Pfizer Says Tweaked COVID-19 Shots Boost Omicron Protection

Pfizer announced Saturday that tweaking its COVID-19 vaccine to better target the omicron variant is safe and works — just days before regulators debate whether to offer Americans updated booster shots this fall.

The vaccines currently used in the U.S. still offer strong protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death — especially if people have gotten a booster dose. But those vaccines target the original coronavirus strain and their effectiveness against any infection dropped markedly when the super-contagious omicron mutant emerged.

Now with omicron’s even more transmissible relatives spreading widely, the Food and Drug Administration is considering ordering a recipe change for the vaccines made by both Pfizer and rival Moderna in hopes that modified boosters could better protect against another COVID-19 surge expected this fall and winter.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech studied two different ways of updating their shots — targeting just omicron, or a combination booster that adds omicron protection to the original vaccine. They also tested whether to keep today’s standard dosage — 30 micrograms — or to double the shots’ strength.

In a study of more than 1,200 middle-aged and older adults who’d already had three vaccine doses, Pfizer said both booster approaches spurred a substantial jump in omicron-fighting antibodies.

“Based on these data, we believe we have two very strong omicron-adapted candidates,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement.

Pfizer’s omicron-only booster sparked the strongest immune response against that variant.

But many experts say combination shots may be the best approach because they would retain the proven benefits of the original COVID-19 vaccine while adding new protection against omicron. And Pfizer said a month after people received its combo shot, they had a 9 to 11-fold increase in omicron-fighting antibodies. That’s more than 1.5 times better than another dose of the original vaccine.

And importantly, preliminary lab studies show the tweaked shots also produce antibodies capable of fighting omicron’s genetically distinct relatives named BA.4 and BA.5, although those levels weren’t nearly as high.

Moderna recently announced similar results from tests of its combination shot, what scientists call a “bivalent” vaccine.

The studies weren’t designed to track how well updated boosters prevented COVID-19 cases. Nor is it clear how long any added protection would last.

But the FDA’s scientific advisers will publicly debate the data on Tuesday, as they grapple with whether to recommend a change to the vaccines’ recipes — ahead of similar decisions by other countries.


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Marathon US Hearings to Decide Fate of COVID Shots for Tots

Parents anxious to finally vaccinate their youngest children against COVID-19, strap in: A lot is set to happen over the next week.

On Wednesday, both Moderna and Pfizer will have to convince what’s essentially a science court — advisers to the Food and Drug Administration — that their shots work well in babies, toddlers and preschoolers.

The FDA weighed in late Friday with its own analysis of Moderna’s vaccine, finding the shots appear safe and effective for children as young as 6 months old. A federal review of Pfizer’s vaccine for the littlest kids is expected by Monday.

Kids under 5 are the only group not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S. If the FDA’s advisers endorse one or both shots for them — and the FDA agrees — there’s still another hurdle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must recommend whether all tots need immunization or just those at high risk from the virus.

Adding to the complexity, each company is offering different dose sizes and number of shots. And the week won’t even start with the littlest kid debate: Moderna first will ask FDA’s advisers to support its vaccine for older children.

Only a handful of countries, including China and Cuba, have offered different types of COVID-19 vaccinations to children younger than 5.

Here’s a primer to help keep all the developments straight.

PFIZER’S PLAN FOR THE LITTLEST

Pfizer has a pediatric track record — its COVID-19 vaccine is the only type the FDA allows for children of any age. Two doses plus a booster are cleared for everyone 5 and older. Shots for the 5- to 11-year-olds contain a third of the dose given to teens and adults.

For kids younger than 5, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech lowered the dose even more, to a tenth of the adult dose. The trade-off is a need for three shots, the first two given three weeks apart and the last at least two months later.

MODERNA’S PLAN FOR THE LITTLEST

Moderna is seeking FDA clearance for two shots, each a quarter of its adult dose, given about four weeks apart for kids younger than 6. (Moderna tested a slightly different age limit than Pfizer.)

The FDA currently allows Moderna’s vaccine to be used only in adults. But some countries allow two full-size doses for teens and half-size shots for kids ages 6 to 11 — which Moderna also hopes to offer in the U.S.

