New Covid-19 cases fell sharply in Southeast Asia to its lowest in weeks, however the number of deaths were higher on Monday, collated data showed.
Asean reported 54,998 new cases on Monday, lower than Sunday’s 63,014, while deaths rose to 840 from 712 the previous day.
The number of Covid-19 cases crossed 11.95 million while the death toll in the region has gone up to 259,612.
Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said the National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control has agreed to change the strategy policy from “Zero Covid” to “Safe and flexible adaptation and effective control of the Covid-19 pandemic”, striving to bring the country back to a new normal by the end of September. The country reported 9,362 new cases and 174 deaths on Monday, bringing cumulative cases to 766,051 patients and total 18,758 deaths.
Meanwhile, Malaysia is considering reopening theme parks by the end of November as the Ministry of Public Health estimates that by then up to 90 per cent of the adult population in the country would have been vaccinated against Covid-19. On Monday, Malaysia reported 10,959 news cases and 278 deaths, bringing cumulative cases in the country to 2,209,194 patients and deaths to 25,437.
“A booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will help particularly at-risk New Yorkers stay protected from the virus for longer,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
New York State announced Monday that eligible New Yorkers could get COVID-19 booster doses with the launch of a new dedicated website for the purpose.
In a letter to the state health commissioner, the New York State Clinical Advisory Task Force endorsed a statement in this regard issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday.
Four groups of New Yorkers who received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at least six months after the primary vaccine series should or may receive their COVID-19 booster dose, according to a release by the state government.
The criteria for COVID-19 booster dose in New York are in line with recommendations by the CDC.
“A booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will help particularly at-risk New Yorkers stay protected from the virus for longer. While the focus of our vaccination effort remains ensuring all unvaccinated New Yorkers get vaccinated, those who are booster eligible should waste no time receiving maximum protection from COVID-19 as soon as possible,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
The top priority remains staying ahead of this constantly changing virus and protecting New Yorkers with effective, long-lasting vaccines, Hochul said.
Individuals who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine are not currently eligible for a booster dose at this time, but may be in the near future, said the release.
Now, free booster doses are already widely available statewide at state-run mass vaccination sites, pharmacies, local health departments, clinics, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and other locations across New York State, according to the release.
New York State also launched a new website with dedicated information about booster doses, additional doses, eligibility, frequently asked questions, and resources for providers on-the-ground to support in the dissemination of information to eligible populations.
A pedestrian passes a mobile vaccine clinic in the Brooklyn borough of New York, United States, on Aug. 23, 2021. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua)
New York State recently announced 65 million U.S. dollars in funding to county health departments to build the infrastructure needed to support the quick and reliable distribution of booster doses.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday received his COVID-19 vaccine booster shot on camera at the White House.
The U.S. CDC last week recommended Pfizer boosters for older adults, long-term care facility residents, some people with underlying health conditions and adults at increased risk of COVID-19 because of their jobs.
Healthcare systems in some parts of the United States are in “dire straits” as unvaccinated people fill up hospitals, says Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Mixed or de-synchronized responses to the U.S. federal government’s universal call for vaccination against the coronavirus have been delaying the whole process, and in some states dragging hospitals into an overflow of unvaccinated patients.
Healthcare systems in some parts of the United States are in “dire straits” as unvaccinated people fill up hospitals, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told CBS on Sunday.
Some parts of the country are using “crisis standards of care” and are running out of hospital beds, Walensky said. “That means that we are talking about who is going to get a ventilator, who is going to get an ICU bed.”
A medical worker prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, California, the United States, June 18, 2021. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
Between Sept. 18 and 24, U.S. hospitals admitted a daily average of nearly 9,000 COVID-19 patients, much lower than in early January, when the seven-day average peaked at 16,489, per CDC data. However, Walensky stressed, those filling up the hospitals were mostly unvaccinated.
As the CDC updated on Monday, 213,456,787 people have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, making up 64.3 percent of the whole U.S. population; fully vaccinated people stood at 183,670,870, accounting for 55.3 percent of tha total.
According to The New York Times, the 7-day average of confirmed cases of the pandemic stood at 119,883 nationwide on Sunday, with its 16-day change striking an 18-percent fall. COVID-19-related deaths were 2,031 on Sunday, with the 14-day change realizing a 23-percent rise.
REJECTION OF VACCINES
Tens of thousands of health care workers in New York appeared to be risking their jobs by defying the state mandate to receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Monday, setting up an early test for similar employer mandates across the United States, reported The New York Times.
In New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Oregon and the District of Columbia, health care workers must get vaccinated to remain employed. In California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois, workers have the option to be tested regularly if they choose not to get inoculated.
Resistance to vaccine mandates has so far stopped most states from threatening to fire unvaccinated workers, even though employers are legally allowed to require workers to get vaccinated, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Meanwhile, under New York City’s vaccination mandate for education department employees, the requirement to receive at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine was set to take effect close of business Monday, with unvaccinated staffers barred from entering schools on Tuesday and faced with unpaid leave.
