Biden’s Team Prepares Plan to Fight Virus as Cases Surge


Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke with health experts, including Dr. Vivek Murthy, at a Covid-19 briefing last month.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

As coronavirus outbreaks rage in the United States at harrowing new levels, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a victory speech Saturday evening that he would announce a Covid-19 task force on Monday.

Mr. Biden, who made criticism of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic a centerpiece of his campaign, left no doubt that the virus was his first priority.

“Our work begins with getting Covid under control,” he said.

Mr. Biden is expected to name three co-chairs of the 12-member panel: Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general, who has been a key Biden adviser for months and is expected to take a major public role; David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale University professor.

The announcement of the task force would be part of a weeklong focus that Mr. Biden intends to place on health care and the pandemic, as he begins the process of building his administration, a person close to the transition said.

During the campaign, Mr. Biden repeatedly assailed Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic, his refusal to wear a mask and his downplaying of the threat from the virus, which has spread across the country.

“I will spare no effort, none, or any commitment to turn around this pandemic,” Mr. Biden said Saturday.

But Mr. Trump, who has largely shuttered the White House Coronavirus Task Force and has repeatedly told voters that the country was “rounding the corner,” is not due to leave office for two more months. And the pandemic shows every sign of exploding further in that period, deepening Mr. Biden’s challenge.

The United States reported more than 132,790 new cases on Friday, a single-day record, according to a New York Times database. Saturday brought about 126,100 more new cases, the fourth tally exceeding 100,000 in four days. On average over the past week, the country has reported nearly 107,000 new cases a day, and its total case count from the start of the pandemic is rapidly approaching 10 million.

At least 16 states reported single-day records for new cases on Friday, and nine did so on Saturday, : West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada.

More than 54,800 people were hospitalized with the virus on Friday, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Deaths are also rising. On Saturday the country recorded more than 1,000 corona virus-related deaths for the fifth straight day, the first time that had happened since August. West Virginia set a record for new deaths in one day; seven states announced more deaths in the last week than in any previous week. More than 237,500 people in the country have died in the pandemic.

Mr. Biden has vowed that on Day 1 of his administration, he will move rapidly to confront the pandemic by appointing a “national supply chain commander” and establishing a “pandemic testing board,” similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime production panel.

His aides have assembled a group of roughly two dozen health policy and technology experts to look at the development and delivery of a vaccine, improvement of health data and the securing of supply chains, among other issues.

Aides said Mr. Biden would use the power of the presidency to invoke the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, more aggressively than Mr. Trump has, to order businesses to build up stocks of necessary supplies.

While Mr. Biden would like to see a national mask mandate, his advisers have concluded that he does not have the legal authority to impose one. So he will try to increase mask wearing in other ways. He has already said that, as president, he would require masks on all federal property, using an executive order that could have wide reach and is likely to come in the first hours or days of his presidency.

In addition to mandating masks in federal buildings, Mr. Biden has said he would require them on “all interstate transportation.”

Some of the 3,000 mink set to be culled at a single farm in Denmark. To prevent the spread of a coronavirus mutation, the country ordered all farmed mink to be killed, effectively wiping out its mink industry.
Credit…Mads Claus Rasmussen/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

The mutation of the coronavirus in mink, which has caused Denmark to order the killing of all farmed mink, has sharpened the worry among scientists that the pathogen could spread to other wild and domestic animals.

The most disturbing possibility is that the virus could mutate in animals and become more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. In Denmark, the virus shifted from humans to mink and back to humans, which is when a mutation that could potentially undercut the effectiveness of a vaccine was discovered.

Thus far, mink are the only animal known to have been infected by the virus and then passed it back to humans, but scientists have been actively investigating the potential for coronavirus infections in other wild and domestic animals, concerned that the virus could become permanently established in a wild species.

“The last thing we need is for SARS-CoV-2 to move into an animal reservoir from which it could re-emerge,” Tony Goldberg, a veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said.

Genetic studies suggest that chimpanzees, other apes and old world monkeys are among the species most susceptible to the coronavirus. Chimpanzee reserves and sanctuaries are taking increased precautions to avoid humans infecting the animals. Among domestic animals, dogs and cats can become infected, but they exhibit little if any illness, and there are no known cases of pets passing the virus back to humans.

Many scientists are actively monitoring wild populations of bats and other animals for any sign of coronavirus infection.

