Bank of America Corp. will offer its U.S. staff paid time off when they become eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine.

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A passer-by walks past the entrance to a Bank of America ATM in Boston in October 2019. Steven Senne/Associated Press

Workers will have the option to use two half days, for up to four hours each, for vaccination appointments this year, the bank said Friday in a staff memo seen by Bloomberg. The policy is designed to accommodate the two-dose regimen current vaccines require.

The time-off benefit is part of Bank of America’s effort “to help address the impacts of the coronavirus and to support the physical, emotional and financial well-being of our teammates,” the bank, which has roughly 212,500 employees, said in the memo.

A bank spokeswoman confirmed the contents of the memo.

Other companies have offered similar perks. Allstate, one of the largest publicly traded U.S. auto insurers, said it will provide paid time off for employees to get the vaccine during working hours. Bank of Montreal said earlier this month it was offering staff three hours of paid time off, and will also cover some of the costs associated with getting the shots.

Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C., said in December it would extend pandemic benefits for employees who need child- or adult-care services, offering reimbursements for caregiver costs and boosting the number of days workers can use backup facilities or in-home care this year.

FDA committee endorses Johnson & Johnson single-shot COVID-19 vaccine

WASHINGTON — U.S. health advisers endorsed a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson on Friday, putting the nation on the cusp of adding an easier-to-use option to fight the pandemic.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to quickly follow the recommendation and make J&J’s shot the third vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S. Vaccinations are picking up speed, but new supplies are urgently needed to stay ahead of a mutating virus that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

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Vials of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine protects against COVID-19, according to an analysis by U.S. regulators Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, that sets the stage for a final decision on a new and easier-to-use shot to help tame the pandemic. Johnson & Johnson via AP

After daylong discussions, the FDA panelists voted unanimously that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks for adults. If the FDA agrees, shipments of a few million doses could begin as early as Monday.

More than 47 million people in the U.S., or 14% of the population, have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which FDA authorized in December. But the pace of vaccinations has been strained by limited supplies and delays due to winter storms.

While early J&J supplies will be small, the company has said it can deliver 20 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June.

J&J’s vaccine protects against the worst effects of COVID-19 after one shot, and it can be stored up to three months at refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to handle than the previous vaccines, which must be frozen.

One challenge in rolling out the new vaccine will be explaining how protective the J&J shot is after the astounding success of the first U.S. vaccines.

The two-dose Pfizer and Moderna shots were found to be about 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers from J&J’s study are not that high, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. One dose of the J&J vaccine was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19. After adding in moderate cases, the total effectiveness dropped to about 66%.

Some experts fear that lower number could feed public perceptions that J&J’s shot is a “second-tier vaccine.” But the difference in protection reflects when and where J&J conducted its studies.

Read the full story here.

Hospitals plead for bailout in face of runaway pandemic bills

U.S. hospitals face up to $122 billion in lost revenue this year as the pandemic continues its rampage, threatening to push more critical-care centers into bankruptcy or out of business entirely.

Even a best-case scenario would cost hospitals $53 billion of revenue, according to a new Kaufman, Hall & Associates report for the American Hospital Association. That’s on top of more than $323 billion in reduced revenue and higher expenses last year. U.S. hospitals were already hard-pressed before the Covid-19 outbreak, especially in poor and rural regions, with more than 30 going bankrupt in the year preceding the pandemic.

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Medical staff attending to patients with COVID-19 wear protective equipment in a unit dedicated to treatment of the coronavirus at UW Health in Madison, Wis. on Nov. 5, 2020. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File

“We need additional funding to both participate in the vaccination efforts as well as care for large numbers of critically ill patients, maintain sufficient staffing and continue to acquire enough personal protective equipment and other resources necessary to do this critical work,” according to a Thursday letter from the group to Senate leaders.

How quickly hospitals recover depends on the vaccine rollout, the spread of more infectious strains, and how potential patients behave — both in terms of how cautious they remain and how willing they are to return for not only profitable elective procedures but even for emergencies.

“Even as restrictions lifted, our data found that many patients continued to hold off on rescheduling elective procedures in certain categories, like plastic surgery and orthopedic procedures,” said Matt Hawkins, chief executive officer of Waystar, a company that works with hospitals on billing.

Falling revenue squeezed hospitals as safety and treatment costs soared, with a 14% rise in labor and 17% for drugs last year, the report said. Even before the pandemic, hospitals operated on thin margins, with a median of 2.5% in 2019, according to the report.

U.S. community hospital revenues totaled $4.1 trillion in 2019, the most recent year available, according to the AHA. The number of facilities dropped to 6,090 from 6,146 the previous year, and hospital beds shrank to around 920,000 in 2019 from 924,000, continuing a decades-long trend.

