U.S. health secretary mandates COVID-19 shots for health care staff

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has mandated its health care workforce to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Health Secretary Xavier Becerra announced on Thursday.

Staff at the Indian Health Service (IHS), focused on American Indians, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be impacted by this decision, according to an HHS statement.

Those affected include over 25,000 employees, contractors, trainees, and volunteers whose duties put them in contact or potential contact with patients at an HHS medical or clinical research facility.

“Our number one goal is the health and safety of the American public, including our federal workforce,” Becerra said.

U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps will also be immediately required to get vaccinated, the statement said.

HHS is the latest federal department to make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it will seek U.S. President Joe Biden’s approval by mid-September to require 1.3 million military members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also announced a similar move last month.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is examining what authority businesses have to mandate vaccines as it considers what more steps can be done to halt the spread of COVID-19.

United Airlines Inc Chief Executive Scott Kirby said he believes more U.S. companies and organizations will begin requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, after a meeting with Biden on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S extends travel restrictions at Canada, Mexico land borders through Aug. 21

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said on Wednesday.

The 30-day extension came after Canada announced Monday it will start allowing fully-vaccinated U.S. visitors into the country on Aug. 9 for non-essential travel after the COVID-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented 16-month ban that many businesses complained was crippling them.

One difficult question for the Biden administration is whether it would follow Canada’s lead and require all visitors to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before entering the United States, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The White House plans a new round of high-level meetings to discuss the travel restrictions and the potential of mandating COVID-19 vaccines, but no decisions have been made, the sources said.

In early June, the White House launched interagency working groups with the European Union, Britain, Canada, and Mexico to look at how to eventually to lift restrictions.

Businesses in Canada and the United States, particularly the travel and airline industries, pushed for an end to restrictions on non-essential travel between the two countries, which were imposed in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.

Since then, the land border has been closed to all non-essential travel. However, the United States has allowed Canadians to fly in, while Canada has not allowed Americans to do the same.

The United States has continued to extend the restrictions on Canada and Mexico on a monthly basis since March 2020.

Airlines and others have urged the administration to lift restrictions covering most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Britain, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Israel urges vaccination for all teens, citing Delta variant

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli health official on Monday urged more 12- to 15-year-olds to be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing new outbreaks that he attributed to the more infectious Delta variant.

Israel expanded vaccine eligibility to include adolescents last month. Infections have fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Vaccination turnout has largely flatlined at around 55% of the 9.3 million overall population having received both shots, implying that adults have largely stopped getting vaccinated.

But COVID-19 recurrences were logged at two schools last week, contributing to a rise in the daily test positivity rate from a rolling one-month average of 0.1% to 0.3% on Saturday and 0.6% on Monday, Health Ministry data showed.

The ministry will probably issue a recommendation that 12- to 15-year-olds get vaccinated, having previously left the matter up to the parents’ preference, said Nachman Ash, the national pandemic response coordinator.

“I think that would certainly be correct at this stage, when we see an outbreak of the Delta variant in the country,” he told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM.

“We should not wait for higher numbers. We have seen there were quite a few children infected over the last week.”

Separately, Israeli officials said they were considering the imposition of fines for parents whose unvaccinated children do not self-isolate upon coming into the country from abroad, as required.

Israel has been a world leader with its vaccine rollout and has been sharing data it collected with Pfizer, which provided the vaccines.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. leisure and hospitality pay surges to a record. Now will workers come?

By Jonnelle Marte and Ann Saphir

(Reuters) – Hotels, restaurants and other businesses are boosting pay as they try to rebuild their staffs and meet increasing demand from Americans ready to venture out as pandemic-related restrictions are lifted and more people are vaccinated.

But it is unclear if the increases will be sufficient to entice enough workers back to close the employment gap remaining in the sector hit hardest by COVID-19 job losses.

Average hourly earnings for workers in leisure and hospitality rose to $18.09 in May, the highest ever and up 5% from January alone, according to Labor Department data released on Friday. Pay rose even faster for workers in non-manager roles, who saw earnings rise by 7.2% from January, far outpacing any other sector.

That higher pay could be a sign that companies are lifting wages as they seek to draw people back to work after more than a year at home. Some businesses are struggling to keep up with higher demand as more consumers, now fully vaccinated, get back to flying, staying in hotels and dining indoors. Job gains in leisure and hospitality this year have so far outpaced gains in other sectors.

But it is too soon to know whether the boost will be enough to help speed up hiring at a time when many workers are still facing other obstacles, including health concerns and having to care for children and other relatives.

“The fact of the matter is, the pandemic is still going on,” said Daniel Zhao, a senior economist for Glassdoor. “The economy is running ahead of where we are from a public health situation.”

