The Biden administration’s new website allowing people to order up to four free at-home coronavirus tests quietly went live on Tuesday — a day in advance of its formal launch — and demand already appeared to be significant.
A combined total of more than one million visitors were on the home page and the ordering page of covidtests.gov at one point Tuesday evening — more than 40 times as many as were on the government site with the next highest traffic, the U.S. Postal Service’s package-tracking page, according to analytics.usa.gov, which monitors traffic on participating federal websites.
At a White House news conference on Tuesday, President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that the official launch would take place on Wednesday morning, but that the site had begun taking orders during what she described as a “beta testing phase” conducted by the U.S. Digital Service, the government’s technology support division.
Also on Wednesday, the White House will announce that it is making 400 million “high quality,” nonsurgical N95 masks available, free of charge, at community health centers and retail pharmacies across the nation. The masks will be released from the Strategic National Stockpile, officials said, calling the effort the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.”
The two moves show that the Biden administration is trying to step up its coronavirus response as the highly infectious Omicron variant drives a spike in cases across the nation. The administration at first resisted the idea of sending tests to Americans’ homes, but has now enlisted the U.S. Postal Service to handle orders and deliveries.
It wasn’t long before the pilot testing revealed some apparent glitches, however.
Some people living in apartment buildings said they were blocked from ordering tests if other tenants had already put in requests for the building. Some who receive their mail at post office boxes also reported confusion in ordering, because the site includes a disclaimer that says orders would ship only to valid residential addresses.
The Postal Service said in a statement that the problems were confined to “a small percentage of orders” and recommended that customers file a service request or contact the Postal Service help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777).
Matching testing supply with demand has been a persistent challenge for both the Trump and Biden administrations, and Mr. Biden has come under criticism for not ramping up the supply of rapid at-home tests quickly enough as Americans struggled to get tested amid the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Experts say there are three situations in which people should use at-home tests: if they begin to have symptoms of Covid-19; if they were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus five or more days earlier; or if they are planning to gather indoors with someone at elevated risk from Covid-19 and want to assure themselves they are negative.
Mayor Eric Adams said on Tuesday that New York City was winning its war against the Omicron surge, noting that the numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, while still extremely high, have started to drop.
Mr. Adams encouraged New Yorkers to continue to get vaccinated and wear masks.
“Let’s be clear on this — we are winning,” the mayor said at a news conference at City Hall. “We are going to win because we’re resilient.”
Mr. Adams, a Democrat in his third week in office, pointed to the average number of cases recorded daily, which has fallen from a known peak of more than 40,000 to less than 20,000, and to hospitalizations, which have fallen from a daily peak of about 6,500 people hospitalized citywide on Jan. 11 to about 5,800 patients on Jan. 16.
About this data
Sources: State and local health agencies (cases, deaths); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
While Mr. Adams has expressed optimism about case numbers and encouraged workers to return to offices, experts say New Yorkers should remain careful. The number of known cases is still much higher than last winter, when there was an average of roughly 6,500 cases a day, according to city data.
During the devastating first wave of the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, testing was scarce, leaving many cases unreported.
New deaths, a lagging indicator, have been increasing, and have averaged about 100 per day in recent days, which is higher than they have been since May 2020.
A wave of Omicron cases may be cresting in the northeastern United States, but the number of virus patients nationwide is at a record high and climbing, overwhelming hospitals whose staffs have been hollowed out by the virus. On Sunday, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned that the Omicron surge 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.
“The challenge is that the entire country is not moving at the same pace,” he said.
In her first budget address on Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul also spotlighted the state’s declining case rate and hospitalization numbers. She said the virus positivity rate statewide was now 12.8 percent, about half of what it was on Jan. 2. “We hope to close the books on this winter surge soon,” she said.
Mr. Adams said he was proud that he kept public schools open and that more students were returning to classrooms after widespread absences earlier this month. More than 75 percent of students were in school on Friday, compared to 67 percent on the first day after the winter break.
The city has so far distributed 4.5 million rapid home tests to students, Mr. Adams said. Those tests have identified 25,000 cases.
Mr. Adams suggested last week that he would consider a remote learning option for schools, but his schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said on Tuesday that such an option was not imminent and that it would be difficult to set up.
