Global Covid-19 News: Live Updates – The New York Times

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in December.
Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

As lawmakers push for billions of dollars to boost the nation’s efforts to track coronavirus variants, the Biden administration announced on Wednesday a new effort to ramp up this work, pledging nearly $200 million in federal funding to better identify the new threats as they emerge.

Calling the $200 million a “down payment,” the White House said that the investment will result in a threefold increase in the number of positive virus samples that labs can sequence, jumping from around 7,000 to around 25,000 each week.

But that goal still remains aspirational, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its lab partners are still far from hitting the weekly 7,000-sample mark.

“When we will get to 25,000 depends on the resources that we have at our fingertips and how quickly we can mobilize our partners,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “I don’t think this is going to be a light switch. I think it’s going to be a dial.”

The move comes as a contagious variant first identified in Britain, known as B.1.1.7, continues to sweep across the United States, threatening to slow or reverse the rapid drop of new coronavirus cases. From a peak of almost 260,000 new cases a day, the seven-day average daily rate has fallen to below 82,000, still well above the high point of last summer’s surge, according to a New York Times database.

A growing number of other worrisome variants have also cropped up in the United States, including one that was first found in South Africa and weakens the effectiveness of vaccines. The United States reported its first case of B.1.1.7 that had gained a particularly worrying mutation that has been shown in South Africa to blunt the effectiveness of vaccines, Dr. Walensky said. The F.D.A. is preparing for a potential redesign of vaccines to better protect against the new variants.

Researchers are hoping to increase the number of coronavirus genomes they sequence and rapidly analyze them to spot dangerous mutations. The current level of sequencing is inadequate, experts say. That, plus the lack of national coordination, has left them blind to where the most concerning variants are spreading, and how quickly.

To do more sequencing, officials said, the country needs to scale up its testing in general. The Department of Health and Human Services and Defense Department on Wednesday announced substantial new investments in testing, including $650 million for K-8 schools and “underserved congregate settings,” such as homeless shelters. The two departments are also investing $815 million to speed up the manufacturing of testing supplies and raw materials.

Dr. Walensky said the administration’s efforts to scale up sequencing would result in more “geographic diversity” in the test samples surveyed.

“It’s not just the test and getting the test done,” she said. “We need the computational capacity, the analytic capacity to understand the information that’s coming in.”

The White House’s announcement added to an effort by lawmakers to insert funds for a national sequencing program into an economic relief package that Democratic congressional leaders aim to pass before mid-March, when unemployment benefits begin to lapse.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, introduced legislation this month that would provide $2 billion to the C.D.C. to enhance its sequencing efforts, including through grants the agency would award to state health departments. As House lawmakers worked to finalize the details of Mr. Biden’s stimulus proposal ahead of a floor vote later this month, they incorporated Ms. Baldwin’s proposal and allocated $1.75 billion.

In an interview, Ms. Baldwin said she had been working closely with the C.D.C.’s Advanced Molecular Detection program. A substantial amount of money is needed just for staffing and training, she said. She suggested 15 percent as a target of how many positive virus samples should be sequenced around the nation, a goal far beyond what researchers believe is possible in the near term.

“This is intended to create the basis of a permanent infrastructure that would allow us not only to do surveillance for Covid-19, to be on the leading edge of discovering new variants, but also we’d have that capacity for other diseases,” she said of her bill. “There’s significant gaps in our knowledge because of a lack of variants resources.”

Ms. Baldwin’s target of fifteen percent would translate to about 85,000 sequences a week at the current rate of new positive tests. Last week, the United States sequenced only 9,038 genomes, according to the online database GISAID.

President Biden at the National Institutes of Health last week.
Credit…Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The Biden administration has been quite cautious in setting its public vaccination goals.

During the transition, officials said they hoped to give shots to one million Americans per day — a level the Trump administration nearly reached in its final days, despite being badly behind its own goals. In President Biden’s first week in office, he raised the target to 1.5 million, although his aides quickly added that it was more of a “hope” than a “goal.” Either way, the country is now giving about 1.7 million shots per day.

The Times’ David Leonhardt spent some time recently interviewing public-health experts about what the real goal should be, and came away with a clear message: The Biden administration is not being ambitious enough about vaccinations, at least not in its public statements.

