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Pressure Grows for States to Open Vaccines to More Groups of People

Pressure Grows for States to Open Vaccines to More Groups of People

Some states are already expanding eligibility to people 65 and over, even though millions of people the C.D.C. recommends go first — health care workers and nursing home residents — have yet to get shots.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, right, during vaccinations at the John Knox Village nursing home in Pompano Beach, Fla., last month.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, right, during vaccinations at the John Knox Village nursing home in Pompano Beach, Fla., last month.Credit…Marta Lavandier/Associated Press
Abby Goodnough

  • Jan. 9, 2021, 12:00 p.m. ET

Just weeks into the country’s coronavirus vaccination effort, states have begun broadening access to the shots faster than planned, amid tremendous public demand and intense criticism about the pace of the rollout.

Some public health officials worry that doing so could bring even more chaos to the complex operation and increase the likelihood that some of the highest-risk Americans will be skipped over. But the debate over how soon to expand eligibility is intensifying as deaths from the virus continue to surge, hospitals are overwhelmed with critically ill patients and millions of vaccine doses delivered last month remain in freezers.

Governors are under enormous pressure from their constituents — especially older people, who vote in great numbers and face the highest risk of dying from the virus — to get the doses they receive into arms swiftly. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s decision, announced Friday, to release nearly all available doses to the states when he takes office on Jan. 20, rather than holding half to guarantee each recipient gets a booster shot a few weeks after the first, is likely to add to that pressure.

Some states, including Florida, Louisiana and Texas, have already expanded who is eligible to get a vaccine now, even though many people in the first priority group recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the nation’s 21 million health care workers and three million residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — have not yet received a shot.

On Friday afternoon, New York became the latest state to do so, announcing that it would allow people 75 and over and certain essential workers to start receiving a vaccine on Monday.

But reaching a wider swath of the population requires much more money than states have received for the task, many health officials say, and more time to fine-tune systems for moving surplus vaccine around quickly, to increase the number of vaccination sites and people who give the shots, and to establish reliable appointment systems to prevent endless lines and waits.

Some states’ expansions have led to frantic and often futile efforts by older people to get vaccinated. After Florida opened up vaccinations to anyone 65 and older late last month, the demand was so great that new online registration portals quickly overloaded and crashed, people spent hours on the phone trying to secure appointments and others waited overnight at scattered pop-up sites offering shots on a first-come first-served basis.

Similar scenes have played out in parts of Texas, Tennessee and a handful of other states.

Still, with C.D.C. data suggesting that only about a third of the doses distributed so far have been used, Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, told reporters this past week: “It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower-priority people than to let vaccines sit around while states try to micromanage this process. Faster administration would save lives right now, which means we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Boxes of Moderna’s vaccine were prepared for shipment at a distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., last month.
Boxes of Moderna’s vaccine were prepared for shipment at a distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., last month.Credit…Pool photo by Paul Sancya

The C.D.C. guidelines were drawn up by an independent committee of medical and public health experts that advises the agency on immunization practices; it deliberated for months about who should get vaccinated initially, while supplies were still very limited. The committee weighed scientific evidence about who is most at risk of getting very sick or dying from Covid-19, as well as ethical questions, such as how best to ensure equal access among different races and socioeconomic groups.

Although the committee’s recommendations are nonbinding, states usually follow them; in this case, the committee suggests that states might consider expanding to additional priority groups “when demand in the current phase appears to have been met,” “when supply of authorized vaccine increases substantially” or “when vaccine supply within a certain location is in danger of going unused.”

Dr. Kevin Ault, an obstetrician at the University of Kansas Medical Center who serves on the advisory committee that came up with the C.D.C. guidelines, said that it was reasonable for states to start vaccinating new groups before finishing others, but that they should be careful about exacerbating inequities and biting off more than they can chew.

“Obviously if you’re going to vaccinate that group you need to have a well-thought-out plan in hand,” he said, referring to the over-65 population. “Having people camping out for vaccine is less than ideal, I would say.”

He added, “We put a lot of thought and effort into our guidelines, and I think they are good.”

After the first vaccines were given in mid-December, a dichotomy emerged between governors who were adhering precisely to the guidelines and others who moved quickly to populations beyond health care workers and nursing home residents.

Until Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, had threatened to penalize hospitals that provided shots to people who are not health care workers. By contrast, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, traveled to retirement communities around his state to emphasize the importance of getting people 65 and older, who number more than five million there, immunized fast.

“In Florida we’ve got to put our parents and grandparents first,” Mr. DeSantis said at The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community, just before Christmas.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New YorkCredit…Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Gov. Mike DeWine of OhioCredit…Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Gov. Greg Abbott of TexasCredit…Eric Gay/Associated Press
Gov. Larry Hogan of MarylandCredit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Decisions on how soon to expand eligibility for the shots have not fallen neatly along partisan lines.


Covid-19 Vaccines ›


Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, announced Tuesday that he would immediately switch to what he called the “Southwest Airlines model” for vaccine allocation, referring to the airline’s open seating policy. “We’re no longer going to be waiting for all the members of a particular priority group to be completed,” he said, “before we move on to begin the next group in line.”

Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, urged patience in a news briefing Tuesday as he declined to estimate when the state would start vaccinating people beyond the first priority group, known as “1a.”

“We’re asking every health department, ‘Don’t go outside 1a, stay within your lane,’” he said, adding about the vaccines, “This is a scarce commodity.”

By Thursday Mr. DeWine had set a date for people 80 and older to start getting the vaccine — Jan. 19 — and said he would phase in everyone 65 and older, as well as teachers, by Feb. 8.

The reasons so many doses received by states have not yet been administered to the first priority group are manifold. The fact that vaccination began around Christmas, when many hospital employees were taking vacation, slowed things. More health care workers are refusing to get the vaccine than many of their employers expected, and some hospitals and clinics received more doses than they needed but felt constrained by state rules from giving them to people outside the first priority groups. Some initially worried they could not even offer leftover doses in open vials to people in lower priority groups and let them go to waste.

Frontline health care workers and people age 65 and older waited to be vaccinated at a sports complex in Fort Myers, Fla., last month.Credit…Octavio Jones for The New York Times

And federal funding for vaccination efforts has been slow to reach states and localities: They got only $350 million through the end of last year, a little more than $1 per resident of the country. The economic rescue package that Congress passed in December included $8 billion for vaccine distribution that state health officials had long sought, but the first tranche of it, about $3 billion, is only now starting to be sent out.

“There was great funding in the development of these products, great funding in the infrastructure to ship them and get them out,” said Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health. “But then there was no funding provided of meaning for administering the vaccine, which is the last mile of this journey.”

The C.D.C. has recommended that a “1b” group consisting of people 75 and older and certain essential workers, including teachers, corrections officers and grocery store employees, be vaccinated next. The second group is much larger, about 50 million people. And the third recommended priority group — people 65 to 74, anyone 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not already reached — numbers almost 130 million.

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to deliver enough vaccine doses for 100 million people to each get the two necessary shots by the end of March, and many more in the second quarter. Several other vaccine candidates are far along in the pipeline, and if approved for emergency use here could help ramp up distribution more quickly.

The C.D.C. committee initially considered recommending that a wide range of essential workers get vaccinated before older Americans. Its rationale was that many essential workers are low-wage people of color, who have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus and had limited access to good health care. That sparked a backlash, and several governors, including Mr. DeSantis, quickly made clear they would cater to older people first.

Alex M. Azar, the health and human services secretary, left, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, right, during a vaccination at George Washington University Hospital on Dec. 14.Credit…Pool photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool

Dr. Mark McClellan, who formerly headed the F.D.A. and now runs Duke University’s health policy center, said that while pushing ahead to vaccinate older people and other particularly vulnerable groups would accelerate the overall effort, “we’re going to be missing a lot of higher-risk individuals along the way.”

“I do worry about that becoming uneven in terms of access,” he said during a press briefing, “with lower-income groups, minority groups maybe in a tougher position if we don’t make it very easy for people in these high-risk groups to get vaccinated.”

Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said he was surprised to hear federal officials like Mr. Azar and Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, advocate expanding vaccine access so broadly so soon.

“We didn’t come up with priority populations to slow things down, but because we knew there would be limited numbers of doses,” Dr. Plescia said. “If we try to do this in an equitable, fair way, it’s not going to be as fast as if our only goal is to get vaccine into as many arms as possible.”

Whether or not they are widening access now, governors are ramping up pressure on hospitals to use their allocated doses more quickly. Mr. Cuomo threatened to fine those that did not use their initial allocations by the end of this past week and not send them any more.

Mr. Hogan warned hospitals this past week, “Either use the doses that have been allocated to you or they will be directed to another facility or provider.”

He Was Hospitalized for Covid-19. Then Hospitalized Again. And Again.

Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

He Was Hospitalized for Covid-19. Then Hospitalized Again. And Again.

Significant numbers of coronavirus patients experience long-term symptoms that send them back to the hospital, taxing an already overburdened health system.

Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Pam Belluck

  • Dec. 30, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

The routine things in Chris Long’s life used to include biking 30 miles three times a week and taking courses toward a Ph.D. in eight-week sessions.

But since getting sick with the coronavirus in March, Mr. Long, 54, has fallen into a distressing new cycle — one that so far has landed him in the hospital seven times.

Periodically since his initial five-day hospitalization, his lungs begin filling again; he starts coughing uncontrollably and runs a low fever. Roughly 18 days later, he spews up greenish-yellow fluid, signaling yet another bout of pneumonia.

Soon, his oxygen levels drop and his heart rate accelerates to compensate, sending him to a hospital near his home in Clarkston, Mich., for several days, sometimes in intensive care.

“This will never go away,” he said, describing his worst fear. “This will be my going-forward for the foreseeable future.”

Nearly a year into the pandemic, it’s clear that recovering from Covid-19’s initial onslaught can be an arduous, uneven journey. Now, studies reveal that a significant subset of patients are having to return to hospitals, sometimes repeatedly, with complications triggered by the disease or by the body’s efforts to defeat the virus.

Even as vaccines give hope for stopping the spread of the virus, the surge of new cases portends repeated hospitalizations for more patients, taxing medical resources and turning some people’s path to recovery into a Sisyphean odyssey that upends their lives.

“It’s an urgent medical and public health question,” said Dr. Girish Nadkarni, an assistant professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who, with another assistant professor, Dr. Anuradha Lala, is studying readmissions of Covid-19 patients.

Data on rehospitalizations of coronavirus patients are incomplete, but early studies suggest that in the United States alone, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands could ultimately return to the hospital.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 106,543 coronavirus patients initially hospitalized between March and July found that one in 11 was readmitted within two months of being discharged, with 1.6 percent of patients readmitted more than once.

In another study of 1,775 coronavirus patients discharged from 132 V.A. hospitals in the pandemic’s early months, nearly a fifth were rehospitalized within 60 days. More than 22 percent of them needed intensive care, and 7 percent required ventilators.

And in a report on 1,250 patients discharged from 38 Michigan hospitals from mid-March to July, 15 percent were rehospitalized within 60 days.

Recurring admissions don’t just involve patients who were severely ill the first time around.

“Even if they had a very mild course, at least one-third have significant symptomology two to three months out,” said Dr. Eleftherios Mylonakis, chief of infectious diseases at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School and Lifespan hospitals, who co-wrote another report. “There is a wave of readmissions that is building, because at some point these people will say ‘I’m not well.’”

Many who are rehospitalized were vulnerable to serious symptoms because they were over 65 or had chronic conditions. But some younger and previously healthy people have returned to hospitals, too.

When Becca Meyer, 31, of Paw Paw, Mich., contracted the coronavirus in early March, she initially stayed home, nursing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, fever, extreme fatigue and hallucinations that included visions of being attacked by a sponge in the shower.

Ms. Meyer, a mother of four, eventually was hospitalized for a week in March and again in April. She was readmitted for an infection in August and for severe nausea in September, according to medical records, which labeled her condition “long haul Covid-19.”

Because she couldn’t hold down food, doctors discharged her with a nasal feeding tube connected to protein-and-electrolyte formula on a pole, which, she said, “I’m supposed to be attached to 20 hours a day.”

Feeding tube issues required hospitalization for nearly three weeks in October and a week in December. She has been unable to resume her job in customer service, spent the summer using a walker, and has had a home health nurse for weeks.

“It’s been a roller coaster since March and I’m now in the downswing of it, where I’m back to being in bed all the time and not being able to eat much, coughing a lot more, having more chest pain,” she said.

Readmissions strain hospital resources, and returning patients may be exposed to new infections or develop muscle atrophy from being bedridden. Mr. Long and Ms. Meyer said they contracted the bacterial infection C. difficile during rehospitalizations.

“Readmissions have been associated, even before Covid, with worse patient outcomes,” Dr. Mylonakis said.

Some research suggests implications for hospitals currently overwhelmed with cases. A Mount Sinai Hospital study of New York’s first wave found that patients with shorter initial stays and those not sick enough for intensive care were more likely to return within two weeks.

Dr. Lala, who co-wrote the study, said the thinking at overstretched hospitals was “we have a lack of resources, so if the patients are stable get them home.” But, she added, “the fact that length of stay was indeed shorter for those patients who return is begging the question of: Were we kicking these people out the door too soon?”

Many rehospitalized patients have respiratory problems, but some have blood clots, heart trouble, sepsis, gastrointestinal symptoms or other issues, doctors report. Some have neurological symptoms like brain fog, “a clear cognitive issue that is evident when they get readmitted,” said Dr. Vineet Chopra, chief of hospital medicine at the University of Michigan, who co-wrote the Michigan study. “It is there, and it is real.”

Dr. Laurie Jacobs, chairwoman of internal medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center, said causes of readmissions vary.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of push to get patients out of the hospital, and they want to get out of the hospital and sometimes they’re not ready,” so they return, she said. But some appropriately discharged patients develop additional problems or return to hospitals because they lack affordable outpatient care.

Antibiotics and other medications belonging to Mr. Long.
Antibiotics and other medications belonging to Mr. Long.Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Mr. Long’s ordeal began on March 9. “I couldn’t stand up without falling over,” he said.

His primary physician, Dr. Benjamin Diaczok, immediately told him to call an ambulance.

“I crawled out to the front door,” recalled Mr. Long. He was barefoot and remembers sticking out his arm to prop open the door for the ambulance crew, who found him facedown.

He awoke three days later, in the hospital, when he accidentally pulled out the tubes to the ventilator he’d been hooked up to. After two more days, he’d stabilized enough to return to the apartment where he lives alone, an hour north of Detroit.

Mr. Long had some previous health issues, including blood clots in his lungs and legs several years ago and an irregular heartbeat requiring an implanted heart monitor in 2018. Still, before Covid-19, he was “very high-functioning, very energetic,” Dr. Diaczok said.

Now, Mr. Long said: “I’ve got scarred lungs, pulmonary fibrosis, and I’m running right around 75-to-80 percent lung capacity.”

He was rehospitalized in April, May, June, July, August and September, requiring oxygen and intravenous antibiotics, potassium and magnesium.

“Something must have happened to his lungs that is making them more prone for this,” Dr. Diaczok said.

Mr. Long, a former consultant on tank systems for the military, is also experiencing brain fog that’s forced a hiatus from classes toward a Ph.D. in business convergence strategy.

“I read 10 pages in one of my textbooks and then five minutes later, after a phone call, I can’t remember what I read,” he said.

“It’s horrible, ”Dr. Diaczok said. “This is a man that thinks for a living, and he can’t do his job.”

And his heart arrhythmia, controlled since 2018, has resurfaced. Unless Mr. Long, who is 6-foot-7, sleeps at an incline on his couch, his heart skips beats, causing his monitor to prompt middle-of-the-night calls from his doctor’s office. Unable to lie in bed, “I don’t sleep through the night.”

Small exertions — “just to stand up to go do the dishes” — are exhausting. In July, he tried starting physical therapy but was told he wasn’t ready.

In August, he got up too fast, fell and “I was very confused,” he recalled. During that hospital readmission, doctors noted “altered mental status” from dehydration and treated him for pneumonia and functional lung collapse.

In late October, Mr. Long developed pneumonia again, but under Dr. Diaczok’s guidance, managed at home with high-dose oral antibiotics.

In December, when a pulmonologist administered a breathing test, “I couldn’t make it six seconds,” he said.

Mr. Long repeatedly measures his temperature and pulse oxygen, and can feel in his chest when “trouble’s coming,” he said. Determined to recover, he tries to walk short distances. “Can I make it to take out the trash?” he’ll ask himself. On a good day, he’ll walk eight feet to his mailbox.

“I’m going to be around to walk my daughters down the aisle and see my grandkids,” said Mr. Long, voice cracking. “I’m not going to let this thing win.”

Don’t Let the Pandemic Stop Your Shots

the new old age

Don’t Let the Pandemic Stop Your Shots

Even as older adults await the coronavirus vaccine, many are skipping the standard ones. That’s not wise, health experts say.

Credit…Chris Lyons

  • Dec. 28, 2020, 12:12 p.m. ET

Peggy Stein, 68, a retired teacher in Berkeley, Calif., skipped a flu shot this year. Her reasoning: “How could I get the flu if I’m being so incredibly careful because of Covid?”

Karen Freeman, 74, keeps meaning to be vaccinated against shingles, but hasn’t done so. A retired college administrator in St. Louis, she quipped that “denial has worked well for me these many years.”

Sheila Blais, who lives on a farm in West Hebron, N.Y., has never received any adult vaccine. She also has never contracted the flu. “I’m such an introvert I barely leave the farm, so where’s my exposure?” said Ms. Blais, 66, a fiber artist. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

While older adults await vaccination against Covid-19, public health officials also worry about their forgoing, forgetting, fearing or simply not knowing about those other vaccines — the ones recommended for adults as we age and our immune systems weaken.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Dr. Ram Koppaka, associate director for adult immunization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every year, campaigns urge older adults to protect themselves against preventable infectious diseases. After all, influenza alone has killed 12,000 to 61,000 Americans annually over the past decade, most of them 65 or older, and has sent 140,000 to 810,000 people a year to hospitals.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced another imperative. Those hospitals are filling fast with Covid-19 patients; in many places they are already swamped, their staffs overworked and exhausted.

“Knowing how stressed the health care system is, prevention is key,” said Dr. Nadine Rouphael, a vaccine researcher and infectious disease specialist at Emory University. “When we have record numbers of deaths, why would you go to a hospital for a vaccine-preventable illness?”

Yet the nation has long done a better job of vaccinating its children than its elders. The most recent statistics, from 2017, show that about one-third of adults over 65 had not received a flu shot within the past year. About 30 percent had not received the pneumococcus vaccine.

The proportion receiving the shingles vaccine, a fairly recent addition to the list, has inched up, but by 2018 only 34.5 percent of people over 60 had been vaccinated.

Moreover, Dr. Koppaka pointed out: “When you look deeper, there are longstanding, deep, significant differences in the proportion of Black and Hispanic adults getting vaccines compared to their white counterparts. It’s really unacceptable.”

Close to 40 percent of non-Hispanic whites had been vaccinated against shingles, for instance, compared with fewer than 20 percent of Blacks and Hispanics.

One might expect a group who can recall polio fears and outbreaks of whooping cough to be less hesitant to get vaccinated than younger cohorts. “You’ll probably have a different concept of vaccination from someone who never experienced what a serious viral illness can do,” Dr. Koppaka said.

When it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine, for instance, only 15 percent of those over 65 say they would definitely or probably not get it, compared with 36 percent of those 30 to 49, a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll showed earlier this month. (Ms. Stein, Ms. Blais and Ms. Freeman all said they would happily accept the Covid vaccine.)

But for other diseases, vaccination rates lag. Given that older people are more vulnerable to severe illness from them, why the gaps in coverage?

Internists and other doctors for adults don’t promote vaccines nearly as effectively as pediatricians do, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. Older patients, who often see a variety of doctors, may also have trouble keeping track of when they got which shot.

Experts fear that vaccination rates may have fallen further during the pandemic, as they have among children, if older people wary of going to doctors’ offices or pharmacies skipped shots.

Financial and bureaucratic obstacles also thwart vaccination efforts. Medicare Part B covers three vaccines completely: influenza, pneumococcus and, when indicated, hepatitis B.

The Tdap and shingles vaccines, however, are covered under Part D, which can complicate reimbursement for doctors; the vaccines are easier to obtain in pharmacies. Not all Medicare recipients buy Part D, and for those who do, coverage varies by plan and can include deductibles and co-pays.