“The impact of any type of additional losses is significant for most organizations,” said Lisa O’Connor, a senior managing director at FTI Consulting Inc., who specializes in health care.

Hospitals with fewer privately insured patients will be more affected because Medicaid and Medicare payments are lower. But all hospitals will have to grapple with staffing shortages, the eventual loss of federal pandemic funds, and uncertainty on just how much business will rebound, O’Connor said.

“Are patients really going to come back to hospitals for elective procedures?” she said.

Frontier closed because of pandemic, Russian diplomats hand-push trolley over North Korean border to get home

MOSCOW — A group of Russian diplomats and their family members returned to Russia from North Korea on a hand-pushed rail trolley on Thursday because the coronavirus pandemic has halted all passenger traffic between the countries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post.

“Since the borders have been closed for over a year and passenger traffic has been halted,” staff members of the Russian Embassy in North Korea and their family members embarked on “a long and difficult journey to get home,” the ministry said.

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A group of Russian diplomats push hand-pushed rail trolley with their children and suitcases to the border with Russia on Feb. 25. Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via Associated Press

The group of eight people took a 32-hour train ride, followed by two hours on a bus. They then boarded a rail trolley and pushed themselves for about a kilometer (half a mile) across the border into Russia.

The ministry posted photos showing embassy employees with their children and suitcases on a trolley. A video showed two people pushing the trolley across a railway bridge.

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Friday morning that the group later took a flight to Moscow from the far-eastern city of Vladivostok.

North Korea has claimed to be coronavirus-free, and sealed its borders and halted passenger traffic with other countries. Outside experts are highly skeptical of the North’s claim of having no COVID-19 cases.

Texas vaccination site turned away at least 14 undocumented immigrants over their status, against state policy

Jesús Díaz, a 61-year-old prediabetic, had waited months to secure an appointment at a coronavirus vaccination site in the Rio Grande Valley region.

But when the undocumented Mexican immigrant got to the front of the line of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s vaccination clinic last weekend after a four-hour wait, a staffer told him he was out of luck.

“Vaccines here are exclusive for American citizens and legal residents of this country,” Díaz recounted a staff member telling him. “We can’t help you. I’m so sorry, but these are the rules.”

Proof of residency and citizenship are not required to get a vaccine in Texas, however. But Díaz feared staff members might call immigration authorities if he caused a scene, so after briefly arguing, he gave up his place in line and left without a shot.

“I felt so much shame and anger at the same time,” Díaz told The Washington Post. “I felt discriminated against but I didn’t want to keep insisting.”

Díaz wasn’t alone. At least 14 people have been wrongly turned away from the university’s vaccination sites because of their residency or immigration status, a university spokesman told The Post, illustrating one of the many barriers undocumented Americans face in getting vaccinated. Health experts say a flood of misinformation has targeted the undocumented community, which also faces lingering fears that authorities might check their immigration status at clinics.

The university has since apologized for denying vaccines to Díaz and other eligible patients, adding that its staff was given incorrect instructions on how to interpret the state’s guidance.

“We know you expect better from us, and we are deeply sorry for failing to uphold our standard of excellence at a time when our community needs us most,” John H. Krouse, the dean of the university’s school of medicine, said in a Thursday statement.

The U.S. government has promised undocumented immigrants will have the same access to COVID-19 vaccines as citizens or legal residents. It has also pledged inoculation sites will be immigration-enforcement free zones.

But some states have already contradicted the Biden administration’s stance on the issue. Last month, Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts came under fire after saying he did not expect undocumented immigrants working at meatpacking facilities to get vaccinated under the state’s program. Soon after, an aide for Ricketts clarified his comments by noting those without legal status would have to wait in the back of the line.

Another Pennsylvania health network admits it vaccinated relatives of employees

A second Pennsylvania health system has acknowledged that it gave the COVID-19 vaccine to employees’ family members, but said it halted the program after discussions with the state Department of Health.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System said that its Chester County Hospital ran a “lottery system” for family members of employees who otherwise met the state’s eligibility requirements.

“Based on guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on this matter this week, Chester County Hospital has discontinued this practice,” Patrick Norton, Penn Medicine’s vice president for public affairs, said in a written statement provided in response to inquiries from The Associated Press.

Additional details about Chester County Hospital’s lottery program, including how it worked and how many employees’ family members were vaccinated under it, were not immediately available Friday.

“We continue our commitment to protect as many individuals as possible while following all applicable eligibility guidance,” Norton said.

Earlier this week, another large health network, Geisinger, acknowledged that it had allowed employees’ family members to skip the COVID-19 vaccine line, holding three weekend clinics at which Geisinger employees were permitted to bring up to two family members so long as they were eligible under the state’s phased vaccine rollout.