Kate Sawatzki, the animal surveillance coordinator for a testing project in pets and other animals at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said: “To date, we have tested 282 wildlife samples from 22 species, primarily bats in New England rehabilitation facilities, and we are happy to report that none have been positive.”

Members of the medical staff at Houston Methodist Hospital reviewing the chest X-ray of a Covid-19 patient on a ventilator in July.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Early in the pandemic, medical researchers rallied around a hypothesis to explain why many coronavirus patients were ending up in the hospital with injured lungs and other organs, struggling to breathe: Perhaps a severe immune reaction, called a cytokine storm, was the culprit.

But several recent studies have now cast doubt on aspects of that idea, revealing that certain drugs administered to quell supposed cytokine storms are not nearly as effective as originally thought.

In a cytokine storm a body’s defenses go rogue, spewing out powerful compounds — cytokines and other drivers of inflammation — that fatally damage tissues and organs. The hypothesis was that such storms could explain why some patients who died from Covid-19 were found to have little or no virus in their bodies, because their immune systems eliminated it.

Attention focused on one cytokine in particular, interleukin-6, or il-6. Early reports from China and Italy indicated that administering drugs that blocked il-6 helped some coronavirus patients recover. Anti-il-6 drugs quickly became a standard of care at many hospitals for treating Covid-19.

But rigorous studies are failing to find that anti-il-6 drugs are effective for this purpose. Two published in JAMA Internal Medicine and one in the New England Journal of Medicine found no evidence that a commonly used il-6 inhibitor, tocilizumab, a rheumatoid arthritis treatment, reduced the death rates in severely ill coronavirus patients.

A review of five existing studies by Dr. Carolyn Calfee, an intensive care medicine specialist at the University of California in San Francisco, found that il-6 levels of seriously ill coronavirus patients were not even highly elevated compared with levels in other critically ill patients.

Dr. Calfee noted that the cytokine storm hypothesis, while colorful, was vague, lacking diagnostic criteria that would show that such a thing was taking place. “It has no definition,” she said.

She added that the new findings should be teaching doctors a lesson: “We have to be really humble about biologic complexity.”

The queen attended a ceremony in Westminster Abbey, London, on Wednesday for the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior.
Credit…Pool photo by Aaron Chown

Queen Elizabeth II of England was seen wearing a face mask for the first time on Wednesday at a private ceremony during the prelude to Remembrance Sunday, which mourns the British and Commonwealth troops who have died in conflicts.

Wearing a black mask with white edging, the queen supervised the laying of a bouquet of flowers on the grave of the Unknown Warrior as a “personal tribute,” according to a statement from Buckingham Palace. The soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey on Nov. 11, 1920, after the end of World War I, and the grave has become a national symbol of remembrance.

Queen Elizabeth, 94, requested the service, according to the BBC, after learning that Remembrance Sunday events would be scaled down because of coronavirus restrictions. She watched Sunday’s service, which was held in central London, from a balcony. Other senior royals, along with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also attended the ceremony, which was closed to the public but broadcast online.

The queen’s appearance was her first in public since October, when she and her grandson Prince William met scientists at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, the BBC noted. Neither wore face masks on that occasion, though Buckingham Palace representatives said at the time that other precautions had been taken to protect the queen’s health.

Concerns over an outbreak in the royal family grew in March, when Prince Charles, the queen’s son and heir to the throne, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Reports also emerged in British news outlets on Monday that Prince William had contracted the virus in April but did not reveal his diagnosis for fear of alarming the public. His representatives have declined to comment.

Officials have recommended that face masks be worn indoors in England, where a new national lockdown began on Thursday, in an effort to break a second coronavirus surge. Britain averaged about 22,800 new infections a day this past week, according to a Times database. As of Sunday, the country had reported at least 1.1 million cases and 48,888 deaths.

Attendance restrictions have left fans scrambling for even the smallest glimpse of their record-setting team.
Credit…Linda Næsfeldt

This has been a golden year for the soccer club in Bodo, Norway, a city of 50,000 that sits at the southern end of the Arctic Circle. The club, Bodo/Glimt, stands on the cusp of claiming its first Norwegian championship.

Despite a budget that is just a fraction of some of its rivals’, it has steamrollered the competition. It has won 20 of its 23 games and scored an improbable 76 goals — and counting — in the process. It has a slew of records in its sights.