Still, older adults can gain access to most recommended vaccines for no or low cost, through doctors’ offices, pharmacies, supermarkets and local health departments. For everyone’s benefit, they should.

Here’s what the C.D.C. recommends:

Influenza An annual shot in the fall — and it’s still not too late, because flu season peaks from late January into February. Depending on which strain is circulating, the vaccine (ask for the stronger versions for seniors) prevents 40 to 50 percent of cases; it also reduces illness severity for those infected.

Thus far this year, flu activity has remained extraordinarily low, perhaps because of social distancing and masks or because closed schools kept children from spreading it. Manufacturers shipped a record number of doses, so maybe more people got vaccinated. In any case, fears of a flu/Covid “twindemic” have not yet been realized.

Nevertheless, infectious disease experts urge older adults (and everyone over six months old) to get flu shots now. “Flu is fickle,” Dr. Schaffner said. “It could take off like a rocket in January.”

Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis. A booster of TD vaccine every 10 years, to prevent tetanus and diphtheria. If you’ve never had the Tdap vaccine — which adds prevention against pertussis — that’s the one you want. Although pertussis, better known as whooping cough, occasionally shows up in adults, newborns are particularly at risk. Pregnant women will ask expectant grandparents to get a Tdap shot. Because it is covered under Part D, a pharmacy is the best bet.

Pneumococcus. “It’s a pneumonia vaccine, but it also prevents the most serious consequences of pneumonia, including meningitis and bloodstream infections,” Dr. Koppaka said.

People over 65 should get the polysaccharide formula — brand name Pneumovax — but there are certain circumstances, such as immune-compromising conditions, to discuss with a health care provider.

Those over 65 may choose, again in consultation with a provider, to also get the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine (brand name Prevnar), which provides some additional protection. If so, C.D.C. guidelines specify which vaccine to take when.

Shingles. Social distancing won’t ward off this disease; anyone who had chickenpox, which is just about every senior, still carries the virus.

“If you live to be 80, you stand a 35 to 50 percent chance of having an episode,” Dr. Schaffner said. “And the older you are when you get it, the more apt you are to get the most serious complication” — lingering nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia.

The C.D.C. recommends Shingrix, the highly effective shingles vaccine the F.D.A. approved in 2017, for everyone over 50. The previous shingles vaccine has been discontinued. Get Shingrix even if you had the earlier vaccine, Zostavax, and even if you’ve had shingles — it can recur.

The two required shots, given two to six months apart, can total $300 out of pocket. But Medicare Part D beneficiaries will pay an average of $50 for the pair, said a spokesman for the manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, and people with private insurance even less.

Hepatitis A and hepatitis B. These aren’t age-related; the vaccines are recommended for people with certain health conditions, including chronic liver disease and H.I.V. infection, or for travelers to countries where the diseases are widespread.

The hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended, at a provider’s discretion, for diabetics over 60 who haven’t been previously vaccinated. Talk to a health care professional about your risks.

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Covid Vaccine Launch Evokes Memories of Polio Era

Lynne Seymour recalls her mother jumping for joy when the polio vaccine rolled out in 1955, when she was eight. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted,” she said.
Lynne Seymour recalls her mother jumping for joy when the polio vaccine rolled out in 1955, when she was eight. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted,” she said.Credit…Rana Young for The New York Times

Vaccine Memories of Another Time and Place

Many older Americans, shut in during this year’s pandemic, share haunting recollections from the polio era of their childhood.

Lynne Seymour recalls her mother jumping for joy when the polio vaccine rolled out in 1955, when she was eight. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted,” she said.Credit…Rana Young for The New York Times

  • Dec. 25, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” greeted the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines this month at Boston Medical Center, where the scene of dancing health care workers quickly spread on TikTok. Others shared triumphant selfies of their arms post-injection.

For Americans of a certain generation, the rollout evoked searing memories of an earlier era — one that rescued their childhood from fear and the sudden loss of classmates and siblings.

Lynne Seymour was 8 years old in 1955, when her mother, a nurse, let out a startling noise while listening to the radio at their home in Berkeley, Calif.

“She started jumping up and down, crying and laughing at the same time,” Ms. Seymour said. “It scared me a little because I didn’t know what was happening. So I said, ‘Mom, what is it?’”

Her mother explained that Dr. Jonas Salk, a medical researcher, had developed a vaccine for a dangerous virus. “It meant we wouldn’t have to worry about polio anymore, and children wouldn’t be in iron lungs and we would go back to the swimming pool,” Ms. Seymour said. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted.”

The first polio epidemic in the United States began in Vermont in 1894, an outbreak that killed 18 people and left at least 58 paralyzed. Waves of pernicious outbreaks, targeting children, would mar the next half-century. In the country’s worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected and more than 3,000 died. Many were paralyzed, notably including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would become president and hide his disability. Others were consigned to life in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that encased a child’s body to ease breathing.

A litany of other celebrated figures also lived with the disease: the songwriter Joni Mitchell, the artist Frida Kahlo, the Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Ms. Seymour, center, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1954, with her mother, Marie Williams, her brother, Wayne, left, and sister, Adele.
Ms. Seymour, center, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1954, with her mother, Marie Williams, her brother, Wayne, left, and sister, Adele.Credit…via Lynn Seymour

Parents anxiously wondered how to keep their children safe from the disease, ordering them to stay away from swimming pools and movie theaters. They practiced the hand-washing routines that have become all too familiar to families this year. (It is now understood that the polio virus spread through consumption of water and food contaminated by fecal matter.)

Dr. Salk made an ambitious bet that he could develop a vaccine for polio using inactivated virus, which was killed using formalin. When his trial was successful in April 1955, church bells rang and households cheered.

American children had been taught for years to dread summer because it so often brought polio outbreaks. A vaccine promised that they could go out and play again, and swim without as much worry.

Stefan Krieger, 74, remembered his family’s enthusiastic reaction to the news. Just a few years earlier, he caught a cold and had to miss a friend’s birthday party; everyone else who attended, including his best friend, contracted polio.

“Many of us had a classmate whose sister or brother had been stricken,” said Arlene Agus, 71.

Ms. Agus’s school in New York City distributed the vaccine in alphabetical order so she was the first to get the shot, with a lollipop as her reward.

“Over half-a-century later, I can still remember the expressions of relief from the long, winding chain of students standing behind me, grateful that they weren’t in my spot,” she said.

The Salk family in 1953. Jonas and Donna, and sons, from left to right, Peter, Jonathan and Darrell. Credit…via Jonathan Salk

The federal government licensed the vaccine within hours of the announcement and manufacturers began their production efforts. “An historic victory over a dread disease,” a newscaster’s voice declared in an April 12 reel from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The announcement includes clips of men in suits rolling carts of vaccine shipments, much like this month’s images of coronavirus vaccine shipments. “Here scientists usher in a new medical age.”

After all of the fanfare, some children remembered getting the vaccine as anti-climactic. Philip McLeod, 77, who was living in Nanton, Alberta, at the time, said he and his classmates were lined up very quickly and then it was over. “It was hard to believe as a 12-year-old that was going to save your life, because it was so routine,” he said.

But visibly, the creek and the skating rink by his home, long abandoned out of fear — similar to the scenes today at many communal playgrounds and parks — once again filled with the sounds of children playing.

Among the first children in the country to receive the vaccine were Dr. Salk’s three sons. Peter Salk, the oldest, recalled their father gathering them near the kitchen table and instructing them to roll up their sleeves and expose their triceps. Then Dr. Salk moved from the stove, where he had sterilized needles and syringes, and injected his sons.

“It was an opportunity to demonstrate my father’s confidence in the work he had done,” Peter Salk said. “And to get us kids protected.”

Jonathan Salk, one of the vaccine researcher’s three sons. The boys were vaccinated in the family’s kitchen.  Credit…John Francis Peters for The New York Times

When the shot was later administered in a 1954 field trial at their Pittsburgh elementary school, one of the teachers asked Darrell Salk, who was only 6 at the time, to comfort a crying schoolmate and explain that his father’s vaccine was safe.

“What did I know?” Darrell said. “I was a kid. But I did my best to reassure him it was helping to protect people from a very nasty disease.”

As thousands of children began to receive the vaccine, Dr. Salk’s sons got caught up in the waves of excitement. Five-year-old Jonathan Salk called his best friend to announce the good news: “Billy! I’m famous! And so is my father!”

Still, much like the atmosphere surrounding the debut of this month’s coronavirus vaccines, introduction of the polio immunization was bittersweet for many families who had already lost relatives.

Jean Norville, 72, remembered her older brother Tommy as a “saint,” so gentle-hearted that when she slammed her finger in a car door, he said he wished it were his own instead. Tommy fell sick with polio in October 1951, and his parents drove at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour to a hospital in Louisville, Ky., where he was put in an iron lung. Their mother, refusing to leave Tommy’s side, slept in the hospital bathtub.

He died soon afterward. The neighbors were so afraid of getting polio that Ms. Norville’s family held Tommy’s funeral with an empty coffin. When the vaccine arrived, Ms. Norville’s mother rushed her children to the health department to get the shot.

“Think of Tommy,” her mother said.

Tommy Norville, Jean’s older brother. “Our family ‘died’ in October of 1951,” she recalled, adding that few pictures remain. “My mother could not stand looking at them.”Credit…via Johnathon Norville

For Catherine Griffice, 79, the cure for polio carries a special legacy. Her father, Frederick Bland, caught the disease in 1948, when he was a third-year medical student. Paralyzed and unable to climb stairs, he was carried out of the house on a chair and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died four days later.

Her mother remarried, to another doctor, who then vaccinated all of their neighbors in Wittenberg, Wis. “He did it in honor of my dad,” Ms. Griffice said.

The initial polio vaccine rollout did not go smoothly. Within a month, six cases of polio had been linked to a vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif. It was soon discovered that Cutter had failed to completely kill the virus in some vaccine batches, a mistake that caused more than 200 polio cases and 11 deaths. The surgeon general asked Cutter to issue a recall, and distribution ground to a halt.

Months later, in the summer and fall of 1955, Boston was hit by a polio outbreak, and Ellen Goodman, then 6 years old, became sick. “I remember being in bed, and I felt this electric current going up and down my arms and legs,” she said. “Then I went to move and my left leg was numb.”

Decades later, Ms. Goodman, 71, suffers post-polio syndrome, with symptoms including chronic fatigue and difficulty walking. “My life has been defined by this disease,” she said. “To think it could have been avoided.”

The vaccine program restarted months later, and polio cases fell sharply. Elvis Presley agreed to be vaccinated on national television to build public confidence in the shot. But the disease didn’t disappear. U.S. case counts rose again beginning in 1958, especially in urban areas. The country’s last case from community spread was recorded in 1979. Though two strains of polio have been eradicated, a third remains and still circulates in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For those scarred by memories of the polio epidemic, a vaccine against Covid can’t arrive soon enough. Many older Americans, particularly vulnerable to the disease, have been shut in and separated from their children and grandchildren for much of this year.

Ms. Norville hasn’t left her home since February and is eagerly waiting for a shot. “My son said, ‘If I could, I would bring you the vaccine today.’”

For the Salk family, the relief is accompanied by a sense of pride, given their father’s role in advancing scientific understanding of immunization. But the sons are also worried about opposition to inoculation against any disease.

“He would have been delighted,” Darrell Salk said of his father. “But he would be horrified by the number of people concerned about using the vaccine. I can see him closing his eyes and shaking his head.”

Coronavirus Variant Is Indeed More Transmissible, New Study Suggests

Coronavirus Variant Is Indeed More Transmissible, New Study Suggests

Researchers warn that the British variant is so contagious that new control measures, including closing down schools and universities, may be necessary.

A gazebo outside a bar in the West End of London on Dec. 15. The city entered Tier 3 restrictions the next day.
A gazebo outside a bar in the West End of London on Dec. 15. The city entered Tier 3 restrictions the next day.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times
  • Dec. 23, 2020, 10:22 p.m. ET

A team of British scientists released a worrying study on Wednesday of the new coronavirus variant sweeping the United Kingdom. They warned that the variant is so contagious that new control measures, including closing down schools and universities, might be necessary. Even that may not be enough, they noted, saying, “It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine rollout.”

The study, released by the Center for Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has not yet undergone review by a scientific journal. The study compares a series of models as predictors of data on infections, hospitalizations and other variables; other researchers are studying the variant in laboratory experiments to determine if it is biologically distinct.

The study found no evidence that the variant was more deadly than others. But the researchers estimated that it was 56 percent more contagious. On Monday, the British government released an initial estimate of 70 percent.

Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was not involved in the study, said that it presented a compelling explanation of the past and potential future of the variant.

“The overall message of it is solid and consistent with what we’ve been seeing from other sources of information,” he said in an interview. “Does this matter? Yes. Is there evidence for increased transmission? Yes. Is that going to impact the next few months? Yes. Those are all, I think, pretty solid.”

A New Variant

A series of tiny mutations found in many British samples of the coronavirus may help the virus spread more easily. The coronavirus variant is known as B.1.1.7.

Spikes used to latch onto and enter human cells

Spike

protein

gene

CORONAVIRUS

CORONAVIRUS

GENOME

ORF1a

protein

ORF1b

protein

Spike

protein

E

M

N

Change in

RNA sequence

MUTATIONS

that led to the

B.1.1.7 variant

X

(deletion)

X

Change in

amino acid

X

Spikes used to latch onto and enter human cells

CORONAVIRUS

Spike

protein

gene

Change in

RNA sequence

Change in

amino acid

CORONAVIRUS

GENOME

N protein

M protein

E protein

Spike protein

MUTATIONS

that led to the

B.1.1.7 variant

ORF1b protein

(deletion)

ORF1a protein

By Jonathan Corum | Source: Andrew Rambaut et al., Covid-19 Genomics Consortium U.K.

The variant, which came to the attention of British researchers earlier this month, has been rapidly spreading in London and eastern England. It carries a set of 23 mutations, some of which may make it more contagious.

The authors of the study found more evidence that the variant does indeed spread more rapidly than others. For example, they ruled out the possibility that it was becoming more common because outbreaks had started in places where people were more likely to come into contact with each other. Data recorded by Google, indicating the movements of individual cellphone users over time, showed no such difference.

The researchers built different mathematical models and tested each one as an explanation for the variant’s spread. They analyzed which model of the spread best predicted the number of new cases that actually were confirmed, as well as hospitalization and deaths.

The team then projected what the new variant would do over the next six months and built models that factored in different levels of restrictions. Without a more substantial vaccine rollout, they warned, “cases, hospitalizations, I.C.U. admissions and deaths in 2021 may exceed those in 2020.”

Closing schools until February could buy Britain some time, the researchers found, but lifting those extra restrictions would then cause a major rebound of cases.

Because of the higher transmission rate, the country will need a much higher percentage of the population to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity. To reduce the peak burden on I.C.U.s, the researchers found, vaccination would need to jump to two million people per week from the current pace of 200,000.

“You need to be able to get whatever barriers to transmission you can out there as soon as possible,” Dr. Hanage said.

The researchers warned that their model was based, like any model, on a set of assumptions, some of which may turn out to be wrong. For instance, the rate at which infected people die from Covid-19 may continue to drop as doctors improve at caring for hospitalized patients. Uncertainties remain as to whether the new variant is more contagious in children, and if so, by how much.

Still, they wrote, “there is an urgent need to consider what new approaches may be required to sufficiently reduce the ongoing transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University in Boston, who was not involved in the study, said of the new estimates, “Unfortunately, this is another twist in the plot.”

“While we were all rejoicing for the vaccine,” he added, “here is the possibility of a change of epidemiological context that makes our next few months much more complex and more perilous to navigate. Evidence is accumulating that the variant is more transmissible, and this implies that it will likely require an even greater effort to keep spreading under control.”

Dr. Hanage cautioned that the model had some shortcomings. The researchers assumed that all people younger than 20 had a 50 percent chance of spreading the disease. Although that might be true for younger children, Dr. Hanage said, it is not for teenagers. “That’s the weakest part of their model,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said, the study provided an important glimpse into the country’s possible futures. “It’s not a forecast, it’s not a prediction, it’s not saying this will happen,” he said. “It is saying that if you don’t take it seriously, this is the kind of thing that could very easily happen.”

Benjamin Mueller contributed reporting.

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In Mexico, Midwives Step in as Covid Overshadows Childbirth

Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

In Mexico, Childbirth in Covid’s Shadow

Midwives and doctors struggle to help women give birth safely during the grim days of the pandemic.

Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.Credit…

  • Dec. 22, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

Rafaela López Juárez was determined that if she ever had another child, she would try to give birth at home with a trusted midwife, surrounded by family. Her first birth at a hospital had been a traumatic ordeal, and her perspective changed drastically afterward, when she trained to become a professional midwife.

“What women want is a birth experience centered on respect and dignity,” she said. She believes that low-risk births should occur outside hospitals, in homes or in dedicated birth centers, where women can choose how they want to give birth.

In late February, Ms. López and her family were anticipating the arrival of her second child at their home in Xalapa, Mexico, while following the ominous news of the encroaching coronavirus pandemic. She gave birth to Joshua, a healthy baby boy, on Feb. 28, the same day that Mexico confirmed its first case of Covid-19. Ms. López wondered how the pandemic would affect her profession.

photophotophoto

Rafaela López and her partner, José Hernández, awaiting the birth of their baby, with Rafaela’s daughter, Johana, 11, nearby.

Accompanied by midwife Pilar Victoria Rosique, Rafaela López Juárez tried to manage intensifying contractions when her labor started inside her home. Her partner José recorded the timing of the contractions.

Rafaela López examined Jessica Garcia Pérez, 32, while Ms. Garcia’s son took a photo during a prenatal home visit in Xalapa, Veracruz.

About 96 percent of births in Mexico take place in hospitals that are often overcrowded and ill-equipped, where many women describe receiving poor or disrespectful treatment. The onset of the pandemic prompted concern that pregnant women might be exposed to the virus in hospitals, and women’s health advocates in Mexico and globally expressed hope that the crisis might become a catalyst for lasting changes to the system.

A national movement has made determined but uneven progress toward integrating midwifery into Mexico’s public health system. Some authorities argue that well-trained midwives would be of great value, especially in rural areas but also in small nonsurgical clinics throughout the country. But so far, there has been insufficient political will to provide the regulation, infrastructure and budgets needed to employ enough midwives to make a significant difference.

During the first few months of the pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggested that midwifery was gaining traction in the country. Midwives all over Mexico were inundated with requests for home births. The government encouraged state authorities to set up alternative health centers that could exclusively focus on births and be staffed by nurses and midwives.

As Covid outbreaks spread, health authorities around the country started to see sharp declines in prenatal consultations and births in hospitals. At the Acapulco General Hospital in Mexico’s Guerrero state, Dr. Juan Carlos Luna, the maternal health director, noted a 50 percent decline in births. With skeletal staffs at times working double shifts, doctors and nurses pushed through under dire conditions. “Nearly everyone on my team has tested positive for the virus at some point,” Dr. Luna said.

photophotophotophoto

Funeral workers remove the body of a patient who died from Covid-19 at the General Hospital in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico.

Employees of a German company, Sanieren, based in Mexico City, sanitized the Covid triage area of the Acapulco General Hospital.

Medical personnel assisted María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández, preparing her for discharge from the Covid-19 intensive care unit at the Acapulco General Hospital.

María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández contracted Covid when she was 36 weeks pregnant, and was hospitalized for five days at Acapulco General Hospital, four hours from her home near Ometepec, Guerrero, Mexico. Later, she gave birth to a baby girl, who she and her husband named Milagro, Spanish for miracle.

Inside the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Acapulco General, doctors treated María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández. She had developed breathing problems at 36 weeks pregnant, prompting her family to drive her four hours to the hospital. Doctors isolated Ms. Maroquín while her family waited outside, watching funeral workers carry away the dead Covid patients and worrying that she would be next. She was discharged after five days and soon gave birth, via emergency cesarean section, in a hospital near her home. She and her husband decided to name their baby girl Milagro — miracle.

photophotophoto

A central hub for dozens of mostly indigenous communities, San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica area of Mexico’s Guerrero state, became a “zone of high contagion” during the pandemic. Signs warned residents to wear masks.

Soldiers guard the Ometepec General Hospital in Mexico’s Guerrero state. As the Covid pandemic intensified, the public sometimes stormed hospitals and threatened doctors.

