Omicron’s Role in Ending Pandemic Still Unknown, Fauci Says

Covid News: Omicron's Role in Ending Pandemic Still Unknown, Fauci Says -  The New York Times

Source: The New York Times, by Alyssa Lukpat

Even if enough people build natural immunity to Covid-19 by catching the highly contagious Omicron variant, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci said it is too soon to say if this will spell an end to the pandemic.

On Monday, Dr. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser for Covid, was asked at the online World Economic Forum if this may be the year that the virus becomes endemic, meaning it is still circulating but does not disrupt society.

While Omicron seems to cause less severe disease than other variants, Dr. Fauci said the sheer volume of cases could have a meaningful effect on collective immunity, but added, “it is an open question as to whether or not Omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for, because you have such a great deal of variability with new variants emerging.”

“I would hope that that’s the case,” he said, “but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response.”

Dr. Fauci said the evolution of the pandemic is still an open question. “The answer is: We do not know,” he said.

While cases seem to be leveling off in New York and other parts of the Northeast, they remain extremely high across the United States, averaging nearly 802,000 per day, an increase of 98 percent over the past two weeks. An average of nearly 156,000 people with the virus are hospitalized nationwide, a record. Deaths now exceed 1,900 per day, up 57 percent over two weeks.

Dr. Fauci also said that the world is still in the first of what he considered to be the five phases of the pandemic. The first is the “truly pandemic” phase, “where the whole world is really very negatively impacted,” followed by deceleration, control, elimination and eradication.

He said that only one infectious human disease has ever been eradicated: smallpox.

“That’s not going to happen with this virus,” he said.

However, once countries reach the “control” phase, when the virus becomes a “non-disruptive presence,” then the virus will be considered endemic, he said. The rhinovirus and some upper respiratory infections are examples of endemic diseases.

As Omicron continues to spread at a breakneck speed, some governments seem resigned to the idea that Covid is already a fixture of daily life. In some European countries, the authorities are pushing a “learn to live with it” approach that includes shorter isolation periods and the elimination of pre-departure tests for travel.

Why The New Hospital Price Transparency Rules Miss The Mark

Why the flawed hospital price transparency requirements miss the mark |  BenefitsPRO

Source: Fierce Healthcare, by Kyle Hicok

Intentions were good, but the new federal rules that were supposed to make hospital bills easier to figure out are instead doing little to help.

Hospital prices and reimbursements have long been a riddle wrapped around a cipher. Why the same surgical procedure, aspirin, or IV vary so much in cost between facilities, health systems, and physicians has never been clearly understood by patients.

Today Americans spend more just on hospital care—$1.2 trillion per year—than the gross domestic product of 170 nations around the globe. There is no other product with so much cost and so little financial explanation to the paying customer.

Even healthcare providers who went into their field to provide great patient care are frustrated by the complexities of medical billing and reimbursement.

That’s why the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stepped in. It enacted a new rule on hospital price transparency on January 1 that was meant to be a victory for consumers: “We believe the impact of these final policies will help to increase market competition, and ultimately drive down the cost of health care services, making them more affordable for all patients.”

A year later, clarity remains nearly as elusive as ever, despite significant investment by healthcare providers to comply with the mandate.

The rule requires hospitals to make public five types of charges for each hospital’s 300 most “shoppable” services—ones that can be scheduled in advance, and theoretically, most susceptible to competitive pricing.

Regulators hoped price transparency would encourage patients to shop around among hospitals for the best deals for medical procedures. The problem is that comparison shopping for a hospital medical procedure is almost impossible for non-experts.

For starters, even the most routine hospital procedure comprises dozens of variables—medications, tests, different specialists, recovery complications—that shift from the moment a patient walks through the door.

It’s hard to comparison-shop for, say, childbirth, without knowing whether your delivery will be straightforward or breech, requiring a C-section or epidural, and with a term baby or a preemie that requires ICU nurturing.

Still, the biggest issue muddying price transparency is the extensive behind-the-scenes negotiating between hospitals, insurers, and the government.

