U.S. Labor Department issues emergency COVID-19 rule for healthcare workers

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Labor issued an emergency rule on Thursday for controlling COVID-19 and protecting workers in healthcare settings, but stopped short of extending the rule to other high-risk industries.

Hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities will be required within 14 days to implement the rule that covers face masks, ventilation and requirements for screening and limiting patients and visitors.

The rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aligns with existing non-binding guidance from the agency, but gives workers greater leverage to demand protections and provides for stricter enforcement and fines.

The agency will issue further non-binding guidance for unvaccinated workers in high-risk industries later on Thursday.

Labor unions and workplace safety advocates have pushed for the emergency temporary standard since the start of the pandemic and wanted the rules to apply to meatpacking, transport and other sectors that suffered clusters of severe COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We believe we are targeting and focusing on workers at the highest risk,” Jim Frederick, the acting director of OSHA, told Reuters.

He said OSHA is adding inspectors and will provide other high-risk sectors with education, training and assistance in complying with non-binding guidance.

With the pandemic receding, business groups could challenge the healthcare rule by arguing it should have been adopted through a slower rule-making process with public comment, rather than the emergency process used when there is a “grave danger.”

Under the Trump Administration, OSHA focused on issuing non-binding guidance which the agency said allowed for greater flexibility during a rapidly changing outbreak.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was criticized at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives by Republican lawmakers who disagreed with the need for an emergency rule.

“Let’s let people go back to work in a normal fashion,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Bill Berkrot)

Iowa joins U.S. states forbidding COVID-19 mask mandates in schools

(Reuters) – Iowa joined a handful of other U.S. states on Thursday in passing a law that forbids cities, counties and local school districts from requiring people to wear face masks that protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the measure into law just hours after it was approved by the state legislature. Texas and Florida, which also have Republican governors, have passed similar measures.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own healthcare decisions,” Reynolds said in a statement.

A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a mask in most settings because the chance of them catching or transmitting the airborne coronavirus is so low. But it still advised face coverings be worn in schools, medical settings and public transit.

The decision by Texas, Florida and Iowa to ignore some of the guidance comes after a year in which many conservative political leaders have cast mask mandates as an erosion of individual liberty rather than a public health issue.

Some Democrat-led states, such as New York and Connecticut, have adopted the CDC advice and said vaccinated people are no longer bound by mask mandates, though unvaccinated people must still wear them if they cannot distance themselves from others. Those states also have not stopped individual businesses from requiring visitors to wear masks.

In his Tuesday executive order, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said schools must scrap any mask requirements by June 4. However, public hospitals and state jails may still impose mask requirements, the order said.

On Wednesday, the Utah legislature passed a bill forbidding public schools and state universities from requiring masks, which now heads to the governor to be signed into law.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Fully vaccinated people can unmask outdoors in some cases: U.S. CDC

(Reuters) – Fully vaccinated people can safely engage in outdoor activities like walking and hiking without wearing masks but should continue to use face-coverings in public spaces where they are required, U.S. health regulators said on Tuesday.

The updated health advice comes as more than half of all adults in the United States have now received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The release of these new guidelines is a first step at helping fully vaccinated Americans resume activities they had stopped doing because of the pandemic, while being mindful of the potential risk of transmitting the virus to others,” the CDC said.

Wearing face masks has been considered by experts as one of the most effective ways of controlling virus transmission. With most COVID-19 transmission occurring indoors, and vaccinations on the rise, the use of masks outdoors has been under public debate for weeks in the United States as Americans look to enjoy the benefits of being fully vaccinated.

New COVID-19 cases have dropped 16% in the last week as the U.S. surpassed 140 million people having received at least one shot of authorized vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine.

This was the biggest percentage drop in weekly new cases since February, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.


The agency said fully-vaccinated Americans can safely dine outdoors with friends from multiple households at restaurants and attend small outdoor gatherings with a mixture of fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

CDC continues to recommend masking for crowded outdoor events such as parades and sporting events and indoor visits to the hair salon, shopping malls, movie theaters and houses of worship.

The agency classified activities as “red,” “yellow” and “green” based on level of safety for unvaccinated people.

It said unvaccinated people can also walk and run unmasked with household members outdoors safely and attend small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends.

Data on whether vaccinated people can spread infection to those who did not receive their shots is limited and the CDC warned that people should evaluate risk to friends and family before going out without masks.

This is an update to the CDC’s guidance, which in March said people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can meet without masks indoors in small groups with others who also have been inoculated.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

Scientists spray saliva-like droplets in stadium to study how fans spread aerosols

By Bart H. Meijer

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Scientists are using the Netherlands’ largest football stadium to model how a cheering football crowd might spread aerosols through the air by spraying fine droplets, made to resemble saliva, over the empty stands.