Ometepec General Hospital was nearly empty at times, as the public shunned hospitals in fear. State health authorities had ordered the reconfiguration of many public hospitals to create separate Covid and non-Covid sections.

In Mexico’s Indigenous communities, women have long relied on traditional midwives, who have become even more important today. In Guerrero, some women have given birth with midwives at dedicated Indigenous women’s centers called CAMIs (Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana), where women can also seek help for domestic violence, which CAMI workers say has increased. But austerity measures related to the pandemic have deprived the centers of essential funding from the federal government.

Other women have chosen to quarantine in their communities, seeking help from midwives like Isabel Vicario Natividad, 57, who keeps working though her own health conditions make her vulnerable to the virus.

photophotophoto

Salustria Leonídez Constancia and her daughter in-law, Citlali Salvador de Jesús, examining Juliana Toribio Teodoro, 27, in Yoloxóchitl, a small Mixteco community located near San Luis Acatlán in Mexico’s Guerrero state.

Midwife Alma Delia Felipe Hidalgo attending a birth at Casa de la Mujer Indígena Nellys Palomo Sánchez, in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone of Guerrero state.

In the remote community of Pueblo Hidalgo, in the Southern mountains of Guerrero state, Isabel Vicario Natividad, a midwife, approached the home of one of her clients, Guillermina Francisco Flores, 38, pregnant with her fifth child.

As Covid-19 cases surged in Guerrero, state health authorities reached out to women and midwives in remote areas with potentially high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

“If the women are too afraid to come to our hospitals, we should go find them where they are,” said Dr. Rodolfo Orozco, the director of reproductive health in Guerrero. With support from a handful of international organizations, his team recently began to visit traditional midwives for workshops and to distribute personal protective equipment.

photophotophotophoto

Ms. Vicario performing a prenatal check on Ms. Flores.

Melquiades Villegas Feliciano, 23, supporting his wife, Luisa Ortega Cantu, while Ms. Vicario helped the couple prepare for the birth of Ms. Ortega’s third child.

Luisa Ortega Cantu’s newborn was kept attached to the umbilical cord and placenta for several minutes after delivery, a practice of traditional midwives.

Isabel Vicario with Ms. Ortega’s baby.

In the capital city of Chilpancingo, many women discovered the Alameda Midwifery Center, which opened in December 2017. During the initial phase of the pandemic, the center’s birth numbers doubled. In October, Anayeli Rojas Esteban, 27, traveled two hours to the center after her local hospital could not accommodate her. She was pleasantly surprised to find a place with midwives who actually allowed her to give birth accompanied by her husband, José Luis Morales.

“We are especially grateful that they did not cut her, like they did during her first hospital birth,” Mr. Morales said, referring to an episiotomy, a surgical procedure that is routine in hospital settings but increasingly seen as unnecessary.

photophotophotophoto

Hoping to avoid the coronavirus, many women in Mexico sought maternity care at places like the Alameda Midwifery Center in Chilpancingo in Guerrero. During the initial months of the pandemic, the center’s birth numbers doubled.

Members of the Maternal Health Unit of the Guerrero health care sector teaching local midwives about Covid protection measures and breast cancer detection methods.

Midwives who took part in the course by the Maternal Health Unit received a set of P.P.E.

Anayeli Rojas Esteban, 27, tries giving birth in a standing position at the Alameda Midwifery Center.

While Mexico’s state health authorities struggled to contain the virus, the situation in the nation’s capital further illustrated the dangers and frustrations that women felt.

In the spring, health authorities in Iztapalapa, the most densely populated neighborhood of Mexico City, scrambled as the area became a center of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. The city government converted several large public hospitals in Iztapalapa into treatment facilities for Covid-19 patients, which left thousands of pregnant women desperate to find alternatives. Many sought refuge in maternity clinics such as Cimigen, where the number of births doubled and the number of prenatal visits quadrupled, according to the clinic’s executive director, Marisol del Campo Martínez.

Other expectant mothers joined the growing ranks of women seeking a home birth experience, for safety reasons and to avoid a potentially unnecessary cesarean section. In Mexico, roughly 50 percent of babies are delivered via C-section, and pregnant women face pressure from peers, family members and doctors to have the procedure.

In July, Nayeli Balderas, 30, who lived close to Iztapalapa, reached out to Guadalupe Hernández Ramírez, an experienced perinatal nurse and the president of the Association of Professional Midwives in Mexico. “When I started to research about humanized birth, breastfeeding, et cetera, a whole new world opened for me,” Ms. Balderas said. “But when we told our gynecologist about our plan, her whole face changed, and she tried to instill fear in us.” Undaunted, Ms. Balderas proceeded with her home birth plan.

Her labor, when it came, was long and increasingly difficult. After 12 hours, Ms. Balderas and her husband conferred with Ms. Hernández and decided to activate their Plan B. At 3 a.m., they rushed to the private clinic of Dr. Fernando Jiménez, an obstetrician-gynecologist and a colleague of Ms. Hernández, where it was decided that a C-section was needed.

photophotophotophotophotophoto

Janet Jarman

Juan Luis de la Torre Islas joined dozens of other parents waiting to receive vaccinations for their children at Cimigen, a small maternity hospital in Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous and most densely populated delegation, that had become the epicenter of the virus.

Nayeli Balderas, 30, in labor, with her husband, Javier Basilio Lara, 31, in their Mexico City apartment, where they hoped she would give birth. Ms. Balderas had expected a hospital birth, but after the pandemic began, the couple decided to try for a home birth to avoid the coronavirus.

After hours of labor, Ms. Balderas’s baby still had not rotated into the right position for birth. The nurse midwives advised different birthing positions, but the infant still would not budge. Twelve hours later, the midwives took her to a small, private clinic for a cesarean birth.

Ms. Balderas with her son, born by cesarean section in a small private clinic at 4 a.m.

Maira Itzel Reyes Ferrer, 26 and her husband, Hugo Alberto Albarran Jarquin, 33, attended a class offered by an obstetric nurse and a 92-year-old traditional midwife who together blend traditional practices and modern medicine. Ms. Reyes had her first child a week later.

Elva Carolina Díaz Ruiz, the obstetric nurse, massaged Ms. Ferrer as her contractions begin to intensify. Pilar, her midwife, right, was in attendance.

In September, on the other side of Mexico City, Maira Itzel Reyes Ferrer, 26, had also been researching home births and found María Del Pilar Grajeda Mejía, a 92-year-old government-certified traditional midwife who works with her granddaughter, Elva Carolina Díaz Ruiz, 37, a licensed obstetric nurse. They guided Ms. Reyes through a successful home birth.

“My family admitted that they were sometimes worried during the birth,” Ms. Reyes said. “But in the end, they loved the experience — so much so that my sister is now taking a midwifery course. She already paid and started!”

As winter begins, Mexico is confronting a devastating second wave of the coronavirus. Hospitals in Mexico City are quickly running out of space. The much-discussed government midwifery birth centers have not yet come to fruition, and medical workers at prestigious hospitals like the National Institute of Perinatology, or INPer, are working around the clock.

Early on in the pandemic, INPer personnel discovered that roughly one-quarter of all women admitted to the hospital were testing positive for the coronavirus. Administrators set up a separate Covid-19 ward, and Dr. Isabel Villegas Mota, the hospital’s head of epidemiology and infectious disease, succeeded in securing adequate personal protective equipment for the staff. Not all frontline workers in Mexico have been this lucky; the Covid-19 fatality rate for medical personnel in Mexico is among the highest in the world.

photophotophoto

Grecia Denise Espinosa tested positive for the coronavirus at the National Institute for Perinatology in Mexico City, and was admitted to the Covid unit where she gave birth by cesarean.

Minutes after the births, Ms. Espinosa’s twins were examined and tested for the virus.

Because Ms. Espinosa and her babies were in good condition, doctors encouraged her to breastfeed, provided that she wore a mask and face shield. 

When Grecia Denise Espinosa learned she was pregnant with twins, she made plans to give birth at a well-known private clinic. But she was shocked by the high cost and decided to consult doctors at INPer instead. To her surprise, when she entered the hospital in November, she tested positive for the virus and was sent to the Covid-19 unit, where doctors performed a C-section.

Maternal health advocates have long said that Mexico’s obstetric model must change to center on women. If ever there were a moment for health authorities to fully embrace midwifery, now is the time, they say, arguing that the thousands of midwives throughout the country could help alleviate pressure on an overburdened and often distrusted health care system while providing quality care to women.

“The model that we have in Mexico is an obsolete model,” said Dr. David Meléndez, the technical director of Safe Motherhood Committee Mexico, a nonprofit organization. “It’s a model in which we all lose. The women lose, the country loses, and the health system and medical personnel lose. We are stuck with a bad model at the worst moment, in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Sunset over the Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana in Guerrero.
Sunset over the Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana in Guerrero.

Janet Jarman is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker based in Mexico, and director of the feature documentary “Birth Wars.” She is represented by Redux Pictures.

How Midwives Have Stepped in in Mexico as Covid-19 Overshadows Childbirth

Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

In Mexico, Childbirth in Covid’s Shadow

Midwives and doctors struggle to help women give birth safely during the grim days of the pandemic.

Doctors released Alejandra Guevarra Villegas, 19, from the operating room after delivering her baby girl by emergency C-section in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone in the Mexican state of Guerrero.Credit…

  • Dec. 22, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

Rafaela López Juárez was determined that if she ever had another child, she would try to give birth at home with a trusted midwife, surrounded by family. Her first birth at a hospital had been a traumatic ordeal, and her perspective changed drastically afterward, when she trained to become a professional midwife.

“What women want is a birth experience centered on respect and dignity,” she said. She believes that low-risk births should occur outside hospitals, in homes or in dedicated birth centers, where women can choose how they want to give birth.

In late February, Ms. López and her family were anticipating the arrival of her second child at their home in Xalapa, Mexico, while following the ominous news of the encroaching coronavirus pandemic. She gave birth to Joshua, a healthy baby boy, on Feb. 28, the same day that Mexico confirmed its first case of Covid-19. Ms. López wondered how the pandemic would affect her profession.

photophotophoto

Rafaela López and her partner, José Hernández, awaiting the birth of their baby, with Rafaela’s daughter, Johana, 11, nearby.

Accompanied by midwife Pilar Victoria Rosique, Rafaela López Juárez tried to manage intensifying contractions when her labor started inside her home. Her partner José recorded the timing of the contractions.

Rafaela López examined Jessica Garcia Pérez, 32, while Ms. Garcia’s son took a photo during a prenatal home visit in Xalapa, Veracruz.

About 96 percent of births in Mexico take place in hospitals that are often overcrowded and ill-equipped, where many women describe receiving poor or disrespectful treatment. The onset of the pandemic prompted concern that pregnant women might be exposed to the virus in hospitals, and women’s health advocates in Mexico and globally expressed hope that the crisis might become a catalyst for lasting changes to the system.

A national movement has made determined but uneven progress toward integrating midwifery into Mexico’s public health system. Some authorities argue that well-trained midwives would be of great value, especially in rural areas but also in small nonsurgical clinics throughout the country. But so far, there has been insufficient political will to provide the regulation, infrastructure and budgets needed to employ enough midwives to make a significant difference.

During the first few months of the pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggested that midwifery was gaining traction in the country. Midwives all over Mexico were inundated with requests for home births. The government encouraged state authorities to set up alternative health centers that could exclusively focus on births and be staffed by nurses and midwives.

As Covid outbreaks spread, health authorities around the country started to see sharp declines in prenatal consultations and births in hospitals. At the Acapulco General Hospital in Mexico’s Guerrero state, Dr. Juan Carlos Luna, the maternal health director, noted a 50 percent decline in births. With skeletal staffs at times working double shifts, doctors and nurses pushed through under dire conditions. “Nearly everyone on my team has tested positive for the virus at some point,” Dr. Luna said.

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Funeral workers remove the body of a patient who died from Covid-19 at the General Hospital in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico.

Employees of a German company, Sanieren, based in Mexico City, sanitized the Covid triage area of the Acapulco General Hospital.

Medical personnel assisted María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández, preparing her for discharge from the Covid-19 intensive care unit at the Acapulco General Hospital.

María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández contracted Covid when she was 36 weeks pregnant, and was hospitalized for five days at Acapulco General Hospital, four hours from her home near Ometepec, Guerrero, Mexico. Later, she gave birth to a baby girl, who she and her husband named Milagro, Spanish for miracle.

Inside the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Acapulco General, doctors treated María de Jesús Maroquín Hernández. She had developed breathing problems at 36 weeks pregnant, prompting her family to drive her four hours to the hospital. Doctors isolated Ms. Maroquín while her family waited outside, watching funeral workers carry away the dead Covid patients and worrying that she would be next. She was discharged after five days and soon gave birth, via emergency cesarean section, in a hospital near her home. She and her husband decided to name their baby girl Milagro — miracle.

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A central hub for dozens of mostly indigenous communities, San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica area of Mexico’s Guerrero state, became a “zone of high contagion” during the pandemic. Signs warned residents to wear masks.

Soldiers guard the Ometepec General Hospital in Mexico’s Guerrero state. As the Covid pandemic intensified, the public sometimes stormed hospitals and threatened doctors.

Ometepec General Hospital was nearly empty at times, as the public shunned hospitals in fear. State health authorities had ordered the reconfiguration of many public hospitals to create separate Covid and non-Covid sections.

In Mexico’s Indigenous communities, women have long relied on traditional midwives, who have become even more important today. In Guerrero, some women have given birth with midwives at dedicated Indigenous women’s centers called CAMIs (Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana), where women can also seek help for domestic violence, which CAMI workers say has increased. But austerity measures related to the pandemic have deprived the centers of essential funding from the federal government.

Other women have chosen to quarantine in their communities, seeking help from midwives like Isabel Vicario Natividad, 57, who keeps working though her own health conditions make her vulnerable to the virus.

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Salustria Leonídez Constancia and her daughter in-law, Citlali Salvador de Jesús, examining Juliana Toribio Teodoro, 27, in Yoloxóchitl, a small Mixteco community located near San Luis Acatlán in Mexico’s Guerrero state.

Midwife Alma Delia Felipe Hidalgo attending a birth at Casa de la Mujer Indígena Nellys Palomo Sánchez, in San Luis Acatlán, a small town in the Costa Chica zone of Guerrero state.

In the remote community of Pueblo Hidalgo, in the Southern mountains of Guerrero state, Isabel Vicario Natividad, a midwife, approached the home of one of her clients, Guillermina Francisco Flores, 38, pregnant with her fifth child.

As Covid-19 cases surged in Guerrero, state health authorities reached out to women and midwives in remote areas with potentially high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

“If the women are too afraid to come to our hospitals, we should go find them where they are,” said Dr. Rodolfo Orozco, the director of reproductive health in Guerrero. With support from a handful of international organizations, his team recently began to visit traditional midwives for workshops and to distribute personal protective equipment.

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Ms. Vicario performing a prenatal check on Ms. Flores.

Melquiades Villegas Feliciano, 23, supporting his wife, Luisa Ortega Cantu, while Ms. Vicario helped the couple prepare for the birth of Ms. Ortega’s third child.

Luisa Ortega Cantu’s newborn was kept attached to the umbilical cord and placenta for several minutes after delivery, a practice of traditional midwives.

Isabel Vicario with Ms. Ortega’s baby.

In the capital city of Chilpancingo, many women discovered the Alameda Midwifery Center, which opened in December 2017. During the initial phase of the pandemic, the center’s birth numbers doubled. In October, Anayeli Rojas Esteban, 27, traveled two hours to the center after her local hospital could not accommodate her. She was pleasantly surprised to find a place with midwives who actually allowed her to give birth accompanied by her husband, José Luis Morales.

“We are especially grateful that they did not cut her, like they did during her first hospital birth,” Mr. Morales said, referring to an episiotomy, a surgical procedure that is routine in hospital settings but increasingly seen as unnecessary.

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Hoping to avoid the coronavirus, many women in Mexico sought maternity care at places like the Alameda Midwifery Center in Chilpancingo in Guerrero. During the initial months of the pandemic, the center’s birth numbers doubled.

Members of the Maternal Health Unit of the Guerrero health care sector teaching local midwives about Covid protection measures and breast cancer detection methods.

Midwives who took part in the course by the Maternal Health Unit received a set of P.P.E.

Anayeli Rojas Esteban, 27, tries giving birth in a standing position at the Alameda Midwifery Center.

While Mexico’s state health authorities struggled to contain the virus, the situation in the nation’s capital further illustrated the dangers and frustrations that women felt.

In the spring, health authorities in Iztapalapa, the most densely populated neighborhood of Mexico City, scrambled as the area became a center of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. The city government converted several large public hospitals in Iztapalapa into treatment facilities for Covid-19 patients, which left thousands of pregnant women desperate to find alternatives. Many sought refuge in maternity clinics such as Cimigen, where the number of births doubled and the number of prenatal visits quadrupled, according to the clinic’s executive director, Marisol del Campo Martínez.

Other expectant mothers joined the growing ranks of women seeking a home birth experience, for safety reasons and to avoid a potentially unnecessary cesarean section. In Mexico, roughly 50 percent of babies are delivered via C-section, and pregnant women face pressure from peers, family members and doctors to have the procedure.

In July, Nayeli Balderas, 30, who lived close to Iztapalapa, reached out to Guadalupe Hernández Ramírez, an experienced perinatal nurse and the president of the Association of Professional Midwives in Mexico. “When I started to research about humanized birth, breastfeeding, et cetera, a whole new world opened for me,” Ms. Balderas said. “But when we told our gynecologist about our plan, her whole face changed, and she tried to instill fear in us.” Undaunted, Ms. Balderas proceeded with her home birth plan.

Her labor, when it came, was long and increasingly difficult. After 12 hours, Ms. Balderas and her husband conferred with Ms. Hernández and decided to activate their Plan B. At 3 a.m., they rushed to the private clinic of Dr. Fernando Jiménez, an obstetrician-gynecologist and a colleague of Ms. Hernández, where it was decided that a C-section was needed.

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Janet Jarman

Juan Luis de la Torre Islas joined dozens of other parents waiting to receive vaccinations for their children at Cimigen, a small maternity hospital in Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous and most densely populated delegation, that had become the epicenter of the virus.

Nayeli Balderas, 30, in labor, with her husband, Javier Basilio Lara, 31, in their Mexico City apartment, where they hoped she would give birth. Ms. Balderas had expected a hospital birth, but after the pandemic began, the couple decided to try for a home birth to avoid the coronavirus.

After hours of labor, Ms. Balderas’s baby still had not rotated into the right position for birth. The nurse midwives advised different birthing positions, but the infant still would not budge. Twelve hours later, the midwives took her to a small, private clinic for a cesarean birth.

Ms. Balderas with her son, born by cesarean section in a small private clinic at 4 a.m.

Maira Itzel Reyes Ferrer, 26 and her husband, Hugo Alberto Albarran Jarquin, 33, attended a class offered by an obstetric nurse and a 92-year-old traditional midwife who together blend traditional practices and modern medicine. Ms. Reyes had her first child a week later.

Elva Carolina Díaz Ruiz, the obstetric nurse, massaged Ms. Ferrer as her contractions begin to intensify. Pilar, her midwife, right, was in attendance.

In September, on the other side of Mexico City, Maira Itzel Reyes Ferrer, 26, had also been researching home births and found María Del Pilar Grajeda Mejía, a 92-year-old government-certified traditional midwife who works with her granddaughter, Elva Carolina Díaz Ruiz, 37, a licensed obstetric nurse. They guided Ms. Reyes through a successful home birth.

“My family admitted that they were sometimes worried during the birth,” Ms. Reyes said. “But in the end, they loved the experience — so much so that my sister is now taking a midwifery course. She already paid and started!”

As winter begins, Mexico is confronting a devastating second wave of the coronavirus. Hospitals in Mexico City are quickly running out of space. The much-discussed government midwifery birth centers have not yet come to fruition, and medical workers at prestigious hospitals like the National Institute of Perinatology, or INPer, are working around the clock.

Early on in the pandemic, INPer personnel discovered that roughly one-quarter of all women admitted to the hospital were testing positive for the coronavirus. Administrators set up a separate Covid-19 ward, and Dr. Isabel Villegas Mota, the hospital’s head of epidemiology and infectious disease, succeeded in securing adequate personal protective equipment for the staff. Not all frontline workers in Mexico have been this lucky; the Covid-19 fatality rate for medical personnel in Mexico is among the highest in the world.