Few consumers realize that the price posted on their hospital bill usually bears little resemblance to the ultimate amount paid by insurance or the government. Almost all bills involve financial give-and-take between the hospital, the government, and commercial insurers.

Insurers that agree to send more patients to a particular hospital get better prices—a quantity discount—while government plans such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) pay bills based on their own price schedules.

The different amounts reimbursed for each hospital procedure are limited only by the number of managed care companies—some 1,300 within the United States—covering the work.

If you need a knee replacement—and your hospital is in compliance with the new transparency rule, with an easily searchable website for procedures’ costs—then you might find a listed price of, say, $30,000.

But what will your insurer actually pay? $20,000? $40,000? A joint project by the New York Times and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County showed wildly differing rates for the same procedures within the same hospital. A recent Wall Street Journal story found some insurers are charged twice as much as competitors for the same procedure at the same hospital in Boston.

Even within an insurance plan, the cost to the consumer varies, depending on the type of coverage. High deductible? An HMO? A Preferred Provider Option? At this point, the typical consumer probably needs to add in the out-of-pocket cost for headache medicine.

The lesson? For a reality check on their likely hospital bill, consumers need to research what their insurance provider will pay at different facilities.

But even armed with that knowledge, most consumers lack the ability to shop around for the best price. Just over half of Americans receive health coverage through their employer, and so are limited by what those plans cover, and how much they reimburse for a particular procedure.

In the face of that reality, the CMS advice to consumers to “use this information to shop for the hospital that works for you” rings hollow.

As required by the new regulations, a hospital may post a procedure price, but the unpredictable variables of medical care, combined with a confusing web of behind-the-scenes price negotiations by health care plans and hospitals, means that price is just a number—and not the amount a consumer ultimately will pay.

Until the massive managed care system is demystified and simplified, true consumer-focused price transparency for hospital bills will remain frustratingly out of reach.

Businesses React To Ruling Against Biden Vaccine Mandate

Supreme Court Blocks Biden's Vaccine Mandate for Large Employers - The New  York TimesSource: Associated Press, by David Koenig

For companies that were waiting to hear from the U.S. Supreme Court before deciding whether to require vaccinations or regular coronavirus testing for workers, the next move is up to them.

Many large corporations were silent on Thursday’s ruling by the high court to block a requirement that workers at businesses with at least 100 employees be fully vaccinated or else test regularly for COVID-19 and wear a mask on the job.

Target’s response was typical: The big retailer said it wanted to review the decision and “how it will impact our team and business.”

The Biden administration argues that nothing in federal law prevents private businesses from imposing their own vaccine requirements. However, companies could run into state bans on vaccine mandates in Republican-controlled states. And relatively few businesses enacted their own rules ahead of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement, raising doubt that there will be rush for them now.

In legal terms, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority said the OSHA lacked authority to impose such a mandate on big companies. The court, however, let stand a vaccination requirement for most health-care workers.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade organization and one of the groups that challenged the OSHA action, called the court’s decision “a significant victory for employers.” It complained that OSHA acted without first allowing public comments, although administration officials met with many business and labor groups before issuing the rule.

Chris Spear, the president of the American Trucking Associations, another of the groups that fought the OSHA rule, said it “would interfere with individuals’ private health care decisions.”

Karen Harned, an official with the National Federation of Independent Business, said that as small businesses try to recover from nearly two years of pandemic, “the last thing they need is a mandate that would cause more business challenges.”

But mandate supporters called it a matter of safety for employees and customers.

Dan Simons, co-owner of the Founding Farmers chain of restaurants in the Washington area, said vaccine mandates are “common sense.” He requires his 1,000 employees to be fully vaccinated; those who request an exemption must wear a mask and submit weekly COVID test results.

“If your priority is the economy, or your own health, or the health of others, you would agree with my approach,” Simons said.

Administration officials believe that even though the OSHA rule has been blocked, it drove millions of people to get vaccinated. Companies that used mandates to achieve relatively high vaccination rates may decide that they have accomplished enough.

