There will soon be no statewide mask mandates on the mainland United States, if all goes according to plan.
Two of the last states with mandates announced Thursday that they would be dropped. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, a Democrat, said in a surprise announcement that the state would immediately lift its indoor mask mandate, including for schools.
Ms. Lujan Grisham cited declining rates of hospitalizations and the success of vaccine mandates. “Having the vaccine mandates work,” she said. “That’s putting us in a position to lift the mask mandate.”
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, a Democrat, also said he would eliminate the state’s mask mandates, including for schools, at the end of March.
That leaves Hawaii as the only state with mask requirements that has not yet announced any plans to relax them. Puerto Rico, the largest U.S. territory, also has yet to announce any changes to its island-wide mandate.
Many red states never had broad mask requirements. Washington State had largely maintained a cautious approach, like other blue states. But in recent days, there has been a quick succession of states governed by Democrats reversing their mask requirements. Many had once been relaxed as vaccines became widely available, only to be reinstated as variants surged across the country.
States like California, New Jersey, New York and Oregon have quickly moved to ease the requirement. But mask mandates in schools remain the last wrinkle in several states — the requirements are inconsistent state-by-state and hotly contested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to support masks in schools as a key tool to keeping schools open safely. Some experts say that children learn better without masks and that making them optional will help restore a semblance of normalcy.
Both New Mexico and Washington State left the decision to require masks in schools up to local districts, as have states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut.
By contrast, California and New York have yet to announce an end to their school requirements. And school mask mandates in Illinois and Maryland are being contested in court.
Despite standing firm on the need for masking this month, the director of the C.D.C. said on Wednesday that the agency would soon issue new guidelines, including on face coverings, based on factors like hospital capacity, not just new coronavirus cases.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again,” the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a coronavirus news briefing.
SEOUL — South Korea, which is experiencing its largest Covid-19 wave yet, will set aside a 90-minute window just for voters with the coronavirus to cast their ballots at polling stations next month.
The recent surge in coronavirus cases had raised questions about how the country’s tight presidential election would be held. Lawmakers agreed this week to reserve 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on March 9, Election Day, for voters with Covid. The rest of the electorate will vote from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Protecting everyone’s right to vote is paramount,” Dr. Jung Jae-hun, a professor who is a Covid-19 policy adviser to the prime minister, said in an interview. “It’s entirely possible to do so while preventing outbreaks.”
The National Election Commission reported on Thursday that interest in voting in the upcoming election was at its highest since 2012, demonstrating that the surge in coronavirus infections might not dampen turnout.
Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party are neck and neck.
About 44 million eligible voters reside in South Korea, according to the election commission. But at the rate that infections are going, as many as one million might have Covid by Election Day, according to Dr. Jung, who is also a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University near Seoul.
The government’s health protocols require people with Covid to remain in isolation at home. The special time window on Election Day would allow them to leave for the purposes of casting their ballot.
The daily caseload in South Korea was 93,135 on Thursday. By comparison, in the last nationwide election of the coronavirus era, in 2020, the government reported fewer than 40 new infections a day.
The Omicron variant has overwhelmed South Korea’s public health system so much that the government abandoned its use of mobile QR codes for contact tracing purposes this week, leaving individuals responsible for alerting their close contacts if they test positive.
Some legal experts and officials said the government should provide more ways for people with the coronavirus to vote. Young-Soo Chang, a professor of law at Korea University, said the government should have allotted two time slots instead of one.
The United States will increase coronavirus vaccine assistance to 11 African nations, officials said on Thursday, in an effort to prevent future variants and bolster inoculation efforts in the least vaccinated continent.
Through the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global Vax, the Biden administration will provide “intensive financial, technical and diplomatic support” to African countries that have recently shown the capacity to hasten vaccine uptake, according to a statement from Rebecca Chalif, a spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development.
The agency said it selected a group of countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Angola, Eswatini, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia — based on the burden of Covid-19 on their populations, the capacity of their health systems, their readiness to quickly administer vaccine doses in the absence of supply constraints and their ability to effectively deploy additional U.S. investments. The agency had allocated $510 million to support global vaccination programs, and more than half of that funding will be allocated to the first group of African countries.
The Global Vax initiative began in December to help countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, to get more shots into more arms. Even as African countries have received more vaccines, many of them have struggled to distribute them because of a shortage of the ultracold chain freezers needed to keep doses from expiring and because of the difficulties in delivering them to remote towns and villages. Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation have also posed problems.
With the Biden administration’s additional financial assistance, these 11 African countries will receive “increased U.S. government engagement and funding to rapidly assess needs and scale up the rate of vaccination, including support from experts here in the U.S. and in the field,” the statement said.
