Disney Theatrical Productions announced that “Aladdin,” which had resumed performances on Broadway this week for the first time since the pandemic hit, was canceling all of its shows starting Friday night through Oct. 10 after “breakthrough Covid-19 cases were detected within the company.”
“Aladdin” isn’t planning another show until Oct. 12. On Tuesday, it held its first performance since Broadway was forced to close in March 2020. The show was canceled on Wednesday because of several positive coronavirus tests, but was able to resume Thursday at the New Amsterdam Theater — for what turned out to be just one night.
An epidemiologist working with the production said the cases were among vaccinated people, and that the 12-day pause was needed to allow them to recover and avoid further spread of the virus.
Disney said in a statement that it was refunding purchased tickets.
All Broadway companies — cast and crew — are required to be fully vaccinated, as are all Broadway audiences. When breakthrough cases occur, some productions have been able to keep going by using understudies. For example, “Waitress” had a positive test in its cast before its first performance, but was able to use testing to determine that the rest of the cast was negative, allowing the performance to proceed with an understudy.
The Broadway League announced on Friday an extension of their vaccine and masking requirements through the end of the year, which will apply in all 41 Broadway theaters. Patrons over the age of 12 must be vaccinated, testing is required for those 12 and under, and all attendees must be masked.
“Aladdin” had been dealing with coronavirus complications in the run-up to its reopening performance. The raucous first night performance, with an audience that included Kristin Chenoweth and the show’s composer, Alan Menken, and librettist, Chad Beguelin, featured three understudies. The crowd didn’t seem to mind — “Friend Like Me,” the Genie’s big production number, brought the audience to its feet. Michael James Scott, the actor playing the Genie, had stood to the side of the stage, breathless, before shouting to the audience, by way of explanation, “18 months, people! 18 months!”
Now it will be a little longer.
American Airlines told employees on Friday that it would require all U.S.-based employees and some international crew members to be vaccinated.
In a letter to employees signed by the company’s chief executive and presidents, American said the move was necessary because of its status as a government contractor. Last month, President Biden announced that employees of government contractors would be required to be vaccinated, with only limited exceptions.
The airline’s letter gave no timetable, but the White House has said the deadline for employees of current contractors to be vaccinated is Dec. 8.
“While we are still working through the details of the federal requirements, it is clear that team members who choose to remain unvaccinated will not be able to work at American Airlines,” the letter said.
Employees who have medical or religious reasons to decline the vaccine could apply for an accommodation, the letter said. The letter was reported earlier by Reuters.
Separately, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue said on Friday that they, too, would mandate the vaccine for employees, also citing the requirement for federal contractors. In a statement, Alaska Airlines said it would extend to Dec. 1 a $200 incentive for employees who upload proof of full vaccination.
United Airlines issued a vaccine mandate for employees in August, but no other major carrier followed suit at the time. The company said this week that several hundred employees out of about 67,000 were at risk of being laid off for declining the vaccine, though the number had fallen below 250 by Friday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced on Friday that the state plans to add the coronavirus vaccine to other vaccinations required to attend school, such as measles and mumps, starting as early as next fall.
The vaccine mandate, for public and private schools, will be phased in by grade span — seventh through 12th grades, and then kindergarten through sixth — after the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to the corresponding age group. Mr. Newsom said that he anticipates the requirement would apply to grades seven and up starting in July 2022.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently only fully approved for people 16 and older; the vaccine remains available for children ages 12 to 15 under emergency use authorization. Mr. Newsom said that more than 63 percent of Californians aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Widespread inoculation will be critical to keeping classrooms open, he noted.
“We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it,” the governor, who has four small children, said.
Mr. Newsom’s announcement would make California the first state to mandate the Covid vaccine for in-person school attendance.
Independent study will be offered for unvaccinated students, he said, and rules for students with medical and other exemptions will be determined through a public rule-making process. California has nearly 7 million students in public and private schools.
Several of the state’s largest school districts have already voted to mandate vaccinations in some form for hundreds of thousands of students. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the nation — became the first major school district in the country to announce a vaccine mandate for children 12 and older who attend school in person, which will be broadly effective by January.