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Grecia Denise Espinosa tested positive for the coronavirus at the National Institute for Perinatology in Mexico City, and was admitted to the Covid unit where she gave birth by cesarean.

Minutes after the births, Ms. Espinosa’s twins were examined and tested for the virus.

Because Ms. Espinosa and her babies were in good condition, doctors encouraged her to breastfeed, provided that she wore a mask and face shield.

When Grecia Denise Espinosa learned she was pregnant with twins, she made plans to give birth at a well-known private clinic. But she was shocked by the high cost and decided to consult doctors at INPer instead. To her surprise, when she entered the hospital in November, she tested positive for the virus and was sent to the Covid-19 unit, where doctors performed a C-section.

Maternal health advocates have long said that Mexico’s obstetric model must change to center on women. If ever there were a moment for health authorities to fully embrace midwifery, now is the time, they say, arguing that the thousands of midwives throughout the country could help alleviate pressure on an overburdened and often distrusted health care system while providing quality care to women.

“The model that we have in Mexico is an obsolete model,” said Dr. David Meléndez, the technical director of Safe Motherhood Committee Mexico, a nonprofit organization. “It’s a model in which we all lose. The women lose, the country loses, and the health system and medical personnel lose. We are stuck with a bad model at the worst moment, in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Sunset over the Casa de la Mujer Indígena Nellys Palomo Sánchez  in San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero.
Sunset over the Casa de la Mujer Indígena Nellys Palomo Sánchez  in San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero.

Janet Jarman is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker based in Mexico, and director of the feature documentary “Birth Wars.” She is represented by Redux Pictures.

Now That Grandma Has Been Vaccinated, May I Visit Her?

Now That Grandma Has Been Vaccinated, May I Visit Her?

The start of a mass coronavirus vaccination campaign at U.S. nursing homes has brought hope to many families. But it may be a while before restrictions loosen. Here are answers to common questions.

Vera Leip, 88, of Pompano Beach, Fla., received the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at the John Knox Village retirement community last week.
Vera Leip, 88, of Pompano Beach, Fla., received the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at the John Knox Village retirement community last week.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • Dec. 21, 2020, 4:48 p.m. ET

A watershed moment has arrived for many families: This week health care workers from CVS and Walgreens, under contract from the federal government, will fan out to nursing homes across the country to begin vaccinating residents against the coronavirus. The shots not only will help protect the nation’s elderly and infirm — and the staff who care for them — but they raise the prospect of ending the devastating isolation many residents have felt for months.

Family members are hopeful that before too long, they will return to visiting parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and other loved ones regularly again. We checked with experts on some common questions.

Will restrictions on visiting be lifted soon?

Probably not in a big way. Restrictions vary by state, and the federal government’s guidance on what it considers safe stands for now. They already allow visits under certain conditions. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or C.M.S., recommended in September that outdoor visits with residents be allowed and indoor visits, too, if the facility has been free of cases for 14 days.

Some medical experts have said that those guidelines are too lax and that visits should be severely restricted, even banned. However, some of these experts are now saying that the vaccine changes the equation, somewhat.

“Once all residents are vaccinated, it opens the door for loosening of restrictions,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, a geriatrician and former executive at nursing home chains.

To allow visits, Dr. Wasserman recommends all residents of a nursing home should be vaccinated (unless they have some condition or allergy that would discourage vaccination on medical grounds); all staff members should be vaccinated; the nursing home should have the ability to ensure that visitors test negative for the coronavirus and have been disciplined about wearing a mask in public settings.

Is the vaccine safe and effective for old and frail residents of nursing homes?

The clinical trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine included people over 65, and results showed it to be safe and to work as well in older people as in younger ones.

“This vaccine has gone through testing and clinical trials to ensure it meets the highest safety standards. It also is safe to get if you already had the virus,” says a campaign to encourage people to get the shots by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, a combined trade group representing nursing homes and assisted-living communities.

The lead administrator for C.M.S., Seema Verma, reinforced the confidence in the shot for older patients, including those with health conditions, in a statement last week: “I urge states to prioritize nursing homes and vulnerable seniors in their distribution of the vaccine.”

The point is echoed by Dr. Sabine von Preyss-Friedman, chief medical officer of Avalon Health Care Group, which operates nursing homes, who said the new vaccines appear “safe and effective.”

If restrictions are eased, should I visit right away?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two injections — the initial shot and a booster three or four weeks later. Dr. von Preyss-Friedman recommends waiting at least two weeks after the second shot to have a visit.

“You hope these vaccines work, but these are elderly patients,” she said. “You want to err on the side of protection.”

She said that, ideally, the visitor would also be vaccinated as well. Since shots won’t be widely available for a few months, it may be best to wait until you get your vaccine. Until then, she believes nursing homes should consider visits on a case-by-case basis.

Would visitors still need to wear a mask?

Absolutely, medical experts said. This is particularly true if they are not vaccinated, but even after they are vaccinated “until rates in the community go down,” said Dr. Joshua Uy, a geriatrician and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the medical director of Renaissance Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Philadelphia.

Dr. Uy said that he hopes that the federal government would supply enough personal protective equipment so that all visitors and residents could be properly gowned for such visits.

What is being done to encourage nursing home residents to get vaccinated?

The combined nursing-home and assisted-living trade group has started a program aimed at helping nursing homes and other care facilities to explain to residents the essential need to get the vaccine. The campaign, #getvaccinated, notes: “The elderly population has a much higher risk for getting very sick, being hospitalized, or dying from Covid-19. The vaccine has been shown to provide a great deal of protection against serious illness due to Covid-19.”

But the people they love most may have more effective persuasive powers. Families can help, Dr. Uy said, by encouraging their parents and grandparents in nursing homes to get vaccinated.

“The vaccine,” he said, “is going to be our way out.”

Frontline Workers and People Over 74 Should Get Shots Next, CDC Panel Says

Frontline Workers and People Over 74 Should Get Shots Next, CDC Panel Says

The recommendation was a compromise aimed at getting the coronavirus vaccine to the most vulnerable of two high-risk groups.

Director of nursing education Loraine Hopkins Pepe, left, administers the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Richard Fine, head of anesthesiology, at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA.
Director of nursing education Loraine Hopkins Pepe, left, administers the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Richard Fine, head of anesthesiology, at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times
  • Dec. 20, 2020, 3:40 p.m. ET

Striking a compromise between two high-risk population groups, a panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Sunday to recommend that people 75 and older be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the United States, along with about 30 million “frontline essential workers,” including emergency responders, teachers and grocery store employees.

The debate about who should receive the vaccine in these early months has grown increasingly urgent as the daily tally of cases has swelled to numbers unimaginable even a month ago. The country has already begun vaccinating health care workers, and on Monday, CVS and Walgreens were to begin a mass vaccination campaign at the nation’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. This week roughly six million doses of the newly authorized Moderna vaccine are to start arriving at more than 3,700 locations around the country, including many smaller and rural hospitals.

The panel of doctors and public health experts had previously indicated it would recommend a much broader group of Americans defined as essential workers — about 87 million people with jobs designated by a division of the Department of Homeland Security as critical to keeping society functioning — as the next priority population and that elderly people who live independently should come later.

But in hours of discussion on Sunday, the committee members concluded that given the limited initial supply of vaccine and the higher Covid-19 death rate among elderly Americans, it made more sense to allow the oldest among them to go next along with workers at the highest risk of exposure to the virus.

Groups of essential workers, such as construction and food service workers, the committee said, would be eligible for the next wave. Members did clarify that local organizations had great flexibility to make those determinations.

“I feel very strongly we do need to have that balance of saving lives and keeping our infrastructure in place,” said Dr. Helen Talbot, a member of the panel and infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.

Together, the two groups the committee voted to prioritize on Sunday number about 51 million people; federal health officials have estimated that there should be enough vaccine supply to inoculate all of them before the end of February.

Still, as the first week of vaccinations in the U.S. came to a close, frustrations were flaring about the pace of distribution. Some 128,000 shots had been given in the as of Friday, according to a New York Times database tracking vaccinations — a total that was just slightly more than half the number of new cases reported across the country that same day.

This weekend Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who heads the Trump administration’s distribution effort, apologized for more than a dozen states learning at the last minute that they would receive fewer doses next week of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer than they had expected. Tensions were also broiling in some states over local decisions regarding which health care workers should get their shots immediately and which should wait.

The director of the C.D.C., Dr. Robert Redfield, will review the panel’s recommendation and decide, likely by Monday, whether to embrace it as the agency’s official guidance to states. The panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, emphasized that its recommendations were nonbinding and that every state would be able to fine-tune or adjust them to serve the unique needs of its population.

The 13-to-1 vote came as frustrations flared about the pace of vaccine distribution. Some 128,000 shots have been given in the first five days of the vaccine United States, according to a New York Times database tracking vaccinations — just slightly more than half the number of new cases reported across the country on Friday alone. This weekend, Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who heads the Trump administration’s distribution effort, apologized for at least 14 states learning at the last minute that they would receive fewer doses of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer next week than they had expected. Tensions were also flaring in some states over local decisions regarding which health care workers should get their shots immediately, and which should wait.

In addition to teachers, firefighters and police, a subgroup of the committee suggested that “frontline essential workers” should include school support staff; day care, corrections personnel, public transit, grocery store and postal workers; and those in working in food production and manufacturing. But the group’s official recommendation is not that specific.

Originally, the committee had signaled last month that they had been inclined to let 87 million essential workers receive vaccines ahead of adults 65 and older. Many had expressed their alarm that essential workers, who are often low-wage people of color, were being hit disproportionately hard by the virus and additionally were disadvantaged because of their lesser access to good health care.

general population.”

What People With Allergies Should Know About Covid Vaccines

Here’s What People With Allergies Should Know About Covid Vaccines

Four people so far have had allergic reactions after getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Experts say that shouldn’t deter most people from getting a jab.

Vaccinations underway in Orange, Calif., on Wednesday.
Vaccinations underway in Orange, Calif., on Wednesday.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
Katherine J. Wu

  • Dec. 18, 2020, 12:27 p.m. ET

Allergic reactions reported in two health workers who received a dose of Pfizer’s vaccine in Alaska this week have reignited concerns that people with a history of extreme immune flare-ups might not be good candidates for the newly cleared shots.

The two incidents follow another pair of cases in Britain. Three of the four were severe enough to qualify as anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction. But all four people appear to have recovered.

Health officials on both sides of the pond are vigilantly monitoring vaccinated people to see if more cases emerge. Last week, British drug regulators recommended against the use of Pfizer’s vaccine in people who have previously had anaphylactic reactions to food, medicines or vaccines.

And on Thursday, Dr. Doran Fink, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration’s clinical division of vaccines and related products applications, addressed the issue during a meeting about the vaccine made by Moderna that contains similar ingredients and is expected to soon receive emergency use authorization, or E.U.A., from the agency.

“We anticipate that there may be additional reports, which we will rapidly investigate,” Dr. Fink said, adding that robust surveillance systems were in place to detect these rare events.

Still, Dr. Fink said that “the totality of data at this time continue to support vaccinations under the Pfizer E.U.A., without new restrictions.”

The F.D.A., he added, would work with Pfizer to revise fact sheets and prescribing information for the vaccine so that the public would understand the risk of allergic reactions and know how to report them.

What do we know about the people who had bad reactions?

The first two confirmed cases of allergic reactions came from two health care workers in Britain. Both had a medical history of serious allergic reactions, but had not previously been known to have trouble with any of the vaccine’s ingredients. After an injection of epinephrine — the typical treatment for anaphylaxis — both recovered.

(A third British incident described as a “possible allergic reaction” was also reported and appears to have been minor.)

On Wednesday, two health workers in Alaska experienced reactions as well. One was too mild to be deemed anaphylaxis. But the other, which occurred in a middle-aged woman with no history of allergies, was serious enough to warrant hospitalization, even after she got a shot of epinephrine.

“What is happening does seem really unusual to me,” said Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, an allergist, immunologist and drug allergy researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. Vaccine-related allergic reactions are typically rare, occurring at a rate of about one in a million.

Dr. Blumenthal also pointed out that it was a bit bizarre to see allergic reactions clustering in just two locations: Britain and Alaska. Zeroing in on the commonalities between the two hot spots, she said, might help researchers puzzle out the source of the problem.

Do we know for sure that their reactions were caused by the vaccine?

British and U.S. agencies are investigating the causes, but no official has declared a direct link.

But Dr. Blumenthal suspects they were connected to the shots, because the reactions were immediate, occurring within minutes of injection.

“We have to think it was related because of the timing,” she said.

Nor is it known if a particular ingredient might have been the cause. Pfizer’s vaccine contains just 10 ingredients. The most important is a molecule called messenger RNA, or mRNA — genetic material that can instruct human cells to make a coronavirus protein called spike. Once manufactured, spike teaches the immune system to recognize the coronavirus so it can be fought off in the future. Messenger RNA, which is naturally found in human cells, is unlikely to pose a threat, and degrades within about a day of being injected.

The other nine ingredients are a mix of salts, fatty substances and sugars that stabilize the vaccine. None are common allergens. The only chemical with a history of causing allergic reactions is polyethylene glycol, or PEG, which helps package the mRNA into an oily sheath, protecting it as it goes into human cells.

But PEG is, generally speaking, inert and widespread. It’s found in ultrasound gel, laxatives like Miralax and injectable steroids, among other drugs and products, Dr. Blumenthal said. Despite the chemical’s ubiquity, she said, “I’ve only seen one case of a PEG allergy — it’s really, really uncommon.”

It’s still possible that something else could be causing the reactions — perhaps a factor related to how the vaccines are transported, thawed or administered, Dr. Blumenthal said.

Did the volunteers in Pfizer’s clinical trials have any bad reactions?

A small number of volunteers in Pfizer’s clinical trials experienced allergic reactions. Just one of the 18,801 participants who received the vaccine in a late-stage trial had anaphylaxis, and the incident was deemed unrelated to the vaccine, said Steven Danehy, a spokesman for Pfizer. No severe reactions were found in people who got a placebo shot.

Pfizer excluded people with a history of anaphylaxis to vaccines from its clinical trials.

What does the F.D.A. say about these reactions?

Several experts raised concerns about the allergic reactions in meetings convened to discuss both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines. The agency has advised caution, noting that health care providers should not administer the vaccine to anyone with a “known history of a severe allergic reaction” to any component of the vaccine — a standard warning for vaccines.

Should people with mild allergies wait to get vaccinated?

There’s no evidence that people with mild allergies, which are quite common, need to avoid the vaccine. Allergies are, simply put, the product of an inappropriate immune response against something harmless — pollen, peanuts, cat dander and the like. In many cases, the results of this overreaction are mild symptoms such as a runny nose, coughing or sneezing.

But allergies are specific: A reaction to one substance does not guarantee a reaction to another. On Monday, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology released guidance stating that people with common allergies “are no more likely than the general public to have an allergic reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.”

William Amarquaye, a clinical pharmacist at Brandon Regional Hospital, said he wouldn’t let his asthma or allergies stop him from taking the vaccine when it is offered to him in the next few weeks. He’s also never had trouble with other vaccines he has taken in the past.

“It should still be OK to take the vaccine,” Dr. Amarquaye said. “I’m actually excited about it.”

What about people with a history of severe allergies?

Most people in this category should be good to go, too, said Dr. Eun-Hyung Lee, an expert in allergy and immunology at Emory University.

Guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify only one group of people who might not want to get Pfizer’s vaccine: those with a known history of severe allergic reactions to an ingredient in the injection.

People with a history of anaphylaxis to any other substance, including other vaccines or injectable drugs, can still get the vaccine, but should consult their health care providers and be monitored for 30 minutes after getting their shots. Everyone else, like people with mild or no allergies, need to wait only 15 minutes before leaving the vaccination site.

“In general, the immediate reactions that require epinephrine are those that happen within the first 30 minutes,” said Dr. Merin Kuruvilla, an allergist and immunologist at Emory University.

Some people will understandably be concerned. Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care physician at UVA Health in Charlottesville, Va., said he worried about his 7-year-old son, Alain, who is severely allergic to several foods, including wheat, peanuts and cow’s milk. Alain has about two bouts of anaphylaxis each year.

It’s a bit of a relief that Alain is “later in the prioritization schema,” Dr. Bell said. By the time a vaccine is ready for him, he said, “we’ll get a better sense for how serious this is.” The family plans to discuss their situation with Alain’s doctor.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that any of the ingredients in a coronavirus vaccine would cause Alain any issues. Alain has tolerated other vaccines, including the flu shot, in previous years, and is looking forward to his own shot at immunization to the coronavirus, said Dr. Bell, who received his first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine on Tuesday.

What about Moderna’s vaccine?

Two volunteers in Moderna’s late-stage clinical trial developed anaphylactic reactions, the company reported at the F.D.A. committee meeting on Thursday. Neither was deemed to be linked to the company’s vaccine, which also contains mRNA, because they occurred weeks or months after the participants received their shots. One of these volunteers also had a history of asthma and a shellfish allergy.

Moderna, unlike Pfizer, did not exclude people with a history of anaphylaxis from its trials.

Dr. Tal Zaks, the company’s chief medical officer, said that while Moderna’s vaccine recipe was similar to Pfizer’s, key molecular differences existed that could set the two products on different paths. He said that bad reactions to Pfizer’s vaccine did not guarantee that similar events would happen in relation to the Moderna shots.

Both vaccines do, however, include a version of PEG.

Dr. Blumenthal and others said that anyone concerned about having an allergic reaction to a vaccine should seek the advice of a health care provider.

For anyone getting the vaccine, it’s all about “balancing out the risks,” Dr. Lee, of Emory, said. Allergic reactions can be dangerous. But they are rare and treatable, and the tools to combat them should be available at all vaccination sites. The coronavirus, on the other hand, can have far graver consequences.

“When it’s my turn in line, I think weighing these odds is what I would do,” Dr. Lee said.

How Effective Is the Mask You’re Wearing? You May Know Soon

A C.D.C. division is working with an industry standards group to develop filtration standards — and products that meet them will be able to carry labels saying so.

Answers to Your Questions About the New Covid Vaccines in the U.S.

Answers to Your Questions About the New Covid Vaccines in the U.S.

Vaccines are rolling out to health workers now and will reach the arms of the rest of us by spring. Here’s what you need to know.

The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccines are prepared to be shipped at a Pfizer plant on Dec. 13, 2020 in Portage, Michigan.
The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccines are prepared to be shipped at a Pfizer plant on Dec. 13, 2020 in Portage, Michigan.Credit…Pool photo by Morry Gash
  • Dec. 14, 2020, 1:47 p.m. ET

Getting the vaccine

Why can’t everyone get the vaccine now?

There aren’t enough doses for everyone, so initially the vaccine will be rationed for those who need it most. It will take time to produce and distribute the vaccine, and then schedule two vaccinations per person, three to four weeks apart. As more vaccines get approved, things will speed up. At least 40 million doses (enough for 20 million people) should be available from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year, and much more will come in 2021. How many doses will your state get? Look up your state’s vaccine distribution plans here. —Abby Goodnough

Who will get the vaccine first?

Here’s the expected order for vaccinations:

  • Health care workers and people in long-term care facilities: The nation’s 21 million health care workers and three million mostly elderly people living in long-term care facilities will go first, starting in December. Initially, there won’t be enough doses to vaccinate all health care workers, so states will prioritize based on exposure risk, choosing emergency room staff, for instance, to go first. Or they may offer the vaccine to the oldest health care workers first.

  • Essential workers: The 87 million Americans who work in food and agriculture, manufacturing, law enforcement, education, transportation, corrections, emergency response and other sectors, likely will be second in line, starting early next year. States will set priorities. Arkansas, for example, has proposed including workers in its large poultry industry, while Colorado wants to include ski industry workers who live in congregate housing.

  • Adults with underlying medical conditions and people over 65. Health officials are hoping to get any remaining older adults who have not been vaccinated sometime in the first quarter. Some states might decide to vaccinate residents over 75 before some types of essential workers.

  • All other adults. Adults in the general population are at the back of the line. They could start receiving the vaccine as early as April, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, although many people likely will have to wait until at least May or June. The vaccine hasn’t been approved in children, so it may be several months, or possibly a year, before the vaccine is available for anyone under the age of 16. —Abby Goodnough, Tara Parker-Pope

How will the first doses of the vaccine get to health workers?

