Covid Live Updates: N.H.L. Pauses Its Season Because of Omicron

As U.S. virus cases surge, President Biden announces new steps, including buying 500 million tests to distribute to the public for free and readying 1,000 military medical professionals.

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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.

Capt. Edward Rauch Jr., left, a U.S. Army critical care nurse, tending to a Covid patient on a ventilator at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Mich., on Friday.Credit…Jeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Biden will announce new steps on Tuesday to confront a staggering surge in coronavirus cases, including readying 1,000 military medical professionals to help at overburdened hospitals, setting up new federal testing sites, deploying hundreds of federal vaccinators and buying 500 million rapid tests to distribute free to the public.

The measures, outlined to reporters on Monday night by two senior administration officials, come as coronavirus caseloads are rapidly rising around the country, particularly in the Northeast, fueled by the highly infectious new Omicron variant.

The 500 million tests that the administration intends to buy will not be available until January, the officials said, adding that the government intends to create a website where people can request that tests be sent to their homes.

The plan for new federal testing sites will debut in New York City, where several new sites will be running before Christmas. And Mr. Biden intends to invoke the Defense Production Act, officials said, to accelerate production of tests.

The plan has a more urgent tone than the winter pandemic strategy that Mr. Biden announced three weeks ago at the National Institutes of Health, just days after the new variant was discovered. At the time, he promised that the 150 million Americans with private health insurance would be able to get reimbursed for at-home Covid-19 tests starting in mid-January, said his administration would improve access to booster shots and imposed new testing requirements for international travelers.

President Biden boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Friday.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

President Biden was in close contact with a White House official who later tested positive for the coronavirus, the administration said on Monday.

The president came into contact with the official aboard Air Force One on Friday, spending about 30 minutes near that person during a trip from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. The official, who was vaccinated and had received a booster shot, began experiencing symptoms two days later and tested positive on Monday morning.

“The president is tested on a regular basis. As part of that regular testing, the president received an antigen test Sunday and tested negative,” Ms. Psaki said. “This morning, after being notified of the staffer’s positive test, the president received a P.C.R. test and tested negative.”

She added that Mr. Biden would be tested again on Wednesday, and that as a fully vaccinated person, he was not required to quarantine after exposure.

Administration officials acknowledge that as the highly contagious Omicron variant has surged, there have been cases in and around the White House, including the National Security Council, State Department and other agencies. At least one person who traveled with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on a trip abroad last week tested positive, causing Mr. Blinken to cut his trip short.

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.”

The SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

At least 132 employees at SpaceX’s Southern California headquarters have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to information posted on a Los Angeles County website. It is the highest number of cases currently reported among private companies in the United States.

The outbreak erupted as a wave of infections spread through the country, driven mainly by the Omicron virus variant, and as the private space company founded and led by Elon Musk is conducting a rapid series of rocket launches at sites in California and Florida.

About 6,000 employees at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., build and manufacture SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules. The rockets are the dominant launch vehicle used by private companies and governments to put satellites in orbit, and the capsules are NASA’s primary vehicle for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The company’s mission control room, where engineers are frequently shown during live video streams of launches, seated behind computer monitors wearing masks, is also in Hawthorne.

The outbreak at the headquarters, reported earlier by The Los Angeles Times based on data posted Sunday by Los Angeles County’s public health department, comes at a busy time for the company.

SpaceX broke a company record on Sunday for the quickest turnaround time between two missions, launching a Turkish satellite to space from Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 18 hours after launching 52 of the company’s Starlink internet satellites to orbit on Saturday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Another mission from Florida is scheduled for Tuesday morning, sending a cargo capsule full of supplies and research to the space station for NASA, though local weather appears unfavorable.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

During an earlier phase of the pandemic, Mr. Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, balked at restrictions in California meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In May last year, Mr. Musk, also the chief executive of Tesla, the electric carmaker, defied a public health order by resuming production at the company’s Fremont factory despite county restrictions that would have prevented employees from working.

On the day after Thanksgiving this year, Mr. Musk stoked fears of bankruptcy for SpaceX in emails sent to employees, urging them to work through engineering challenges related to the development of Starship, the company’s next-generation rocket.

The pandemic has frequently disrupted spaceflight activities, costing NASA nearly $3 billion from delays, according to an internal report, and a European-Russian mission to Mars had to be postponed until 2022 early in 2020. Nonetheless, SpaceX has sustained its operations throughout the pandemic, including resuming astronaut launches from American soil in May 2020.

Mr. Musk himself tested positive for the virus in November 2020 and was precluded from attending a launch of four astronauts to space for NASA from the Kennedy Space Center.

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