In California, Counting the Dead by the Hour

Remy Tumin and

Just two weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Californians that the state’s intensive care beds might be full before Christmas.

Now, it appears that dire projection is being borne out.

How bad is the coronavirus surge in California?

In Los Angeles County, officials say, an average of two people are dying every hour. And one in every 80 people there is thought to be infected.

“Our hospitals are under siege and our models show no end in sight,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, the director of health services in Los Angeles County, said Thursday.

Statewide, California reported 3 percent availability of I.C.U. beds on Thursday.

But the problem is most severe in the southern part of the state. Within the month, Dr. Ghaly said, the number of patients requiring I.C.U. care in Los Angeles County “could easily exceed” the 2,500 licensed adult beds by a thousand or more.

California continues to shatter records. More than 45,000 new virus cases were reported on Thursday, and 260 deaths.

But it is hardly alone.

More than a third of Americans live in areas where hospitals are running critically short of intensive care beds, federal data show. A recent New York Times analysis found that one in 10 Americans — across a large swath of the Midwest, South and Southwest — lives in an area where I.C.U.’s are either completely full, or have fewer than 5 percent of beds available.

The total number of confirmed infections in the United States since the pandemic began passed 17.2 million on Thursday, just five days after eclipsing the 16-million mark. There were over 238,100 new cases and over 3,290 new deaths reported, making it the second-worst day of the pandemic.

In California, the authorities have ordered an extra 5,000 body bags, activated a mutual aid network for morgues and coroner’s offices and stationed 60 refrigerated storage units in counties around the state to handle remains. Health officials in Orange County said they would roll out three field hospitals.

Hospitals are particularly overwhelmed in San Joaquin Valley, where many low-wage essential workers live without good access to health care even in the best of times. The number of available I.C.U. beds there hovered at 0.7 percent on Thursday.

Even the Bay Area, which for a time managed to stave off the worst of the surge by adopting an especially conservative approach to reopening, has not been spared. I.C.U. capacity there has dropped below 15 percent, leading to a new regional stay-at-home order.

The ever-climbing numbers are all the more demoralizing for Californians because they have endured some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions in the country. But now more than ever, health officials said, they need to keep hunkering down.

”It’s going to be a wild ride probably for another four, five or six weeks,” said Dr. Nancy Gin, Kaiser Permanente’s medical director for Southern California. She urged Californians to stay home and not give in to temptation to travel as the holidays near.

The advent of vaccinations has buoyed people’s spirits, but many health care workers are exhausted to their core.

“It’s really hard to put all of it into words,” said Helen Cordova, an I.C.U. nurse who was the first person in California to receive a vaccine shot. “This is a very real disease — those images of inside of hospitals, that’s very accurate.”

Emergency room technicians outside triage tents set up to handle an overflow of patients at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., earlier this month.
Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

Just as the United States greets the arrival of promising vaccines — and prepares to celebrate a starkly transformed holiday season — more Covid-19 deaths are being reported each day than at any other time during the pandemic.

The nation set single-day records on Wednesday for reported deaths, with more than 3,600, and for newly reported cases, more than 245,000. The previous case record was set last Friday, when more than 236,800 new infections were announced, not including tens of thousands of significantly older cases reported that day.

Three times as many more people in the United States are dying each day now than three months ago, and the number of new cases is six times what it was then. Also, with large cities already ravaged by the virus, it is now exacting a deadly toll on many midsize cities.

In the past week, just over 30 percent of the nation’s coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the South, and nearly 30 percent in the Midwest. Pennsylvania, Arizona and Kansas in particular have seen dizzying growth in death tolls over the last seven days; North and South Dakota registered the most deaths relative to the size of their populations.

Nevada reported 57 deaths on Wednesday, a record. “That’s another 57 Nevadans who will be missed by loved ones this holiday season,” Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote in a Twitter post.

California, the nation’s most populous state by far, has been averaging 202 deaths a day recently. The state has bought 5,000 extra body bags and set up 60 refrigerated storage units around the state to help local coroners, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday.