An appropriate goal, experts say, is three million shots per day — probably by April. At that pace, half of adults would receive their first shot by April and all adults who wanted a shot could receive one by June, saving thousands of lives and allowing normal life to return by midsummer.

Biden struck a somewhat more ambitious tone yesterday, telling CNN that anybody who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “by the end of July.” But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and an adviser to the president, also said that the timeline for when the general population could receive shots was slipping from April to May or June.

The key fact is that the delivery of vaccine doses is on the verge of accelerating rapidly. Since December, Moderna and Pfizer have delivered fewer than one million shots per day to the government.

But over the next month and a half, the two companies have promised to deliver at least three million shots per day — and to accelerate the pace to about 3.3 million per day starting in April. Johnson & Johnson is likely to add to that total if, as expected, it receives the go-ahead to start distributing shots in coming weeks.

Very soon, the major will be logistics: Can the Biden administration and state and local governments administer the shots at close to the same rate that they receive them?

“I’m not hearing a plan,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, said. “In the public statements, I don’t hear that sense of urgency.”

Experts said they understood why Biden had set only modest public goals so far. Manufacturing vaccines is complex, and falling short of a high-profile goal would sow doubt during a public-health emergency, as Barry Bloom, a Harvard immunologist, said. If he were president, Bloom added, he would also want to exceed whatever goal was appearing in the media.

The appropriate goal is to administer vaccine shots at roughly the same rate that drug makers deliver them, experts said — with a short delay, of a week or two, for logistics. Otherwise, millions of doses will languish in storage while Americans are dying and the country remains partially shut down.

“We should be doing more,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, said. “I am kind of surprised by how constrained we’ve been.” Many vaccine clinics operate only during business hours, she noted. And the government has not done much to expand the pool of vaccine workers — say, by training E.M.T. workers.

The newly contagious variants of the virus add another reason for urgency. They could cause an explosion of cases in the spring, Hotez said, and lead to mutations that are resistant to the current vaccines. But if the vaccines can crush the spread before then, the mutations may not take hold.

Biden aides have emphasized the challenges — the possibility of manufacturing problems, the difficulty of working with hundreds of local agencies, the need to distribute vaccines equitably. They also point out that they have nearly doubled the pace of vaccination in their first month in office, accelerated the pace of delivery from drugmakers and have plans to do more, like open mass-vaccination clinics and expand the pool of vaccine workers.

Scientists want the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call for improved ventilation as well as mask-wearing to fight the airborne spread of the coronavirus indoors. Fourth graders wear masks in class at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash.
Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Scientists are urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to swiftly set standards to limit the airborne transmission of the coronavirus in high-risk settings like meatpacking plants and prisons.

The push comes nearly a year after research showed that the virus can be spread through tiny droplets called aerosols that linger indoors in stagnant air and can be inhaled.

Action on air standards is even more urgently needed now because vaccination efforts are off to a slow start, more contagious virus variants are circulating in the United States, and the rate of Covid-19 infections and deaths remains high despite a recent drop in new cases, the scientists said in a letter to Biden administration officials.

The C.D.C. issued new guidelines on Friday for reopening schools, but the guidelines made only a passing mention of improved ventilation as a precaution against viral spread. The World Health Organization was slow to acknowledge that the virus can linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, accepting that conclusion only in July after 239 experts publicly called on the organization to do so.

The 13 experts who wrote the letter — including several who advised Mr. Biden during the transition — urged the administration to blunt the risks in a variety of workplaces by requiring a combination of mask-wearing and environmental measures, including better ventilation. They want the C.D.C. to recommend the use of high-quality masks like N95 respirators to protect workers who are at high risk of infection, many of whom are people of color, the segment of the population that has been hit hardest by the epidemic in the United States.

At present, health care workers mostly rely on surgical masks, which are not as effective against aerosol transmission of the virus as N95 masks are.

Mr. Biden has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sets workplace requirements, to issue emergency temporary standards for Covid-19, including those regarding ventilation and masks, by March 15.

But OSHA will only impose standards that are supported by guidance from the C.D.C., said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University and one of the signatories.

(Dr. Michaels led OSHA during the Obama administration; the agency has not had a permanent leader since his departure.)