“It is a big undertaking, even to do it for a short period of time,” Mr. Banks said.
On vaccinations, Mr. Adams said the city had reached a new milestone of 16 million doses administered, including 2.5 million booster doses. But the mayor said New York was still “nowhere near where we need to be” on its vaccination effort.
City data shows that 74 percent of all New Yorkers, and just 47 percent of those between the ages of 5 to 17, are fully vaccinated.
A shortage of staff, brought on by the relentless surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant, is forcing the Smithsonian Institution to further reduce public hours at most of its museums and the National Zoo, beginning Tuesday. The cutbacks, which will continue indefinitely, give the organization more flexibility in scheduling its remaining employees and staggering hours so that more sites can remain open on weekends.
The National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture are open five days a week, Thursday through Sunday. The National Museum of American History is also open five days, but Friday through Tuesday.
Many of the Smithsonian’s other museums in Washington and the National Zoo are operating four days a week, from Thursday through Sunday.
In addition, the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, the National Postal Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum are closed to visitors.
The week after Christmas — a particularly bustling time — the Smithsonian had closed five museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of Asian Art (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery), through Jan 5. The closures, the organization said at the time, would allow all other museums to remain open and to be adequately staffed.
The organization had already been running on a reduced schedule this month. The zoo had been open daily, but it was cut to five days. Other museums had their days and hours reduced further.
The Smithsonian has a vaccination requirement for its employees, and 95 percent of them have complied with it, Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson, said on Tuesday. The highly transmissible Omicron variant has led to 226 cases reported among Smithsonian employees, volunteer interns, and contract staff working remotely or on-site between Dec. 24 and Jan. 7, according to Alex Fairchild, a spokesperson. The Smithsonian has 6,040 fulltime employees, and about 2,000 volunteers.
The schedule rolled out on Tuesday was announced after tracking visitor patterns over the last two weeks and balancing it with staffing needs, the Smithsonian’s leadership said. The use of masks remains required inside all Smithsonian locations for visitors 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status.
A wave of Omicron cases may be cresting in the northeastern United States, but the number of Covid-19 patients is at a record high and climbing, overwhelming hospitals whose staffs have been hollowed out by the coronavirus.
Public health leaders warn that while the number of Americans getting infected every day remains dangerously high, there is no guarantee that the population is building enough natural immunity to hasten the day the virus becomes a manageable part of daily life.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was asked on Monday at the online World Economic Forum whether this might be the year when that happens. “I would hope that that’s the case,” he said, “but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response.”
Dr. Fauci said the evolution of the pandemic was still impossible to chart. “The answer is: We do not know,” he said.
The United States is averaging over 790,000 new daily cases, a tally that includes an artificially low count on Monday, when many states did not release new data because of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Deaths now exceed 1,900 a day, up 54 percent over the past two weeks.
Even before the holiday weekend, daily cases had peaked in New York and other Northeastern states. According to a New York Times database, cases in the region peaked on Jan. 10-11.
Although scientists believe that Omicron can cause less severe disease than previous variants, the sheer number of cases has created a tsunami of patients seeking care. Hospitals are under tremendous strain, struggling to manage staffing shortages that force difficult decisions about whose care to prioritize.
The average number of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus is 157,000, an increase of 54 percent over two weeks. And the number could continue increasing for some time: Experts say data on deaths and hospitalizations tend to lag behind pure case numbers by about two weeks. The hospitalization figures include people who test positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid.
The Omicron surge is slamming understaffed hospitals where many workers are sick with Covid-19 and others who quit under the pressure of the pandemic have not been replaced.
Intensive care units, as of the week that ended Jan. 13, were an average 82 percent full, according to a New York Times database. In Oklahoma City on Monday, four hospitals issued a statement saying they had no I.C.U. beds available.
After last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that approved the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, hospitals were bracing themselves for possible resistance and more staff shortages.
And while it is too soon to know how this record-shattering wave will shape the pandemic, it is bound to have some impact, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“In due course the immunity from Omicron (or boosters, or both) will wane and breakthrough infections will be possible,” he wrote in a text message. “But we expect them to be milder. That’s not ‘herd immunity,’ because outbreaks will be possible. However, their consequences will be much less severe.”
