The pandemic, paired with natural disasters, drives a record number of illegal U.S. border crossings.


ImageThe pandemic, paired with natural disasters, drives a record number of illegal U.S. border crossings.
Migrants were lined up and processed by Border Patrol north of the Roma–Ciudad Miguel Aleman International Bridge, which spans the Rio Grande border with Mexico, in Roma, Texas, U.S. October 1, 2021Credit...Jason Garza/Via Reuters

A record 1.7 million migrants from around the world, many of them fleeing pandemic-ravaged countries, were encountered trying to enter the United States illegally in the last 12 months. The tally capped a year of chaos at the southern border, which has emerged as one of the most formidable challenges for the Biden administration.

It was the highest number of illegal crossings recorded since at least 1960, when the government first began tracking such entries. The number was similarly high for the 2000 fiscal year, when border agents caught 1.6 million people, according to government data.

Single adults represented the largest group of those detained in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, at 1.1 million, or 64 percent of all crossers. There were also large numbers of migrant families — more than 479,000, which is about 48,000 fewer than during the last surge in family crossings in 2019.

But the nearly 147,000 children whom agents encountered without parents or guardians was the largest number since 2008, when the government started tallying unaccompanied minors.

The crossers hailed from around the globe, many of them seeking economic opportunity as the coronavirus pandemic erased hundreds of millions of jobs. Agents caught people from more than 160 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with Mexico accounting for the largest share.

In addition to the pandemic, two hurricanes destroyed livelihoods and homes in Guatemala and Honduras, where extortion and violence from gangs have persisted in many communities, further fueling an exodus.

A public health rule, invoked by President Donald J. Trump at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to seal the border, has remained in place under the Biden administration. Over the last 12 months, the Border Patrol has carried out more than one million expulsions of migrants back to Mexico or to the migrants’ home countries.

President Biden has walked a fine line between trying to control the influx and put in place a more humane approach to border enforcement. Republicans have blamed Mr. Biden’s promises to reverse Trump-era immigration policies for fueling the surge, as word spread that the country’s borders had become easier to breach.

Regulators at the F.D.A. say the Pfizer vaccine’s benefits outweigh the key risks for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Lydia Melo, 7, getting a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine during a trial at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in September.Credit...Shawn Rocco/Duke University, via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators evaluated for the first time on Friday the safety and efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine for children 5 to 11, saying that the benefits of staving off Covid-19 with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine generally outweighed the risks of the most worrisome possible side effects in that age group.

The analysis came on the same day that the Food and Drug Administration posted data from Pfizer showing that the vaccine had a 90.7 percent efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 in a clinical trial of 5- to 11-year-olds.

The findings could add momentum for F.D.A. authorization of the pediatric dose on an emergency basis, perhaps as early as next week, opening up a long-awaited new phase of the nation’s vaccination campaign. The agency’s independent vaccine expert committee is set to vote Tuesday on whether to recommend authorization.

In a briefing document posted on the F.D.A. website, the agency said it had balanced the dangers of hospitalization, death or other serious consequences from Covid-19 against the risk of side effects. That included myocarditis, a rare condition involving inflammation of the heart muscle that has been linked to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, especially among young men.

“The overall analysis predicted that the numbers of clinically significant Covid-19-related outcomes prevented would clearly outweigh the numbers of vaccine-associated excess myocarditis cases,” regulators wrote.

As is customary, the regulators took no stance on whether the new use of a vaccine should be authorized.

If the F.D.A. rules in favor of authorization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its own panel of vaccine experts agree, the 28 million children in that age group could become eligible for shots in the first week of November.

“There’s a lot of data to be encouraged by,” said Dr. Kathryn M. Edwards, a professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. She said the results exceeded the protection offered by the best flu vaccine and could eventually lead to the easing of restrictions intended to prevent elementary school children from contracting the virus.

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New Zealand wants a 90% vaccination rate. Street gangs may hold the key.

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The pandemic, paired with natural disasters, drives a record number of illegal U.S. border crossings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand stressed the importance of vaccinations as the country moved away from lockdowns, announcing a new, color-coded system of restrictions to be implemented when the country reaches its vaccination target.CreditCredit...Phil Walter/Getty Images

Rawiri Jansen, a Maori doctor, had an urgent message for the 150 people, mostly patch-wearing members of New Zealand’s plentiful street gangs and their families, who sat before him on a bright Saturday afternoon.

Covid-19 is coming for them, he said. Cases in New Zealand’s hospitals are rising rapidly. Soon, dozens of new infections a day might become hundreds or even a thousand. People will die. And vaccination is the only defense. “When your doctors are scared, you should be scared,” he said.

By the end of the day, after an exhaustive question-and-answer session with other health professionals, roughly a third of those present chose to receive a dose then and there.

