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Ahead of Memorial Day a year ago, many officials in the United States had canceled parades and banned crowded gatherings. The country was on the cusp of recording 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
This year, parades and barbecues are set to take place across the country and vaccinated people are being urged to get outside and enjoy the holiday. As the national economy roars back, concerns over soaring gas prices, sold-out hotels and lifeguard shortages may be eclipsing virus fears.
“A year ago, we were at the end of the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., and now we’re kind of at the beginning of the end,” said Dr. Dan Diekema, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa.
Hundreds of people are still dying each day, pushing the death count in the United States past 592,000 — an enormous toll that few envisioned a year ago. But the vaccine rollouts over the past six months have proved a game-changer in the fight against Covid-19, even as challenges remain in reaching those without shots and the nation may never reach herd immunity.
About 62 percent of people 18 and older have received at least one shot; President Biden has set a goal of reaching 70 percent of adults by July 4. New cases have plunged 40 percent or more in many states around the country. The daily death rate is at its lowest level since last summer.
“If you are vaccinated, you are protected, and you can enjoy your Memorial Day,” the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said at a White House news conference this week. “If you are not vaccinated, our guidance has not changed for you. You remain at risk of infection. You still need to mask and take other precautions.”
After the C.D.C. shifted its guidance this month by saying fully vaccinated people could take off their masks in most situations, one state after another moved to ease restrictions or eliminate them altogether.
California, the most populous U.S. state, announced plans to lift capacity limits and social-distancing restrictions while still requiring masks in indoor settings for now. At the same time, other states are barreling ahead with reopening plans.
Missouri’s governor, a Republican, reopened all remaining businesses this month and directed all state workers to return to offices for in-person work. Texas went even further, banning public schools and local governments from requiring masks.
Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, also a Republican, similarly prohibited mask mandates in state office buildings.
“If somebody wants to wear a mask, that is their personal choice,” he said.
As political leaders embrace policies aimed at returning to normalcy, the vaccines are accentuating a chasm between the United States — where the shots are widely available and where doses are being offered to children — and other nations, such as Brazil and India, where the virus is still raging and vaccines are in short supply.
There are also reminders around the United States that the pandemic, and the partisan positioning around the crisis, remain far from over. The pace of vaccinations has declined sharply since mid-April, with providers administering about 1.7 million doses per day on average, about a 50 percent decrease from the peak of 3.38 million reported on April 13. As the Biden administration has shifted its vaccine strategy to more local and personalized efforts, states are trying different tactics, including offering $1 million vaccine lottery prizes and other incentives.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the frontline workers who died during the pandemic, only to have a top Republican leader in the State Senate demand an apology from the governor for such a move during a holiday honoring soldiers.
A year ago, President Donald J. Trump mocked Mr. Biden for appearing in public with a face mask. Some states that moved early to reopen, such as Arizona, Florida and Texas, were slammed with a surge in cases weeks later.
Dr. Diekema, the Iowa epidemiologist, said he hoped that the resurgence of the virus last summer would serve as a reminder of the risks to unvaccinated people.
He said he couldn’t imagine a year ago that more than half a million people in the United States would die because of the virus. And the toll continues to grow: Over the holiday weekend, Dr. Diekema said that he planned to be working.
“I’ll be in the hospital seeing patients with infectious diseases like Covid-19,” he said.
President Biden’s call for a 90-day sprint to understand the origins of the coronavirus pandemic came after intelligence officials told the White House that they had a raft of still-unexamined evidence requiring additional computer analysis to shed more light on the mystery, according to senior administration officials.
The officials declined to describe the new evidence. But the revelation that they are hoping to apply an extraordinary amount of computer power to the question of whether the virus accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory suggests that the U.S. government may not have exhausted its databases of Chinese communications, the movement of lab workers and the pattern of the outbreak of the disease around the city of Wuhan.
In addition to marshaling scientific resources, Mr. Biden’s push is intended to prod American allies and intelligence agencies to mine existing information — like intercepts, witnesses or biological evidence — as well as hunt for new intelligence to determine whether Beijing covered up an accidental leak.
Mr. Biden committed on Thursday to making the results of the review public, but added a caveat: “unless there’s something I’m unaware of.”
His call for the study has both domestic and international political ramifications. It prompted his critics to argue that the president had dismissed the possibility that the lab was the origin until the Chinese government this week rejected allowing further investigation by the World Health Organization. And, administration officials said, the White House hopes American allies will contribute more vigorously to a serious exploration of a theory that, until now, they considered at best unlikely, and at worst a conspiracy theory.
So far, the effort to glean evidence from intercepted communications within China, a notoriously hard target to penetrate, has yielded little. Current and former intelligence officials say they strongly doubt that anyone will find an email or a text message or a document that shows evidence of a lab accident.
Mexico on Thursday gave emergency authorization to Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, according to the country’s drug regulators.
The Mexican government had previously authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, as well as Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinovac and CanSino.
The pandemic has taken a brutal toll on Mexico. The government resisted imposing strict lockdowns, fearing damage to the economy, and has not tested widely, arguing that it is a waste of money. Mexico now has the fourth-highest coronavirus death toll worldwide, with at least 222,000 deaths.
The country began its coronavirus vaccination campaign in December. According to a New York Times database, 9 percent of the country is fully vaccinated and 15 percent has received at least one dose. Virus cases have been slowly dropping in Mexico. Over the past week, the country has averaged 1,816 cases per day, a decrease of 1 percent from the average two weeks ago. Deaths have decreased by 13 percent.