The 64th annual Grammy Awards will take place on April 3 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the show’s organizers announced on Tuesday.
The Grammys, the music industry’s most high-profile media moment, had been scheduled for Jan. 31 in Los Angeles. Earlier this month the ceremonies were postponed amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, while organizers searched for a venue that could accommodate the show, which often requires more than a week of rehearsals and other setup.
The show will be broadcast live by CBS. This is the first time the Grammys ceremony will be held in Las Vegas.
This year the composer and bandleader Jon Batiste has 11 Grammy nominations, more than any other artist, and will compete for both album and record of the year. Other top nominees include Olivia Rodrigo, Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish and Doja Cat. No performers have been announced yet, but Trevor Noah will return as host.
While the show’s date has been set, some details are still to be determined, including the parties, performances and charity events that usually lead up to the ceremony. This year, the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys, had scheduled a tribute to Joni Mitchell to benefit its charity MusiCares, which helps musicians in need, featuring performers like James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Brandi Carlile and Batiste.
Plans for that event, and for the annual gala hosted by Clive Davis, the 89-year-old music executive, “will be announced soon,” the academy said.
Last year, the Grammys were postponed by six weeks and took place largely outdoors in downtown Los Angeles. Reviews of the 2021 event were strong, but ratings fell by 53 percent to 8.8 million, according to Nielsen, a new low for the Grammys.
LONDON — With Omicron cases beginning to fall, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Tuesday signaled possible plans to ease coronavirus restrictions in England, a move that would likely mollify critics in his restive Conservative Party at a time when he is besieged by career-threatening political scandals.
Mr. Johnson’s cabinet will meet on Wednesday morning to review the limited curbs now in place and to discuss the latest health data. The prime minister was expected to address Parliament in the afternoon, according to his office.
“Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced,” Downing Street said in a statement, which stressed that “the Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over.” It urged the public to get booster shots, continuing a campaign that Mr. Johnson initiated last month.
While the statement noted that the rate of new cases remained high, “the latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall.”
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.
Downing Street did not outline what decisions Mr. Johnson was likely to announce. The expected shift in coronavirus policy comes as the prime minister is under intense political pressure, from both opposition lawmakers and leaders in his own party, over claims that he lied to Parliament about parties held in Downing Street during the lockdown.
Under the current rules, introduced in December under what was called “Plan B,” people in England have been urged to work from home if possible and instructed to wear face coverings in confined spaces such as public transportation.
The government also introduced a requirement for those entering nightclubs and some large sporting events to show a pass proving either that they had been vaccinated or had recently tested negative for coronavirus.
In December, nearly 100 Conservative lawmakers rebelled over the imposition of the vaccine certification restrictions. And just before Christmas Mr. Johnson did not tighten restrictions despite calls from scientists worried about skyrocketing cases of the Omicron variant and the resulting pressure on the health service.
The Plan B measures are scheduled to expire on Jan. 26. By announcing a relaxation this week, Mr. Johnson could deflect some attention from the furor over the Downing Street parties. If Mr. Johnson were to try to prolong the restrictions, he would be taking a major risk at a time when his leadership is already under threat.
Cases in Britain remain high but are down 38.9 percent in the most recent seven-day period compared to the previous week. While Downing Street said that about 17,000 people remain hospitalized in England alone, daily hospital admissions of Covid patients there have also begun to fall after peaking on Jan. 9, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University. But the average number of daily deaths, which lag behind cases, is up to 264, a 107 percent increase over two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
The authorities in China claim that the first case of the Omicron variant detected in Beijing might have spread through a piece of mail delivered from Canada by way of the United States and Hong Kong, and they are calling for extra care in handling mail from overseas — even though experts say the risk of contracting the coronavirus from the surface of an object, particularly one like paper or cardboard, is very low.
With the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing a little more that two weeks away, the authorities also reported three new coronavirus cases there on Tuesday, raising fears that an outbreak could affect the event.
Pang Xinghuo, the deputy director of Beijing’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, urged residents of Beijing to wear masks and disposable gloves when handling mail from abroad.