“Until the C.D.C. makes some changes, OSHA will have difficulty changing the recommendations it puts up, because there’s an understanding the government has to be consistent,” Dr. Michaels said. “And C.D.C. has always been seen as the lead agency for infectious disease.”

An employee scans packages at Amazon’s distribution center in Staten Island, N.Y., November 2020. Conditions at the site is the focus of a lawsuit.
Credit…Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued Amazon on Tuesday evening, arguing that the company provided inadequate safety protection for workers in New York City during the pandemic and retaliated against employees who raised concerns over the conditions.

The case focuses on two Amazon facilities: a large warehouse on Staten Island and a delivery depot in Queens. Ms. James argues that Amazon failed to properly clean its buildings, conducted inadequate contact tracing for known Covid-19 cases, and “took swift retaliatory action” to silence complaints from workers.

“Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” Ms. James argued in the complaint, filed in New York Supreme Court.

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said the company cared “deeply about the health and safety” of its workers.

“We don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic,” Ms. Nantel said.

Last week, Amazon preemptively sued Ms. James in federal court in an attempt to stop her from bringing the charges. The company argued that workplace safety was a matter of federal, not state, law.

In its 64-page complaint last week, Amazon said its safety measures “far exceed what is required under the law.”

New York, in its suit, said Amazon received written notification of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island warehouse who had Covid-19. In more than 90 of those cases, the infected employee had been at work in the previous week, yet Amazon did not close portions of the building to provide proper ventilation as the state required, the filing said.

Ms. James also argued that Amazon had retaliated against Christian Smalls, a worker the company fired in the spring. Mr. Smalls had been raising safety concerns with managers and led a public protest in the parking lot of the Staten Island facility.

Amazon has said Mr. Smalls was fired for going to the work site for the protest even though he was on paid quarantine leave after he had been exposed to a colleague who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ms. James said that by firing Mr. Smalls and reprimanding another protest leader, Amazon sent a chilling message to others.

Eighty percent of Oregon’s 560,000 public schoolchildren remain in fully remote instruction.
Credit…Sara Cline/Associated Press

Shortly before Christmas, as Oregon schools faced their 10th month under some of the nation’s sternest coronavirus restrictions, Gov. Kate Brown began a major push to reopen classrooms.

She offered to help districts pay for masks, testing and tracing, and improved ventilation. Most important, she prioritized teachers and school staff members for vaccination — ahead of some older people.

Her goal: to resume in-person classes statewide by Feb. 15.

But today, roughly 80 percent of Oregon’s 560,000 public schoolchildren remain in fully remote instruction. And while some districts are slowly bringing children back, two of the largest, Portland and Beaverton, do not plan to reopen until at least mid-April — and then only for younger students.

Oregon’s halting efforts to return children to classrooms are being repeated up and down the West Coast. The region’s largest city school districts — from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Los Angeles — have remained mostly closed, even as Boston, New York, Miami, Houston and Chicago have been resuming in-person instruction.

And the release on Friday of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urge school districts to reopen has not changed the minds of powerful teachers’ unions opposed to returning students to classrooms without more stringent precautions.

Tough state health restrictions imposed by Ms. Brown, a Democrat, helped protect the state from experiencing the high death tolls occurring elsewhere. But by December, she was growing alarmed at the toll social isolation was having on children.

“Eleven- and 12-year-olds were attempting suicide,” she said in a recent interview.

Worried that schools would not reopen until the 2021-22 school year if she waited to vaccinate teachers along with other essential workers, Ms. Brown rejected federal guidelines and bumped school employees up in priority, before people 65 and older, even though that constituency would — and did — protest.

Oregon was among a handful of states at the time, and the only one on the West Coast, to single out school employees for the vaccine. (About half of states now prioritize teachers.)

Rental prices in New York City have dropped, but the biggest cuts are mostly in Manhattan, not in cheaper neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where many essential workers live.
Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

Two things have been true since the pandemic flattened New York’s rental market last March: Prices have fallen sharply, but not for the people who need relief most.

Now a new report shows how little those price cuts have helped the more than a million New Yorkers the city calls essential workers.

From mid-March to the end of 2020, there were 11,690 apartments citywide that were considered affordable to essential workers, up more than 40 percent from a year before, according to the listing website StreetEasy. But that share represented just 4 percent of the total market-rate inventory in the city.

