New Zealand announced on Sunday that it would impose its highest level of Covid restrictions across the country at midnight, after at least nine cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant were reported.
The cases, in the South Island town of Nelson, are the first Omicron infections detected outside of workers connected to the international airport or the country’s hotel quarantine facilities. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said some of the infected people had attended a large wedding in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.
“That means Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson-Marlborough region, if not elsewhere,” Ms. Ardern said at a news conference announcing the restrictions.
New Zealand was pursuing a zero-Covid strategy until last year, when a major outbreak of the Delta variant forced it to give up those aspirations. But its numbers have remained low. Over the last two months, New Zealand has reported just a few dozen new cases per day.
It was unclear how the people in Nelson — members of a single, multigenerational family — had contracted the virus, though Ms. Ardern said they had recently flown on the same Air New Zealand flight as an air steward who later tested positive with Omicron.
Ms. Ardern said the new measures, classified as “Red” under the country’s traffic-light-based system, were “not lockdown.”
“At Red, businesses stay open and you can do most of things that you normally do, including visiting family and friends and traveling around the country,” she said.
But people who are not vaccinated will face significant restrictions, including being barred from worship services and from businesses that serve food or drinks. Schools will stay open, but all pupils from third grade up must wear masks. Events like weddings and funerals will be limited to 100 people, all of whom must be vaccinated. (If unvaccinated people attend, the limit is reduced to 25.)
More than 93 percent of New Zealand’s population aged 12 and up are considered fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but only 23 percent have received a booster shot. The new restrictions are expected to be kept in place for a number of weeks as more booster shots are distributed.
On Friday, New Zealand announced that people who test positive for the virus would need to isolate for 14 days, up from 10. Their close contacts must now isolate for 10 days, instead of a week.
The Omicron variant has brought the pandemic to some of the most remote regions of the world this week. Some island nations in the Pacific recorded their first cases, prompting the first lockdowns of the pandemic in Kiribati and Samoa.
At the news conference, Ms. Ardern said that her wedding to her partner, the television host Clarke Gayford, would not be held in the coming weeks as planned.
“I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts from the pandemic,” she said of the postponement. “The most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one when they are gravely ill — that will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.”
Hong Kong locked down a half dozen apartment buildings and ordered testing for 37,000 people after more than 100 new cases of the Omicron variant were reported in a housing complex, posing a risk of “exponential growth,” the city’s top official said.
The outbreak follows a cluster of Delta variant cases connected with a pet shop that led the government to call for the culling of 2,000 hamsters on Tuesday. At least nine people connected with pet shops had been infected as of Saturday.
Hong Kong has been largely successful at preventing the sort of rampant Covid spread seen in the United States and elsewhere. But a jump in infections from multiple sources has led to fears that cases could surge, particularly at a vast housing complex in the Kwai Chung district, in the New Territories area of the Chinese mainland.
“We are worried in an exponential increase of Omicron cases, like we’ve seen in other parts of the world, now happening in this estate,” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said on Saturday.
Mrs. Lam announced that one apartment building would be locked down for five days, after another building in the complex began a five-day lockdown on Friday. Four more buildings in the neighborhood have been ordered to undergo a single-day lockdown. All 37,000 residents in the complex and a pair of nearby buildings that house police and other government employees have been ordered to undergo testing.
The outbreak in the housing complex is believed to have originated with a woman who was infected while undergoing a three-week hotel quarantine after returning to Hong Kong from Pakistan.
A Virginia woman was charged with a misdemeanor on Friday after she issued a threat at a school board meeting if the district continued to enforce a mask mandate where her children attend class.
Mask mandates were the topic of the evening at the Page County Public Schools board meeting in Luray, Va., on Thursday night when Amelia Ruffner King stepped to the podium to speak during time allotted for public comment.
“My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on, all right?” Ms. King, 42, said. “That’s not happening. And I will bring every single gun loaded and ready to, I will call every …”
She was cut off before she could finish.