Ford Motor Co. said it was “encouraged by the 88% of U.S. salaried employees who are already vaccinated.” The car maker said it would review the court decision to see if it needs to change a requirement that most U.S. salaried workers get the shots.

Labor advocates were dismayed by the ruling.

“This decision will have no impact on most professional and white collar workers, but it will endanger millions of frontline workers who risk their lives daily and who are least able to protect themselves,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration and now teaches at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health.

For their part, labor unions had been divided all along about Biden’s attempt to create a vaccine mandate, with many nurses and teachers groups in favor, but many police and fire unions opposed. Some unions wanted the right to bargain over the issue with companies.

The United Auto Workers, which encourages workers to get vaccinated, said the decision won’t change safety protocols such as face masks, temperature checks and distancing when possible for more than 150,000 union members at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis factories.

Among 543 U.S. companies surveyed in November by insurance broker and consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, employers were split on what to do with their unvaccinated workers. Fewer than one in five required vaccination. Two-thirds had no plans to require the shots unless the courts upheld the OSHA requirement.

Jeff Levin-Scherz, an executive in the firm’s health practice, said most companies with mandates will keep them because they are working. He said nothing short of a mandate can get vaccination rates to 90%, and “you really need a very high level of vaccination to prevent community outbreaks.”

United Airlines was one of the first major employers to announce a mandate, back in August. CEO Scott Kirby has said that 99% of United employees either got vaccinated or submitted a request for exemption on medical or religious grounds.

United declined to comment Thursday, but in earlier comments Kirby has sounded committed to the mandate for his employees because “it was the right thing to do for safety.”

Airlines fall under a separate Biden order that required federal contractors to get their workers vaccinated. That requirement was not part of Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, but it has been tied up separately since early December, when a federal district judge in Georgia issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the mandate.

“I would expect many federal contractors are going to wait and see because they don’t want to implement something if they don’t have to,” said Christopher Slottee, a commercial law attorney in Anchorage, Alaska.

Here’s How to Get Your Free Home COVID Test Kits

Here's how you can get free home Covid-19 tests - CNNPolitics

Source: U.S. News, by Dennis Thompson

Home COVID tests are now available at no cost to most Americans, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to increase testing around the United States.

Folks can buy home tests online or in stores and be fully reimbursed by their private insurance, without any copays or deductibles.

The White House also plans to distribute 1 billion free home tests itself, and will begin taking orders on Wednesday.

Here’s how all this works:

Do I need a prescription?

No, you can get free COVID tests without talking to your doctor.

How do I use insurance to get a test?

If you’ve got private insurance, you’ll either have your test paid for at the time of purchase or you can file a claim with your insurer.

Your insurance company has the option of choosing preferred stores, pharmacies and online shops where you can get your test at no cost up front, so you should check with your insurer before shopping. You can buy tests outside network, but in that case, insurers are only required to reimburse up to $12 per test. (Two-to-a-pack tests like BinaxNow are available for around $24 at pharmacies and stores, and about $20 at Walmart.)

How many tests do I get?

Insurance companies have to pay for up to eight tests a month for every covered person in your household.

Can I get reimbursed for tests I bought a couple weeks back?

You can only get reimbursed for COVID tests purchased Jan. 15 and after, the date the Biden administration’s program commenced.

Where can I find a test in my community?

Rapid COVID tests are sold over the counter at pharmacies, big-box stores like Walmart and Target and online retailers like Amazon.

However, as many consumers have found out, the Omicron surge is causing spot shortages of the tests. “It’s not always available at every pharmacy that you go in and want to buy it,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

Before running out to the pharmacy, you might want to first call your doctor’s office or community health center to see if they have any rapid tests on hand, suggested Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“If you are a patient at a community health center or a rural health center, your best bet is going to be to contact your provider, and those tests should be available at those centers,” Freeman said.

How do I get one of the free COVID tests from the federal government?

Starting Wednesday, you can go to to order free tests. The White House also plans to open up a phone line but no launch date has been announced. The website says there will be no shipping costs, and people won’t need to provide a credit card number to file an order.

