The Latest: US taking ‘very close look’ at vaccine passports
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the government is taking “a very close look” at the possibility of vaccine passports for travel into and out of the United States.
As head of the Department of Homeland Security, Mayorkas oversees the Transportation Security Administration, which safeguards the nation’s transportation systems.
Mayorkas told ABC on Friday that one of his guiding principles throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been “the value of diversity, equity and inclusion and making sure that any passport that we provide for vaccinations is accessible to all and that no one is disenfranchised.”
The European Union, some Asian governments and the airline industry are scrambling to develop COVID-19 vaccine passports to help kickstart international travel. They’re working on systems that would allow travelers to use mobile phone apps to prove they’ve been vaccinated, helping them avoid quarantine requirements at their destinations.
Mayorkas says the underlying point is: “Everyone should get vaccinated.”
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
ALBANY, New York — Employers aren’t allowed to refuse paid sick days if people feel ill after getting a dose of the vaccine, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Cuomo said the state’s labor department will issue guidance that makes it clear that employees can take a paid sick day to recover from rare but potential side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine.
Federal health officials say the vaccine is safe and that side effects aren’t unusual. Some people have reported fever, chills, nausea, a sore arm, fatigue or headache after receiving a dose.
“I want to be crystal clear — no New Yorker will miss a day’s pay because of getting the vaccine,” Cuomo said Thursday.
New York has a paid sick leave law on the books, and another state law allows employees to use up to four hours of excused leave per COVID-19 vaccine dose. That time can’t be charged against any other leave the employee has earned or accrued.
About 46% of New York’s 20 million residents are fully vaccinated, according to federal data. That’s above the national average of 40%.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia will step up its prizes for vaccines, enrolling all residents who have received a coronavirus shot into a lottery for the chance to win a college scholarship, an F-150 pickup truck or cash rewards.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced the plan for the new incentives Thursday, but more details are expected to be finalized next week. The governor has aimed to turn around a vaccination drive that drastically slowed down after a strong early start.
“We’re going to make a few West Virginians millionaires before this is over,” Justice said. The program is expected to be paid through federal pandemic relief funds.
BATON ROUGE, La. – A statewide “Shot for a Shot” campaign offering free drinks for people who get vaccinated against COVID-19 will begin in June, officials said Thursday.
Participating businesses will provide a free alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink to people who can prove they’ve been fully vaccinated within the previous seven days, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control said.
Just under 31% of Louisiana residents have been fully vaccinated, compared to 40% nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several bars and restaurants in New Orleans held “A Shot for a Shot” events in April. Establishments in Baton Rouge also have held such events.
The state office will collect drink tallies from participating bars and restaurants for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, which will provide partial reimbursements.
BOISE, Idaho — With the governor out of the state, Idaho’s lieutenant governor issued an executive order Thursday banning mask mandates in schools and public buildings, saying the face-covering directives threatened people’s freedom.
Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is acting governor while Gov. Brad Little is at the Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. He was expected to return Thursday evening.
Last week, McGeachin announced her run for governor, challenging the first-term incumbent Little. McGeachin is on the far right of the political spectrum in the conservative state, and her order could bolster her support as a candidate for governor.
Little’s office said McGeachin did not make him aware that she planned to issue the executive order. The office didn’t say what Little would do when he returned but it did say residents value local control. Little has never issued a statewide mask mandate, but some counties, cities and schools have. Many have been lifting the mandates as more residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.
MENLO PARK, California — Facebook says it will no longer remove claims that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from its apps.
The change comes “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts,” Facebook says.
The company based in Menlo Park, California, has long battled a tide of coronavirus-related misinformation. It said in December it would remove vaccine-related misinformation.
“We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge,” said Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, in a statement Wednesday.
Facebook doesn’t usually ban misinformation outright on its platform, instead adding fact-checks by outside parties, which includes The Associated Press, to debunked claims. The two exceptions have been around elections and COVID-19.
U.S. President Joe Biden recently ordered U.S. intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Confirmed coronavirus cases in Malaysia soared to another daily high, breaching 8,000 for the first time as the government struggles to contain large outbreaks.
The Health Ministry reported 8,290 new infections Friday, bringing the country’s total cases to 549,514. It reported another 61 COVID-19 deaths, raising Malaysia’s total to 2,552. Nearly 40% of all the deaths happened this month.
Senior Minister Ismail Sabri said many ethnic Malay Muslims have violated COVID-19 safety rules that banned them from visiting each other during the recent Eid festival. He said 24 Eid clusters have produced 850 confirmed cases.
