An interrupted holiday season
Bethlehem, the seasonal focus for international Christendom, planned a modest Midnight Mass instead of its usual star-studded blowout. All intensive care beds at the city’s hospitals are occupied, the Health Ministry said.
Rome, which cradles the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, will be somber, too. Italy, like many European countries, is under sharp restrictions to try to slow surging infections and deaths.
And in the U.S., where more than 327,000 people have died from the coronavirus and infections are overwhelming Southern states, families face empty seats and economic despair. Many cannot afford big meals or presents, and those who celebrate may opt to do so alone, in their own households or in small groups.
Worryingly, that’s not dissimilar from Thanksgiving, which contributed to the current spike in infections and deaths via micro-spreading events.
Christmas could present even more risk: More virus is circulating, and it is a longer holiday period, when people are used to multiple get-togethers over several days.
U.S. air travel is down 60 percent compared to this time last year, but more than a million people still passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on Wednesday, the most since March.
But don’t expect to see any spikes immediately reflected in the data. At least 15 states will not publish statewide data on Christmas, and some testing sites will close or limit hours. The seven-day average for new cases, perhaps the best indicator of the national outlook, is expected to be distorted until at least Jan. 8.
“The darkness seems pretty dark at the moment,” said the Rev. Timothy Cole, an Episcopal priest in Washington who has recovered from his own bout with the virus. But like other Christians worldwide, he finds hope in the spiritual significance of the holiday story: a small event, the birth of a child, that proved to be a turning point in human history.
And, like many Christian priests, Mr. Cole hopes to instill hope with his Christmas sermon this year.“Just as wars come to end, so do pandemics,” his reads. “Until then we are sustained and made strong by what we celebrate this day.”
Reconsidering herd immunity
In the pandemic’s early days, scientists forecast that the coronavirus would be under control when 60 percent to 70 percent of a population had resistance to the virus, either by antibodies or by vaccination.
That’s herd immunity, when there just aren’t enough available hosts.
Initially, Dr. Fauci, the top epidemiologist in the U.S., hewed to that same ballpark, which is drawn from animal studies. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” he recently told my colleague Donald G. McNeil Jr. in a phone interview.
But Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had been incrementally increasing his estimate. About a month ago, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in television interviews. Last week, he pushed it up to “75, 80, 85 percent.”
“When newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’” he said on the phone call.
Dr. Fauci said he was initially cautious about publicly raising his estimate because Americans seemed hesitant about vaccines. But now, as health care workers proudly post their bandaged biceps on social media, some polls are showing that many more Americans are ready, even eager, to receive the shot.
Based partly on gut feeling and partly on new science of how the virus operates in human populations, Dr. Fauci deliberately moved the goal posts. Now, he believes that it may take close to 90 percent immunity in a population to halt the virus. That’s about what’s needed to stop measles, which is thought to be the world’s most contagious disease.
The new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus appearing in Britain, South Africa and possibly other places may further increase the necessary percentage.
A year of resilience
As much as the pandemic has been a story of loss, it has also been one of resilience — of people, families and communities not only surviving but also finding ways to help others.
International correspondents for The Times shared tales of improbable joy and creativity, bright spots amid the sea of darkness. In Brazil, a teacher created a “hugging kit” for her students. Italians read to the elderly and homebound over the phone. A man crisscrossed Wuhan, China, to feed stranded cats when the city’s pandemic lockdown separated them from their humans.
“It was worth it, not just for the cats, but also so that the owners could have some peace of mind,” he said. “Looking back at that time now, it all just feels like a dream.”
“My husband was the one who used to set up the tree and dressed up as Santa every year,” said Maribel Rodriguez, a resident of the hard-hit Rio Grande Valley in Texas whose husband, mother and an aunt died of the coronavirus. “I can’t get myself to do it. I end up crying before I touch any of the ornaments.”
China will suspend direct flights to and from Britain indefinitely in an effort to stave off the new variant circulating there.
Scientists in Nigeria have discovered a variant sharing one change with the new British deviation, but it’s not yet clear that this variant is more contagious.
What else we’re following
A Black doctor in Indiana has died from complications of the virus, two weeks after posting a video on Facebook in which she said a white doctor downplayed her pain. “I put forth and I maintain if I was white,” Dr. Susan Moore said in the video, “I wouldn’t have to go through that.”
Some hospital workers in New York City have cut lines to get vaccines, even though they are not directly treating infected patients.
European Union nations will begin vaccinating people on Sunday.
There’s a rash of dubious information about so-called cures for the coronavirus — as there was in the 1918 influenza epidemic.
What you’re doing
We will not be celebrating Christmas with my parents this year. They live one hour away from us. So, on Tuesday evening, after having practiced our five songs for five nights, my husband and I took our three children, rang my parents’ doorbell, and sang Christmas carols to them and my sister (who has been quarantining with them), staying outside on the porch with our masks fully covering our faces. It is the first time in my life that I finally got my mother, father, and sister exactly what they wanted for Christmas. — Megan K. Farrelly, Raleigh, N.C.
Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.
Barring big news, the Coronavirus Briefing is off until the New Year.