It is hard to say whether the precipitous rise in cases in December is directly linked to gatherings and travel over Thanksgiving, “but certainly, there’s an association,” said Catherine L. Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health School of Public Health in Houston.

Anyone who was going to become ill from an infection caught over the holiday weekend would probably have done so by now, Dr. Troisi said. But they could also have spread it to others who are only now showing symptoms and being tested. “So there’s a continuing ramification of these cases,” she said.

The first shots of a vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech were administered on Monday, and another vaccine, made by Moderna, is expected to receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration this week.

Even with the arrival of the first vaccine and another on the way, it “doesn’t help us right now to put out the wildfire,” Dr. Troisi said.

“I think things are going to get worse for a while,” she said. And in the meantime, what happens “is entirely up to us,” she added, emphasizing the need to take precautionary measures.




Moderna Coronavirus Vaccine Moves Closer to Authorization

A panel of experts recommended on Thursday that the Food and Drug Administration approve an emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine, which would make it easier to expand the country’s vaccination campaign to rural areas and smaller clinics.

OK, our two minutes is up. So if we could go ahead and close the vote and broadcast the results. It looks like we have a favorable vote. So I will pass the floor back to Dr. Monto. Thank you, everybody. I’d just like to close by thanking the committee members, thanking F.D.A. for giving us an agenda, which allowed much more open discussion, which I think benefits all of us, including trying to advise F.D.A. on some of these very tough issues that we are facing. And congratulations to us all for achieving this emergency use authorization for a second vaccine, which, along with other events, will eventually and sooner, we hope, break the back of the pandemic.

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A panel of experts recommended on Thursday that the Food and Drug Administration approve an emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine, which would make it easier to expand the country’s vaccination campaign to rural areas and smaller clinics.CreditCredit…via YouTube

Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine moved closer to authorization on Thursday as the United States continued to buckle under the pandemic’s onslaught.

A panel of independent experts recommended that the Food and Drug Administration authorize the Moderna vaccine for emergency use, a significant step that would make it easier to expand the nation’s vaccination campaign to rural areas and smaller clinics.

If the F.D.A. agrees, some 5.9 million doses could be shipped around the country starting this weekend.

Moderna appears poised to become the second company to begin inoculating the American public, following the path of Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, whose vaccine received emergency authorization last week.

The two new vaccines — and the ambitious program for deploying them — offer the first signs of hope for an end to a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans, closed schools and businesses, and left many people afraid of simple human contact.

The Moderna vaccine is easier to distribute than the Pfizer-BioNTech one because it can be stored at normal freezer temperatures. Pfizer’s requires ultracold storage.

“Moderna can go to more places,” said North Carolina’s secretary of health and human services, Dr. Mandy Cohen. “We hope to be in all 100 counties with some amount of vaccine — small allocations at first — by the end of next week, assuming Moderna gets approved this week and we get our allocations delivered over the course of next week.”

The expert panel heard from Moderna, F.D.A. scientists and the public before voting on whether to recommend authorization. In large clinical trials, Moderna’s vaccine offered strong evidence that it could prevent severe cases of the disease.

The panel debated the potential for allergic reactions after a few cases occurred among members of the public who received the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Neither Moderna nor Pfizer-BioNTech reported serious problems with allergic reactions during their clinical studies, but when drugs or vaccines move out of trials and into broader distribution, rare side effects can emerge.

“We anticipate that there may be additional reports which we will rapidly investigate,” said Dr. Doran L. Fink of the F.D.A., who added that robust surveillance systems were in place to detect these rare events.

The vaccines are in short supply, and the initial batches are being given to people at high risk of infection or serious illness: frontline health care workers and the residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

On Sunday, an independent panel of immunization experts that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will decide which “priority group” should be next in line for the vaccine.

A Pfizer vaccination being prepared in Orange, Calif.
Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Officials in several states say they were caught off guard when they learned that the second shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine will contain fewer doses than the first one did.

In Oregon, state health officials said they had been told that they were scheduled to get only 25,350 doses next week — significantly less than the 40,950 the state received this week.

