White House sees no federal mandate for COVID-19 vaccine verification

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House said it expected the private sector to take the lead on verification of COVID-19 vaccines, or so-called vaccine passports, and would not issue a federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.

The Biden administration was reviewing the issue and would make recommendations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday, but she added, “We believe it will be driven by the private sector.”

Japan is gearing up to issue digital health certificates to citizens who have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, joining China, the European Union and others that have adopted similar measures aimed at opening up overseas travel, the Nikkei reported on Saturday.

Psaki said the White House was leading an inter-agency process looking at these issues, and would provide guidance in line with several key principles:

“There are a couple key principles that we are working from. One is that there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database, and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential,” she said.

“Secondly, we want to encourage an open marketplace with a variety of private sector companies and nonprofit coalitions developing solutions. And third, we want to drive the market toward meeting public interest goals.”

Psaki said the Biden Administration would work to ensure that all vaccination credential systems met key standards such as universal accessibility, affordability and availability, both digitally and on paper.

She gave no indication when the process would be completed.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler)

U.S. senators offer bill to rein in Biden war powers after Syria strike

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation on Wednesday to repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force used to justify years of attacks in the Middle East, an effort to shift back the authority to declare war to Congress from the White House.

The measure, led by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Senator Todd Young, would repeal 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, citing the “strong partnership” between Washington and the government in Baghdad.

Under the Constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to authorize war.

But those AUMFs – and a third one, from 2001, for the fight against al Qaeda – have been used to justify strikes by both Democratic and Republican presidents since they were passed. They have been criticized as allowing “forever wars” that have kept U.S. forces fighting overseas for decades.

The bill’s introduction came a week after Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration carried out air strikes against facilities belonging to Iranian-backed militia in Syria that renewed questions about whether a president should be able to conduct such actions without congressional approval.

Tensions have been rising with Iran, after strikes in the region blamed on Tehran.

“Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the Executive Branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” Kaine said in a statement.

Members of Congress from both parties have sought repeatedly to repeal the AUMFs in recent years, but efforts have fallen short.

The other sponsors of the new measure include Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth, Chris Coons and Dick Durbin, as well as Republican Senators Mike Lee, Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

COVID safety measures still essential even as U.S. boosts vaccine supply: White House

By Carl O’Donnell and Jarrett Renshaw

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. states need to “rally together” to maintain safety measures like social distancing and mask-wearing even as the federal government helps ramp up the production and delivery of vaccines, the White House said on Wednesday.

White House senior adviser Andy Slavitt said the federal government is planning to spend $100 million to help the joint partnership between Merck & Co and rival Johnson & Johnson accelerate vaccine production.

The infusion will help Johnson & Johnson ramp up its production of vaccines, Slavitt said. The company was contracted to deliver 200 million doses to the federal government by the end of May and roughly a billion doses globally by end-2021.

“Over time we believe Merck will be able to double the capacity of Johnson & Johnson,” Slavitt said.

Slavitt said while the increased production is good news, he urged states like Texas to reconsider recent decisions to lift mask mandates and allow businesses to fully open without restrictions.

There are health officials in every state who feel “now is the wrong time to lift the mask mandate,” Slavitt said. “Hopefully, the country will continue to rally together on this front.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Biden to boost funds for COVID-19 tests in schools, shelters: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to provide $650 million to expand COVID-19 testing for elementary and middle schools, as well as homeless shelters and other underserved congregate settings, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday.

It will also spend $815 million to increase U.S. manufacturing of testing supplies and $200 million for virus genome sequencing, the statement said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

White House says no intention to require COVID-19 testing on domestic flights

By David Shepardson and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday it was not currently planning to require people to take COVID-19 tests before domestic airline flights after the prospects of new rules raised serious concerns among U.S. airlines, unions and some lawmakers.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Friday that “reports that there is an intention to put in place new requirements, such as testing, are not accurate.”

Psaki spoke after the chief executives of major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, met virtually with White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last month the agency was “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to U.S. domestic flights.

The CDC on Jan. 26 began requiring negative COVID-19 tests or evidence of recovery from the disease from nearly all U.S.-bound international passengers aged 2 and older.

Any CDC order would first need to be drafted and then reviewed by other federal agencies in the Biden administration, including the White House.

The White House and officials told Reuters this week that no formal order had been circulated and that officials were not expected to endorse requiring negative COVID-19 tests before domestic flights, but added that decision could change at a later date.

