Battered by a wave of coronavirus infections and deaths, local jails and state prison systems around the nation have resorted to a drastic strategy to keep the virus at bay: Shutting down completely and transferring their inmates elsewhere.
From California to Missouri to Pennsylvania, state and local officials say that so many guards have fallen ill with the virus and are unable to work that abruptly closing some correctional facilities is the only way to maintain community security and prisoner safety.
Experts say the fallout is easy to predict: The jails and prisons that stay open will probably become even more crowded, unsanitary and disease-ridden, and the transfers are likely to help the virus proliferate both inside and outside the walls.
“Movement of people is dangerous,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, who has been tracking coronavirus cases in correctional settings. “I think it really is not advisable to consolidate people in spaces that we know are really risky and will lead to greater rates of Covid there.”
There have been more than 480,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and at least 2,100 deaths in prisons, jails and detention centers across the nation, according to a New York Times database.
Early in the pandemic, many states tried to head off virus outbreaks by reducing their jail and prison populations, releasing some offenders early and detaining fewer people awaiting trial, but those efforts often met with resistance from politicians and the public.
More recently, staffing shortages and strains on prison medical facilities have pushed states toward more concentration and crowding, rather than less. For example:
North Carolina closed the Randolph Correctional Center in Asheboro, along with three minimum security facilities, in late November and early December, and has not ruled out more closures. “It feels like we’re holding this together with bubble gum and packaging tape,” Todd Ishee, the state commissioner of prisons, said in a recent interview.
Wisconsin has closed a cell block at its prison in Waupun and started moving its 220 inmates to other prisons, despite warnings that similar prison transfers elsewhere have sown deadly outbreaks, including at San Quentin State Prison in California. More than a quarter of Waupun’s guards have been infected since the start of the pandemic, according to state data.
In Missouri, Howard and Pike Counties shut down their jails. In a terse Facebook post, the Howard County Sheriff’s Office wrote: “The jail is temporarily closed due to shortness of staff due to illness. All detainees are currently being housed in Cooper County.”
Matt Oller, the Audrain County sheriff, said he had accepted some two dozen inmates from Pike County, and would not have agreed to do so had he not been confident that he could ensure some measure of social distancing and adequate cleaning in his jail. “It’s a place where there’s a lot of people in one place at one time,” he said. “Any infectious diseases are a concern in a jail setting.”
An employee at a Wisconsin hospital intentionally removed more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine from refrigeration last week, rendering them useless, the hospital system said Wednesday night.
The employee’s motive is unclear.
The hospital, the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., notified the local police department, which is investigating the incident, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Food and Drug Administration, the police said.
The person responsible, whom it did not name, is no longer an employee, the hospital system said in its statement. It was not clear whether any charges had been brought. The police department said it could not comment further on an active investigation.
“We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving their vaccine,” the hospital system, Aurora Health Care, said.
Aurora said it learned of the incident earlier this week and was originally led to believe that the spoilage was accidental. But on Wednesday, it said, the employee acknowledged intentionally removing the vials of vaccine from refrigeration.
The spoiled doses were of the Moderna vaccine, which can be stored safely at normal freezer temperatures. The other vaccine authorized for use in the United States so far, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, must be kept much colder in special ultracold freezers.
Wisconsin experienced a devastating surge of coronavirus cases in the fall, and at times was the hardest-hit state in the nation relative to its population. Transmission has since slowed a bit, but the state is still reporting about 39 new cases a day for every 100,000 people. At least 5,195 Wisconsin residents have died.
As of Tuesday, the state had received 156,875 doses of vaccines and had administered 47,157 doses, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
As the effort to vaccinate the United States against Covid-19 runs well behind schedule, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City set an ambitious goal for the coming year, pledging on Thursday to vastly accelerate the city’s efforts to immunize residents.
“The most important New Year’s resolution I could possibly offer you: In the month of January 2021, we will vaccinate a million New Yorkers,” he said at a news conference.
So far, only 88,000 people have received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the city in the last three weeks, Mr. de Blasio said. They are frontline health care workers, emergency medical workers, and nursing home employees and residents who are deemed at high risk of exposure.
