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Thursday October 21st, 2021 7:30PM

The Latest: WHO proposes experts to advise on virus origins

By The Associated Press
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GENEVA — The World Health Organization released a proposed list of 25 experts to advise it on the next steps in searching for the origins of the coronavirus after its earlier efforts were slammed for accommodating China, where the first human cases were detected in late 2019.

In a statement on Wednesday, the U.N. health agency says its proposed experts -- including some who were on the original team that went to Wuhan to probe the origins of COVID-19 -- would be subject to a two-week public consultation period. Among the suggested members of the new team are Marion Koopmans of the Netherlands and Thea Fischer of Denmark, who were on the WHO team that visited China in February. In a recent commentary, Koopmans, Fischer and others said the search for the origins of COVID-19 had “stalled” and Chinese officials were still refusing to hand over some raw data.

After the WHO-led team completed its China visit, the experts released a report concluding the possibility the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab was “extremely unlikely,” prompting criticism from outside scientists that the theory had not been properly vetted. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later acknowledged it had been “premature” to dismiss the lab theory.

Numerous health experts and scientists have called for an independent investigation to be conducted beyond WHO, pointing out the agency has no authority to compel countries, including China, to cooperate. China has said it welcomes further investigations of the coronavirus’ origins, but in other countries. A recent review of U.S. intelligence ordered by President Joe Biden found inconclusive evidence whether the coronavirus originated in a laboratory.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— 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:

CHICAGO — The head of the Chicago police officers’ union has called on its members to defy the city’s requirement to report their COVID-19 vaccination status by Friday or be placed on unpaid leave.

In the video posted online Tuesday and first reported on by the Chicago Sun-Times, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara vowed to take Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to court if it tries to enforce the mandate, which requires city workers to report their vaccine status by the end of the work week. After Friday, unvaccinated workers who won’t submit to semiweekly coronavirus testing will be placed on unpaid leave.

Catanzara suggested if the city does enforce its requirement and many union members refuse to comply with it, “It’s safe to say that the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50% or less for this weekend coming up.”

Lightfoot has a press briefing later Wednesday.

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BUDAPEST -- Hungary has agreed to provide care to several dozen COVID-19 patients from neighboring Romania in the coming days.

Romania has struggled with record coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto says his country would accept 50 Romanian patients into two intensive care clinics in the Hungarian cities of Szeged and Debrecen, both near the Romanian border.

“The burden on the health care system in Romania is already at its limit in many cases,” Szijjarto said.

In Romania, Only 34% of adults have been fully vaccinated, compared to a European Union average of 75%.

On Wednesday, Romania confirmed 15,733 new infections and 390 deaths, bringing the total number of deaths to 40,461.

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MOSCOW — Russia has reported a record 984 daily coronavirus deaths amid a slow vaccination rate.

It’s marked several record daily death tolls in the past few weeks. Infections have soared to near all-time highs, with 28,717 confirmed cases reported Wednesday.

The Kremlin has attributed the mounting contagion and deaths to slow vaccinations. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Tuesday about 29% of the country’s nearly 146 million people were fully vaccinated.

President Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to speed up the vaccination rate on Tuesday, but he also has cautioned against forcing people to get the shots. Health experts have attributed the slow pace of vaccination to widespread vaccine skepticism and disinformation.

The Kremlin has ruled out a new nationwide lockdown similar to the one during the first months of the pandemic that badly crippled the economy and dented Putin’s ratings. It has delegated the power to enforce coronavirus restrictions to regional authorities.

The increased infections have increased the pressure on Russia’s health care system. Speaking at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said 11% of Russia’s 235,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients are in serious or critical condition.

Russia’s coronavirus task force has confirmed more than 7.8 million cases and 219,329 deaths -- the highest death toll in Europe. Russia trails the U.S (718,000), Brazil (601,000) India (451,000) and Mexico (283,000) in confirmed global deaths.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania received 5,200 doses of monoclonal antibodies from Italy to assist with a rapid surge of infections amid low vaccination rates.

Coronavirus infections in Romania, a European Union nation of 19 million, have skyrocketed in the last month from around 2,000 daily cases to pandemic highs of nearly 17,000 this week. It registered 442 deaths on Tuesday, the highest toll since the start of the pandemic.

The antibodies, which are used to treat COVID-19 patients in the early stages of a coronavirus infection, were brought to Bucharest from Milan by the Romanian Air Force on Tuesday evening, Romania’s defense ministry said in a statement.

The ministry says the aid is part of a request Romania made last week to the EU for help through its EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

Romania has fully vaccinated only 34% of adults, the second-least vaccinated country in the EU behind Bulgaria. Romania has confirmed more than 1.3 million cases and 40,461 deaths.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. will reopen its land borders to nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new rules, announced Wednesday, will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason for travel starting in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set to kick in for air travel into the country. By mid-January, essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., such as truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated.

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.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner."

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

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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.

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 far behind the United States and Europe.

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Two Alaska state senators have tested positive for the coronavirus and a third was not feeling well and awaiting test results, according to Senate President Peter Micciche.

He didn't 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 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 participate in regular 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. However, 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 didn't 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 says he'll lift 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. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi says other restrictions, including an indoors mask requirement, remain in place.

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

Puerto Rico has confirmed more than 150,500 cases and more than 3,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

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LEWISTON, Maine — Staffing shortages at one of Maine’s biggest hospitals have forced it to halt pediatric and trauma admissions, renewing a 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 won't 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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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 Irving wouldn’t play or practice with the team until he could be a full participant, ending the idea he could play 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 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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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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