January 19, 2022

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Covid News: Judge Dismisses Houston Hospital Workers’ Lawsuit Over Vaccine Mandate

People gathered to protest against the firing of an employee who was not immunized at Houston Methodist Hospital in Baytown, Tex., last week. A lawsuit brought by employees of the hospital who refused to get vaccinated was thrown out by a federal judge on Saturday.
Credit…Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press

A federal judge in Texas has dismissed a lawsuit brought by employees of Houston Methodist Hospital who had challenged the hospital’s Covid vaccination requirement.

U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes, in the Southern District of Texas, issued a ruling on Saturday that upheld the hospital’s new policy, announced in April. The judge said the hospital’s decision to mandate inoculations for its employees was consistent with public policy.

And he rejected the claim by Jennifer Bridges, a nurse and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, that the vaccines available for use in the United States were experimental and dangerous.

“The hospital’s employees are not participants in a human trial,” Judge Hughes wrote. “Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the Covid-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.”

The judge’s decision appeared to be among the first to rule in favor of employer-mandated vaccinations for workers. Several major hospital systems have begun to require Covid shots, including in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

But many private employers and the federal government have not instituted mandatory immunization as they shift operations back to office settings. Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance allowing employers to require vaccines for on-site workers.

In Houston, Ms. Bridges was among those who led a walkout on Monday, the hospital’s deadline for getting the vaccine. And on Tuesday, the hospital suspended 178 employees who refused to get a coronavirus shot.

Ms. Bridges cited the lack of full Food and Drug Administration approval for the shot as justification for refusing to get vaccinated. But the F.D.A., which has granted emergency use authorizations for three vaccines, says clinical trials and post-market study shows they are safe, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The judge also noted that Texas employment law only protects employees from termination for refusing to commit an act that carries criminal penalties.

“Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a Covid-19 vaccine, however if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else,” he said, also rejecting the argument that employees were being coerced.

And the judge called “reprehensible” the lawsuit’s contention that a vaccination requirement was akin to medical experimentation during the Holocaust.

In a statement late Saturday, Dr. Marc Boom, chief executive of Houston Methodist, said: “Our employees and physicians made their decisions for our patients, who are always at the center of everything we do.”

Houston Methodist said it would begin proceedings to terminate employees who were suspended if they did not get vaccinated by June 21.

Jared Woodfill, the employee plaintiffs’ lawyer, also issued a statement on Saturday, according to news reports, that indicated the workers would appeal the ruling.

A free coronavirus rapid testing site for travelers was almost empty at San Francisco International Airport last month.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

As coronavirus testing continues to decline in the United States, public health experts are warning that the trend will make it more difficult for the country to identify outbreaks and track the spread of highly contagious variants.

Daily coronavirus tests in the United States peaked in mid-January at about 1.8 million. Since then, the number has dropped by more than half, to an average of about 700,000 tests per day, according to a New York Times database.

Experts say that part of the decline is due to vaccinations, which have shrunk community spread. Fewer people experiencing symptoms means that fewer need to be tested. But the experts also say that pandemic fatigue is a likely contributor.

Virus variants are spreading across a U.S. population that is only 43 percent fully vaccinated. With states reopening and travel resuming, experts say that collecting accurate data remains essential to fighting the virus.

“We’re not over this,” said Dr. Susan Butler-Wu, an associate professor of clinical pathology at the University of Southern California. “Testing is really critical, because you are flying blind without it.”

That is especially true in parts of the American South, where vaccination rates are low, Dr. Butler-Wu added.

Testing has declined despite being far more widely available than at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when Americans sometimes waited hours for them, then spent days or weeks waiting for results. The wide availability of antigen tests means that results can now arrive in as little as 15 minutes.

Experts urge those who are not vaccinated or remain at high risk because of underlying health conditions to continue to get tested. But they warn that frequent testing is not a substitution for vaccination.

Without a vaccine, “you’re putting yourself in harm’s way,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “This virus will find you if you are not vaccinated, and you continue to have contact with people throughout the community.”

Experts in testing and public health say the virus will become endemic, meaning it will circulate at low levels for the foreseeable future. Mara G. Aspinall, a professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, said some in the field are discussing other methods of testing to track outbreaks, including examining wastewater for signs that infections might be present in a community.