“Recently, there have also been positive reports from overseas mail and other items in many places across the country,” she said at a press briefing on Monday.
This is not the first time China has issued warnings about the coronavirus on objects. In 2020, officials said that the coronavirus had been found on frozen food packaging in the eastern port city of Qingdao.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that the virus spreads from person to person mainly through airborne droplets, rather than by way of contaminated surfaces.
The latest cases in Beijing have emerged in the Haidian District, a neighborhood that borders the city’s Olympic Park, where many of the events in next month’s Games will take place, including the opening ceremony on Feb. 4.
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.
Two cases involved people who had come into close contact with the first person reported to have Omicron over the weekend, officials in Beijing said on Tuesday. Another case involved someone boarding a train for Weihai, a port city in Shandong Province. That person was infected with the Delta variant, which China has managed to keep largely at bay.
The Beijing authorities have already locked down parts of Haidian and warned residents to take extra precautions.
Other major cities, including Xian, Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen, have seen spikes in cases, testing China’s “zero Covid” strategy, which includes lockdowns, mass testing and other strict measures in response to even small outbreaks.
JERUSALEM — Preliminary results from a small Israeli study examining the effects of a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose suggest that despite an increase in antibody levels, the additional dose a few months after a third shot may not do much more to prevent infection with the Omicron variant.
Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of the Infectious Disease Unit at Sheba Medical Center and the leader of the research, cautioned that the results were not yet peer-reviewed. But she said that there was no evidence of any risk from getting a fourth dose, and that she supported giving the shots to vulnerable people who might have some benefit from it.
She said the study’s initial results raised questions about giving the extra dose more broadly, including to generally healthy people in their early 60s. For them, she said, it might be preferable to wait for a newer vaccine adapted to deal with variants like Omicron.
On Tuesday, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, a senior official at Israel’s Health Ministry, told Kan public radio that the decision to offer a fourth dose to older and more vulnerable people had been correct, since they had produced higher levels of antibodies. Higher levels of antibodies likely would give added protection against serious illness.
Initial results from the study showed that the fourth dose boosted antibodies fivefold. But Professor Regev-Yochay told reporters that two weeks after 154 hospital workers received a fourth dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the number of participants infected with the coronavirus was only slightly lower than the number of infected in a control group that had not received a fourth shot. The hospital did not release the raw data.
The study adds information to the debate over whether a fourth shot is advisable. Israel made the shots available to Israelis aged 60 and over and to people who are considered particularly vulnerable before much data was available. The Health Ministry acknowledged a lack of a scientific basis at that time, but said that the rising rates of new cases meant time had run out for deliberating and gathering more data.
Israeli data shows that immunity provided by a booster shot begins to wane after a few months, and officials said that any downsides of getting a fourth shot were outweighed by the possibility that it could add protection as Omicron spread.
Among scientists, questions remain over whether fourth shots are advisable. Research indicates that Covid vaccines already protect against the worst outcomes, including from the Omicron variant. And while initial boosters in general are recommended in several countries, doses every few months may not be a viable long-term strategy, some experts have said.
About half a million Israelis have received a fourth dose.
Among some Israeli professionals, the rush to give a little-tested fourth dose was a bone of contention from the start.
An advisory panel of experts recommended administering it to people aged 60 and over, as well as to people with weakened immune systems, on Dec. 21, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett enthusiastically supported the proposal. But given the lack of knowledge about Omicron then or the effectiveness of a fourth dose, some experts called the idea premature.
Israel’s Ministry of Health approved rolling out the fourth vaccine for those 60 and older in early January.
It was not immediately clear whether the news from Sheba would slow the uptake among people eligible to receive a fourth dose.
ROME — The Vatican said Tuesday that two of Pope Francis’ top aides — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and his deputy, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra — had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Cardinal Parolin, 67, had light symptoms, while Archbishop Peña Parra, 61, had no symptoms, according to a spokesman for the Vatican, Matteo Bruni. They have self-isolated in their apartments in the Vatican, Mr. Bruni said.
Mr. Bruni did not immediately respond when asked in an email whether the Pope had been tested.