School districts in Culver City and Piedmont have made similar announcements. The school board in Oakland voted last month to require students aged 12 or older to be vaccinated, though some details — including the timing — have yet to be ironed out. In San Diego, students over 16 must be vaccinated by late December to attend in-person classes, with mandates contingent on vaccine clearance in the works for younger age groups.
California requires that K-12 students, faculty and staff wear face masks at school. The state also announced vaccine rules for teachers and other school staff in August. Other states and districts across the country, including Washington State, New York City and Oregon, have done so, too.
Last month, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine had been shown to be safe and highly effective in young children aged 5 to 11 years, setting the stage for emergency use authorization of the vaccine for younger children, possibly as soon as the end of October.
Such mandates are legally allowed, and have been upheld in court challenges.
Jacey Fortin contributed reporting.
Deaths in the United States from the coronavirus surpassed 700,000 on Friday, according to a New York Times database, a milestone that few experts had anticipated months ago when vaccines became widely available to the American public.
An overwhelming majority of Americans who have died in recent months, a period in which the country has offered broad access to shots, were unvaccinated. The United States has had one of the highest recent death rates of any country with an ample supply of vaccines.
The new and alarming surge of deaths this summer means that the pandemic has become the deadliest in American history, overtaking the toll from the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919, which killed about 675,000 people.
The recent virus deaths are distinct from those in previous chapters of the pandemic, an analysis by The New York Times shows. People who died in the last three and a half months were concentrated in the South, a region that has lagged in vaccinations; many of the deaths were reported in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. And those who died were younger: In August, every age group under 55 had its highest death toll of the pandemic.
The United States government has not closely tracked the vaccination status of everyone who has been infected with the virus, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has so far identified 2,900 people who were vaccinated among the 100,000 who died of Covid since mid-June.
Vaccines have been proven highly effective in preventing severe illness and death, and a study from the C.D.C. that was published in September found that after Delta became the dominant variant, unvaccinated people were more than 10 times as likely to die of the virus as the vaccinated were. The study, which spanned from April to mid-July, used data from 10 states, New York City, Los Angeles County and King County, Wash., which includes Seattle.
The pace of death has quickened, then slowed, then quickened again over the past 18 months as the virus has rippled across America in waves.
The most recent 100,000 deaths occurred over more than three months, a considerably slower pace than when the pandemic reached its peak last winter. During that earlier surge, just 34 days elapsed between the nation’s 400,000th and 500,000th death.
The outsize impact on the South propelled Mississippi ahead of New York and New Jersey for the most coronavirus deaths relative to population throughout the pandemic. Before the Delta surge, the worst-hit states had been mostly Northeastern states that suffered dire early outbreaks, as well as Arizona. But Louisiana and Alabama have become two of the five states with the highest proportion of Covid deaths.
Newer variants of the coronavirus like Alpha and Delta are highly contagious, infecting far more people than the original virus. Two new studies offer a possible explanation: The virus is evolving to spread more efficiently through air.
The realization that the coronavirus is airborne indoors transformed efforts to contain the pandemic last year, igniting fiery debates about masks, social distancing and ventilation in public spaces.
Most researchers now agree that the coronavirus is mostly transmitted through large droplets that quickly sink to the floor and through much smaller ones, called aerosols, that can float over longer distances indoors and settle directly into the lungs, where the virus is most harmful.
The new studies don’t fundamentally change that view. But the findings signal the need for better masks in some situations, and indicate that the virus is changing in ways that make it more formidable.
“This is not an Armageddon scenario,” said Vincent Munster, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who led one of the new studies. “It is like a modification of the virus to more efficient transmission, which is something I think we all kind of expected, and we now see it happening in real time.”
The drug maker Merck said on Friday that its pill to treat Covid-19 was shown in a key clinical trial to halve the risk of hospitalization or death when given to high-risk people early in their infections.
The strong results suggest that a new wave of effective and easy-to-use treatments for Covid will gradually become available in the United States, though supply is likely to be limited at first. Merck said it would seek emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its drug, known as molnupiravir, as soon as possible. The pills could be available by late this year.
Merck’s drug would be the first pill to treat Covid-19; it is likely to be followed by a number of other antiviral pills that other companies are racing to bring to market. They have the potential to reach more people than the antibody treatments that are being widely used in the United States for high-risk patients.