Nationwide, just 2.8 million people have received their first dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal officials had hoped for 20 million by the end of 2020.
To achieve Mr. de Blasio’s goal, the city, which has more than eight million residents, will set up new vaccination hubs at public places like school gymnasiums, officials said. Workers at city-run testing sites will begin to give the vaccine, they said, and the city will partner with churches and community centers to provide immunizations there.
Mr. de Blasio’s resolution follows a devastating year for New York City. During the first major surge in the spring, the city was a center of the pandemic, its hospitals overflowing with virus patients and hundreds of people dying each day.
Though the city appeared to contain the virus’s spread over the summer, it has been contending more recently with a steady rise in case reports. Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday that 8.87 percent of tests performed in the city had come back positive over the past week, up from 5.19 percent four weeks ago.
The mayor has cautioned lately that the data for the city would probably be skewed by holiday-related testing and reporting delays. On Thursday, he said the city’s positivity rate was “probably aberrant based on uneven testing” but was nonetheless “cautionary and troublesome.”
Officials said similar things about a rise in the positive test rate around Thanksgiving, but the figure has continued to climb steadily since then.
New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has canceled an outdoor inauguration ceremony planned for Jan. 7 after expressing concern that protests by anti-mask activists opposed to his efforts to slow the coronavirus could turn violent.
“My first responsibility is ensuring the safety of my family and our citizens,” Mr. Sununu wrote on Twitter on Thursday, announcing that the swearing-in ceremonies for top state officials would take place inside the State House complex, where better security precautions could be ensured.
Mr. Sununu will deliver his televised inaugural address to the state later that evening, his office announced.
Mr. Sununu, a party moderate who supported President Trump, was re-elected last month with 65 percent of the vote. But he said he had faced threats of violence after imposing a statewide mandate for wearing face masks in heavily trafficked public spaces by executive order in late November. The mandate will expire Jan. 15 unless he renews it.
In an interview with a local television station on Thursday, Mr. Sununu said that protesters had gathered in front of his house on Monday, and “an armed individual trespassing in my backyard was arrested carrying two dozen rounds of ammunition.” Mr. Sununu, the son of former Gov. John Sununu, lives in the coastal town of Newfields with his wife and three young children.
Because protesters had “increasingly become more aggressive,” he wrote on Twitter, “an outdoor public ceremony simply brings too much risk.”
“We do not make this decision lightly, but it is the right thing to do,” he added.
For weeks, protesters have gathered at Mr. Sununu’s home demanding an end to the state of emergency, brandishing placards calling for the ouster of officials, including Mr. Sununu and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who support restrictions intended to slow contagion.
Newfields passed an ordinance on Dec. 22 banning picketing outside residences and subjecting violators to a $100 fine. The governor, who was not at home at the time of Monday’s gathering, did not request the ordinance, a spokesman said.
One person, Skylar Bennett, 38, of Concord, was arrested, charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct and released without bail on Monday night, according to a news release from the Newfields police department. Nine people were issued summonses.
A video taken by one of the protesters and posted on YouTube earlier this week showed law enforcement officials repeatedly asking several men outside of Mr. Sununu’s house to leave before detaining them and issuing summonses.
The cancellation of the outdoor ceremony comes at a time of heightened tension for state officials in both parties who have sought to balance the need to slow the spread of the virus with economic and political demands.
Federal and state officials broke up a plot in October to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat singled out by Mr. Trump for imposing stringent regulations. Some of those arrested spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home, officials said.
New Hampshire’s current infection rate is about 50 cases per day per 100,000 residents — slightly lower than the national average, but much higher than the rate in neighboring Vermont, which has implemented more stringent rules.
First there was Thanksgiving, when some families who gathered for turkey and stuffing also shared the coronavirus, causing cases to spike in some places and further taxing the nation’s already stretched hospitals.
Then there was Christmas weekend, when Americans crowded airports in numbers not seen since the start of the pandemic. Anyone who caught the virus then would probably still be in the incubation phase or just starting to feel symptoms now, so it’s too soon yet to gauge the full impact of people’s Christmas activities.
