Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

A new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in New York City, and it contains an alarming mutation that may make it less susceptible to vaccines.

Known as B.1.526, the variant first appeared in samples collected in November, and it has since been spreading rapidly in the city. By the middle of February, it was present in more than one in four samples in the city’s virus database.

Two studies published online this week by researchers at Caltech and Columbia University found that the variant in New York shared characteristics similar to variants discovered in South Africa and Brazil, which have been shown to weaken the effectiveness of vaccines. One study found that patients infected with the variant were about six years older on average and more likely to have been hospitalized.

The studies also found evidence that the South Africa and Brazil variants had been circulating in the city. And the British variant continues to gain steam in New York City, making up 6.2 percent of cases, up from 2.7 percent in late January.

New York City officials said today that the risks posed by the variant were not yet fully understood. The city is not yet making any major changes to its public health response.

While cases in the city have fallen since the holiday surge, they have been declining more slowly compared to the rest of the nation. Even so, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has begun reopening many sectors, including indoor dining, major sports stadiums, movie theaters and wedding venues.

The city so far has vaccinated about one million people. The positivity rate among people over 75 in New York has dropped quickly, and emergency room visits for people over 65 are falling.

But a new paper from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy argues that as more contagious variants spread, vaccinations needed to speed up.

The paper notes: “A major peak in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the near future remains a strong possibility.”

The vaccine rollout in South America has opened the floodgates to a wave of corruption scandals that are exposing how the powerful and well-connected have jumped the line to get doses.

Two government ministers in Peru and one in Argentina have resigned for receiving or giving preferential access to vaccines. A minister in Ecuador is being investigated for doing the same. Prosecutors across the region are examining thousands more accusations of irregularities in inoculation drives, most of them involving local politicians and their families cutting in line.

The region, like other developing areas, has struggled to procure a large number of vaccines, and the scarcity has amplified the public’s anger at the scandals. South America has also been devastated by the virus, accounting for nearly a fifth of all pandemic deaths worldwide, despite representing about 5 percent of the world’s population.

“They all knew that patients have been dying,” said Robert Campos, 67, a doctor in Peru’s capital, Lima, of the country’s politicians. “And they vaccinated all their little friends.”

After the pandemic hit they were called “prisons,” “tinderboxes” and “death pits.”

Some of the grimmest chapters of the pandemic were set in nursing homes, where the virus took the lives of residents and staff members with brutal efficiency. More than 163,000 people who lived or worked in nursing homes died, accounting for more than a third of all U.S. virus deaths since the late spring.

But the tide is beginning to turn.

My colleague David Leonhardt, who writes the Morning newsletter, took a look at nursing home deaths along with The Times’s graphics team — and found heartening news.

Since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, which prioritized nursing home residents and staff members, new cases and deaths within their walls have fallen steeply, outpacing national declines.

I stay home with the kids remote learning. I serve snacks, and meals, and do laundry, and find glue sticks and rubber bands. There is no break coming. I wait for Friday and then wonder why. Eleven months. Drudgery. People who are not me (people who don’t care?) go to football games and church … I seethe with rage. And daydream about smoking. But don’t.

— Katie Stellitano, Tucson, Ariz.

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