The state Health Department said Geisinger, which has facilities through central and northeastern Pennsylvania, shouldn’t have set aside vaccine for employees’ relatives. The agency threatened to withhold Geisinger’s allotment of first vaccine doses. Geisinger insisted it followed state guidelines for vaccine eligibility.

Listen to the Fijian rugby team sing heartwarming tribute to quarantine hotel staff

A Fijian rugby league team under quarantine in Australia came together this week to sing a tribute to the hotel staff managing their stay. A video of the athletes singing and clapping in unison from their hotel balconies in Sydney became a hit online.

Players and support staff for the Kaiviti Silktails, a semiprofessional team from the Pacific island nation, were staying at the Sofitel Wentworth in Sydney’s central business district after arriving earlier this month ahead of a rugby league competition.

Australia has some of the world’s strictest virus-related travel and quarantine rules — as well as some of its lowest infection rates and deaths. The nation’s stringent lockdowns and curbs on international travel have helped tame local outbreaks while the pandemic rages elsewhere around the globe.

A video posted to Facebook showed the blue-shirted players each standing on their courtyard-facing balconies, singing, swaying and clapping as hotel staff watched from below. The singing follows the tradition of the men’s national team, Fiji Bati, who sing a pre-match hymn, the Guardian newspaper reported.

“The way Silktails found to say thank you to the hotel, guards and health workers during their quarantine at Sofitel Sydney is just so heartwarming!” Australia’s 7 News quoted hotel staff member Paula Cazarine as saying. “The whole team got emotional.”

Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific, has reported just 57 coronavirus cases and two deaths since the pandemic began.

Montana House fails to pass a bill to ban discrimination based on vaccination status

HELENA, Mont. — The Montana House failed Thursday to advance a bill that would ban discrimination based on vaccination status and prohibit the use of vaccination status to grant or deny services or access to businesses.

The Republican-controlled House split on the bill in a 50-50 vote, with several Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the measure.

Under the bill, employers — including health care facilities — would have been banned from mandating vaccinations as a condition for employment. Public schools and child care facilities would be required to allow for medical and religious exemptions for all vaccination requirements.

The bill’s supporters say it would protect freedom and privacy regarding medical choices. Opponents say mandatory vaccinations ensure the health of children and prevent disease outbreaks.

The bill would also have prohibited the use of vaccine passports — or documents that prove an individual’s vaccination status.

Vaccine passports have not been implemented in Montana or by the U.S. federal government. They are being considered by several countries and airlines to allow those inoculated against COVID-19 to travel internationally.

Europe’s slow vaccine rollout leaves AstraZeneca shots on shelves

European leaders who previously questioned the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine now face sluggish immunization rollouts as residents decline the shot and millions of doses remain unused.

A slew of bad publicity surrounding the vaccine appears to have turned many Europeans off the shot, despite a 63 percent efficacy rate against symptomatic infection, according to the World Health Organization.

A teacher Juergen Dittrich receives the Astra Zeneca vaccine in Germany on Feb. 26. Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa via Associated Press

Across the European Union, four out of five AstraZeneca doses delivered to member nations are yet to be used, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said this week that Europe faced an “acceptance problem” when it came to the vaccine, after several countries recommended it only for people under 65.

According to the Guardian, which used data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, more than 4.8 million of the 6.1 million AstraZeneca doses distributed among the European Union’s 27 member states have yet to be administered.

In Germany, less than a quarter of the more than 1.4 million doses delivered have been used, according to its public health agency.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he would accept AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine if it were offered to him, just weeks after calling it “quasi ineffective” when given to people over 65.

Other vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have efficacy rates above 90 percent.

“In view of the latest scientific studies, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been proven,” Macron told reporters after a virtual European Union summit, Reuters reported. “My turn will come, but I’ve got time. If that’s the vaccine that’s offered to me, I will take it, of course.”

U.S. sailors on warship in Middle East test positive for coronavirus

About a dozen U.S. service members aboard a warship in the Persian Gulf have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Navy said in a statement Friday.

The outbreak flared on board the USS San Diego, an amphibious transport dock operating as part of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

USS San Diego 2017 U.S. Marine Corps photo by Robert E. Lang

Another ship in the region, the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, also has “several persons under investigation” for possible infections, according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. The source of the outbreak was unclear.

“Medical health professionals are conducting a thorough contact investigation to determine the source of covid-19 aboard the ships and whether any other personnel may have been exposed,” the Navy statement said, adding that the infected troops had been isolated.

The USS San Diego was at port in Bahrain and “remains in a restricted covid bubble,” the Navy said, while the USS Philippine Sea was in transit to an undisclosed port location “due to operational security.”

The vessels are part of the Fifth Fleet that patrols the often volatile waterways of the Middle East, including the Strait of Hormuz, a key artery for global oil shipments.

The Navy has recorded more than 53,000 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, including 81 deaths.


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