Hospitals and medical groups are contacting health workers to schedule vaccine appointments. FedEx and UPS will transport the vaccine throughout most of the country, and each delivery will be followed by shipments of extra dry ice a day later.

Pfizer designed special containers, with trackers and enough dry ice to keep the doses sufficiently cold for up to 10 days. Every truck carrying the containers will have a device that tracks its location, temperature, light exposure and motion. Pfizer will ship the special coolers, each containing at least 1,000 doses, directly to locations determined by each state’s governor. At first, almost all of those sites will probably be hospitals that have confirmed they can store shipments at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, as the Pfizer vaccine requires, or use them quickly. —Abby Goodnough

How will the vaccine get to nursing homes?

The pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens have contracts with the federal government to send teams of pharmacists and support staff into thousands of long-term care facilities in the coming weeks to vaccinate all willing residents and staff members. CVS and Walgreens are both planning to administer their first vaccinations on Dec. 21.

More than 40,000 facilities have chosen to work with CVS. Nearly 35,000 picked Walgreens. Each U.S. state has already picked, or will soon pick, either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine for all of its long-term care facilities that will be working with the pharmacies. —Rebecca Robbins, Abby Goodnough

How will the rest of us get vaccinated?

It’s likely that when the general public starts getting vaccinated in April, shots will be scheduled through doctor’s offices, CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacies — the same way people get flu shots. However, final plans will depend on what other vaccines besides Pfizer’s and Moderna’s have been approved. —Abby Goodnough, Rebecca Robbins

Can I choose which vaccine I get?

This depends on a number of factors, including the supply in your area at the time you’re vaccinated and whether certain vaccines are found to be more effective in certain populations, such as older adults. At first, the only choice will be Pfizer’s vaccine, though Moderna’s could become available within weeks. —Abby Goodnough

How long will it take to work?

You won’t get the full protection from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine until about a week after the second dose, based on clinical trial data. The researchers found that the vaccine’s protection started to emerge about ten days after the first dose, but it only reached 52 percent efficacy, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine. A week after the second dose, the efficacy rose to 95 percent. Read more here. —Carl Zimmer, Noah Weiland

Safety and side effects

Will it hurt? What are the side effects?

The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain.

While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity. —Abby Goodnough, Carl Zimmer

How do I know it’s safe?

Each company’s application to the F.D.A. includes two months of follow-up safety data from Phase 3 of clinical trials conducted by universities and other independent bodies. In that phase, tens of thousands of volunteers got a vaccine and waited to see if they became infected, compared with others who received a placebo. By September, Pfizer’s trial had 44,000 participants; no serious safety concerns have been reported. — Abby Goodnough

If I have allergies, should I be concerned?

People with severe allergies who have experienced anaphylaxis in the past should talk to their doctors about how to safely get the vaccine and what precautions to take. Although severe reactions to vaccines are rare, two health care workers had anaphylaxis after receiving the vaccine on the first day it became available in Britain. Both workers, who had a history of severe reactions, were treated and have recovered. (Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening, with impaired breathing and drops in blood pressure that usually occur within minutes or even seconds after exposure to a food, medicine or substance like latex.) For now, British authorities have said the vaccine should not be given to anyone who has ever had an anaphylactic reaction, but U.S. health experts have said such warnings are premature because severe reactions can be treated or prevented with medications. Because of the British cases, the F.D.A. said it would require Pfizer to increase its monitoring for anaphylaxis and submit data on it once the vaccine comes into use. Fewer than one in a million recipients of other vaccines a year in the U.S. have an anaphylactic reaction, said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Among those who participated in the Pfizer trials, a very small number of people had allergic reactions. A document published by the F.D.A. said that 0.63 percent of participants who received the vaccine reported potential allergic reactions, compared to 0.51 percent of people who received a placebo. In Pfizer’s late-stage clinical trial, one of the 18,801 participants who received the vaccine had an anaphylactic reaction, according to safety data published by the F.D.A. on Tuesday. None in the placebo group did. Read more here. — Denise Grady

What about my situation? Answers about different types of patients.

I had Covid-19 already. Do I need the vaccine?

It’s safe, and probably even beneficial, for anyone who has had Covid to get the vaccine at some point, experts said. Although people who have contracted the virus do have immunity, it is too soon to know how long it lasts. So for now, it makes sense for them to get the shot. The question is when. Some members of the C.D.C. advisory committee have suggested people who have had Covid in the past 90 days should be toward the back of the line.Read more here. —Abby Goodnough, Apoorva Mandavilli

Will it work on older people?

All the evidence we have so far suggests that the answer is yes. The clinical trials for the two leading vaccines have shown that they work about the same in older people as younger people. As the vaccines get distributed, the vaccine makers and the C.D.C. will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the vaccine in people 65 and older who, because of age-related changes in their immune systems, often don’t respond as well to vaccination as younger people do. But just as certain flu vaccines have been developed to evoke a stronger immune response in older people, it’s possible that one of the new vaccines could emerge as a better option for this age group. It’s just far too soon to know. —Carl Zimmer

I’m young and at low risk. Why not take my chances with Covid-19 rather than get a vaccine?

Covid-19 is by far the more dangerous option. Although people who are older, obese or have other health problems are at highest risk for complications from Covid-19, younger people can become severely ill, too. In a study of more than 3,000 people ages 18 to 34 who were hospitalized for Covid, 20 percent required intensive care and 3 percent died.

And as many as one in three people who recover from Covid have chronic complaints, including exhaustion, a racing heart and worse for months afterward. Covid vaccines, in contrast, carry little known risk. Read more here. —Apoorva Mandavilli

Vaccinating pregnant women and children

What about women who are pregnant or breastfeeding?

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult with their obstetricians and pediatricians about whether to get the vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine has not been tested in pregnant women or in those who were breastfeeding, and federal health officials have not issued any specific guidance, other than allowing these women to be vaccinated if they choose. (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued practice guidelines to help women and their doctors talk about vaccination.)

In the initial rollout, it will be mostly pregnant health care workers who must weigh the benefits and possible risks. By the time the vaccine is available to pregnant essential workers or to women in the general population, there should be a lot more data available.

Some experts said the virus itself poses greater risks to pregnant women than the new vaccine. Since the 1960s, pregnant women have been urged to receive vaccines against influenza and other diseases. These women are generally cautioned against live vaccines, which contain weakened pathogens — but the Pfizer vaccine does not contain live virus. Read more here.Apoorva Mandavilli

Does the vaccine affect fertility or miscarriage risk?

A false claim has been circulating online that the new vaccine will threaten women’s fertility by harming the placenta. Here’s why it’s not true.

The claim stems from the fact that the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna cause our immune systems to make antibodies to something called a “spike” protein on the coronavirus. The false warnings about fertility are based on the claim that these antibodies could also attack a similar protein that is made in the placenta during pregnancy, called syncytin. In reality, the spike protein and syncytin are similar only in one very small region, and there’s no reason to believe antibodies that can grab onto spike proteins would lock onto syncytin.

What’s more, the human body generates its own supply of spike antibodies when it fights off the coronavirus, and there’s no sign that these antibodies attack the placenta. If they did, you’d expect that women who got Covid-19 would suffer miscarriages. But a number of studies show that Covid-19 does not trigger miscarriages. Read more here. —Carl Zimmer

When will vaccines be available for children?

So far, no coronavirus vaccine has been approved for children. New vaccines are typically tested on adults before researchers launch trials on children, and coronavirus vaccine developers are following this protocol. In September, Pfizer and BioNTech began studying their vaccine on children as young as 12. Moderna followed suit in December. If these trials yield good results, the companies will recruit younger children. The FDA will then have to review these results before the vaccines can get emergency authorization. Read more here.—Carl Zimmer

Why weren’t children included in the early studies?

Vaccines are typically tested on adults first in the interest of safety. But once a vaccine is shown to be safe and effective in adults, researchers have to run more trials on children to adjust the dosage for their bodies. Another factor in the wait for a vaccine for children is that they are far less likely to die from Covid-19 than adults are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in September which concluded that, of more than 190,000 people who died in the United States with Covid-19, only 121 were under the age of 21. —Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas

Life after vaccination

What if I forget to take the second dose on time?

Both the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and from Moderna have two doses, with the booster shot coming a few weeks after the first. Pfizer-BioNTech’s second dose comes three weeks after the first, and Moderna’s comes four weeks later. The second dose provides a potent boost that gives people strong, long-lasting immunity.

If for some reason you fail to get the second shot precisely three weeks after the first, you don’t have to start all over again with another two-dose regimen. “The second dose can be picked up at any time after the first. No need to start the series over,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the F.D.A.’s vaccine advisory panel.

And while the two leading vaccines include a second dose, some future vaccine candidates may only require one dose. Johnson & Johnson, for example, is expecting data in January that will show whether its experimental vaccine works after a single dose. In case it doesn’t, the company has also started a separate trial using two doses. —Carl Zimmer, Tara Parker-Pope

If I’ve been vaccinated, will I still need to wear a mask?

Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick.

The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here. —Apoorva Mandavilli

Will my employer require vaccinations?

Employers do have the right to compel their workers to be vaccinated once a vaccine is formally approved. Many hospital systems, for example, require annual flu shots. But employees can seek exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs. In such cases, employers are supposed to provide a “reasonable accommodation” — with a coronavirus vaccine, for example, a worker might be allowed to work if they wear a mask, or to work from home. —Abby Goodnough

How will we know when things are getting better?

The test positivity rate in your community will be an indicator of how things are going. This number is the percentage of overall tests given in a community that come back positive. The lower the number, the fewer new cases and the less likely you are to cross paths with someone who has the virus. “The best number is zero,” Dr. Fauci said. “It’s never going to be zero, but anywhere close to that is great.” —Tara Parker-Pope

When can we start safely doing normal things, like going to the movies or the theater?

Public health officials estimate that 70 to 75 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated before people can start moving freely in society again. If things go well, life could get a lot better by late spring and early summer. “It depends on the uptake of the vaccine and the level of infection in the community,” Dr. Fauci said.

Given the surveys so far showing significant public reluctance to get vaccinated, however, it may take awhile to see widespread community protection, he said: “If it turns out that only 50 percent get vaccinated, then it’s going to take much, much longer to get back to the kind of normality that we’d like to see.” —Tara Parker-Pope

Will these vaccines put a dent in the epidemic?

The coronavirus vaccines will be much less effective at preventing death and illness in 2021 if they are introduced into a population where the virus is raging — as is now the case in the U.S. A vaccine that’s 95 percent effective, as Moderna’s and Pfizer’s versions appear to be, is a powerful fire hose. But the size of a fire is still a bigger determinant of how much destruction occurs.

According to the authors of a paper in the journal Health Affairs, at the current level of infection in the U.S. (about 200,000 confirmed new infections per day), a vaccine that is 95 percent effective — distributed at the expected pace — would still not be enough to end the terrible toll of the virus in the six months after it was introduced. Almost 10 million or so Americans would still contract the virus, and more than 160,000 would die.

Measures that reduce the virus’s spread — like mask-wearing, social distancing and rapid-result testing — can still have profound effects. Public health officials hope that people will continue to take these precautions at least until the country reaches a vaccination rate of 70 to 75 percent. —David Leonhardt

Will I be required to provide proof of vaccination to travel?

In the coming weeks, major airlines including United, JetBlue and Lufthansa plan to introduce a health passport app, called CommonPass, that aims to verify passengers’ coronavirus test results — and perhaps soon, vaccinations. CommonPass notifies users of local travel rules — like having to provide proof of a negative virus test — and then aims to check that they have met them.

Although no plans are in place yet to require proof of vaccination for travel or other activities, electronic vaccination credentials could have a profound effect on efforts to control the virus and restore the economy. They could prompt more employers and college campuses to reopen. And developers say they may also give some consumers peace of mind by creating an easy way for movie theaters, cruise ships and sports arenas to admit only those with documented virus vaccinations. Read the full story. —Natasha Singer

How long will the vaccine last? Will I need another one next year?

That is to be determined. It’s possible that coronavirus vaccinations will become an annual event, just like the flu shot. Or it may be that the benefits of the vaccine last longer than a year. We have to wait to see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. Immunity from coronavirus infections appears to last for months, at least, so that may be a hint about vaccines. —Carl Zimmer

How the different vaccines work

How do these new genetic vaccines work?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. While the immune protection from these vaccines may last for months or perhaps even years, their mRNA does not — it is destroyed by our cells within days. Although these are described as “genetic” vaccines, the vaccines don’t alter your genes in any way. —Carl Zimmer

What do the vaccine developers mean when they say their vaccines are 95 percent effective?

Vaccine developers test their vaccines in clinical trials. The fundamental logic behind these trials was worked out by statisticians over a century ago. Researchers vaccinate some people and give a placebo to others. They then wait for participants to get sick and look at how many of the illnesses came from each group.

In the case of Pfizer, for example, the company recruited 43,661 volunteers and waited for 170 people to come down with symptoms of Covid-19 and then get a positive test. Among those who got sick, 162 had received a placebo shot, and just eight had received the real vaccine. This result shows that receiving a vaccine dramatically lowered the chances of getting Covid-19 compared to receiving a placebo.

The difference is expressed as efficacy: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95 percent. (If there were no difference between the vaccine and placebo groups, the efficacy would be zero. If none of the sick people had been vaccinated, the efficacy rate would have been 100 percent.) A vaccine’s efficacy rate and effectiveness rate are different: Efficacy is a measurement made within the strict confines of a clinical trial, whereas effectiveness refers to how a vaccine works in the real world. No one knows yet the true effectiveness of these new vaccines. —Carl Zimmer

Was the Pfizer vaccine part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed?

Pfizer did not accept federal funding to help develop or manufacture the vaccine, unlike front-runners Moderna and AstraZeneca. Pfizer did get a $1.95 billion deal with the government to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccine. The arrangement is an advance-purchase agreement, meaning that the company won’t get paid until they deliver the vaccines. Read more here. —Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas

What does the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine mean for the other vaccines in the race?

Researchers were heartened by the strong results of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. “It gives us more hope that other vaccines are going to be effective too,” said Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University.

The Moderna vaccine, which is next in line for approval, has an efficacy rate of 94.5 percent, essentially the same as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. A vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford has shown confusing trial results, with efficacy rates between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the strength of the doses that volunteers received. And the French company Sanofi had a major disappointment in its early clinical trials, finding that its vaccine couldn’t provoke an immune response in people over 55. The company is now reformulating its vaccine to start new trials. —Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas

Reporting contributed by:

Abby Goodnough, Carl Zimmer, Rebecca Robbins, Apoorva Mandavilli, Denise Grady Katie Thomas, Tara Parker-Pope, Noah Weiland, Natasha Singer, David Leonhardt, Roni Caryn Rabin, Julie Bosman, Reed Abelson and Richard Pérez-Peña

The Loneliest Childhood: Toddlers Have No Covid Playmates

Childhood Without Other Children: A Generation Is Raised In Quarantine

Covid-19 has meant the youngest children can’t go to birthday parties or play dates. Parents are keeping them out of day care. What is the long-term effect of the pandemic on our next generation?

No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. 
No playdates in sight: Alice McGraw at the Mount Olympus monument in San Francisco. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

  • Dec. 9, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET

Alice McGraw, 2 years old, was walking with her parents in Lake Tahoe this summer when another family appeared, heading in their direction. The little girl stopped.

“Uh-oh,” she said and pointed: “People.”

She has learned, her mother said, to keep the proper social distance to avoid risk of infection from the coronavirus. In this and other ways, she’s part of a generation living in a particular new type of bubble — one without other children. They are the Toddlers of Covid-19.

Gone for her and many peers are the play dates, music classes, birthday parties, the serendipity of the sandbox or the side-by-side flyby on adjacent swing sets. Many families skipped day care enrollment in the fall, and others have withdrawn amid the new surge in coronavirus cases.

With months of winter isolation looming, parents are growing increasingly worried about the developmental effects of the ongoing social deprivation on their very young children.

“People are trying to weight pros and cons of what’s worse: putting your child at risk for Covid or at risk for severe social hindrance,” said Suzanne Gendelman, whose daughter, Mila, is 13-months-old and pre-pandemic had been a regular play-date buddy of Alice McGraw.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” Ms. Gendelman said.

It is too early for published research about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on very young children, but childhood development specialists say that most children will likely be OK because their most important relationships at this age are with parents.

Still, a growing number of studies highlight the value of social interaction to brain development. Research shows that neural networks influencing language development and broader cognitive ability get built through verbal and physical give-and-take — from the sharing of a ball to exchanges of sounds and simple phrases.

“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.
“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” said Suzanne Gendelman of her 13-month-old daughter, Mila.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

These interactions build “structure and connectivity in the brain,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They seem to be brain feed.”

In infants and toddlers, these essential interactions are known as “serve-and-return,” and rely on seamless exchanges of guttural sounds or simple words.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and others say that technology presents both opportunity and risk during the pandemic. On one hand, it allows children to engage in virtual play by Zoom or FaceTime with grandparents, family friends or other children. But it can also distract parents who are constantly checking their phones to the point that the device interrupts the immediacy and effectiveness of conversational duet — a concept known as “technoference.”

John Hagen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan, said he would be more concerned about the effect exchanges on young children, “if this were to go on years and not months.”

“I just think we’re not dealing with any kinds of things causing permanent or long-term difficulties,” he said.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek characterized the current environment as a kind of “social hurricane” with two major risks: Infants and toddlers don’t get to interact with one another and, at the same time, they pick up signals from their parents that other people might be a danger.

“We’re not meant to be stopped from seeing the other kids who are walking down the street,” she said.

Just that kind of thing happened to Casher O’Connor, 14 months, whose family recently moved to Portland, Ore., from San Francisco. Several months before the move, the toddler was on a walk with his mother when he saw a little boy nearby.

“Casher walked up to the two-year-old, and the mom stiff-armed Cash not to get any closer,” said Elliott O’Connor, Casher’s mother.

“I understand,” she added, “but it was still heartbreaking.”

Portland has proved a little less prohibitive place for childhood interaction in part because there is more space than in the dense neighborhoods of San Francisco, and so children can be in the same vicinity without the parents feeling they are at risk of infecting one another.

“It’s amazing to have him stare at another kid,” Ms. O’Connor said.

“Seeing your kid playing on a playground with themselves is just sad,” she added. “What is this going to be doing to our kids?”

The rise of small neighborhood pods or of two or three families joining together in shared bubbles has helped to offset some parents’ worries. But new tough rules in some states, like California, have disrupted those efforts because playgrounds have been closed in the latest Covid surge and households have been warned against socializing outside their own families.

Alice, 2, with her mother, Lindsey McGraw. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Plus, the pods only worked when everyone agreed to obey the same rules and so some families simply chose to go it alone.

That’s the case of Erinn and Craig Sheppard, parents of a 15-month-old, Rhys, who live in Santa Monica, Calif. They are particularly careful because they live near the little boy’s grandmother, who is in her 80s. Ms. Sheppard said Rhys has played with “zero” children since the pandemic started.

“We get to the park, we Clorox the swing and he gets in and he has a great time and loves being outside and he points at other kids and other parents like a toddler would,” she said. But they don’t engage.

One night, Rhys was being carried to bed when he started waving. Ms. Sheppard realized that he was looking at the wall calendar which has babies on it. It happens regularly now. “He waves to the babies on the wall calendar,” Ms. Sheppard said.

Experts in child development said it would be useful to start researching this generation of children to learn more about the effects of relative isolation. There is a distant precedent: Research was published in 1974 that tracked children who lived through a different world-shaking moment, the Great Depression. The study offers reason for hope.

“To an unexpected degree, the study of the children of the Great Depression followed a trajectory of resilience into the middle years of life,” wrote Glen Elder, the author of that research.

Brenda Volling, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in social and emotional development, said one takeaway is that Depression-era children who fared best came from families who overcame the economic fallout more readily and who, as a result, were less hostile, angry and depressed.

To that end, what infants, toddlers and other children growing up in the Covid era need most now is stable, nurturing and loving interaction with their parents, Dr. Volling said.

“These children are not lacking in social interaction,” she said, noting that they are getting “the most important” interaction from their parents.

A complication may involve how the isolation felt by parents causes them to be less connected to their children.

“They are trying to manage work and family in the same environment,” Dr. Volling said. The problems cascade, she added, when parents grow “hostile or depressed and can’t respond to their kids, and get irritable and snap.”

“That’s always worse than missing a play date.”

The Elderly vs. Essential Workers: Who Should Get the Coronavirus Vaccine First?