Iowa’s public health department issued a similar statement, saying officials there had been told “they will not receive the volume of vaccine initially anticipated.” Iowa’s shipment will be as much as 30 percent less than what it received this week, state officials said.

Officials with Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine program, said Wednesday that they had allocated only two million doses for next week’s shipment. This week, 2.9 million doses were delivered.

The move sent some states scrambling to adjust their plans. And it raised questions about whether federal officials will be able to meet their goal of administering an initial shot of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to 20 million people by Jan. 1 — just two weeks away.

The smaller shipment appeared to be the result of a scheduling hiccup created when federal officials, responding to a request by states, decided to allocate next week’s doses this Tuesday instead of on Friday, as they had planned.

The batches of vaccine that were not included in next week’s allocation will be included in the shipment the following week, a senior administration official said.

In a statement on Wednesday, Pfizer said it “is not having any production issues with our Covid-19 vaccine, and no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed.” The company also said, “We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses.”

The federal penitentiary at Terre Haute, Ind., has been hit hard by the virus.
Credit…Michael Conroy/Associated Press

A prisoner scheduled for execution by the federal government has tested positive for the coronavirus, his lawyer says.

The inmate, Dustin John Higgs, is to be executed on Jan. 15 for his part in a triple murder. But on Thursday, Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for Mr. Higgs, said his legal team had been informed by the Bureau of Prisons that his client was infected.

The lawyers, Mr. Nolan said in a statement, asked the government to withdraw Mr. Higgs’s execution date. If it does not, they plan to ask the courts to intervene.

Mr. Nolan blamed what he called the government’s “super spreader executions” for his client’s infection. The federal penitentiary that houses Mr. Higgs in Terre Haute, Ind., is among the Bureau of Prisons correctional facilities with the highest reported cases.

“Following the two executions that took place last week and one other two weeks prior, the Covid numbers at the federal prison in Terre Haute spiked enormously,” Mr. Nolan said in the statement. “Now our client is sick.”

After the November execution of Orlando Cordia Hall, a Bureau of Prisons official revealed in a court declaration that eight members of the execution team had tested positive for the virus, five of whom intended to travel to Terre Haute for the December executions.

Additionally, two lawyers for another inmate scheduled for execution, Lisa Montgomery, said they tested positive after visiting their client. Following a court order, the government postponed her execution, originally scheduled for December, until January.

If Mr. Higgs’s execution is delayed for more than just a few days, it is unlikely he will be executed at all, at least in the next few years. The execution scheduled by the Trump administration is to happen less than a week before the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr, who has pledged to work to end the federal death penalty.

The Department of Justice said Mr. Higgs, 48, kidnapped and murdered three women in January 1996. After he offered to drive the women back to Washington, D.C., from his apartment, Mr. Higgs instead drove to a secluded area in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge with two other men and instructed an accomplice to kill the women.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Capitol. After months of stalemate, congressional leaders were on the verge of cementing a stimulus deal.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

As they closed in on a $900 billion stimulus deal, top Democrats and Republicans in Congress haggled on Thursday over a handful of remaining issues that could help determine how much power President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will have to act once he takes office to provide additional help for the sputtering economy.

Democrats were making a last-ditch effort to provide emergency aid to states, which they argued was critical to helping states weather the pandemic and avoid huge layoffs and cuts in services that could reverberate through the economy. Republicans were working to limit the power of the Federal Reserve to bail out businesses, municipalities or other institutions in the future.

Both disputes could carry heavy consequences for Mr. Biden, who will take office facing a cascade of fiscal crises in states around the country — which will be even more dire if Congress fails to provide at least some assistance now. And reining in the Fed’s lending authority could close off crucial avenues for his administration to stave off more economic havoc.

With Congress running out of time to cement a stimulus agreement and avoid a government shutdown on Friday, leaders remained optimistic that they would ultimately find a resolution, although their wrangling could bleed into the weekend.

“We made some progress this morning,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, told reporters at the Capitol. Asked if a final agreement would be announced by the end of Thursday, she said: “We’ll let you know.”

The plan under discussion would provide a dose of badly needed relief after months of stalled negotiations and amid a national public health crisis that has killed more than 307,000 people.