A hospital worker wheeling an oxygen tank in Port-au-Prince this month. After mostly sparing Haiti last year, the coronavirus has returned with a vengeance.
Credit…Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press

Haiti was spared the worst of the pandemic last year, but the coronavirus has returned to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a fury. The nation’s leading newspaper is full of obituaries and hospitals are turning away patients.

The average number of new daily cases has more than doubled in the past two weeks to 153, according to data collected by The New York Times. For a population of about 11.5 million, that’s still relatively low, but many experts believe the number is an undercount because testing capacity is severely limited and many cases remain unreported.

And Haiti’s government has yet to administer a single dose of any vaccine.

Carissa Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, described the situation in Haiti as “a cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus.” At a news conference this month, she called for rapid escalation of treatment and preventive measures.

After adding more hospital beds and ramping up emergency plans last year, Haiti relaxed measures to combat the virus as new cases fell. The government mothballed its presidential coronavirus panel, eased enforcement of its curfew and mask policy and held Carnival celebrations.

The surge has forced the Haitian government to re-establish a Covid-19 task force and request 130,000 doses of the vaccine from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, after previously refusing an offer.

At St. Luke Hospital outside Port-au-Prince, the capital, administrators issued an alert this month telling patients not to come because its wards were full. Over the past month, the hospital dusted off and restocked its Covid center, expanding from a handful of beds to 115. But there is only enough oxygen to treat 75 of the people who arrive gasping at the gates.

“You can’t let people have beds and have them staring at you with oxygen-starved eyes,” said the Rev. Richard Frechette, a Catholic priest and medical doctor who founded the hospital. “Our trouble is, we tell them to go somewhere else, when we know damn well there is nowhere else to go.”

Father Frechette said that perhaps 20 percent of patients were dying at the hospital. Two hours away, the University Hospital of Mirebalais has also seen a higher mortality rate, said Elizabeth Campa, a senior adviser to Zanmi Lasante, the nonprofit organization that supports the hospital. About 50 of its 75 Covid beds are full, she said.

“Everyone’s greatest fear is the surge will continue to grow,” Ms. Campa said.

A deteriorating political situation is further complicating the response to the virus. The capital has increasingly been clogged with protests demanding the removal of President Jovenel Moïse, who has ruled by decree for more than a year. Kidnappings and gang violence are on the rise, with one recent skirmish blocking the delivery of oxygen, according to the newspaper Le Nouvelliste.

The United Nations has counted some 10,000 people displaced by gang violence across the greater Port-au-Prince region since last August, said Bruno Lemarquis, the U.N. secretary general’s deputy special representative in Haiti.

“The big question is, what’s next?” Mr. Lemarquis said. He added that the hurricane season, which has often proved devastating in Haiti, officially started this month.

Jacques Richard Miguel and Harold Isaac contributed research from Port-au-Prince.

A displaced refugee from Afghanistan walks through the destroyed compound of the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece in September.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

ATHENS — A Greek court has sentenced four Afghan nationals to 10 years in prison after their convictions stemming from the fire last September that destroyed the Moria refugee camp on the Aegean island of Lesbos.

Authorities said the fire was set by refugees in protest of quarantine measures imposed after a coronavirus outbreak at the site, a notoriously overcrowded reception center that had become a symbol of the European Union’s failed response to the migration crisis.

The four were found guilty on criminal charges of arson with endangerment to human life on Saturday by a court on the nearby island of Chios.

They were among a group of six Afghans arrested after the fire which, according to Greek authorities, was intentionally set by camp residents. The other two were sentenced in March to five years in prison. All but one were minors at the time of the blaze.

Their lawyers described the outcome of the case as an “inconceivable conviction,” which they said was based solely on the testimony of one prosecution witness who did not appear in court. They said they would appeal to higher courts in Greece and, if necessary, take the case to the European courts.

“This conviction was decided on Sept. 15, 2020, when they were arrested,” the lawyers said in a statement after the verdict on Saturday. “These four people have been saddled with the destruction of Moria.”

Once Europe’s largest migrant camp, Moria had become emblematic of the bloc’s migration policy, a sprawling makeshift settlement of tents and improvised shelters that had drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups and refugee organizations for its squalid living conditions.

The fire in September left about 12,000 migrants, including about 4,000 children, chiefly refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, stranded without shelter or sanitation for days.

Greek authorities scrambled to set up a temporary camp on the site of an old military firing range on the island, and plans are in the works for new centers on both Lesbos and Chios. Critics counter that the new “closed centers,” which are to be set up with funding from the European Union, will be like prisons, strictly monitoring the residents’ movements.

