In Sign of Progress, Fewer Than 1% of New York’s Virus Tests Are Positive


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The share of virus tests coming back positive in New York State has stayed below 1 percent for 30 straight days, suggesting that the state’s aggressive approach to containing its outbreak — once the most severe in the country — has largely worked.

The state’s positivity rate, announced on Sunday, remained below 1 percent even as parts of the economy gradually reopened, the number of people being tested continued to trend upward, and other states grappled with sharply rising case counts.

But for all the encouragement offered by the monthlong marker, many New Yorkers remain anxious heading into the fall and winter, when case counts could rise as the nation’s largest public school district and more businesses are preparing to reopen.

Even Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in announcing the figure, took the opportunity to urge not celebration but continued restraint, pointing in a statement to New York’s approach to reopening — slower and more controlled than in most other states — as well as its statewide mask mandate.

“Caution is a virtue, not a vice,” Mr. Cuomo said.

New York State is now averaging slightly more than 700 cases a day, according to a New York Times database — up a bit from about 600 in late August, but still a fraction of the 9,000 to 10,000 cases a day it was reporting at the peak in April. The number of people in hospitals because of the virus dropped to 410 on Saturday, the lowest figure since March 16.

The governor’s announcement came in the middle of a holiday weekend that, like others before it, seemed certain to tempt many to gather socially as the summer wanes. Mr. Cuomo warned that the state’s gains could be imperiled by any backsliding on precautions like mask wearing and social distancing.

“Our actions today determine the rate of infection tomorrow,” he said. “So as the Labor Day weekend continues, I urge everyone to be smart, so we don’t see a spike in the weeks ahead.”

British health officials on Sunday announced a sharp rise in new infections, prompting warnings that they may need to reconsider the aggressive reopening of the country.

Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic nominee for vice president, said she would not trust President Trump’s assurances that a coronavirus vaccine was safe, and instead would wait for medical experts to confirm the vaccine was reliable before she received an inoculation.

“I will not take his word for it,” Ms. Harris said of Mr. Trump on the CNN program “State of the Union.” (An earlier version of this article misidentified the program as “Inside Politics.”)

“He wants us to inject bleach,” she added, referring to remarks in April when the president incomprehensibly suggested a dangerous coronavirus treatment.

Ms. Harris’s remarks came after federal officials alerted state and major city public health agencies last week to prepare to distribute a vaccine to health care workers and other high-risk groups as soon as late October or early November. Given that no vaccine candidates have completed the kind of large-scale human trials that can prove efficacy and safety, that time frame has heightened concerns that the Trump administration is seeking to rush a vaccine rollout ahead of Election Day, Nov. 3.

For months, Ms. Harris and Joseph R. Biden Jr. have assailed Mr. Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Ms. Harris’s comments on Sunday questioning a potential vaccine, as scientists racing for a vaccine report constant pressure from a White House anxious for good news, are likely to further sow skepticism among Americans considering whether to get the vaccine when it becomes available.

With concern about the politicization of vaccines and treatments on the rise, five drug companies are preparing to issue a statement this week pledging to not release a vaccine unless it meets rigorous standards for effectiveness and safety. The companies — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi — are aiming to reassure the public that they will not seek premature approval under political pressure.

These tests are not very good at picking up low-level infections. But they are cheap and convenient, and return results in minutes. Real-time information, argued Dr. Michael Mina, the Harvard scientist, would be far better than the long delays clogging the testing pipeline.

The fast-and-frequent approach to testing has captured the attention of scientists and journalists around the world, and that of top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But more than a dozen experts said that near-ubiquitous antigen testing, while intriguing in theory, may not be effective in practice. In addition to posing huge logistical hurdles, they said, the plan hinges on broad buy-in and compliance from people who have grown increasingly disillusioned with coronavirus testing. The aim also assumes that rapid tests can achieve their intended purpose.

“We are open to thinking outside the box and coming up with new ways to handle this pandemic,” said Esther Babady, the director of the clinical microbiology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. But she said antigen tests that could work at home had yet to enter the market.