Essential workers — a broad category that includes teachers, bus drivers and grocery clerks, among others — make an average of about $56,000 a year. Using a common calculation to measure affordability, based on 30 percent of gross income, the highest comfortable rent on that salary is about $1,400 a month.

Record rent cuts have not bridged the gap. In January, the median monthly asking rent in Manhattan was $2,750, a 15.5 percent drop from the year prior, according to StreetEasy. Brooklyn and Queens also had record cuts of 8.6 percent, dropping to $2,395 and $2,000.

“It highlights a tale of two cities,” said Nancy Wu, an economist with StreetEasy, noting that the biggest price cuts have tended to occur in pricey neighborhoods in Manhattan, where only 12 percent of essential workers live. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, where roughly half of that work force resides, often had smaller discounts, or lost affordable inventory, because of high demand.

But most of Manhattan’s affordable apartments were studios, Ms. Wu said, while nearly half of essential workers have at least one child.

Of course, many New Yorkers spend more on rent than they can comfortably afford. In 2018, the latest year data were available, almost 53 percent of New Yorkers were rent-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent, according to the New York University Furman Center.

global roundup

Japan’s late start on vaccines has raised questions about whether it will be ready to host the Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in Tokyo this July after a one-year delay.
Credit…Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

TOKYO — Japan began its national coronavirus vaccination program on Wednesday, starting with the first of 40,000 medical workers and planning to reach the general population by the summer.

The comparatively late start has raised questions at home and abroad about whether the country will be ready to host the Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in Tokyo this July after the pandemic forced a one-year delay.

Japan has managed to keep coronavirus infection levels relatively low and, so far, has recorded around 7,200 deaths. But the authorities declared a one-month state of emergency in early January, after daily case counts reached nearly 8,000. They have since extended it until at least the beginning of March, partly in response to more contagious coronavirus variants.

The vaccine rollout has been slower than in many other developed countries in part because the authorities requested that Pfizer run separate medical trials in Japan. That reflected some public ambivalence toward vaccinations, a general sense of caution that most recently surfaced after media reports about rare side effects related to vaccines for HPV.

Speaking to the news media on Tuesday, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the rollout, emphasized that it was important to “show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.”

While that slowed the program’s start, he said, “We think it will be more efficient.”

Major obstacles to a rapid rollout remain. Japan relies on other countries for its entire vaccine supply and is still working to approve the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Moderna. It is also short of the special syringes that would allow its doctors to extract an extra, sixth dose from each vial supplied by Pfizer.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Kono said the vaccination program was not linked to the Games.

Speaking on Wednesday, the governor of Shimane Prefecture, which has recorded only 280 cases, threatened to pull it out of activities around the Olympic torch relay for fear of spreading infection.

In other developments across the world:

  • President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine on Wednesday, hours after 80,000 doses arrived in the country. Health care workers will be among the first to receive the vaccine. The country paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine this month after a study suggested that it failed to prevent mild or moderate illness from a variant found in the country. South Africa has recorded nearly 1.5 million coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, with 48,855 deaths, according to a New York Times database.

  • The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, secured a contract for an additional 300 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced on Wednesday. The deal allows European countries to order up to 150 million doses in 2021, with an option for as many next year and authorization to donate unused doses to other countries. The commission, which has been under intense scrutiny following the sluggish vaccination rollout across Europe, had previously signed a contract for 160 million doses.

  • A five-day lockdown that started last week in the Australian state of Victoria will end at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, after 24 hours without a new coronavirus case. Residents will remain restricted to five visitors at a time and will still be required to wear masks in indoor public places.

  • The city of Auckland, New Zealand, will also emerge from a lockdown at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, after the authorities said that contact tracers could manage a cluster of six local cases. “We don’t have a widespread but rather a small chain of transmission which is manageable via testing procedures,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters.

  • Hong Kong plans to relax restrictions on a range of businesses on Thursday, provided they enforce use of a government-made app for contact tracing or keep records of customers. Employees must also be tested for the coronavirus every two weeks. Separately, on Tuesday, vaccine experts appointed by the Hong Kong government recommended the use of the Sinovac vaccine, a sign that health authorities will approve it for the city’s 7.5 million residents. They approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in January.