There’s a limit of four tests per household. The tests are expected to ship within seven to 12 days of your order.

The U.S. Postal Service plans to use up to 7,000 temporary workers to ship the test kits, many of them holiday workers being held over for the new project, Reuters reports. Still, demand may have peaked by the time tests are delivered.

What if I’m on Medicare or Medicaid?

Traditional Medicare is not currently paying for over-the-counter home COVID tests except at community health centers. However, it does cover COVID testing performed in a lab, if your doctor orders the test. Folks with a Medicare Advantage plan should see if their private insurer will cover the cost of a home test.

Medicaid already covers home tests at no cost, as does the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Check with your state for more information.

What if I don’t have health insurance?

Uninsured folks might be able to get free home tests from their community or rural health center, Freeman said. The Department of Health and Human Services is providing up to 50 million free tests to health centers and Medicare-certified health clinics, CNN reports.

You also should check with your local health department, to see if test kits are being handed out elsewhere in your community. For example, “there are libraries, at least in my area, that have been distributing free tests as well,” Freeman noted.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about COVID-19 tests.

CMS Issued Over 300 Warnings, But No Fines, To Hospitals Falling Short On Price Transparency Last Year

CMS issued over 300 warnings, but no fines, to hospitals falling short on price  transparency last year | FierceHealthcare

Source: Fierce Healthcare, by Dave Muoio

After roughly a year of requiring hospitals to publicly post their prices, the top federal health regulator has delivered hundreds of warnings but has not yet seen fit to issue any civil monetary penalties.

As of an early December tally, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had issued roughly 335 warning notices to hospitals it determined to be out of compliance with its Hospital Price Transparency regulations effective Jan. 1, 2021, according to a CMS spokesperson. These written warnings outline a specific issue for the noncompliant hospital to address.

Additionally, the agency has issued to noncompliant hospitals 98 requests for a corrective action plan, according to the spokesperson. These hospitals had previously received a warning but had not yet corrected deficiencies that constitute a material violation of one or more Hospital Price Transparency requirements, the agency spokesperson said.

Of the hospitals that received corrective action plan requests, 23 have addressed their citations and received a case closure notice from CMS, according to the spokesperson.

The agency said it has not yet needed to issue any civil monetary penalties to noncompliant hospitals because, to date, each hospital that has come under compliance review has either resolved its issues or is in the process of doing so.

CMS said any hospitals that do receive a civil monetary penalty will have their name published on the Hospital Price Transparency section of its website.

Industrywide compliance with CMS’ transparency requirements was notoriously pockmarked, with numerous analyses from researchers and consulting firms detailing inconsistencies throughout the year.

Hospitals, for their part, often pointed to what they consider to be confusing or imprecise language in CMS’ rule as a barrier to their good faith efforts to reach compliance.

While CMS has yet to flex its muscles, the agency is packing more disciplinary firepower in the second year of price transparency enforcement—to the pleasure of some and the disappointment of others. Whereas noncompliance could cost a hospital of the appropriate size up to $300 per day (roughly $110,000 per year) during 2021, that penalty has since been increased to $5,500 per day (more than $2 million a year) for 2022.

Here’s What’s Changed As California’s New COVID Workplace Rules Go Into Effect

California COVID rules: Here are new ones for the workplace- CalMattersSource: LAist, by Grace Gedye

(Editor’s Note: See below for links to more information and FAQs from Cal/OSHA):

Now that COVID-19 case rates in California have jumped to their highest levels yet — more than six times the peak of the delta variant wave — updated workplace rules are kicking in to better help protect workers vaccinated against COVID-19.

The revised rules come from the California Division of Safety and Health — also known as Cal/OSHA — which regulates health and safety in California workplaces.

Changes include:


If there’s an outbreak at work, employers need to make FDA-approved COVID tests available to exposed employees at no cost, during paid time — and now that also goes for vaccinated, asymptomatic workers who were exposed.