Their hope is that by finding out more about the behavior of aerosols or airborne particles, which could spread the coronavirus within a crowd, they will be able to remove them from the air and get fans back into stadiums and concert halls.

“There is almost no information in scientific literature about the behavior of aerosols in this kind of environment”, lead researcher Bert Blocken told Reuters.

The tests are taking place at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, home of Ajax Amsterdam.

“We want to get a fundamental insight in the behavior of aerosols in a stadium filled with football supporters. By air cleaning technologies you can drastically reduce concentrations and make stadiums safe in terms of aerosol transmission of the virus,” he added.

There is growing consensus among scientists that transmission via aerosols plays a part in the spread of the novel coronavirus, although it is unclear to what extent.

The research could provide insight in how to minimize the concentration of aerosols and limit their epidemic risk, said Blocken, a professor in aerodynamics at the Technical University of Eindhoven.

A computer model will extrapolate the data gathered during weeks of testing to show the effects for a full capacity crowd of around 55,000.

Researchers also hope to get permission soon to experiment with a real crowd of 730 football fans, seated close together.

The final goal is to get capacity crowds back into stadiums, Blocken said, possibly through the use of large scale COVID-19 testing, face masks and ventilation.

That would be exactly what the Johan Cruyff Arena needs to survive, its director told Reuters.

“This is a very costly building, and the income is less than half of what is normal, so we are making a loss every month”, said Henk Markerink.

“We try to keep the ship afloat, but this shouldn’t take too long because in the end this cannot be financed.”

Mexican president sees U.S. election link to migrant caravan

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday said he suspected an ulterior motive behind a caravan of more than 2,000 migrants from Central America that set out just a month before the U.S. presidential election.

Lopez Obrador, who has taken measures against illegal immigration to keep Mexico off U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign agenda, said he suspected the caravan’s departure from Honduras on Thursday was timed to provoke.

“It is very weird, very strange,” the president said at a regular government news conference.

“It’s a matter that I believe is linked to the U.S. election,” he said, adding that he did not have “all the elements” to support his theory.

On Thursday, more than 2,000 migrants, many wearing face masks against the coronavirus, barged past armed Guatemalan troops at the border, with some saying they were seeking to escape poverty exacerbated by the global pandemic.

Pressure has been building in Central America, where months of strict lockdowns have devastated local economies and spread hunger, while restrictions on freedom of movement have slowed traditional flows of immigration toward the United States.

On Friday morning there were signs some caravan members were choosing to return home following threats of consequences from the Mexican and Guatemalan governments and after spending a night in the open because churches and other shelters remain closed because of coronavirus risks.

Guatemala’s government invoked special powers in much of the country on Thursday to give security forces more latitude to break up the group.

Mexico warned of prison sentences of up to 10 years for people who “put in danger of contagion the health of others” in a statement instructing officials to toughen health checks at entry points on the border with Guatemala.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. coronavirus deaths projected to more than double to 410,000 by January

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – U.S. deaths from the coronavirus will reach 410,000 by the end of the year, more than double the current death toll, and deaths could soar to 3,000 per day in December, the University of Washington’s health institute forecast on Friday.

Deaths could be reduced by 30% if more Americans wore face masks as epidemiologists have advised, but mask-wearing is declining, the university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said.

The U.S. death rate projected by the IHME model, which has been cited by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, would more than triple the current death rate of some 850 per day.

“We expect the daily death rate in the United States, because of seasonality and declining vigilance of the public, to reach nearly 3,000 a day in December,” the institute, which bills itself as an independent research center, said in an update of its periodic forecasts.

“Cumulative deaths expected by January 1 are 410,000; this is 225,000 deaths from now until the end of the year,” the institute said.

It previously projected 317,697 deaths by Dec. 1.

The model’s outlook for the world was even more dire, with deaths projected to triple to 2.8 million by Jan. 1, 2021.

The United States, which has the world’s third largest population, leads the planet with more than 186,000 COVID-19 deaths and 6.1 million coronavirus infections.

The institute made waves earlier this year when its aggressive forecasts contrasted with President Donald Trump’s repeated statements that the coronavirus would disappear. But deaths have surpassed some of the institute’s dire predictions, which have been frequently updated to reflect new data, revised assumptions and more sophisticated information sources.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues forecasts only four weeks in advance, and its latest estimate is for 200,000 to 211,000 dead by Sept. 26.

But the institute said with so many Americans still refusing to wear masks, there remains “an extraordinary opportunity” to save lives.

“Increasing mask use to the levels seen in Singapore would decrease the cumulative death toll to 288,000, or 122,000 lives saved compared to the reference scenario,” it said.