That includes a new round of stimulus payments, probably $600, to American adults; a temporary infusion of enhanced federal jobless aid of around $300 per week; and rental and food assistance. It would also revive a loan program for struggling small businesses and provide funding for schools, hospitals and the distribution of the vaccine.

With plans to merge a final agreement with a sweeping omnibus government funding package, Congress may have to approve another stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown on Friday while negotiators put the finishing touches on the stimulus deal. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, warned Republicans on Wednesday that they should prepare to remain in Washington through the weekend.

“I hope it wouldn’t be more than 24 or 48 hours,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said of a possible stopgap bill, adding, “I really think this is coming to a close.”

Ms. Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, spoke late Wednesday evening to continue ironing out differences over the measure, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi said, and their aides continued talks throughout the day on Thursday.

Waiting for the subway at the Capitol Building on Thursday.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Members of Congress and the Supreme Court will begin receiving coronavirus vaccinations in the coming days in an effort to safeguard the functioning of the government.

Among the first in line will be the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, their offices said.

But all 535 members of Congress as well as the nine Supreme Court justices will be eligible under the plans circulated on Thursday by Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the Capitol’s attending physician. A limited number of support staff workers deemed “continuity essential” may follow.

Dr. Monahan urged lawmakers to take advantage of the opportunity.

“My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: There is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine,” he wrote. “The benefit far exceeds any small risk.”

The drive to vaccinate the nation’s elected and unelected leaders is part of a presidential policy directive meant to ensure that officials across the government are able to continue their work with minimal interruption.

Select executive branch officials are also expected to receive doses in the coming weeks, among them Vice President Mike Pence, who plans to be publicly vaccinated on Friday.

With members flying in and out each week and congregating indoors, Congress has struggled to keep its members — many of whom are 65 or older — healthy. So far, some 50 lawmakers have tested positive for the virus, at times forcing the House and Senate to adjust or curtail its operations.

The congressional vaccinations appear likely to be a private affair.

Dr. Monahan indicated it would take place in medical offices outside the public eye, . It was not immediately clear how many doses would be sent to Capitol Hill, or how the vaccination program for the Supreme Court justices would work.

Lawmakers said they hoped their high-profile vaccinations would skeptical Americans at both ends of the political spectrum to get a shot.

“With confidence in the vaccine and at the direction of the attending physician, I plan to receive the vaccine in the next few days,” said Ms. Pelosi, 80, a California Democrat.

Mr. McConnell, a 78-year-old Kentucky Republican, has been one of the most outspoken members of his party in favor of following government health guidelines.

“As a polio survivor, I know both the fear of a disease and the extraordinary promise of hope that vaccines bring,” he said in a statement. “I truly hope all Kentuckians and Americans will heed this advice and accept this safe and effective vaccine.”


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France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, met with Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal just before it was announced that Mr. Macron tested positive for coronavirus.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Yoan Valat

President Emmanuel Macron of France has tested positive for the coronavirus, the government said Thursday, just as the country was trying to ease lockdown restrictions before Christmas and avoid another wave of infections.

“This diagnosis was established after a RT-PCR test that was carried out as soon as the first symptoms appeared,” a statement from the president’s office said.

Mr. Macron will work in isolation for the next seven days, officials said. The office of Jean Castex, the country’s prime minister, said that he would also quarantine because of his recent proximity to Mr. Macron.

Mr. Macron’s office said his current symptoms were “coughing, fever and fatigue.” On Thursday, he spoke over video at a conference on humanitarian aid and did not seem to display any symptoms.

The president left the Élysée Palace in Paris, where the French president usually lives and works, and will be temporarily using a secondary official residence in Versailles, west of the city, Mr. Macron’s office said later Thursday. His wife, Brigitte Macron, who tested negative, will remain at the Élysée Palace.

Over two dozen world leaders called, wrote or tweeted wishes of recovery, Mr. Macron’s office said, among them President Trump, who called at 9 p.m. Paris time. Other world leaders to have contracted the virus this year include Mr. Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Andrzej Duda of Poland.