Tests can no longer be self-administered and self-read. In other words, workers can’t take a test at home by themselves. Tests that are processed by a lab, or observed by a medical professional during a tele-health appointment, or administered and observed by medical professionals or an employer are still okay.

Who gets sent home after exposure:

Previously, if a fully vaccinated person had close contact with a COVID-positive person, but didn’t develop symptoms, they didn’t need to be sent home from work. Now, vaccinated asymptomatic people need to be sent home from work unless they wear a mask and maintain six feet of distance from others for two weeks.

Updating what counts as a mask: 

If workers choose to wear a fabric mask, rather than a surgical or medical one, the new rules clarify that it needs to be sufficiently thick and tightly woven to not let light pass through it when held up to a light source.

The rules also require employers to ensure workers wear masks as required by California’s public health department. On Dec. 15, a new statewide mask mandate that includes workplaces went into effect, and it’s slated to remain in place until Feb. 15. Workers need to wear masks indoors, but if a worker is alone in a room with a closed door, or if the workplace is a single person operation, masks aren’t needed.

If someone gets exposed to COVID at work, state law requires that employers send them home and maintain their usual pay until they meet the return-to-work criteria set forth by the workplace rules.

However, employers aren’t currently required to offer additional sick leave for COVID as a general policy. A state law requiring employers with 25 or more workers to offer up to 80 hours of supplemental paid leave for COVID expired in September, leaving workers legally entitled to just three days of sick leave annually.

Federal guidelines recommend that anyone who tests positive for the virus quarantine for five days.

Some legislators are pushing to bring back supplemental COVID sick leave in 2022, and the governor said working on sick leave was a “top priority” when he rolled out his budget proposal in early January.

Business pushes back on California COVID rules

Business and industry advocates protested the new rules at a public meeting in mid-December. Melissa Patack, vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association, said the new rules requiring asymptomatic, vaccinated workers who were exposed to maintain six feet of distance would be challenging for her industry.

“Those who work closely with actors, such as those who style hair, those who apply makeup … cannot maintain six feet of distance from the actor when doing their work,” she said.

Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate with the California Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that the changes mean employers are on the hook for providing even more tests to employees, and tests are in short supply.

What comes next

During that December meeting, business advocates critiqued the system of updating temporary rules every few months, saying it was hard for employers to keep up.

The new rules are set to expire in mid-April. Originally, regulators were going to be forced to come up with a longer term solution at that point, but just hours after the new temporary rules were approved in December, Gov. Newsom issued an executive order allowing regulators to do one more temporary revision and extension of the rules.

How, exactly, are employers supposed to ensure workers’ fabric masks meet the new standard of not letting light pass through? And what are companies supposed to do if they can’t acquire enough COVID tests? As the revised rules go into effect, figuring out how to follow them may be no simple task.

Universal Health Care Bill Advances in California Assembly

Universal health care bill advances in California Assembly | Miami Herald

Source: U.S. News, by Adam Beam

California Democrats on Tuesday took their first step toward abolishing the private health insurance market in the nation’s most populous state and replacing it with a government-run plan that they promised would never deny anyone the care they need.

But the proposal that cleared a legislative committee in the state Assembly is still a long way from becoming law. It faces strong opposition from powerful business interests who say it would cost too much. And even if it does become law, voters would have to approve a massive income tax increase to pay for it — a vote that might not happen until 2024.

Still, Democrats hailed Tuesday’s vote for jumpstarting one of their long-stalled policy goals and signaling they won’t back away from a fight even during an election year. In an hourslong hearing, some lawmakers and advocates assailed a health care industry they say has benefited corporate interests at the expense of consumers.

Ady Barkan, a 38-year-old married father of two, was diagnosed with ALS six years ago and now is mostly paralyzed. He testified at Tuesday’s hearing with the help of a computerized voice that spoke as he typed using technology that followed the movement of his eyes. Barkan said he has battled his private insurance carrier to get treatment he needed, including suing them to get a ventilator that keeps him alive.

“Even good health insurance, which I have, does not cover the cost of the care I need to survive,” he said.

