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Live Covid-19 News: Political Appointees Meddled in C.D.C. Updates


Trump appointees at the Health and Human Services Department have meddled in the C.D.C.’s weekly disease reports.

Political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services have repeatedly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise, delay and even scuttle reports on the coronavirus that they believed were unflattering to President Trump.

Current and former senior health officials with direct knowledge of phone calls, emails and other communication between the agencies confirmed on Saturday a report in Politico late Friday that the C.D.C.’s public Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports have been targeted by senior officials in the Health and Human Services’ communications office.

The reports, which one former top health official called the “holiest of the holy” in agency literature, are written largely for scientists and public health experts, to update them on trends in infectious diseases, not only the coronavirus but also other outbreaks around the country. They are guarded so closely by agency staff members that political appointees only see them just before they are published.

The reports became the subject of intense scrutiny this summer by Michael Caputo, a Republican political operative and former Trump campaign official the White House installed as the top spokesman at the department in April, despite his having no background in health.

Mr. Caputo himself said on Saturday the Politico’s report was largely accurate, but he denied that there was any overt pressure involved. He said that the primary person involved in critiquing the reports, Paul Alexander, an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University in Canada whom he hired to advise him on the science of the pandemic, simply offered direct reactions to the drafts of the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.

“He digs into these M.M.W.R.s and makes his position known, and his position isn’t popular with the career scientists sometimes,” Mr. Caputo said of Mr. Alexander. “That’s called science. Disagreement is science. Nobody has been ever ordered to do anything. Some changes have been accepted, most have been rejected. It’s my understanding that that’s how science is played.”

In emails obtained by Politico and confirmed to The Times by a health official with direct knowledge of them, Mr. Alexander accused C.D.C. scientists of trying to “hurt the president,” referring to the weekly reports as “hit pieces on the administration.” Mr. Alexander asked Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, to edit reports that had already been published, which he believed overstated the risks of the virus for children and undermined the administration’s efforts to encourage school reopenings.

The meddling from Washington concerned Dr. Redfield, according to one former senior health official, who often pushed back when Mr. Caputo called to pester him about the reports.

Inside the C.D.C., employees expressed outrage and demoralization on Saturday over the reports of interference.

The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Saturday that it had resumed its virus vaccine trial in Britain after suspending it six days ago over potential safety issues but that its trials in the United States and other countries were still on hold.

The news came the same day that a competitor, Pfizer, said it was expanding the trial of its vaccine to 44,000 people — a big increase from its previous goal of 30,000 — in an effort to recruit a more diverse group of participants and potentially cut down the time needed to get results from the trial.

Together, the developments raised new questions about when a vaccine might be available and showed just how unpredictable vaccine development can be, even as the world is desperately waiting for something that can bring an end to the pandemic.

Both companies’ announcements lacked crucial details, prompting criticism that they were not being open enough about the data they’re collecting. AstraZeneca did not offer any information to support the decision to partly resume trials and would not give any details about the illness of a patient that had led to the suspension. Pfizer did not explain how it would determine the effectiveness of the vaccine in its expanded trials.

AstraZeneca suspended its trial last Sunday after a participant in Britain became seriously ill. The company did not announce the decision. On Wednesday, after the news organization Stat reported that the trial had paused, AstraZeneca released a statement that described it only as a “potentially unexplained illness.”

Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and an expert on clinical trials, found both announcements worrisome, contending that the companies were withholding crucial information.

“The public has a right to know what’s going on,” he said. “The future depends on it.”

AstraZeneca and Pfizer are among the three companies that are currently testing their candidates in late-stage clinical trials in the United States — Moderna is the third — in a record-setting race to develop a vaccine. All three have said they expect to have one ready — at least for high-priority groups — before the end of the year.

Michele Meixell, a spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, did not say when she expected the trials in other countries to restart. “AstraZeneca will continue to work with health authorities across the world and be guided as to when other clinical trials can resume,” she said.

Dr. Topol, who has run clinical trials for heart treatments, said it was routine for them to be put on hold and then resumed.

But the public statement about the trial going forward only in Britain left him baffled. “Why would it go forward in one country?” he said. “We’re all people. That’s peculiar.”

Canada reported zero deaths linked to Covid-19 in a 24-hour period on Friday night, according to government data, even as the number of new cases in the country has ticked slowly upward as restrictions ease and schools reopen for in-person classes.

There had been at least 135,600 confirmed coronavirus cases in Canada as of Friday evening, according to the government. The number of new cases being reported daily has fallen significantly from an early May peak of nearly 3,000 cases, and now averages a few hundred a day. But as of Thursday, the average number of new daily cases was up nearly 50 percent compared with a few weeks earlier.

Four Canadian provinces — Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec — account for most of the cases that the country has reported over the past week. Those provinces also accounted for all of the 23 virus deaths reported over the same period. This week, Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, said it would take a four-week “pause” before considering loosening restrictions or allowing further economic reopening.