“Mask use continues to decline from a peak in early August. Declines are notable throughout the Midwest, including in some states such as Illinois and Iowa with increasing case numbers,” the report said.

Although U.S. infections have declined to around 45,000 per day from a peak of around 70,000 per day in July, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death, the institute said. That would place it behind only heart disease, having surpassed cancer as a cause of death in the United States.

Infection rates have recently fallen in large states such as Texas, Florida and California, leading to the national decline in cases.

But 10 states, many of them in the Midwest, still average more than one secondary case per infected person, an indication of rapid spreading, the report said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump White House restarts tours, with pandemic restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration will restart tours of the White House on Sept. 12 with new restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, according to an announcement released on Tuesday.

Tours at the usually bustling White House complex, where Trump lives and works, were suspended after COVID-19 began spreading throughout the country. At the same time, some White House officials have tested positive for the disease, which has killed more than 180,000 people in the United States, and media organizations have limited the number of journalists showing up each day.

On Thursday, though, Trump opened the White House to more of the public, hosting the last night of his Republican party’s national convention on its South Lawn. He gave his renomination acceptance speech in front of more than 1,000 people sitting close together, most of them without face coverings.

The resumed public tours will only take place on Friday and Saturday mornings, with roughly a fifth of the usual number of guests allowed in.

Guests must wear face coverings and follow dots on the floor to remain socially distant when they check in. Federal employees along the self-guided tour route will wear face coverings and gloves, and hand sanitizer will be available, according to the announcement.

The White House has generally welcomed the public, but access has been reduced over the years to protect its residents. Famously, President Andrew Jackson, who has served as an inspiration for Trump, hosted 20,000 people for his Inauguration Day party in 1829, serving whiskey in bathtubs on the lawn. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, visitors have had to reserve tours months in advance through a member of Congress and undergo background checks.

Public tours of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol remain suspended, according to their websites.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. employers wary of coronavirus ‘immunity’ tests as they move to reopen

By Caroline Humer and Timothy Aeppel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. employers have cooled to the idea of testing workers for possible immunity to the coronavirus as they prepare to reopen factories and other workplaces.

Blood tests that check for antibodies to the new coronavirus have been touted by governments and some disease experts as a way to identify people who are less likely to fall ill or infect others. Italian automaker Ferrari NV has made antibody testing central to its “Back on Track” project to restarting factories.

But many U.S. companies are not planning to use them, relying on face masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and diagnostic tests for those with symptoms, employers and healthcare experts told Reuters.

Mercer, which advises companies on healthcare benefits, has surveyed more than 700 U.S. employers in industries from high tech to retail to energy, and found 8% of companies said they would include antibody tests in plans to screen employees.

Interest in antibody tests from employers has fallen in recent weeks as reports have suggested that it is too early to conclude that antibodies to the new coronavirus translate into immunity. The American Medical Association cautioned on Thursday that these tests do not determine an individual’s immunity.

“Many employers … are realizing that antibody testing isn’t going to be a silver bullet and really isn’t going to bring them any value,” said David Zieg, a lead consultant on clinical services at Mercer.

Other employers worry about their liability if they administer and interpret such tests, or are concerned about test costs and availability. Some were spooked by a flood of tests that hit the market before being reviewed by regulators for accuracy, which has contributed to confusion over results.

A new antibody test from Roche Holding AG that has shown itself to be highly accurate could potentially help answer questions about antibodies and immunity and change corporate demand, but it has not done so yet, consultants and companies said.

Governments, however, are interested in antibody tests, particularly if they are accurate. Britain on Thursday said it is in talks with Roche over buying tests that it could use to create a certificate of immunity once there is a better understanding of the science.

Collective Health, a healthcare technology company that has built back-to-work strategies for large companies, is advising employers to use diagnostic tests, not antibody tests.

“There has been a proliferation of low-quality antibody tests and the antibody tests themselves don’t necessarily answer any questions about immunity,” said Rajaie Batniji, Collective Health’s chief health officer.


When General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV reopen production next week, they intend to offer diagnostic tests to workers, not antibody tests. Officials at the Detroit carmakers said it was because it was not clear what the antibody tests show.

Amazon.com Inc’s on-site testing plan, now in development, does not include antibody testing. Those views were echoed in interviews with a handful of smaller U.S. manufacturers.

Shawn Kitchell, chief executive of Florida-based plastics manufacturer Madico Inc, is not planning to use antibody tests for his 250 employees. He questions their costs, accuracy, and the fact that the timing of tests can lead to different results, requiring multiple tries.

“How frequently would we need to test to make it safer for our co-workers?” Kitchell said.

Employers are also wary of an unregulated U.S. market for antibody tests. Since March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed more than 200 tests into the market without regulatory review to make them available quickly, opening the door to questionable vendors and inaccurate tests, Reuters found.