  • Prosecutors in China said that a batch of fake coronavirus vaccines had been shipped outside the country last year, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Monday. The fake vaccines were produced by a counterfeiting ring that the authorities broke up in February. Prosecutors said last week that the ring had manufactured and sold about 580,000 vials, for a profit of almost $280 million. The police have also arrested suspects they say smuggled 2,000 vials into Hong Kong, believing them to be genuine. Prosecutors said that 600 of those vaccines were later sent overseas, but did not say where.

  • Health authorities in Germany have documented rapid growth in the more infectious coronavirus variant first found in Britain, despite a general drop in new infections during a monthslong lockdown. Jens Spahn, the German health minister, said during a news conference on Wednesday that the variant now accounted for 22 percent of tested coronavirus samples, up from 6 percent at the beginning of February.

Palestinian health workers unloading the Gaza Strip’s first shipment on Wednesday.
Credit…Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

JERUSALEM — The first doses of coronavirus vaccine arrived in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after Israel approved their delivery.

Mai al-Kaila, the health minister of the Palestinian Authority, said that 2,000 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine had been shipped to the territory.

She said the vaccines would be allocated to frontline medical teams, but the territory’s Health Ministry said the first priority would be dialysis patients and people undergoing transplants, followed by medical workers.

The Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule over parts of the West Bank, while the Hamas militant group controls Gaza. In Gaza, with a population of about 2 million, the number of recorded Covid cases has declined sharply after a surge in December.

The vaccines were delivered amid a heated debate over whether Israel bears responsibility for the health of Palestinians living in occupied territory.

While human rights groups have argued international law requires Israel to provide Palestinians with access to vaccines on a par with what it makes available to its own citizens, supporters of Israel’s policies have contended that the Palestinians assumed responsibility for health services when they signed the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

The vaccines delivered to Gaza were not supplied by Israel but by the Palestinian Authority.

Still, their transfer required Israeli approval and provoked a debate in Israel’s Parliament. Several right-wing lawmakers had demanded that the government make their delivery conditional on the return of two Israeli citizens and of the bodies of two soldiers believed to be held by Hamas.

“It is forbidden for Israel and its leader to abandon the fate of captive citizens and give up an opportunity to bring back the bodies of the fallen soldiers,” Zvi Hauser, a member of Parliament, told a parliamentary committee that discussed the matter on Monday.

A Hamas spokesman rejected the idea as “an attempt at extortion.”

However, an Israeli government official said that senior Israeli officials had recommended that the request be approved. It was on Wednesday.

In New York City, like other places across the country, the demand for vaccinations far outstrips the supply allocated each week.
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The dangerous winter weather has delayed shipments of vaccine doses to New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday, preventing officials from scheduling between 30,000 and 35,000 new vaccination appointments and complicating a rollout already constrained by a limited supply of doses.

The problems in New York City, which could extend to suburbs and neighboring states, came as vaccination efforts have been disrupted nationwide. Clinics have closed and shipments have been stalled as snow and ice grounded flights and made highways dangerously slick. Many of the closures and cancellations have been in the South, where the storm hit hardest, with Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky canceling or rescheduling appointments this week.

Jeffrey D. Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said on Wednesday that the Biden administration is pushing governors to extend the hours of vaccination sites once they reopen.

“People are working as hard as they can, given the importance of getting the vaccines to the states and to providers, but there’s an impact on deliveries,” he said.

Mr. de Blasio said he did not know when the shipments would arrive next or which specific weather conditions were snarling the shipments.

“It’s obviously a national problem what’s happening with the weather, and it is gumming up supply lines all over the country,” Mr. de Blasio said.

In New York City, like other places across the country, the demand for vaccinations far outstrips the supply allocated each week. Mr. de Blasio said on Wednesday that the city had about 30,000 doses on hand, and that those could run out by Thursday.

“We’re going to run out of what we have now,” he said. “We could be doing hundreds of thousands more each week.”

The weather has caused problems for the city’s vaccination efforts before. A heavy snowstorm earlier this month had forced city and state officials to delay appointments for days until driving conditions improved.

On Wednesday, Mr. de Blasio said the city was bracing for another bout of snow on Thursday, with forecasts predicting about six or seven inches of accumulation.

