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Rise in Covid spread puts hospital workers at risk: Allina Health CEO

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The sharp uptick in coronavirus cases across the Midwest is increasing health-care workers’ risk of getting infected, jeopardizing staffing levels needed to care for other Covid-19 patients, according to the CEO of a Minnesota hospital system.

Dr. Penny Wheeler, who leads Minneapolis-based Allina Health, told CNBC on Monday that the not-for-profit health network has more personal protective equipment, ventilators and available beds to care for Covid-19 patients than it had during the initial outbreak in the spring. Nurses and doctors, however, are harder to come by, she said.

“You cannot manufacture a talented and compassionate caregiver,” Wheeler said in a “Squawk on the Street” interview. “And that’s where we’re having trouble with now, especially with so many of them being affected or their family members being affected by community spread in our organization and in the community.”

Wheeler said for that reason, it is imperative people take seriously the public health strategies that can reduce the chain of coronavirus transmission in the community. Doing so reduces the likelihood that hospital workers become sick, she said.

“The need for masking, physical distancing and washing of hands, all those things — I know people are fatigued but so are the health-care workers, and you can keep our health-care workers healthier and able to care for you if you do those things,” Wheeler said. “These are incredibly skilled people, and you can’t replace them.”

Minnesota is one of 25 states seeing record-high hospitalizations for Covid-19 patients, based on a seven-day average, according to a CNBC analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic. Minnesota also is one of eight states where daily deaths from Covid-19 are at all-time highs, with 48 people on average dying per day in the last week, according to CNBC’s analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

At least 3,297 people in Minnesota have died from Covid-19 during the pandemic, Hopkins data shows.

Wheeler’s concerns about staffing are shared elsewhere across the country, especially in some of Minnesota’s nearby states, which have been hit hard by the fall coronavirus spike. “Our geography in the Midwest, upper Midwest, has been seeing unprecedented numbers of infections and case growth,” she said.

Earlier this month, the head of the University of Wisconsin’s health network told CNBC its seven-hospital system was “short of staff all times, either because they have Covid or they have some other illness and we need to rule out Covid before we bring them back to work.”

“There is no surplus staff to deploy to other hospitals to help each other out, so we’re trying to equal the load. We’re all trying to keep patients local,” UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan said then.

The U.S. has continued to experience a worsening of its coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks, with daily average new cases setting a series of record highs. While Wheeler said a series of positive developments around Covid-19 vaccines are a “wonderful ray of hope,” the widespread availability is still some time away.

“We just have to hold on … so let’s take what is in our control — mask up, physical distance, wash your hands,” Wheeler said. “We can take that, and then we can bridge that to a time where there’s greater hope in the vaccines in the offing, then we’ll be doing a great service and we’ll have more lives here than lost.”

CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.


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Firms accused of putting workers’ lives at risk by bending lockdown trading rules | Health policy

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Irresponsible firms are exploiting looser lockdown regulations to bring thousands of non-essential workers into sometimes busy workplaces, with little chance of enforcement action by the nation’s safety watchdog.

Analysis by the Observer shows that no enforcement notices have been served on companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for Covid safety breaches since the country went into the latest lockdown, despite being contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January. Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 Covid safety cases dealt with by the agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice, with not a single company prosecuted for Covid-related breaches of safety laws.

This comes as the latest Public Health England surveillance data suggests workplace infections surged as people returned to work in January. The number of coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces rose by almost 70% in the first week of the national lockdown, with 175 Covid case clusters reported in English workplaces, not including care homes, hospitals and schools. New polling carried out by the TUC shows that fewer than half of workers are in workplaces with Covid-secure risk assessments.

In the past week, the government has focused attention on the failure of some people to stick to social distancing rules, from the release of a video of police approaching an individual in a parked car to an advert warning that “grabbing a coffee can kill”. But experts and unions have warned that unsafe workplaces may be playing a bigger role in fuelling the pandemic.

“If the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. She called for big increases in resources for the HSE to stop rogue employers getting away with putting staff at risk.

Non-essential shops are supposed to be shut and most workers are expected to work from home to reduce the transmission of the virus, but unlike the first national lockdown all businesses are allowed to provide click and collect services in England. This contrasts with Scotland, where non-essential retailers were on Saturday banned from allowing customers to pick up goods ordered online.