Last week, the agency set a deadline for all vendors to prove to the FDA that their tests work or remove them from the market. It has also authorized two highly-accurate tests from Roche and Abbott Laboratories, which are able to supply millions of tests per week.

One of the biggest U.S. testing providers, LabCorp, on Thursday said it was rolling out a program to make diagnostic tests and antibody tests available at workplaces.

LabCorp’s chief medical officer, Brian Caveney, said interest in antibody testing is coming from companies in coronavirus hotspots, such as New York, while other areas with fewer COVID-19 cases see diagnostic testing as more important.

As the new FDA process shows which tests work and which don’t, that will help advance research on how many people recovering from COVID-19 develop antibodies and at what level, and show if they are truly immune to infection, said Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Until we go through those steps, I don’t see how we can translate this for the typical person who wants to go back to work,” Koh said.

(This story has been refiled to change spelling to Zieg from Zeig in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Caroline Humer, Timothy Aeppel and Krystal Hu in New York and Ben Klayman in Detroit; editing by Michele Gershberg and Nick Zieminski)

Taiwan wades into hotly contested Pacific with its own coronavirus diplomacy

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan waded into the hotly contested politics of the Pacific on Wednesday, donating face masks and thermal cameras to its four diplomatic allies there to combat the coronavirus in a region where China is challenging traditional power the United States.

The small developing nations lie in the highly strategic waters of the Pacific, dominated since World War Two by the United States and its friends, who have been concerned over China’s moves to expand its footprint there.

Democratic Taiwan has faced intense pressure from China, which claims the island as its territory with no right to state-to-state ties, and is bent on wooing away its few allies.

Taiwan has only 15 formal allies left worldwide after losing two Pacific nations, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, to China in September.

Beijing has ramped up its diplomatic push into the Pacific, pledging virus aid and medical advice.

In its own aid programme, Taiwan has donated 16 million masks to countries around the world.

“We are a very small country, so it’s easier for us to work with Taiwan than mainland China,” Neijon Edwards, the Marshall Islands ambassador to Taiwan, told Reuters at the donation ceremony in Taipei.

China has been too overbearing, she added.

“It’s pressing too much, and it’s been trying to come to the Marshall Islands, several times, but up to this time we haven’t even opened the door yet.”

While the masks presented at the ceremony are going to Taiwan’s Pacific allies, all its 15 global allies are sharing the thermal cameras.

“Today’s ceremony once again shows that Taiwan is taking concrete actions not only to safeguard the health of Taiwanese people but also to contribute to global efforts to contain COVID-19,” said Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

Though Pacific Island states offer little economically to either China and Taiwan, their support is valued in global forums such as the United Nations and as China seeks to isolate Taiwan.

China has offered to help developing countries including those of the Pacific, and many see Chinese lending as the best bet to develop their economies.

But critics say Chinese loans can lead countries into a “debt trap”, charges China has angrily rejected.

The debt issue was a serious problem and would only lead to the spread of Chinese influence regionwide, said Jarden Kephas, the ambassador of Nauru.

“They will end up dominating or having a lot of say in those countries because of the amount of debt,” he told Reuters, wondering how the money could ever be repaid. “We are not rich countries.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Uber to give drivers millions of face masks to battle coronavirus

Uber to give drivers millions of face masks to battle coronavirus
By Tina Bellon

(Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc on Thursday said it plans to ship millions of face masks to its active drivers and food delivery people around the world to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The ride-hailing company’s vice president of safety and insurance, Gus Fuldner, in a company blog post also said Uber plans to ship nearly half a million face masks to U.S. drivers located in the cities hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

The initial face mask order will come from a Chinese company that typically manufactures electronics and now produces ear-loop masks. But Uber will be sourcing face masks from all over the world as a long-term commitment, an Uber spokesman said.

Uber said it had shipped its first order of masks to drivers in New York City, the U.S. city with the highest number of infections of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“We’ve ordered tens of millions more masks and expect them to arrive in other cities and regions around the world in the coming weeks,” the company’s blog post said, adding that supplies were limited with healthcare needs taking a priority.

Ride-hailing demand has grinded to a halt in most U.S. cities, with a majority of Americans now under some form of lockdown. But Uber said it has seen a significant increase in restaurant food deliveries during the pandemic.

Uber on Thursday said it was sourcing the masks from outside the traditional supply chain and was donating N95 medical-grade masks stored in offices to local hospitals.

The U.S. government has recommended Americans wear cloth face coverings on a voluntary basis to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has infected 1.4 million people and killed 85,000 worldwide, according to diplomats and experts. U.S. deaths topped 15,700 on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally.

Uber earlier this month said it would begin shipping disinfecting car spray at no cost to its drivers in the United States.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)