Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Public health in crisis,

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This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

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Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

A vaccine from the French pharmaceutical company Valneva performed well in phase 3 trials, the BBC reports.

Vaccine hesitancy in Russia is behind an alarming surge in new infections and deaths.

Coronavirus cases are rising in the northern U.S. as temperatures fall.

Get the latest updates here, as well as maps and a vaccine tracker.

Public health in crisis

At the beginning of the summer, when it looked like the U.S. was turning the corner on the pandemic, my colleagues Danielle Ivory and Mike Baker set out to answer a question: How prepared are local and state health departments for the next pandemic?

They worked with The Times’s coronavirus data team to survey hundreds of local and state health departments across the country, mine hundreds of pages of records, scour thousands of bills in every state and watch more than 100 hours of public meetings. Danielle and Mike spoke with more than 140 health officials, lawmakers and other experts.

What they found was grim: The nation is more poorly equipped to confront a pandemic now than it was at the beginning of 2020.

“We were hearing the same things over and over again,” Danielle told me. “It was worrying, very worrying.”

The investigation found that:

Public health agencies have seen a staggering exodus of exhausted and demoralized staff, in part because of abuse and threats.

Local health officials described increasingly poisonous encounters with the public. “It’s such an ugly and demoralizing experience to have people in your community yell at you, threaten you or lie directly to you,” Danielle said. “We heard from a number of local health officials who said that they felt like they were seeing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in their staff.”

Legislators have approved more than 100 new laws that limit state and local health powers, undermining flu vaccination campaigns and attempts to quarantine people with measles.

Voters have elected officials who ran on pledges to rein in public health departments.

About 220 health departments told The Times they temporarily or permanently abandoned regular duties to respond to the pandemic, leading to spikes in lead poisoning, drug overdoses and sexually transmitted diseases. They worried that cases of child abuse had been overlooked.

Billions of dollars have been made available to support public health efforts by the federal government, but most of it has been geared toward stemming the emergency, rather than hiring permanent staff or building long-term capability.

Before the pandemic, public health was already underfunded and neglected across the country. The political and logistical tolls of the pandemic, Danielle said, suggest it’s being further undermined in ways that could reverberate for decades to come.

The risk of breakthrough deaths

Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, died this morning of complications of Covid-19, his family said in a statement.

Powell was vaccinated, and vaccine skeptics and opponents immediately seized on the news to stoke unfounded doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Powell was also being treated for multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that hobbles the immune system and makes vaccines less effective. A recent study found that just 45 percent of those with active multiple myeloma “developed an adequate response” after receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Powell, 84, received his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in February, and had been scheduled for a booster shot last week, but fell ill and wasn’t able to get the extra dose, an aide said.

Scientists stressed that Powell’s death should not undermine confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines, which drastically reduce the odds of severe disease and death.

People who are fully vaccinated are roughly 10 times less likely to be hospitalized and 11 times less likely to die from Covid-19, according to a recent study from the C.D.C. Among the more than 187 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated, there have been 7,178 deaths, according to the C.D.C. Eighty-five percent of those deaths have been in people 65 or older.

“Nothing is 100 percent effective,” said Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The point of getting a vaccine is that you want to know that the benefits clearly and definitively outweigh the risks. And we know that for this vaccine.”

Read the New York Times obituary for Powell here.

What else we’re following

Police officers and their unions are pushing back against vaccine mandates.

As vaccination goals are met, cities in Australia are easing restrictions.

New Zealand extended the lockdown of its largest city for another two weeks.

South Korea relaxed its virus restrictions.

Minnesota’s governor called up the National Guard to ease crowding in hospitals.

The E.U. said it has exported more than one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines, DW reports.

The Washington Post looked at why so many teachers are considering leaving their jobs.

The Times talked to New Yorkers who resisted getting vaccinated about why they changed their minds.

How to prepare your child for a possible coronavirus exposure at school.

What you’re doing

I worked as a Covid case investigator for over a year at my local public health department in Arizona. After graduating with my bachelor’s degrees this summer, I moved to Norway for a master’s degree in global health. After spending a year in the throes of the pandemic in Phoenix, it feels like I finally found relief from the constant stress of Covid. With the lifting of all pandemic-related restrictions in Norway earlier this month, everyday life has pretty much returned to normal. I haven’t worn a mask in weeks. It’s all thanks to the Norwegians’ trust in their government — a critical element of effective pandemic management that America is lacking.

— Julia Jackman, Trondheim, Norway

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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