Flu season prep, complicated by COVID-19, starts early this year

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – Healthcare providers, including CVS Health Corp., are kicking off flu vaccinations early, ordering extra shots and aiming to add tests that check for both the annual flu and COVID-19, pharmacy executives and experts told Reuters.

Flu vaccination for the fall has taken on increased urgency because of the potential for serious complications if patients contract both viruses at once.

Vaccine makers will provide nearly 200 million flu vaccines to the United States this year, potentially 20% more than is typical, said LJ Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes vaccination.

CVS expects to more than double the number of flu shots it provides to around 18 million people and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is stockpiling extra vaccines, the companies told Reuters.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc. on Thursday announced its first shipment of its FluMist vaccine in the U.S. and said it has increased production of doses in the U.S. by over 25% more than previously planned.

Failure to inoculate for the flu could also strain the United States COVID-19 testing capacity, which is still below the 6-10 million daily tests needed, Reuters has reported.

“If we can eliminate the dynamic of people getting symptoms and their first reaction is ‘is this the seasonal flu or is this COVID,’ it can take demand off of COVID-19 testing,” CVS Chief Executive Larry Merlo told Reuters.

Merlo added that CVS is working to obtain tests that screen for both viruses simultaneously. U.S. regulators approved a joint COVID-19 and flu test in July.

The same people who are most vulnerable to risks from COVID-19, such as the elderly and those with respiratory conditions, are also at greatest risk for the flu, Tan added.

The U.S. healthcare system is already expected to be strained in the fall by a resurgence in COVID-19. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is anticipating an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the coming months, resulting in around 300,000 total deaths by December, up from the current figure of roughly 160,000, and a nearly 75% increase in hospitalizations.

There is evidence that social distancing measures for COVID-19 reduce the transmission rate of the flu as well, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning that continued measures in the U.S. could potentially slow flu transmission this season.

However, efforts to inoculate patients for the flu could be complicated by the need to safeguard patients and healthcare workers from COVID-19.

“If a patient has a fever or other symptoms associated with illness, they will be referred to their healthcare provider and immunizations will be deferred,” a Walgreens spokeswoman told Reuters.

CVS plans to begin inoculating patients earlier than usual – possibly by the end of this month – to get a jump start on preparing for this year’s flu season, which usually starts around October.

However, studies show there is a risk that getting inoculated against the flu too early can leave a patient vulnerable to contracting the virus later on in winter, if the shot wears off.

Other physicians are also starting this month, though it will still take months to fully distribute all the needed inoculations, Tan said.

The flu vaccine “comes out over time so you want to make sure people continue to seek flu vaccines” through Thanksgiving and beyond, Tan said.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Peter Henderson, Aurora Ellis and Bernadette Baum)

Target, CVS, Walgreens to require customers wear masks at U.S. stores

(Reuters) – Target Corp, CVS Health Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc said on Thursday they would require customers wear face coverings while shopping at their U.S. stores, adopting a widely accepted way to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The move by consumer-facing companies comes as virus cases continue to surge in the United States and deaths exceed 137,000.

On Wednesday, Walmart Inc, Kroger Co and Kohls Corp had decided to implement the policy at all their outlets.

Target said it would launch the policy from August 1, with an exception for those with underlying medical conditions and young children.

Local and state regulations already require shoppers at over 80% of its stores to wear face masks, the retailer said.

Walgreens’ policy will come into effect on Monday, with the company saying it will add store signage and intercom messages to remind shoppers of the new rule.

CVS will also launch the rule at its pharmacies from Monday, but said it was not asking its employees to act as enforcers.

While many companies have recommended masks for months, they were hesitant to make it a requirement over fears of drawing the ire of shoppers, especially after several videos posted online showed confrontations between customers and store staff.

“What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves,” CVS said in a statement.

(Reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Arun Koyyur)

CVS ramps up drive-through coronavirus testing sites with faster kits

CVS ramps up drive-through coronavirus testing sites with faster kits
By Michael Erman

(Reuters) – CVS Health Corp , called on by the Trump administration last month to help test Americans for infections from the new coronavirus, said it was launching two offsite testing locations with Abbott Laboratories’ faster diagnostic kit and would be able to handle 1,000 tests per day.

Testing for COVID-19, the serious respiratory illness cased by the new coronavirus, has been held back by a lack of test kits and other equipment. While more than 300,000 people in America have tested positive for the new coronavirus, officials believe a shortage of kits has undercounted cases.

Testing, including at drive-through sites like these, is also seen as a key component for U.S. workers and restarting the economy as most states have ordered many non-essential businesses to close.

Executives from Walmart In, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc  and Target Corp also said in March as part of the government announcement that they would start this testing.

In recent weeks, CVS and Walgreens had said that they each had a pilot site running.

CVS’ two new drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in Georgia and Rhode Island will use the new Abbott tests, which can work in 15 minutes, and that up to four more locations to follow.

“We want to get some experience under our belt with these sites and understand exactly sort of what the volume looks like,” CVS Chief Medical Officer Troy Brennan said in an interview.

Brennan said the company expects to announce a third testing site in a different state on Tuesday and could launch up to three more sites afterward.

