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Tag: omicron

Biden Doubles U.S. Free Covid Test Pledge To One Billion Amid Short Supply

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said on Thursday he is directing the U.S. government to procure an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests to help meet demand across the country amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

The order comes on top of another 500 million tests that the White House pledged before the Christmas holiday would be available to Americans this month.

"Today I'm directing my team to procure ... an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free," Biden said ahead of a briefing from advisers.

Reuters was first to report Biden's move.

The president has come under criticism for not focusing more on testing earlier as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic. A nationwide shortage of tests has plagued the response in recent weeks during the rampant spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

A White House official said earlier on Thursday the tests would be free for American consumers and that the White House would share more details about their distribution at a later date. Details about the website that will have information on the first tranche of 500 million tests will be available on Friday, the official said.

When the original 500 million tests were announced, experts the White House's actions were too slow and not bold enough to deal with Omicron's spread. Since then, the Department of Defense has signed contracts with two procurement companies, Revival Health and Goldbelt Security, to provide them.

Tests have been difficult for many Americans to find, driven in part by rapid test supply shortages as well as staffing shortages at the urgent care centers, pop-up sites and pharmacies that administer the tests. More recently, staffing at the laboratories that process the more complex PCR tests has also become a factor, frustrating many seeking to know quickly whether they are infected with COVID-19.

Biden acknowledged Americans' frustration but said testing availability had improved.

"This month it's estimated that we will hit approximately 15 million tests a day and we'll have over 375 million at-home rapid tests in January alone," he said. "That's a huge leap."

Biden said the administration was on track to roll out a website next week from which people will be able to order free tests to be shipped to their homes. He also said the administration would announce next week how it would make masks available to Americans for free.

While the official count of Omicron cases in the United States continues to rise, there are signs that in some areas that were hit early on, such as the Northeast, the pace of new infections has begun to slow.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)

Right-Wing Justices Prepping To Kill Biden's Vaccine Rules Amid Surging Omicron

Amid expert warnings about the dire implications for public health and democracy, right-wing justices on the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday appeared poised to strike down the Biden administration's contested federal vaccination requirements even as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the country.

Oral arguments in the two sets of cases before the high court came amid a tidal wave of infections driven by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, which has resulted in tens of thousands of hospitalizations nationwide. Each day, an average of 1,400 individuals in the U.S. are suffering largely preventable deaths from Covid-19.

As cases rise "exponentially across the nation, pushing the hospital system beyond its capacity," justices must "weigh this grim reality," Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, and two co-authors wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published last week.

"The Supreme Court needs to uphold" President Joe Biden's Covid-19 vaccine policies "without delay," wrote Gostin and his colleagues. "Not doing so would be an affront to public health and the law."

But the high court's right-wing majority on Friday signaled that they are likely to rule against Biden's vaccination requirements, the New York Times reported.

"More absolutely unhinged behavior from the Supreme Court's conservative wing, which seems ready to strike down a perfectly lawful vaccine mandate while we're still in the middle of a deadly pandemic," tweeted Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group. "They are irredeemable. We need to expand the court now."

Justice Elena Kagan, one of three liberal justices, defended the Biden administration's vaccine rules, arguing that they are necessary to mitigate the ongoing public health crisis.

"This is a pandemic in which nearly a million people have died," said Kagan. "This is the policy that is most geared to stop all this... Why isn't this necessary and grave?"

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, added: "Why shouldn't the federal government—which has already decided to give OSHA the power to regulate workplace safety—have a national rule that will protect workers?"

According to Ian Millhiser, a senior correspondent at Vox and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, "These cases ask what steps the United States can realistically take to quell the spread of a disease that has already killed more than 820,000 Americans. But the full stakes in these cases are even higher."Millhiser wrote earlier this week:

Someone has to decide how the United States will respond to a global pandemic, and the Biden administration's argument essentially boils down to a case for democracy. An elected Congress authorized the executive branch to take certain steps to encourage vaccination, and Joe Biden was elected to lead that branch. So that means that President Biden and his duly appointed subordinates get to make difficult decisions, even if some Americans don't like those decisions.
The parties challenging Biden's policies, meanwhile, effectively argue that the Supreme Court should decide America's vaccination policy. They couch their arguments in arcane legal doctrines, with weighty-sounding names like the "Major Questions Doctrine" or "nondelegation," But these doctrines are vague—so vague that they are easily manipulated by justices who disagree with the Biden administration's policies and wish to conceal their desire to halt those policies behind a patina of legal reasoning.

In an effort to improve safety in the workplace—a major source of viral transmission—the Biden administration in November imposed three Covid-19 rules affecting roughly 100 million people.

The move to encourage uptake of lifesaving shots—supported by a majority of adults but fiercely opposed by disinformation-soaked GOP voters—was immediately met by a tsunami of legal challenges from business groups and Republican-led states.Within days, right-wing judges, some of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump, suspended their implementation.

"The cases before the court Friday are technically emergency applications for immediate—but temporary—relief, not final judgements on the merits of the mandates, which are still being litigated in lower courts," ABC News reported. "A decision from the justices is expected in days or weeks, rather than months, given the expedited nature of the case and the ongoing public health emergency."