Mr. Macron, 42, is not known to suffer from any medical problems. But the health of French presidents is traditionally a closely guarded secret, and France’s 24-hour news channels immediately began speculating on Thursday morning about how sick he might be.

While in Brussels for the European Council last Thursday and Friday, the French leader held discussions in close quarters with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. A government spokeswoman said on Thursday that Ms. Merkel had tested negative for the coronavirus.

Mr. Macron held a weekly meeting with his cabinet members on Wednesday, but the French presidency said that the officials were distanced and wore masks.

France has found itself at the heart of the virus’s second wave in Europe, forcing the country to delay loosening restrictions on movement and business. In October, it became the first nation in Europe to impose a second nationwide lockdown, which it is now starting to slowly lift ahead of Christmas.

The country is already grappling with a rebound in infections.

The number of new daily Covid-19 cases, which had fallen below 10,000 in late November, has picked up again and reached an average 12,000 cases per day over the past seven days. In the meantime, the number of patients in intensive care has continued decreasing and now hovers around 2,900, compared to almost 5,000 a month ago.

“The evolution of the pandemic is worrisome,” said Jérome Salomon, a top official at France’s health ministry, adding that the incoming Christmas break could prove a “high-risk period.”

Across the continent, there is deepening concern that the social interactions that come with holiday celebrations could worsen the current outbreak

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said on Twitter on Thursday that inoculations would begin across the European Union on Dec. 27, 28 and 29. But the continent has struggled under the weight of a second wave of infections, leading leaders to reimpose widespread restrictions in recent weeks.

In Germany, Ms. Merkel imposed a nationwide lockdown that will extend over Dec. 25, snuffing out hopes for a reprieve after the country’s beloved Christmas markets were shuttered this month. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic have also imposed lockdowns, and Italy is leaning toward one.

Megan Specia Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting.

Workers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami receiving the vaccine on Wednesday.
Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Dr. Biron Baker runs a family medicine clinic in Bismarck, N.D. Every day, patients walk through the door, and any number of them could be sick with the coronavirus. Dr. Baker treats them anyway, doing the best he can with his small staff to keep from getting sick.

But as the first vaccine rolls out for frontline health workers across the country this week, Dr. Baker and his staff are not among those scheduled to receive it — and they don’t know when their turn will come.

They have been given no information about the vaccine, he said, adding that he had tried several times to call state officials for an answer, but with no luck. “No email, no fax announcement, nothing at all,” he said.

In the scramble to vaccinate millions of health workers, difficult choices about who comes first — and who must wait — have started to surface. So far, the effort is concentrated in hospitals. Workers treating Covid-19 patients in intensive care units and in emergency departments have in recent days been beaming symbols of the virus’s demise.

But there are roughly 21 million health care workers in the United States, making up one of the country’s largest industries, and vaccinating everybody in the first wave would be impossible. That has left entire categories of workers — people who are also at risk for infection — wondering about their place in line.

“There’s a lot of nervous buzz and questioning going on,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine.

There are broad gray areas, he said: primary care doctors in areas with high infection rates, workers who handle bodies, firefighters who respond to 911 calls, dentists, pathologists who handle coronavirus samples in labs, hospice workers, chaplains.

“Right now, they are asking, ‘Where am I in all of this?’ That’s turned into quite a behind-the-scenes tussle.”

Cedric Richmond attended a campaign rally in Georgia on Tuesday for two Senate candidates where Mr. Biden delivered remarks.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and one of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s closest advisers, has tested positive for the coronavirus and has started a 14-day quarantine, a spokeswoman for the transition said Thursday evening.

Mr. Richmond, who has been a lawmaker since 2011, is the first announced member of Mr. Biden’s White House staff to test positive. He is slated to join Mr. Biden’s administration as a senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement. A rapid test for the virus on Wednesday was positive, the transition said, and a more precise test on Thursday was also positive.

Kate Bedingfield, the spokeswoman, said in a statement that Mr. Richmond, who developed symptoms of Covid-19 on Wednesday, has not been in close contact with Mr. Biden in recent days despite having attended a campaign rally in Georgia on Tuesday for two Senate candidates where Mr. Biden delivered remarks.