The latest support from the U.S. government comes as the World Health Organization began sending 42 experts to at least 18 African countries that are facing challenges in administering vaccines. For three to six months — and in some cases up to a year — these experts are set to help countries like Burundi, Ethiopia and Mozambique in financial planning, managing vaccine stocks and improving public health measures.
Currently, just 12 percent of the African population — or 168 million people — have been fully vaccinated, according to the W.H.O., with Africa accounting for just 3.5 percent of the 10.3 billion doses administered globally.
An average of six million people are being vaccinated in Africa weekly, but health officials say that needs to increase to around 36 million if the continent is to reach the shared target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of this year.
The disparity in access to vaccines has been a contentious issue over the past year, with African leaders and public health officials accusing rich countries of stockpiling doses and making “a mockery of vaccine equity” by administering booster shots. The debate over vaccine equity, production and distribution came into sharp focus this week when European and African leaders convened in Brussels.
On Friday, the W.H.O. director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that six African countries — Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia — would be the first to get access to the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said he welcomed the commitment.
“This is an initiative that will allow us to make our own vaccines and that, to us, is very important,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a statement. “It means mutual respect, mutual recognition of what we can all bring to the party, investment in our economies, infrastructure investment and, in many ways, giving back to the continent.”
Twenty-two days after a trucker convoy rumbled into the Canadian capital to protest pandemic restrictions, the police moved in to clamp down on protesters in downtown Ottawa Friday morning, hoping to end weeks of gridlock that have roiled the city, infuriated local residents and shaken the country.
After a night of unusually heavy snowfall, during which police made several arrests, at least 100 police officers assembled in the city center. Several heavy tow trucks whose license plates had been removed and company names covered with Ottawa police stickers were beginning to tow several protesters’ trucks away. About two dozen police vehicles, including an armored one, were at the ready, along with vans for transporting those detained, and a convoy of tow trucks, escorted by the police. The buzzing of a police drone could be heard overhead.
Some protesters were arrested on Thursday, including Tamara Lich, a fund-raiser and singer who became one of the main voices of the protest movement. Ms. Lich faces one charge for “counselling to commit the offence of mischief.” Also arrested on Thursday was Chris Barber, another main organizer. He was charged with “counselling to commit the offence of mischief, counselling to commit the offence of disobey court order and counselling to commit the offence of obstruct police,” the Ottawa police said in statements on Friday. The two organizers were due in court on Friday.
The police mobilization comes after mounting criticism that law enforcement has moved too slowly to end the protests, permitting protesters to taunt local residents for wearing masks, honk their horns in quiet residential neighborhoods and undermine local businesses.
In a sign of intensifying frustration over the protests, the scope of a class-action lawsuit against the protesters was expanded on Thursday to include more workers and businesses whose livelihoods have been upended by the protests. In total, the lawsuit is seeking about 306 million Canadian dollars in compensation for lost income.
The protests began weeks ago with a loosely organized group of truckers objecting to a requirement that they be vaccinated if they cross the U.S.-Canada border. With organizing help from right-wing activists, the protests expanded into a broader movement opposed to an array of pandemic measures and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau generally.
The protesters, despite their small numbers, had outsize impact and their traffic-blocking tactics spread to other Canadian cities, including Toronto, Quebec City and Calgary. For nearly a week they jammed up Ambassador Bridge, a vital link for the automobile industry which normally carries $300 million worth of goods a day and links Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, Mich.
Mr. Trudeau took the rare step this week of declaring a national public order emergency — the first such declaration in half a century — to end the protests. The move extended more robust policing measures across the country, and took aim at both protesters’ fund-raising, which has been deemed a criminal activity, and the demonstrators’ personal and business bank accounts.
As hospitals in the United States faced a coronavirus wave in recent months, another crisis was growing: a shortage of nurses.
At Pascagoula Hospital in Mississippi, one nurse said that under such relentless pressure, patient care was deteriorating.
“The Daily” spoke to some of the “forgotten warriors” of the nursing profession to find out what life is like on the front line of the pandemic.
At a glance, it might appear that Maine recently had a superspreader event: The state announced on Wednesday that 3,556 new coronavirus cases had been reported, almost three times the figure from last Friday.
But it wasn’t a spike in infections that caused the tally to jump so much — it was a push by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to clear a backlog of tens of thousands of unreviewed positive coronavirus tests.
The agency began falling behind in late November, about when the Omicron variant emerged, agency officials have said. Since then, Maine’s daily case counts have revealed more about how many lab results the staff could process in a day than about how quickly the virus was spreading.