To pay for everything, Democrats have introduced a separate bill that would raise taxes on businesses and individuals by about $163 billion per year, according to an analysis by the California Taxpayers Association, which opposes the bill. Voters would have to approve the tax hikes. Assembly member Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose and the author of the proposal, said Tuesday it could be 2024 before that proposal made it to the ballot.

The bill that advanced on Tuesday would create the universal health care system and set its rules. It cleared the Assembly Health Committee on an 11-3 vote. Republicans voted no, arguing the bill would cost too much and pay doctors and nurses less, potentially worsening a shortage of health care workers.

“If government-run health care becomes law, millions of Californians will flee the state — either to avoid the $163 billion per year in new taxes or to escape the lengthy waits for care that will become the norm,” Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron said.

Even some Democrats who voted for the bill had sharp criticism for the proposal. Assembly member Autumn Burke, a Democrat from Inglewood, said advancing the bill without a funding source made a mockery of the process.

“This bill has been sold to my community that it is going to change thigs now and that it is free. And neither one of those things are true,” she said.

Business groups, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, said the government-run health care system would be so expensive that the tax increase still wouldn’t be enough to pay for everything. In 2018, California’s total health care expenditures totaled $399.2 billion, accounting for 13.2% of the state’s gross domestic product, according to an analysis by the Healthy California for All Commission.

“Completely abolishing the current system in face of unrelenting pandemic by annually taxing Californians hundreds of billions of dollars is not the solution,” said Preston Young, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Kalra, the San Jose Democrat and the author of the proposal, said he knew opponents would focus on how much the plan would cost. But he said that argument distracts from the fact that Californians are already paying “the highest health tax in the world.”

“You may refer to it as premiums, deductibles, co-pays, denial of care,” Kalra said, saying none of those costs would exist under a universal health care system. “It’s clear as day they are being fleeced and far too many understandably feel helpless about it.”

California’s health care system is paid for by multiple entities — patients, insurance companies, employers and governments. But a universal health care system would be paid for by a single entity — the government, or the “single payer.”

A single payer system has been a staple of California progressive political rhetoric for decades. But it’s not been easy to accomplish in a state where most people pay for private health insurance through their jobs. In 1994, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have created a universal health care system. Another attempt passed the state Senate in 2017, but it never got a vote in the state Assembly.

Questions about how to pay for a single payer system have doomed previous plans. In 2011, Vermont enacted the nation’s first universal health care system in the country. But state officials abandoned it three years later because they said they couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to do it when he ran for governor in 2018, and voters elected him in a landslide. But in his first three years in office, Newsom has focused more on making sure everyone in California has health insurance — a strategy he said contains “the spirit” of a single payer system.

“When you’re governor, you’ve got to be in the ‘how’ business,” Newsom said. “I believe in a single payer financing model. The ‘how’ at the state level is the question that needs to be answered thoughtfully.”

Pfizer Says Its Vaccine Targeting Omicron Will Be Ready In March

Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine targeting Omicron variant will be ready in  March - CBS News

Source: CBS News, by Megan Cerullo

Pfizer will have a COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets the Omicron variant ready by March, the pharmaceutical company’s chief executive said Monday.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company has already begun manufacturing a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine that aims to protect recipients against Omicron. “This vaccine will be ready in March,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday. “We [are] already starting manufacturing some of these quantities at risk.”

Last week, Omicron made up more than 95% of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pfizer also said it is working to improve its existing vaccine formulation, developed jointly with Germany’s BioNTech, based on the vaccine’s reaction to new COVID-19 variants that arise. Pfizer can “update the current vaccine to address any future variant of potential concern, if needed,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

“In the event that a third dose with the current vaccine is not found to protect against the Omicron variant or other future variants, Pfizer expects to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval,” the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson confirmed that it has already begun manufacturing doses of the Omicron-specific vaccine, should it be deemed necessary.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in December predicted that Omicron would become the dominant virus strain in the U.S., but he has not said that a new Omicron-specific shot is necessary to maintain immunity. Fauci instead urged Americans to get booster shots, which studies have shown provide greater protection against Omicron.