The first rule, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), states that all employers with 100 or more employees must require workers to be fully inoculated or be tested weekly and wear masks on the job.

In the first case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, the Supreme Court will consider the legality of this vaccine-or-test mandate for big companies.

SCOTUS Blog reported Thursday:

Several challenges were filed around the country and eventually consolidated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which reinstated the mandate after another court had put it on hold. The challengers quickly came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to freeze the 6th Circuit's ruling. In a brief order on Dec. 22, the justices set two of those requests for oral argument on Jan. 7 but left the 6th Circuit's ruling reviving the mandate in place.

A second Biden administration rule, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), requires all healthcare workers at facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs to be fully inoculated unless a medical or religious exemption is obtained.

In the second case being heard by the Supreme Court, Biden v. Missouri, justices will consider the legality of this vaccine mandate for staff at medical facilities reliant on federal funding.

SCOTUS Blog reported:

A federal district court in Missouri put the rule on hold for 10 states, while a federal district court in Louisiana did the same for 14 other states. That prompted the Biden administration to come to the Supreme Court in December, asking the justices to put the district courts' rulings on hold and allow the rule to take effect nationwide while litigation continues.

A third rule, the president's executive order requiring federal contractors to have a fully vaccinated workforce, is currently blocked by courts in Kentucky and Georgia but has not yet reached the high court.

According to Gostin and his colleagues, "Lower-court rulings that blocked the rules from taking effect were fundamentally flawed... They disregarded the broad scientific consensus that Covid-19 poses a major public health threat requiring a strong emergency response; indeed, the public health emergency has only become more acute in recent weeks."

They continued:

A threshold issue is whether Covid-19 is a public health emergency that warrants bypassing the usual cumbersome regulatory process. For the employer mandate, OSHA issued an emergency standard which can be implemented rapidly. For the rule involving healthcare workers, CMS waived the normal period for taking public comment into consideration before issuing final regulations, a process that can take months if not years. Both had good reason for acting swiftly.
OSHA conservatively estimated its new rule would prevent more than 6,500 deaths and 250,000 hospitalizations. CMS established an impressive record showing the unique vulnerability of Medicare and Medicaid recipients, who are older, disabled, chronically ill, or have complex healthcare needs. The rule can save hundreds of lives each month. The science is also clear that the vaccine is the best way to ameliorate risks of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Delaying the implementation of the rules would cost lives.

A core argument made by plaintiffs in these cases is that OSHA and CMS didn't receive congressional authorization to protect workers, but Gostin and his two co-authors explained why "that's incorrect":

The Occupational Safety and Health Act empowers OSHA to mitigate "grave" workplace dangers through emergency measures. OSHA has required the only effective tools known to science: vaccines, testing, and masks. Vaccination is the best tool, but OSHA allows employees to opt-out simply by testing weekly and masking. It's hardly an overreach. In fact, regulating biological hazards is among OSHA's primary responsibilities. The agency has a long history of regulating protections against airborne and bloodborne pathogens.
Likewise, when Congress established the Medicare and Medicaid programs, it granted the secretary of health and human services authority to require facilities to meet requirements deemed "necessary in the interest of the health and safety." There are ample reasons to support the conclusion that vaccinations are necessary for the safe operation of participating facilities: the vulnerability of residents, the need for a healthy workforce, and the unique effectiveness of vaccines.

"There are good reasons Congress has chosen to delegate broad regulatory powers to agencies," the trio argued.

Unlike career agency professionals—who have the expertise and the ability to respond "more quickly [and] with more flexibility... than the legislative process allows"—lawmakers, who "cannot foresee the broad range of risks Americans will face," are ill-positioned to act on "rapidly changing and complex scientific information needed to make wise regulatory decisions," they wrote.

"The need to act rapidly is especially important in a health emergency," they added. "If the high court were to curb federal public health powers now, it could prove ruinous when the next crisis strikes."

On top of the potential epidemiological consequences associated with the impending decision, Millhiser argued in Vox that democracy itself is at stake in the Supreme Court's vaccine cases.

"The premise of any democratic republic is that there are some decisions that must be made collectively, and that these decisions are legitimate because they are made by elected officials," wrote Millhiser.

"The justices' commitment to the idea that the right to govern flows from the will of the people" will be tested when the Supreme Court hears Biden v. Missouri and National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, he continued.

U.S. vaccination policy, noted Millhiser, "will either be made by the man chosen by the American people, or the Supreme Court will wrest that decision away from him and give it to themselves."

"This is not democracy," Millhiser argued. "It is a decision to replace the judgment of men and women elected to make life-and-death decisions with the views of a few unelected lawyers."

Kagan concurred. "Who decides?" she asked Friday. "Should it be the agency full of expert policymakers, politically accountable to the president?... Or courts can decide."

"Courts are not politically accountable," said Kagan. "Courts have no epidemiological expertise. Why in the world would courts decide this question?"

