Covid Live Updates: France and Italy Crack Down on Vaccine-Related Fraud

The N.H.L. pauses its season because of Omicron. President Biden is to announce new steps to quell the latest outbreak, including buying 500 million tests to distribute free to the public.

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A demonstration against Covid-19 vaccination passes in Paris on Saturday.Credit…Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

Several countries in Europe are reporting growing instances of fake Covid passes and vaccination certificates — an indication that the vaccine resistance that threatened earlier this year to upend governments’ anti-Covid strategies is far from over.

In France, the authorities said on Monday that they had detected over 180,000 fake Covid passes since the measure was introduced this summer. And in Italy on Tuesday, the police in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, arrested a leader of an anti-vaccine movement and a nurse who is accused of accepting payments for pretend vaccinations.

Officials in France said on Friday that soon only vaccinated people would be eligible for Covid passes, which are required for entry into restaurants, cafes and other public places. The news of the forgeries highlighted how vaccine resistance remains strong in parts of the country’s population.

Interior Minister G?rald Darmanin said this month that about 400 investigations had been opened into networks of people suspected of providing the fake passes, including some connected to health professionals.

The French news media recently reported several cases of doctors suspected of having sold fake Covid passes. The Covid death of a woman in a Paris regional hospital this month after she showed a fake vaccine certificate has also drawn scrutiny.

In Sicily, the police in Palermo said that a nurse had been paid 100 to 400 euros ($113 to $451) to pretend to inoculate people at a vaccination center so that they could obtain a Green Pass, a health document that is required in Italy to work and to participate in many social activities.

A video aired in the Italian news mediashowed what the police described as a nurse injecting vaccine doses into a gauze pad and then pretending to inject the contents of empty syringes into people’s arms.

The police arrested Filippo Accetta, a local anti-vaccines campaigner; Anna Maria Lo Brano, a nurse; and another man on accusations of bribery, embezzlement and falsification of an official document.

Eight other people are thought to have been falsely vaccinated at the Palermo hub, according to Francesco Lo Voi, the local prosecutor. He said an initial investigation suggested that other health workers at the center had been unaware of the fraud.

President Biden returning to the White House on Monday after spending the weekend in Wilmington, Del. He is expected to announce new steps to confront the national surge in coronavirus cases.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

President Biden will announce new steps on Tuesday to confront an alarming surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the infectious new Omicron variant. They include readying 1,000 military medical professionals to help at overburdened hospitals, setting up new federal testing and vaccination sites, deploying hundreds of federal vaccinators and buying 500 million rapid tests to distribute free to the public.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about his speech and how his plan will work.

Will the president call for lockdowns? No. The White House is adamant that there is no need for lockdowns at this point.

Will the president advise Americans to forego holiday gatherings? That depends. Officials say that the president will tell people that they should feel “comfortable” gathering with family if everyone is vaccinated and follow public health protocols like masking and testing if they are exposed to someone with Covid-19. He will remind those who are unvaccinated that they are at high risk, and encourage people to get their shots and booster doses if they are eligible. Boosters increase protection against the Omicron variant.

How will people get their free rapid tests? The administration says it will buy 500 million rapid tests to deliver free, beginning in January, via a website where people can request tests and have them sent to their homes. (Britain, where tests are cheaper and more plentiful, already has such a site.) But White House officials concede the particulars of their plan aren’t fully developed. They have not said whether there wouldbe a limit on the number of tests, or exactly how — via the Postal Service? FedEx? United Parcel Service? — they will be shipped.

Will 500 million tests be enough? Experts have projected there would be roughly 250 million at-home tests available in January. It is unclear whether the new supply of 500 million additional tests will be available right away, or if the administration expects to supply 500 million tests per month. Assuming that supply in January doubles, it would still mean there are fewer than two tests for every American for the entire month.

How will the White House scale up supply? Administration officials say Mr. Biden will continue to invoke the Defense Production Act, the Korean War-era law that gives the president broad powers. largely through executive order, to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government. The administration has already been using the law to scale up test production, officials say, and did so again as recently as last week to ensure that two test manufacturers have the raw materials they needed.

How and where will the military be deployed? Mr. Biden will instruct his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, to ready 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health professionals to help overburdened hospitals. There are no plans yet to send those troops to specific locations; they will be at the ready in case they are needed, officials say.

