New Zealand plans to allow most fully vaccinated travelers into the country by the end of April without a mandatory hotel quarantine, as it slowly emerges from what has been one of the world’s longest lockdowns.
But those entering the country next year will face significant restrictions, with a mandatory seven-day home isolation period, as well as tests on departure and arrival. The border will open in stages to different countries, with fully vaccinated New Zealanders and visa holders able to travel from Australia from Jan. 16 and from elsewhere in the world starting Feb. 13. Foreign nationals will follow from April 30.
Experts have for weeks questioned the need for requiring new arrivals to quarantine when the virus is already in the community, and experts say international arrivals seem to pose no additional risk. No fully vaccinated travelers from Australia, for example, have tested positive in New Zealand’s hotel quarantine system since Aug. 23.
Some 84 percent of people in New Zealand age 12 and up are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. And representatives from the country’s tourism industry, which has struggled to contend with the long absence of foreign visitors, decried the seven-day isolation requirement.
New Zealand has been on edge since August, when an outbreak of the Delta variant erupted in Auckland and put an end to the country’s “zero Covid” approach.
“It’s very encouraging that we as a country are now in a position to move towards greater normality,” Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for New Zealand’s pandemic response, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “I do want to emphasize, though, that travel in 2022 won’t necessarily be exactly the same as it was in pre-2020 travel.”
For over a year, New Zealand has operated a lottery system for citizens and permanent residents who want to return, locking people out of the country and creating a large backlog. The system has faced legal challenges from people desperate to return home from overseas and be reunited with their families.
New Zealand is waiting until April to fully open to permit time for airlines to plan, he said, as well as to allow a transition to the country’s new “traffic light” pandemic management system that starts Dec. 2. That system will end lockdowns and place significant restrictions on the unvaccinated, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced at a news conference on Monday.
On Dec. 15, Auckland — where the country’s outbreak is concentrated — will open its border to the rest of the country.
Before the pandemic, tourism was a big part of the New Zealand economy, employing nearly 230,000 people and contributing 41.9 billion New Zealand dollars ($30.2 billion) a year. About 3.8 million foreign tourists visited between 2018 and 2019, with the majority coming from Australia. Though domestic tourism has surged while borders have been closed, the industry has struggled to make up its losses, as international tourists spend about three times as much per person as their domestic peers.
Defending New Zealand’s caution, Mr. Hipkins pointed to the new virus wave that is crashing through Europe. “As we move into 2022, we know that the pandemic is not over,” he said. “It’s not going to suddenly end, and we only need to look at Europe to know that the path out of the pandemic is not a straightforward one.”
If the U.S. government had done a better job making rapid Covid-19 tests available, the advice for how to use them this holiday weekend would be easy: Take one at the start of every day when you planned to spend time with people outside your household.
That approach is possible in other countries. In Britain, pharmacies offer free packs of seven tests that people can take at home. In Germany, rapid tests are also widely available and mostly free. In this country, the situation is different, largely because the F.D.A. has been slow to approve the tests.
The Biden administration has not been as aggressive in fixing the situation as it could have been, but it has made progress. A couple of months ago, tests were often impossible to find. Now, they are sporadically available at many stores. Friends and family around the country have told me this week that they have usually been able to find a test after looking in enough places.
The tests are not free, however. They typically cost about $25 for a pack of two. The combination of their cost and irregular availability means that Americans interested in rapid tests often must make choices about when to use them.
“Rapid tests can help reduce worries about gathering with loved ones for the holidays,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Nuzzo’s immediate family plans to take tests on Thanksgiving, before going over to their hosts’ for the meal. So do I.
Even with the limitations of rapid testing in the U.S., the tests can play an important role in slowing the spread of the virus. And the situation does seem to be improving. The F.D.A. approved three more tests this week, and the Biden administration continues to spend more to expand their availability.
By Christmas and New Year, tests should be easier to find than they are this week.
Europe’s death toll from Covid will exceed two million people by next spring, the World Health Organization projected on Tuesday, adding that the continent remained “firmly in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Covid is now the leading cause of death in Europe, the agency said in a statement, with almost 4,200 new deaths a day, double the number at the end of September. To date, Europe, including Britain and Russia, has reported 1.5 million deaths. Between now and spring, hospital beds in 25 countries and intensive care units in 49 countries are predicted to experience “high or extreme stress,” the W.H.O. said.