But a federal appeals court granted an injunction that is expected to remain in place until a panel of three judges reviews the case on Wednesday. Currently, at least 87 percent of teachers are vaccinated, according to city officials.
Administrators have been bracing for staff shortages, since a sizable minority of teachers, school safety agents, and other staff still haven’t received the vaccine, reported New York news portal The City on Sunday.
Photo taken on Aug. 23, 2021 shows Pfizer signage at Pfizer
Pfizer and BioNTech plan to ask for the authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine for some children under 12 soon, bringing the United States one step closer to offering protection to a population that has grown particularly vulnerable as the fall season gets underway, reported CNN on Monday.
“It is a question of days, not weeks,” said Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla. On Monday, CDC Director Walensky told ABC that the CDC will review data on vaccines for 5 to 11-year-olds with urgency.
“We are all enthusiastically awaiting these data,” she said. “As soon as they get submitted to the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration), I know the FDA is urgently planning to review these data, it will go from the FDA to the CDC, and we will review it with similar urgency.”
In the mean time, the recommendation of COVID-19 booster shot by the FDA and the CDC includes those older than 65, the immunocompromised and those in high-risk jobs, but it leaves out most of people who received the Moderna shot and all who received Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“The wait for boosters news is making some non-Pfizer vaccine recipients a bit salty,” The Washington Post reported on Monday, noting there has been “a rush of patients, and their questions.”
To give those non-Pfizer vaccine recipients some hope in their wait, J&J said in a press release last week that a global study showed boosters helped increase the protection of its COVID-19 shot. Moderna similarly has said data supports boosters and has been submitted for the FDA’s approval.
WASHINGTON – Sitting before a bank of cameras in an auditorium at the White House complex, President Joe Biden received a booster shot of Pfizers coronavirus vaccine Monday, a step that the U.S. government has authorized for many Americans.
The president was adhering to new recommendations issued last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which, after a torturous and at times contradictory process, recommended extra doses for many who got the German company’s immunization more than six months ago.
“Let me be clear. Boosters are important, but the most important thing we need to do is get more people vaccinated,” the president said in brief remarks before shedding his jacket and rolling up his sleeve.
Biden, who is the oldest man to serve as U.S. president, dwelled on how he fit into one category of those needing a booster, the 65 years and older age bracket.
“Now, I know it doesn’t look like it, but I am over 65 – way over,” 78-year-old Biden quipped. “And that’s why I’m getting my booster shot today.”
Others eligible include long-term care residents and staff, anyone over 18 years old with underlying medical conditions known to make covid more severe and those working in “high-risk settings,” a broad category that essentially allows many Americans to decide for themselves whether they need an extra shot.
During a briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that no determination had been made about whether younger White House staff would be eligible for the shots.
Recommendations on whether additional doses are needed for those with the Moderna and single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccinations will be forthcoming, officials said.
Vice President Kamala Harris, at 56, is among the Americans who will have to wait. She received the Moderna shot in late December, and she has not taken a booster, according to her office.
Hours after Biden’s announcement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that he, too, has received a coronavirus booster shot.
McConnell, 79, mentioned – as he frequently does when discussing the vaccine – that he survived polio.
“I’ve been a lifelong champion of vaccinations,” McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor. “Mountains of evidence tell us these shots are safe, effective, and dramatically shrink the odds of severe disease or death from covid. Like I’ve been saying for a month, these safe and effective vaccines are the way to defend ourselves and our families from this terrible virus. They’re also how we stay on offense against covid as a country.”
He added: “All Americans should speak with their doctors and get vaccinated.”
McConnell has been a staunch supporter of the coronavirus vaccine. His vocal advocacy stands in contrast to the ambivalence or outright refusal of some other members of his party to get vaccinated.
Over the summer, Biden indicated that Americans would soon be eligible for booster shots, pending sign-offs from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC.
But it soon became clear that there was only enough data to provide guidance for those who’d received the Pfizer shots.
The FDA then authorized boosters for those 65 and over along with younger people who are at risk for severe illness, including those”whose frequent institutional or occupational exposure” to the virus puts them at high risk of serious complications. But a key CDC panel suggested a more limited approach, nixing the high risk job designation. Ultimately Rochelle Walensky, the director of the agency, set aside recommendations from her own internal advisers and went with the broader FDA approach.
In explaining why the president got his shot publicly, Psaki acknowledged the zigzagging messages that preceded the official recommendation.
“We want to do everything we can to alleviate any confusion – answer questions people have,” Psaki said, with a slide over her shoulder laying out who should get the extra dose.
She added that the president got his booster shot on camera to show that “it’s safe, it’s effective.”