The processing delays sometimes made the daily case data look as though Maine, alone among the 50 states, was somehow managing to avoid an Omicron surge that was much worse than last winter’s wave.
By early this month, the backlog stood at 58,000 positive results awaiting review, and the agency decided to attack it with technology.
“We’ve been doing this through a series of newly programed A.I. tools, or bots,” Dr. Nirav D. Shah, the director of the Maine C.D.C., said at a news briefing on Wednesday. “This process of utilizing these bots to plow through the backlog will continue over the next several days.” He said the pile had already been shrunk to 30,300 cases.
Like other states that have struggled with floods of testing data, Maine is using automation to speed up processing of results for patients in low-risk categories, freeing up human case investigators to concentrate on those in higher-risk groups, an agency spokesman said. Positive lab results must be checked to see if they reveal new cases or duplicate earlier test results.
Ohio and Wisconsin each recently reported outsize single-day totals of new cases as they cleared out backlogs. Other states, like Idaho and Minnesota, release daily estimates of how many test results are awaiting processing.
In Maine, the raw number of positive tests reported to health officials and the overall proportion of tests coming back positive both peaked in mid-January, according to the state’s dashboard. That was about when the Omicron surge peaked nationally, but a little later than its peak in the Northeast.
Across the United States, many public health officials, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, have been placing less emphasis on case counts, in part because more Americans are using at-home tests, whose results are not usually reported to state officials. There were also test shortages in some areas as Omicron surged.
With the backlog problem clouding the daily case counts’ usefulness as a barometer in Maine, Dr. Shah said he was focusing more on deaths, hospitalizations and data from wastewater screening, which has been added to the state’s Covid data page.
“The trends are encouraging, and the trends are favorable,” Dr. Shah said, though the backlog-clearing work may obscure that for a little while.
“In short, the bullet train that is Omicron is slowing down, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But we don’t let off the brakes while the train is still moving.”
The bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, a three-time Olympic medalist and one of the most decorated U.S. bobsledders, will get to carry the American flag in an Olympic ceremony after all.
Meyers Taylor was chosen along with the curler John Shuster to carry the flag during the opening ceremony in Beijing. But she revealed in an Instagram post that she had tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after arriving in China.
She was replaced by the speedskater Brittany Bowe, a three-time Olympian chosen as an alternate by a vote among her teammates.
Meyers Taylor, 37, recovered in time to compete and win the silver in the monobob race. She now has a medal from four straight Olympics, adding to silvers in Pyeongchang in 2018 and Sochi in 2014, and a bronze in Vancouver in 2010. She will compete again on Saturday in the two-woman bobsled, where she was in third place after the first two of four heats.
Her husband, Nicholas Taylor, an alternate on the U.S. men’s team, delivered the news to her in an emotional, full-circle moment.
— Traci Carl
Under pressure to ease some of the strictest border controls in the developed world, Japan announced this week that it would allow more business travelers and students to enter the country, while remaining closed to tourists.
Starting in March, 5,000 people will be allowed to enter Japan each day, up from 3,500, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a news conference on Thursday.
Quarantine periods for many arrivals will be reduced to three days from seven, and some people will not be required to quarantine at all, depending on their vaccination status and what countries they are coming from, he said.
Mr. Kishida said that Japan’s wave of Omicron infections had begun to slow, and that the country would “gradually start walking toward the exit of the sixth wave.”
The government has faced calls from schools, business groups and lawmakers in Mr. Kishida’s coalition to relax the border rules, which were toughened shortly after the first cases of Omicron emerged. Japan had briefly raised its daily cap on arrivals to 5,000 from 3,500 in November but then reversed course.
Akio Mimura, the chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told reporters on Thursday that the restrictions should be eased further, saying that there was a substantial backlog of foreign workers waiting to enter the country. He said the restrictions had done the country more harm than good.
The chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, disclosed on Tuesday that about 6,000 people had newly arrived in Japan from Nov. 29 to Feb. 10. About 150,000 students with valid visa statuses haven’t been able to travel to Japan as of the end of 2021.
The education minister, Shinsuke Suematsu, said that the country was taking initial steps to accommodate foreign students who have been hoping to enter the country, but that it would “still take a while for all of them to enter.”
Thirty-six of Japan’s 47 prefectures are under a quasi state of emergency. That designation will be lifted for five of them on Sunday; for the others, it will remain in place until March 6.
Mr. Kishida said that Japan was working to speed up the country’s booster shot campaign. While only 12.6 percent of the population has received boosters, Mr. Kishida said that Japan was now administering one million shots a day.
In other news from around the world:
Switzerland’s president, Ignazio Cassis, is in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. The day before, Mr. Cassis announced an end to most pandemic restrictions in Switzerland.