A health care worker holding a vial containing doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in Union City, N.J., in March.
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

A Baltimore factory that rendered useless 75 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson failed for weeks to seal off a preparation area for vaccine ingredients and allowed production waste to be hauled through the area, the Food and Drug Administration said in a memorandum analyzing the plant’s operations.

The memo, posted on the agency’s website on Saturday, offered the most extensive explanation to date of why regulators believe that tens of millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine produced at that factory must be discarded.

The F.D.A. advised Johnson & Johnson on Friday that it should throw out the equivalent of 60 million doses. That brought to 75 million the total number of doses that cannot be used because of concerns about contamination at a southeastern Baltimore plant, operated by Emergent BioSolutions, Johnson & Johnson’s subcontractor and a longtime government contractor.

The vaccine-making factory has been shut for the past two months while regulators determine the cause of contamination that ruined many doses, whether it is safe to reopen the facility, and what to do with the equivalent of at least 170 million doses of vaccine that Emergent produced for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, another vaccine developer.

The F.D.A.’s memo stated that Emergent failed to properly segregate zones in which workers manufactured vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca in order to prevent cross-contamination that could render doses unsafe or ineffective. It was written by Dr. Peter Marks, the F.D.A.’s top vaccine regulator, and was addressed to Johnson & Johnson.

When Emergent first began producing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in November, the memo stated, the plant’s workers weighed and readied ingredients used to produce the two vaccines in separate areas. But once the factory began full production in December, workers began weighing and clearing materials for both vaccines in a common warehouse.

At the same time, the accelerated pace of production created more waste. Emergent allowed workers to tote it through the warehouse in wheeled containers, according to the F.D.A.’s report and interviews with former Emergent workers familiar with the plant’s procedures.

That mistake is most likely to blame for Emergent’s discovery in March that a batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been contaminated with a key ingredient used to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine, the memo stated. Emergent said weeks ago that it had discarded that entire batch, the equivalent of 15 million doses.

On Friday, the F.D.A. decided that an additional 60 million Johnson & Johnson doses should not be used. The agency said it considered a separate 10 million doses to be safe, effective and suitable for distribution in the United States or for export. Emergent and Johnson & Johnson have both cast the clearance of those doses as a positive development that will help fight the pandemic.

The memo said that the contamination discovered in March most likely occurred when workers removing waste from AstraZeneca’s production zone tainted bioreactor materials that were being readied for use in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Besides the 15 million doses that had to be tossed out, the F.D.A. said, an additional 60 million should be discarded because the same lax procedures were used in producing them and evidence of trace contamination might not have shown up in tests.

There is no evidence that even a low level of contamination “would have no impact on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine,” the memo stated.

Even though the plant did not fully follow good manufacturing practices, regulators decided to clear 10 million doses, citing the continuing Covid-19 public health emergency. Those batches were produced under better conditions, before “the overloading of the facility’s capacities and the transit of waste in the area that led to the cross contamination,” the memo stated.

The agency also underscored the fact that regulators were concerned about Emergent’s practices before the contaminated batch was discovered. In September, it stated, inspectors cited manufacturing areas crowded with equipment and supplies, inadequate support for quality assurance and a need to improve the flow of materials and equipment.

During a follow-up visit in early February, inspectors were troubled by the number of personnel changes and new hires, as well as the need for more consistency in following manufacturing procedures, the memo said.

The government agreed in May 2020 to pay Emergent monthly fees that as of this April would have totaled about $200 million. A federal official said the Biden administration has not been paying the Emergent fees, which were tied to production of the AstraZeneca vaccine since about April.

After the contamination was discovered, federal officials stripped Emergent of the responsibility of producing AstraZeneca’s vaccine. If and when the factory is allowed to reopen, Emergent will only produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and only under Johnson and Johnson’s direct supervision. A decision on whether the Baltimore plant can resume operations is expected in a few weeks.


An earlier version of this article misstated the date the report was published. It was published on Saturday, not Friday.

People waited in line to enter the NC Hops festival in Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday.
Credit…Melina Delkic

North Carolina has gradually reopened over the past year, but residents have said things did not feel totally normal.

That changed for many people this weekend when a popular craft beer festival returned. NC Hops festival, organized by the same people who run the state’s biggest festival Brewgaloo each year, was a hopeful sign of revival for many residents and local businesses.

