How the Delta variant upends assumptions about the coronavirus

By Julie Steenhuysen, Alistair Smout and Ari Rabinovitch

(Reuters) – The Delta variant is the fastest, fittest and most formidable version of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 the world has encountered, and it is upending assumptions about the disease even as nations loosen restrictions and open their economies, according to virologists and epidemiologists.

Vaccine protection remains very strong against severe disease and hospitalizations caused by any version of the coronavirus, and those most at risk are still the unvaccinated, according to interviews with 10 leading COVID-19 experts.

But evidence is mounting that the Delta variant, first identified in India, is capable of infecting fully vaccinated people at a greater rate than previous versions, and concerns have been raised that they may even spread the virus, these experts said.

As a result, targeted use of masks, social distancing and other measures may again be needed even in countries with broad vaccination campaigns, several of them said.

Israel recently reinstated mask-wearing requirements indoors and requires travelers to quarantine upon arrival.

U.S. officials are considering whether to revise mask guidance for the vaccinated. Los Angeles County, the most populous in the United States, is again requiring masks even among the vaccinated in indoor public spaces.

“The biggest risk to the world at the moment is simply Delta,” said microbiologist Sharon Peacock, who runs Britain’s efforts to sequence the genomes of coronavirus variants, calling it the “fittest and fastest variant yet.”

Viruses constantly evolve through mutation, with new variants arising. Sometimes these are more dangerous than the original.

The major worry about the Delta variant is not that it makes people sicker, but that it spreads far more easily from person to person, increasing infections and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.

Public Health England said on Friday that of a total of 3,692 people hospitalized in Britain with the Delta variant, 58.3% were unvaccinated and 22.8% were fully vaccinated.

In Singapore, where Delta is the most common variant, government officials reported on Friday that three quarters of its coronavirus cases occurred among vaccinated individuals, though none were severely ill.

Israeli health officials have said 60% of current hospitalized COVID-19 cases are in vaccinated people. Most of them are age 60 or older and often have underlying health problems.

In the United States, which has experienced more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country, the Delta variant represents about 83% of new infections. So far, unvaccinated people represent nearly 97% of severe cases.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, said many vaccinated people are “so disappointed” that they are not 100% protected from mild infections. But the fact that nearly all Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 right now are unvaccinated “is pretty astounding effectiveness,” she said.

‘TEACHING US A LESSON’

“There is always the illusion that there is a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. The coronavirus is teaching us a lesson,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben Gurion University’s school of public health in Israel.

The Pfizer Inc/BioNTech vaccine, one of the most effective against COVID-19 so far, appeared only 41% effective at halting symptomatic infections in Israel over the past month as the Delta variant spread, according to Israeli government data. Israeli experts said this information requires more analysis before conclusions can be drawn.

“Protection for the individual is very strong; protection for infecting others is significantly lower,” Davidovitch said.

A study in China found that people infected with the Delta variant carry 1,000 times more virus in their noses compared with the original version first identified in Wuhan in 2019.

“You may actually excrete more virus and that’s why it’s more transmissible. That’s still being investigated,” Peacock said.

Virologist Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego noted that Delta is 50% more infectious than the Alpha variant first detected in the UK.

“It’s outcompeting all other viruses because it just spreads so much more efficiently,” Crotty said.

Genomics expert Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, noted that Delta infections have a shorter incubation period and a far higher amount of viral particles.

“That’s why the vaccines are going to be challenged. The people who are vaccinated have got to be especially careful. This is a tough one,” Topol said.

In the United States, the Delta variant has taken hold just as many Americans – vaccinated and not – have stopped wearing masks indoors.

“It’s a double whammy,” Topol said. “The last thing you want is to loosen restrictions when you’re confronting the most formidable version of the virus yet.”

The development of highly effective vaccines may have led many people to believe that once vaccinated, COVID-19 posed little threat to them.