Ordinarily, the two infected clergymen meet with Francis, who is 85, on a regular basis, but it was not clear on Tuesday when they had last seen the pope. Francis has been an outspoken supporter of vaccination, which he has called an ethical obligation, though he often appears in public without a mask.
Last month, Cardinal Parolin introduced new coronavirus restrictions that affected Vatican employees, “in view of the continuation and worsening of the current health emergency and the need to take appropriate measures to counter it and to ensure the safe carrying-out of activities,” the cardinal said in the decree.
The Vatican further toughened those restrictions this month, calling on employees and visitors to wear an N95 mask when indoors. Starting Jan. 31, employees will also have to possess a health pass showing proof of vaccination with a booster or recovery from the virus. Those without such proof would be placed on unpaid leave. The health pass requirement also applies to visitors to the Vatican museums and gardens and the papal summer palace at Castel Gandolfo.
Hong Kong will cull more than 2,000 hamsters and ban the import of small animals after a pet shop worker, a customer and at least 11 hamsters tested positive for the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Officials said on Tuesday that it was not clear that the virus had been transmitted to humans from imported hamsters. But they called on residents to surrender hamsters imported since Dec. 22 to be tested and euthanized to prevent any further spread.
“They’re excreting the virus, and the virus can infect other animals, other hamsters and also human beings,” said Thomas Sit, assistant director of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department. “We don’t want to cull all the animals, but we have to protect public health and animal health. We have no choice — we have to make a firm decision.”
The cluster was traced to a worker at the Little Boss pet shop in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong island who was confirmed on Monday to have contracted the Delta variant. Further tests uncovered another infection in a customer who had a brief transaction with the worker while exchanging a cage and buying hamster food with her daughter on Jan. 7. A preliminary test indicated that the customer’s husband had also contracted the coronavirus.
Further testing found 11 infected hamsters in the shop and positive samples from cages at the company’s warehouse. Health officials said they had found no precedent for pet hamsters passing the coronavirus to humans, but noted that hamsters had been infected in laboratories.
Officials said that two shipments of hamsters from the Netherlands were particularly worrying, including about 1,800 brought in on Dec. 22 and more than 800 that arrived on Jan. 7.
All hamsters at the city’s 34 licensed shops will be seized for testing and then culled, officials said. Anyone who bought a hamster after Dec. 22 is asked to surrender the animal to be tested and euthanized.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Hong Kong criticized the planned cull, saying it “did not take animal welfare and the human-animal bond into consideration.” It urged the government to review its decision and to consider alternatives.
The government also ordered pet shops that sell hamsters to close for cleaning, and health officials will test the shops’ rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs. Shops may reopen once those animals are shown to not be infected.
Small animals like hamsters can be tested through their blood or feces, or via oral swabs, experts say.
Faeces, blood or oral swab. Though blood sampling tiny things is hard (I only treat horses so anything <200kg is small in my book!).
— Dr Becky Parkes (@BeckyParkes5) January 18, 2022
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for coronavirus response, said on Tuesday that the risk that animals like the hamsters in Hong Kong would infect humans with the coronavirus “remains low, but it is something we are constantly looking at.”
Hong Kong, which has a painful history of infectious disease, including nearly 300 deaths from SARS in 2003, has taken aggressive measures to cut the risk of animal transmissions in the past. In 1997, it slaughtered more than one million chickens — every chicken in the territory — to stop the spread of an avian flu virus, and the city has since carried out smaller culls when infected birds are found.
Just a year ago, New York State officials warned that the coronavirus had decimated state coffers, potentially requiring significant spending cuts. But on Tuesday, riding a windfall of federal aid and a boost in tax dollars, Gov. Kathy Hochul released a $216.3 billion budget proposal that she described as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to spur the state’s recovery.
The governor projected balanced budgets through 2027, allowing her to propose significant one-time infusions of money — including $2 billion in pandemic recovery initiatives and $2.2 billion in property tax rebates for homeowners — as well as substantial spending increases on education and health care.
She also made significant investment proposals in infrastructure, including $32.8 billion over five years for highways, bridges and other transit projects, as well as $25 billion to help build or preserve 100,000 housing units over five years, and $1.5 billion for the operating expenses of public universities over five years.