Biden received his first covid shot during the transition in December. He also did that publicly, going to a Delaware medical facility for the jab.
Still, the president seemed aware of the oddity of receiving his vaccine so publicly as the leader of the free world. “Did you ever think the press would come watch somebody get a shot in the old days?” Biden asked the assembled reporters.
“No,” replied several.
“Me either,” said the president.
Biden fielded questions as the shot was administered, revealing that he did not have any side effects from his first two Pfizer shots.
“Thank goodness,” he said.
He noted that first lady Jill Biden, who is 70, hasn’t yet received her booster shot – but expects to soon. “I think she’s teaching today,” Biden said. Jill Biden teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.
As a nurse sanitized the president’s upper arm with a wipe, he said pushed back on criticism from some world leaders and public health experts who have criticized the United States for recommending booster shots while many around the world do not have access to their first vaccine doses.
“We are doing more than every other nation in the world combined,” the president said, just as the nurse actually administered the dose. “We’re going to do our part.” Under pressure from world leaders, the U.S. announced last week that it is doubling it’s contribution of vaccine doses to roughly 1.1 billion shots.
Biden didn’t have a firm answer when asked how many Americans must be vaccinated before the country can return to normal.
“I’m not a scientist,” the president said as he stood up and put his suit jacket back on. “But one thing’s for sure – a quarter of the country cannot go unvaccinated.”
As of Monday afternoon, only 55.4% of eligible Americans were fully vaccinated, according to a Washington Post tracker.
Killings in the United States jumped nearly 30% last year, according to FBI data released Monday that indicate a growing number of gun-related slayings amid the pandemic.
The FBI said murder and manslaughter rose 29.4% – the largest one-year increase since such the federal government began compiling national figures in the 1960s. That historic increase has been known for some time, and has sparked concern from police officials and prosecutors.
But the FBI release of data compiled from thousands of law enforcement agencies formally confirms the trend.
Overall, violent crime rose 5.6% in 2020, while property crimes fell 7.8%, the FBI said. Assaults increased 12%, according to the bureau.
Criminologists and police officials have been studying possible explanations for the sudden, sharp increase in killings – from societal changes due to the coronavirus, to changes in policing, to increased gun sales. So far this year, officials are seeing a further increase in homicides, but not as pronounced as last year.
The FBI data also shows how much killing in America is fueled by shootings. Gun homicides account for more than two out of every three such deaths, according to officials.
While different places saw different rates of increase in killings, the rise was nearly universal across the country, occuring in small towns, big cities, and many places in between.
Overall, however, crime is still well below the historic highs reached in the early 1990s. And in many cities, including Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, the number of killings is still far below the record-high tolls from nearly 30 years ago.
“Homicides jumped almost everywhere, while overall crime was down, so there’s no real surprises in this,” said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the university of Nebraska in Omaha.
Nix said the most likely culprits for the sharp spike in killings is twofold: the pandemic, and what he called a ” police legitimacy crisis” brought on by the videotaped killing last year of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
That incident and others have caused many people to trust police less, making them less willing to call for help, or provide information to investigators about killings, Nix said. He added that the effect is magnified when officers “de-police” by pulling back from patrol and other duties in the fact of public criticism.
On top of that, Nix said, the data suggests there may be more people carrying and using guns in public spaces, leading to more killings.
Republican and Democratic elected officials disagree on what is causing the increase in homicides after years of decline, and how to stop it. Conservatives blame Democratic-run cities for what they say are overly restrictive policies placed on police departments; the Biden administration faults the easily availability of guns as a primary reason for more deaths, and the Justice Department is trying to stem the violence by cracking down on illegal gun trafficking.
The disturbing crime data comes as the FBI is pushing the nation’s roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies to change how they provide information to calculate national figures and trends.
The switch-over to the new crime data format, known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, has been a years-long process. But officials say 2020 is the last year for which data reported through the old system will be accepted.
Many law enforcement agencies don’t yet provide the FBI with the data that is needed for the new system, leaving some crime experts to predict that national crime figures will get more shaky in the near term, with markedly fewer jurisdictions included in the FBI summary that comes out each fall.
“It’s a little bit like cleaning out your garage – first you put a lot of stuff on the lawn, so it looks worse before it looks better,” said Mitch Beemer, who manages crime data for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which adopted a similar data-tracking program years earlier. “But I’m optimistic that we are moving in the right direction and will get most of the way there in five or six years.”
Nix, the criminologist, said that when it comes to the FBI’s data, “I’m kind of worried about the future, because I think we’re about to have a real blind spot for the next few years.”
Changes in crime rates have long fueled political debates over gun laws, and the newly released data is likely to intensify that trend. On Monday, gun control advocates said a large increase in first-time gun owners around the start of the pandemic likely played a significant role in rise in shooting deaths.