Having abandoned its highly successful “Covid-zero” elimination strategy in response to an outbreak of the Delta variant, New Zealand is undergoing a difficult transition to trying to keep coronavirus cases as low as possible. On Friday, the country set a target of getting at least 90 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated — a goal, the highest in the developed world, whose success hinges on persuading people like those who gathered to hear Dr. Jansen.

Already, 86 percent of the eligible population has received at least one dose. But the final few percent are the most difficult to reach, and one group of particular concern is the gang community, many of whose members are Maori or Pacific Islanders, who make up about a quarter of the overall population. In the past two months, multiple outbreaks have been reported among gangs, a subset of the population less likely to comply with official vaccination efforts, forcing officials to cooperate with gang leaders to reach their communities.

Spain will reimburse thousands of people fined during 2020 lockdown.

MADRID, Spain — The government will reimburse hundreds of thousands of residents who were fined for violating the rules of last year’s Covid-19 lockdown amid a surge of infections.

The measure, announced Friday by the ministry of territorial affairs, is set to benefit those who paid about 1.1 million fines in the spring of 2020. At the time, Spain found itself on the front line of the pandemic and imposed one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns, including on children, who were kept inside, unable to exercise or even go on errands with their parents.

The decision comes after Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled in July that the government had overstepped its powers and violated the rights of citizens to freedom of movement when it decreed a state of emergency in March 2020.

Although not all those who were penalized paid the fines, the government estimated in July that it had collected about 115 million euros during Spain’s initial state of emergency, which lasted three months.

In its ruling, the court’s panel did not condemn the government for forcing people to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but the judges struck down the government’s interpretation of its right to decree a state of emergency as well as some specific measures, including stopping people from leaving their official residences to spend the lockdown in a second home.

The ruling followed a complaint filed by Spain’s far-right opposition party, Vox. Spain’s constitutional court must still issue a final ruling over the legality of the country’s second state of emergency, which was intended to contain another spike in Covid-19 cases and ran from November 2020 to May 2021.

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Here’s what you need to know to navigate the C.D.C.’s new mix-and-match vaccine strategy.

The approval of the mix-and-match approach for coronavirus vaccine booster shots left Americans with many questions.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday that Americans could choose a booster dose of a vaccine different from the one they had initially received — the so-called mix-and-match strategy.

Preliminary evidence strongly suggests that mixing two Covid vaccine types produces a stronger immune response than matching the booster to the initial vaccine.

Booster doses of an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) seem to raise antibody levels higher than a booster dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

A pop-up vaccination clinic in West Palm Beach, Fla., in August. Vaccines remain highly protective against severe illness and death in the vast majority of people.Credit...Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Among Americans initially immunized with an mRNA vaccine, the following groups should receive a single booster dose six months or more after their second dose, the C.D.C. decided:

  • adults over 65.

  • adults who are 50 to 65 with certain medical conditions.

  • those who reside in long-term care settings.

Adults ages 18 to 49 with certain medical conditions and those whose jobs regularly expose them to the virus may choose to get a booster. And recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should receive a booster shot at least two months after the first dose.

People who have received two mRNA vaccine doses or a single Johnson & Johnson dose should still consider themselves fully vaccinated.

Research indicates that, with the exception of adults over 65, the vaccines remain highly protective against severe illness and death in the vast majority of people.

There is not much information available on the safety of the boosters, but they may have some of the same side effects experienced with the initial doses.

It’s unclear how long protection from a booster shot might last, and whether people who receive them will need another booster in the future.

A limited C.D.C. study finds no significant change in hospitalization outcomes during the U.S. Delta wave.

A Covid patient in an intensive care unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., in September.Credit...Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday took aim at the question of whether the Delta variant of the coronavirus causes more severe disease, finding no significant differences in the course of hospitalized patients’ illnesses during the Delta wave compared to earlier in the pandemic.

But larger and more detailed studies from a number of other countries have found that people with Delta infections were considerably more likely to be hospitalized in the first place — a trend that the C.D.C. study was unable to address because of limitations in its data. The C.D.C. study also said that the proportion of older hospitalized patients needing intensive care or dying had shown some signs of increasing during the Delta wave.

Delta’s higher level of infectiousness has made it a far greater challenge than earlier versions of the virus, but the question of whether it also causes more serious disease has loomed as it swept around the world. The Alpha variant, an earlier version first detected in Britain, appeared to be linked to a higher risk of death, though scientists have also tried to understand whether factors besides the variant were playing a role.

Studies in England, Scotland, Canada and Singapore suggested that the Delta variant was associated with more severe illness, a finding that scientists have said raises the risk that outbreaks of the variant in unvaccinated areas may put a bigger burden on health systems. Unlike the C.D.C. study, those studies drew on genomic sequencing, allowing researchers to distinguish infections with the Delta variant and to track patients from before they enter a hospital.