Where will the new testing sites be, how many will there be, and when will they open? The exact number of new testing sites is unknown. The administration plans to start with several new sites in New York City that officials say will be open by Christmas.

Where will the new vaccination sites be and when will they open? FEMA is standing up new pop-up vaccination clinics across the country. This includes a new mobile unit in Washington, and four new mobile units across New Mexico that are opening Tuesday, according to a fact sheet distributed by the White House.

Where will the federal vaccinators be sent? Unclear. Administration officials say they will be deployed across 12 states, tribes and territories, and will “help enable thousands” of additional vaccine appointments. The states, tribes and territories were not named.

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Students leaving a school last week in the McKeesport Area School District that made mask-wearing optional this month after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ended the statewide mask mandate in schools.Credit…Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via Associated Press

School districts in the United States have mostly been reassuring families that they plan to continue in-person learning until the Christmas break and reopen as planned in January, even though a few classrooms have been closed to contain spread of the virus.

New York City, Boston and Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, are among the large school systems that have said they would not shift entirely to remote learning, or would do so only if forced to by public health officials.

Still, the alarming spread of the virus in the weeks since the Omicron variant emerged could expose the rickety infrastructure that has kept schools running through most of this year. Many schools are still short of substitute teachers and bus drivers, and can ill afford an outbreak that would send even more staff members home.

Despite the classroom closures and staffing issues, the school year had been going relatively smoothly. Across the nation’s 13,000 districts and 98,000 public schools this week, there are about 600 closed schools or districts, according to data from Burbio, a company that has tracked school operations through the pandemic. There are fewer closures in effect now than in November.

New York City’s public school system, the largest in the nation and the one currently threatened most by the Omicron variant, has 1,600 schools; four are currently closed because of virus cases, and 44 more are under investigation.

Nationally, the picture had been bright enough until recently that many schools were relaxing some virus restrictions. And in Missouri, the attorney general, a Republican, sent a letter to districts directing them to drop mask mandates and quarantine requirements after a circuit court judge there ruled that the measures violated the State Constitution. Several districts are resisting the directive, a sign of possible dissension to come after the holidays, when the surge could be more severe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged schools on Friday to reduce quarantines and closures by using a protocol known as test-to-stay, in which close contacts of positive cases are given frequent rapid tests. Many districts, however, do not have a sufficient supply of the tests, nor the staff to administer them widely.

Irma Mazzoni handing out free rapid at-home Covid-19 test kits in Chelsea, Mass., on Friday, as part of a statewide effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus over the holidays.Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has added even more uncertainty about how to navigate life after vaccination. Is it safe to gather unmasked with my vaccinated friends? Can I travel for the holidays? Can my children safely see their grandparents?

But rapid home testing can lower risk, ease worry and allow you to spend time with the people you care about.

Testing isn’t a substitute for being vaccinated or getting a booster shot. But at-home rapid tests can tell people within minutes whether they are contagious with Covid-19. It gives added assurance that no one at a child’s birthday party, a wedding or a family holiday gathering is spreading the virus. If you’ve been traveling through airports, it’s a good idea to take a few rapid tests, days apart, to make sure you didn’t contract the virus during your travels.

One big problem is that the tests can be hard to find. The nation’s coronavirus testing capacityis facing enormous new pressure, with holiday travelers waiting in long lines to be tested, overworked laboratories struggling to keep up and rapid at-home diagnostics flying off pharmacy shelves as the Omicron variant fuels a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases.

The Biden administration has promised an investment of $1 billion in home testing. Many stores and websites do still have tests in stock, but it may require some effort to find them. The administration has said that starting in December, an estimated 200 million rapid tests should be available to Americans each month.

No test is a 100 percent guarantee, but given that your vaccine and booster already protect you, a home test is another layer of precaution to lower risk. Unvaccinated people can benefit from using home tests as well, but they should not rely on testing as a substitute for a vaccine.

Home tests are particularly useful for families with young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination and for anyone with an at-risk family member. When my vaccinated daughter wanted to visit her 80-year-old vaccinated grandmother in New Mexico, she was tested in New York before leaving, and she carried several rapid home tests to use when she landed and every day of the short visit.