“When the vaccines were first developed, nobody was thinking that they were going to prevent infection,” said Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and infectious disease epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. The aim was always to prevent severe disease and death, del Rio added.

The vaccines were so effective, however, that there were signs they also prevented transmission against prior coronavirus variants.

“We got spoiled,” he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Alistair Smout in London, Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Berkrot)

CDC recommends masking indoors for unvaccinated students, teachers in U.S. schools

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its guidance to help reopen schools in the fall, including recommending masking indoors for everyone who is not fully vaccinated and three feet of distance within classrooms.

The CDC in its latest guidance said all kindergarten through grade 12 schools in the United States should continue to mandate wearing masks indoors by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated.

The agency said that if localities decide to remove prevention strategies in schools based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time. Schools should monitor closely for increases in COVID-19 cases before removing the next prevention strategy.

“Because of the importance of in-person learning, schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures, but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement,” the new guidance said.

A study by the CDC also released on Friday showed that half of unvaccinated adolescents and parents of unvaccinated adolescents reported being uncertain about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, or did not intend to get one at all.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Disneyland theme parks in California to reopen April 30

(Reuters) – Walt Disney Co’s two theme parks in California will reopen on April 30 to a limited number of guests, the company said on Wednesday, over a year after they closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attendance will initially be capped at roughly 15% of capacity, Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek said on CNBC television.

Advance reservations and an admission ticket will be required for entry. Guests age 2 and up will need to wear masks, except when eating, drinking or swimming, and follow other safety measures including temperature checks before entering and social distancing on rides and throughout the parks.

Under state guidelines, capacity may increase if the prevalence of coronavirus in the area continues to fall.

The Disneyland Resort, located in Anaheim 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles, closed in mid-March of 2020. The resort includes the original Disneyland, nicknamed “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and the adjacent California Adventure theme parks.

Florida’s Walt Disney World parks reopened to visitors in July 2020 and Disney officials had been urging the state of California to ease reopening restrictions.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Eva Mathews in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky)

Biden administration to distribute more than 25 million masks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will deliver more than 25 million masks to community health centers, food pantries and soup kitchens this spring as part of its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said on Wednesday.

U.S. health authorities recommend mask wearing as a critical measure to help slow the spread of disease and the White House said low-income Americans still don’t have access to masks.

The government will deliver the masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens between March and May, the White House said.

The masks are expected to reach between 12 million and 15 million Americans, it said.

Democratic President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate when he took office in January as the pandemic raged on, requiring masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings and the development of a testing program for federal employees for COVID-19.

Shortly afterward, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping order requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation.

The White House said two-thirds of the people served by community health Centers live in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are homeless.

“These masks will be no cost, high-quality, washable, and consistent with the mask guidance from the CDC. All of these masks will be made in America, and will not impact availability of masks for health care workers,” the statement said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

New York pushes ahead with more reopenings as COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest

By Maria Caspani and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced more reopenings in New York state as new coronavirus infections remained low in what was once the U.S. hot spot of the pandemic.

Next Wednesday, New York City malls will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and casinos statewide can reopen at 25% capacity, Cuomo said.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols,” Cuomo said. “Masks, enhanced air ventilation systems, and social distancing will be mandatory.”

The governor also waded into the hotly debated issue of indoor dining in New York City, saying during a conference call with reporters that the final decision rested with the state.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out on Wednesday in favor of allowing indoor dining in the city, which is home to a thriving restaurant industry that was battered by the pandemic.

“It’s time to allow indoor dining in New York City with reduced capacity and clear guidance to ensure social distancing and safety,” Johnson said in a statement.

Cuomo said he would like to see restaurants reopen for indoor dining in the city but that compliance and enforcement remained a major hurdle in doing so.

“We open restaurants, that’s going to complicate by the hundreds if not thousands the number of establishments that need to be monitored,” he said.

