New Zealand has a fresh outbreak. Can it beat the virus again?
As the week began, New Zealanders were celebrating 100 days without community spread of the coronavirus. Now residents of the country’s largest city, Auckland, are back under lockdown as health officials battle a fresh outbreak.
Four new cases in Auckland were reported on Wednesday, and by Thursday the cluster had grown to 17. Epidemiologists are now racing to solve the mystery of how the virus found its way back into the isolated island nation.
One theory is that it entered through cargo and spread through a cold storage warehouse where some of the infected New Zealanders worked. But epidemiologists say that is a long shot because human-to-human contact was the most likely source.
Another focus is quarantine facilities for returning travelers — the source of a recent outbreak in Melbourne, Australia.
Either way, New Zealand is rolling out a huge testing, contact tracing and quarantine blitz that aims to quash Covid-19 for the second time.
“Going hard and early is still the best course of action,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday, at what will once again be a daily coronavirus news briefing. “We have a plan.”
Many other places — including Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam — have confronted second waves after early triumphs. But New Zealand has responded with a level of urgency and action that it hopes will be a model for how to eliminate a burst of infection and rapidly reopen.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who was a leading proponent of New Zealand’s efforts to eliminate the virus, said that the country’s prior success, and the sustained elimination of the virus in places like Taiwan and Fiji, suggested room for optimism. He said the latest outbreak could be small and quickly brought under control.
“The government moved incredibly fast and decisively with the lockdown,” he said. “If there are any undetected chains of transmission, they will peter out.”
New Zealand has at least learned what not to do from its neighbor and rival, Australia, where 800 people who had tested positive in Melbourne were recently found to not be at home during random checks from officials. Australia’s missteps have also led New Zealand to focus on quarantine facilities, which is how the virus moved from travelers to the community in Melbourne — through hotel workers who interacted with guests and then carried it home.
Officials across the United States reported at least 1,470 deaths on Wednesday, the highest single-day total yet in August, according to a New York Times database, and a reflection of the continued toll of the early-summer case surge in Sun Belt states.
With the exception of three days this summer, Wednesday’s death total was the country’s highest since late May. The figure was higher on each of those three days because a single state — New Jersey on the first day, followed by New York and Texas — reported large numbers of backlogged deaths from unspecified days.
For the past two weeks, the country has averaged more than 1,000 deaths per day, more than twice as many as in early July. Tuesday’s death toll of 1,450 was also the highest since late May, excluding the three anomalous summer days.
The deaths reported on Wednesday were concentrated largely in Sun Belt states that saw the most dramatic case spikes in June and July. Even as case numbers have started to drop in some of those places, deaths have remained persistently high. More than 300 deaths were announced Wednesday in Texas, and more than 200 in Florida. Arizona, California and Georgia all reported more than 100 each.
Still, Wednesday’s death total remained far below the peak in April, when more than 2,000 people died from the virus on many days.
The rebound in deaths had been feared since early this summer: Because some people do not die until weeks after contracting the virus, reports of additional deaths can remain high even after new case reports start falling.
In June, as the coronavirus crisis appeared to hit a lull in the United States, teachers and parents across the country finally began feeling optimistic about reopening schools in the fall. Going back into the classroom seemed possible. Districts started to pull together plans. Then came a tweet.
“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” President Trump declared on July 6, voicing a mantra he would repeat again and again in the coming weeks, with varying degrees of threat, as he sought to jump-start the nation’s flagging economy.
Around the same time, caseloads in much of the country started to climb again. In the weeks since, hundreds of districts have reversed course and decided to start the school year with remote instruction.
By some estimates, at least half of the nation’s children will now spend a significant portion of the fall, or longer, learning in front of their laptops.
Rising infection rates were clearly the major driver of the move to continue remote learning. But Mr. Trump’s often bellicose demands for reopening classrooms helped harden the view of many educators that it would be unsafe.
“If you had told me that Trump was doing this as a favor to the schools-must-not-open crowd, I’d believe you,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Indeed, as the president has pushed for schools to reopen, parents have largely moved in the other direction. A recent Washington Post poll found that parents disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of school reopening by a two-thirds majority. And a new Gallup poll shows that fewer parents want their children to return to school buildings now than did in the spring.
Across the country, tension among unions, school officials, local authorities and governors over who should call the shots has led to mixed messages about whether students will be attending in-person classes, with many districts only weeks, or even days, away from scheduled reopenings.
On Wednesday, New York City’s bid to become the only major district to bring students back into physical classrooms hit a snag. The city’s influential principals’ and teachers’ unions called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay the start of in-person instruction by several weeks before phasing students back into buildings throughout the fall. Students are scheduled to return to classrooms one to three days a week starting Sept. 10.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris vowed on Wednesday to lead the United States out of the coronavirus crisis during their first appearance together as running mates, drawing attacks from President Trump.
Ms. Harris, whom Mr. Biden announced on Tuesday as his running mate for the Democratic ticket, made clear that part of her campaign role would be demonstrating her skills as a prosecutor to build a case against Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, methodically detailing what she cast as the administration’s failures in combating the coronavirus, reopening the economy and creating conditions under which schools could reopen safely this fall.
“Let me tell you, as somebody who has presented my fair share of arguments in court, the case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open-and-shut,” she said.
Mr. Trump defended his administration’s response to the virus, citing the number of tests that have been administered and bragging about the government’s efforts to ramp up production of ventilators to help gravely ill patients.
“We have better testing than any country in the world,” he said, adding that “when you look at the job that we’ve done compared to others, we’ve done a great job.”
In an appearance in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris laid out the staggering toll that the coronavirus crisis has taken on every facet of American life, suggesting that they will try to make the election a referendum on Mr. Trump’s handling of the outbreak.
“This virus has impacted almost every country, but there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation,” Ms. Harris said. “It’s because of Trump’s failure to take it seriously from the start. His refusal to get testing up and running. His flip-flopping on social distancing and wearing masks. His delusional belief that he knows better than the experts.”
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Reporting was contributed by Damien Cave, Katie Glueck, Mike Ives, Thomas Kaplan, Eliza Shapiro, Mitch Smith and Serena Solomon.