A recent study from the U.K. Health Security Agency found that booster shots are up to 75% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection caused by Omicron.

Supreme Court’s Conservatives Cast Cloud Over Vaccine-Or-Test Mandate For Businesses

Supreme Court's conservatives cast cloud over vaccine-or-test mandate for  businesses : NPR

Source: NPR, by Nina Totenberg

The Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority on Friday seemed ready to block some or all of the Biden administration’s regulations aimed at increasing vaccinations nationwide.

At issue in the nearly four-hour argument were two regulations:

  1. 1. One imposes a vaccine mandate for almost all workers at hospitals, nursing homes and other medical providers receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funds.
  2. 2. The other is a separate vaccine-or-test mandate for private sector companies that employ 100 or more workers.

But even as the justices debated some pretty dry-sounding statutory and procedural issues, the pandemic itself crept inalterably into the courtroom. Two of the lawyers challenging the Biden administration rules made their argument via telephone because they both have COVID, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a lifelong diabetic, was not in the courtroom, choosing instead to participate from her chambers.

The vaccine-or-test regulation was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; it was enacted under Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, a target of many current court conservatives. The statute allows the agency to issue emergency rules when it deems them “necessary” to protect workers from a “grave danger.”

The Biden administration contends that under the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health statute, it was obligated to act. After all, COVID-19 has already claimed more than 800,000 lives in the United States and sickened 50 million more, many with lasting effects.

But at Friday’s argument, the OSHA regulation ran into a conservative buzz saw. Right off the bat, Chief Justice John Roberts cast doubt on the regulation, declaring: “This is something the federal government has never done before.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito indicated even more strongly that, in their view, the regulation went too far. They argued that at minimum Congress would have to enact a new statute that specifically authorizes the vaccine-or-test regulation. The chief justice and Justice Amy Coney Barrett appeared less categorical in their approach, but both were clearly skeptical of the regulation.

The court’s three liberal justices were, quite simply, incredulous. When Justice Thomas questioned the necessity of the vaccine-or-test regime, Justice Elena Kagan acidly noted that “nearly a million people have died” in the pandemic so far. “It is by far the greatest public health danger that this country has faced in the last century,” she said.

More and more people are dying every day and more and more people are getting sick every day, she said, adding that “this is the policy that is most geared to stopping all this.”

Justice Stephen Breyer disputed the challengers’ assertion that the regulation should be blocked “in the public interest” when “nearly three-quarters of a million people” are being infected every day. “I would find that unbelievable.”

Lawyer Scott Keller, representing the challengers, replied that states can always impose their own vaccine mandates. That prompted Sotomayor to counter that some states have made vaccine and mask mandates illegal. The OSHA rule, she said, is exactly the kind of national rule that Congress provided for in the statute.

In the second case argued Friday, involving health care workers, the court’s conservatives did not seem as unified in their hostility. As the chief justice observed, the regulation, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is different because it is based on the long-established principle that when the government funds a program, it can put conditions on how the money is used.

“What could be closer to addressing the COVID-19 problem … than health care,” he said, adding that when people people go to a hospital, for whatever reason, “if they face COVID-19 concerns , well, that’s much worse.”

Justice Kagan, by then infuriated, put it more bluntly. All the rule does is “say to providers … ‘Basically, the one thing you can’t do is kill your patients.’ ”

Friday’s special session was heard on an expedited basis because the OSHA regulation is about to go into effect, and the Medicare and Medicaid vaccine mandate for health care workers has been blocked by a lower court. So the court is likely to act within days.

Biden Coronavirus Vaccine-Or-Test Mandate Goes Into Effect

Biden coronavirus vaccine-or-test mandate goes into effect | TheHill

Source: The Hill, by Karl Evers-Hillstrom

Key components of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine or test mandate for more than 80 million workers went into effect Monday amid an ongoing Supreme Court battle that could ultimately doom the rule.