MAKING THEIR CASE

Pfizer disappointed parents back in December when a study found two shots weren’t quite strong enough. So researchers tested a third shot in youngsters age 6 months through 4 years during the winter surge of the omicron variant.

Pfizer’s preliminary data showed after three shots, children developed high levels of virus-fighting antibodies with no safety problems. In addition, the vaccine appeared 80% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. But that calculation was based on just 10 cases diagnosed among study participants by the end of April, and it could change if more cases have occurred since.

Moderna’s study found tots ages 6 months through 5 years developed high antibody levels after two of its shots. But while there were no severe cases of COVID-19 during the trial, the vaccine was only about 40% to 50% effective at preventing milder infections.

In their review, FDA scientists noted the study was too short to determine how long the vaccine’s effectiveness would last. They also said that it was likely that a booster would be needed, based on the experience with adults.

Moderna recently added a booster dose to the tot study — and disclosed in a presentation for Wednesday’s meeting that it also plans to allow participants a chance to help test an omicron-targeting booster.

WHEN COULD SHOTS START?

If the FDA authorizes one or both shots — a decision expected shortly after its advisory panel’s meeting — all eyes move to the CDC. That agency recommends how to use vaccines. Which tots should get COVID-19 vaccination will be an important debate as the coronavirus doesn’t tend to make children as sick as adults yet nearly 500 deaths in U.S. children under 5 have been reported.

The CDC’s own vaccine advisers are scheduled to meet next Friday and Saturday, and a final decision by the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, should come shortly after they’re done.

If all those steps fall into place, vaccinations could begin in many areas June 21.

VACCINATION SITES

Pediatricians, other primary care physicians and children’s hospitals are expected to vaccinate most of the youngest kids. Limited drugstores will offer them for at least some of the under-5 group — parents should check local availability for different ages. The Biden administration says it also is working with a variety of other groups, such as children’s museums, to offer pop-up clinics and reach even more youngsters.

WHAT IF MY CHILD RECENTLY HAD COVID-19?

About three-quarters of children of all ages are estimated to have been infected at some point during the pandemic. It’s a question sure to come up as CDC’s advisers make recommendations for the littlest kids, so stay tuned.

For older ages, the CDC has recommended vaccination anyway to lower the chances of reinfection. There’s no firm guidance on how long to wait; the CDC has said people may wait as long as three months.

DEMAND IS UNCLEAR

There are roughly 18 million children younger than 5, and many parents are eager to get their tots vaccinated. But it’s unclear how many ultimately will, given disappointing vaccine uptake by older children.

According to the CDC, just 29% of kids ages 5 to 11 have gotten two doses, and about 60% of 12- to 17-year-olds.

WHAT ABOUT MODERNA AND OLDER KIDS?

On Tuesday, the FDA’s advisers will consider Moderna shots for older kids, those 6 to 17 — a decision that might alleviate some parent confusion. The FDA review released Friday also included an analysis of the company’s shots for that age group.

The FDA has held up Moderna’s teen vaccine for months while it investigated a rare side effect, heart inflammation. That’s mostly a risk for teen boys and young men, and also can occur with the Pfizer vaccine. The FDA review said its latest analysis of reports of myocarditis both in the U.S. and in other countries did not find conclusive evidence of a difference in risk between the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.


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US Sees Risk of COVID Supply Rationing without More Funds

The White House is planning for “dire” contingencies that could include rationing supplies of vaccines and treatments this fall if Congress doesn’t approve more money for fighting COVID-19.

In public comments and private meetings on Capitol Hill, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, has painted a dark picture in which the U.S. could be forced to cede many of the advances made against the coronavirus over the last two years and even the most vulnerable could face supply shortages.

Biden administration officials have been warning for weeks that the country has spent nearly all the money in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that was dedicated directly to COVID-19 response.

A small pool of money remains, and the administration faces critical decisions about how to spend it. That means tough decisions, like weighing whether to use it to secure the next generation of vaccines to protect the highest-risk populations or giving priority to a supply of highly effective therapies that dramatically reduce the risks of severe illness and death.

That decision may be made in the coming week, according to the administration, as the White House faces imminent deadlines to begin placing orders for vaccines and treatments before other nations jump ahead of the U.S. in accessing supply.