In March, the White House announced plans to send millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico and Canada.
After the vaccine campaign got off to a glacial start in Mexico, the pace began to pick up nationally by mid-April. In a bid to improve their customer service, vaccination centers in Mexico’s capital now come with a slate of entertainment options, including dancing, yoga, live operatic performances and the chance to watch large, bare-chested Lucha Libre wrestlers do the limbo.
In other news around the world:
Hong Kong on Thursday recorded no new coronavirus cases for the first time in seven months, a promising sign in the Chinese territory’s efforts to quash a wave of infections that began in November. The city has gone more than a month without recording more than 15 daily cases, increasing calls for the authorities to relax social-distancing measures.
Vietnam ordered religious establishments to suspend large gatherings after a cluster of infections was linked to a Protestant congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, part of a nationwide surge in cases. Of more than 6,300 total cases recorded in the Southeast Asian nation since the start of the pandemic, half have come in the past month, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported.
South America’s largest soccer tournament is scheduled to start in just over two weeks, but with one of the planned host countries, Colombia, removed because of political protests, and the remaining host, Argentina, mired in its worst coronavirus surge to date, it is unclear where the competition will take place.
A new poll suggests that the United States could be on track to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the adult population against Covid-19 by this summer.
In the latest survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 62 percent of respondents said that they had received at least one dose of a vaccine, up from 56 percent in April. At the same time, about a third of those categorized as “wait and see” reported that they had already made vaccine appointments or planned to do so imminently.
Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a vaccine expert, found the results encouraging.
“I think there are many people who were on the fence who were worried about things moving too rapidly and about possible side effects, but those concerns are being allayed as they see more of their friends and acquaintances celebrating getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Schaffner, who was not involved in the monthly survey.
“They’re getting that growing sense of comfort and reassurance that ‘people like me’ are getting vaccinated,” which, he said, was essential to instilling confidence in the vaccines.
The two demographic groups reporting the greatest increase in vaccination rates from April to May were Latino adults (from 47 percent to 57 percent) and adults without college degrees (from 48 percent to 55 percent).
The survey found that 40 percent of parents said that their child had either gotten at least one dose or would be getting one soon. But parents of younger children were more guarded, with only about a quarter expressing a willingness to get their children vaccinated as soon as the shots are authorized for them.
The finding suggests that efforts to protect as many young students as possible from Covid-19 by the start of the school year could face barriers.
While public health experts welcomed the continuing improvement in vaccination rates, they noted that it meant the pool of the most willing adults was shrinking.
President Biden set a goal of 70 percent vaccine coverage for adults by July 4. Dr. Schaffner said he thought the goal was possible. “We have to work harder,” he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Thursday announced a $116.5 million giveaway to residents who receive a coronavirus vaccination, the latest and largest such effort among U.S. states seeking to motivate people to get a shot.
Under California’s incentive program, called Vax for the Win, 10 Californians who have had at least one dose of a vaccine will receive $1.5 million each. In addition, 30 people will be awarded $50,000 each, and two million people will receive $50 gift cards.
“Getting every eligible Californian vaccinated is how we bring our state roaring back from this pandemic,” Mr. Newsom said.
Fifty-six percent of California’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 42 percent has been fully vaccinated. Both percentages are above the national average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
California’s move comes after Ohio awarded the first $1 million lottery prize in its own vaccine incentive program this week, to Abbigail Bugenske, a 22-year-old from Cincinnati.
“I would encourage anyone to get the vaccine,” Ms. Bugenske said. “If winning a million dollars isn’t incentive enough, I don’t really know what would be.”
Among other states offering big prizes to those who have been vaccinated, Colorado announced its own $1 million lottery this week, and Oregon is offering a $1 million jackpot, in addition to $10,000 prizes.
The Indian government is in talks with Pfizer to obtain 50 million doses of the company’s coronavirus vaccine starting this summer, but is still considering the drug manufacturer’s demand for indemnity from costs related to severe side effects, officials have said.
India has not given indemnity, or protection from legal liability, to any manufacturer of coronavirus vaccines, but government officials indicated that they were likely to grant Pfizer’s request. The drug company has obtained indemnity in several countries where its vaccine is already in use, including the United States.
“We are examining this request, and we will take decisions in the larger interest of people and on merits,” Vinod Paul, who heads the Indian government’s vaccination program, told reporters on Thursday.
Officials said that Pfizer was prepared to supply India with 50 million vaccine doses from July to October and that the company had shared information related to the drug’s efficacy with the Indian health authorities.
India is struggling to inoculate its population as a second wave of the coronavirus ravages the country, killing thousands a day and overwhelming medical facilities. More than 315,000 people in India have died of the virus, the third-highest toll in the world, after the United States and Brazil, but experts believe the official data is a significant undercount.
Only 3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database, and experts say that vaccines are slow to reach rural India, where the outbreak is growing. The pace of vaccinations nationwide has slipped to two million shots a day from three million a few months ago, with health centers saying that they are running out of doses and many in the country saying that they cannot find a place to be inoculated.
Indian officials now say that expanding vaccinations is the only way out of the outbreak, but, unlike many other countries, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to sign advance purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers, believing this year that it had defeated the virus. Experts say that as Indians lowered their guard, they were left defenseless against coronavirus variants that are believed to be more transmissible.
India’s large vaccine manufacturing industry has failed to keep up with demand, leaving the country reliant on imported doses that are in short supply globally. On Thursday, Indian officials said that they would work with Pfizer to make its doses available as soon as possible.