Canada has previously reported zero Covid-19 deaths in 24-hour periods, although measuring that can be imprecise because of delays in reporting. The average number of daily reported deaths over the past week is three.

In the United States, as of Thursday the average number of daily reported deaths over the past week was 702.

Other pandemic developments around the world:

  • India again broke a record for daily new cases, reporting 97,750 on Saturday, according to a Times database. The previous record, set Friday, was 96,551.

  • Thousands of Israelis gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in central Jerusalem on Saturday for the latest in a series of weekly protests demanding that Mr. Netanyahu resign over his trial on corruption charges and what is widely seen as his mishandling of the virus crisis, The Associated Press reported. Israel has been reporting record levels of new virus cases each day.

A Utah study reports that children in child-care facilities spread the virus to their households.

A report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that young children at three child-care facilities in Utah transmitted the virus to staff members, family and the surrounding community.

The findings undermine some previous assertions about the likelihood that the very young could spread the virus. Studies from South Korea and other countries have suggested that children under 10 are less likely to spread the virus than adults.

The new research, published Friday, traced cases at three Salt Lake City facilities, including one in which an 8-month-old contracted the virus and transmitted it to both parents. Some of the children were asymptomatic when they spread the virus.

Researchers reviewed the contact-tracing data related to outbreaks at the child-care facilities between April 1 and July 10. The study found that during that time at least 184 people, 74 adults and 110 children, had been exposed to someone with the virus in those facilities. At two of the facilities, the children were all younger than 10; the third had an age range up to 13.

Of the 184 people exposed, 31 later tested positive for the virus, including 13 children. The study reported that 12 of those children had passed the virus along to at least 12 of their 46 contacts outside the centers. “Six of these cases occurred in mothers and three in siblings of the pediatric patients,” the study said. At least one parent was hospitalized.

The study had several critical limitations:

  • The testing strategy changed over time. For at least part of the study only symptomatic individuals were tested, which may have led to an undercount of cases.

  • Each of the three facilities was closed for some portion of the study period, during a statewide lockdown, limiting its use in suggesting patterns for child-care facilities at large.

Between April and July 10, when the study was conducted, guidance from public health experts shifted drastically, most notably regarding face coverings. In Utah, a mask mandate was not issued until July 23 and never applied to “children in a child-care setting.”

The study’s authors recommended that workers at child-care facilities wear masks at all times, especially when children are too young to wear them, and emphasized the importance of regular testing with timely results.

During the surge of Covid-19 cases this spring that filled the Brooklyn Hospital Center’s emergency room and intensive care unit with the critically ill and the dying, staff members went in day after day, trying to save as many lives as they could.

A photographer for The Times, Victor J. Blue, created a series of portraits of these hospital workers during that grueling first wave. He and Sheri Fink, the reporter who spent days inside the hospital then, later interviewed them with a colleague, Catrin Einhorn, as they braced for a second wave.

From the doctors and nurses to the workers serving behind the scenes, all understood their roles were both critical and potentially fatal. Fighting the pandemic required sacrifice and courage from workers of all stripes, in the laundry room and the supply depot, the laboratory and the security desk, all the way to the chief executive’s office.

Many spoke in battle metaphors. The virus seemed to come from all sides, they said, and threatened to spare no one. They talked about the front line, and being called to duty, and “training for war.”

“Even when I think about it right now,” said Dr. Kiran Zaman, a critical care fellow, “it gives me goose bumps. It was a very scary, very overwhelming experience. It was a nightmare.”

With its regular season set to end on Sept. 27, Major League Baseball appears poised to move teams into a bubble format for the postseason and World Series.

The league had already moved ahead with plans to hold later-stage playoff games at neutral sites rather than home parks for the first time.

It also appears to have settled on five cities in Southern California and Texas, with those two regions hosting the American League and National League playoffs. The plan has not yet been endorsed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, which must agree to the terms.

If formalized, the plan would follow a path charted by other major sports leagues, including the N.B.A., which has kept players confined to a complex within the Walt Disney World Resort for its playoffs since August. Keeping staff members and players in a bubble has also generally worked out for the W.N.B.A. and the N.H.L.

At the conclusion of the playoffs, the plan would send the last teams standing to a World Series at the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark in Arlington. It would become the first stadium to host the entire World Series since 1944, when Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis hosted both the Cardinals and the Browns.

A recent Brock University study of 451 adults ages 20 to 82 in the United States found that people who believed they had contracted the coronavirus weren’t always honest about it. Thirty-four percent of participants who had tested positive said they had denied having symptoms when asked by others, and 55 percent reported some level of concealment of their symptoms.

Twenty-five percent of participants reported that they had in some way concealed their physical distancing practices. That rate increased among those with Covid-19, according to the study, published last month in The Journal of Health Psychology.