“I’ll see you all on Monday,” Ms. King said as she left.
The remarks caused school officials to plan for an increased police presence throughout the district on Monday.
Virginia has been the site of acrimonious debates over pandemic mandates at public schools. An executive order issued by the new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, and set to go into effect on Monday allows parents to opt out from having their children wear masks at school.
Some school leaders in the state, like Superintendent Jason Kamras of Richmond Public Schools, have vowed to keep mask mandates in place, and a group of parents have filed a legal challenge to the governor’s executive order, setting up a showdown at the Virginia Supreme Court.
The school board in Page County voted 4 to 2 on Thursday night to effectively support the governor’s order and to allow parents to opt out of the mask mandate.
Phone messages left at numbers listed for Ms. King were not immediately returned.
The Luray police chief did not immediately return a message, but the department said on Friday that it had charged Ms. King with communicating an oral threat while on school property, a misdemeanor, and that she had been released on a $5,000 bond.
Earlier on Friday, the police said Ms. King had contacted the authorities to apologize because “the statement was not intended the way it was perceived.”
In a statement on Friday, school officials said that the comments contradicted the kind of behavior the district tries to model for students and how community members should interact with each other.
“Violence and threats are never acceptable or appropriate,” Superintendent Antonia M. Fox and Megan Gordon, the board chair, said. “This kind of behavior is not tolerated from our students, faculty, staff, nor will it be tolerated by parents or guests of our school division.”
The cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are pushing back their Carnival parades to the end of April, as Brazil endures a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths linked to the Omicron variant.
The world-renowned festivities were scheduled to begin on Feb. 25, but the cities’ health agencies said in a joint statement on Friday that they would postpone the parades until April 21, predicting “safer” conditions at that point.
Brazil was reporting an average of 119,030 cases per day in the past week, a 426 percent increase from the average two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. Deaths also increased 271 percent from two weeks ago, according to the data.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, which includes the city, has reported an average of 19,093 cases in the last week, up almost 500 percent from two weeks ago. The state of São Paulo has reported far fewer cases — an average of 6,832 in the past week — but still a 324 percent increase in positive tests, the data shows.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, announced earlier this month that the city’s street parties would be canceled but that the official parade, in which samba groups put on elaborately choreographed shows, would continue with health precautions.
Rio canceled both the parade and the street parties in 2021, when Brazil’s death toll was surging amid a slow vaccination rollout. Seventy percent of the country’s population is now fully vaccinated, according to The Times’s tracker.
— Esha Ray
With only a few weeks left in the season, the N.F.L. and N.F.L. Players Association dropped extra testing requirements for unvaccinated players.
In a memo sent on Friday to the eight clubs still playing, the league said there was no longer a distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated players when it comes to testing, and all players and staff that work with them “will be subject to strategic and targeted testing.”
The new rules only affect about a dozen or so players who are unvaccinated or not on a 90-day testing holiday because they had tested positive, according to the league.
The league previously reduced its testing cadence in December, agreeing with the players’ union to only test players when they are considered close contacts or show symptoms. It also mandated that essential staff who interact with players receive booster shots. Asymptomatic vaccinated players can also “test out” of protocols and return to play as soon as 24 hours after a positive test if they are no longer deemed contagious.
Dr. Allen Sills, the N.F.L.’s chief medical officer, said that this week’s changes were prompted by a review of data collected in the past month or so that allowed the league to analyze the impact of the Omicron variant.
Sills said that the number of positive cases for players and staff has plunged in each of the past three weeks, a sign that the threat from the variant is fading. He said vaccinated and unvaccinated players shed the virus in similar ways, and that teams have not seen outbreaks even after players and staff were allowed to return after five days if they did not have any symptoms.
“We wanted to get 30 days of Omicron data under our belt,” Sills said. “We’re clearly seeing the case numbers go down.”