Now comes New Year’s Eve, an occasion for celebrating in large crowds, often among strangers, drinking and reveling and uttering a primal yell when the clock strikes twelve.
In other words, it’s a holiday tailor-made for superspreader events. And it arrives just as the first cases of a new, more contagious variant of the virus have been detected in the United States, in ways that suggest it is already circulating widely.
“It’s in a small community south of Denver, so it’s reasonable to think that it could already be in New York City,” said Dr. Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
New Year’s Eve, he said, “risks accelerating the introduction of any variants that are more transmissible into communities, and we have reason to think that those are beginning to emerge.”
The risk of transmission rises with the size of the gathering, of course, but also with the amount of alcohol consumed, Dr. Hanage said.
People who drink “become disinhibited,” he noted, “and when they get disinhibited, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior.”
The safest way to see in the new year is at home, with no one outside your household, Dr. Hanage said, but if people do gather in greater numbers, they can decrease the risk somewhat by doing it outdoors and by wearing masks.
“It doesn’t sound very fun or easy to drink champagne through,” he said, “but wearing a mask is going to provide another barrier to potential transmission.”
The Chinese government said on Thursday that it had given conditional approval to a homegrown coronavirus vaccine after an early analysis of clinical trial results showed that it was effective, sending a positive signal for the global rollout of Chinese vaccines. The candidate is the first one approved for general use in China.
The manufacturer, a state-controlled company called Sinopharm, said a vaccine candidate made by its Beijing Institute of Biological Products arm had an efficacy rate of 79 percent based on an interim analysis of Phase 3 clinical trials. Zeng Yixin, a deputy minister at the National Health Commission, said the vaccine would be provided to the Chinese public free, a reversal of previous official statements.
More than 60,000 people in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had been vaccinated as part of the trials, Wu Yonglin of Sinopharm said at a media briefing organized by the government. But officials did not disclose crucial details about the vaccine, like any serious side effects that may have occurred in the trials or the demographic characteristics of the sample population — key data points that scientists look for in such releases.
Mr. Wu said that detailed data would be published later in major scientific research journals.
Chen Shifei, deputy director of the State Drug Administration, said at the briefing that Sinopharm had submitted the application for conditional use on Dec. 23, and that it had been approved a week later after a “comprehensive and detailed review.” He added that the conditional listing meant that the vaccine would be subject to a rolling review as Sinopharm continued its Phase 3 clinical trials.
In recent months, the Chinese authorities, citing emergency use, have pressed ahead with mass vaccinations before any of the country’s vaccine candidates have received official approval, in defiance of industry norms. An official from the National Health Commission said on Thursday that in the past two weeks, more than three million doses of China’s various vaccine candidates had been administered to key population groups within the country. Officials have said they plan to vaccinate 50 million people in China by mid-February, when hundreds of millions are expected to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.
The Sinopharm vaccine’s results show that it is less effective than others approved elsewhere. Still, the results are well above the 50 percent threshold that makes a vaccine effective in the eyes of the medical establishment. As the global race to create vaccines for the disease intensifies, the Chinese companies have said their candidates — which use inactivated coronaviruses — have an advantage in that they are cheaper and easier to transport than those produced by companies like Moderna and Pfizer.
Coronavirus Then & Now
As 2020 comes to a close, we are revisiting subjects whose lives were affected by the pandemic. When Amy Harmon first spoke with Hollianne Bruce in January, Ms. Bruce was tracking the close contacts of the first known U.S. case of the coronavirus, which has since been detected in nearly 20 million Americans.
Hollianne Bruce was the lone epidemiologist assigned to the control of communicable diseases at the local public health office in Snohomish County, Wash., when a resident tested positive for what was then the novel coronavirus. It was the beginning of the pandemic in the United States.
On Jan. 21, the day after the case was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, Ms. Bruce swung into action. She interviewed the Covid-19 patient, a 35-year-old man whose identity was not publicly disclosed. She contacted several dozen county residents whose paths he had crossed, and she monitored them for symptoms. She coordinated with epidemiologists in other counties so they could do the same.
It was a Herculean effort, supported by the Snohomish office’s already overworked staff of 113, many of them diverted from regular jobs as food inspectors, resource managers or opioid counselors.