Some 2.5 million people said they were prevented from looking for work in May because of the pandemic, according to the Labor Department. And just about 40% of Americans are now fully vaccinated, meaning that many workers may still be concerned about the health risks they might face on the job, Zhao said.

STILL IN A HOLE

Employment in leisure and hospitality is still in a deep hole when compared with pre-pandemic levels.

The industry added 292,000 jobs in May, with about two-thirds of that hiring happening in restaurants and bars. But overall employment is still down 2.5 million jobs, or 15% from pre-pandemic levels, more than any other industry.

If job gains continued at the pace seen in May, it would take more than eight months to replace the jobs lost. And it’s not yet clear that all of the jobs will be recovered, especially if business travel remains depressed or if other habits change after the pandemic.

Some people who previously worked at hotels or restaurants moved on to other types of jobs during the pandemic, such as packaging goods at a warehouse, and it’s too soon to know whether they will switch back as more of the economy reopens, said Zhao.

Some Republicans and businesses struggling to find workers say generous unemployment benefits are slowing down the labor market recovery by making it easier for workers to stay home. Others say the benefits may be helping workers cover the bills while they wait for schools to reopen, receive vaccinations and resolve other obstacles that made it difficult for them to work during the pandemic.

“People were making decisions based on those other factors, but they had the wherewithal to make those choices because of the extended unemployment benefits,” Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank President Loretta Mester said during an interview with CNBC.

Either way, any frictions caused by unemployment benefits may be resolved over the next several months as those benefits are reduced. About half of states are putting an early end to a $300 federal supplement to weekly unemployment benefits, winding them down as soon as June 12. The supplement expires nationwide on Sept. 6.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte and Ann Saphir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

First foreign tourists in more than a year land in Israel

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first group of foreign tourists in more than a year touched down in Israel on Thursday after the government began opening its borders following a steep drop in COVID-19 infections.

Small groups of vaccinated foreign tourists – up to 30 people – have been allowed to enter as of last Sunday and the Tourism Ministry expects 20 such groups to come from countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, under a pilot program until June 15.

The ministry then hopes to expand the number of groups and, in July, allow individual tourists.

Shortly after 4 pm (1300 GMT), United Airlines flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey landed with 12 Christian pilgrims, men and women of varying ages, studying theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. They were welcomed by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hakohen, who said: “You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists returning to the Holy Land.”

Led by Pastor Tom Zelt of the Prince of Peace Church, the group plans to visit Jerusalem, Nazareth, national parks and Christian sites, the Tourism Ministry said.

“Israel is … healthy and vaccinated. Everything is now safely open,” Farkash-Hakohen told the group.

The country had closed its borders to foreigners at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A rapid vaccine roll-out that has vaccinated most adults has brought the number of active COVID cases to just 428 nationwide.

This has paved the way for Israel to allow vaccinated foreigners to enter the country and revive its tourism sector, although officials remain cautious over potential new variants.

Tourists are required to show negative PCR tests before flying and to take another test at Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Tel Aviv.

Groups will also need to take serological tests at their hotel to prove they have COVID-19 antibodies. They will need to quarantine until results come back, usually in a few hours.

Tourism in 2019 hit a record high of 4.55 million visitors, contributing 23 billion shekels ($7.1 billion) to Israel’s economy, mainly via small and mid-sized businesses.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer. Editing by Jane Merriman)

Mexico eyes easing U.S. border curbs from June 22, depending on COVID

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexico and the United States are discussing relaxing curbs on non-essential land border crossings from June 22, depending on the spread of COVID-19 and how many people in both countries have been vaccinated, Mexico’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The two neighbors have agreed to extend for another month restrictions on non-essential travel across their shared border until just before midnight on June 21, the ministry said in statement on Twitter.

Mexico has also decided to extend curbs on non-essential travel on its southern border with Guatemala over the same period, it added.

“Mexico and the United States are in discussions to relax from June 22 the restrictions on border crossings on the basis of indices on the spread of COVID-19 and the number of vaccines applied on both sides of the border,” the ministry said.

Mexico, which has a population of 126 million, has so far administered nearly 24 million vaccine doses against COVID-19, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

Numbers of new infections and deaths from the virus in Mexico have fallen sharply in recent weeks.

Earlier, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a regular news conference that his country was hoping that restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic would be lifted during the summer.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito)

New York lifts mask requirements for the vaccinated, California waits

By Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York state this week will drop face mask requirements in most public spaces for people vaccinated against COVID-19, conforming with the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom said his state would keep its mask order in place for another month, despite the CDC’s new recommendations.