Mr. Biden tested negative for the virus on Thursday, Ms. Bedingfield said.

“The protocols we have followed are consistent with protocols we followed during the campaign to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” she said in the statement. “We take all precautions possible, follow the best guidance of public health officials and remain committed to transparency and information sharing when positive tests do arise.”

Photos of Mr. Cedric from the event in Georgia show him standing close to other staff and advisers of the campaign, and in one shot, he is seen bumping forearms with another person. He is wearing a mask and is outside in all of the images.

The transition said that Mr. Richmond had spent less than 15 minutes close to Mr. Biden on Tuesday, but that the interactions “happened in open air, were masked and totaled less than 15 consecutive minutes, the C.D.C.’s time frame for close contact.”

She said two people who drove the car that Mr. Richmond traveled in for the campaign event have been notified of his positive test. In addition to the two-week quarantine, Mr. Richmond will also have to receive two negative PCR tests — the more precise tests — before returning to work on the transition, she said.

Ms. Bedingfield said that neither Jon Ossoff or the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the two Democratic candidates at the rally on Tuesday, nor their staff, were in close contact with Mr. Richmond. She added that other local officials at the event also did not have close contact with him.

The announcement from the transition team about Mr. Richmond’s positive test contrasted sharply with the approach taken by President Trump and his aides over the past several months as several Covid-19 outbreaks swept through the West Wing.

Mr. Trump’s White House shared little information about who was infected and when they were tested, often citing health privacy rules. One outbreak infected several members of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff. Another, at the end of September, infected lawmakers, journalists and the president himself.

The White House physician and top aides to the president did not initially inform the public of Mr. Trump’s positive test and released limited information about Mr. Trump’s condition, even after he was taken by helicopter to the hospital. Several aides to Mr. Trump, including Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, continued working after being exposed to colleagues who tested positive. Ms. McEnany later tested positive herself.

People waited in line for virus tests outside of Harlem Hospital in December.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In New York City, public hospitals have canceled elective surgeries in response to a second wave of the coronavirus, Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of the public hospital system, said at a news conference on Thursday.

“We’re doing the necessary surgeries and the emergency surgeries, but consistent with the governor’s request, we have canceled elective procedures and we do have the extra 25 percent capacity the state has asked us for,” Dr. Katz said. The procedures were canceled as of Tuesday, he said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has expressed concern about hospitalizations increasing statewide and imposed new restrictions on restaurants to curb the spread of the virus. Indoor dining was banned in New York City on Monday, and restaurants were bracing for further losses after the biggest snowfall in years began on Wednesday.

As the city dug out from the winter storm on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference that the seven-day rolling average of positive coronavirus tests had reached 6 percent.

Because of the storm, some East Coast hospitals in the snow’s path also chose to delay elective surgeries.

“For us, it’s part of our normal snow emergency preparations,” said Michael Maron, the president and C.E.O. of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, N.J.

And several major cities, including New York, Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., temporarily shut down coronavirus testing sites in anticipation of heavy snow and wind.

The storm also threatened the timely delivery of a coronavirus vaccine, just as the first inoculations of health care workers began this week.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said that the storm had delayed delivery of vaccine doses to some hospitals by several hours.

“It will get there,” he said, “but it will get there a little bit later.”

In New York City, with the storm mostly passed, officials said they would open city-run coronavirus testing centers starting at noon on Thursday.

A temporary coronavirus testing station in Le Havre, France, on Monday.
Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The first inoculations against the coronavirus will begin across the European Union on Dec. 27, 28 and 29, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Thursday, kicking off a high-stakes vaccination campaign across the bloc, with some member states among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The rollout will depend on authorization by the E.U. drugs authority, the European Medicines Agency, which is set to deliberate on approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, a Commission spokesman said. He added that the Commission would seal the approval within 48 hours and that the vaccines would be distributed to member states beginning on Dec. 26.

The European Medicines Agency has come under growing pressure from politicians and the public to expedite the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The group brought its meeting on the vaccine forward from Dec. 29 to Monday after Britain became the first country to approve the vaccination and began inoculating people, soon followed by the United States.