Also, no rigorous study has shown that fast and frequent testing is better than sensitive but slower in the real world, she said. “The data for that is what’s missing.”

What has been put forth about the approach is “largely aspirational, and we need to check it against reality,” said Dr. Alexander McAdam, the director of the infectious diseases diagnostic laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital and an author of a recent report on pandemic testing strategies in The Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

Most of the virus tests to date rely on a laboratory technique called PCR, long considered the gold standard because it can pick up even small amounts of genetic material from germs like the coronavirus.

But sputtering supply chains have compromised efforts to collect, ship and process samples for PCR tests, lengthening turnaround times. And the longer the wait, the less useful the result.

A Chinese pharmaceutical company, which has tested coronavirus vaccines on its own employees, said the workers traveled to countries with large outbreaks without becoming infected.

Zhou Song, the general counsel of the vaccine manufacturer Sinopharm, suggested on Sunday that the vaccines, which are still in the final stages of testing, might be effective in controlling the virus. But it will be months before any final conclusions can be drawn, and the employee data cannot be used to obtain regulatory approvals.

Under an “emergency use” program approved by the Chinese government in July, a broad array of people considered to be at high risk of virus exposure, including border officials, soldiers, medical personnel and employees of state-owned companies, are allowed to receive unapproved coronavirus vaccines outside of official clinical trials. Chinese vaccine makers are also conducting clinical trials according to normal regulatory processes in Brazil and other countries that — unlike China — have large, active outbreaks.

Mr. Zhou did not say to which countries the Sinopharm employees had traveled, or specify which vaccine they received. The state-owned company has two vaccines in Phase 3 trials.

It is also unclear whether the employees who received the vaccine had mingled with locals on their trips abroad, increasing their chances of exposure, or had been sequestered to their living quarters. If they avoided infection by keeping to themselves, that would not prove the vaccine works.

In an interview with eastday.com, a Shanghai-based news website, Mr. Zhou said that the absence of infections among inoculated employees was “a remarkable thing.”

He also said that none of the workers had shown any serious adverse reactions, and that “if one is optimistic, the vaccines could be launched by the end of the year.”

Separately, Sinovac, a Beijing-based company that also has a coronavirus vaccine in the last stage of testing, said that almost all of its employees and their family members — around 3,000 people — had been vaccinated on a voluntary basis under the emergency use program, The South China Morning Post reported on Sunday. Yin Weidong, the chief executive of Sinovac, said he expected the vaccine to be approved for use as soon as the end of the year.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, public health officials in the United States have faced harassment and death threats, and some have even been driven from office. Now a university deeply involved in studying the virus has warned hundreds of its researchers to be on the lookout for dangerous packages.

Last Monday, the University of Washington, based in Seattle, sent an email to about 500 of its researchers telling them to be wary of suspicious packages and saying that virus researchers elsewhere had been targeted.

“We have received unfortunate reports from our contacts at the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) that threatening mail has been sent to COVID-19 researchers on the east coast of the United States,” said the email, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News on Saturday.

The BuzzFeed News article quoted an F.B.I. spokesman saying that the bureau, “along with our local law enforcement partners, responded to a suspicious package sent to a few university researchers” and that “preliminary testing has indicated there is no threat to public safety in connection with this mailing.”

A University of Washington spokeswoman, Susan Gregg, provided a copy of the university’s email to The New York Times and said no suspicious packages had been reported so far.

The email warned researchers to be on the lookout for signs of suspicious mail, including an address with misspelled words, no return address, oily stains, discoloration or a strange odor. Any mail that raised concerns, the email said, should be left unopened and reported to the police by calling 911.

Research at the University of Washington includes 16 clinical studies related to the virus and a prominent but sometimes criticized forecasting model. The model estimated last week that Covid-19 would kill about 410,000 people in the United States by the end of the year, more than double the current death toll, drawing skepticism from experts who said predictions about the course of the pandemic months into the future are too uncertain to be useful.

The report of threats to researchers follows earlier signs of the risks faced by public health officials and others involved in the pandemic response. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump’s virus task force and the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, received additional security in April after threats, and he said the security was also expanded to his daughters. Local and state health officials have also been targeted by those challenging public health measures.