Women were more likely to disclose health symptoms than men were, researchers said, and older adults were more honest about their virus status and behaviors.

But the exact reasoning behind lying during the pandemic is complicated and may be related to the environment, according to David M. Castro, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor of psychology at Adelphi University and the City College of New York.

“I think that so much is barred from someone right now,” Dr. Castro said. “There’s a lot of loneliness, a lot of depression stemming from loneliness.”

Robert Feldman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships,” said his research showed that people typically tell three lies within the first 10 minutes of meeting someone else.

“It’s part of what we do as members of society,” he said. “We tell people that we’re feeling well when we’re not feeling so well.”

About 70 cars crammed into a downtown Los Angeles parking lot surrounded by high rises and a smattering of food trucks on Thursday night to watch “Concrete Cowboy,” a father-son film starring Idris Elba and set in North Philadelphia’s Black cowboy community.

In terms of movie premieres, it was unorthodox.

“It is a dream come true,” Ricky Staub, the 37-year-old white filmmaker making his directorial debut, said while standing in front of a huge screen. “I don’t know when you dream of releasing your movie it’s at a drive-in, but I never dreamed that my first movie would be an all-Black western set in Philly.”

Mr. Staub had ambitious plans when “Concrete Cowboy” landed coveted spots in the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. The plans all changed when Telluride was canceled because of the pandemic and Toronto opted for a hybrid model that features in-person screenings for Canadian audiences and a virtual version for everyone else.

For small indie films like “Concrete Cowboy,” the loss of traditional film festivals means not having a chance to build word-of-mouth momentum that could be the difference between becoming an unlikely Oscar darling or another also-ran in the video-on-demand market.

At the Venice Film Festival, held in person with certain safety restrictions, “One Night in Miami” — the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning actress Regina King — has already generated early awards chatter. Amazon recently bought it in a bidding war.

Under bright blue skies, nearly 2,000 students gathered this month for the start of school at Hanyang No. 1 High School in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.

Medical workers stood guard at school entrances, taking temperatures. Administrative officials reviewed the students’ travel histories and coronavirus test results. Local Communist Party cadres kept watch, making sure teachers followed detailed instructions on hygiene and showed an “anti-epidemic spirit.”

“I’m not worried,” a music teacher at the school, Yang Meng, said in an interview. “Wuhan is now the safest place.”

As countries around the world struggle to safely reopen schools, China’s Communist Party is harnessing the power of its authoritarian system to offer in-person learning for about 195 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade at public schools.

In many ways, China is applying the same heavy-handed model to reopen schools that it has used to bring the virus under control. To stop the epidemic, the authorities imposed harsh lockdowns and deployed invasive technologies to track residents, raising public anger in some places and concerns about the erosion of privacy and civil liberties.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said in a speech on Tuesday that the country’s progress in fighting the virus, including the opening of schools, had “fully demonstrated the clear superiority of Communist Party leadership and our socialist system.

“The Chinese system moves by itself,” said Yong Zhao, a scholar at the University of Kansas who has studied education in China. “The system is run like a military: It just goes for it, no matter what anyone thinks.”

California is at the center of increasing concerns about extensive fraud in a federal program that provides unemployment benefits to freelancers, part-time workers and others lacking a safety net in the pandemic.

At the same time, there is growing evidence of problems keeping track of how many people are being paid through the program. The Labor Department has reported about 15 million claims for benefits nationwide. A comparison of state and federal records by Apsny News suggests that total may overstate the number of recipients by five million or more.

The program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is part of a $2.2 trillion relief package enacted in March. In the latest Labor Department tally, the program accounted for nearly half the total recipients collecting jobless benefits of any kind.

It appears that nearly seven million people are collecting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in California alone, far more than its population would suggest. The state’s own data suggests that the number may be less than two million. Experts on the unemployment system say such discrepancies seem to reflect multiple counting of individual applications as states rushed out payments.

But a surge in new claims in California is attributed not to accounting, but to fraud.

Fraud is not uncommon in hastily assembled disaster programs, but signs of trouble with this program have been surfacing for months as people who did not file claims found benefits issued in their names. A growing number of states have signaled that the problems with the program go beyond the routine.

Colorado said on Thursday that in a six-week stretch this summer, 77 percent of new claims under the program were not legitimate.

Reporting was contributed by Noah Weiland, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Abby Goodnough, Ben Casselman, Damien Cave, Patricia Cohen, Helene Cooper, Conor Dougherty, Rebecca Halleck, Javier C. Hernández, Jonathan Huang, Mike Ives, Apoorva Mandavilli, Zach Montague, Benjamin Mueller, Dan Powell, Nelson D. Schwartz, Nicole Sperling, Jim Tankersley, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Katie Thomas and Carl Zimmer.


Apsny News

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