The Elderly vs. Essential Workers: Who Should Get the Coronavirus Vaccine First?

The C.D.C. will soon decide which group to recommend next, and the debate over the trade-offs is growing heated. Ultimately, states will decide whom to include.

The Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential workers is long and varied, including jobs such as tugboat operators and these grocery store clerks in Brooklyn.
The Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential workers is long and varied, including jobs such as tugboat operators and these grocery store clerks in Brooklyn.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times
  • Dec. 5, 2020, 10:41 a.m. ET

With the coronavirus pandemic surging and initial vaccine supplies limited, the United States faces a hard choice: Should the country’s immunization program focus in the early months on the elderly and people with serious medical conditions, who are dying of the virus at the highest rates, or on essential workers, an expansive category encompassing Americans who have borne the greatest risk of infection?

Health care workers and the frailest of the elderly — residents of long-term-care facilities — will almost certainly get the first shots, under guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued on Thursday. But with vaccination expected to start this month, the debate among federal and state health officials about who goes next, and lobbying from outside groups to be included, is growing more urgent.

It’s a question increasingly guided by concerns over the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, from disproportionately high rates of infection and death among poor people and people of color to disparate access to testing, child care and technology for online schooling.

“It’s damnable that we are even being placed in this position that we have to make these choices,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national coalition that calls attention to the challenges of the working poor. “But if we have to make the choice, we cannot once again leave poor and low-wealth essential workers to be last.”

Ultimately, the choice comes down to whether preventing death or curbing the spread of the virus and returning to some semblance of normalcy is the highest priority. “If your goal is to maximize the preservation of human life, then you would bias the vaccine toward older Americans,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said recently. “If your goal is to reduce the rate of infection, then you would prioritize essential workers. So it depends what impact you’re trying to achieve.”

The trade-off between the two is muddied by the fact that the definition of “essential workers” used by the C.D.C. comprises nearly 70 percent of the American work force, sweeping in not just grocery store clerks and emergency responders, but tugboat operators, exterminators and nuclear energy workers. Some labor economists and public health officials consider the category overbroad and say it should be narrowed to only those who interact in person with the public.

Essential and Frontline Occupations

About 70 percent of workers in the U.S. have jobs that are considered essential. A subset are considered “frontline” workers, meaning their jobs cannot be performed from home. Hover or tap to see each job.

Essential

Frontline

By Matthew Conlen·Note: States may have differing definitions of essential workers. | Sources: Labor Market Information Institute, Council for Community and Economic Research, National Bureau of Economic Research, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency

An independent committee of medical experts that advises the C.D.C. on immunization practices will soon vote on whom to recommend for the second phase of vaccination — “Phase 1b.” In a meeting last month, all voting members of the committee indicated support for putting essential workers ahead of people 65 and older and those with high-risk health conditions.

Historically, the committee relied on scientific evidence to inform its decisions. But now the members are weighing social justice concerns as well, noted Lisa A. Prosser, a professor of health policy and decision sciences at the University of Michigan.

“To me the issue of ethics is very significant, very important for this country,” Dr. Peter Szilagyi, a committee member and a pediatrics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said at the time, “and clearly favors the essential worker group because of the high proportion of minority, low-income and low-education workers among essential workers.”

That position runs counter to frameworks proposed by the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and many countries, which say that reducing deaths should be the unequivocal priority and that older and sicker people should thus go before the workers, a view shared by many in public health and medicine.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the C.D.C. director and the nation’s top public health official, reminded the advisory committee of the importance of older people, saying in a statement on Thursday that he looked forward to “future recommendations that, based on vaccine availability, demonstrate that we as a nation also prioritize the elderly.”

Once the committee votes, Dr. Redfield will decide whether to accept its recommendations as the official guidance of the agency. Only rarely does a C.D.C. director reject a recommendation from the committee, whose 14 members are selected by the Health and Human Services secretary, serve four-and-a-half-year terms and have never confronted a task as high in profile as this one.

But ultimately, the decision will be up to governors and state and local health officials. They are not required to follow C.D.C. guidelines, though historically they have done so.

Defining ‘essential’

The drive-through window at a fast food restaurant in Albuquerque. Food service workers have high rates of infection from the coronavirus.
The drive-through window at a fast food restaurant in Albuquerque. Food service workers have high rates of infection from the coronavirus.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

There are about 90 million essential workers nationwide, as defined by a division of the Department of Homeland Security that compiled a roster of jobs that help maintain critical infrastructure during a pandemic. That list is long, and because there won’t be enough doses to reach everyone at first, states are preparing to make tough decisions: Louisiana’s preliminary plan, for example, puts prison guards and food processing workers ahead of teachers and grocery employees. Nevada’s prioritizes education and public transit workers over those in retail and food processing.

Share of workers in essential and frontline jobs, by state

By Matthew Conlen·Note: States may have different definitions of essential workers. | Sources: Labor Market Information Institute, Council for Community and Economic Research, National Bureau of Economic Research, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency

At this early point, many state plans put at least some people who are older and live independently, or people who have medical conditions, ahead of most essential workers, though that could change after the C.D.C. committee makes a formal recommendation on the next phase.

One occupation whose priority is being hotly debated is teaching. The C.D.C. includes educators as essential workers. But not everyone agrees with that designation.

Marc Lipsitch, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argued that teachers should not be included as essential workers, if a central goal of the committee is to reduce health inequities.

“Teachers have middle-class salaries, are very often white, and they have college degrees,” he said. “Of course they should be treated better, but they are not among the most mistreated of workers.”

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, disagreed. Teachers not only ensure that children don’t fall further behind in their education, she said, but are also critical to the work force at large.

An empty classroom in Ohio. Public health experts disagree on whether teachers should get a top priority for the vaccine.Credit…Kyle Grillot/Reuters

“When you talk about disproportionate impact and you’re concerned about people getting back into the labor force, many are mothers, and they will have a harder time if their children don’t have a reliable place to go,” she said. “And if you think generally about people who have jobs where they can’t telework, they are disproportionately Black and brown. They’ll have more of a challenge when child care is an issue.”

In September, academic researchers analyzed the Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential workers and found that it broadly mirrored the demographics of the American labor force. The researchers proposed a narrower, more vulnerable category — “frontline workers,” such as food deliverers, cashiers and emergency medical technicians, who must work face to face with others and are thus at greater risk of contracting the virus.

By this definition, said Francine D. Blau, a labor economist at Cornell University and an author of the study, teachers belong in the larger category of essential workers. However, when they work in classrooms rather than remotely, she said, would they fit into the “frontline” group. Individual states categorize teachers differently.

Dr. Blau said that if supplies are short, frontline workers should be emphasized. “These are a subset of essential workers who, given the nature of their jobs, must provide their labor in person. Prioritizing them makes sense given the heightened risk that they face.”

The analysis, a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, is in line with other critics, who say that the list of essential workers is too wide-ranging.

“If groups are too large, then you’re not really focusing on priorities,” said Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who worked on the vaccination frameworks for the W.H.O. and the National Academies.

The essential workers on the federal list make up nearly 70 percent of the American labor force, the researchers said, compared with 42 percent for the frontline workers. Women made up 39 percent of frontline workers and, in certain occupations, far more. Frontline workers’ education levels are lower, as are their wages — on average, just under $22 an hour. The proportion of Black and Hispanic workers is higher than in the broader category of essential workers.

Death vs. transmission

A nursing home resident in Brooklyn being taken to a hospital last April. The C.D.C. recommends that residents of long-term care facilities, along with health care workers, get the very first vaccines.Credit…Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Some health policy experts said that to prioritize preventing deaths rather than reducing virus transmission was simply a pragmatic choice, because there won’t be enough vaccine initially available to make a meaningful dent in contagion. A more effective use of limited quantities, they say, is to save the lives of the most frail.

Moreover, vaccine trial results so far show only that the shots can protect the individuals who receive them. The trials have not yet demonstrated that a vaccinated person would not infect others. Though scientists believe that is likely to be the case, it has yet to be proved.

Harald Schmidt, an expert in ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said that it is reasonable to put essential workers ahead of older adults, given their risks, and that they are disproportionately minorities. “Older populations are whiter, ” Dr. Schmidt said. “Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”

But to protect older people more at risk, he called on the C.D.C. committee to also integrate the agency’s own “social vulnerability index.”

The index includes 15 measures derived from the census, such as overcrowded housing, lack of vehicle access and poverty, to determine how urgently a community needs health support, with the goal of reducing inequities.

In a new analysis of the states’ preliminary vaccine plans, Dr. Schmidt found that at least 18 states intended to apply the index. Tennessee, for one, has indicated that it will reserve some of its early allotments for disadvantaged communities.

Still, some people believe it is wrong to give racial and socioeconomic equity more weight than who is most likely to die.

“They need to have bombproof, fact-based, public-health-based reasons for why one group goes ahead of another,” said Chuck Ludlam, a former Senate aide and biotech industry lobbyist who protested putting essential workers ahead of older people in comments to the committee. “They have provided no explanation here that will withstand public scrutiny.”

Blurred lines, many unknowns

Employees of the Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing in Westland, Mich., demonstrated for better pay and protections during an outbreak of Covid-19 in October.Credit…Emily Elconin/Reuters

Further complicating matters, the different priority groups discussed by the C.D.C. committee are overlapping — many essential workers have high-risk conditions, and some are older than 65. Some states have suggested that they will prioritize only essential workers who come face to face with the public, while others have not prioritized them at all.

Even some people whose allegiance lies with one group have made the case that others should have an earlier claim on the vaccine. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million grocery and food processing workers, said that despite the high rate of infection among his members, he thought that older adults should go first.

“Here’s the thing: Everybody’s got a grandmother or grandfather,” Mr. Perrone said. “And I do believe almost everybody in this country would want to protect them, or their aging parents.”

But Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine’s top public health official, said he respectfully disagreed, repeating the explanation he had given his in-laws — who are older but in good health and able to socially distance.

He said: “I’ve told them: ‘You know what? I’m sorry, but there are others that I need to get this vaccine to first, so that when you guys get vaccinated, the world you come back into is ready to receive you.’”

All these plans are, of course, unfurling with essential information still unknown.Many state officials said that as on-the-ground realities emerge, they fully expect their plans to evolve.

One uncertainty: given the high rates of apprehension swirling around this vaccine, how many people in the early groups will actually line up for it?

“If a high proportion of essential workers decline to get the vaccine, states will have to quickly move onto the next group anyway,” said Dr. Prosser, the University of Michigan health analyst. “Because once the vaccines arrive, they will have to be used in a certain amount of time before they degrade.”

Additional work by Jugal K. Patel.

Covid 'Long-Haulers' Need Medical Attention, Experts Urge

Covid Survivors With Long-Term Symptoms Need Urgent Attention, Experts Say

In a two-day meeting sponsored by the N.I.H., officials acknowledged an insufficient understanding of the issues and warned of a growing public health problem.

Chimére Smith, a teacher in Baltimore, has not been able to return to work since getting Covid in March. She said she has struggled for months to have her symptoms taken seriously by doctors.
Chimére Smith, a teacher in Baltimore, has not been able to return to work since getting Covid in March. She said she has struggled for months to have her symptoms taken seriously by doctors.Credit…Schaun Champion for The New York Times
Pam Belluck

By

  • Dec. 4, 2020, 12:06 p.m. ET

There is an urgent need to address long-term symptoms of the coronavirus, leading public health officials said this week, warning that hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people worldwide might experience lingering problems that could impede their ability to work and function normally.

In a two-day meeting Thursday and Friday, the federal government’s first workshop dedicated to long-term Covid-19, public health officials, medical researchers and patients said the condition needed to be recognized as a syndrome, given a name and taken seriously by doctors.

“This is a phenomenon that is really quite real and quite extensive,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said at the conference on Thursday.

While the number of people affected is still unknown, he said, if long-term symptoms afflict even a small proportion of the millions of people infected with the coronavirus, it is “going to represent a significant public health issue.”

Such symptoms — ranging from breathing trouble to heart issues to cognitive and psychological problems — are already plaguing an untold number of people worldwide. Even for people who were never sick enough to be hospitalized, the aftermath can be long and grueling with a complex and lasting mix of symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted a list of some long-term symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, chest pain, brain fog and depression, but doctors and researchers said they still know little about the extent or cause of many of the problems, which patients will develop them or how to address them.

Over the last several months, coronavirus patients with lingering, debilitating health issues have been widely referred to as “Covid long-haulers.” But some survivors and experts feel that name trivializes the experience, lessening its importance as a medical syndrome which doctors and insurers should recognize, diagnose and try to treat. One of the pressing issues patients and experts are now weighing is what official medical term should be adopted to describe the collection of post-Covid symptoms.

“We need to dig in and do the work that needs to be done to help relieve the suffering and stop this madness,” said Dr. Michael Haag, an infectious disease expert from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was a co-chair of a session.

In an inadvertent but stark illustration of the difficulty of the recovery process, two of the four patients scheduled to speak at the meeting were unable to because they had recently been rehospitalized. “Those individuals had their acute illness several months ago and they’ve been suffering pretty mightily since then,” Dr. Haag said. “And the fact that they’re still struggling with this gives extra power to what we’re trying to do today.”

Dr. John Brooks, the chief medical officer of the C.D.C.’s Covid response, the co-chairman with Dr. Haag of one session, said he expected long-term post-Covid symptoms would affect “on the order of tens of thousands in the United States and possibly hundreds of thousands.”

He added, “If you were to ask me what do we know about this post-acute phase, I really am hard pressed to tell you that we know much. This is what we’re really working on epidemiologically to understand what is it, how many people get it, how long does it last, what causes it, who does it affect, and then of course, what can we do to prevent it from happening.”

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Presentations from Covid-19 survivors — including Dr. Peter Piot, a world-renowned infectious disease expert who helped discover the Ebola virus — made it clear that for many people, recovering from the disease is not like flipping a switch.

Dr. Piot, who is the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a special adviser on Covid-19 research to the president of the European Commission, said he contracted the coronavirus in March and was hospitalized for a week in April. The acute phase of his illness involved some, but not all, of the classic disease symptoms. For example, his oxygen saturation was very low, but he did not develop shortness of breath or a cough until after he got home from the hospital.

For the next month, he experienced a rapid heart rate several hours a day, he said. For nearly four months, he experienced extreme fatigue and insomnia. “What I found most frustrating personally was that I couldn’t do anything,” said Dr. Piot, who now considers himself recovered except for needing more sleep than before his infection. “I just had to wait for improvement.”

Chimére Smith, 38, a teacher in Baltimore who has not been able to work since becoming sick in March, said she had struggled for months to have her symptoms, which included loss of vision in one eye, taken seriously by doctors.

“It’s been a harrowing task and the task and the journey continues,” she said.

Ms. Smith, who is Black, said it was especially important to inform people in underserved communities that long-term effects are “as real and possible as dying from the virus itself.”

The condition, she said, “not only needs to be explored, but it needs to be explained to the same group of people who suffer with being stricken with it the most, and that’s the minority population. I am not just here today for me; I am here for us.”

Hannah Davis, 32, a researcher and artist in Brooklyn, described neurological and cognitive symptoms that began in late March. “I forgot my partner’s name,” she said. “I forgot about sleep. I would regularly pick up a hot pan, burn myself, put it down, and literally do it again. I forgot how to shower. I forgot how to dress myself.”

Months later, some things have improved, but she still struggles to remember things, saying “I feel like I am basically on a 48-hour memory cycle.”

Ms. Davis is part of a long-term Covid survivor group called Body Politic and said a survey of 3,800 of its members in 56 countries has found that 85 percent report cognitive dysfunction, 81 percent had numbness and other neurological sensations, nearly half had speech and language issues and nearly three-quarters had some difficulty working at their jobs.

Clinics treating Covid survivors are seeing a striking number of people with brain fog and other thinking problems, as well as psychological issues, doctors participating in the workshop said.

“Approximately three months after their acute illness, more than half of our patients have at least a mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Ann Parker, who co-directs a post-Covid clinic at Johns Hopkins. “We’re also seeing substantial mental health impairments.”

Dr. Janet Diaz, head of clinical care for the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 response, said the agency is planning a meeting focused on long-term coronavirus effects and will soon start collecting data on post-Covid symptoms and medical visits.

She said that while doctors are accustomed to prolonged recovery challenges for people hospitalized for serious illnesses, the lingering symptoms in younger people and those who were not hospitalized for the coronavirus “urgently needs to be better understood and investigated.”

‘Nobody Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Workers Strain Under Demand

April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.
April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

‘Nobody Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Workers Strain Under Demand

Laboratory technologists have been working nonstop to help the nation diagnose an ever-growing number of coronavirus cases.

April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

Katherine J. Wu

By

  • Dec. 3, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

In March, April Abbott dragged a hospital bed into her office at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind. In the nine months since, she has slept in it a half-dozen times while working overnight in her clinical microbiology laboratory, where a team of some 40 scientists toils around the clock running coronavirus tests.

These all-night stints in the lab pull Dr. Abbott, the director of microbiology at Deaconess, away from her husband and three children, the oldest of whom is 8. A couple of times a week, she heads home for dinner, then drives back to work after the kids have gone to bed. She is at the lab when machines break. She is there to vet testing protocols for the lab. She is there when new testing sites open, flooding the lab with more samples to process.

“I do it because there is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.

Nearly a year into a pandemic that has claimed more than 272,000 American lives, some 192 million tests for the coronavirus have been processed nationwide. Millions more will be needed to detect and contain the virus in the months ahead. Behind these staggering figures are thousands of scientists who have been working nonstop to identify the coronavirus in the people it infects.

Across the nation, testing teams are grappling with burnout, repetitive-stress injuries and an overwhelming sense of doom. As supply chains sputter and laboratories rush to keep pace with diagnostic demand, experts warn that the most severe shortage stymieing America’s capacity to test is not one that can be solved by a wider production line or a more efficient machine. It is a dearth of human power: the dwindling ranks in a field that much of the public does not know even exists.

When shortages arise, “there’s workarounds for almost everything else,” said Karissa Culbreath, the medical director and infectious disease division chief at TriCore Reference Laboratories in New Mexico. “But people are irreplaceable.”

In the absence of trained workers to process and analyze the nation’s tests, America’s diagnostic infrastructure will not merely wrinkle and slow, experts said. It will collapse.

“Doctors and nurses are very visible, but we work behind the scenes,” said Marissa Larson, a medical laboratory scientist supervisor at the University of Kansas Health System. “And we are underwater.”

‘I don’t even know where to start’

Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, begins her shifts at 5:30 a.m. with a refrigerator of up to 500 tubes, trying to clear a backlog before another shipment arrives at 8 a.m.
Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, begins her shifts at 5:30 a.m. with a refrigerator of up to 500 tubes, trying to clear a backlog before another shipment arrives at 8 a.m.Credit…Matthew Staver for The New York Times

The gold standard in coronavirus diagnostics hinges on a decades-old laboratory method called polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R. The method is a signal amplifier: It can copy genetic material, including fragments of the genome of the coronavirus, over and over until it reaches detectable levels, making the virus discoverable even when it is extremely scarce in the body. P.C.R. is the metric against which all new testing techniques are compared; in the diagnostic landscape, few can match its ability to root out infection.

But such accuracy comes at a cost. Even highly automated forms of P.C.R. require people to handle tubes, babysit machines and scrutinize ambiguous results.

P.C.R.-based coronavirus tests also deal in DNA, the molecular language in which the human genome is written. The coronavirus, however, stores its genetic information in a close cousin called RNA, which must first be carefully extracted from virus particles, then converted to its more testable counterpart before diagnostics can proceed.

When laboratories are well stocked, P.C.R. diagnostics can run from start to finish in just a few hours. But since the spring, laboratories around the country have been hamstrung by severe, often unpredictable shortages of chemicals and plasticware needed for these protocols.

And caseloads have skyrocketed; America’s testing capacity has increased since March, but it has been vastly overtaken by the demand for tests.

“The spring pales in comparison to what we are experiencing now,” said Dr. Culbreath, of TriCore, which has run more than 600,000 coronavirus tests.

Amid the pandemonium, labs must still work through their queues for other infectious disease tests, including for sexually transmitted infections. “Labs are trying to maintain our standard of operation with everything else, with a pandemic on top of it,” Dr. Culbreath said.

Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, where cases continue to surge, is fighting to keep pace with some of her institution’s highest sample volumes yet. Her shifts in the lab begin at 5:30 a.m., sometimes to a double-door refrigerator already brimming with 500 tubes, each containing a fresh patient swab and a small volume of liquid — more than a full day’s work for one person.

