Coronavirus Briefing: What Covid Pictures Tell Us

And the latest on Omicron.,

And the latest on Omicron.

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

The U.S. broke its record for daily coronavirus cases, as two highly contagious variants — Delta and Omicron — have converged to drag the country into another long winter.

The seven-day average of U.S. cases topped 267,000 yesterday, edging out the previous record of 251,232 cases on Jan. 11. The Omicron variant is also tearing through Europe, where Britain, Denmark, France, Greece and Italy all set records for new daily cases this week.

Omicron is still full of mysteries, but here’s the latest on the new variant.

First, some good news. A new laboratory study from South Africa showed that people who had recovered from an Omicron infection might be able to fend off later infections from Delta. If Omicron edges out more dangerous variants as the dominant one in the real world, that could lead to a less dire future for the pandemic.

Also positive. Omicron produced a worrisome increase in hospitalizations among children in the U.S., but experts said that they were not seeing evidence that Omicron was more threatening to children. Instead, a combination of factors, including low vaccination rates, was the most likely explanation.

Hopeful signs. U.S. officials and W.H.O. scientists said that the early data showed Omicron infections producing milder illness, in the form of fewer hospitalizations, than previous variants. Still, the W.H.O. warned that Delta and Omicron may still produce a “tsunami” of infections that could overwhelm health care systems.

Not so fast. The C.D.C. reported yesterday that Omicron cases made up a significantly lower percentage of the overall U.S. caseload than was expected, at roughly 59 percent. For the week ending Dec. 18, the agency revised down its estimate of 73 percent to about 23 percent. That means that Delta remained dominant until last week, driving some of the recent surge — and a sizable number of patients remain infected with the deadlier variant.

How do you capture the virus in photos?

Times photographers have been documenting the outbreak and its effects, putting themselves in harm’s way so that readers can see what the pandemic looks like as it happens. For insight into what it’s been like, I spoke to Erin Schaff, a photographer for The Times who has covered Covid from the beginning.

How do you make good pictures?

In photojournalism you have to be patient and wait for moments. If you’re going to do it well, you need time. Ideally, you’d be in a place for multiple days. The biggest part of what I do is not taking pictures — it’s building trust and listening to people’s stories and sitting with their grief. And then — if it’s OK — taking pictures.

I recently worked on a story at a children’s hospital in New Orleans. It was very challenging, as it should be, to get access to the hospital and permission from parents to take photos of their kids. I met Catherine Perrilloux, a mom who was living out of the I.C.U. room, and she immediately understood what I was trying to do. And she was OK with me spending hours sitting in the room with her.


Catherine Perrilloux at the hospital bedside of her son Carvase Perrilloux Jr.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

I was there when Catherine’s son Junior was on a ventilator, and when she was staying up all night with him. I was also there when he got off the ventilator and his dad was able to hold him for the first time. I’m so grateful to the Perrilloux family for sharing their story.


Carvase Perrilloux holds his son Carvase Jr. for the first time after he was successfully taken off a ventilator.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

What do you think people don’t understand about Covid that you’ve tried to capture in your photos?

How isolating it is. I spent three weeks with Sheri Fink and Emily Rhyne embedded at Houston Hospital, and one of the people we spent time with was Hector Rodriguez Montes. Hector was in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy, but then he tested positive for Covid while he was there. In this photo, he’s working with a musical therapist who recorded his heartbeat to make a song for one of his sons.


Hector Montes, 30, talks with a musical therapist.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

You can also see there’s a screen because Hector’s primary language is Spanish, and they brought in an iPad so a translator could translate for him. Hector died after we left the hospital, and I kept thinking about how isolated he was at the end of his life. If you have Covid as an adult in a hospital, you generally don’t get to have anyone with you and it can be very lonely.

How have your photos changed over the course of the pandemic?

One thing I’ve been mindful of is that it can be desensitizing to see tons of photos of people completely gowned up in P.P.E. in hospitals. So what I really strive for when I’m in a hospital is to try to meet patients and tell the story through their experience. Or if it’s about covering the hospital staff, working to show how they’re feeling. Because everyone is often in masks, it can be hard to get across people’s emotions when you can’t see their faces.


KeAra Maddox, a patient care assistant, preps to enter the room of a patient with Covid-19.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Back in April 2020, I was photographing Christina, the nurse on the right in this photo below, as she was checking in with a peer support nurse. She just started to cry during their check-in because she was saying she couldn’t turn her brain off. She said the hardest thing was not being able to see her family and being terrified of getting someone sick.


Christina Burke (right) with Bridget Ryan, a peer supporter and assistant nurse manager.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

But you know, when I was looking through images I had taken throughout the pandemic to share with you, I was struck by how much hasn’t changed. Nurses like Christina were already burned out in April of 2020 — that was more than a year and a half ago. I guess I thought once the vaccines came out, my time in hospitals would be ending. I thought we would be in a different place than we are today. I thought what I was witnessing in those early days would be temporary, but it’s starting to feel like this will continue to be a part of our lives for a long time.


Erin Schaff at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City in May 2020.Credit…The New York Times

In 2020, it felt like a forced vacation. In early 2021, there was bottled-up anticipation to get back some semblance of normalcy, but cases weren’t going down and vaccinations were too slow, so movements were constricted. Some signs of life, though, by the fourth quarter. But by now, my family has eerily changed — like exhibiting Stockholm syndrome to being stationary. It’s downright unsettling to see loved ones conceding to life in Groundhog Day.

— Kience Portelli, Manila, Philippines

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