“We need to embrace this moment of possibility and use it to redefine New York’s destiny,” Ms. Hochul said.
New York’s optimistic economic outlook is due in part to the $23 billion in federal funds that New York received or is expected to receive in coronavirus relief over four years, as well as a surging financial sector and revenue from income tax increases on the wealthy that the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed last year.
Australia recorded its highest number of daily Covid deaths of the pandemic on Tuesday, 74, and the state of Victoria declared a state of emergency for its hospital system, which is buckling under the strain of staff illness and soaring coronavirus cases.
James Merlino, Victoria’s deputy premier, said the emergency measure could postpone leave for thousands of health care workers and defer nonessential services. It will take effect at noon on Wednesday.
“We’ve got more than 4,000 health care workers unavailable right now, alongside a vast number of patients with Covid-19 who require hospitalization,” Mr. Merlino said.
On Tuesday, 1,152 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the state and 127 were in intensive care, with 43 of those on a ventilator. In the past two days, 11 people have died of the coronavirus, Mr. Merlino said, adding that cases were expected to spike in the next two to four weeks.
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.
“We’ve got to act now,” he said.
Melbourne, the city of more than five million that is Victoria’s capital, endured among the lengthiest lockdowns in the world last year in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. More than 93 percent of the state’s residents over age 12 have received two vaccine doses. But with the easing of lockdowns and remote learning, along with the emergence of the Omicron variant, thousands have been sickened.
On Tuesday, the federal government said that it would send up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 other health care workers from private hospitals to help Omicron-affected areas, as well as activate the national medical stockpile to address shortages of tests and personal protective equipment.
The previous daily record for Covid deaths in the country was 59, in September 2020.
A bitter dispute over Covid precautions in French schools turned into a political scandal on Tuesday as the local news media reported that the country’s education minister had been vacationing on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza while a contentious new testing protocol took shape.
The minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has led efforts to keep France’s schools open in the face of a sharp rise in cases caused by the Omicron variant, but parents, teachers and school employees have complained that the rules in force are confusing and change too often.
A walkout in schools last week over that and related issues was one of the largest in decades, and another is planned for Thursday.
Mr. Blanquer announced new coronavirus measures for school in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien on Jan. 2 — during the weekend before schools resumed after their Christmas break, which left schools and students little time to adjust. Mr. Blanquer said last week that he had acted at the last minute because the ministry needed time to consult with the health authorities to ensure that the plans reflected a rapidly changing situation.
Then, on Monday evening, the investigative news website Mediapart reported that Mr. Blanquer had not been monitoring the situation from France when the protocol was announced — instead, it reported, he was on a vacation for several days in Ibiza, a sunny Spanish resort island known for its beaches and party scene.
Although he did not violate any travel restrictions, Mr. Blanquer acknowledged to lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday that his choice of destination was misguided.
“Would the decisions have been any different if I had been elsewhere? No,” Mr. Blanquer said, though he added that he should have chosen another vacation spot.
“I regret the symbolism,” Mr. Blanquer said, noting that his priority was keeping schools open. “That is what is crucial. Let us not get lost in the ancillary.”
The matter prompted indignant reactions on social media, where a 2018 video of Mr. Blanquer awkwardly DJing in an elementary school classroom was repurposed to mock him.
Political opponents pounced, with many on the left calling for Mr. Blanquer’s resignation and teachers’ unions expressing dismay that Mr. Blanquer was on vacation even as teachers and headmasters were still in the dark over the upcoming protocol.
“There is really a gap between what Ibiza represents and what our colleagues were going through every day on the eve of the return to classes,” Guislaine David, a spokeswoman for the SNUipp-FSU, a teachers’ union, told Franceinfo radio on Tuesday.
France’s government offered support for Mr. Blanquer on Tuesday, saying that he had been heavily involved in setting up the protocol and that his vacation arrangements were in line with informal rules dictating that ministers should not vacation too far from Paris.
The police in Hong Kong have arrested two former flight attendants for Cathay Pacific who have been blamed for a wave of Omicron cases that forced a return to tough pandemic restrictions.
The two men, who have not been identified, are accused of having violated social distancing regulations by not quarantining and by meeting with others shortly after they returned from flights to the United States on Dec. 24 and 25.