The league said that all players would be subject to “enhanced symptom screening” and any player or staff member who reports symptoms will be tested “promptly” and isolated until the results of their rapid test are received. The league will continue to do “targeted surveillance testing” as well.
Sills pushed back against the notion that by reducing testing frequency the league was trying to avoid learning whether players were infected as a way to keep them on the field for the playoffs.
“It’s not that we’re not looking,” he said. “I think the numbers are going down.”
CHICAGO — New coronavirus cases have started to fall nationally, signaling that the Omicron-fueled spike that has infected tens of millions of Americans, packed hospitals and shattered records has finally begun to relent.
More and more states have passed a peak in new cases in recent days, as glimmers of progress have spread from a handful of eastern cities to much of the country. Through Thursday, the country was averaging about 736,000 new cases a day, down from about 807,000 last week. New coronavirus hospital admissions have leveled off.
Even as hopeful data points emerge, the threat has by no means passed. The United States continues to identify far more infections a day than in any prior surge, and some states in the West, South and Great Plains are still seeing sharp increases. Many hospitals are full. And deaths continue to mount, with more than 2,000 announced most days.
But following a month of extraordinary rates of case growth, blocklong lines at testing centers and military deployments to bolster understaffed I.C.U.s, the declining new-case tallies offered a sense of relief to virus-weary Americans, especially in the Northeast and parts of the Upper Midwest, where the trends were most encouraging. After another round of masking up or hunkering down, some were considering what life might look like if conditions continued to improve.
“Especially after this wave, the level of exhaustion in New York City cannot be exaggerated, and the level of numbness is quite significant,” said Mark D. Levine, Manhattan’s borough president. He added: “What we have to do now is not pretend like Covid has disappeared, but manage it to the point where it does not disrupt our life.”
In states where new cases have started to fall, the declines have so far been swift and steep, largely mirroring the rapid ascents that began in late December. Those patterns have resembled the ones seen in South Africa, the country whose scientists warned the world about Omicron, and the first place to document a major surge of the variant. New cases in South Africa have fallen 84 percent from their mid-December peak, to about 3,700 cases a day from a high of 23,400, though they remain above the levels seen in the weeks before Omicron took hold.
Scientists said it remained an open question whether Omicron marked the transition of the coronavirus from a pandemic to a less-threatening endemic virus, or whether future surges or variants would introduce a new round of tumult.
“It’s important for people to not be like, ‘Oh, it’s over,’” said Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “It’s not over until we get back down to a lull. We’re not there yet.”
Scientists have been working overtime to study Omicron. Many questions remain unanswered, but here’s what they’ve learned so far, on everything from infection and incubation (it spreads very fast) to how severe it can be (less so if you have gotten a booster shot).
Infection and Incubation
Omicron moves fast. It spreads swiftly through populations, and infections develop quickly in individuals.
Omicron’s incubation period — the time between an exposure and an infected person developing symptoms — is roughly three days, according to a recent C.D.C. study. That’s a day or two faster than earlier versions of the virus.
Omicron appears to cause less severe disease than Delta. In one recent study, researchers found that people with Omicron infections were less likely to be hospitalized, end up in the I.C.U. or require mechanical ventilation than those with Delta infections.
One possible explanation is that Omicron is less likely to damage the lungs than previous variants. But it may also stem from the fact that it is infecting far more vaccinated people than the Delta variant did.
Still, some patients, especially those who are unvaccinated or have compromised immune systems, may become severely ill from Omicron infections. And it’s too early to know whether breakthrough cases of Omicron might result in long Covid.
Because Omicron replicates so fast and the incubation period is so short, there is a narrower window in which to catch infections before people begin to transmit the virus. Many experts now recommend taking a rapid test two to four days after a potential exposure, rather than five to seven days. They also recommend taking at least two rapid tests, about a day apart, in order to increase the odds of detecting an infection.
The Olympic torch’s public journey to the opening ceremony of the Winter Games will be much more lonely and with much less fanfare.