Jha has warned that without more money, vaccines will be harder to come by, tests will once again be scarce, and the therapeutics that are helping the country weather the current omicron-driven surge in cases without a commensurate increase in deaths could be sold overseas before Americans can access them.

“I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss of life if that were to happen,” Jha said this past week. “But we’re looking at all the scenarios and planning for all of them.”

He said the administration was “getting much more into the scenario-planning business to make sure that we know what may be ahead of us so we can plan for it and obviously also lay those out in front of Congress.”

Jha, who declined to put a specific projection on potential loss of life, has become the face of the Biden administration’s efforts to persuade Congress to approve an additional $22.5 billion for COVID-19 response.

“The scenarios that we’re planning for are for things like what if Congress gives us no money and we don’t have adequate vaccines,” Jha told the AP in a May 12 interview. “We run out of therapies. We don’t have enough tests. What might things look like? Obviously, that’s a pretty dire situation.”

Already, the domestic production of at-home testing is slowing, with workers beginning to be laid off. In the coming weeks, Jha said, manufacturers will sell off equipment and “get out of this business,” leaving the U.S. once again dependent on overseas suppliers for rapid tests.

Drug manufactures and the Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, are working on evaluating the next generation of vaccines, potentially including ones that are targeted at the dominant omicron strain. But getting them ready before the predicted case surge in the fall means placing orders now, since they take two to three months to produce.

Jha said this week that the U.S. has yet to start negotiations with drugmakers because of the lack of money.

“We’ve had some very preliminary conversations with the manufacturers,” he said. “But the negotiations around it have not yet begun, partly because we’re waiting for resources.” He added: “The truth is that other countries are in conversations with the manufacturers and starting to kind of advance their negotiations.”

The U.S., he said, doesn’t have enough money to purchase additional booster vaccines for anyone who wants one. Instead, the supplies of those vaccines may be restricted to just the most vulnerable — not unlike the chaotic early days of the COVID-10 vaccine roll-out.

“Without additional funding from Congress, we will not be able to buy enough vaccines for every American who wants one once these new generation of vaccines come out in the fall and winter,” he said.

And while the U.S. has built up a stockpile of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been widely effective at reducing severe disease and death, it’s running out of money to purchase new doses — or other, even more effective therapies that are in the final stages of development.

“If we don’t get more resources from Congress, what we will find in the fall and winter is we will find a period of time where Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries — in Europe and Canada — with access to these treatments that Americans will not have,” Jha said.

A congressional deal for a slimmed-down COVID-19 response package of about $10 billion fell apart in March over the Biden administration’s plans to lift virus-related restrictions on migration at U.S. borders. But a federal judge on Friday put that plan on hold, just days before it was to take effect on Monday.

There is no guarantee of swift action on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers — particularly Republicans — have grown newly wary of deficit spending. On Thursday, a $40 billion measure to assist restaurants that struggled during the pandemic failed on those grounds. GOP lawmakers have also objected to additional funding for the global pandemic response, and called for any new virus response funding to come from unspent economic relief money in the $1.9 trillion rescue plan.

The administration is preparing to lay the blame on lawmakers if there are tough consequences this fall due to lack of money. Still, it could be perilous for Biden, who has struggled to fulfill his promise to voters to get control of the pandemic.


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US Health Secretary Tests Positive for COVID on Germany Trip

President Joe Biden’s top health official tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the latest member of his Cabinet to be infected with the virus.

U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra tested positive while visiting Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said. Becerra, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, was experiencing mild symptoms.

HHS spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim said he will continue to work in isolation in Berlin.

Becerra was last at the White House last Thursday. He is not considered a close contact of Biden.

Becerra was in Berlin for a meeting of health ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Thursday and Friday. The meeting’s focus is on drawing lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, protecting the vulnerable and unvaccinated from COVID-19, and how to ease the strain on health systems.

On Tuesday, Becerra met with Germany’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach. He separately met the head of Germany’s disease control agency, Lothar Wieler, two of the country’s top virus experts and the management of Berlin’s biggest hospital, Charite.

None of their offices immediately responded to requests for comment.

Pictures posted on social media of the meetings with Wieler showed the men standing close together outside without masks, but wearing masks while indoors.

Prior to Berlin, Becerra attended a meeting of health ministers in Bali, Indonesia.