Ms. Velasquez typically spends the first couple hours of her day frantically trying to clear as much of the backlog as she can before another batch arrives around 8 a.m., when the local clinic opens.

As much as an hour of that time might be spent simply de-swabbing samples: manually unscrewing and rescrewing caps and plucking out swabs, all without contaminating one sample with the contents of another.

“Sometimes you walk into these refrigerators full of specimens and you think, ‘I don’t even know where to start,’” Ms. Velasquez said.

Taylor Smith, a virologist and technologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, with her dog, Spunk.Credit…Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

At Georgia’s state public health laboratory, direct handling of patient samples must be done with extra safeguards to minimize the chances of exposing personnel to infectious virus. Taylor Smith, a virologist and technologist at the lab, spends a large fraction of her workday in a full-body gown, sleeve covers, two pairs of gloves, an N95 respirator and goggles.

Simply donning it all is exhausting. And although Ms. Smith has long been deft with lab instruments, the work always feels high-stakes, she said: “You’re constantly thinking about how to not contaminate yourself.”

To keep their experiments running, lab workers must be proficient mechanics. The instruments needed for diagnostic tests were not built to run continuously for months on end. But as more facilities transition to 24/7 testing, malfunctions and breakdowns have become more common, requiring people to fix them.

Tyler Murray, a clinical laboratory scientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, spends his days listening for telltale alarms — a sign that one of his instruments has failed or is low on chemical ingredients.

“I make sure I talk nicely to them,” Mr. Murray said of the lab’s machines, which he decorates with gleaming gold stars when they perform at their best. “I say, ‘Hey bud, you worked hard this week, I’m proud of you.’”

But morale is low among the humans. After 10-hour shifts at U.T.M.B., Mr. Murray heads home and lies on the floor beside his two cats, Arya and Cleo. “The fatigue builds,” he said. “You can’t help but feel it.”

Tyler Murray, a clinical laboratory scientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, with Cleo, one of his two cats.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

The invisible work force

The monotonous motions that lab workers engage in daily take a physical and mental toll. Technologists are nursing repetitive-use injuries, a result of hours of maneuvering tubes and pipettes, which take up and dispense liquids with the press of a plunger. Workers must also be vigilant sanitizers, pausing regularly to swap out soiled gloves, clear their workspaces of plastic debris and scour surfaces with harsh chemicals that leave their clothes freckled with stains.

“We’re accustomed to holding things up in the background,” said Natalie Williams-Bouyer, the director of the division of clinical microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “We enjoy doing it because we know we’re helping people.”

But the enduring anonymity of testing labs has begun to splinter some spirits. Elizabeth Stoeppler, a senior medical technologist in the molecular microbiology lab at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, said that an old volleyball injury, which inflamed a tendon in her elbow years ago, had flared up after months of long stints in the lab. A few of her co-workers are wrestling with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The strain has begun to affect Ms. Stoeppler outside of the lab. She bolts awake at 3 a.m., panicked about the previous day’s work. She recently started a prescription medication to improve her chances of getting a full night’s sleep.

“There’s signs everywhere that say, ‘Heroes work here,’” she said of her hospital. She loves her job, she added. “But nobody sees us. We’re just in the basement, or in the back.”

On a good day in a diagnostics lab, the phone might ring only a few times, with messages from clinicians inquiring about samples. But when “things are going poorly, it just rings off the hook,” said Rachael Liesman, the director of clinical microbiology at the University of Kansas Health System, where she frequently clocks 15-hour shifts.

To keep the lab on track, Dr. Liesman has put in some hours running tests herself — a task that is not a part of her normal job description. “It’s very strange to have your director on the bench,” said Ms. Larson, a supervisor in the lab. “When you see that, some flare guns should be going up.”

Marissa Larson, left, a medical laboratory scientist supervisor at the University of Kansas Health System, and Rachael Liesman, its director of clinical microbiology.Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times

In mid-November, Dr. Liesman’s lab suffered a three-day stretch during which a supply of chemicals nearly ran dry on a Friday, then a pair of machines failed on Saturday and Sunday.

“We were basically drowning in specimens” by Monday, she said. “I was paged by three different providers while brushing my teeth.”

Morale in the labs has flagged as the country continues to shatter records for caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. The nation’s testing experts know these statistics better than anyone: They count the numbers themselves, sample by sample. But they are also easy targets of criticism and complaint.

“There is always this undercurrent of, it’s never good enough,” said Dr. Abbott, of Deaconess Hospital in Indiana. “It’s devastating. We’re working as hard as we can.”

Chelsa Ashley, a medical laboratory scientist at Deaconess, aches to be home with her three children, to whom she is a single mother, after 13-hour shifts in the lab. Once there, she struggles to leave her work behind.

“There’s that panicked feeling that I should have stayed to take care of our community samples,” she said. “There’s guilt, when you walk away.”

In the past few months, Ms. Ashley’s children, who are 18, 13 and 10, have had to become substantially more self-sufficient. Shaylan, her youngest, rouses herself from bed at 5:50 a.m. every day to spend a few moments with her mother before she heads off to work.

“Even if it’s only 10 minutes, it’s 10 minutes that we talk,” Ms. Ashley said. “That is one thing that has not changed.”

‘A dying breed’

For some, the tidal wave of stress brought on by the pandemic has proved untenable. Since March, scientists have trickled out of laboratories, leaving chasms of expertise in a field that for years has struggled to recruit fresh talent.

Joanne Bartkus, the former director of the Minnesota Department of Public Health Laboratory, retired from her position in May after a dozen years on the job. She pinned one of the pandemic’s crucial inflection points to March 6, the day President Trump publicly remarked that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”

“That was when the poop hit the fan,” Dr. Bartkus said. Within about a week, her team went from receiving fewer than a dozen coronavirus testing samples each day to being inundated with roughly 1,000 daily specimens.

It was unlike anything Dr. Bartkus had seen in her years at the institution. In 2009, the year of the H1N1 flu pandemic, Minnesota’s public health laboratory tested about 6,000 patient samples. This spring, it broke that record in a couple of weeks.

Dr. Bartkus, who is 65, had already planned to retire before the year was up. By the time April came, she had hastened her timeline to May: “It didn’t take me long before I said, ‘OK, I’m done with this.’”

In interviews, several scientists noted that they were struggling to fill vacancies in their labs, some that were left open by overwhelmed technologists who had recently quit their jobs. While the need for such workers has grown in recent years, the number of training programs that build these skill sets has dropped.

“Medical technologists are a dying breed,” Ms. Stoeppler, of the University of North Carolina, said.

Natalie Williams-Bouyer, the director of the division of clinical microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “I hope people can see us now,” she said.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

In Indiana, Dr. Abbott, of Deaconess Hospital, said her team had already performed more than 100,000 tests for the coronavirus. But the most chaotic months are most likely still ahead.

For the first time in nine years, Dr. Abbott is doing hands-on work in the lab to help her staff cope with rising demand. She has yet to take more than a day off at a time since the pandemic’s start, but insists that she can soldier on: “This is out of the sheer will of not wanting to be beaten by this pandemic.”

In the mini-refrigerator in her office, next to rotating bags of salad greens and a small cavalry of Diet Cokes, sits an unopened bottle of champagne that she purchased in March, intending to uncork it upon reaching a worthy testing milestone. Nothing has yet felt like enough.

“I can’t tell you what will feel like a reason to celebrate at this point,” Dr. Abbott said. “Ask me after the next 100,000 tests.”

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Moderna to Begin Testing Its Coronavirus Vaccine in Children

Moderna Plans to Begin Testing Its Coronavirus Vaccine in Children

The company said the trial would involve children ages 12 through 17.

The study will include 3,000 children, with half receiving two shots of the vaccine four weeks apart.
The study will include 3,000 children, with half receiving two shots of the vaccine four weeks apart.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

By

  • Dec. 2, 2020, 2:13 p.m. ET

The drugmaker Moderna said on Wednesday that it would soon begin testing its coronavirus vaccine in children ages 12 through 17. The study, listed Wednesday on the website clinicaltrials.gov, is to include 3,000 children, with half receiving two shots of vaccine four weeks apart, and half getting placebo shots of salt water.

But the posting says the study is “not yet recruiting,” and Colleen Hussey, a spokeswoman for Moderna, said it was not certain when the testing sites would be listed or start accepting volunteers. A link on the website to test centers is not yet working, and Ms. Hussey said she was not sure when it would become active.

Moderna announced on Monday that data from its study in 30,000 adults had found its vaccine to be 94.1 percent effective, and that it had applied to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to begin vaccinating adults. If approval is granted, certain groups of high-risk adults, including people in nursing homes, could receive shots late in December.

But no vaccine can be widely given to children until it has been tested in them. Vaccines meant for both adults and children are generally tested first in adults to help make sure they are safe for pediatric trials.

Moderna’s vaccine has not yet been studied in children or pregnant women. In the new clinical trial in adolescents, girls past puberty will be tested before each injection to make sure they are not pregnant.

“Everyone anticipates that when we test this first in adolescents, then older children, then the real small kids, that the Covid vaccine will work,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University and an adviser on vaccines to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But children have more active immune systems than adults, and may have stronger reactions, including more fever, muscle and joint aches, and fatigue, Dr. Schaffner said.

“They may be more out of sorts than adults for a day or two,” he said. “You really do want to know, if it’s given in adolescents, what can parents expect? You really want to be able to tell them clearly how you might feel for 24 or 48 hours after you receive the vaccine. And obviously, we really want to be able to tell parents it works.”

If a child had intense side effects and parents were not prepared for it, they might be reluctant to go back for the second shot, Dr. Schaffner said.

Dr. Paul A. Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that vaccines “for the most part” work equally well in children and adults. Occasionally, as with the hepatitis B vaccine, different doses are required, he said. Moderna will study the same dose in children that it has tested in adults.

Pfizer began testing its coronavirus vaccine in children as young as 12 in October. A large clinical trial found its vaccine to be 95 percent effective in adults, and the company has requested emergency authorization from the F.D.A. Britain approved the Pfizer vaccine for adults on Wednesday, the first country to do so.

AstraZeneca has also tested its vaccine in children, but not in the United States.

As vaccine studies have moved forward, rumors have spread on social media, particularly among people who oppose vaccines in general, that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. plans to require vaccination for everyone, including children. His team has denied those claims, and Mr. Biden has said that he will rely on scientists’ advice for the best way to end the pandemic.

Long-Term-Care Residents and Health Workers Should Get Vaccine First, C.D.C. Panel Says

BREAKING

Long-Term-Care Residents and Health Workers Should Get Vaccine First, C.D.C. Panel Says

The C.D.C. director will decide by Wednesday whether to accept the recommendation. States aren’t required to follow it, but most are expected to.

Medics in Austin, Texas, on a call to a nursing home earlier this year. The C.D.C. panel voted to urge vaccinating of nursing home residents and health care workers first.
Medics in Austin, Texas, on a call to a nursing home earlier this year. The C.D.C. panel voted to urge vaccinating of nursing home residents and health care workers first.Credit…John Moore/Getty Images
Abby Goodnough

By

  • Dec. 1, 2020, 6:03 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — An independent panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Tuesday to recommend that residents and employees of nursing homes and similar facilities be the first people in the United States to receive coronavirus vaccines, along with health care workers who are especially at risk of being exposed to the virus.

The panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, voted 13 to 1 during an emergency meeting to make the recommendation. The director of the C.D.C., Dr. Robert R. Redfield, is expected to decide by Wednesday whether to accept it as the agency’s formal guidance to states as they prepare to start giving people the shots as soon as two weeks from now.

“We are acting none too soon,” said Dr. Beth Bell, a panel member and global health expert at the University of Washington, noting that Covid-19 would kill about 120 Americans during the meeting alone.

States are not required to follow the panel’s recommendations, but they usually do. The final decision will rest with governors, who are consulting with their top health officials as they complete distribution plans.

The new recommendation is the first of several expected from the panel over the coming weeks, as vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna go through the federal approval process, on the thorny question of which Americans should be at the front of the long line to get vaccinated while supply is still scarce. The panel described it as an interim recommendation that could change as more is learned about how well the vaccines work in different age groups and how well the manufacturers keep up with demand.

The roughly three million people living in long-term care and those who care for them are a relatively clear target; 39 percent of deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in such facilities, according to an analysis by The New York Times. But states and health systems will ultimately have to decide which of the nation’s 21 million health care workers should qualify to receive the first doses, as there won’t be enough at first for everyone.

Pfizer and Moderna have estimated that they will have enough to vaccinate, at most, 22.5 million Americans by year’s end, with the required two doses, a few weeks apart. The C.D.C. will apportion the supply among the states, with the initial allocation proportional to the size of each state’s adult population.

The only member of the committee to vote against the recommendation was Dr. Helen Talbot, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, who expressed discomfort with putting long-term-care residents in the first priority group because the vaccines’ safety had not been studied in that particular population. “We enter this realm of ‘we hope it works and we hope it’s safe,’ and that concerns me on many levels,” she said before the vote.

But most panel members who offered opinions said they thought the high death rate among that group made it imperative to include it.

Dr. José Romero, the chairman of the panel, said that he felt strongly that its process had adhered to its core principles: “maximizing benefit and minimizing harm,” promoting justice and addressing health inequities. Dr. Beth Bell, the co-chair, acknowledged that all of the members would have liked more data from clinical trials but said that because of the pandemic emergency, “we need to act.”

The panel, whose 14 voting members have expertise in vaccinology, immunology, virology, public health and other relevant fields, has hinted that the next priority group it will recommend for vaccination — “Phase 1b” — will be so-called essential workers, a huge group numbering more than 85 million. A division of the Department of Homeland Security has come up with a list of workers states should consider counting in that group; it includes teachers and others who work in schools, emergency responders, police officers, grocery workers, corrections officers, public transit workers and others whose jobs make it hard or impossible to work from home.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the C.D.C. director, during an October briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the C.D.C. director, during an October briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta.Credit…Jenni Girtman/EPA, via Shutterstock

After essential workers, the committee is leaning toward recommending vaccination of adults with medical conditions that put them at high risk of coronavirus infection, such as diabetes or obesity, and everyone over 65. But some states might diverge to an extent, possibly choosing, for example, to vaccinate residents over 75 and then some types of essential workers.

All other adults would follow the initial groups. The vaccine has not yet been thoroughly studied in children, so people under 18 would not be eligible yet.

For at least a month or two, there will not be nearly enough vaccine to cover everyone in the initial groups. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who leads the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, said Tuesday morning in an interview with The Washington Post that Pfizer and Moderna would be able to provide an additional 60 to 70 million doses in January “if all goes well.” Since each person gets two shots, that would only be enough for 55 million people at most through the end of January — about 22 percent of the nation’s roughly 255 million adults.

Production will continue to increase in February and March, Dr. Slaoui said, with the hope that two new vaccines, from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, will gain F.D.A. approval.

“So very quickly, we start having more than 150 million doses a month in March, April, May,” he added. He and other federal officials have said that the general public is likely to be able to be vaccinated by May or June.

The C.D.C. panel was originally not supposed to vote on its recommendations until after the F.D.A. had approved a vaccine. But it bumped up the timing to give states more guidance as they complete their distribution plans, which must be submitted to the C.D.C. on Friday.

On Tuesday, the group specifically suggested that within the long-term-care population, residents of nursing homes, who tend to be the most frail and susceptible to Covid, should get the first vaccines in the event that there aren’t enough, along with staff members who have not had the virus within the last 90 days.

Within the much larger category of health care workers, the panel said that health systems should consider prioritizing those who have direct contact with patients and their families and those who handle infectious materials. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who leads the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the panel that based on her recent conversations with state health officials, most states and large cities “believe they can vaccinate all of their health care workers within three weeks.”

But whether they reach that goal depends on how much vaccine they get, and how quickly. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky told reporters on Monday that his state had more than 200,000 health care workers but would receive only 38,000 doses in its first shipment and that it might not get another for two weeks.

Long-term-care facilities include nursing homes, with about 1.3 million residents; assisted-living facilities, with 800,000 residents; and residential care facilities, which tend to be small and cater to specific populations. The federal government has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to deliver vaccines to most such facilities nationwide, with teams of pharmacists making three visits to each to ensure that every staff member and resident gets both an initial shot and a booster shot several weeks later.

Several members of the panel urged that small community doctors’ offices not be left off the initial priority list. “Transmission dynamics suggest providers who care for patients earlier in their course of illness may be at higher risk,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, a member of the panel who is in charge of public health in Seattle and King County, Wash.

Dr. Grace Lee, a panel member and a pediatrics professor at Stanford, said special attention should be paid to health care workers in lower-paying positions, such as nursing assistants, food workers and janitors, who may fear for their job security if they push to secure a spot toward the front of the vaccination line.

I am very mindful of the equity concerns,” Dr. Lee said.

Jan Hoffman contributed reporting.

A.A. to Zoom, Substance Abuse Treatment Goes Online

Until the coronavirus pandemic, their meetings took place quietly, every day, discreet gatherings in the basements of churches, a spare room at the YMCA, the back of a cafe. But members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups of recovering substance abusers found the doors quickly shut this spring, to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

What happened next is one of those creative cascades the virus has indirectly set off. Rehabilitation moved online, almost overnight, with zeal. Not only are thousands of A.A. meetings taking place on Zoom and other digital hangouts, but other major players in the rehabilitation industry have leapt in, transforming a daily ritual that many credit with saving their lives.

“A.A. members I speak to are well beyond the initial fascination with the idea that they are looking at a screen of Hollywood squares,” said Dr. Lynn Hankes, 84, who has been in recovery for 43 years and is a retired physician in Florida with three decades of experience treating addiction. “They thank Zoom for their very survival.”

Though online rehab rose as an emergency stopgap measure, people in the field say it is likely to become a permanent part of the way substance abuse is treated. Being able to find a meeting to log into 24/7 has welcome advantages for people who lack transportation, are ill, juggling parenting or work challenges that make an in-person meeting tough on a given day and may help keep them more seamlessly connected to a support network. Online meetings can also be a good steppingstone for people just starting rehab.

“There are so many positives — people don’t need to travel. It saves time,” said Dr. Andrew Saxon, an addiction expert and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “The potential for people who wouldn’t have access to treatment easily to get it is a big bonus.”

Participants of the combined virtual and in-person therapy group at Ottagan. While the convenience and ease of telehealth is undeniable, some say they crave the intensity of physical presence.
Participants of the combined virtual and in-person therapy group at Ottagan. While the convenience and ease of telehealth is undeniable, some say they crave the intensity of physical presence.Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Todd Holland lives in northern Utah, and he marvels at the availability of virtual meetings of Narcotics Anonymous around the clock. He recently checked out one in Pakistan that he heard had a good speaker, but had trouble with some delay in the video and in understanding the speaker’s accent.

Some participants say the online experience can have a surprisingly intimate feel to it.

“You get more a feel for total strangers, like when a cat jumps on their lap or a kid might run around in the background,” said a 58-year-old A.A. member in early recovery in Portland, Ore., who declined to give his name, citing the organization’s recommendations not to seek personal publicity. Plus, he added, there are no physical logistics to attending online. “You don’t go into a stinky basement and walk past smokers and don’t have to drive.”

At the same time, he and others say they crave the raw intensity of physical presence.

“I really miss hugging people,” he said. “The first time I can go back to the church on the corner for a meeting, I will, but I’ll still do meetings online.”

Mr. Holland, who for decades abused drugs until Narcotics Anonymous helped him stay sober for eight years, said the online meetings can “lack the feeling of emotion and the way the spirits and principles get expressed.”

It is too early for data on the effectiveness of online rehabilitation compared to in-person sessions. There has been some recent research validating the use of the technology for related areas of treatment, like PTSD and depression that suggests hope for the approach, some experts in the field said.

Even those people who say in-person therapy will remain superior also said the development has proved a huge benefit for many who would otherwise have otherwise faced one of the biggest threats to recovery: isolation.

The implications extend well beyond the pandemic. That’s because the entire system of rehabilitation has been grappling for years with practices some see as both dogmatic and insufficiently effective given high rates of relapse.

A worksheet to help patients clarify their thoughts and behaviors during the Ottagan group session.Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

“It’s both challenging our preconceived concerns about what is necessary for treatment and recovery but also validating the need for connection with a peer group and the need for immediate access,” said Samantha Pauley, national director of virtual services for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, an addiction treatment and advocacy organization, with clinics around the country.