And it was nothing compared to what was to come.
For a brief moment, maybe, Ms. Bruce felt a measure of relief. The patient, who had recently returned from a trip to the virus’s first epicenter in Wuhan, China, recovered from the disease. His contacts who showed symptoms were tested; none were positive. It would be mid-March before Covid-19 exploded in the county and the rest of Washington State, just as the World Health Organization was declaring Covid-19 a global pandemic.
“It was a little naïve to think our case was the first and only,” she said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t too long before we figured out that we were incorrect in that assumption.’’
But even if she had little inkling of the impending tsunami, Ms. Bruce, a veteran infectious-disease detective, knew that the first case would not be the last. She worried about how the C.D.C. had restricted testing to people who had recently traveled internationally, and who had certain symptoms. “It was spreading in our community, and there was no way for us to know,” she said.
Snohomish County, part of the Seattle metropolitan area, has since identified nearly 23,000 cases and recorded nearly 3,000 Covid-related deaths, and Ms. Bruce now oversees a staff of 50 contact tracers. Her practiced eyes are needed on the data, to spot as early as possible an outbreak at a school, an employer, a long-term care facility. She no longer interviews cases herself.
“I miss talking to people,’’ she said.
Ms. Bruce, who has worked more than 60 hours a week for nearly a full year now, misses her husband and 12-year-old son, too. Her hope is that the public has gained some sense that public health workers are not just the people who “shut down their favorite restaurants.’’
The sacrifices of her colleagues in public health can be less visible than those of doctors and hospital workers on the front lines, Ms. Bruce said. Sometimes public health officials are actively disparaged, for example by Americans angry at being told to wear masks to reduce virus transmission.
But the pandemic year has given Ms. Bruce all the more pride in her profession.
“What public health has done has been brilliant,’’ she said. “We’ve all worked together as a team, day in and day out, to stop this from being even worse than it is.’’
Some family doctors in Britain said on Thursday that they would defy the government’s instructions to postpone patients’ appointments for a second dose of coronavirus vaccine, a signal of unease in the medical community over Britain’s new plan to delay second shots as a way of giving more people the partial protection of a single dose.
British doctors, who have been instructed to begin rescheduling second-dose appointments that had been set for next week, said they were loath to ask older, vulnerable patients to wait an extra two months for their booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They said those patients had been counting on having the full protection of two doses, had already arranged for caregivers to help them get to their doctors’ offices, and could ill afford to rely on a new and untested vaccination strategy.
Beyond that, doctors said, it was logistically impossible to make contact with thousands of older patients in a matter of days, and then fill those slots with first-time recipients.
The British Medical Association, a trade union for doctors, said on Thursday that it would support doctors who decided to keep second-dose appointments that have been booked for January.
“It is grossly and patently unfair to tens of thousands of our most at-risk patients to now try to reschedule their appointments,” Dr. Richard Vautrey, the chairman of the trade union’s family doctor committee, said in a statement. “The government must see that it’s only right that existing bookings for the oldest and most vulnerable members of our society are honored, and it must also as soon as possible publish a scientifically validated justification for its new approach.”
A spokeswoman for Britain’s National Health Service said in a statement that the service was giving family doctors “extra financial and logistical support” in order to “to help ensure thousands more receive the vaccine quickly.”
“The N.H.S. has to follow” the new guidance, the statement said, “so as to increase the number of vulnerable people protected against Covid over the next three months, potentially saving thousands of lives.”
Delaying second vaccine doses could double the number of people who receive a shot soon, and eventually lighten the toll of the virus in Britain, where hospitals are facing a deluge of cases of a new and more contagious coronavirus variant. While any one person may be better off getting the second dose promptly, some scientists said, society as a whole benefits if more people are given the partial protection of a single dose for the time being.
Other scientists, however, believe that Britain overshot the available evidence, potentially leaving older people and health care workers without the full protection of two vaccine doses amid dreadful wintertime surges. Britain made the decision without the public meetings or voluminous briefings that have preceded American regulatory decisions. No trials have explicitly tested the long-term efficacy of a single shot.