“Testing is an information business, and that information is liberating,” said Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University who is also on the board of OraSure, which makes rapid Covid tests. “For some, it’s going to be to not wear a mask at an event. For some, it’s going to be to go visit great grandma or interact with the public. If your test is positive, it means you’ve got the power to protect yourself and other people.”

In the United States, a boxed set of two tests can range from $14 to $24, making them too expensive for most people to use frequently. But home tests can still be a helpful way to lower the risk of indoor gatherings and spending time with extended family members.

“I think people should embrace home testing more,” said Neeraj Sood, a professor and vice dean for research at the University of Southern California and director of the Covid Initiative at the U.S.C. Schaeffer Center. “I’m planning to go to India. I’ll do the home test the moment I land to make sure I’m not infectious before I give a hug to my father.”

The Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers warmed up in an empty arena in Montreal recently. Nearly four dozen N.H.L. games have been delayed this season.Credit…Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The National Hockey League and its players’ association have agreed to pause play until next week because of the coronavirus, becoming the first North American professional sports league to suspend games en masse amid the rapid rise of the Omicron variant.

The league said on Monday night that it would delay five games that were not already affected by postponements and begin its holiday break early.

Cases among players and their close contacts had already caused nearly four dozen N.H.L. games this season to be delayed. Earlier Monday, several teams, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, said they planned to shut down activities before the holiday break.

N.H.L. officials, announcing an agreement with the players’ association, said that teams would return to practice on Dec. 26 and that the league planned to resume its schedule on Dec. 27.

The suspensions mean that 31 planned hockey games will not be played this week, though Dallas beat Minnesota on Monday night and two games scheduled for Tuesday — Washington at Philadelphia and Tampa Bay at Las Vegas — will still go ahead.

Several major sports leagues have postponed games and adjusted policies amid the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. The N.H.L., which is considering whether to send players to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, on Sunday suspended travel between the United States and Canada for games, citing “the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions.” About 15 percent of the league’s 700-plus players were restricted by coronavirus protocols, The Associated Press reported on Monday.

The move by hockey’s leaders came as the National Football League was still completing a slate of games that had been scheduled for the weekend.

The N.F.L. and its players’ union also made changes to their testing protocols on Saturday for the fourth time in a week. Vaccinated N.F.L. players who do not show symptoms will receive “strategic and targeted” tests and players showing signs of Covid-19 will be tested “promptly.”

More than 40 N.F.L. players were added to the Covid-19 reserve list on Monday, meaning they had either tested positive or were deemed to have been in close contact with someone else who had.

On Sunday, the N.B.A. announced that it would postpone five games. Its players will be tested daily for two weeks starting Dec. 26.

England’s Premier League canceled nearly all of its soccer matches over the weekend because rosters were widely depleted by positive cases. The league said in a statement that it would keep its schedule “where safely possible,” even as players were urged to limit social contacts.

Some N.H.L. players, though eager to play in the Olympics for the first time since 2014, have expressed misgivings about the burdens of testing protocols and other rules at the Beijing Games.

The Swedish goalie Robin Lehner, who plays for the Vegas Golden Knights, said on Twitter that he would not be going to Beijing because of the stress of being locked down and not knowing what would happen if he tested positive.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said, adding that it had been a tough decision over a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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The British government said it would provide a package of grants and other relief amounting to 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) to hospitality and leisure businesses as a surge in the coronavirus Omicron variant forces cancellations, staff shortages and closures.CreditCredit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British government has responded to pleas for help from bars, restaurants and leisure businesses amid a surge in Omicron cases that has led to a wave of cancellations, staff shortages and closures.

The Treasury said on Tuesday it would provide a package of grants and other relief amounting to 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion).

“We recognize that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty at a crucial time,” Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, said in a statement. The festive period is critical for the hospitality industry and often described as the “golden quarter,” when a substantial portion of profits are made between Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

About 200,000 hospitality and leisure businesses will be eligible for a grant of up to ?6,000 per site. The government will also cover the cost of legally required sick pay for small and midsize businesses and is topping up a culture fund for organizations including theaters, orchestras and museums with an additional ?30 million.

The Treasury had been pulling back on pandemic-related support measures, with some of the largest programs, including the furlough program, ending in September. The announcement on Tuesday was the first major provision of pandemic-specific support since March. The government’s most recent fiscal plans attempted to divert the country toward a post-pandemic economy, with spending focused on education, the National Health Service and job skills.