The torch relay, usually global and lasting for months, will be just three days, mostly local, and open only to select members of the public, according to organizers of the Beijing Olympics.
“This torch relay will always prioritize safety,” Yang Haibin, an official from the organizing committee, said at a news briefing on Friday.
The route will feature stops at the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Olympic Village in Beijing. The relay is scheduled to start Feb. 2 and finish on Feb. 4, when the Games begin.
Vaccinations are required for the torchbearers, who will be tested for coronavirus and are having have their health closely monitored until the torch relay begins.
China is going to extreme lengths to curb outbreaks that have proliferated around the country this month. At least 30 major cities have reported locally transmitted Covid cases, and many more cities have been subjected to partial lockdowns and mass testing.
The case numbers are only a few, though, with 24 locally transmitted cases in Beijing recently. Several neighborhoods there have been sealed off, and the government is increasing testing requirements for entering and leaving the capital. Officials said this week that Olympics tickets would not be sold to the public because of concerns about the virus.
When the International Olympic Committee met seven years ago to choose a host for the 2022 Winter Games, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sent a short video message that helped tip the scale in a close, controversial vote.
China had limited experience with winter sports. Little snow falls in the distant hills where outdoor events would take place. Pollution was so dense at times that it was known as the “Airpocalypse.”
Mr. Xi pledged to resolve all of this, putting his personal prestige on what seemed then like an audacious bid. “We will deliver every promise we made,” he told the Olympic delegates meeting in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
With the Games only days away, China has delivered. It has plowed through the obstacles that once made Beijing’s bid seem a long shot, and faced down new ones, including an unending pandemic and mounting international concern over its authoritarian behavior.
As in 2008, when Beijing was host of the Summer Olympics, the Games have become a showcase of the country’s achievements. Only now, it is a very different country.
China no longer needs to prove its standing on the world stage; instead, it wants to proclaim the sweeping vision of a more prosperous, more confident nation under Mr. Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Where the government once sought to mollify its critics to make the Games a success, today it defies them.
Beijing 2022 “will not only enhance our confidence in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said Mr. Xi, who this year is poised to claim a third term at the top. It will also “show a good image of our country and demonstrate our nation’s commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Mr. Xi’s government has brushed off criticism from human rights activists and world leaders as the bias of those — including President Biden — who would keep China down. It has implicitly warned Olympic broadcasters and sponsors not to bend to calls for protests or boycotts over the country’s political crackdown in Hong Kong or its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, the largely Muslim region in the northwest.
It has overruled the I.O.C. in negotiations over health protocols to combat Covid and imposed stricter safety measures than those during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year. It has insisted on sustaining its “zero Covid” strategy, evolved from China’s first lockdown, in Wuhan two years ago, regardless of the cost to its economy and its people.
DUBLIN — Ireland cleared the way for its first full public celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in two years as the prime minister, Micheal Martin, announced on Friday that most Covid restrictions would end beginning on Saturday.
“Spring is coming, and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to one as much as this one,” said Mr. Martin. “Humans are social beings, and we Irish are more social than most. As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again; we need to see each other smile; we need to sing again.”
The minister for culture, tourism and the arts, Catherine Martin, also confirmed that the nation’s St. Patrick’s Day festival would go ahead in March, after a two-year hiatus. The festival in 2020 was an early casualty of the pandemic, canceled only the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. And last year’s celebration was canceled, too.
The lifting of Covid restrictions will allow bars and restaurants to remain open past 8 p.m., the closing time that had been mandated in the run-up to the holiday season as Omicron cases surged.
Customers will no longer need to show proof of vaccination or that they have had a recent infection. Nightclubs will be able to reopen, and there will be no restrictions on the number of people who can attend events, such as weddings, concerts, sporting events, or — as is traditional in Ireland — funerals. Rules that prohibited home visits between members of more than two households are also being scrapped.
“We should all take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come, to appreciate the effort and sacrifice of those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe, to remember and appreciate the lives and contributions of those we lost,” the prime minister said.