And what limited evidence exists about the protection afforded by a single dose clashed with scientists’ fears that antibody responses would wane over time, potentially falling below a protective threshold.
Some family doctors in Britain said that they were uneasy about a lack of evidence showing that patients would be protected for many weeks from Covid-19 after a single shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“I have been instructed to break my promise to my elderly patients,” Dr. Helen Salisbury, a family doctor in Oxford, said on Twitter on Thursday morning, “and use a vaccine outside its evidenced and approved schedule, probably placing them at risk.”
A flurry of headlines this week flooded social media, documenting a seemingly concerning case of Covid-19 in a San Diego nurse who fell ill about a week after receiving his first injection of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.
But experts said the sickness is nothing unexpected: The protective effects of vaccines are known to take at least a couple of weeks to kick in. And getting sick before completing a two-dose vaccine regimen, they said, should not undermine the potency of Pfizer’s product, which blazed through late-stage clinical trials with flying colors.
Reporting that a half-vaccinated person contracted the virus is “really the equivalent of saying someone went outside in the middle of a rainstorm without an umbrella and got wet,” said Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care physician at the University of Virginia. Dr. Bell received his first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 15, and will be getting his second shot soon.
The California nurse, identified as Matthew W., 45, in an ABC10 News report, received his first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 18. Six days later, according to the news reports, he began to feel minor symptoms, including chills, muscle aches and fatigue. He tested positive for the virus the day after Christmas.
Framing the nurse’s illness as news, said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University, implied that it was a departure from the expected — and that there should have been protection about a week after the first vaccine dose. That’s not the case at all.
The timeline of the California nurse’s illness falls well within the window of post-vaccination vulnerability, Dr. Ranney said in an interview. It’s also very likely he caught the virus right around the time he got the shot, perhaps even before. People can start experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19 between two and 14 days after encountering the coronavirus, if they ever have symptoms at all.
A similar situation appears to have recently unfolded with Mike Harmon, the Kentucky state auditor, who this week tested positive for the virus the day after receiving his first dose of an unspecified coronavirus vaccine.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s New Year’s speeches have typically been aspirational exercises in political agenda setting, touching on dozens of broad themes, like immigration and climate change, and sometimes presenting her latest projects for Germany.
But Ms. Merkel’s speech this year, her 16th as chancellor, was noticeably different. For what was almost certainly her last New Year’s Eve speech as the government’s leader, for she is expected to leave office in 2021, she focused on a single topic: the coronavirus.
“The coronavirus pandemic was and is a once-in-a-century political, social and economic challenge,” Ms. Merkel said in the annual prerecorded televised speech that was watched by millions of German households.
The pandemic has killed more than 33,000 people in Germany and sickened hundreds of thousands more. And even if generous government subsidies have averted much of the widespread economic pain that other countries have experienced, long-term economic consequences loom for the nation.
As the speech makes clear, the pandemic has upended Ms. Merkel’s last full year in office, upsetting a period in which she hoped to cement her legacy with leadership on issues like climate change, digital transformation and a robust social state.
Abroad, Ms. Merkel had hoped to focus on tackling issues like refugees and European Union unity as Brexit played out and countries like Hungary and Poland tested the bloc’s liberal values. Instead, she spent much of her time during Germany’s six-month term in the European Council’s rotating presidency traveling to Brussels for meetings to persuade E.U. members to break budget rules and set up a fund to counter the economic effects of the pandemic.
“I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that never in the past 15 years have we all experienced such a difficult year — and never have we greeted the new year with so much hope, despite all of our concerns and some skepticism,” she said.
The labor market remains in distress as the pandemic limits consumer activity across the country.
Initial claims for unemployment benefits dropped modestly last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
The Christmas holiday likely affected filings because of the shortened workweek, a phenomenon that also occurred during Thanksgiving week. “They bounce up and down a lot during the holidays,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
There were 841,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 873,000 the previous week. Another 308,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, the number of new state claims was 787,000, a decrease from 806,000 in the previous week.
The $900 billion stimulus package that President Trump signed into law Sunday after the data was collected. It will take months for the legislation’s full impact to be felt, and most economists expect the rate of layoffs to remain high.