“We had a very positive, constructive conversation focused on our shared commitment to science-based policies as we work together to end the pandemic, restore air travel and lead our nation toward recovery,” Nick Calio, chief executive of the Airlines for America industry group, said in a statement after the meeting on Friday.

The White House has a separate interagency meeting scheduled for later Friday to discuss coronavirus issues.

The meeting of airline CEOs, Zients and other administration officials involved in COVID-19 issues came after the industry strongly objected to the possibility of requiring COVID-19 testing before domestic flights.

Southwest Airlines warned such a requirement could put jobs at risk and a major aviation union said it could lead to airline bankruptcies.

One idea that has been under serious consideration is for the CDC to issue recommendations advising against travel to specific areas of the United States with high COVID-19 caseloads, although those travel recommendations would not be binding, officials said.

The CDC currently has a broad recommendation discouraging all non-essential air travel.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

White House says no specific decisions on domestic air travel under review

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Thursday rejected media reports it is considering any new domestic air travel restrictions.

“To be clear, there have been no decisions made around additional public health measures for domestic travel safety. The administration is continuing to discuss recommendations across the travel space, but no specific decisions are under consideration,” a White House spokesman told Reuters.

Reports that the administration was considering imposing restrictions on travel to Florida brought denunciations from many Republican lawmakers.

The chief executives of major U.S. airlines are scheduled to meet virtually on Friday with the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator to discuss travel-related issues, Reuters reported Wednesday.

The meeting with coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients and other administration officials involved in COVID-19 issues comes as airlines, aviation unions and other industry groups have strongly objected to the possibility of requiring COVID-19 testing before boarding domestic flights.

Southwest Airlines Co Chief Executive Gary Kelly and the leaders of the airline’s unions urged President Joe Biden in a letter not to mandate COVID-19 testing, saying it would put “jobs at risk.”

“Such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences,” said the letter, which was dated Tuesday and released on Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month said the Biden administration was “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to U.S. domestic flights. The CDC on Jan. 26 began requiring negative COVID-19 tests or evidence of recovery from the disease from nearly all U.S.-bound international passengers age 2 and older.

One idea that has been under review within the Biden administration is for the CDC to issue recommendations advising against travel to areas of the United States with high COVID-19 caseloads, but no decisions have been made and recommendations would not be binding, officials said.

CDC officials have repeatedly urged Americans not to travel unless necessary.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

White House says ‘vast majority’ of migrants at U.S.-Mexico border will be turned away

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will turn away most migrants caught at its border with Mexico under a Trump-era policy aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus and to give the Biden administration time to implement “humane” asylum processing systems, a White House official said on Wednesday.

The White House comments follow reports of the release of some migrant families into the United States and increasing pressure on President Joe Biden to reverse the restrictive policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

“Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing. “The vast majority of people will be turned away.”

U.S. officials in Texas last week released hundreds of Central American migrant families from custody amid concerns of overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities after local authorities in Mexico baulked at taking them back.

Biden has left in place a Trump-era COVID order called Title 42 that allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel to Mexico migrants caught crossing the border illegally.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed a new lawsuit over the policy on Monday, said it uses a “guise” of public health to undermine legal protections for asylum seekers.

“Our fight for these families continues, until and unless the Biden administration ends this cruel practice once and for all,” Rose said in a statement.

The nascent Biden administration also faces pressure from congressional Democrats for its deportation practices.

A group of 12 Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Mondaire Jones of New York sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday criticizing recent deportations of Haitian immigrants.

The lawmakers said the removals appeared to go against Biden administration enforcement priorities outlined in a Jan. 20 memo and that it appeared immigration officials were “disparately targeting Black asylum-seekers and immigrants.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles,; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

U.S. government partnering with Texas to build three mass vaccination sites

By Rebecca Spalding

(Reuters) – The federal government is partnering with the state of Texas to build three mass vaccination sites, following last week’s announcement that it would build such sites in California, federal health officials said in a Wednesday media briefing.

Each site will be able to get 10,000 shots in arms per day, according to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, and should begin administering shots by Feb. 22.

The sites will be in the Dallas and Houston areas and will be operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to a state news release. One site will be AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home to the Dallas Cowboys.

Last week, the state of California said it was partnering with FEMA to open mass vaccination sites in Los Angeles and Oakland as a part of a pilot program started by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Both states said the program’s goal was to make sure people in underserved communities have access to vaccines.