Indoor dining is allowed in New York state with the exception of New York City, where more than 300 restaurateurs recently filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $2 billion in damages, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, gyms in New York City opened for the first time in months. They must operate at 33% capacity, with floors rearranged so patrons can exercise more than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart.

SHIFTING TRENDS

New York has seen by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any U.S. state, more than 32,000, but its rate of new infections has dropped to among the lowest in the country.

Nationally, new cases of coronavirus have fallen for six weeks in a row, but infections are surging in the Midwest. Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting the highest percentage of positive test results in the country – over 20% in each state.

Iowa, with a population of more than 3.1 million people, saw over 8,300 new cases last week, up 116%. That compared with about 4,400 new cases in New York state, which has more than 19.4 million residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

Cases also rose 27% last week in Minnesota and 34% in Indiana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told state officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as early as October, according to documents made public by the agency on Wednesday.

The vaccines would be given first to healthcare workers, national security personnel and nursing homes, the agency said in the documents.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Biden says all U.S. governors should mandate masks to slow coronavirus’ spread

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden on Thursday called on all U.S. governors to mandate mask wearing to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 165,000 people in the United States.

In his second day on the campaign trail with former rival and now running mate Kamala Harris by his side, Biden made the call for a nationwide mandate on masks after a virtual meeting with public health advisers in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

“Every single American should be wearing a mask when they’re outside for the next three months,” Biden said. “Every governor should mandate mandatory mask wearing.”

He said that early delays in calling for masks led to unnecessary deaths.

President Donald Trump, the man he is trying to unseat in November, long refused to wear one in public. That turned masks into a political symbol and sparked squabbles across the country in which other Republican elected officials and some Trump supporters have angrily refused to wear them.

Public health officials agree that wearing masks in public slows the spread of the respiratory disease that has infected more than 5.2 million Americans.

“I hope we’ve learned our lesson. I hope the president has learned his lesson,” said Biden, the former vice president.

Harris, a U.S. senator from California and former prosecutor, added: “I think it’s important that the American people looking at the election coming up ask the current occupant of the White House, ‘When am I going to get vaccinated? When am I actually going to get vaccinated?’

“Because there may be some grand gestures offered by the current president about a vaccine but it really doesn’t matter until you can answer the question ‘When am I going to get vaccinated.’”

The first Black woman and Asian American on a major-party U.S. presidential ticket, Harris will have three roles to play in the campaign: energizing people to vote and volunteer, outlining Biden’s policy vision, and prosecuting the case against Trump, according to a person familiar with the strategy.

Trump long played down the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more people in the United States than in any other country and thrown tens of millions of Americans out of work.

Harris is expected to focus on Trump’s response to the crisis, which has been an effective argument for Biden so far.

After introducing Harris’ personal story on Wednesday in their first joint appearance since picking his running mate, Biden quickly moved to talking about the urgency of the moment.

Trump, for his part, on Thursday tweeted that the media were giving Harris “a free pass despite her Radical Left failures and very poor run in the Democrat Primary.”

A Trump ally conceded privately that the Democratic pair had a “good day” on the campaign trail. Biden’s campaign said they collected $34.2 million on Tuesday and Wednesday after announcing Harris as the running mate, a record pace of fundraising.

In her debut appearance as Biden’s running mate on Wednesday, Harris delivered a rebuke of Trump’s leadership and highlighted the historic significance of her new role.

In the coming weeks, Harris will do events in person and virtually, including several jointly with Biden, similar to some of the socially distanced campaign stops and speeches Biden has given in recent weeks in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The campaign is still unsure of how they will conduct future appearances, saying they intend to follow local public health guidance that continues to discourage large gatherings.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Scott Malone, Nick Zieminski and Sonya Hepinstall)

Fauci doesn’t think U.S. will have to go back into “shutdown mode”

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday that he doesn’t think the United States will have to go back into “shutdown mode” in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We can do much better without locking down,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at an event hosted by Harvard University. He said Americans should wear masks, keep physically distanced, shut down bars, wash their hands and favor outdoor activities over indoor ones in order to help stop transmission of the virus.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; editing by Diane Craft)

Ohio governor orders all children wear masks at public schools that reopen

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered on Tuesday that all children in grades K-12 wear masks at public schools that reopen.