Article reprinted with permission from Alternet

US Sets Global Record Of 1 MN Reported Covid Cases

People line up at a Covid-19 testing tent in Los Angeles, California on January 3, 2022, with new cases soaring in the United States amid the rapid spread of the infectious Omicron strain

Washington (AFP) - The United States reported more than one million new Covid-19 cases Monday after the long New Year's weekend, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, as the Omicron variant spread at a blistering pace.

There were 1,080,211 new cases in the country, a global record, although the number of cases reported on a Monday is usually higher than other days because of delays in weekend tallying, especially after such a three-day holiday weekend.

Still, the figure is double the number of daily cases compared to the previous Monday.

The rolling average over seven days -- which experts see as more reliable -- was 486,000 cases per day as of Monday evening, the university said.

The new figure comes a day after top US pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said the country was experiencing "almost a vertical increase" in Covid-19 cases, adding the peak may be only weeks away.

The heavily mutated Omicron strain -- the most transmissible to date -- accounted for around 59 percent of US cases in the week ending December 25, according to government modeling.

Fauci said the experience of South Africa -- where the strain was first detected in late November and peaked quickly, then subsided nearly as speedily -- offered some hope.

Rates of death and hospitalization in the United States have been lower in recent weeks than during previous Covid surges.

With 9,382 deaths over the past seven days, the nation's death toll has fallen by 10 percent, week on week.

In the last seven days, the country has recorded 3.4 million cases according to Johns Hopkins data.

The US record during previous waves was 258,000 cases per day, for the week of January 5 to 11, 2021.

Officials have struggled to find a balance that will protect public health without gravely damaging the economy or slamming key services like policing and air travel.

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halved the isolation period for asymptomatic Covid cases to five days, in a bid to blunt mass Omicron-induced disruption as infections hit new highs in multiple states.

And on Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer's Covid-19 booster shot for children as young as 12 ahead of the reopening of schools following the holiday break.

Covid-19 has killed at least 5,441,446 people globally since the outbreak emerged in December 2019, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources on Monday.

Taking into account excess mortality linked to Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimates the overall death toll could be two to three times higher.

Florida Mayor Lays Into Desantis For Zero Support Amid Omicron Surge

As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the United States, one Florida mayor is slamming Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for his failure to offer any support on the latest coronavirus wave.

According to The Orlando Sentinel, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings (D) recently expressed concern about the lacking accommodations for COVID testing sites in his area as he announced new COVID mitigation mandates in his area. “We have not received any assistance from the state of Florida at our testing sites,” Demings said. “All Florida residents should be outraged … where is Ron DeSantis now?”At one point during the pandemic, Orange County reportedly had adequate testing sites throughout the county but now that is not the case. Back in June, Weesam Khoury, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, had announced that the state's testing efforts had been transformed into a "locally-led effort."

“As of today, as a result of the collaboration between the Department of Health in Orange County and the Orange County government, there are no unmet resource requests — from municipalities, hospitals, or private practices,” Khoury said in an email at the time.

Demings' concerns come after the city's recent COVID statistics announcement. On Monday, December 27, Orange County reported a total of 10,000 COVID tests that led to 2,500 new coronavirus infections. However, one silver lining is that the uptick in COVID cases has not led to a surge of hospitalizations in the area.

Dr. Raul Pino, the local state health officer, weighed in on the hospitalizations. “That’s what we don’t know,” Pino said. “We’re suspecting we’re not going to see the high number of hospitalizations with delta, and it’s not going to be as long as Delta in the high part of the wave.”

Article reprinted with permission from Alternet

Biden inks $137 million contract to boost supply of key material for COVID tests -source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration plans to announce on Wednesday a $137 million contract for Millipore Sigma, a unit of Germany's Merck KGaA, to boost production capacity of a highly constrained component of rapid coronavirus tests, a senior administration official told Reuters.

The money will allow the company over three years to build a new facility to produce nitrocellulose membranes, the paper that displays test results, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. That, in turn, will allow for 85 million more tests to be produced per month, the official said.

It was not immediately clear when the facility would ramp up to full production.

"It's probably the most constrained piece of technology in expanding capacity, in making more of these over-the-counter or point-of-care tests," the official said. "This amount they're going to produce is roughly equivalent to another billion over-the-counter tests being able to be made," he added.

Millipore Sigma is a supplier to major U.S. COVID-19 antigen test manufacturers, he said, without providing further details.

The contract, which will be announced by the Department of Defense for the Department of Health and Human Services, is part of a bid by the Biden administration to ramp up production of scarce rapid COVID-19 tests, which has taken on more urgency as nations grapple with the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the United States has hit a record high of 258,312 over the past seven days, according to a Reuters tally.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced a plan to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus test kits to help address the crisis, building on prior pledges to invest $3 billion in test kits.

But U.S. testing is behind the curve because of a lack of skilled workers, a shortage of at-home tests and under-investment in recent months, and health experts in the U.S. said Biden's latest plan was "too little, too late."

The government is invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to award the contract and has many more similar contracts in the works, the official said.

The Biden administration has used the DPA - a 1950s Korean war-era law which gives federal agencies the power to prioritize procurement orders related to national defense - to speed production of swabs and pipettes for COVID-19 test production previously.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Additional Reporting by Carl O'Donnell; Editing by Chris Reese)