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Coronavirus Notebook

Biden administration releases pared-down workplace safety rule, stopping short of broader mandate

A health care worker prepared a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A health care worker prepared a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a rule Thursday outlining steps that employers must take to protect workers from the risk of COVID-19, but it will apply only to the health care industry, not to other high-risk workplaces, as the Biden administration initially indicated.

“The science tells us that health care workers, particularly those who come into regular contact with the virus, are most at risk at this point in the pandemic,” Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh said on a call with reporters. “So following an extensive review of the science and data, OSHA determined that a health care specific safety requirement will make the biggest impact.”

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The rule will require health care employers to provide protective equipment including masks, to screen and triage patients for the risk of COVID-19, and to ensure adequate ventilation and distancing, among other measures. It will also require those employers to provide adequate paid time off for workers to receive vaccinations and manage their side effects.

Fully vaccinated workers will not be required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Walsh, whose department includes OSHA, said the administration was issuing optional guidance to employers outside health care that would focus on workplaces in the manufacturing, meat processing, grocery, and retail industries.

Groups focused on workers’ issues criticized the decision to limit the rule, known as an emergency standard, to health care employers, arguing that the virus continues to pose serious risks to other workers.

“We know that workers in many industries outside of health care faced elevated risks of COVID,” Debbie Berkowitz, a senior OSHA official during the Obama administration who is now at the National Employment Law Project, wrote in an e-mail. “Especially in low-wage industries like meat processing that is disproportionally Black and brown workers.”

She added: “We need to make sure these workers are still protected with mitigation measures.”

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Berkowitz and others had expressed hope that President Biden would chart a different course from his predecessor, under whom OSHA declined to issue a standard related to COVID-19.

During the Trump administration, OSHA adopted a policy of largely limiting COVID-related inspections to a small number of high-risk industries like health care and emergency response. It did not include meatpacking — which studies indicated was a major source of virus transmission — in this high-risk group.

Some worker groups gave OSHA credit under then-President Trump for enforcing safety rules in the health care industry, including proposed penalties of over $1 million for violations at dozens of facilities. But critics accused the agency of largely failing to fine meat processors for lax safety standards, such as failure to ensure workers were adequately distanced from one another.

Walsh indicated that the risks to most workers outside health care had eased as cases had fallen and vaccination rates had risen. He also indicated that guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month advising those who have been vaccinated that they generally need not wear a mask indoors played a role in OSHA’s decision to forgo a broader COVID-19 standard.

“OSHA has tailored the rule that reflects the reality on the ground, the success of the vaccine efforts, plus the latest guidance from CDC and the changing nature of pandemic,” Walsh said on the call.

David Michaels, a head of OSHA during the Obama administration, said the CDC guidance had made a broader OSHA rule more difficult to enact. “To justify an emergency standard, OSHA has to show there’s a grave danger,” Michaels said. “For that to happen, the CDC would have needed to clarify its recommendation and say that for many workers, there remains a grave danger.”

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Without such clarification, said Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, employer groups would probably have challenged any new OSHA rule in court, arguing that the CDC guidance indicated that a rule was unnecessary.

Michaels said that the new standard was an overdue step but that it was disappointing that no COVID-specific standard was issued for industries like meatpacking, corrections, and retail. “If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be important drivers of infections,” he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

FDA OK’s expanded shelf life of the Johnson vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized an extension of the expiration date of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, the company said in a statement, expanding the shelf life by six weeks shortly before millions of doses were set to possibly go to waste.

“The decision is based on data from ongoing stability assessment studies, which have demonstrated that the vaccine is stable at 4.5 months when refrigerated at temperatures of 36 – 46 degrees Fahrenheit,” J&J said in the statement.

The move gives states extra time to figure out how to use up the supply of the single-dose vaccine, even as local officials have struggled to use up stockpiles of the shot, which has lately faced sagging demand. Since it was authorized by the FDA in late February, it has been a critical resource in reaching more isolated communities and people who prefer to receive just one shot.

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But the vaccine took a major hit in April when the FDA and CDC recommended a pause in its use after a rare blood clotting disorder occurred in recipients of the vaccine. State officials have said that decision significantly curtailed interest in the vaccine, and roughly 10 million doses delivered to states remain unused, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pace of vaccinations has fallen in recent weeks for all three federally authorized shots, and the Biden administration has shifted its strategy from relying on mass vaccination sites to highlighting more targeted approaches, some with incentives.

NEW YORK TIMES

Germany unveils a digital vaccination pass

BERLIN — Germany on Thursday started rolling out a digital vaccination pass that can be used across Europe as the continent gets ready for the key summer travel season.

The country’s health minister said starting this week, vaccination centers, doctors practices and pharmacies will gradually start giving out digital passes to fully vaccinated people. The CovPass will let users download proof of their coronavirus vaccination status onto a smartphone app, allowing them easy access to restaurants, museums, or other venues that require proof of immunization.

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The vaccination passport should be available to everyone in Germany who is fully vaccinated by the end of this month, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

“The goal is that this certificate can also be used in Helsinki, Amsterdam, or Mallorca,” Spahn told reporters in Berlin.

People who have been fully vaccinated will either get a letter with a QR-code they can scan with their phones or they can contact their doctors or pharmacies to retroactively get the digital pass.

“By doing so, we in the European Union are setting a cross-border standard that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world yet,” Spahn said, adding that the digital vaccination pass is an important step for the revival of international tourism.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Macy’s fireworks set for a July 4 return

NEW YORK — Macy’s annual fireworks display will return to its usual grand scale over the East River this July 4, the latest sign of normalcy returning to New York City.

Bill de Blasio, the city’s mayor, announced the milestone Thursday, noting that “this is part of the summer of New York City, the rebirth of New York City.”

He continued, “Why is it possible? Because you got vaccinated.”

The fireworks display, an annual tradition since 1976, was significantly altered last summer to prevent spectators from gathering in large groups and potentially spreading the virus.

This year, de Blasio said at a news conference, “They are bringing the full-scale fireworks show, as we have loved it for decades and decades, back to New York City for all of us to enjoy.”

NEW YORK TIMES