The team’s rise has captivated not only the city and the region, but the country as a whole. Frode Thomassen, Bodo/Glimt’s chief executive, said recently it had sold merchandise to new fans in every corner of Norway, and across Europe, too. Its games are suddenly a major draw for television networks.

But because of the coronavirus, the club’s golden year has played out in front of nearly empty stands. For much of the season, only 200 fans have been allowed inside Bodo’s low-slung Aspmyra Stadion for each game. Its largest attendance this year has been 600.

Some people have gone to extraordinary lengths just to see the club play.

The best perch is on the rooftop overlooking the stadium. Reaching it is not for the fainthearted: The only access is via an external staircase, and most of the field can be seen only if you sit right on the lip of the building. But still, during most games, a handful of hardy fans are there.

Others have been even more creative. Before one match over the summer, a group of fans hired a cherry-picker, parked it outside the stadium, climbed into its basket, and then extended its hydraulic arm until they could see the field.

The stunt resulted in a fine for the club, but it was accepted with a laconic grin.

“Reading seriously harms stupidity!” is noted next to a functioning landline phone at Jérôme Callais’s bookstall on Quai de Conti along the Seine in Paris.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

PARIS — On a recent breezy day, Jérôme Callais wrapped a secondhand biography of Robespierre tightly in cellophane, covering the burgundy leather hardcover with an expert flick of the wrist and positioning it near a weighty tome on Talleyrand inside his dark green bookstand above the Seine.

In normal times, Parisiens and tourists from around the world would be browsing his wares, and those of the roughly 230 other open-air booksellers known as “les bouquinistes,” whose boxy metal bookstalls stretch for nearly four miles along the Left and Right banks of the river.

But as lockdown restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic keep browsers at bay, the booksellers’ livelihood is in jeopardy. Over four-fifths of the stands are more or less permanently shuttered. Many are bracing for what they fear may be the final chapter for a centuries-old métier that is as iconic to Paris as the Louvre and Notre Dame.

“We’re trying to keep this ship from sinking,” said Mr. Callais, 60, who is also the president of the Association of Bouquinistes. “But Covid has made most of our customers disappear.”

Even before France imposed a new nationwide lockdown last month to combat a resurgence of the virus, the tourists had largely stopped coming. And the beloved Parisien pastime of flânerie — strolling aimlessly to enjoy life — has been all but snuffed out, stifled by curfews and quarantines that have deprived the booksellers of die-hard clients.

Sales have plunged an average of 80 percent this year, Mr. Callais said, throwing many vendors into precarious straits, especially those who milked Eiffel Tower key chains, Mona Lisa coffee mugs and other kitschy souvenirs over books as cash cows when tourists jammed the quais.

David Nosek is one of the bouquinistess trying to stay open. “The bouquinistes have been here since the Middle Ages,” he said. “I’d like to think that the coronavirus won’t finish us off.”

A co-op on West 105th Street has had to lower rents for its storefronts, resulting in higher maintenance fees for shareholders.
Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

As the coronavirus devastates New York City’s retail economy, making it hard for stores to pay rent, co-op buildings with ground-floor stores are losing a vital source of income. Already stressed co-op shareholders have had to pick up the slack, in some cases with maintenance charges increasing by as much as 40 percent.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Michael Wolfe, the president of Midboro Management, who added that residents are grumbling about the extra costs, as they also struggle with reduced work, furloughs and layoffs.

But Mr. Wolfe said that most residents realize that “anything is better than a vacancy,” adding that co-ops would face long odds at finding replacement tenants during the pandemic.

Also driving the decision to accommodate stores rather than evict them is a desire to preserve the convenience of having on-site shops, board members say. Other co-ops want to preserve jobs of employees who have become like family members after years of operating businesses under the same roof, like at 230 West 105th Street, a 14-story co-op.

Its board has hiked maintenance fees 15 percent, which for a one-bedroom means a jump to about $1,400 from $1,200 a month, to make up for discounts offered to the four stores that ring the prewar building’s base. That aid, which is benefiting a clothing store, coffee shop, deli and cobbler, is the equivalent of as much as a 50 percent rent cut, according to the board.

“One shareholder called the move unconscionable,” said Robert Chasen, the treasurer of the 70-unit doorman building. According to Mr. Chasen, about half of the apartments in the building are occupied by people on fixed incomes or who are working class.

“But most neighbors say they are supportive,” he said. “These stores contribute to our neighborhood.”