“We know having a gun in your home, having a gun in public, makes you less safe and more likely to be a victim and perpetrator of gun violence,” said Ari Davis, a policy analyst at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Davis said he was concerned about states that are repealing local gun control measures and passing “stand your ground” laws, which allow people to use deadly force in public – without a duty to retreat – if they are being attacked or threatened.
With more guns circulating in communities, Davis said, “that’s a dangerous mix. When we’re talking about community-based gun violence, that kind of violence can be retaliatory. If we don’t interrupt now, the spikes of today in gun violence can be hard to reduce even when the causes, like covid, are gone.”
But Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said it was too early to tie the jump in gun sales to new owners to the rise in shooting deaths.
He noted police departments in 2020 saw personnel shortages due to covid-19, and new rules at some police agencies designed to curb abusive policing.
“Having an environment in which there are slightly fewer cops, with more out for Covid and more of them not doing proactive things, that creates a place in which people might want to carry guns around, might be prone to do bad things with those guns,” Webster said.
The Women March returns to Washington this Saturday for its fifth annual event.
Though recent marches have been smaller than the first, which drew millions of participants, organizers say women have plenty to protest. The pandemic revealed striking wage and employment gaps for women, and a national child care crisis has left many overwhelmed and tapped out financially.
Most of the previous marches have occurred in January, but organizers decided to host this year’s event in October to fight imminent threats to abortion access. Texas recently enacted one of the most restrictive abortion laws in decades, and a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Jackson, Miss., could overturn Roe v. Wade this fall. Eleven other states have trigger laws set to ban abortion if Mississippi prevails.
Leaders of this year’s march said they applied for permits for 10,000 people. They will rally at 11 a.m. at Freedom Plaza then wind toward the steps of the Supreme Court. Participation at the D.C. march may be smaller than 10,000, though, organizers said, as fewer people are traveling this year and instead are rallying in their hometowns. Activists have planned more than 600 “sister marches” across the country in cities from Charleston, W.Va., to Boise, Idaho.
Deputy Director Tamika Middleton said the march may be her organization’s marquee event, but the real focus is on recruiting new activists to help fight for reproductive justice over the next year.
“October 2 will be a day to really galvanize folks across the country and begin that push for at least the next year around abortion access,” Middleton said. “We see it as an opportunity, especially in this moment, when there are some states where they just need more capacity. They need the word to be spread. They need to have more boots on the ground doing the work.”
The first Women’s March was widely considered to be the largest single-day protest in American history. But as subsequent events drew smaller crowds, and the national leadership found itself embroiled in controversies, critics suggested the organization might not maintain its momentum.
Still, researchers say the first march had a lasting impact. Sociologists at Purdue University found that participants continued to stay active in their communities and online through Instagram. Elle Rochford, a Purdue professor who co-authored the report with Rachel Einwohner, said she has found that many activists “get their sea legs” at the marches, then either engage in direct activism or use their social media accounts to persuade others to act.
“The Women’s March is kind of a friendlier space if you’re new to activism or organizing or the feminist movement,” Rochford said.
Cindi Schorr was one of those women. For 50 years, she was not an activist. The Houston resident voted, and she watched the news, but she avoided protests and other forms of activism. That changed when Donald Trump was elected president. In January 2017, Schorr joined millions of other people and headed to her local Women’s March to protest.
“It was really a turning point for my life,” Schorr said. “Especially in a red state like Texas, it can feel like you’re isolated in your values or politics or beliefs. Seeing thousands of people who were there in solidarity was so overwhelming, inspiring and empowering.”
Schorr has since worked on election campaigns and voter drives. This year, she is traveling to D.C. to help train and recruit volunteers at the national march.
Because the march has such a large platform, the nonprofit has moved toward boosting smaller organizations, but Rochford said some local organizations don’t need or want the structure a national organization can provide.
Michelle Colon, an activist in Jackson, Miss., has long resisted national sponsorships. She has spent two and a half decades fighting for abortion access and women’s rights in Mississippi. For the last three years, she has run SHERo, a nonprofit dedicated to building leadership among Black women and girls in the state.
Often, Colon said, national organizations use Mississippi to drum up financial support. They send out emails, promising to funnel donations toward the state’s lone abortion clinic, then they never show up to back activists on the ground, and they don’t support women, especially Black women, when they need help outside of abortions. Mississippi also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, as well as the highest infant mortality rate.
When the Women’s March approached Colon to lead an “anchor march” this year, something felt different. Middleton and other new leaders have worked as grass-roots organizers, and they didn’t impose their vision on Colon. Instead, they listened when she explained why she would rather host a rally.
“Marching to the Capitol here in Mississippi, especially on a Saturday, no one’s there, and they don’t take us seriously on an open day, so what is the point in having people come to the Capitol?” Colon said.
Colon’s event, called “Abortion Freedom Fighter’s Rally,” is “homegrown Mississippi,” Colon said. The Women’s March is boosting it in part because Mississippi leaders have asked the Supreme Court to decide whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional. The Court will hear the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in December.