But late last week London declared a “major incident” because of the spread of Omicron. Across the capital, bookshops, gyms, pubs and restaurants have voluntarily closed their doors, either as a precaution against the virus or because too many staff members are sick to operate. Last weekend, half of London’s West End theaters had to cancel performances.

The government said it was providing “generous grants” that are equivalent to the monthly amount made available earlier in the year when the businesses were legally forced to close.

On Monday, there were more than 45,000 confirmed Omicron cases in Britain, but the true number is believed to be much higher. In the past week, there has been a 60 percent increase in the overall number of Covid cases. People are required to isolate for 10 days, which has left businesses and hospitals short of staff.

The government hasn’t required hospitality businesses to shut, but new measures in England, such as asking people to work from home and requiring Covid passes for large events, have led to Christmas party cancellations and fewer people socializing outside their homes. Last week, England’s chief medical officer encouraged people to go only to events that “really matter” to them.

The grants have been broadly welcomed by the hospitality industry. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, a trade group, said it was a “generous package.” It provides “an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated,” she added in a statement.

But with government ministers in tense talks about whether more restrictions will be needed over Christmas, there are already concerns that the grants might not be enough.

“Whilst these measures are a positive starting point, if restrictions persist or are tightened further, then we would need to see a wider support package,” Shevaun Haviland, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement.

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The European Union moved to change coronavirus vaccine certificates next year, so that people must have received booster shots or been fully vaccinated within the previous nine months to travel freely within the bloc.CreditCredit…Giuseppe Lami/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Union said on Tuesday that from next year, people would be allowed to travel freely within the bloc only if they had received booster shots or had been fully vaccinated within the previous nine months.

That expiration date on Covid passes, which show the holders’ vaccination status and facilitate travel within the bloc, comes as Europe faces a surge of cases that has led many countries to impose further restrictions, including lockdowns reminiscent of measures imposed earlier in the pandemic, limits on gatherings, mask mandates and early closing times for restaurants and bars.

“It’s now up to the member states to ensure boosters will be rolled out swiftly to protect our health and ensure safe traveling,” Didier Reynders, the bloc’s commissioner for justice, said in a statement.

The new rules, which are set to come into force on Feb. 1, aim to standardize travel across the bloc. But even with the rules, individual countries can still decide whether to require visitors to quarantine or show proof of a negative test upon entry. The change also does not affect domestic passes that some countries require for entry into public places like bars and restaurants.

Covid passes first came into effect in the bloc in July, enabling free movement for anyone who was fully vaccinated, had proof of recovery or could present a negative P.C.R. test. But with rising infections, including Omicron cases, and growing evidence of the waning protection of vaccines, E.U. officials say that an additional dose is necessary.

The new nine-month limit comes as some countries have already set time limits on their national Covid passes. In France, all adults must receive an additional dose by mid-January for their passes to remain valid. In Austria, Covid passes are valid for nine months after a second vaccine dose.

Most member states are well underway in administering booster shots to adults, although the rollout is uneven across the continent. More than 67 percent of the bloc’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and about 14 percent have received an additional dose.

Demonstrators across Europe have staged protests over vaccine passports since they have been proposed and introduced. Since France announced this year that people would be required to show vaccine passports to go to restaurants, cafes and other public places, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets each week, including about 25,000 people last weekend.

A Covid testing site in Washington on Monday.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

With the holiday travel season underway, new coronavirus cases are surging in the United States, prompting governors and mayors to once again wrestle with how far to go to tackle the virus as federal officials said that the Omicron variant had become by far the dominant cause of new cases in the country.

In New York State, reports of new cases shot up more than 80 percent over two weeks. In Washington, D.C., where the mayor reinstated an indoor mask mandate on Monday, more than three times as many infections are being identified each day as at the start of December.

On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts announced steps to aid his state’s straining hospitals. He ordered that up to 500 National Guard troops be sent to help hospitals with nonmedical tasks like food service and transportation, and that starting next Monday, all nonessential procedures that were likely to involve a patient admission had to be postponed, among other measures.

Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston, where cases are surging, said on Monday that proof of vaccination would be required for certain indoor settings like gyms and restaurants.