For many Americans, Labor Day is a goodbye to summer before children go back to school and cold weather arrives. But public health experts worry that in the midst of a pandemic, this weekend could result in disaster in the fall.

After the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, cases of Covid-19 surged around the United States after people held family gatherings or congregated in large groups.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said he wanted people to enjoy Labor Day weekend, but urged precautions.

“You don’t want to tell people on a holiday weekend that even outdoors is bad — they will get completely discouraged,” Dr. Fauci said. “What we try to say is enjoy outdoors, but you can do it with safe spacing. You can be on a beach, and you don’t have to be falling all over each other. You can be six, seven, eight, nine or 10 feet apart. You can go on a hike. You can go on a run. You can go on a picnic with a few people. You don’t have to be in a crowd with 30, 40 or 50 people all breathing on each other.”

In terms of daily case counts, the United States is in worse shape going into Labor Day weekend than it was for Memorial Day weekend. The nation now averages about 40,000 new confirmed cases per day, up from about 22,000 per day ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

Colleges are struggling to keep students from breaking safety protocols, and many have seen significant outbreaks, as have many college towns. ABC News posted a video on Twitter showing crowds at a sports bar near the University of South Carolina. The university, which disciplined some of its Greek houses last week, has reported more than 1,735 cases since Aug. 1, including 1,461 active cases, according to its Covid-19 dashboard.

With fall fast approaching, symptoms alone will not be useful in distinguishing the coronavirus from similar-looking cases of the flu. That means routinely testing for both viruses will be crucial — even, perhaps, after some patients have died.

In New York, officials recently announced a ramp-up in post-mortem testing for the coronavirus as well as for the flu. Deaths linked to respiratory illnesses that were not confirmed before a person died are to be followed up with tests for both viruses within 48 hours, according to the new regulation.

“These regulations will ensure we have the most accurate death data possible as we continue to manage Covid-19 while preparing for flu season,” Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, said in a statement last week.

Deceased hospital patients and nursing home residents, as well as bodies in the care of funeral directors or medical examiners, will be among those targeted for follow-up testing.

These tests can help health officials track the prevalence of both types of infections, as well as indicate whether to warn close contacts of the deceased that they may need to quarantine.

“People need to know who around them was sick,” said Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, a pathologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “If someone can’t be tested in life, why not test them soon after death?”

Putting regulations in place ahead of time will also encourage counties to bolster their testing readiness ahead of autumn and winter, when seasonal viruses like flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or R.S.V., tend to thrive, said Dr. Mary Fowkes, a pathologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Fifty percent of Rite in the Rain’s business comes from the government, mostly the military. But aside from “pretty decent business with college bookstores,” said Ryan McDonald, the company’s director of marketing, it hadn’t focused much on students until recently, with an increase in orders from elementary and high schools.

She also required that everyone in Mexico City use face coverings on public transit, and wore a mask each time she addressed the news media. And when doctors told her the N95 masks the federal government had imported from China were too narrow to fit Mexican faces, she had a local factory converted into a mask-making operation.

For Ms. Sheinbaum, a scientist with a Ph.D. in energy engineering, aligning too closely with the president would mean ignoring the practices she knows are in the best interest of public health. Stray too far, and she risks losing the support of a political kingmaker who is said to be considering her — the first woman and first Jewish person elected to lead the nation’s capital — as the party’s next presidential candidate.

So far, her strategy has been to follow the science while refusing to criticize the president.

Other coronavirus news from around the world:

  • Israel on Sunday announced overnight curfews on some 40 cities and towns hit hard by the virus, but backed away from imposing full lockdowns after an uproar by politically powerful religious politicians, The Associated Press reported. In July, under heavy public pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a respected hospital director as the national “coronavirus project manager,” but when the new official began pushing for full lockdowns on areas with the worst outbreaks — among them ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities — leaders there strongly resisted. In an apparent compromise, Mr. Netanyahu opted for curfews. The measures will go into effect on Monday night.