Local school districts can still decide when to reopen and if learning will be done in person, online or a mix of the two, but everyone, including children and staff, must wear masks. Previously, masks were ordered only for adults.

“School districts are making decisions about how to come back,” DeWine, a Republican, said. “Each school district faces a different reality.”

There are exceptions to the order, including children with autism or other conditions that make it difficult to wear masks, he said.

The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will distribute 2 million face masks to Ohio schools for use by staff and students.

“This move gives us the best shot to keep Ohio’s kids and educators safe and physically in school,” DeWine said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)

Anxious WHO implores world to ‘do it all’ in long war on COVID-19

By Michael Shields and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization warned on Monday that there might never be a “silver bullet” for COVID-19 in the form of a perfect vaccine and that the road to normality would be long, with some countries requiring a reset of strategy.

More than 18.14 million people around the world are reported to have been infected with the disease and 688,080​ have died, according to a Reuters tally, with some nations that thought they were over the worst experiencing a resurgence.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO emergencies head Mike Ryan exhorted nations to rigorously enforce health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and testing.

“The message to people and governments is clear: ‘Do it all’,” Tedros told a virtual news briefing from the U.N. body’s headquarters in Geneva. He said face masks should become a symbol of solidarity round the world.

“A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection. However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment – and there might never be.”

The WHO head said that, while the coronavirus was the biggest health emergency since the early 20th century, the international scramble for a vaccine was also “unprecedented”.

But he underscored uncertainties. “There are concerns that we may not have a vaccine that may work, or its protection could be for just a few months, not more. But until we finish the clinical trials, we will not know.”

“THE WAY OUT IS LONG”

Ryan said countries with high transmission rates, including Brazil and India, needed to brace for a big battle: “The way out is long and requires a sustained commitment,” he said, calling for a “reset” of approach in some places.

“Some countries are really going to have to take a step back now and really take a look at how they are addressing the pandemic within their national borders,” he added.

Asked about the U.S. outbreak, which White House coronavirus experts say is entering a “new phase,” he said officials seemed to have set out the “right path” and it was not the WHO’s job to do so.

The WHO officials said an advance investigation team had concluded its China mission and laid out the groundwork for further efforts to identify the origins of the virus.

The study is one of the demands made by top donor the United States which plans to leave the body next year, accusing it of being too acquiescent to China.

A larger, WHO-led team of Chinese and international experts is planned next, including in the city of Wuhan, although the timing and composition of that was unclear. Ryan said China had already given some information but knowledge gaps remained.

(Reporting by Michael Shields, Emma Farge and Francesco Guarascio; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Georgia’s Governor withdraws emergency request to stop Atlanta’s mask mandate for COVID-19

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Tuesday withdrew his emergency request for a court to stop enforcement of Atlanta’s requirement that faces masks be worn in all public places, while mediation over the state’s legal effort to block the mandate proceeds.

Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city two weeks ago to stop enforcement of the local mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The governor argued that the city lacks the authority to override his order encouraging but not requiring face coverings.

In a statement, the Republican governor’s office said that the motion was withdrawn, “to continue productive, good faith negotiations with city officials and prepare for a future hearing on the merits of our legal position.”

Mayor Bottoms, a Democrat, has said that she would continue to defy the governor’s orders, but hoped that the two sides could find a solution.

Bottoms is one of a handful of Georgia mayors and other leaders who have enacted local mask orders in defiance of the governor.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

As Southern U.S. states have seen a spurt of new cases, Georgia has had more than 170,000 coronavirus cases and over 3,500 known fatalities.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Jonathan Oatis)