Cuomo and Newsom, both Democrats, have drawn criticism for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Newsom faces a Republican-led recall election.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, said he would lift mask restrictions outdoors but keep in place a mandate to wear them indoors. Murphy said schools would be required to provide full-time, in-person classroom instruction again in the fall.

On Saturday, the CDC said students in schools across the United States wear masks for the 2020-2021 academic year because not all will be inoculated.

New York will still order public transportation riders to wear face coverings and mandate them in schools and some other communal settings, Cuomo said, adding: “Unvaccinated people should continue to wear a mask.”

Cuomo said New York health officials decided to lift the mask order after reviewing the CDC’s new guidance. Some 52 percent of New York adults have been fully inoculated and 61.8 percent had received at least one shot as of Monday.

Cuomo, speaking to reporters at Radio City Music Hall, said it would be up to each business or venue how they should determine vaccination status

“I’m sure when people are coming into Radio City Music Hall, they are going to ask, ‘I’m sitting next to someone. I don’t know who they are. Are you sure they were vaccinated?'” he said. “That’s why it’s on the operator’s best interest to say ‘Yes! They had a card and they were checked when they walked in the door.'”

The three-term governor said he expected that some New Yorkers might keep wearing masks as a precaution after this week’s rule change.

Cuomo, 63, has resisted calls to resign in the face of probes by the state attorney general and legislature over accusations of sexual harassment, his office’s reporting of nursing home deaths and his use of staff members and resources in the writing of a book on his handling of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Spain close to vaccinating all nursing-home residents, on track for summer goals

By Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain has given a full two-shot course of coronavirus vaccines to almost all its elderly nursing-home residents, the FED care-home association said on Friday, restoring some sense of security to the most vulnerable section of the population.

Separately, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the country, which has administered 2.8 million doses and fully inoculated 1.14 million people, was on track to vaccinate 20 million people in the first half of 2021 out of a population of 47 million.

Nearly 43,000 care-home residents died of COVID-19 or suspected infection in the devastating March-May first wave of contagion, and prosecutors are investigating more than 200 cases of potential criminal negligence at such homes.

But more than 97% of residents have now been vaccinated across Spain’s 17 regions, according to the FED, putting nursing homes among the country’s safest places.

“They are very positive data that allow us to be optimistic about the future,” said FED’s president Ignacio Fernandez Cid. “Immunity will allow us to gradually return to the longed-for lost normality.”

Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon said earlier this week that for the first time since the start of the pandemic, people over 65 who live in care homes have a lower rate of infection than those who live outside, supporting the thesis, if indirectly, that the vaccines are having an effect.

Frontline medics and care workers are the only people under 65 to receive a vaccine so far.

Spain will now give shots made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to people over 80, while AstraZeneca’s drug will go to key workers under 55.

With a third wave quickly receding, Spain’s two-week infection rate hit 321 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday, from almost 900 cases at the end of January, prompting several regions to relax measures.

Madrid on Thursday pushed its curfew back an hour to 11 p.m. and on Friday lifted travel restrictions on 31 neighborhoods.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, editing by Andrei Khalip)

WHO issues warning as measles infects 34,000 in Europe this year

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 34,000 people across Europe caught measles in the first two months of 2019, with the vast majority of cases in Ukraine, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday as it urged authorities to ensure vulnerable people get vaccinated.

The death toll among 34,300 cases reported across 42 countries in the WHO’s European region reached 13, with the virus killing people in Ukraine – which is suffering a measles epidemic – as well as in Romania and Albania. The risk is that outbreaks may continue to spread, the WHO warned.

“If outbreak response is not timely and comprehensive, the virus will find its way into more pockets of vulnerable individuals and potentially spread to additional countries within and beyond the region,” it said in a statement.

“Every opportunity should be used to vaccinate susceptible children, adolescents and adults.”

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can kill and cause blindness, deafness or brain damage. It can be prevented with two doses of an effective vaccine, but – in part due to pockets of unvaccinated people – it is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world including in the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Europe, the majority of measles cases so far in 2019 are in Ukraine, which saw more than 25,000 people infected in the first two months of the year.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and vaccination is the only way to prevent it, the WHO said. Most cases are in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people.

It added that even though the region had its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination in 2017 – at around 90 percent – some countries have had problems, including declining or stagnating immunization coverage in some cases, low coverage in some marginalized groups, and immunity gaps in older populations.

The WHO called on national health authorities across the region to focus efforts on ensuring all population groups have access to vaccines.

“The impact on public health will persist until the ongoing outbreaks are controlled,” it said, adding that health authorities should “identify who has been missed in the past and reach them with the vaccines they need.”

A report by the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF last month found that more than 20 million children a year missed out on measles vaccines across the world in the past eight years, laying the ground for dangerous outbreaks.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)