Ireland’s reports of new daily Covid cases have been falling. On Thursday, the nation reported 5,523 new cases, down from a peak of 26,122 on Jan. 8 during the current Omicron-fueled wave. According to a New York Times database, 78 percent of the Irish population is fully vaccinated.
Face masks will still be required indoors in public spaces, such as in stores and on public transportation, for at least another month. A negative Covid test is also still required for all inbound and outbound international travel. These remaining measures will be reviewed by the end of February, by which time the government hopes many more children aged 5 to 11 years old will have been fully vaccinated.
“The pandemic isn’t over,” Mr. Martin said. “It will still require all of us to be vigilant.”
— Ed O’Loughlin
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday expanded the approved use of remdesivir, the infused antiviral medication from Gilead Sciences that has been widely used for hospitalized Covid patients since the early days the pandemic.
The drug is now also approved for high-risk Covid patients who are not sick enough to be hospitalized. That is the same group of patients that are eligible for monoclonal antibody infusions and antiviral pills, which are in very short supply.
While a limited number of hospitals and clinics have already been administering remdesivir to non-hospitalized patients on an off-label basis, the agency’s move may encourage more doctors to consider the drug for these patients.
Still, the expanded approval of remdesivir is not likely to alleviate widespread Covid treatment shortages, in large part because it is difficult to administer. The treatment must be given via intravenous infusion over three consecutive days, generally at a hospital or clinic. That is easy enough for patients who are hospitalized, but much harder to do for medically vulnerable patients who are ill and at home. Doctors who are already overwhelmed by the Omicron surge have said the treatment is difficult to launch amid widespread staffing shortages.
Remdesivir, which in October 2020 became the first Covid treatment to win full approval, generated intense interest early in the pandemic, but many experts grew skeptical of its benefits for hospitalized patients. The data supporting its use in patients earlier in their illness are stronger.
In clinical trial results published in December, remdesivir was found to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 87 percent when given to unvaccinated, high-risk Covid patients in the United States and Europe within seven days of the start of symptoms. That study was conducted before the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants, but remdesivir has been found in laboratory experiments to remain potent against Omicron.
Unlike monoclonal antibodies and antiviral pills, which are distributed to states by the federal government, remdesivir is available for ordering on the commercial market. The drug is priced at $2,080 per treatment course at the dosage required for non-hospitalized adults.
Remdesivir, which Gilead sells under the brand name Veklury, has been given to more than 10 million Covid patients, Gilead said on Friday. The company is starting a safety study of a pill form of remdesivir that would sidestep the challenges created by having to infuse it.
The Omicron variant brought the pandemic to some of the most remote regions of the world this week, as some island nations in the Pacific Ocean record their first cases.
Since it was first identified in southern Africa in late November, the highly transmissible variant has spread with unmatched speed, shattering records for new cases in the United States and leading officials in Europe to predict that nearly half of its population will soon become infected. Now, it has found a foothold in a number of island nations that had previously been spared.
Some are recording their first cases spreading locally since the pandemic began. Others that have maintained single-digit caseloads for much of the pandemic are watching with alarm as local outbreaks spread.
One of the most drastic examples is Kiribati, a collection of atolls and reef islands scattered across an area about twice the size of Alaska.
The country of roughly 119,000 people has kept its borders shut for much of the pandemic. Until recently, it had recorded only two Covid cases.
But when the first international flight to enter Kiribati in 10 months arrived last week from Fiji, 36 passengers tested positive for the virus. Infections spread. Now Tarawa, the capital, will go into lockdown on Monday.
In other news from around the world this week:
Booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are keeping infected Americans from ending up in the hospital, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed. The extra doses are 90 percent effective against hospitalization with Omicron and are most effective against infection and death among Americans aged 50 and older, according to the data.
After the Omicron variant was detected in Beijing, China announced the end of domestic ticket sales for the Olympics, which begin in the Chinese capital on Feb. 4. Foreign spectators had already been barred from the Winter Games.