A wave of coronavirus cases has spread recently through Washington’s political class, infecting Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House staffers and lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


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Bill Gates Says He Has COVID, Experiencing Mild Symptoms

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said Tuesday he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing mild symptoms.

Via Twitter, the billionaire philanthropist said he will isolate until he is again healthy.

“I’m fortunate to be vaccinated and boosted and have access to testing and great medical care,” Gates wrote.

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the most influential private foundation in the world, with an endowment of about $65 billion.

Bill Gates has been a vocal proponent for pandemic mitigation measures, specifically access to vaccines and medication for poorer countries. The Gates Foundation in October said it will spend $120 million to boost access to generic versions of drugmaker Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for lower-income countries.


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Oh, Rats! As New Yorkers Emerge from Pandemic, So Do Rodents

They crawled to the surface as the coronavirus pandemic roiled New York City, scurrying out of subterranean nests into the open air, feasting on a smorgasbord of scraps in streets, parks and mounds of curbside garbage. As diners shunned the indoors for outdoor dining, so did the city’s rats.

Now city data suggests that sightings are more frequent than they’ve been in a decade.

Through April, people have called in some 7,400 rat sightings to the city’s 311 service request line. That’s up from about 6,150 during the same period last year, and up by more than 60% from roughly the first four months of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

In each of the first four months of 2022, the number of sightings was the highest recorded since at least 2010, the first year online records are available. By comparison, there were about 10,500 sightings in all of 2010 and 25,000 such reports in all of last year (sightings are most frequent during warm months).

Whether the rat population has increased is up for debate, but the pandemic might have made the situation more visible.

With more people spending time outdoors as temperatures grow warmer, will rat sightings further surge?

“That depends on how much food is available to them and where,” said Matt Frye, a pest management specialist for the state of New York, who is based at Cornell University.

While a return to pre-pandemic routines “is exciting after two years of COVID-imposed lifestyle changes,” Frye said in an email, “it also means business as usual for rat problems that are directly tied to human behavior.”

Rats have been a problem in New York City since its founding. Every new generation of leaders has tried to find a better way of controlling the rodent population, and struggled to show results.

When Mayor Eric Adams was borough president of Brooklyn, he annoyed animal rights activists — and upset the stomachs of some journalists — by demonstrating a trap that used a bucket filled with a vinegary, toxic soup to drown rats lured by the scent of food.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio spent tens of millions of dollars on efforts to reduce the rat population in targeted neighborhoods through more frequent trash pickup, more aggressive housing inspections, and replacing dirt basement floors in some apartment buildings with ones made of concrete.

The city also launched a program to use dry ice to suffocate rats in their burrows, once demonstrating the technique for reporters at an event where workers chased — but never caught — one of the fleeing critters.

During a recent news conference in Times Square, Adams announced the city’s latest effort: padlocked curbside trash bins intended to reduce the big piles of garbage bags that turn into a buffet for rodents.

“You’re tired of the rodents, you’re tired of the smell, you’re tired of seeing food, waste and spillage,” the mayor said.

Rats not only strike fear among the easily squeamish, they can also be a public health concern.

Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized — one died — because of leptospirosis, a condition that attacks the kidneys and liver. Most human infections are associated with rats.

As some cities consider making outdoor dining permanent — an option born of necessity during the pandemic — they are mindful of a further swelling of the rat population. Even before the pandemic, experts noticed a rise in rat populations in some of the country’s largest cities.

Rats can survive on less than an ounce of food a day and rarely travel more than a city block to find food, according to rat scholars.

Some New York City restaurants erected curbside sheds to allow COVID-wary diners to eat outside. But unfinished meals left at tables have sometimes drawn brazen four-legged leftover bandits — a la Pizza Rat, who gained fame in 2015 after a video went viral showing the rodent dragging a slice of pizza down a flight of subway stairs (debates raged at the time about whether the video was staged).

As fewer people used the subways, there were fewer morsels on which to feast in tunnels.

“What happened during the pandemic was that your restaurants shut down,” said Richard Reynolds, whose rat-hunting group for years periodically takes out teams of dogs to sniff out — and kill — vermin. “When outside dining came along, there was food again.”

In planter boxes outside dining sheds, rats lie in wait for any fallen crumb. They lurk in storm drains ready to lunge.