The months-long legal battle over the requirement, which was previously blocked by a federal court before being reinstated, has created confusion among employers about how to move forward. While Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism about the rule on Friday, they did not block its implementation by Monday’s deadline.

As of Monday, businesses with 100 or more employees were required to have a database of their workers’ vaccination status, post their company vaccine policy, provide paid leave to workers getting the vaccine and require unvaccinated employees to wear a mask at work.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency tasked with enforcing the rule, has said it won’t issue penalties for noncompliance until Feb. 9. That’s the deadline for businesses to implement the weekly COVID-19 testing alternative for unvaccinated workers.

“OSHA has been very careful to say that as long as employers are in good faith moving towards compliance, that they’re not going to issue any citations until Feb. 9,” said Domenique Camacho Moran, an employment attorney at New York-based law firm Farrell Fritz P.C.

“But if there’s an egregious violation, I don’t think employers can rely on the promise that there will not be a citation,” she added. “Employers need to take steps to immediately comply.”

Simply collecting vaccination information has proven difficult for some businesses, particularly when it comes to getting unvaccinated workers to reveal their status. Business groups point out that federal agencies were unable to determine the vaccination status of hundreds of their own workers when they revealed agency-wide vaccination rates last month.

“Even the requirement of just figuring out who is vaccinated and who isn’t is a significant burden, and the confusion around court rulings and whether the rule is in effect hasn’t helped,” said Ed Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development at the National Retail Federation, which asked the Supreme Court to halt the OSHA mandate.

The risks are high for employers that ignore the rule. Noncompliant employers could face fines of up to $14,000 per violation and potentially open themselves up to litigation from workers who contract COVID-19 in the workplace.

Large businesses, particularly those in the manufacturing, retail and service industries, are most concerned about losing unvaccinated workers amid a tight labor market where 10 million jobs remain unfilled.

Last week, the Postal Service asked OSHA for a 120-day extension to comply with the rule, stating that it would be “nearly impossible” to meet the deadlines in time and warning that the mandate would cause many employees to leave the already understaffed mail service.

“Given the significant challenges that our nation’s supply chains are already experiencing, we respectfully suggest that the nation cannot afford the additional potential substantial harm that would be engendered if the ability of the Postal Service to deliver mail and packages is significantly negatively impacted,” Deputy Postmaster General Douglas Tulino wrote in a letter to OSHA officials.

An October poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 37 percent of unvaccinated adults would leave their job if they were forced to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, but only 5 percent of unvaccinated workers have actually left over vaccine mandates. Roughly 15 percent of U.S. adults remain unvaccinated.

While businesses initially cheered the OSHA mandate’s weekly testing alternative as a way to retain unvaccinated workers, they’re now confronting the challenge of finding millions of COVID-19 tests as the nation grapples with a severe testing shortage.

Employers can opt to institute a strict vaccine mandate and ignore the testing alternative, but few have chosen to do so. When testing requirements go into effect on Feb. 9, businesses will have to compete with schools, hospitals and the general public for the limited supply of tests.

“Employers can’t afford to scrap the testing option because they don’t have workers to replace these people,” Camacho Moran said. “And if unvaccinated employees can’t get tested, they can’t come to work.”

Business groups and labor lawyers are advising employers to purchase tests now, even at current sky-high prices, rather than wait for a Supreme Court ruling and risk being noncompliant come Feb. 9.

“Our members are going out and trying to procure hundreds of thousands of tests for employees, and they don’t even know if this will go into effect,” Egee said.

Employers are closely monitoring lawsuits from business groups and Republican-led states to defeat the rule. During oral arguments over the vaccine or test mandate on Friday, members of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed skepticism about whether OSHA has the authority to issue the standard.

The Biden administration argued that the rule will save the lives of more than 6,500 workers and prevent roughly 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months. The U.S. is reporting record numbers of COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant, and vaccines drastically reduce death and hospitalizations caused by the virus.

“Exposure to COVID-19 on the job is the biggest threat to workers in OSHA’s history,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told justices Friday. “The court should reject the argument that the agency is powerless to address that grave danger.”

Last Updated 01/19/2022

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