The agency also said it would bring forward the date of a meeting to decide on authorizing the Moderna vaccine to Jan. 6; the meeting had originally been scheduled for Jan. 12.

The European Union’s 27 member states have delegated the entire vaccine acquisition, authorization and distribution process to the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch. And while the operation is a logistical challenge, the consensus among European leaders is that it will be a powerful signal of unity to take a centralized approach to the mass inoculations.

The Commission’s involvement is also likely to benefit smaller member states, although once the doses arrive in the E.U. capitals, each country will be responsible for its own vaccine rollout plan.

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden pose at the Royal Castle in Stockholm. The king spoke publicly about Sweden’s strategy in combating the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit…Pontus Lundahl/EPA, via Shutterstock

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden said it was a failure that more lives weren’t saved during the pandemic in an interview published on Thursday, underscoring the country’s outlier status in the Nordic region for its relaxed lockdown measures.

“I believe we have failed,” he said in an excerpt from an end-of-year special with the royal family on Swedish public service broadcaster SVT’s news site. “We have a large number of people who have died and that is awful.”

Nearly 8,000 people (7,893 as of Thursday) in Sweden have died because of the coronavirus since the pandemic hit earlier this year. Sweden has employed a comparatively lax strategy to combat the pandemic, neither imposing lockdowns nor requiring the wearing of face masks in public places. As a second wave of infections began surging in October, the country limited the size of public gatherings and closed some schools, yet bars, cafes and ski lifts remained open.

Neighboring Finland, Norway and Denmark imposed tougher restrictions, closing borders, schools and restaurants. Deaths related to the virus in these countries are a fraction of the number in Sweden.

“In light of all the people who have died,” the Swedish king said, “and the grief and frustration in many families, and even the many businessowners who are on their knees and maybe lost their companies, it has been a terrible year for all of us and Sweden.”

A government-appointed commission assessing Sweden’s coronavirus strategy issued its first report Tuesday and found that the government and earlier governments are responsible for weaknesses in Swedish eldercare that have led to a high number of deaths among the older adult population.

In Shanghai last month.
Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

BioNTech, the German drug maker that worked with Pfizer to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, will ship 100 million doses of the vaccine to China after it is authorized by the Chinese government, making it Beijing’s first foreign order of an inoculation against the disease.

The 100 million doses would be an initial shipment, BioNTech and its Chinese partner, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, said in a statement on Wednesday. They did not say how many more doses would be sent.

“This joint development effort with Fosun Pharma is a testament to the importance of global cooperation and reflects our strategy to supply our vaccine globally,” said Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive and co-founder.

The companies did not say when the Chinese government is expected to give regulatory approval to the vaccine, which was found to be more than 90 percent effective and is being administered in the United States and elsewhere.

A series of vaccine scandals in China have stoked fears in the country about the quality of domestically made vaccines. It is common for members of the rapidly growing middle class to choose foreign-made vaccines over Chinese ones.

If approved, the BioNTech deal would suggest that Beijing wants to ensure that many of its people would have access to a safe vaccine in case its own vaccine candidates fall through or are unable to meet domestic demand. So far, no Chinese vaccine maker has reported full efficacy data for any of the country’s vaccines, five of which are in late-stage testing.

One of them, developed by the state-owned company Sinopharm, has been fully approved by two countries that participated in trials, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Both cited preliminary data showing that the vaccine is 86 percent effective, exceeding the 50 percent threshold set by many governments. Sinopharm has not commented on either announcement.

In other global developments:

  • Poland will enter a national lockdown on Dec. 28, the country’s health minister, Adam Niedzielski, announced on Thursday, warning, “There are more difficult days and weeks ahead of us.” Mr. Niedzielski said that a wave of new cases had the potential to crumble the country’s already fragile health care system, and warned that people should not count on the promise of vaccines to protect them in the immediate future. All shopping centers, hotels, and ski resorts will be shut under the new measures, there will be a curfew on New Year’s Eve, and anyone entering Poland from abroad will have to quarantine for a mandatory 10-day period.

