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Saturday October 16th, 2021 8:04AM

The Latest: US to drop 19-month ban on nonessential travel

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration says the United States will reopen its land borders for nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New rules to be announced Wednesday will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals entry to the U.S. regardless of the reason for travel.

That starts in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set to kick in for air travel. Senior administration officials previewed the new policy late Tuesday on the condition of anonymity to speak ahead of the formal announcement.

Vehicle, rail and ferry travel between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico has been largely restricted to essential travel, such as trade, since the earliest days of the pandemic. Both Mexico and Canada have pressed the U.S. for months to ease restrictions on non-essential travel that have separated families and curtailed leisure trips.

— By Zeke Miller

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— Apostolic church leaders in Zimbabwe preach vaccines unrelated to Satanism

— US to reopen land borders in November to fully vaccinated vacation travelers

— Conservative state Republicans move to undercut private employer vaccine mandates

— Russia hits new record for COVID-19 deaths, resists lockdown

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See all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

SEKE, Zimbabwe — The Apostolic church is one of Zimbabwe’s most skeptical groups when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. It is also one of the southern African nation’s largest religious denominations.

But many of these Christian churches, which combine traditional beliefs with a Pentecostal doctrine, preach against modern medicine and demand followers seek healing or protection against disease through spiritual means like prayer and the use of holy water.

Some secluded Apostolic groups believe vaccines are linked to Satanism. To combat that, authorities have formed teams of campaigners who are also churchgoers to dispel misconceptions about the vaccines in their own churches.

Vaccine activist Yvonne Binda stands in front of a church congregation, all in pristine white robes, and tells them not to believe what they’ve heard about COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vaccine is not linked to Satanism,” she says. The congregants are unmoved. But when Binda, a member of an Apostolic church herself, promises them soap, buckets and masks, there are enthusiastic shouts of “Amen!”

While slow and steady might be best in dealing with some religious hesitancy, the situation is urgent in Africa, which has the world’s lowest vaccination rates. Zimbabwe has fully vaccinated 15% of its population, much better than many other African nations but still way behind the United States and Europe.

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JUNEAU, Alaska--Two Alaska state senators have tested positive for COVID-19 and a third was not feeling well and awaiting test results, Senate President Peter Micciche said Tuesday.

He did not identify the lawmakers who had tested positive.

Lawmakers are in the second week of their fourth special session of the year. Six of the Senate’s 20 members attended Tuesday’s floor session, which was a so-called technical session where no formal business was taken up.

Micciche said along with the COVID-19 cases some senators had put off trips and were unable to be in Juneau Tuesday, prompting the technical session.

Masks are required at legislative facilities, including the Capitol, though individual lawmakers can decide if they want to wear masks in their respective offices. Legislators and legislative staff also are to participate in regular COVID-19 testing under a recently adopted policy.

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SALT LAKE CITY — With the governor of Texas leading the charge, conservative Republicans in several states are moving to block or undercut U.S. President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers before the regulations are even issued.

The growing battle over what some see as overreach by the federal government is firing up a segment of the Republican Party base, even though many large employers have already decided on their own to require their workers to get the shot.

The dustup will almost certainly end up in court since GOP attorneys general in nearly half of the states have vowed to sue once the rule requiring workers at private companies with more than 100 employees to get vaccinated or tested weekly is unveiled.

The courts have long upheld vaccine mandates, and the Constitution gives the federal government the upper hand over the states, but with the details still unannounced and more conservative judges on the bench, the outcome isn’t entirely clear.

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring private companies or any other entity from requiring vaccines.

States weighing or advancing bills include Arkansas and Ohio, and there are calls for special sessions in Wyoming, Kansas, South Dakota, Indiana and Tennessee.

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WASHINGTON — The Biden’s administration’s mandate that employers with 100 or more workers require coronavirus vaccinations or institute weekly virus testing has moved one step closer to enforcement.

On Tuesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration finalized the initial draft of the emergency order and sent it to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. That’s according to the Department of Labor.

OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs will conduct a standard review of the regulation.

Officials did not immediately provide an estimate for the OMB examination. The agency has 90 days to review the rule or send it back to OSHA for revision. Text of the proposed order won’t be published until OMB completes its review.

Owing to the bureaucracy surrounding the rulemaking process, President Joe Biden has encouraged businesses to implement mandates ahead of the final rule being implemented.

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Tuesday that he would be lifting a curfew and a ban on alcohol sales as the U.S. territory reports a drop in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

Current restrictions prohibit certain businesses from operating between midnight and 5 a.m. and also bar alcohol sales during that time, two measures that will be lifted Thursday.

However, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said other restrictions, including an indoors mask requirement, remain in place.

He noted that 70% of the island’s 3.3 million people are vaccinated, and that the positivity rate for coronavirus tests dropped to 3%, compared with 10% in August.

Puerto Rico has reported more than 150,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the virus.

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LEWISTON, Maine — Staffing shortages at one of Maine’s biggest hospitals have forced it to halt pediatric and trauma admissions, sparking a renewed debate over the governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Citing “acute staffing shortages,” Central Maine Medical Center temporarily suspended but later reinstated heart attack admissions and will be reviewing trauma admissions on an ongoing basis, the hospital said in a statement Tuesday.

The neonatal intensive care unit is closing and the suspension of pediatric admissions will continue until further notice, the hospital said.