“I think it will translate into many thousands of lives being saved worldwide, where there’s less access to monoclonal antibodies, and in this country, too,” said Dr. Robert Shafer, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University.
White House officials on Friday hailed the strong trial data, but they noted that the antiviral pills are no substitute for more Americans getting vaccinated. Despite the growing number of governments and companies mandating vaccines, only 56 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.
“The right way to think about this is this is a potential additional tool in our toolbox to protect people from the worst outcomes of Covid,” said Jeff Zients, a White House coronavirus adviser. Vaccination, he said, “remains far and away our best tool against Covid-19. It can prevent you from getting Covid in the first place, and we want to prevent infections — not just treat them when they happen.”
The results of clinical trials of two other antiviral pills, one developed by Pfizer and the other from Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche, are expected in the next few months.
The Merck drug is designed to stop the coronavirus from replicating by inserting errors into its genetic code. Doctors will prescribe the treatment to patients, who will receive the pills from pharmacies. The drug is meant to be taken as four capsules twice a day for five days — a total of 40 pills over the course of treatment.
The federal government has placed advance orders for 1.7 million courses of treatment, at a price of about $700 per patient. That is about one-third of the current cost of a monoclonal antibody treatment, which is typically given to patients via intravenous hookups.
The limited number of doses that the U.S. government has ordered means that only a small fraction of those who fall ill from Covid are likely to be able to receive the treatment, at least initially. Merck said on Friday that it expects to be able to make enough pills for 10 million people by the end of this year, though it is unclear how many of those doses will go to the United States or other countries.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday scheduled three days of public meetings with its panel of independent vaccine experts for later this month, as the agency prepares to make high-profile decisions on whether to authorize emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 and booster shots for adult recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
The F.D.A. typically issues its decisions within a few days of advisory committee meetings, during which members discuss safety and efficacy data. The timing of the upcoming meetings indicates that the agency intends to move quickly to decide whether to authorize both the booster and children’s shots.
The committee will meet on Oct. 14 and 15 to discuss booster doses, and is tentatively scheduled to discuss Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine on Oct. 26, the agency said.
“It’s critical that as many eligible individuals as possible get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Dr. Peter Marks, the agency’s top vaccine regulator, said in a statement.
He added that “the available data make clear that protection against symptomatic Covid-19 in certain populations begins to decrease over time, so it’s important to evaluate the information on the use of booster doses in various populations.”
The decision to have the committee discuss the evidence for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots two weeks before it does so for Pfizer’s children’s vaccine appears to reflect the F.D.A.’s priorities and the availability of data. But the agency’s decisions on those emergency use authorizations could come in quick succession.
Pfizer and BioNTech have yet to formally ask the F.D.A. to authorize emergency use of their vaccine for pediatric doses; they are expected to do so next week, according to people familiar with the companies’ plans. If regulators grant that request, it could help protect as many as 28 million children and ease the anxiety of parents across the nation. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member, has said the F.D.A. could decide as early as Halloween.
Children rarely become severely ill from the coronavirus, but the Delta variant drove nearly 30,000 of them into hospitals in August. Over the course of the pandemic, at least 125 children ages 5 to 11 have died from Covid, and nearly 1.7 million others in that age group have been infected with the virus.
They account for 5 percent of Covid cases and 9 percent of the nation’s population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Amy Schoenfeld Walker contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday allowed New York City to require adults working in its public schools to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Justice Sotomayor, who oversees the federal appeals court in New York, turned down a request for emergency relief shortly before the mandate became effective on Friday evening. She acted on her own, without referring the application to the full Supreme Court, asking city officials for a response or providing reasoning. All of those moves were indications that the application was not on solid legal footing.
The teachers and school staff challenging the mandate argued that they were being treated differently from other city workers. The mandate, their lawyers told Justice Sotomayor, “will force thousands of unvaccinated public-school employees to lose their jobs — while other municipal employees, including those who have significant contact with children, are allowed to opt-out of the vaccine mandate through weekly Covid-19 testing.”
The challengers added that the mandate violated what they called their “fundamental right to pursue an occupation.”
In refusing to block the mandate, Judge Brian M. Cogan of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn wrote in an earlier ruling that it was “a rational policy decision surrounding how best to protect children during a global pandemic.”