More worrying, he said, is that many of the positive cases involved people who were asymptomatic.
The Malaysian government imposed a near-lockdown on the eve of the Eid festival to curb an aggressive outbreak that has strained its hospitals. Still, it refused to halt business activities for fear doing so would cripple the economy.
Malaysia’s total cases and deaths so far this year have jumped five-fold from the whole of last year. The government plans to ramp up vaccinations. So far, some 1.7 million out of over 11 million people who registered have received one dose.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Danish government on Friday presented its digital coronavirus passport enabling people to travel abroad or, in Denmark, go to the hairdresser, a tattoo parlor, dine inside a restaurant or wherever else it is needed.
“The corona passport we present today can be used from July 1 when you can travel within the EU,” said Finance Minister Nicolai Vammen.
Some 20% of Denmark’s population of 6 million have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures, he said.
During a press conference outside the Copenhagen airport, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke held up his phone to show the app, which features a QR code and a green bar if the person has been vaccinated twice or recently tested negative for COVID-19.
If the app flashes red, it will not say why, according to Wammen.
People will either have the code scanned or will flash it before entering an airport, a harbor, a train station, a hairdresser or an eatery. In certain cases, a physical document can be sent in the mail to serve the same purpose as the app.
“What we get now is an app that makes it easier and simpler to use,” . “There is no doubt that we will have to use it over the summer, but it is of course something that needs to be phased out,” Heunicke said.
GENEVA — Member countries of the World Health Organization have approved an “ambitious increase” in the budget for the U.N. health agency at a meeting, with some noting that WHO’s chronic underfunding cripples its ability to protect global health.
Delegates at the World Health Assembly on Thursday approved a 16% increase to WHO’s proposed budget for the next two years, setting it at about $6.1 billion.
More than 90% of WHO’s funding is tied to specific health issues, and the agency often struggles to respond to urgent crises. Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said there is currently a 70% funding gap, which has “left the organization in real and imminent danger of being unable to sustain core functions for urgent priorities.”
A commissioned review of the WHO in the wake of its global handling of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested the agency could have acted faster and more aggressively to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but also said it lacked power and money.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The: Sri Lankan government on Friday announced that it has received 50,000 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine.
Sri Lanka is facing a severe shortage of COVID-19 vaccines because the manufacturer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in India did not supply promised stock due to the domestic coronavirus emergency. Sri Lanka had arrangements to buy 13.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The 50,000 doses of Sputnik V that were flown into Sri Lanka late Thursday are the second batch of the vaccine to be given to the Indian Ocean island nation, the government said. Another 15,000 doses arrived earlier this month.
Sri Lanka has entered an agreement to purchase 13 million doses of Sputnik V to be delivered in phases until December.
On Thursday, Sri Lanka began to expand it’s inoculation program across the country amid a sharp increase of confirmed cases from different parts of the country in recent weeks.
Previously, the vaccination program was centered in the capital region.
As of Friday, Sri Lanka’s total number of confirmed cases stood at 174,860, with 1,325 deaths.
PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is further relaxing coronavirus restrictions amid a decline of new cases and making it easier for residents to travel to seven other European Union countries.
Health Minister Adam Vojtech said all restaurants and bars will be allowed to resume indoor service for customers who have been vaccinated, tested negative for the coronavirus or recovered from COVID-19.
The ministry originally planned to lift the restrictions on bars and restaurants but acted sooner after a court ruled the measures were too restrictive.
At the same time, all public swimming pools, saunas and wellness centers will be allowed to return to business on Monday at 30% capacity.
Czechs also can travel to seven other EU countries starting Monday if they have received the first dose hot of a two-shot coronavirus vaccine. The countries are Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia.
The country’s number of newly confirmed daily cases dropped to 505 on Thursday, down from almost 17,000 in early March.
TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel welcomed its first group of foreign tourists since largely shutting down air travel because of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen welcomed a group of Christian theology students from Missouri, telling them: “Everything is open here, from restaurants to hotels, to resorts to holy places.”
Israel has vaccinated around 85% of its adult population and has fewer than 500 active cases. Most places have reopened in recent months, including indoor dining, gyms and sporting and concert venues. But Israel has been hesitant to welcome foreign tourists, partly out of concern over new variants.
The group that arrived Thursday is part of a pilot program, with other groups set to arrive in the next two weeks. All visitors must show proof of vaccination and take a COVID-19 test before departure and upon arrival.
Flights were canceled or rerouted during Israel’s 11-day war with Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. A cease-fire that went into effect on May 21 has held so far.