Hundreds gathered indoors and out for the weekend festival at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, sampling about 100 different beers, trying food, playing games and listening to live music. There were hardly any masks in sight. In most businesses in Raleigh, people don’t wear them. Many at the festival had let loose.

“It’s nice to see something kind of normal — people out, not everybody scared,” Malcolm Clarke, a resident who said he had missed being out and social in the pandemic, said.

With 37 percent of residents fully vaccinated, the state’s immunization campaign is in the middle compared to other states. The governor on Friday extended a mask mandate for certain settings including prisons, health care sites and public transit, continuing North Carolina’s state of emergency.

Beer is a major part of the local economy — the industry adds some $9 billion to the state’s economy in a typical year — and it’s also part of some areas’ plans to get more shots in arms this summer. Breweries in Charlotte recently partnered with local medical centers to offer free beers to those getting vaccinated.

Like other states, North Carolina has increasingly been offering people incentives to get vaccinated. Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday announced a lottery for people who get the shots. It includes several $1 million prizes, and college scholarship offerings. There are also gift card offerings in some counties.The weekend event was a much appreciated chance to “get out, taste the beers, and just be social again,” said Michael Gisser, 53. He added, though, “I wish more people were vaccinated.”

His wife, Jodie, agreed. “This is a little uncomfortable,” she said of being indoors in a crowd.

The state is far from its winter peak of a seven-day average of more than 8,000 new daily cases. On Saturday, the state recorded a seven-day average of 447 new daily cases.

“We are seeing tremendous improvement with fewer cases, hospitalizations, deaths and safety restrictions, but this is no time to hang up a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner in our fight against the pandemic,” Mr. Cooper said in a statement.

For some of the brewery owners, having a big event like NC Hops was especially a relief. Bear Creek Brews was founded in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

Lauren Gibson, the owner, said her business got back off the ground about four months ago. “Our whole goal was to get people out and drinking again — hopefully it’ll get us some revenue.”

The Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasília, where the opening game will (probably? hopefully?) be played on Sunday.
Credit…Buda Mendes/Getty Images

By the standard of this year’s Copa America, it was perfectly normal that Venezuela Coach Jose Peseiro had no idea which players he would start in its opening game against Brazil on Sunday. One probably would not blame Peseiro if he did not even know the names of some of the players who might be available to run out for Venezuela at the Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasília. The Copa América, already on its third host nation, is now wrestling with yet another crisis.

The latest? Venezuela was forced to fly out 14 reserve players and add another who plays his club soccer in Brazil to its roster on Saturday after at least eight players and four members of the team’s delegation tested positive for the coronavirus at the team’s training camp.

“Without the time to see players, without the time for games, the pandemic has changed everything,” Peseiro said at a news conference that was delayed on Saturday after he waited for his roster reinforcements to arrive on a charter flight from Caracas.

Credit…Nelson Almeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The spate of positive tests — Bolivia has had three players test positive, according to its federation — and the chaos surrounding Venezuela’s roster are only the latest blows for this year’s Copa América, South America’s premier national team competition.

Organizers were forced to move the event to Brazil less than two weeks before it was scheduled to begin after neighboring Argentina said it could not be played because of a spike in coronavirus cases there. (A month earlier, Argentina’s co-host, Colombia, was dropped because of social unrest there.)

The move to Brazil, which has the world’s second-highest death toll from the virus after the United States, stunned many, including many of the Brazil players who will be trying to defend the title they won on home soil in 2019.

Brazil’s players issued a statement saying they were angered by the circumstances around which the tournament was switched to Brazil — they even briefly considered a boycott, they said — but that they were determined to do the job of representing the country. Opposition politicians and activists tried — and failed — to get a Supreme Court ruling to cancel the tournament, which opponents have derided as the “championship of death.”

Credit…Lucas Figueiredo/CBF, via EPA, via Shutterstock

The biggest advocate for the competition, and the main reason it is being played in Brazil, is the country’s populist president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s critics blame his cavalier approach to controlling the coronavirus — he has eschewed rules on social distancing, for instance — for Brazil’s plight. But Bolsonaro has often used soccer, and the national team in particular, as a vehicle to connect with his base.

His supporters frequently wear the canary yellow shirts of the five-time world champions when they take to the street in demonstrations of support for Bolsonaro, and he took the field with the team when Brazil lifted its last Copa America title. Several prominent Brazilian players have expressed support for his campaigns in the past.