He added that the challengers could seek employment elsewhere.
Judge Cogan wrote that city officials had made a defensible policy decision given the public health crisis.
“Public school students have already endured two school years that were mired by disruption, leaving many students far behind,” he wrote. “Minimizing interruption by providing a safe environment for these students is also a legitimate and important governmental purpose. Although plaintiffs argue that masks and testing adequately can advance this objective, it is not irrational for defendants to conclude the vaccine mandate better enhances this purpose.”
American sleep-away camps with high vaccination coverage among eligible children and staff members and routine testing programs largely stamped out the spread of the coronavirus this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Friday.
But summer camps in less-vaccinated Southern states that failed to mandate shots for staff members or require indoor masking remained vulnerable to outbreaks, the C.D.C. said.
Those findings were contained in two studies released on Friday — one focusing on nine heavily vaccinated sleep-away camps across the United States, and the other on outbreaks at 28 camps in Louisiana.
Together, they reinforced the agency’s urgings that children eligible for vaccines be given them and outlined the potential consequences of lagging inoculations among young people, especially in certain states in the South and the Mountain West.
Fifty-seven percent of children 12 to 17 years old in the United States have been vaccinated. But that figure masks large gaps in coverage. Seventy-eight percent of children in that age group have been vaccinated in Massachusetts, for instance, but only 37 percent have in Louisiana.
“Implementation of high vaccination coverage coupled with multiple prevention strategies is critical to averting Covid-19 outbreaks in congregate settings, including overnight camps,” C.D.C. scientists wrote, noting that the experience of camps held crucial lessons for preventing outbreaks in schools this year.
One study found only nine Covid-19 cases among more than 7,000 campers and staff members at nine sleep-away camps that were heavily vaccinated and carried out tens of thousands of tests. The study attributed several of the cases to outings by staff members away from the camp grounds. At the camps, more than 93 percent of people at least 12 years old who were eligible for vaccines had received shots.
Between testing programs, vaccine coverage and quarantine policies, the camps managed to avoid any known secondary infections, the C.D.C. said.
The second study examined outbreaks at 28 camps in Louisiana, half of them sleep-away and half day camps. Only one of the camps mandated vaccines for staff members and contractors and one required indoor masking.
On average, the camps experienced outbreaks of roughly a dozen cases. The C.D.C. attributed the spread of the virus to the highly contagious Delta variant. Of the 135 campers included in the study who got sick despite being eligible for a coronavirus shot, 133 had not been vaccinated. All of the staff members who tested positive had not received vaccines.
The majority of prisoners in Minnesota have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but corrections employees lag significantly behind.
Paul Schnell, state corrections commissioner, told Minnesota Public Radio News that he’s “deeply concerned” about the department’s vaccination rates.
The immunization rate for employees at the Minnesota Department of Corrections is just over 65 percent. But that number is lower in some facilities. Less than 60 percent of staff at St. Cloud have been inoculated. It’s fewer than half at Rush City, north of Minneapolis.
In comparison, 80 percent of inmates have been fully vaccinated as of this week.
Minnesota’s disparity is in line with much of the country. Data compiled by the Covid Behind Bars Project at the University of California, Los Angeles Law shows that prison inmates are more vaccinated than corrections staff in at least 13 states.
The project includes data publicly reported by state and federal correctional agencies about the administration of vaccines to incarcerated people and staff in their facilities, but not every state publicly reports those numbers.
Over the course of the pandemic, prison inmates have been more than three times as likely as other Americans to become infected with the virus, according to a New York Times analysis of data in May. The virus has killed prisoners at higher rates than the general population, the data shows, with at least 2,700 dying in custody.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified prisoners as a group vulnerable to outbreaks and prioritized inmates early in the vaccine rollout, but state-set eligibility lists meant access varied widely. Now that shots are readily available for both inmates and staff, vaccine hesitancy from employees has spurred state mandates.
This week, Massachusetts prison guards filed a lawsuit to postpone Gov. Charlie Baker’s mandate requiring all state workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 17 or risk being fired. A federal judge on Monday ordered that all correctional officers and staff entering California’s prisons must be vaccinated.
Despite a new mandate requiring all Minnesota state employees working in the office or on site to be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing, Mr. Schnell said that his department is testing about 1,400 unvaccinated staff members on a weekly basis.