  • Only a week after opening, most schools in a province in central Cuba are shutting their doors because of an outbreak. Seventy-five of Ciego de Ávila’s 90 schools will now return to televised teaching, The A.P. reported. The province has reported 30 new infections over the past 15 days. Students had returned to classrooms on Sept. 1 after a six-month break. Cuba as a whole has reported more than 4,300 infections and 100 deaths since March, with the biggest problem in Havana, which remains under a nighttime curfew.

  • Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, on Sunday extended its lockdown by two weeks until at least Sept. 28. The state of Victoria, the center of Australia’s worst outbreak, has been under lockdown since early August.

Chance office encounters that used to allow for networking have been replaced by the formal geometry of the Zoom screen. And with fewer and less extensive connections than white colleagues to begin with, Black and Hispanic workers can find themselves more isolated than ever.

Assignments end up flowing to people who look more like top managers — a longstanding issue — while workers of color hesitate to raise their voices during online meetings, said Sara Prince, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey.

“It’s a critical issue, and there is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the current environment,” Ms. Prince said. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves. This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”

It’s harder to tell which employees have shrunk back in their chairs or otherwise withdrawn in virtual meetings, said Evelyn Carter, managing director at Paradigm, a consulting firm, but moderators should pay attention to clues, like people with their cameras off, and try to draw those participants back into the discussion.

Some experts do see upsides for office workers who might have been marginalized.

“Most minorities are left out of informal networks and might not have been invited out for drinks or lunch,” said Tina Shah Paikeday, who oversees global diversity and inclusion advisory services at Russell Reynolds, a recruiting firm.

“The Zoom meeting is intentionally planned, and managers feel very intentional about inviting everyone.”

“It’s a great equalizer, and it creates opportunities for affinity group within large organizations,” she said. “It could end up being a good thing for minorities.”

Around the globe, including in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, educators are struggling with how to facilitate distance learning during the pandemic. But in poorer countries like Indonesia, the challenge is particularly difficult.

In North Sumatra, students climb to the tops of tall trees a mile from their mountain village. Perched on branches high above the ground, they hope for a cellphone signal strong enough to complete their assignments.

The travails of these students and others like them have come to symbolize the hardships faced by millions of schoolchildren across the Indonesian archipelago. Officials have closed schools and brought in remote learning, but internet and cellphone service is limited and many students do not have smartphones and computers.

More than a third of Indonesian students have limited or no internet access, according to the Education Ministry, and experts fear that many students will fall far behind, especially in remote areas where online study remains a novelty.

Indonesia’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have met with mixed results. As of Saturday, the country had 190,665 cases and 7,940 deaths. But testing has been limited and independent health experts say the actual number of cases is many times higher.

With the start of a new academic year in July, schools in virus-free zones were allowed to reopen, but these schools serve only a fraction of the nation’s students. As of August, communities in low-risk areas could decide whether to reopen schools, but few have done so.

“Students have no idea what to do, and parents think it is just a holiday,” said Itje Chodidjah, an educator and teacher trainer in Jakarta, the capital. “We still have lots of areas where there is no internet access. In some areas, there is even difficulty getting electricity.”

Hong Kong’s government, with the aid of a team from mainland China, began a universal testing program last week that it said was necessary to break hidden chains of virus transmission. Some activists and health care workers urged residents to boycott the plan, calling it a waste of resources motivated by a political desire to burnish the image of China’s central government.

Health officials said on Thursday that six positive cases had been found in the first batch of 128,000 tested in the program, including four people with previously confirmed cases who were treated in hospitals. Five more cases detected through the program were announced on Sunday. About one million people in the city of 7.5 million have registered for tests.

Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Catie Edmondson, Natasha Frost, Robert Gebeloff, Shawn Hubler, Danielle Ivory, Jennifer Jett, Natalie Kitroeff, Sarah Kliff, Patrick J. Lyons, Tiffany May, Dera Menra Sijabat, Eric Nagourney, Richard C. Paddock, Tara Parker-Pope, Austin Ramzy, Nelson D. Schwartz, Mike Seely, Sarah Watson, Sui-Lee Wee, Katherine J. Wu and Mihir Zaveri.



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