Sponsoring small, Black-led groups like Colon’s has been an intentional evolution for the Women’s March. Middleton said they’ve spent much of the year building a national coalition of groups who have long been working to better their own communities. Activists like Colon have “often been the lone voice in the room,” Middleton said.
Colon said her experience with the Women’s March has been positive, and she’s hoping their support will bolster her work as local activists gear up for a busy fall.
“We need to show people that we are supportive of their decision because the first thing is dismantling the stigma, taking that power away from the ‘anti’ legislators and anybody else who’s antiabortion,” Colon said. “We need people to say the word ‘abortion,’ and to have these discussions in the home and in the workplace.”
Though Schorr will be in D.C. this year, she said she’ll be doing so to rally for access in her home state. That first march “sounded an alarm we had previously not heard or ignored,” Schorr said, and she intends to remain vigilant.
“These bans and restrictions disproportionately impact communities that have survived systemic oppression, as well as people who hold multiple marginalized identities,” Schorr said. “We need to rally for abortion justice because all people should have the ability to make decisions about their lives and bodies, to access abortion care when they need it, in the way that works best for them, and with the guidance and support of providers they trust.”
The Chilean government began vaccinating children ages six to 11 as it moves forward with one of the most advanced Covid-19 prevention campaigns in Latin America.
Children will get shots made by Sinovac Biotech following Chile’s approval for emergency use earlier this month. The government will begin giving shots in schools, and Health Undersecretary Paula Daza attended a ceremony in Santiago to mark the beginning of the vaccination campaign.
Previously, only Pfizer had approval in Chile to use its vaccine on people 12 to 17 years old. Chile’s move comes as questions emerge about the efficacy of inactivated shots like Sinovac’s with studies finding they produce fewer antibodies than mRNA vaccines like the one made by Pfizer.
Chile has administered 31.5 million vaccine doses covering 82.4% of its 19 million residents, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In Latin America, only Uruguay has vaccinated a higher percentage of its population.
WILCANNIA, Australia – The nurses drove up and down the dusty streets, from one family overwhelmed by the coronavirus to the next, until they arrived at a red brick house on the edge of the Outback town.
They were met at the door by two stray dogs lying in the sunbaked red dirt and a slender young Aboriginal woman wrapped in a surgical mask and blanket.
Brooke Johnson had heard the coughs begin to ripple through the crowded home a week earlier but had nowhere to go. Now she feared the virus had reached her 4-year-old son, whom she called outside to get tested.
“He started coughing yesterday,” she told the nurses, who donned protective gear to swab the curly-haired boy in a Spider-Man sweater on Aug. 30. “I just want to get him checked because we sleep together and I’m positive.”
So were her brother and sister; her aunt and uncle; her two cousins and her nephew.
So was the family of five a few doors down, and the household of nine a few doors up.
So was almost everyone she knew in Wilcannia.
In two weeks, more than one-tenth of the town of 600 people had been infected, making Wilcannia the hardest-hit place in Australia. Soon, the number of cases would approach 150, with about 90% of them Aboriginal people.
The remote community’s crisis reflects not only the recent collapse of “covid zero” in Australia but also the country’s historical failings.
For 18 months, state and federal leaders had been promising to protect Indigenous Australians, who have higher rates of chronic disease and shorter life expectancies. They were declared a priority for vaccination.
Nowhere was more vulnerable than Wilcannia, where a 2005 study found Aboriginal men had a life expectancy of just 37 – yet the nearest intensive care unit was 125 miles away.
When the pandemic began, the local Barkindji people were so worried that their children made signs begging tourists not to stop. For a while, it seemed to work.
But then an outbreak of the delta variant crept from Sydney’s wealthy eastern beaches to its working-class suburbs to the surrounding regions and across New South Wales.
And now, after a year and a half without an infection, Wilcannia was overrun.
“There has been a stunning lack of preparedness,” said Linda Burney, a federal lawmaker from the opposition Labor party who is an Aboriginal woman. “The people out there have been sitting ducks.”
Health officials say they had a plan but it was upended by a superspreader event that exposed three-quarters of the town.
“Imagine that happened in Washington,” said Umit Agis, chief executive for the state’s far-west health region. “I don’t think the system would cope.”
As cases began to climb in late August, a solitary doctor flew in with a portable ventilator he feared he would soon need.
“I feel like I’m in one of those cowboy movies where it’s quiet, too quiet,” said the doctor, Randall Greenberg. “Someone is about to attack.”
Brooke Johnson holds her son Christopher while a New South Wales Health worker takes a covid swab. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post.
The road to Wilcannia is lined with dead kangaroos. Once a prosperous river port that sent steamboats full of wool downstream, the town has faded into a struggling pit stop on a pancake-flat highway.