While under medical surveillance, they “conducted unnecessary activities,” according to a government statement on Monday. One had lunch at a restaurant in an upscale mall, where he is believed to have spread Omicron to his father and at least five other customers.
The two men were treated for coronavirus infections and released from hospitals. They were freed on bail; their case will be heard in court on Feb. 9, with a possible prison term of up to six months and a fine of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642) if they are convicted.
Cathay, the city’s flagship air carrier, has been heavily criticized by the government for its role in the latest outbreak. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, summoned airline executives last month, saying she held them responsible for employees’ rule violations. The airline has apologized and fired the two flight attendants. It also faces government investigations and has been forced to slash its passenger and cargo flights.
Mrs. Lam said on Tuesday that the authorities were concerned about two new outbreaks in the city, including possible transmission at a quarantine hotel and a case of the Delta variant found in a pet shop worker. Health workers had carried out extensive testing at the pet shop, as there were fears that some animals may also be infected, she said.
Hong Kong has largely controlled the spread of the coronavirus in the city through aggressive policies. The government has put in place tough pandemic control measures to prevent the Omicron variant from becoming entrenched.
Kindergarten and primary school classes have been suspended, bars and gyms closed, in-restaurant dining banned after 6 p.m., and flights halted from eight countries: Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States. But as of Monday, the city had recorded 453 Omicron cases.
The restrictions have drawn increasing criticism from residents and businesses, and have raised questions about the city’s status as an international business hub.
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.
The mandatory smartphone app that athletes will use to report health and travel data when they are in China for the Olympics next month has serious encryption flaws, according to a new report, raising security questions about the systems that Beijing plans to use to track Covid-19 outbreaks.
Portions of the app that will transmit coronavirus test results, travel information and other personal data failed to verify the signature used in encrypted transfers, or didn’t encrypt the data at all, according to the report by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto cybersecurity watchdog. The group also found that the app includes a series of political terms marked for censorship in its code, though it does not appear to actively use the list to filter communications.
China has entered the final planning stages for a Winter Olympics that will seek to control the spread of Covid-19 by keeping athletes and other participants separate from the greater Chinese population. The app, called MY2022, was designed to bolster those precautions, enabling electronic links between the government and participants to contact trace in the event of any outbreaks. It resembles a broader system of app-based health codes used to control population movements in the event of outbreaks.
The new concerns about the app underscore broader worries about censorship and surveillance during the Games in China, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance and censorship systems. Officials have already said athletes will be given cellular services that will allow them to circumvent widespread blocks on sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter.
In its report, Citizen Lab said it disclosed the security flaws to the Beijing Organizing Committee on Dec. 3 but had not received any response.
Kate Conger contributed reporting.
A cleanup and evacuation operation has begun in Tonga, where the island nation’s government, after days of silence, said Tuesday night that an epic volcanic eruption and the tsunami and ash clouds that followed were an “unprecedented disaster.”
International efforts to deliver aid have been complicated not just by the ash and by damaged communication lines, but also by concerns that an island nation that has managed to ward off the coronavirus may be overcome should it allow in aid workers who might be carrying it.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’S resident coordinator for the Pacific Islands, said relief efforts would be conducted to get badly needed supplies into Tonga without direct contact.
“We won’t be doing anything to threaten the safety of the population,” he said, speaking to reporters remotely from Fiji.
As nations geared up to help, the big question was how to do so safely.
“The front-of-mind issue has to be: How do we 100 percent ensure that we don’t bring Covid to this country?” said Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney. “Whatever good will might be built up by the response would be completely undone if they bring Covid into Tonga.”
The Tongans’ fears are an echo of past trauma. Throughout Polynesia, a region of around 1,000 islands spread across the Southern Pacific, disease delivered by outsiders is a theme that runs through hundreds of years of history.
Regular contact with Europe’s colonizing forces came relatively late to places like Tonga — Capt. James Cook toured the archipelago in 1773, 15 years before the first group of British settled in Australia — but with devastating impact. Over the following century or so, epidemics of measles, dysentery and influenza, carried in by Europeans, devastated island communities all over the South Pacific.