Nicholas Kimball, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said they don’t think either vaccination rate is high enough.
“Nothing happens inside a prison without healthy, effective security staff,” said Mr. Kimball in an email. “So we have to keep people healthy and do everything possible to reduce their own risk of illness, and the risk they could spread Covid-19 to other staff or people who are incarcerated.”
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh has tested positive for the coronavirus, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said on Friday. She said the justice had been fully vaccinated since January and that he was not showing symptoms of the virus.
Justice Kavanaugh, 56, was tested on Thursday before the ceremonial investiture of Justice Amy Coney Barrett at the court on Friday morning, the spokeswoman, Patricia McCabe, said in a statement.
“Justice Kavanaugh’s wife and daughters are also fully vaccinated, and they tested negative on Thursday,” Ms. McCabe said. “As a precaution, Justice and Mrs. Kavanaugh will not attend Justice Barrett’s investiture this morning.”
All of the justices were tested on Monday morning before their private conference to discuss the petitions seeking review that had piled up over their summer break. “All tested negative, including Justice Kavanaugh,” Ms. McCabe said.
In a second statement Friday night, Ms. McCabe said that Justice Kavanaugh would “participate in next week’s oral arguments remotely from his home.” The other justices are set to return to the bench on Monday after more than 18 months of the court operating virtually.
The arguments will not be open to the public, but the court will provide live audio. The lawyers arguing before the court are required to be tested the morning before they argue.
“An arguing attorney who receives a positive test will not argue in person, but will instead be expected to participate remotely by telephone connection to the courtroom,” according to an announcement posted on the court’s website this week.
The lawyers are required to be masked in the courtroom “except when presenting argument.”
The court last heard in-person arguments in March of last year. Since then, arguments have taken place by telephone, with the justices asking questions one by one in order of seniority, an arrangement many observers found inert and stilted.
A positive aspect of the arrangement was the full participation of Justice Clarence Thomas, who very seldom asked questions in the courtroom.
When the justices return to the bench, they will adopt a hybrid model of argument, starting with the familiar and dynamic free-for-all in which they pepper the lawyers with questions, build on each other’s comments and not infrequently interrupt the lawyers and one another. That will be followed by a round of one-by-one questioning.
The new term will include two blockbusters, on gun rights and abortion. In November, the justices will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a restrictive New York gun control law that strictly limits carrying guns in public. The court has not issued a major Second Amendment decision in more than a decade, and it has said next to nothing about how it applies outside the home.
In December, the justices will hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The case, a frontal challenge to the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade in 1973, may well give rise to the court’s most consequential decision in decades.
Over the summer, the court’s conservative majority issued a series of orders in response to emergency applications, blocking Biden administration programs on asylum and evictions and refusing to halt a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks.
Recent polls have shown a sharp drop in the court’s public approval. In apparent response, several of the justices have made public comments denying that politics or partisanship plays a role in their decisions.
On Thursday, for instance, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. defended the court’s recent rulings on what critics call its “shadow docket,” rendered without full briefing or oral argument, saying the court has followed consistent procedures and had no choice but to act quickly and offer only limited reasons for its rulings.
India said on Friday that it would require visitors from Britain to quarantine regardless of their vaccination status — a retaliatory measure after weeks of talks to reverse a similar move by Britain appeared deadlocked.
The British government relaxed quarantine requirements for vaccinated visitors from more than a dozen countries last month. But its decision to exclude Indians fully inoculated with Covishield — an Indian-manufactured version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that Britain uses — caused a strong backlash in India, and the government threatened retaliation.
For nearly two weeks, officials from the two countries said they were in talks to resolve what India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, called a “discriminatory” move. He said that Britain was essentially not recognizing the very vaccine that India had given it five million doses of when Britain was struggling with its inoculation drive.
The British high commissioner in New Delhi, Alex Ellis, said in interviews with the local news media in India that the vaccine itself was not the issue. Rather, he suggested that the issue was with India’s vaccine certification app, CoWIN, and he said developers of CoWIN and Britain’s National Health Service were in talks to resolve it.
A senior Indian government official said that travelers coming from Britain would be required to present a PCR Covid test before their flight, undergo tests on arrival and after eight days, and remain in quarantine for 10 days.