Earlier this month, the hospital’s chief medical officer said about 70 employees left due to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The deadline was Oct. 1 but state officials said they would not start enforcing it until Oct. 29.

Republican leaders in the Maine Legislature sent a letter to Democratic leaders urging lawmakers to return to session to include a testing option for health care workers who don’t want the vaccine.

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SEATTLE — Boeing Co. has told employees they must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or possibly be fired.

The Seattle Times reports that the deadline for getting shots is Dec. 8.

The newspaper says an internal Boeing presentations says that employees failing to comply with the mandate “may be released from the company.” Employees granted exemptions “due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief” will have to be tested frequently for the virus and be ready to “present a negative test result upon request.”

The policy will apply to roughly 140,000 employees companywide, with about 57,000 of those in Washington state.

The white-collar union the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace says it is communicating with Boeing “to ensure implementation gives proper consideration to members’ concerns.”

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida has issued its first fine to a county it accuses of violating a new state law banning coronavirus vaccine mandates and for firing 14 workers who failed to get the shots.

The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday issued the $3.5 million fine for Leon County, saying the home to the state capital of Tallahassee violated Florida’s “vaccine passport” law that bars requiring people to show proof of vaccination.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that “no one should lose their jobs because of COVID shots.”

The law is being challenged in court and conflicts with a Biden administration order that companies with more than 100 employees require their workers to be vaccinated or face weekly testing.

The Leon County administrator says the county believes its vaccination mandate is legally justifiable and necessary to keep people safe.

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NEW YORK — NBA star Kyrie Irving can keep refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but he can’t play for the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets announced Tuesday that Irving wouldn’t play or practice with the team until he could be a full participant, ending the idea he could play in only road games. Under a New York City mandate, professional athletes playing for a team in the city must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to play or practice in public venues.

Without mentioning his vaccination status, general manager Sean Marks said Irving has made a decision that keeps him from being a full member of the team. Irving hasn’t said he isn’t vaccinated, asking for privacy when he spoke via Zoom during the team’s media day on Sept. 27.

Marks said he and owner Joe Tsai together made the decision, adding it came through discussions with Irving and his associates. NBA players are not required to be vaccinated, but they face more testing and social distancing. The league had said that players wouldn’t be paid for games they miss because they are ineligible to play.

Marks said Irving will still be paid for road games.

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WASHINGTON — Hunger and food insecurity across the United States have dropped measurably over the past six months, but the need remains far above pre-pandemic levels.

Specialists in hunger issues warn the situation for millions of families remains extremely fragile. An Associated Press review of bulk distribution numbers from hundreds of food banks across the country reveals a downward trend in the amount of food handed out by food banks across the country.

The decrease started in the spring as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout took hold and some closed sectors of the economy began to reopen.

However, Katie Fitzgerald of Feeding America says, “It’s come down, but it’s still elevated.” Feeding America is a nonprofit organization that coordinates 200 food banks across the country and provided the AP with the national distribution numbers.

Fitzgerald says despite the recent decreases, the amount of food being distributed by Feeding America’s partner food banks remained more than 55% above pre-pandemic levels.

Factors include the advancement of the delta variant, which has already delayed planned returns to the office for millions of employees and could threaten school closures and other shutdowns as the nation enters the winter flu season. Other obstacles include the gradual expiration of an eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania reported on Tuesday its highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Nearly 17,000 COVID-19 infections were confirmed Tuesday and 442 deaths, the first time the European Union country of 19 million has surpassed 400 virus deaths in a single day.

Romania’s intensive care units for coronavirus patients are stretched to capacity in what is the European Union’s second-least vaccinated nation. Only 34% of adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Romania has registered more than 1.3 million confirmed cases and 40,071 confirmed deaths.

___

NEW YORK — Many Americans who got Pfizer vaccinations are rolling up their sleeves for a booster shot. Meanwhile, millions who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine wait to learn when it’s their turn.

Federal regulators begin tackling that question this week. On Thursday and Friday, the Food and Drug Administration convenes its independent advisers for the first stage in the process of deciding whether extra shots of the two vaccines should be dispensed and, if so, who should get them and when.

The final go-ahead is not expected for at least another week. After the FDA advisers give their recommendation, the agency will make an official decision on whether to authorize boosters. Then a panel convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will offer more specifics on who should get them.

The FDA meetings come as U.S. vaccinations have climbed back above 1 million per day on average, an increase of more than 50% over the past two weeks. The rise has been driven mainly by Pfizer boosters and employer vaccine mandates.

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LONDON — The German biotechnology company CureVac says it has withdrawn its application for the approval of its coronavirus vaccine from the European Medicines Agency and will focus on making next-generation messenger RNA vaccines.

In a statement on Tuesday, CureVac says recent communications with the EU drug regulator suggested its COVID-19 vaccine might only be authorized in mid-2022. Earlier this year, the company described its initial vaccine results as “sobering,” after data suggested the shot was only about 47% effective.

CureVac says it will instead prioritize the development of second-generation mRNA vaccines with its partner GlaxoSmithKline and expects to be in “late-stage clinical development” by the middle of next year.

The EMA confirmed Tuesday it had ended the accelerated evaluation of the CureVac vaccine, a process started in February. COVAX, the U.N.-backed effort to share vaccines globally, had been waiting for possible doses from CureVac, which received funding from one of the COVAX partners.

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