The Sambódromo in Rio de Janiero, normally the site of carnival parades, was lit on Friday in honor of victims of Covid.
Credit…Buda Mendes/Getty Images

In good times and bad, Rio de Janeiro’s famously boisterous Carnival has endured, often thriving when the going got particularly tough.

People partied hard during years of war, hyperinflation, repressive military rule, runaway violence and even the Spanish Flu in 1919, when the Carnival was considered among the most decadent on record.

This year, though, the only thing keeping the spirit of Carnival faintly alive is online events produced by groups that traditionally put on extravagant street performances.

“It’s very sad for Rio not to have Carnival,” Daniel Soranz, the city’s health secretary, said this past Saturday morning, standing in the middle of the Sambódromo parade grounds as elderly residents got vaccinated under white tents. “This is a place to party, to celebrate life.”

Marcilia Lopes, 85, a fixture of the Portela samba school who hasn’t missed a Carnival for decades, looked relieved after she got her first dose of the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine.

She has been so scared of catching the virus for the past year that she refused to leave home for anything. On her birthday, she asked her children not to even bother buying a cake — she was in no mood to celebrate. So Ms. Lopes is missing her beloved Carnival this year, but stoically.

“I’m at peace,” she said. “Many people are suffering.”

Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak has been among the most severe in the world. It has killed more than 239,000 people here, second only to the death toll in the United States, and several Brazilian states are grappling with large caseloads.

As a second wave took hold in recent months, local officials across the country canceled the traditional Carnival celebrations, which normally bring in hundreds of million of dollars in tourism revenue and create tens of thousands of temporary jobs.

Marcus Faustini, Rio de Janeiro’s secretary of culture, said that as painful as it was to slog through carnival season without revelry, there was no responsible way to adapt the megaparty for this era of social distancing.

“It would make no sense to hold this party at this time and run the risk of driving a surge of cases,” he said. “The most vital thing right now is to protect lives.”

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.

In Europe, pandemic spending has largely focused on helping people and businesses through the crisis.
Credit…Yann Schreiber/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Billions of euros are being deployed to nationalize payrolls, suppress bankruptcies and avoid mass unemployment as Europe battles the pandemic. Trillions more are being earmarked for stimulus to stoke a desperately needed recovery.

The European Union has upended its policies to finance the largess, breaking with decades of strict limits on deficits, and overcoming visceral German resistance to high debt.

Austerity mantras led by Germany dominated Europe during the 2010 debt crisis, when profligate spending in Greece, Italy and other southern eurozone countries pushed the currency bloc toward a breakup.

The pandemic, which has killed over 450,000 people in Europe, is seen as a different animal altogether — a threat ravaging all the world’s economies simultaneously.

In the United States, President Biden is pursuing an aggressive strategy to combat the pandemic’s toll with a $1.9 trillion economic aid plan. While the national debt is now almost as large as the economy, supporters say the benefits of spending big now outweigh the costs of higher debt.

In Europe, pandemic spending has so far largely focused on floating people and businesses through the crisis.

For Philippe Boreal, a janitor at a luxury hotel in Cannes, the support has been vital.

“Without the aid, things would be much worse,” said Mr. Boreal, who is collecting more than 80 percent of his paycheck, allowing him to pay essential bills and buy food for his wife and teenage daughter.

But, he said, “at some point you ask yourself, ‘How are we going to pay for all this?’”

For now, such spending is affordable. And government debt may never have to be fully paid back if central banks keep buying it.

But some economists worry that inflation and interest rates could rise if stimulus investment revives growth too rapidly, forcing central banks to put a brake on easy-money policies. And weaker countries could struggle with the higher borrowing costs that resulted.

To people in charge of steering their economies through the pandemic, those potential troubles seem far away.

“We need to reimburse the debt, of course, and to work out a strategy for paying down the debt,” the French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, said in an interview with a small group of journalists. “But we won’t do anything before growth returns — that would be crazy.”

For the strategy to work, Europe must act quickly to ensure a robust recovery, economists warn. While leaders approved a €750 billion ($857 billion) stimulus deal last year, countries haven’t been unleashing stimulus spending, to kick-start a revival and create jobs, nearly as rapidly as the United States has.

“Most of what’s been done in Europe is survival support,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London.

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