The official said that the decision did not mean the talks had failed, but said that India was reciprocating as the British measure goes into effect on Monday. If Britain changed its measures, India would as well, the official said.
Kanchan Gupta, an Indian government adviser, said on Twitter that Britain was getting “a taste of its own medicine.”
“After much patience and explaining, India reciprocates,” he wrote.
Devastated by two waves of Covid, India has reined in the worst of the spread for now. Concerns over a possible third wave have waned as daily cases and deaths drop to their lowest levels in months and the country ramps up its vaccination drive.
Nearly 900 million vaccine doses have been administered, and about 240 million of the country’s roughly 900 million adults are fully vaccinated.
Australia will lift its bans on international travel in November under a plan that Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined on Friday. It is the second time in 10 days that officials have accelerated the country’s plans to ease travel restrictions.
Until last month, Australia was poised to keep its borders closed into 2022. The tourism minister, Dan Tehan, then said that they could reopen by Christmas.
Once the borders start to open, fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents will still need to quarantine at home for seven days upon entry. Foreign tourists will not immediately be able to visit, but the government said it was working toward allowing them to come in.
“It’s time to give Australians their lives back,” Mr. Morrison said, announcing that he would begin to reverse a policy that since March 2020 has only allowed some Australians and others to enter the country and blocked all outbound trips except for essential work.
Australia’s tough Covid restrictions, including its strict border rules and local lockdowns, have been praised for helping to contain infections, but have also separated families.
As vaccinations speed up, Mr. Morrison is urging state leaders to ease lockdown measures that have challenged the economy and subjected over half the population to strict lockdown orders for months.
The moves come amid a recent surge of infections nationwide. In Victoria, the state that includes Melbourne, the authorities reported a record 1,438 daily cases on Thursday, a third of which were traced to illegal social gatherings, including parties for last weekend’s Grand Final, Australia’s Super Bowl.
Starting next month, various regions will reopen at different times according to their vaccination rates. States and territories will be able to reopen to international travel once they fully vaccinate 80 percent of their eligible residents.
New South Wales, which includes Sydney, is on track to be the first region to cross the 80-percent threshold and could become the first test for Mr. Morrison’s push to allow Australians to travel internationally. The state has fully vaccinated about 65.2 percent of its eligible residents, according to data released by the Australian officials.
About 44 percent of Australia’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
Merck on Friday announced that its new pill to treat Covid-19 reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by about 50 percent. Merck plans to seek emergency authorization for the antiviral pills to be used in the United States.
Here’s what to know.
Who will get the pills?
The pills are meant for people who are sick with Covid but are not in the hospital. Merck’s Phase 3 clinical trial enrolled only people considered high risk, such as older people or those with medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Initially, the drug might only be available for those people, but experts expect it to eventually become more widely available.
The pills are designed to be taken as soon as possible once a person shows symptoms of having Covid — a time when the virus is replicating rapidly and the immune system has not yet mounted a defense. In Merck’s trial, volunteers had to have shown symptoms within the past five days, and some researchers think the pills must be taken even earlier to be most effective.
When will the pills become available?
Merck said on Friday that it plans to seek emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration as soon as possible. Regulators could then authorize the drug before the end of this year, if all goes well.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser for the coronavirus, said at a White House briefing on Friday that he could not give a specific timeline for approval.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.
A fire tore through the intensive care unit of a Romanian hospital where Covid patients were being treated on Friday, killing at least seven people and raising public outrage over the dismal state of the nation’s health care infrastructure.
It was the third deadly hospital blaze in the country in less than a year, and at least two dozen people have died in those fires. An inspection in February at the hospital where the latest fire occurred, in the Black Sea port city of Constanta, had found what one official described as “malfunctions.”
The cause of the fire was under investigation, and officials said that oxygen supplies had been turned off, raising the possibility that the tanks may have played a role in the blaze. Oxygen tanks being used to treat patients with severe Covid-19 have been blamed for deadly fires at other coronavirus clinics around the world, most recently killing 14 people in North Macedonia.
President Klaus Iohannis called Friday’s fire “a terrible new drama that confirms the deficient infrastructure of the Romanian health system,” which he characterized as “an outdated system, long strained and put under unimaginable pressure by the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“I am horrified by the tragedy that took place this morning,” he said in a statement.