  • The start of the Australian Open will be delayed by three weeks because of the pandemic, a schedule released by the men’s tennis tour revealed on Wednesday night. The year’s first Grand Slam tournament, which usually takes place in the last two weeks of January, will now start on Feb. 8, according to the ATP schedule.

  • Health officials in the Philippines warned on Thursday that the country’s progress in slowing the spread of the coronavirus could be reversed unless people “remain cautious and vigilant” during the holiday season. “Let us not squander our gains in this pandemic response,” they said in a statement, noting that a recent increase in cases in Manila could eventually overwhelm the health care system as happened during the peak of the country’s outbreak in August. On Wednesday, President Rodrigo Duterte asked Filipinos to limit holiday socializing and follow a new requirement to wear face shields in public at all times. “Just a bit more of sacrifice,” he said. “The vaccine is nearly here.”

Citing the urgency of the pandemic, Britain’s government awarded contracts worth billions of dollars without competitive bidding.
Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

When the pandemic exploded in March, British officials embarked on a desperate scramble to procure the personal protective equipment, ventilators, coronavirus tests and other supplies critical to containing the surge. In the months following those fevered days, the government handed out thousands of contracts to fight the virus, some of them in a secretive “V.I.P. lane” to a select few companies with connections to the governing Conservative Party.

To shine a light on one of the greatest spending sprees in Britain’s postwar era, The New York Times analyzed a large segment of it, the roughly 1,200 central government contracts that have been made public, together worth nearly $22 billion. Of that, about $11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.

“The government had license to act fast because it was a pandemic, but we didn’t give them permission to act fast and loose with public money,” said Meg Hillier, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour Party and chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee. “We’re talking billions of pounds, and it’s quite right that we ask questions about how that money was spent.”

The procurement system was cobbled together during a meeting of anxious bureaucrats in late March, and a wealthy former investment banker and Conservative Party grandee, Lord Paul Deighton, was later tapped to act as the government’s czar for personal protective equipment.

Eight months on, Lord Deighton has helped the government award billions of dollars in contracts — including hundreds of millions to several companies where he has financial interests or personal connections.

The contracts that have been made public are only a part of the total. Citing the urgency of the pandemic, the government cast aside the usual transparency rules and awarded contracts worth billions of dollars without competitive bidding. To date, just over half of the contracts awarded in the first seven months remain concealed from the public, according to the National Audit Office, a watchdog agency.

Vacant retail shops in Columbus, Ohio. The rate of jobless claims has been rising as coronavirus cases remain high across the country.
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Rising Covid-19 cases are taking a steep toll on economic activity, battering the labor market even as new vaccines offer a ray of hope for next year.

The number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment insurance remained high last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. After dropping earlier in the fall, claims have moved higher, and they remain at levels that dwarf the pace of past recessions.

There were 935,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 956,000 the previous week, while 455,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the number of new state claims was 885,000, an increase of 23,000 from the previous week.

Consumer caution, coupled with new restrictions on business activity like indoor dining, has pummeled the hospitality industry, lodging, airlines and other service businesses. The debut of a coronavirus vaccine this week offers the prospect of relief, but until mass inoculations begin next year, the economy will remain under pressure.

“Businesses are closing, and as a result, we are seeing job losses mount — and that’s exactly what we were fearful of going into the winter,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “It’s going to be a challenging few months, no doubt.”

At the end of November, more than 20 million workers were collecting unemployment benefits under state or federal programs, Labor Department data indicates.

With the weakening economy as the backdrop, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress continued talks on Wednesday on another pandemic relief bill, something that economists have warned is overdue. Without action, two key programs for unemployed workers will expire this month, cutting off benefits to millions.

“We are not moving in the right direction,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “With the looming expiration of benefits, it’s even more worrisome.”

Data released on Wednesday showed a 1.1 percent drop in retail sales in November, a disappointing start to the crucial holiday season. Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services, expects economic growth to be weak for the next few months before picking up later in 2021.

“Until we get a lot of people vaccinated, the economy will face a difficult test,” he said. “I don’t know if we will see an outright contraction or the loss of jobs, but the pace of improvement will slow markedly.”