Shop assistant Mike Richards, who works in a luxury fashion store in the centre of Birmingham, was furloughed during the first national lockdown in March but ordered to come into work last week to make sales calls alongside his colleagues under the guise of click and collect. “We got an email out of the blue saying, ‘You’ve got to get back into the store to sell.’ This is a luxury fashion brand – how can it be essential?”

A deserted Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham earlier this month
A deserted Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham earlier this month. Unlike during the first national lockdown, all businesses are allowed to provide click and collect services in England. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Richards (not his real name) had to travel by train into work and was told to call clients who had previously bought luxury handbags. “There were eight of us in the store that day. We were masked up but there was hardly any socially distancing,” he said. “Every single facet of what we’re doing could be done in the comfort of our own homes. But we’re being forced to go in. It’s an irresponsible act, for the sake of a little bit of profit for a multibillion-pound company.”

He added that staff had been given letters in case they were stopped by the police on the way to work. “It says, ‘We are carrying out duties of click and collect and home deliveries.’ Nowhere does it say, ‘This person is in the store selling’, which is what we are actually doing.”

Professor Susan Michie, who sits on one of the government’s Sage subcommittees, said people were being needlessly driven into workplaces amid a raging pandemic, which has pushed the NHS to the brink in many parts of the country. “Every day I get contacted by distraught people who are being forced into workplaces, which they feel are completely unsafe. They are having to choose between the risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work.”

She added that click and collect services were providing transmission routes for Covid. “They should all be shut down unless absolutely essential,” said Michie.

As well as clamping down on click and collect abuses, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also placed a legal obligation on employers to ensure people can work from home wherever possible. This contrasts with England, where businesses only have to facilitate working from home.

Administrator Sandra Jackson, who works for a small vehicle supplier in Essex, was ordered to come in last week, even though there has been an outbreak of coronavirus, with just over a third of the workforce testing positive in December and January.

“I worked from home for one day and then I got a message saying, ‘This isn’t working. We won’t allow you to work from home.’ I’m absolutely furious about it.”

Tradespeople in England are still allowed to carry out all types of work in people’s homes. Electrician Stuart Collins has been ordered to install smart meters in multiple homes every day. “If people had lost supply or if it was a new connection, I would have no issue whatsoever,” he said. “But exchanging existing meters for smart meters is not essential. All we are doing is assisting this virus to spread. They are putting financial gain ahead of people’s lives.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, who advises both the UK and Scottish government, called on UK ministers to follow Sturgeon’s lead. “People have got to have the right to work at home if they can,” he said. “These are not wild and woolly ideas. They’re happening in Scotland. They could be very easily done. But the UK government seems to want to keep its head in the sand.”

Michie said more businesses were being allowed trade in England and more workers were going into workplaces because the government’s lockdown rules were so broad that almost any businesses could claim to be essential. “The government has effectively handed responsibility to employers to say whether they are essential or not,” she said.

The HSE said it had scaled up its proactive work to check, support and advise businesses on public health guidance. It added that it had carried out more than 32,000 site visits during the pandemic. “Inspectors continue to be out and about, putting employers on the spot and checking that they are complying with health and safety law. Our role in contributing to the national response to reduce Covid-19 transmissions and support economic recovery has been widely recognised,” said a spokesperson.

A government spokesperson said: “The law is clear that people can only leave the home to work if they cannot reasonably work from home. We have worked with trade unions, businesses and medical experts to produce comprehensive Covid-secure guidance so that businesses permitted to remain open can do so in a way that is as safe as possible for workers and customers.”


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Democratic governors accuse Trump administration of misleading them about vaccine stockpile

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Several Democratic governors are criticizing the Trump administration for apparently misleading public health officials about holding a stockpile of Covid-19 vaccines in reserve.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday that the government would begin releasing doses of vaccine that were being held in “physical reserve” to ensure enough supply for second doses.

Both federally approved vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, are administered in two shots spaced several weeks apart.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that despite Azar’s comments, no such federal stockpile of vaccines exists. The newspaper, citing state and federal officials, said the Trump administration had already started shipping its available supply in December.

The Democratic state leaders say the lack of a federal reserve will upset plans to increase the speed and scope of their vaccination campaigns.