In a news conference held outside the hospital, Cristian Amarandei, the head of the local branch of Romania’s emergency services, said that “irregularities, malfunctions were found” in the February inspection and that “sanctions were applied.”
He said the hospital’s administrator had promised to address the irregularities by the end of this year. “We have not checked since,” he added.
Stela Halichidis, the hospital manager, said in a statement that “all the defects were fixed” and that “everything worked according to the law.”
The coronavirus continues to spread widely in Romania, which has the European Union’s second-lowest vaccination rate. More than 12,000 new cases were reported on Thursday, a new record. Over 12,000 Covid patients are now in the country’s hospitals, including more than 1,300 in intensive care units, according to the health ministry.
When the pandemic hit, even before a new wave of infection driven by the Delta variant this spring, there was concern that Romania’s health care system would buckle under the pressure. Tens of thousands of doctors and nurses have emigrated from the country, only one new hospital has been built there since the fall of Communism in 1989, and Romania’s spending on its health care system is among the lowest in the European Union.
After a fire at Matei Bals hospital in Bucharest killed several people in January, President Iohannis called for “profound” reform and said that such tragedies “must not happen again.”
Criminal investigations into the two earlier fires have yet to reveal the cause of the blazes or result in anyone being held responsible.
A federal judge in Rhode Island on Thursday ruled against four health care workers who argued that they should be exempt from a vaccination mandate for religious reasons.
Employees of state-run health care facilities in Rhode Island are required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Friday, or they could lose their jobs. The workers had claimed in a lawsuit that the state’s vaccine mandate violated their constitutional and civil rights by not allowing for religious exemptions. They had requested a temporary restraining order.
“Mandatory vaccination laws are a valid exercise of a state’s police powers, and such laws have withstood constitutional challenges,” the judge, Mary S. McElroy, wrote in her ruling.
Religious exemptions have been a rising topic of conversation around the United States as government agencies and private employers require workers to be inoculated against the virus and some people contest the mandates on religious grounds. State laws around religious exemptions vary; 44 states and the District of Columbia currently grant such relief.
The four unvaccinated workers, who were not named in the lawsuit, said that the regulation denied them the ability to request exemptions on religious grounds, running afoul of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although the regulation was announced in August, the workers did not file the suit until eight days before the mandate went into effect.
In her decision, Judge McElroy, of the United States District Court in Rhode Island, said that temporary restraining orders were “an extraordinary remedy,” and that the workers had failed to show they would likely win a trial.
Judge McElroy wrote that nothing in the regulation’s language “prevents any employer from providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee who seeks one in accord with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
She also dismissed the request for a preliminary injunction.
In New York, some Christian health care workers are suing the state, which does not allow for religious exemptions, over its mandate requiring that they get vaccinated. Some of the vaccines were developed and tested using cells derived from the fetal tissue of elective abortions that took place decades ago, and the workers have said that getting the vaccines would run counter to their religious belief that abortion is wrong.
In another case, the N.B.A. denied the request of Andrew Wiggins, a player on the San Francisco Golden State Warriors, for a religious exemption from vaccination. San Francisco requires proof of inoculation to attend large indoor events, including Warriors home games.
Portugal is now among the world’s leaders in Covid vaccinations, with roughly 86 percent of its population fully inoculated. And about 98 percent of all of those eligible — meaning anyone over 12 — have been fully vaccinated, said Vice Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo, a former submarine squadron commander who has been managing the country’s pandemic response.
“We believe we have reached the point of group protection and nearly herd immunity,” he said. “Things look very good.”
On Friday, Portugal ended nearly all of its coronavirus restrictions. There has been a sharp drop in new cases, to about 650 a day, and vanishingly few deaths.
And as inoculation rates plateau in many Western nations with abundant vaccine supplies, other governments are looking to Portugal for possible insights and watching to see what happens when nearly every eligible person is protected.
Admiral Gouveia e Melo has been credited with turning around Portugal’s vaccine program, which was in a shambles early this year. With a background working on complicated logistical challenges in the military, he was named in February to lead the national vaccination task force.
Asked what other countries can do to bolster their own vaccination efforts, he said, “They need to find people who are not politicians.”