Dr. Hans Kluge, a regional director for the W.H.O., said Europe faced a challenging winter. “In order to live with this virus and continue our daily lives, we need to take a ‘vaccine plus’ approach,” he said.
That means getting vaccinations or booster shots if offered and taking other preventive measures to avoid the reimposing of lockdowns, like calling on the public to wear masks and maintain physical distance, he said.
Over a billion vaccine doses have been administered in Europe; about 53 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. But countries have gaping disparities in vaccination rates, the organization said, and it was essential to drive the lagging rates up, the officials said.
The W.H.O. considers Europe to include not only the countries of the European Union, but also Britain, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and several countries in the Balkans and Central Asia.
This was supposed to be the year vaccines brought the pandemic under control. Instead, more people in the United States have died from Covid-19 this year than died last year, before vaccines were available.
As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded 386,233 deaths involving Covid-19 in 2021, compared with 385,343 in 2020. The final number for this year will be higher, not only because there is more than a month left but because it takes time for local agencies to report deaths to the C.D.C.
Covid-19 has also accounted for a higher percentage of U.S. deaths this year than it did last year: about 13 percent compared with 11 percent.
Experts say the higher death toll is a result of a confluence of factors: most crucially lower-than-needed vaccination rates, but also the relaxation of everyday precautions, like masks and social distancing, and the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Essentially, public health experts said, many Americans are behaving as though Covid-19 is now a manageable, endemic disease rather than a crisis — a transition that will happen eventually but has not happened yet.
Yet many are also refusing to get vaccinated in the numbers required to make that transition to what scientists call “endemicity,” which would mean the virus would still circulate at a lower level with periodic increases and decreases, but not spike in the devastating cycles that have characterized the pandemic. Just 59 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, the lowest rate of any Group of 7 nation.
“We have the very unfortunate situation of not a high level of vaccine coverage and basically, in most places, a return to normal behaviors that put people at greater risk of coming in contact with the virus,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If you take no protections whatsoever, you have a virus that is capable of moving faster and you have dangerous gaps in immunity, that adds up to, unfortunately, a lot of continued serious illness and deaths.”
Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center, estimated that roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population might have immunity from prior infection, which is not as strong or durable as immunity from vaccines.
Many of those people have also been vaccinated, but even assuming the two groups didn’t overlap and so 74 percent of Americans had some level of immunity, that still would not be enough to end the pandemic, said Dr. Gounder. It would probably take an 85 to 90 percent vaccination rate to make the coronavirus endemic, she said.
“When vaccines rolled out, people in their minds said, ‘Covid is over,’” Dr. Gounder said. “And so even if not enough people are vaccinated, their behavior returned — at least for some people — to more normal, and with that changing behavior you have an increase in transmission.”
Some news outlets reported last week that confirmed 2021 deaths had surpassed 2020 deaths. Those reports stemmed from counts of deaths based on when the deaths were reported, not when they happened — meaning some deaths from late 2020 were counted in early 2021. The C.D.C. counts, which did not show that mark being reached until this week, are more accurate because they are based on the dates on death certificates.
In the largest revision of state vaccination numbers to date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated those for Pennsylvania, which had counted about 1.2 million more doses than had actually been administered.
The C.D.C. said the data, updated almost every day on its website, had been corrected. As of Tuesday evening, about 81 percent of people in Pennsylvania had received at least one shot of a vaccine, according to C.D.C. data, whereas on Monday the data indicated that about 84 percent of people in the state had gotten a shot.
The agency has been periodically revising vaccination numbers in states since July 14. Altogether, the C.D.C. and the states have reduced the number of reported doses in the U.S. by about 2 million.
The C.D.C. has posted on its website that the revisions are part of a collaboration with states to gather their most “complete and accurate” data. Sometimes the revisions result in more shots being added to a state’s tally. Other times they result in a drop. Illinois, for example, revised its data to add about 316,000 doses in late October only to subtract about 214,000 doses a few weeks later.
Barry Ciccocioppo, communications director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, said that the department “continues to update and refine our vaccination data throughout the commonwealth to ensure duplicate vaccination records are removed and dose classification is correct.” He said that the C.D.C. had now begun to “rectify” the data.
“This is not a practice specific to Pennsylvania and the C.D.C. is going through a similar process with other states across the country,” he said.
Cindy Prins, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said she feared that people might jump to the conclusion that there were deliberate errors in the initial reporting, but she did not believe that was the case. “I think it’s just a process of cleaning up and making sure what is in there is accurate to the best of our ability to know that,” Dr. Prins said.