Brennan said it was changing the pilot model it had tested – a single-lane drive-through in the parking lot of one of its stores. The new testing sites will be located at Georgia Tech university and the other will be in the parking lot of a casino in Rhode Island.

CVS will supply personnel from its MinuteClinic unit to oversee the testing. The states will provide security and protective equipment.

The testing is currently available at no cost to patients and is being paid for by the federal government, CVS said.

Walgreens said last week on a conference call with analysts that it had a pilot running in Chicago that was doing about 150 tests a day under the direction of the government. Target said in March that because CVS handled the pharmacy operations in its stores, it would partner with them to bring any sites online.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Caroline Humer; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell)

U.S. Supreme Court turns away religious bias claim against Walgreens

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to Walgreens, turning away an appeal by a fired former Florida employee of the pharmacy chain who asked not to work on Saturdays for religious reasons as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The justices declined to review a lower court ruling in Darrell Patterson’s religious discrimination lawsuit that concluded that his demand to never work on Saturday, observed as the Sabbath by Seventh-day Adventists, placed an undue hardship on Walgreens.

Patterson, who had trained customer service representatives at a Walgreens call center in Orlando, was fired in 2011 after failing to show up for work on a Saturday for an urgent training session.

The case tested the allowances companies must make for employees for religious reasons to comply with a federal anti-discrimination law called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Under Title VII, employers must “reasonably accommodate” workers’ religious practices unless that would cause the company “undue hardship.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

CDC warns residents in eight U.S. states of cut-fruit Salmonella outbreak

Under a very high magnification of 12000X, this colorized scanning electron micrograph shows a large grouping of Gram-negative Salmonella bacteria. REUTERS/Janice Haney Carr/CDC/Handout

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sunday urged residents of eight U.S. states to check for recalled pre-cut melon that is linked to an outbreak of Salmonella.

The FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control are investigating an outbreak linked to 60 illnesses and at least 31 hospitalizations in five states. No deaths have been reported and the agencies urged residents in the eight states to throw out any melon that may have been recalled.

On Friday, Caito Foods LLC, a unit of SpartanNash Co, recalled fresh-cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut mixed fruit products containing one of those melons produced at a Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis.

The recalled products were distributed to Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio and sold in clear, plastic containers at stores including Costco Wholesale Corp, Kroger Co, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart Inc, and Whole Foods, a unit of Amazon.com Inc.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a Twitter post late on Sunday urged people in the eight states to check the “fridge and freezer for recalled pre-cut melon linked to Salmonella outbreak.”

Of the 60 cases reported to date, 32 were reported in Michigan.

“Reports of illnesses linked to these products are under investigation, and Caito Foods is voluntarily recalling the products out of an abundance of caution,” the company said in a statement, adding it “has ceased producing and distributing these products as the company and FDA continue their investigation.”

Salmonella can result in serious illness and produce significant and potentially fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems the company said.

The CDC said evidence suggested that melon supplied by Caito Foods “is a likely source of this multistate outbreak.”

The investigation is ongoing to determine if products went to additional stores or states, the agencies said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Tribute To Cop Killer Created Outside Shooting Site

A makeshift tribute to a man who waited in ambush at a Walgreens in Jersey City, New Jersey to kill police officers is being called “tasteless” by Jersey City officials.

Lawrence Campbell, 27, walked into a Walgreens store and took the gun from a security guard.  He told people in the store to leave and watch television because he was “going to be famous.”  He then ambushed and killed a rookie officer before being shot by other police.

Now, neighborhood residents have set up a shrine to the cop killer outside the store, with messages like “see U on the other side” and “Thug in peace.”

Even the widow of the killer is showing little remorse for the incident, telling News 12 New Jersey that while she was sorry for the family of the slain officer, if her husband was going to be killed he should have killed more police officers before he died.

Jersey City officials condemned the display and tried to say it’s not representative of the neighborhood.

“I firmly believe that the people who made the ignorant comments on the TV and the people who put up a memorial to a cowardly murderer who shot somebody in the head without giving him a chance are not representative of the people who live up there,” Police Director James Shea said.

Officer Melvin Santiago, 23, graduated the police academy in December.  He will be laid to rest on Friday.

Walgreens Employee Refuses To Print Bible Verses

A woman who ordered two prints online of Bible verses for her Bible study from her local Walgreens was told she couldn’t print them because Bible verses violated copyright law.

After a clerk told Kelly Taylor that they would not print her order, she received an e-mail that told her to contact a photo team associate.  When she called the number, she was told that printing Scripture violated copyright law.

She was given prints of the Bible verses after Fox News obtained copies of the e-mails between Taylor and store officials and provided them to Walgreens’ corporate offices.

A Walgreens spokesman then sent a statement to Fox News that the employee who rejected the printing of the verses was not acting on behalf of the company.

He went on to say the employee may have had concerns that graphic designs behind the verses could fall under copyright protection and that the whole situation could be resolved by Taylor signing a waiver of copyright law.

Taylor said she hopes the incident will be a teachable moment for Walgreens and that in the future Christians won’t be denied the opportunity to print Scripture verses.