Two weeks into its outbreak, Wilcannia’s town center was nearly silent. Aside from an open pickup window at the pub, the only sign of life was the store, serving a handful of anxious locals.
As she loaded groceries and diapers into her car, Saphire Hall stopped to vent to a neighbor. The mother of four had already copped a $725 fine for giving her cousin a lift during the outbreak. Now she risked a $3,630 penalty if she visited her elderly and disabled in-laws. Online fundraisers had collected almost $300,000 for the town, but fights were brewing over where the money should go, and residents had yet to see a cent.
“The community is supposed to stick together, but they ain’t,” said Hall, 37.
“It’s not right,” said Janell Evans, 61, as her 9-year-old granddaughter sat barefoot on the sidewalk, eating candy. “We can’t survive out here.”
Evans feared for her nephew, who had lung problems, and her son, who had a weakened immune system.
“They knew this was going to happen,” she said angrily through a surgical mask. “They knew it would only take one person to spread it in the whole community.”
For a year and a half, Australia prided itself on keeping the coronavirus out of Aboriginal communities. As recently as Aug. 5, Prime Minister Scott Morrison touted his administration’s success.
A week later, the virus reached Wilcannia.
Locals had feared what would happen if the contagion came to a place so remote yet overcrowded. Wilcannia sits in the center of the Central Darling Shire, an area nearly twice the size of Maryland but with fewer than 2,000 people. That makes it expensive to build housing, said shire administrator Bob Stewart.
“You’re really in the Outback here,” he said.
But many feel race has played a role in the treatment of a town that is almost three-fourths Indigenous.
“As First Nations people, we have faced genocide, we have faced stolen generations, we have had Black deaths in custody,” said Brendon Adams, who has lived in Wilcannia for two decades but belongs to the Kuku Yalanji people of northeastern Australia. “And we have a Third World housing situation.”
In March 2020, Adams and other community leaders met with Stewart, Agis and state officials to urge them to close the town to outsiders. State emergency officials rejected the idea, Stewart said, so locals put up signs pleading for people to stay away.
Health officials understood the virus would tear through overcrowded houses, Agis said, so they contracted with motels and campgrounds in Wilcannia and other towns to serve as isolation facilities.
But when the virus arrived via a large Aboriginal funeral and wake on Aug. 13, contact tracers were overwhelmed and some isolation facilities refused to take positive cases, Agis said.
“Covid hit us like a cyclone,” Adams said. “It came in with so much devastation. And we were unprepared.”
Less than 2% of Aboriginal people in the Central Darling Shire had been fully vaccinated when Sydney’s outbreak began in June, according to data obtained by The Washington Post. When the virus hit Wilcannia two months later, the figure was 17% – half of the non-Indigenous population’s vaccination rate.
Ronnie Murray was visiting family in Wilcannia for “sorry business,” a traditional Aboriginal period of mourning, after the death of a relative. Police pulled up to the small house in the Mallee – one of two Barkindji neighborhoods bookending the Whiter, better-off part of town – and told everyone inside to walk to the football field to get tested.
By the time his result came back positive, Murray, who was partially vaccinated, was racked with body aches. Five others in the house initially tested positive, he said, but health officials told everyone to stay inside. Within a few days, two more were infected.
Murray’s brother, William, who was still negative, moved outside into a tent donated by a community elder. When Murray demanded his brother be put up somewhere, health officials moved William to a motel, then to a campground where he was flanked by positive cases.
“I was going out there to get away from corona,” William said, “not live next door to people who got it.”
Officials eventually moved him back to the motel, where there were also positive cases, but fewer and farther apart.
“It’s like they don’t really care about us Black fellas out here,” William said.
Agis said every affected family was offered a place to isolate but some did not want to leave Wilcannia. The Murrays deny they were given that choice, however, and Agis acknowledges that officials acted too late.
“In hindsight, we probably could have done everything two weeks earlier,” he said.
“I think we all would have liked a better level of planning,” added Stewart, the shire administrator.
“There is still no plan!” roared Ronnie Murray as he stood in his front yard near the now-empty tent on Aug. 30. He was on Day 12 of “isolation” in the crowded house. On the news, Australia had been evacuating Afghans from Kabul. But here in the Outback, he felt the nation was neglecting its own.
“We’re meant to be the First Nations people,” Murray said. “They’d rather go to another country and help people.”
A birthday party celebration for Nathaniel Bugmy, who was turning 7. He spoke with his mother Merinda Bugmy on FaceTime, as she was in isolation because of the coronavirus. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post.
Patricia Wilson walked barefoot to the riverbank and began to snap branches off emu bushes and eucalyptus trees. She stuffed the leaves into a metal tin and lit them on fire.
“They say it kills the corona,” the 35-year-old said as she circled the campground in a leopard-print bathrobe, wafting the fragrant smoke.
