with anyone who was interested.

“It made me happy to see people being kind to each other,” Ms. Bonet said after being swabbed and leaving the testing site. “That’s all we can do right now.”

Alyson Krueger