It’s the stuff of nightmares for Brooklyn resident Dylan Viner, who recently accidentally hit a dead rat with his bicycle. In recent months, he and friends have noticed a rise in the number of rats out in the open.

“I’ve always had a phobia of rats. I’m not squeamish about snakes or bugs — but rats, there’s something about them,” said Viner, a transplant from London, who likes to keep his distance from the vermin. “It’s OK seeing them around the subway tracks. It’s when you see one jump out in front of you and dash from a trash can to a dumpster or a restaurant … that’s when it makes you feel a bit squeamish.”

He recalled taking a recent walk in the West Village, where a stride landed on one of the creatures.

“I screamed and ran,” he recounted. The rat might have squealed, too.

“Mine was so loud,” he said, “that it’s hard to know if it was mine or the rat’s.”


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California to Keep Workplace Pandemic Rules Through 2022

California workplace regulators on Thursday extended mandatory pay for workers affected by the coronavirus through the end of 2022, acting more than two months after state lawmakers restored similar benefits through September.

The decision again pitted management against labor as the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board renewed revised workplace safety rules that would otherwise have expired in early May.

“I don’t think we’re done with this yet,” board chairman David Thomas said of the pandemic.

“There’s going to be a surge in a week or so,” Thomas added. “This is the best … protection we have.”

Laura Stock, an occupational safety representative on the board, echoed employee advocates who lobbied board members to continue special protections for workers even as health officials ease mask, quarantine and other requirements for the general public.

Unlike members of the public who can choose their own risk tolerance, Stock said, “people who are in the workplace … have no choice but to be there.”

Management representative Kate Crawford said the rules have caused confusion as she cast the only “no” in a 6-1 vote.

Keeping what is known as “exclusion pay” for workers who are sent home due to the coronavirus is both costly and confusing, particularly since the Legislature recently approved COVID-19 sick leave, said Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate with the California Chamber of Commerce,

Small businesses have particularly struggled with the obligation, Moutrie said. The Cal/OSHA rule applies in almost every workplace in the state, covering workers in offices, factories and retail businesses, while the state sick leave law applies only to companies with 26 or more employees.

The debate comes as the highly transmissible omicron variant BA.2 becomes dominant in California and across the U.S., threatening a new wave of infections.

The state’s case rate is up by one-third and test positivity has doubled since late March. Hospitalizations and intensive care patients remain at or near their lows for the pandemic. But the state’s models predict hospitalizations will increase from fewer than 1,000 now to nearly 1,400 in another month, while ICU admissions will begin to climb in early May.

In another sign of California’s changing response to the pandemic, public health officials are canceling the state’s contract with diagnostics company PerkinElmer Health Sciences Inc. as of May 15, ahead of schedule. The company had been operating the state’s new $25 million COVID testing lab in Valencia, opened in November 2020, under a no-bid contract initially worth up to $1.4 billion. The state renewed the contract in October.

Republican state lawmakers hailed the cancelation, citing repeated problems reported at the facility, including testing delays and quality control.

“This lab failed to serve Californians, and the state delayed accountability for months,” Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk said.

State health officials said Thursday that they are now relying more on a different form of testing and efforts that link positive test results to immediate treatment. But they said the state will maintain the ability to test up to 500,000 people a day through a network of labs as part of the state’s rapid response plan to future coronavirus outbreaks.

Los Angeles County said Thursday that it will continue requiring masks for travelers aboard public transit and inside indoor transportation hubs, including Los Angeles International and other airports along with bus terminals and train stations.

Also Thursday, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón announced two settlements totaling nearly $26.5 million related to allegations of fake COVID-19 testing and false advertising by Venice, California, based Sameday Technologies, doing business as Sameday Health, which operates 55 testing locations nationwide.

Sameday Health said the problems arose “amidst the chaos of massive surges in demand for services” early in the pandemic, but it said it has since corrected the problems.

The renewed workplace regulation requires employers to keep paying workers’ wages and maintain their seniority and other benefits for as long as they can’t work because of a coronavirus exposure or infection, unless they receive disability payments or the employer can prove the close contact wasn’t work related.

“It is important that employees who are COVID-19 cases do not come to work,” Cal/OSHA said.