“Last night, I received disturbing news, confirmed to me directly by General Perna of Operation Warp Speed: States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote in a post on Twitter, referring to Army Gen. Gus Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.

“This is a deception on a national scale,” Brown added. “Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also took to the platform, saying that the administration “must answer immediately for this deception.”

“I’m shocked we were lied to and there is no national reserve,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter.

He said that the federal announcement about the stockpile release “led us to expect 210,000 doses next week” and that other governors had made similar plans.

“Now we find out we’ll only get 79,000 next week,” Polis wrote.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Democrat, said at a press conference that “they were lying,” referring to the federal government.

Walz and Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers of Wisconsin said in a joint statement on Friday that “it has become abundantly clear that not only has the Trump administration botched the rollout of the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, but also that the American people have been misled about these delays.”

The governors requested permission to purchase vaccines directly from manufacturers.

“Without additional supply or authorization to purchase directly, our states may be forced to cancel plans for public vaccination clinics in the coming weeks, which are expected to vaccinate tens of thousands. It’s time for the Trump administration to do the right thing and help us end this pandemic,” the governors wrote.

Azar responded to the governors in a thread on Twitter on Saturday, calling their claims “completely misleading” and a “debasement.”

“We had a stockpile of reserved second doses from December. We started releasing those second doses at the end of December so people could get their second doses. We progressively continued that release,” Azar wrote.

The HHS chief said that the announcement this week “was that we are releasing the remaining reserved second doses according to the established cadence—ensuring second doses would be available at the right interval—and that going forward we’d no longer have a reserve of second doses.”

“The effort of some governors to mislead the American people to distract from their own distribution failures is unfortunate,” Azar said, referencing data that showed that Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin had yet to administer the bulk of the vaccines that had already been distributed to those states.

The Trump administration has sparred with Democratic state officials since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, at first over supplies of tests and other medical equipment and more recently over vaccine distribution.

President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Wednesday, has pledged to elevate the role of the federal government in vaccine delivery. Biden has pledged to have 100 million doses of vaccine administered in his first 100 days in office.

To date, vaccination efforts have lagged far behind official predictions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 million doses have been administered. Health officials had hoped to get that number to 20 million by January.

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Close coffee shops and nurseries during lockdown, voters say in new poll | Coronavirus

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Most people now believe takeaway coffee shops, cafes and children’s nurseries should be closed in a further tightening of the national lockdown, according to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer.

A majority of voters also think lockdown rules should be tightened on outside exercise with a ban on people walking or exercising with anyone from a different household.

The findings are in line with a growing view among voters that the government is not responding fast or strongly enough to the virus.

The proportion who think ministers are under-reacting is now 51% (+7 points) compared with a week ago, while the proportion who think they haven’t reacted quickly enough is 75%, (up 3) on last week and the highest Opinium has recorded. This latter figure includes 60% of people who voted Conservative at the last general election in December 2019.

Some 51% believe takeaway coffee shops and cafes should close while 61% say it is time for nurseries to shut. There are broadly similar majorities in favour of tighter rules on outside exercise (53%), with 55% supporting the suspension of click and collect services in all but essential shops.

Labour holds a four-point lead over the Conservatives in the latest poll, on 41% (up 1 point on a week ago) with the Tories on 37% (-2). This is the joint highest lead Opinium has recorded for Labour since the last election. The Liberal Democrats and SNP are on 6%, the Green Party on 4%, and Plaid Cymru on 1%.

Johnson has also recorded his lowest score on Opinium’s “best prime minister” tracker, with just 29% picking him against 32% who would prefer Labour leader Keir Starmer. Johnson also records his lowest net approval since the last general election in December 2019, at -14 (34% approve while 49% disapprove).

Starmer’s net approval has also dropped since last week from +15 to +10 now. Just 37% approve of the job he is doing as Labour leader, with 27% disapproving.

Adam Drummond of Opinium said: “One of the consistent themes of this pandemic has been a government which is petrified of being punished by the voters for putting in place too many restrictions, and a public crying out for further restrictions because they are petrified of the spread of the virus.

“The data from this week’s poll is probably the most extreme example of this trend, and perhaps one of the reasons why we have seen such a drop in support for the government.”

Just 30% (-1) now approve of how the government has handled Coronavirus, compared to 50% (+2) who disapprove.


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