Still, without fully accurate and up-to-date vaccination rates, it would be difficult for counties to make informed health recommendations, she said. If vaccination rates were overreported, that could give counties a false sense of confidence that more people are vaccinated than actually were.
The actors, Steve Burton and Ingo Rademacher, were fixtures of ABC’s “General Hospital,” a long-running daytime drama set in the fictional town of Port Charles, N.Y.
About one in five American adults has not received a single dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
Mr. Burton and Mr. Rademacher were outspoken opponents of a coronavirus vaccine mandate that applied to a part of the set where actors work unmasked, known in the industry as Zone A. The mandate took effect on Nov. 1.
“Unfortunately, ‘General Hospital’ has let me go because of the vaccine mandate,” Mr. Burton, who tested positive for the virus in August and filmed his last episode on Oct. 27, said in an Instagram video on Tuesday.
“I did apply for my medical and religious exemptions and both of those were denied — which, you know, hurts,” he added. “But this is also about personal freedom to me. I don’t think anyone should lose their livelihood over this.”
“General Hospital” has been on the air since 1963. Its episodes are filmed weeks before they air.
Mr. Rademacher played the character Jasper “Jax” Jacks on the show for 25 years. In his last episode, which aired on Monday, the character said — spoiler alert — that he would be returning to Australia.
“I’m kind of on the outs with everyone in Port Charles right now,” the character said. Some fans interpreted that as a reference to the actor’s real-life tension with his castmates.
In the same episode, Mr. Burton’s character, Jason Morgan, was caught up in a tunnel collapse.
Mr. Burton said in his Instagram video on Tuesday that he hoped the show’s vaccine mandate would be lifted so that he could finish his career playing Jason Morgan.
“And if not,” he added, “I’m going to take this experience, move forward and be forever grateful.”
Most public health experts agree that it’s OK to make holiday plans with your favorite people, as long as you’re taking precautions. Answering a few simple questions can help you make safer decisions.
You can take the quiz by clicking below, or keep reading for an overview.
Will everyone be vaccinated?
If yes — or if the only unvaccinated people are young children — that will make the party safer for everyone, though if you want to reduce the risk even further, you may want to encourage every adult to get a booster shot. If unvaccinated adults will be there, on-the-spot rapid tests are a great way to lower risk. You can also improve ventilation by opening windows, using exhaust fans, adding portable air cleaners or moving the event outdoors if weather allows.
Are any guests at higher risk from Covid?
If everyone is at relatively low risk, you may decide that being vaccinated is enough, and that additional precautions aren’t needed. But if any of your guests are older or have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, it’s important to plan the event around the most vulnerable person. That could mean using rapid tests and improving ventilation, or having the party at their home so they don’t have to travel.
Are you traveling?
Staying local is the lowest-risk option, and if you’re traveling farther, driving is safer in terms of Covid risk than taking public transportation.
If you have to fly or take a bus or train, you should take extra precautions. A high-quality medical mask like an N95, KN95 or KF94 can keep you safer; if those aren’t available, double mask with a surgical mask and quality cloth mask. If possible, you should keep it on the whole time. At airports and train or bus terminals, try to avoid crowds, keep your distance in screening lines and use hand sanitizer often.
What’s the Covid situation where you’re celebrating?
Check local Covid conditions like you would the weather, looking at vaccination rates, case counts and hospitalizations. If you’re headed to a Covid hot spot, it’s best to wear a mask in public spaces, and you may want to avoid indoor dining, especially if someone in your group is at high risk.
What’s it like where you live?
If you live in a Covid hot spot, the chance of bringing the virus with you when you travel is higher. Be vigilant about masking and avoid crowds in the days before you leave. Using rapid tests can also reassure everyone that you’re not infectious.
How big is the gathering?
When you limit a gathering to two households, it’s easier to keep track of risky behaviors and potential exposures. This doesn’t mean large families shouldn’t gather, but you may want to take extra precautions if more than two households will be present. Those precautions could include opening windows, turning on exhaust fans and using portable air cleaners. And the bigger the party, the more useful it is to have rapid tests on hand for everyone.
How long until your event?
Risk is cumulative. The choices you make before the party can help lower the risk for everyone. If you’ve been invited to other gatherings before you leave, consider skipping them, and be vigilant about reducing your exposures during travel.