In 2019, Hazelden Betty Ford first tried online group therapy with patients in San Diego attending intensive outpatient sessions (three-to-four hours a day, three -to-four hours a week). When the pandemic hit, the organization rolled out the concept in seven states, California, Washington, Minnesota, Florida, New York, Illinois and Oregon — where Ms. Pauley works — and has since expanded to New Jersey, Missouri, Colorado and Wisconsin.

Ms. Pauley said 4,300 people have participated in such intensive therapy — which entails logging into group or individual sessions using a platform called Mend that is like Zoom. Preliminary results, she said, show the treatment is as effective as in-person meetings at reducing cravings and other symptoms. An additional 2,500 people have participated in support groups for family members.

If not for Covid, Ms. Pauley said, the “creative exploration” of online meetings would still have happened but much more slowly.

One hurdle to intensive online rehab involves drug testing of patients, who would ordinarily give saliva or urine samples under in-person supervision. A handful of alternatives have emerged, including one in which people spit into a testing cup while being observed onscreen by a provider who verifies the person’s identity. The sample then gets dropped at a clinic or mailed in, though the risk of trickery always remains. In other cases, patients can visit a lab for a drug test.

Kim Villanueva, of Muskegon, Mich., shared a story during the group therapy session at Ottagan.Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Additionally, some clinical signs of duress can’t be as easily diagnosed over a screen.

“You can’t see the perspiration that might indicate the person suffering mild withdrawal. There are limitations,” said Dr. Christopher Bundy, president of the Federation of State Physician Health Programs, a group representing 48 state physician health programs that serve doctors in recovery. He said that hundreds of physicians in these programs are attending regular virtual professionally monitoring meetings in which they meet with a handful of specialists for peer support and to assess their progress.

“This sort of thing has challenged our assumptions,” he said of the pandemic and the use of the internet for these therapies. “There’s a sense it’s not the same, but it’s close enough.”

Other participants in drug rehab and leaders in the field say that while online has been a good stopgap measure, they also hope that in-person meetings will return soon.

“It’s been a mixed blessing,” said David Teater, who wears two hats: he’s in recovery himself since the 1980s, and he’s executive director of Ottagan Addictions Recovery, a residential and outpatient treatment center serving low-income patients in western Michigan whose therapy typical gets paid through Medicaid.

In that capacity, he said online tools have been a godsend because, simply, they allowed service to continue. Through $25,000 in grants, the center got new computers and other technology that allowed it to do telemedicine, and set up a “Zoom room.” It includes a 55-inch monitor so that people who are Zooming in can see the counselor as well as the people who feel comfortable enough to come in-person and sit at a social distance wearing masks.

“We think it works equally well, we really do,” Mr. Teater said.

Their Teeth Fell Out. Was It Another Covid-19 Consequence?

Earlier this month, Farah Khemili popped a wintergreen breath mint in her mouth and noticed a strange sensation: a bottom tooth wiggling against her tongue.

Ms. Khemili, 43, of Voorheesville, N.Y., had never lost an adult tooth. She touched the tooth to confirm it was loose, initially thinking the problem might be the mint. The next day, the tooth flew out of her mouth and into her hand. There was neither blood nor pain.

Ms. Khemili survived a bout with Covid-19 this spring, and has joined an online support group as she has endured a slew of symptoms experienced by many other “long haulers”: brain fog, muscle aches and nerve pain.

There’s no rigorous evidence yet that the infection can lead to tooth loss or related problems. But among members of her support group, she found others who also described teeth falling out, as well as sensitive gums and teeth turning gray or chipping.

She and other survivors unnerved by Covid’s well-documented effects on the circulatory system, as well as symptoms such as swollen toes and hair loss, suspect a connection to tooth loss as well. But some dentists, citing a lack of data, are skeptical that Covid-19 alone could cause dental symptoms.

“It’s extremely rare that teeth will literally fall out of their sockets,” said Dr. David Okano, a periodontist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

But existing dental problems may worsen as a result of Covid-19, he added, especially as patients recover from the acute infections and contend with its long-term effects.

And some experts say that doctors and dentists need to be open to such possibilities, especially because more than 47 percent of adults 30 years or older have some form of periodontal disease, including infections and inflammation of the gums and bone that surround teeth, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are now beginning to examine some of the bewildering and sometimes disabling symptoms that patients are suffering months after they’ve recovered from Covid,” including these accounts of dental issues and teeth loss, said Dr. William W. Li, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a nonprofit that studies the health and disease of blood vessels.

While Ms. Khemili had become more diligent about her dental care, she had a history of dental issues before contracting the coronavirus. When she went to the dentist the day after her tooth came out, he found that her gums were not infected but she had significant bone loss from smoking. He referred Ms. Khemili to a specialist to handle a reconstruction. The dental procedure is likely to cost her just shy of $50,000.

The same day Ms. Khemili’s tooth fell out, her partner went on Survivor Corp, a Facebook page for people who have lived through Covid-19. There, he found that Diana Berrent, the page’s founder, was reporting that her 12-year-old son had lost one of his adult teeth, months after he had a mild case of Covid-19. (Unlike Ms. Khemili, Ms. Berrent’s son had normal and healthy teeth with no underlying disease, according to his orthodontist.)

Others in the Facebook group have posted about teeth falling out without bleeding. One woman lost a tooth while eating ice cream. Eileen Luciano of Edison, N.J., had a top molar pop out in early November when she was flossing.

“That was the last thing that I thought would happen, that my teeth would fall out,” Ms. Luciano said.

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Teeth falling out without any blood is unusual, Dr. Li said, and provides a clue that there might be something going on with the blood vessels in the gums.

The new coronavirus wreaks havoc by binding to the ACE2 protein, which is ubiquitous in the human body. Not only is it found in the lungs, but also on nerve and endothelial cells. Therefore, Dr. Li says, it’s possible that the virus has damaged the blood vessels that keep the teeth alive in Covid-19 survivors; that also may explain why those who have lost their teeth feel no pain.

It’s also possible that the widespread immune response, known as a cytokine storm, may be manifesting in the mouth.

“If a Covid long hauler’s reaction is in the mouth, it’s a defense mechanism against the virus,” said Dr. Michael Scherer, a prosthodontist in Sonora, Calif. Other inflammatory health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, he said, also correlate with gum disease in the same patients.

“Gum disease is very sensitive to hyper-inflammatory reactions, and Covid long haulers certainly fall into that category,” Dr. Scherer said.

Dentists haven’t seen many of these cases, and some dismiss these individual claims. But physicians like Dr. Li say Covid-19’s surprises require that the profession be on the lookout for unexpected consequences of the disease.

“Patients may be bringing in new findings,” he said, and physicians and dentists need to cooperate on understanding the effects of long-term Covid-19 on teeth.

For now, Ms. Khemili hopes her story may serve as a cautionary tale. If people aren’t taking the proper precautions to protect themselves from the coronavirus, “they could be looking at something like this.”

Doctors and Nurses Are Running on Empty

About 2 a.m. on a sweltering summer night, Dr. Orlando Garner awoke to the sound of a thud next to his baby daughter’s crib. He leapt out of bed to find his wife, Gabriela, passed out, her forehead hot with the same fever that had stricken him and his son, Orlando Jr., then 3, just hours before. Two days later, it would hit their infant daughter, Veronica.

Nearly five months later, Dr. Garner, a critical care physician at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is haunted by what befell his family last summer: He had inadvertently shuttled the coronavirus home, and sickened them all.

“I felt so guilty,” he said. “This is my job, what I wanted to do for a living. And it could have killed my children, could have killed my wife — all this, because of me.”

With the case count climbing again in Texas, Dr. Garner has recurring nightmares that one of his children has died from Covid. He’s returned to 80-hour weeks in the intensive care unit, donning layers of pandemic garb including goggles, an N95 respirator, a protective body suit and a helmet-like face shield that forces him to yell to be heard.

As he treats one patient after another, he can’t shake the fear that his first bout with the coronavirus won’t be his last, even though reinfection is rare: “Is this going to be the one who gives me Covid again?”

Frontline health care workers have been the one constant, the medical soldiers forming row after row in the ground war against the raging spread of the coronavirus. But as cases and deaths shatter daily records, foreshadowing one of the deadliest years in American history, the very people whose life mission is caring for others are on the verge of collective collapse.

In interviews, more than two dozen frontline medical workers described the unrelenting stress that has become an endemic part of the health care crisis nationwide. Many related spikes in anxiety and depressive thoughts, as well as a chronic sense of hopelessness and deepening fatigue, spurred in part by the cavalier attitudes of many Americans who seem to have lost patience with the pandemic.

“This is my job, what I wanted to do for a living. And it could have killed my children, could have killed my wife — all this, because of me,” said Dr. Orlando Garner, a critical care physician in Houston.
“This is my job, what I wanted to do for a living. And it could have killed my children, could have killed my wife — all this, because of me,” said Dr. Orlando Garner, a critical care physician in Houston.Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Surveys from around the globe have recorded rising rates of depression, trauma and burnout among a group of professionals already known for high rates of suicide. And while some have sought therapy or medications to cope, others fear that engaging in these support systems could blemish their records and dissuade future employers from hiring them.

“We’re sacrificing so much as health care providers — our health, our family’s health,” said Dr. Cleavon Gilman, an emergency medicine physician in Yuma, Ariz. “You would think that the country would have learned its lesson” after the spring, he said. “But I feel like the 20,000 people that died in New York died for nothing.”

Many have reached the bottom of their reservoir, with little left to give, especially without sufficient tools to defend themselves against a disease that has killed more than 1,000 of them.

“I haven’t even thought about how I am today,” said Dr. Susannah Hills, a pediatric head and neck surgeon at Columbia University. “I can’t think of the last time somebody asked me that question.”

Dreading the darkness of winter

For Dr. Shannon Tapia, a geriatrician in Colorado, April was bad. So was May. At one long-term care facility she staffed, 22 people died in 10 days. “After that number, I stopped counting,” she said.

A bit of a lull coasted in on a wave of summer heat. But in recent weeks, Dr. Tapia has watched the virus resurge, sparking sudden outbreaks and felling nursing home residents — one of the pandemic’s most hard-hit populations — in droves.

“This is much, much worse than the spring,” Dr. Tapia said. “Covid is going crazy in Colorado right now.”

Dr. Tapia bore witness as long-term care facilities struggled to keep adequate protective equipment in stock, and decried their lack of adequate tests. As recently as early November, diagnostic tests at one home Dr. Tapia regularly visits took more than a week to deliver results, hastening the spread of the virus among unwitting residents.

Some nursing home residents in the Denver area are getting bounced out of full hospitals because their symptoms aren’t severe, only to rapidly deteriorate and die in their care facilities. “It just happens so fast,” Dr. Tapia said. “There’s no time to send them back.”

The evening of Nov. 17, Dr. Tapia fielded phone call after phone call from nursing homes brimming with the sick and the scared. Four patients died between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. “It was the most death pronouncements I’ve ever had to do in one night,” she said.

Before the pandemic, nursing home residents were already considered a medically neglected population. But the coronavirus has only exacerbated a worrisome chasm of care for older patients. Dr. Tapia is beleaguered by the helplessness she feels at every turn. “Systematically, it makes me feel like I’m failing,” she said. “The last eight months almost broke me.”

At the end of the summer, Dr. Tapia briefly considered leaving medicine — but she is a single parent to an 11-year-old son, Liam. “I need my M.D. to support my kid,” she said.

Dr. Shannon Tapia, a geriatrician based in Denver, mourns the nursing home residents she cares for. “It just happens so fast,” Dr. Tapia said of patients whose conditions deteriorated after being discharged from hospitals. “There’s no time to send them back.”Credit…Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

It goes on and on and on

For others, the slog has been relentless.

Dr. Gilman, the emergency medicine physician in Yuma, braced himself at the beginning of the pandemic, relying on his stint as a hospital corpsman in Iraq in 2004.

“In the military, they train you to do sleep deprivation, hikes, marches,” he said. “You train your body, you fight an enemy. I began running every day, getting my lungs strong in case I got the virus. I put a box by the door to put my clothes in, so I wouldn’t spread it to my family.”

The current crisis turned out to be an unfamiliar and formidable foe that would follow him from place to place.

Dr. Gilman’s first coronavirus tour began as a resident at New York-Presbyterian at the height of last spring. He came to dread the phone calls to families unable to be near their ailing relatives, hearing “the same shrill cry, two or three times per shift,” he said. Months of chaos, suffering and pain, he said, left him “just down and depressed and exhausted.”

“I would come home with tears in my eyes, and just pass out,” he said.

The professional fallout of his Covid experience then turned personal.

Dr. Gilman canceled his wedding in May. His June graduation commenced on Zoom. He celebrated the end of his residency in his empty apartment next to a pile of boxes.

“It was the saddest moment ever,” he said.

Within weeks, he, his fiancée, Maribel, their two daughters and his mother-in-law had relocated to Arizona, where caseloads had just begun to swell. Dr. Gilman hunkered down anew.

They have weathered the months since in seclusion, keeping the children out of school and declining invitations to mingle, even as their neighbors begin to flock back together and buzz about their holiday plans.

There are bright spots, he said. The family’s home, which they moved into this summer, is large, and came with a pool. They recently adopted a puppy. Out in the remoteness of small-town Arizona, the desert has delighted them with the occasional roadrunner sighting.

Since the spring, Dr. Gilman has become a social media tour de force. To document the ongoing crisis, he began publishing journal entries on his website. His Twitter wall teems with posts commemorating people who lost their lives to Covid-19, and the health workers who have dedicated the past nine months to stemming the tide.

It’s how he has made sense of the chaos, Dr. Gilman said. What he’s fighting isn’t just the virus itself — but a contagion of disillusionment and misinformation, amid which mask-wearing and distancing continue to flag. “It’s a constant battle, it’s a never-ending war,” he said.

Reaching the breaking point

Nurses and doctors in New York became all too familiar with the rationing of care last spring. No training prepared them for the wrath of the virus, and its aftermath. The month-to-month, day-to-day flailing about as they tried to cope. For some, the weight of the pandemic will have lingering effects.

Shikha Dass, an emergency room nurse at Mount Sinai Queens, recalled nights in mid-March when her team of eight nurses had to wrangle some 15 patients each — double or triple a typical workload. “We kept getting code after code, and patients were just dying,” Ms. Dass said. The patients quickly outnumbered the available breathing support machines, she said, forcing doctors and nurses to apportion care in a rapid-fire fashion.

“We didn’t have enough ventilators,” Ms. Dass said. “I remember doing C.P.R. and cracking ribs. These were people from our community — it was so painful.”

“We’re there to save a person, save a life, stabilize a person so they can get further management,” said Shikha Dass, an emergency room nurse at Mount Sinai Queens. “And here I am, not able to do that.”Credit…Kholood Eid for The New York Times

Ms. Dass wrestled with sleeplessness and irritability, sniping at her husband and children. Visions of the dead, strewn across emergency room cots by the dozens, swam through her head at odd hours of the night. Medical TV dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, full of the triggering sounds of codes and beeping machines, became unbearable to watch. She couldn’t erase the memory of the neat row of three refrigerated trailers in her hospital parking lot, each packed with bodies that the morgue was too full to take.

One morning, after a night shift, Ms. Dass climbed into her red Mini Cooper to start her 20-minute drive home. Her car chugged onto its familiar route; a song from the 2017 film “The Greatest Showman” trickled out. For the first time since the pandemic began, Ms. Dass broke down and began to cry. She called her husband, who was on his way to work; he didn’t pick up. Finally, she reached her best friend.

“I told her, ‘These people are not going to make it, these people are not going to survive this,’” she said. “We’re there to save a person, save a life, stabilize a person so they can get further management. And here I am, not able to do that.”

Shortly after, she phoned a longtime friend, Andi Lyn Kornfeld, a psychotherapist who said Ms. Dass was in the throes of “absolute and utter acute PTSD.”

“I have known Shikha for 13 years,” Ms. Kornfeld said. “She is one of the strongest women I have ever met. And I had never heard her like this.”

The sounds of silence

Long gone are the raucous nightly cheers, loud applause and clanging that bounced off buildings and hospital windows in the United States and abroad — the sounds of public appreciation at 7 each night for those on the pandemic’s front line.

“Nobody’s clapping anymore,” said Dr. Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “They’re over it.”

Health workers, once a central part of the coronavirus conversation, have in many ways faded into the background. Some, like Dr. Gilman, in Arizona, have had their salaries slashed as hospitals weigh how to cover costs.

Many have guiltily recoiled from the “hero” label emblazoned in commercials or ad campaigns, burdened by the death march of the people they could not save and the indiscriminate path of the coronavirus.

The word “hero” evokes bravery and superhuman strength but leaves little room for empathy, said Dr. Nicole Washington, a psychiatrist in Oklahoma. When portrayed as stalwart saviors, health workers “don’t have the room or right to be vulnerable.”

But the trope of invincibility has long been ingrained into the culture of medicine.

Dr. Tapia, the Colorado geriatrician, began taking an antidepressant in September after months of feeling “everything from angry to anxious to furious to just numb and hopeless.” The medication has improved her outlook. But she also worries that these decisions could jeopardize future employment.

Many state medical boards still ask intrusive questions about physicians’ history of mental health diagnoses or treatments in applications to renew a license — a disincentive to many doctors who might otherwise seek professional help.

“I don’t want to be a hero,” said Dr. Cleavon Gilman, an emergency medicine physician in Yuma, Ariz. “I want to be alive.”Credit…Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Being on the front lines doesn’t make health workers stronger or safer than anyone else. “I’m not trying to be a hero. I don’t want to be a hero,” Dr. Gilman said. “I want to be alive.”

As social bubbles balloon nationwide in advance of the chilly holiday months, health care workers fret on the edges of their communities, worried they are the carriers of contagion.

Dr. Marshall Fleurant, an internal medicine physician at Emory University, has the sense that his young children, 3 and 4 years old, have grown oddly accustomed to the ritual of his disrobing out of work clothes, from his scrubs to his sneakers, before entering his home.

“I do not touch or speak to my children before I have taken a shower,” Dr. Fleurant said. “This is just how it is. You do not touch Daddy when he walks in the door.”

A week of vacation with his family startled him, when he could scoop the little ones up in his arms without fear. “I think they must have thought that was weird,” he said.

Bracing for the next wave

Trapped in a holding pattern as the coronavirus continues to burn across the nation, doctors and nurses have been taking stock of the damage done so far, and trying to sketch out the horizon beyond. On the nation’s current trajectory, they say, the forecast is bleak.

Jina Saltzman, a physician assistant in Chicago, said she was growing increasingly disillusioned with the nation’s lax approach to penning in the virus.

While Illinois rapidly reimposed restrictions on restaurants and businesses when cases began to rise, Indiana, where Ms. Saltzman lives, was slower to respond. In mid-November, she was astounded to see crowds of unmasked people in a restaurant as she picked up a pizza. “It’s so disheartening. We’re coming here to work every day to keep the public safe,” she said. “But the public isn’t trying to keep the public safe.”

Since the spring, Dr. Gilman has watched three co-workers and a cousin die from the virus. Ms. Dass lost a close family friend, who spent three weeks at Mount Sinai Queen’s under her care. When Dr. Fleurant’s aunt died of Covid, “We never got to bury her, never got to pay respects. It was a crushing loss.”

In state after state, people continue to flood hospital wards, where hallways often provide makeshift beds for the overflow. More than 12 million cases have been recorded since the pandemic took hold in the United States, with the pace of infection accelerating in the last couple months.

Jill Naiberk, a nurse at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has spent more of 2020 in full protective gear than out of it. About twice a day, when Ms. Naiberk needs a sip of water, she must completely de-gown, then suit up again.

Otherwise, “you’re hot and sweaty and stinky,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to come out of rooms with sweat running down your face, and you need to change your mask because it’s wet.”

It’s her ninth straight month of Covid duty. “My unit is 16 beds. Rarely do we have an open one,” she said. “And when we do have an open bed, it’s usually because somebody has passed away.”

Many of her I.C.U. patients are young, in their 40s or 50s. “They’re looking at us and saying things like, ‘Don’t let me die’ and ‘I guess I should have worn that mask,’” she said.

Sometimes she cries on her way home, where she lives alone with her two dogs. Her 79-year-old mother resides just a couple houses away.

They have not hugged since March.

“I keep telling everybody the minute I can safely hug you again, get ready,” she said. “Because I’m never letting go.”