But the choice of Brasília for the opening game serves as a reminder of another Brazilian folly. The stadium, built at a cost of close to $1 billion for the 2014 World Cup, has been little used since then. At one point, it served as a bus depot.


Patients were treated at a temporary hospital for Covid-19 patients in the Krylatskoye Ice Palace in Moscow on Friday.
Credit…Denis Grishkin/Moscow News Agency, via Reuters

Russian officials are scrambling to slow the spread of a new wave of the coronavirus, ordering workers in Moscow to take this week off and pleading with the populace to make use of widely available vaccines.

The biggest spike appeared to be in Moscow, the Russian capital, which reported 7,704 new cases on Sunday — the highest single-day total since December. Mayor Sergey S. Sobyanin said the situation had “sharply worsened” in the past week, and that thousands of hospital beds were being repurposed to provide care for Covid-19 patients.

“According to epidemiologists, it is now necessary to at least slow down the speed of, if not stop, the spread of the virus,” Mr. Sobyanin said on his blog.

Bars and restaurants will be required to stop serving customers at 11 p.m., food courts in shopping malls will be closed, and public playgrounds and athletic grounds will be closed, Mr. Sobyanin said. Most employers will be required to keep workers home — with pay — this week. However, Mr. Sobyanin did not impose new restrictions on indoor dining beyond the 11 p.m. cutoff, reflecting the Kremlin’s prioritization of the economy in its policies during the pandemic.

Overall, Russia reported 14,723 new cases on Sunday, the highest number since February. Just as worrying to epidemiologists is that Russia’s vaccination campaign appears to be stalling. President Vladimir V. Putin said on Saturday that 18 million people had been vaccinated in the country, which is less than 13 percent of the population, even though Russia’s Sputnik V shots have been widely available for months.

In other news from around the world:

  • In Saudi Arabia, the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca next month will be restricted to 60,000 people and limited to those living in the kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency said on Saturday, as the authorities maintain tight restrictions.

  • In Brazil, at least a dozen players and staff members on the Venezuelan national soccer team have tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of their opening match on Sunday against Brazil in the South American championship tournament, according to the Brazilian health authorities.

  • In France, officials granted an exemption to the country’s pandemic curfew on Friday night, allowing 5,000 fans to stay for the remainder of the French Open semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

  • In the United States, fully vaccinated lawmakers and staff members in the House of Representatives will no longer be required to wear a mask or maintain six feet of social distance, following updated guidance issued on Friday by the attending physician of Congress.

  • In Canada, 300,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine were rejected by the country’s health products regulator because of contamination issues at the U.S. plant that produced it.

  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, said on Saturday that hospitals in the country’s capital of Kinshasa were “overwhelmed,” Reuters reported. On Friday the country reported one of its highest daily case totals since the pandemic began.

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, in Washington on Wednesday.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Senator Ron Johnson has been suspended from YouTube over comments he made supporting discredited treatments for Covid-19 that the company said violated its “medical misinformation policies.”

Mr. Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, made the comments at a virtual event on June 3 hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club, clips of which were uploaded to his YouTube account. Asked about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug promoted by former President Donald J. Trump that researchers have found to be ineffective against Covid, Mr. Johnson criticized both the Trump and Biden administrations for “completely ignoring and working against robust research exploring the use of cheap, generic drugs that can be used for the treatment of Covid,” according to a transcript published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Mr. Johnson was prohibited from uploading videos to YouTube for one week starting Friday. Video of the event has also been removed from the YouTube account of the Milwaukee Press Club.

“We removed the video in accordance with our Covid-19 medical misinformation policies, which don’t allow content that encourages people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus,” YouTube said in a statement.

The company’s policy bans any content that contradicts medical information about Covid from local health authorities or the World Health Organization. It specifically forbids content that promotes hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that has also been touted as a potential Covid-19 treatment despite a lack of supporting data.

Mr. Johnson, who tested positive for the virus last fall, has become the Republican Party’s biggest purveyor of misinformation since Mr. Trump was barred from social media. As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year, Mr. Johnson invited conspiracy-minded and anti-science witnesses to hearings on the pandemic that even most members of his own party chose not to attend.

He described his suspension as part of YouTube’s “ongoing Covid censorship.”

“They have decided there is only one medical viewpoint allowed and it is the viewpoint dictated by government agencies,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “How many lives will be lost as a result? How many lives could have been saved with a free exchange of medical ideas? Government-sanctioned censorship of ideas and speech should concern us all.”