But it was too late for Wilson and most of those quarantined here. Officials had begun to move positive cases and close contacts to the campground 1.5 miles outside Wilcannia a week into the outbreak. Of the 13 people in the cabins, only five had yet to test positive, and anger was growing.
“Instead of putting all the positives on one side and the negatives on the other side, they mixed us all up here,” said Leaetta Hunter, whose teenage daughter had arrived negative but tested positive after being put next to those with the coronavirus.
Leaetta’s cousin Raelene Hunter had been the first to arrive after testing positive. A few days later, her 19-year-old son, Jai Kirby, had been put next to her. When the pandemic hit Australia last year, Kirby had spent weeks living by the river to avoid the virus. Now, as he awaited his test result, he was contemplating going back.
Everyone quarantined at the campground was Aboriginal. They weren’t allowed to use the washing machines, so some did laundry in the river. Health workers brought hospital food, but few ate it. When a relative dropped off kangaroo tails, Raelene Hunter and Anthony Dutton made a campfire and scooped the coals over the bush meat.
Dutton’s family had been made to walk to the park in their flip-flops.
“We passed the police,” he said. “We thought they might give us a lift, but all they asked was our names and they kept going.”
The trek had triggered such severe breathing problems for his daughter that the 17-year-old, who had already tested positive, was taken to the hospital the next day, he said.
New South Wales Police Assistant Commissioner Brett Greentree said he was unaware of the incident.
Many said they were angry authorities had stopped Wilcannia from closing to outsiders and then did not keep the virus out. They felt sacrificed for an economy that barely benefited them.
“If they had stopped the flights and things, we wouldn’t all be like this,” Raelene Hunter said as she stirred the coals.
Two days later, her son received the dreaded news: He, too, was positive. The teen began having a panic attack, Raelene recounted. But then a health worker called back to say it had been a mistake. Kirby was so fed up he left the campground without permission.
Agis said there that had been three false positives in 33,000 tests in the far-west health region and that concerns around the food and laundry had been addressed. But he acknowledged that mixing positive and negative cases at the campground was “not ideal” and that more should have been done to keep them apart.
“It’s been a sharp learning curve for us,” he said.
By the week’s end, the state government’s response was finally starting to come together. Tents for emergency workers sprang up on the football field, with 30 motor homes for affected families due to arrive a few days later.
But the damage was done. Aboriginal people had begun to die of covid-19 in the state. In Wilcannia, the tiny hospital now had its first elderly covid patient, and doctors felt it was a matter of time until more arrived. (Agis would later say hospitalizations had proven lower than feared.)
“We’re in the eye of the storm,” Adams said. “On the other side of the eye is more storm.”
In the Mallee, Brooke Johnson’s son was now positive and her aunt’s breathing was getting worse.
A few doors down, Raelene Hunter had moved back home after being released from the campground. Health workers had told her she needn’t worry about reinfection from her relatives, who were still positive, she said.
After everything that had happened in Wilcannia, she wasn’t sure what to believe.
The United States announced last week that it would soon open its doors to foreign travelers vaccinated against covid-19, loosening restrictions for broad swaths of global visitors for the first time since the pandemic began.
But the new rules, set to take effect in November, appear to also shut out many people who consider themselves to be fully immunized – including millions who have received two doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians could be directly affected. Despite frosty diplomatic relations and limited demand for international travel, roughly 300,000 Russians visited the United States in 2019, the last year for which figures are available, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
More broadly, the U.S. plan is another blow for the manufacturers of Sputnik V, which Moscow has proudly proclaimed as the first covid-19 vaccine to be registered for use. Though the vaccine was intended to be a powerful tool of pandemic diplomacy, its limited acceptance abroad and slow rates of delivery have left it behind not only Western vaccines but also those made by Chinese manufacturers.
“This is a big problem for Russian travelers and for people in other countries who’ve received Sputnik V,” Judyth Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who tracks public health in Russia, said of the new U.S. rules in an email.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that backed Sputnik V, said in a statement that the vaccine had “not only has it been approved in 70 countries where over 4 billion people, or over half of the world’s population, live, but its efficacy and safety have been confirmed both during clinical trials and over the course of real-world use in a number of countries.”
“We stand against attempts to politicize the global fight against COVID-19 and discriminate against effective vaccines for short-term political or economic gains,” the statement continued.
The new U.S. plan requires that most noncitizens seeking entry to the United States are vaccinated with shots approved for emergency use either by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or World Health Organization. That includes vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, as well as shots developed by Chinese firms such as Sinopharm and Sinovac.
But Sputnik V, an adenovirus vaccine developed by the Moscow-based Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, has yet to be approved by the WHO. The global health agency this week said that it suspended its review process of the vaccine, citing concerns over the manufacturing practices at production plants inside Russia and whether the vaccine can be consistently produced to the necessary standard.