The state’s sick leave law differs in that it provides employees with up to one week of paid time off if they get the coronavirus or are caring for a sick family member. They qualify for a second week off only if they or their family members test positive.

There’s a troubling provision in the revised Cal/OSHA paid leave rules that isn’t in current regulations, said Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation.

Currently, an employee who has had close contact with an infected worker is also sent home, with pay. But the revised rules can keep them on the job until they test positive.

“The employer could force that person to stay at work and interact with co-workers, members of the public and immunocompromised people and whomever until that person tests positive,” Steiger said before the board’s decision.

“The more that we walk that back, the more space we give the virus to spread,” he said.

Agribusiness representatives objected that the workplace rules give employers two choices when dealing with an outbreak of three or more coronavirus cases if an employee comes in close contact. The employee must either test negative, or be given a week off with pay if they decline to be tested.

“You’re encouraging people to not get tested,” Michael Miiller, California Association of Winegrape Growers’ government relations director, told the board.

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GOP Blocks Senate COVID Bill, Demands Votes on Immigration

Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt Tuesday to begin Senate debate on a $10 billion COVID-19 compromise, pressing to entangle the bipartisan package with an election-year showdown over immigration restrictions that poses a politically uncomfortable fight for Democrats.

A day after Democratic and GOP bargainers reached agreement on providing the money for treatments, vaccines and testing, a Democratic move to push the measure past a procedural hurdle failed 52-47. All 50 Republicans opposed the move, leaving Democrats 13 votes short of the 60 votes they had needed to prevail.

Hours earlier, Republicans said they’d withhold crucial support for the measure unless Democrats agreed to votes on an amendment preventing President Joe Biden from lifting Trump-era curbs on migrants entering the U.S. With Biden polling poorly on his handling of immigration and Democrats divided on the issue, Republicans see a focus on migrants as a fertile line of attack.

“I think there will have to be” an amendment preserving the immigration restrictions “in order to move the bill” bolstering federal pandemic efforts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.

“I don’t think there are probably 10 Republican votes at the moment for a process that doesn’t include” a vote on language retaining the immigration barriers, said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota.

At least 10 GOP votes will be needed in the 50-50 Senate for the measure to reach the 60 votes it must have for approval.

Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., want Congress to approve the pandemic bill before lawmakers leave in days for a two-week recess. Tuesday’s vote suggested that could be hard.

”This is a potentially devastating vote for every single American who was worried about the possibility of a new variant rearing its nasty head within a few months,” Schumer said after the vote.

The new omicron variant, BA.2, is expected to spark a fresh increase in U.S. COVID-19 cases. Around 980,000 Americans and over 6 million people worldwide have died from the disease.

The $10 billion pandemic package is far less than the $22.5 billion Biden initially sought. It also lacks $5 billion Biden wanted to battle the pandemic overseas — money that fell victim to disagreements over GOP demands that the measure be entirely paid for with budget savings.

At least half the bill would be used for research and to produce therapeutics to treat COVID-19. Money would also be used to buy vaccines and tests and to research new variants.

The measure is paid for by pulling back unspent funds provided earlier for protecting aviation manufacturing jobs, assisting entertainment venues shuttered by the pandemic and other programs.

Administration officials have said the government has run out of money to finance COVID-19 testing and treatments for people without insurance, and is running low on money for boosters, free monoclonal antibody treatments and care for people with immune system weaknesses.

At the 2020 height of the pandemic, President Donald Trump imposed immigration curbs letting authorities immediately expel asylum seekers and migrants for public health reasons. The ban is set to expire May 23, triggering what by all accounts will be a massive increase on the number of people trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S.

That confronts Democrats with messy choices ahead of fall elections when they’re expected to struggle to retain their hair-breadth majorities in the House and Senate.

Many of the party’s lawmakers and their liberal supporters want the U.S. to open its doors to more immigrants. But moderates and some Democrats confronting tight November reelections worry about lifting the restrictions and alienating centrist voters.

Shortly before Tuesday’s vote, Schumer showed no taste for exposing his party to a divisive immigration vote.

“This is a bipartisan agreement that does a whole lot of important good for the American people. Vaccines, testing, therapeutics,” he said. “It should not be held hostage for an extraneous issue.”