Without access to sequencing data, the C.D.C. researchers could not determine which variants the patients may have been infected with. It also examined patients already admitted to hospitals, making it impossible to determine whether they were at higher risk of needing hospital care in the first place.

The study, released on Friday, examined roughly 7,600 Covid hospitalizations, comparing July and August — when Delta dominated — to earlier months this year, and found no significant change in hospitalized patients’ outcomes.

The study said that the proportion of hospitalized patients aged 50 and older who died or were admitted to intensive care “generally trended upward in the Delta period,” though the differences were not statistically significant and further work was needed. At the hospitals included in the study, roughly 70 percent of Covid patients were unvaccinated.

The researchers said the findings matched those of other C.D.C. studies using similar methods that showed no significant differences in the outcomes of younger people hospitalized before and during the Delta surge.

Outside scientists questioned the reliability of the study.

Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, ran a larger study that found that people infected with the Delta variant had roughly twice the risk of hospitalization as people infected with variants that had not been labeled a concern. He said that such analyses needed to control for the range of factors that affect the course of Covid patients’ illnesses, and that the availability of vaccines, testing and treatments had all been changing during the pandemic.

“As this is the U.S. C.D.C., I’m really surprised at the small sample sizes for individuals with more detailed clinical information, as well as the use of such rudimentary statistical methods to deal with these data,” he said.

Dr. Fisman’s study, drawing on 200,000 cases and published this month, also showed significantly increased risks of intensive care admission and death among those infected with the Delta variant, after accounting for their age, sex, vaccination status and other factors.

Roughly 70 percent of people with Delta infections in the study were unvaccinated, and 28 percent were partially vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people are heavily protected from Covid.

Similarly, a study in Scotland from June based on 20,000 Covid cases showed that Delta infections were associated with an 85 percent higher risk of hospitalization, though it allowed for a wide degree of uncertainty about the precise figure.

And data from England, drawn from 43,000 cases and published in August, found that people infected with the Delta variant were just over twice as likely to be hospitalized as people with the Alpha variant, though the researchers in that study, too, were unsure of the precise figure.

Roughly three-quarters of the patients in that study were unvaccinated, and most of the rest were only partially vaccinated.

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Belarus drops mask mandates as infections spike, drawing criticism.

President Alexander G. Lukashenko of Belarus in Minsk, the capital, on Friday. His unconcerned attitude toward the pandemic has angered many Belarusians.Credit...Pool photo by Nikolay Petrov/via AP

Belarusian authorities on Friday horrified some of the country’s doctors by abolishing mask mandates, less than two weeks after their introduction during the pandemic and a day after the country registered a record number of new coronavirus infections.

The decision came after the nation’s authoritarian president, Alexander G. Lukashenko, dismissed the measures as unnecessary.

“It’s just over the top to send police to track down those who aren’t wearing masks,” Mr. Lukashenko said this week. “We aren’t the West.”

Dr. Nikita Solovei, a leading Belarusian infectious disease expert in the capital, Minsk, sharply criticized the decision. He described it as “madness” amid soaring contagion, and warned that “officials will bear responsibility.”

The mask mandates were introduced on Oct. 9, requiring Belarusians to wear masks in all indoor public areas, on public transportation and in stores.

On Thursday, the country officially reported 2,097 new Covid-19 infections, the highest number for the country so far. Many have criticized the official figures as an undercount.

When the pandemic struck, Mr. Lukashenko had dismissed concern over the coronavirus as “psychosis” and refused to impose any restrictions. The country was the only one in Europe to keep holding professional soccer games with fans in the stands while the outbreak was in full swing.

The 67-year-old former state farm director previously advised Belarusians to “kill the virus with vodka,” go to saunas and work in the fields to avoid infection. “Tractors will cure everybody!” he once proclaimed.

His attitude angered many Belarusians and contributed to the public outrage over Mr. Lukashenko’s victory for a sixth term in 2020 — an election the opposition and the West have rejected as a sham.

Belarusian authorities have registered a total of more than 580,000 Covid-19 infections and 4,482 deaths. Only about 20 percent of the population has been vaccinated, using vaccines made in Russia and China.

The authorities have stopped reporting daily deaths. Andrei Tkachev, the coordinator of Belarus’s Medical Solidarity Foundation — an association of volunteers and doctors that helps medical workers who faced reprisals from the government — and others have rejected the official statistics.

“Official statistics can’t be trusted,” Mr. Tkachev said. “Overcrowded hospitals are a testimony of that.”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition challenger in the 2020 election, who was forced to move to neighboring Lithuania after the vote under official pressure, also dismissed the official numbers.

“People don’t believe the government and official statistics, and they see huge lines at clinics and hospitals,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said during an online conference. “Belarus faces the worst wave of the coronavirus, and it’s not ready for that.”