White House says it is working to speed early production of J&J COVID-19 vaccine

By Dania Nadeem, Rebecca Spalding and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – The Biden administration is exploring every option for increasing manufacturing of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is under regulatory review, and said on Friday that currently expected levels of early doses were less than hoped.

The White House has invoked the Defense Production Act to help Pfizer Inc ramp up COVID-19 vaccine production and that “every option” was on the table to produce more Johnson & Johnson vaccine should it be authorized.

It will also use the wartime powers to increase at-home COVID-19 tests, and make more surgical gloves in the United States, officials said at a Friday media briefing.

“As is the case with other vaccines, we have not found that the level of manufacturing allows us to have as much vaccine as we think we need coming out of the gate,” said Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House’s COVID-19 response team, referring to the J&J vaccine.

J&J applied on Thursday for U.S. emergency use authorization. It expects to have some vaccine ready for distribution as soon as authorized but has not said how much.

Emergent Biosolutions’ Chief Executive Robert Kramer said in an interview on Friday that the company currently is making bulk drug substance for J&J “at large scale.” Emergent is only producing bulk vaccine, which is then filled into syringes or vials and packaged for shipment by another contractor.

Kramer said they were on track to make enough product for hundreds of millions of doses a year. It remains unclear what other supply bottlenecks may be. Kramer said his company had already benefited from the Defense Production Act under the Trump Administration, which helped the company get to the point where it’s ready to go.

Under the authority of the Defense Production Act, the government will give priority ratings to two components important to Pfizer’s vaccine production – filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units, the officials said.

“We told you that when we heard of a bottleneck on needed equipment, supplies, or technology related to vaccine supply that we would step in and help, and we were doing just that,” said Tim Manning, the supply chain coordinator for the national COVID-19 response.

The government will also invoke its powers under the Defense Production Act to increase at-home COVID-19 tests with six, unnamed manufacturers, aiming to produce 61 million tests by the summer, Manning said.

It will also invoke its powers to increase the nation’s supply of surgical gloves, which are made almost exclusively overseas.

Manning said the government will build factories that make the raw materials for surgical gloves and help build plants in the United States to make the gloves.

By the end of the year, he said, the United States would be able to produce a billion gloves a month.

Officials have said that once J&J’s vaccine is authorized, it would mean that millions more doses would be available to states. The vaccine is one-shot, as opposed to Pfizer’s and Moderna Inc’s two-dose vaccines, and can be stored in a refrigerator.

Officials have hoped that the ease of giving the J&J vaccine will mean that states will be able to more quickly immunize residents.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem, Rebecca Spalding and Julie Steenhuysen, Editing by Peter Henderson, Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)

White House plans to send vaccine doses to retail pharmacies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will launch a new program shipping coronavirus vaccines directly to retail pharmacies starting next week in an effort to increase Americans’ access to shots, a top aide said on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator, Jeff Zients, said the program will launch on Feb 11 and make 1 million doses available to 6,500 stores. As supply grows, the program could expand to as many as 40,000 stores, he said.

Biden said last month that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a “dismal failure” so far and vowed to boost the speed at which shots are given to Americans, with a focus on ensuring equitable access regardless of geography, race, or ethnicity.

The federal government will distribute a million vaccine doses to the 6,500 stores next week, Zients said, adding that the amount will grow over time.

That is in addition to 10.5 million doses that the federal government plans to ship weekly to states and territories for the next three weeks, he added.

“This will provide more sites for people to get vaccinated in their communities,” Zients said, adding that supply constraints will limit the program in its early days.

The initial pharmacy locations were selected to improve access to vaccines in hard to reach areas and among socially vulnerable communities, Zients said.

CVS Health Corp said in a news release that its pharmacies will be participating in the program.

Zients also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse states for some COVID-related costs they had taken on since the pandemic began last January, such as for personal protective equipment and deployment of the national guard.

He said Congress does not need to approve funds for FEMA to do this and that the total payments to states will be between $3 billion and $5 billion.

Zients added that the federal government has acquired supplies of equipment healthcare providers need to get six doses from each vial of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than five.

The Biden administration has said it is willing to use emergency wartime powers if necessary to secure the specialized low dead space syringes and other supplies needed to eliminate vaccine waste and improve administration efficiency.

The major winter storm that hit the east coast of the United States this week has not disrupted vaccine deliveries but has forced some vaccine administration sites to shut down or reduce operating hours, Zients said.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Susan Heavey and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Bill Berkrot)