Jeff Zients, head of the White House COVID-19 task force, expressed the same view about an immigration provision.

“This should not be included on any funding bill,” he told reporters. “The decision should be made by the CDC. That’s where it has been, and that’s where it belongs.”

But Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would still support a Senate COVID-19 aid bill if it included the GOP effort to retain the Trump immigration restrictions.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said in a brief interview.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initiated the move two years ago, said earlier this month that it would lift the ban next month. The restrictions, known as Title 42, have been harder to justify as pandemic restrictions have eased.

Trump administration officials cast the curbs as a way to keep COVID-19 from spreading further in the U.S. Democrats considered that an excuse for Trump, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric was a hallmark of his presidency, to keep migrants from entering the country.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces a competitive reelection this fall, declined to say Tuesday whether she would support retaining the Trump-era ban, saying she wanted to see its language. But she said the Biden administration needs to do more.

“I’ve been very clear with the administration. I need a plan, we need a plan,” she said in a brief interview. “There’s going to be a surge at the border. There should be a plan and I’ve been calling for it all along.”

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UK Hits Record COVID-19 Levels; Nearly 5 Million Infected

The prevalence of COVID-19 in the U.K. has reached record levels, with about 1 in 13 people estimated to be infected with the virus in the past week, according to the latest figures from Britain’s official statistics agency.

Some 4.9 million people were estimated to have the coronavirus in the week ending March 26, up from 4.3 million recorded in the previous week, the Office for National Statistics said Friday. The latest surge is driven by the more transmissible omicron variant BA.2, which is the dominant variant across the U.K.

Hospitalizations and death rates are again rising, although the number of people dying with COVID-19 is still relatively low compared with earlier this year. Nonetheless, the latest estimates suggest that the steep climb in new infections since late February, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrapped all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, has continued well into March.

The figures came on the same day the government ended free rapid COVID-19 tests for most people in England, under Johnson’s “living with COVID” plan. People who do not have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus now need to pay for tests to find out if they are infected.

“The government’s ‘living with COVID’ strategy of removing any mitigations, isolation, free testing and a considerable slice of our surveillance amounts to nothing more than ignoring this virus going forwards,” said Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the University of Leeds’ medical school.

“Such unchecked prevalence endangers the protection afforded by our vaccines,” he said. “Our vaccines are excellent, but they are not silver bullets and ought not to be left to bear the brunt of COVID in isolation.”

More than 67% of people 12 years old and above in the U.K. have been vaccinated and had their booster or a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Beginning Saturday, parents can also book a low-dose vaccine for children between 5 to 12 years old in England.

James Naismith, a biology professor at the University of Oxford, said he believed that except for those who are completely shielded or not susceptible to the virus, most people in the country would likely be infected with the BA.2 variant by the summer.

“This is literally living with the virus by being infected with it,” he said.

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Play Ball: NYC to Let Unvaccinated Athletes Play Home Games

New York City’s mayor will announce Thursday that he’s exempting athletes and performers from the city’s vaccine mandate for private workers, a move that will allow Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving to play home games and unvaccinated baseball players to take the field when their season begins.

Mayor Eric Adams will make the announcement Thursday morning and it will be effective immediately, according to a person familiar with the upcoming announcement who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The city’s sweeping vaccine mandate for workers will still apply to people with other types of jobs, including government employees.

Adams had said he felt the vaccine rule was unfair when it came to athletes and performers because a loophole in the measure, imposed under his predecessor, allowed visiting players and performers who don’t work in New York to still play or perform even if they are unvaccinated.

Irving, a vaccine holdout, had been among the most high-profile people impacted. He was able to re-join the team in January but only when they played out of town games.

This month, concerns had been raised that the rule would also impact Major League Baseball, with it applying at the outdoor baseball parks in the Bronx and Queens.

Adams, a Mets fan, is scheduled to make an “economic and health-related announcement” Thursday morning at Citi Field, where the Mets play, according to his official calendar that was released Wednesday night.

Adams has been rolling back vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions, including on Tuesday when he said masks could become optional for children under 5 starting April 4.

Mask mandates for older children have already been removed, as well as rules requiring people to show proof of vaccination to dine in a restaurant, work out at a gym or attend a show or go to an indoor sporting event.

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