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Coronavirus notebook

Hundreds of Tesla workers tested positive for virus after Musk reopened plant, data show

The Tesla car manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif.
The Tesla car manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif.JIM WILSON

More than 400 workers at a Tesla plant in Fremont, California, tested positive for the coronavirus between May and December, according to public health data released by a transparency website.

The data provides the first glimpse into virus cases at Tesla, whose CEO, Elon Musk, had downplayed the severity of the coronavirus crisis and reopened the plant in May, in defiance of guidelines issued by local public health officials.

Automakers across the country halted production and closed plants last year from mid-March until mid-May. After resuming production, other automakers publicly announced when workers tested positive for the virus and halted production to prevent further infection among employees and to disinfect work areas.

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Tesla, however, has released little information about employee coronavirus cases.

The data was obtained by the website PlainSite, which works to make legal and government documents publicly accessible. The data showed that 440 cases were reported at the Tesla plant, which employs some 10,000 people. The number of cases rose to 125 in December from fewer than 11 in May.

A year ago, after officials in California ordered manufacturing plants to close, Musk suggested on Twitter that the measure was unnecessary and that cases in the United States would be “close to zero.”

He also called virus restrictions “fascist,” threatened to move Tesla out of California and then reopened the plant a week before health officials said it was safe to do so. More recently, Musk has questioned on Twitter the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.

New York Times

US warns of risk of false positive tests

WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials are warning health professionals about the risk of false positive results with a widely used laboratory test for COVID-19 and flu.

The Food and Drug Administration issued the alert to Friday for health facilities using Roche’s cobas test for coronavirus and seasonal flu. The agency warned that problems with the test’s processing tubes could result in false diagnosis in people who are not actually infected.

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Roche’s testing system is widely used to screen large batches of patient samples in hospitals and laboratories.

The FDA recommends health workers test samples multiple times to help assure accuracy. If the test delivers conflicting results it may indicate a problem and use should be discontinued, the agency says.

Associated Press

Commercial air travel appears to be on the rise

WASHINGTON — Commercial air travel appears to be on the upswing despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The Transportation Security Administration said its agents screened more than 1.3 million passengers at airport security checkpoints nationwide on Friday.

Spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet that the last time the number was that high was March 15, 2020 – about a year ago.

Public health officials generally have cautioned against commercial travel.

Farbstein included a reminder in her tweet, saying “if you choose to fly, wear that mask!”

President Joe Biden marked Thursday’s first anniversary of the pandemic with a prime-time address to the nation in which he said he expects to have enough coronavirus vaccine for all Americans by May 1.

Associated Press

Chicago River goes green after all

CHICAGO — The Chicago River was dyed a bright shade of green Saturday after Mayor Lori Lightfoot reversed an earlier decision not to tint the waterway for second year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Crews on boats began dumping green dye into the riverfront about 7 a.m. after Lightfoot authorized the dyeing ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, delighting pedestrians with the vivid scene.

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Chicago residents Lori Jones and Mike Smith surveyed the green waters, saying they were glad the tradition that dates to 1962 was resumed this year.

“We’re happy that Mayor Lightfoot decided to continue with this tradition because we truly missed it last year, as a lot of other things in 2020,’' Jones, 59, told the Chicago Tribune.

Last year, Lightfoot abruptly canceled the city’s 2020 parades and the river dyeing just days before they were to take place in the early days of the pandemic. She called off the parades again this year due to the lingering pandemic and said the river would once again not be dyed.

But a Lightfoot spokesman said in a statement that the city opted “to honor the long-standing tradition’' and authorized its partners, the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130, to dye the river.

The event was not publicized in advance “in order to minimize crowds and avoid congregating,’' the spokesman said. “Furthermore, the Riverwalk will be closed on Saturday and Chicagoans looking to see the River during the day are urged to ‘keep it moving’ and celebrate safely and responsibly.’'

Associated Press

Hong Kong locks down expatriate area

Hong Kong abruptly locked down four buildings in the heart of a popular expatriate residential area, taking one of its most dramatic steps yet to contain a super-spreading event that began in a gym and put many of the city’s elite and their families on edge.

Authorities cordoned off two towers each at the Robinson Place and Blessings Garden residential complexes in the exclusive Mid-Levels neighborhood, according to a government statement Saturday. All residents will be required to be tested at mobile testing stations before 2 a.m. Sunday and the lockdown will likely be lifted by 9 a.m., it said.

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Police vans and officers arrived earlier in the evening to seal off the area around the buildings with red tape and metal barricades. Nearly a dozen makeshift tents lined the sidewalk as government workers in protective gear began setting up specimen collection stations.

The move marks an escalation of a days-old campaign that’s already resulted in hundreds of people being sent to quarantine camps, dozens of offices being ordered to conduct mandatory employee testing and several of Hong Kong’s most expensive schools to halt in-person classes. While the city’s had bigger flareups before, no outbreak has hit so close to home for many of the city’s expats since the pandemic began.

The number of confirmed cases linked to the outbreak ballooned to 99 after the first case was reported on Wednesday.

Bloomberg News

EU governments demand talks on vaccine distribution

BERLIN — The leaders of Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Bulgaria are calling for talks among European Union leaders about the distribution of vaccines within the 27-nation bloc.

Austrian media reported Saturday that the five leaders wrote a joint letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. That came after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz complained on Friday that, even though the EU had agreed on distribution of the vaccines on a per-capita basis, some countries were receiving considerably more than others.

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The letter asserted that “if this system were to carry on, it would continue creating and exacerbating huge disparities among Member States by this summer.”

Officials elsewhere have noted that countries have wanted differing amounts of various vaccines and have not always taken up their full allocation.

Austria’s health ministry — which is run by Kurz’s junior coalition partner — was among those rejecting Kurz’s criticism. Oe1 radio reported that its general secretary, Ines Stilling, said negotiations on distributing the vaccines had been “balanced and transparent.”

Associated Press

Cases set record in Hungary

BUDAPEST— Hungary reported a record-breaking day of new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, and the number of patients being treated in the country’s hospitals also reached a new high.

Health authorities announced 9,444 new confirmed cases, more than 1,000 more than the previous record set on Friday. The jump came amid a rapid spread of a coronavirus variant first discovered in the United Kingdom.

The outbreak has put a strain on Hungary’s health care system. Officials reported the hospitalization of 179 more COVID-19 patients, bringing the national total to a record high of 8,897

Hungary has the second-highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the 27-nation European Union, underpinned by the acquisition of vaccines from Russia and China as well as the EU. The number of people who have received at least one dose of a vaccine climbed to nearly 1.3 million in the country of fewer than 10 million.

Officials say they plan to have all people over age 60 vaccinated by Easter.

As of Saturday, Hungary reported 16,790 virus-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, giving the country the seventh-worst death rate per 1 million people in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Associated Press