Speaking at a conference in Vladivostok this month, RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said that “mutual recognition of vaccines is the issue of this year” and claimed that a “number of ‘Big Pharma’ companies intentionally, as a matter of competitive rivalry, are attempting to restrict Sputnik and absorb markets,” according to Russian news agency Tass.
Unlike other nations, the United States did not have blanket restrictions on travel from Russia before this announcement, meaning all travelers from the country that tested negative for covid-19 could be allowed into the United States under CDC guidelines. That will change in November, just as doors open to millions of travelers from Europe and elsewhere.
The new U.S. rules will not only affect Russians. According to data from the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, some 448 million Sputnik V doses have been purchased worldwide, with many going to low income nations. Some governments have complained of slow deliveries from Russia. The limited options for travel are likely to further criticism of the Russian drug.
“Russia’s squandered an opportunity to use this vaccine as a diplomatic tool,” Twigg said, citing the production issues around Sputnik.
The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the new U.S. policy.
Sputnik V is not the only vaccine facing risk of being left behind. Neither the FDA nor the WHO have authorized India’s Covaxin, which has seen 560 million doses purchased so far, mostly in India. Those vaccinated with Covaxin may not be allowed to visit the United States in November. There have also been disputes with individual governments not accepting some vaccines, such as Britain’s refusal to fully recognize vaccines administered in many parts of the world.
But for Sputnik V, a vaccine which has taken a brash and sometimes confrontational approach to its rivals, the failure to secure World Health Organization emergency use listing or a similar listing by the European Medicines Agency, an E.U. body, has been a big reputational blow.
Despite the recent suspension of the WHO approval process, RDIF said that “Russia’s Health Ministry is in constant contact with WHO experts on the approval process and we remain confident Sputnik V’s approval by the global health regulator is imminent due to the vaccine’s outstanding track record.”
Some immunization experts have broader fears that the U.S. move and others like it could create two classes of vaccinated people around the world: one that is able to travel freely and the other not. In Russia and other countries, travel firms have already started offering wealthy customers trips abroad, including to places such as Serbia, so that they can get vaccinated with more widely-accepted shots.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that there was a growing frustration among “those with money and power” that their vaccines were not more widely accepted. Some spread “conspiracy theories,” Gabuev said, including one that “everybody envies Russia as the nation that developed the first vaccine” and so Western powers conspired against Sputnik V.
The WHO approval for Chinese vaccines, such as Sinopharm and Sinovac, undercut that message. Though Sputnik V appeared to provide stronger protection than these China-backed vaccines, Russia’s role as a vaccine exporter had been severely limited by production issues and China had emerged as a more reliable partner, Gabuev said.
“The approval of the World Health Organization adds to the credibility of Chinese vaccines as opposed to the Russian vaccines,” he added.
Australias most populous state will roll back more restrictions for fully-vaccinated adults and raise caps on international arrivals once 80% of the adult population has received two shots at the end of October, as it unveils the next stages of its path out of Covid lockdown.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Monday said the next phase of the re-opening will include increased access to hospitality venues, the ability to travel freely throughout the state and eased limits on the number of guests able to visit homes once the 80% threshold is reached, which she expects will come at the end of next month.
“I hope New South Wales will show the way to the nation as to what is possible in living with Covid,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. Authorities believe that by Dec. 1, “we will be at that Covid normal state where hopefully we will be booking our international travel.”
A third phase of the reopening will take effect on Dec. 1 and allow unvaccinated people to participate in activities like community sports and regional travel, as well as eased restrictions on venue capacity for offices, indoor pools and nightclubs, she said.
Overseas arrivals levels are set to increase to allow about 3,500 Australians to return home each week, Berejiklian said. Once Prime Minister Scott Morrison “gives that green light, we will be able to go overseas as well,” she added.
The new freedoms come after months of lockdown in Sydney, amid an outbreak of the delta variant that has seen roughly half the country under stay at home orders. They build on a previously-announced phase-one easing that will see some restrictions dialed back once a 70% full vaccination target is reached among those over age 16, likely on Oct. 11.
New South Wales recorded 787 new cases overnight and the seven-day average fell below 1,000 for first time since August 29. Neighboring Victoria state hit 705 new infections Monday as the seven-day average continues to climb.
New South Wales has recorded 365 deaths since the pandemic began. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday that of the 29 people who died at home in New South Wales, only 13 were known to health authorities.
The commitment to ease the lockdown marks a reversal from the nation’s strict Covid-Zero approach, which has been under unprecedented pressure from the outbreak and has seen states take different tactics in reopening. New South Wales and Victoria now favor hitting vaccination targets before opening their economies back up, while states like Western Australia have chosen to keep their borders shut to keep the virus out.
Morrison wants all domestic border restrictions to be lifted by Christmas.
The Australian Capital Territory, home of Canberra, on Monday said it would end its lockdown measures on Oct. 15, amid expectations that double-dose vaccination rates would hit 80% by then.