Coronavirus Briefing: Vaccines, year two

And Britain prepares for an Omicron wave.,


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This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

On Dec. 14., 2020, a nurse in New York City became the first person in the U.S. to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This week, the country crossed another important milestone: More than 200 million Americans are now fully inoculated. Today, a year into the vaccine campaign, I’ll take a look at how it’s going.

The U.S. made significant strides in 2021, even as it dealt with misinformation, deep-rooted skepticism and powerful new variants. Overall, about 60 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Among people 65 and older, the most vulnerable population, that figure is more than 87 percent.


Credit…The New York Times

“Those are really good things,” my colleague Danielle Ivory, an investigative reporter for The Times who has tracked the vaccine rollout, said. “Remember that last year around this time, when the vaccine first became available, there was such a small supply that only a small number of people in the country were eligible.”

These days, providers are administering about 1.92 million doses per day on average, including booster shots. The daily rate had been steadily climbing since the government widened eligibility, and it has jumped since Thanksgiving, when the Omicron variant was discovered.


New reported doses in the U.S. by day.Credit…The New York Times

But the pace of vaccinations varies wildly across the country, and there are a number of counties, many in the South and West, where less than 30 percent of the population is fully inoculated. The U.S. also lags behind 50 other countries, many of which have inoculated over 80 percent of their populations.


There are lots of reasons people are not getting shots. Surveys indicate that some are adamant in their refusal of the vaccines, while others are open to immunization but have been putting it off, or want to wait and see before making a decision.

The first group tends to be disproportionately white, rural, evangelical Christian and politically conservative. The second group tends to be more diverse, including many younger people, Black and Latino Americans, and Democrats. Health officials have made progress in inoculating that group, but surveys suggest that it accounts for less than half of all unvaccinated adults in the U.S.

As the country comes to terms with the size of the anti-vaccine population, the goal posts are also moving. At the start of the pandemic, experts estimated that to reach the threshold of herd immunity, 60 to 70 percent of the population would need to be fully vaccinated. But with stronger variants emerging, experts now put that number at 90 percent or higher.

Will the U.S. ever get there? A number of factors will determine the country’s success, including the pace of new vaccinations and how many people are granted immunity based on an infection.

The projection below, based on the current rate of newly vaccinated people, provides a rough indication of when the virus’s spread could begin to stall.


Credit…The New York Times

Many epidemiologists aren’t sure that achieving such a high rate is possible.

“Unfortunately, I think herd immunity is a pretty elusive goal,” Danielle said. “So, short of that, as new variants emerge, policymakers may need to think beyond vaccination and consider other ways of trying to mitigate the virus.”

Omicron is also a wild card. If new variants lower the effectiveness of vaccines, boosters may be necessary to control the pandemic. The U.S. is averaging over 120,000 cases per day, with more than 55,000 patients hospitalized nationwide as we head into the colder months, when transmission is supercharged.

Exemption skepticism: A new survey found that about 60 percent of Americans were critical of religious exemptions to Covid vaccines.

Britain has been a bellwether for other wealthy Western countries during the pandemic, and the same may be true for its experience with the new variant.

Cases of Omicron are doubling there every three days, and as my colleague Megan Specia reports, the country is bracing for a new coronavirus surge. So far, officials are unsure if it will be a relatively minor event or a return to the dark days of earlier pandemic waves.

Britain has one of the world’s most robust systems for sequencing viral genomes, so it can identify and track new variants earlier and more thoroughly than other countries can. The country’s Health Security Agency released new data on Wednesday that it said “suggests that Omicron is displaying a significant growth advantage over Delta.” The agency warned that if the recent growth rate continues, the country expects “to see at least 50 percent of Covid-19 cases to be caused by the Omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.”

Worryingly, the data also showed increased household transmission risk, a key indicator of how fast the variant can spread.

In response to Omicron, Britain reversed course on some restrictions this week, urging people to work from home when possible, introducing new mask rules and requiring people to show vaccine passports at some venues.

Restriction reservations: The variant is bringing new worries to British businesses.

Today’s question was answered by Heather Murphy, who covers travel for The Times. (If you have a question, you can fill out this form.)

I am triple-vaccinated and don’t have underlying health conditions. With the new variant, should I cancel my strictly-for-fun international holiday travel plans? Allison, California

It depends where you’re going and what you have planned for the first couple weeks after you’re scheduled to return. You need to be aware that you’ll have to show a negative coronavirus test to fly back to the U.S. Even if you’re careful, there’s always the chance that you end up infected. Particularly in areas with low vaccination or high infection rates, you’ll want to be cautious about indoor gatherings. Because even if you don’t have any symptoms, if you test positive you won’t be able to fly home right away. In some countries you’ll be required to quarantine for more than a week in a government-approved facility. In others, you’ll just need to isolate at a location of your choosing until you get a negative test. Either way, you may want to buy travel insurance and bring your laptop if you’re allowed to work remotely.

Traveling abroad? Here is the essential paperwork you need to have in your bag.

When the governor of New Mexico first shut us down in March 2020, people kept calling me and asking if I was OK. “I’m fine,” I said, “I am an anxious, antisocial, agoraphobic widow. This is my life.” I bought myself some very elegant pajamas and sat on my couch with my two dogs and watched movies. Heaven. This summer things began to open up, and life is beautiful here. I am vaccinated and have had a third shot as I take immunosuppressive drugs. I go wherever I want, do whatever I want and wear a mask.

— Georgellen Burnett, Santa Fe

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