The World Health Organization endorsed the wide use of booster shots and recommended expanding the use of a reduced dosage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11. The changes brought the W.H.O.’s guidance closer to that of most wealthy nations, including the United States.
Americans started placing orders for free at-home rapid test kits from a U.S. government website this week, as the Biden administration made its first effort to make testing widely available. The government also said it would soon start sending every household free, high quality masks.
The British singer Adele announced that she would delay her Las Vegas residency, which was set to begin on Friday, citing production problems and the toll Covid-19 had taken on her team. She released her latest album, “30,” in November.
Lauren Terry, 23, thought she would know what to do if she contracted Covid-19. After all, she manages a lab in Tucson that processes Covid tests.
But when she developed symptoms on Christmas Eve, she quickly realized she had no inside information.
“I first tried to take whatever rapid tests I could get my hands on,” Ms. Terry said. “I bought some over the counter. I got a free kit from my county library. A friend gave me a box. I think I tried five different brands.” When they all turned up negative, she took a P.C.R. test, but that too, was negative.
With clear symptoms, she didn’t believe the results. So she turned to Twitter. “I was searching for the Omicron rapid test efficacy and trying to figure out what brand works on this variant and what doesn’t and how long they take to produce results,” she said. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that rapid antigen tests may be less sensitive to the Omicron variant but has not identified any specific tests that outright fail to detect it.) “I started seeing people on Twitter say they were having symptoms and only testing positive days later. I decided not to see anybody for the holidays when I read that.”
She kept testing, and a few days after Christmas she received the result she had expected all along.
Though it’s been almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, this phase can feel more confusing than its start, in March 2020. Even P.C.R. tests, the gold standard, don’t always detect every case, especially early in the course of infection, and there is some doubt among scientists about whether rapid antigen tests perform as well with Omicron. And the need for a 10-day isolation period was thrown into question after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some people could leave their homes after only five days.
“The information is more confusing because the threat itself is more confusing,” said David Abramson, who directs the Center for Public Health Disaster Science at the N.Y.U. School of Global Public Health.
Many people are now coming to their own conclusions about Covid and how they should behave. After not contracting the virus after multiple exposures, they may conclude they can take more risks. Or if they have Covid they may choose to stay in isolation longer than the C.D.C. recommends.
And they aren’t necessarily embracing conspiracy theories. People are forming opinions after reading mainstream news articles and tweets from epidemiologists; they are looking at real-life experiences of people in their networks.
— Alyson Krueger
Of the time-honored classics of American theater, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is one that usually takes its own concept of time seriously. A four-act work based on the playwright’s own dysfunctional parents, it follows the disintegration of the Tyrone family — by disease, ego, addiction and codependency — through the course of a claustrophobic August day at their seaside home in Connecticut. Widely considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, it typically runs just under four hours.
The writer and director Robert O’Hara, a Tony nominee for his direction of “Slave Play,” is doing it in under two.
Presented without an intermission by Audible at the Minetta Lane Theater, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has reunited O’Hara with fellow “Slave Play” alums, the actor Ato Blankson-Wood and the designer Clint Ramos, for a shortened production that confronts the play’s themes head on and brings them into 2022.
“There is so much velocity in the writing that it moves at a fast clip, and with so much richness,” O’Hara said after a rehearsal last week. “The family doesn’t get an intermission throughout this one long day, so it’s quite interesting to get to sit with them in real time.”
The decision to trim the material happened early and organically, O’Hara explained. “Once you put the knife in, you’re just like, ‘Are we going to pretend that we’re not editing this?’” he quipped. It was then bolstered by his wariness of having people gather for too long, given the latest Covid-19 variant.
“For me, it feels like a Covid production of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ built for right now,” he said. “We didn’t want to ask an audience to sit for four hours in a theater, just because that’s the way it’s usually done. If anyone’s coming in looking for that experience, they should know that it’s not this.”
— Juan A. Ramírez