“We all remember the gravity and uncertainty as those early weeks turned into months,” the mayor said of the grim spring of 2020, though she noted that there was a key difference between then and now. “Today,” she said, “vaccines are available for every adult and even children as young as 5 years old.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that Omicron, which accounted for less than 1 percent of new Covid-19 cases in the United States as December began, now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases.

Though the alarming numbers may echo earlier waves of the pandemic, there is preliminary evidence from South Africa that the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease.

Although breakthrough Omicron infections are common, scientists believe that the vaccines will provide protection against the worst outcomes. Even so, some researchers worry that the dangerous infectiousness of Omicron poses a threat to the nation’s already strained health system.

U.S. stocks are rebounding this morning, after falling for three trading days in a row. The broad S&P 500 index remains up nearly 23 percent for the year, but the market’s recent volatility concerns many investors.

Plenty of uncertainty remains, including from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the still-cloudy outlook for President Biden’s social spending plan and, from the Federal Reserve’s indication, the possibility of multiple interest increases next year. The big question is whether these factors could finally take down the pandemic bull market.

Let’s explore the different arguments:

Yes. Investors’ expectations for high growth next year look increasingly misguided in light of Omicron and lower government spending. Analysts expect the S&P 500’s profits to jump nearly 9 percent, or more than twice as fast as the broader economy. That can happen, but only if costs are falling, which, given the current rate of inflation, is not likely next year. When companies start to lower earnings targets, or miss them, the markets will surely follow.

No. Stock market collapses are extremely rare without recessions, and there’s no sign that one is in store for 2022. Some recent job growth data has been disappointing, but an increasing number of Americans are still finding new positions. And consumer spending continues to beat expectations.

Maybe? Stocks may not fall drastically, but they may not continue to surge either. This viewpoint has supporters: Savita Subramanian, Bank of America’s head of U.S. equity strategy, predicts that the S&P 500 will rise less than 1 percent next year, and said the market’s biggest problem was “lofty expectations.”

Officials at a checkpoint for people leaving the Auckland area in New Zealand last week.Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

New Zealand said on Tuesday that it was pushing back a phased opening of its borders to the end of February, in another indication of how countries throughout the Asia Pacific region are scrambling to respond to the threat of the Omicron variant.

New Zealand also postponed its plans to allow its citizens living in Australia to return without quarantining starting on Jan. 17. Now the program will not start until the end of February.

New Zealand has detected 22 cases of Omicron in international arrivals, but no community cases of the variant have been reported. In the event of an outbreak, the government intends to replace lockdowns of the past with more targeted measures, Chris Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister, said.

“It’s not our intention to move to lockdowns unless that is absolutely necessary in the event of a widespread outbreak, where our health system becomes under considerable strain and the overall health risk becomes too much to bear,” he said.

In other measures to limit the new variant’s eventual spread, the government said that residents would get access to a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sooner — at four months instead of six — after their second shot.

New Zealand is one of several countries in the region that are tightening restrictions or considering tougher quarantine rules as cases of the variant rise.

In Japan, which closed its borders to all nonresident foreigners last month, an outbreak of 180 cases at an American military base has also raised fears of a resurgence. The virus was first detected at the base on the southern island of Okinawa on Friday, the authorities said, adding that it was unclear how many of those people had been sickened by Omicron. The government has asked the United States to increase restrictions on and around the base, a top Japanese health official said on Monday.

Just a few weeks after reopening to foreign tourists, Thailand said on Tuesday that it was pausing its quarantine-free travel program until Jan. 4 because of concern about the variant.

In Indonesia, where only 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the government has banned entry by foreign nationals from several countries in Africa and Europe. The government has said it is considering increasing the quarantine period for Indonesian citizens arriving from those countries to 14 days from 10, local news outlets reported.

And in Australia, the Omicron variant is coursing through the community and has even reached Yulara, a remote community more than 1,000 miles south of the nearest coastal city, Darwin. Two workers who had flown there from Brisbane tested positive, the health authorities said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted, however, that the country would not return to harsh lockdowns.

“Yes, we’re going to need to continue to calibrate how we manage this virus and how we live with this virus in the face of Omicron,” Mr. Morrison said on Tuesday. But, he added: “We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re not going back to shutting down people’s lives.”

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