(Bloomberg) --

The Biden administration has assembled a group that will prepare new countermeasures for the emergence of future Covid-19 variants and other threats. Meantime, he faced calls from Democrats to improve his administration’s pandemic response, including access to at-home tests.

General Electric Co. is suspending implementation of the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers while Honeywell International Inc., will stick to its policy.

New York State is “turning the corner” on the omicron surge, Governor Kathy Hochul said. New York City Mayor Eric Adams urged businesses to bring workers back and parents to send kids to school. 

Workers in Singapore who are not vaccinated may risk losing their jobs. The U.K. reported fewer than 100,000 new cases for the first time since late December, raising hopes the omicron wave has peaked. 

Key Developments: 

  • Virus Tracker: Cases near 322.4 million; deaths pass 5.5 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 9.64 billion shots administered
  • Poor NYC schools see twice the attendance hit from Covid surge
  • Omicron surge gives bosses reason to order shots Biden can’t
  • Chaos at Hong Kong quarantine camp leaves some detainees trapped
  • Canada plays dangerous game demanding U.S. truckers have shots

GE Halts, Honeywell Keeps Vaccine Policy (7:02 a.m. HK)

General Electric Co. is suspending implementation of the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers while another industrial heavyweight, Honeywell International Inc., will stick to its policy.

The Boston-based maker of jet engines, wind turbines and medical scanners confirmed its decision Friday via email. GE is the first major company to halt its policy after the Supreme Court blocked the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s push to boost Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Yet the court’s ruling has had no effect on a workplace vaccination mandate at Honeywell, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based maker of automation equipment and aircraft parts said by email Friday.

CDC Urges Use of Medical-Grade Masks (5:47 p.m. NY)

U.S. health officials urged wider use of medical-grade face masks in the general public. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised earlier guidelines that had discouraged the use of gold-standard N95 masks in new guidance published Friday. The agency had earlier suggested reserving such masks for medical personnel. 

Amtrak Cuts Service (5:42 p.m. NY)

Amtrak is temporarily reducing train service on several routes through March because of Covid-19 related staffing shortages.

About 8% of Northeast Regional weekly departures will be suspended between Jan. 24 and March 27, the railroad told Bloomberg Government on Friday. State-supported trips will be reduced by 6% from Jan. 18 to March 27, and several long-distance routes will also run less frequently.

Chicago Students Stage Walkout (5:33 p.m. NY)

Students in Chicago on Friday joined others across the U.S. to fight for more Covid-19 safety measures and remote learning, a conflict that has been playing out mostly among politicians, administrators and teachers.

Groups of students -- dozens in some spots and hundreds in others -- walked out of classes Friday from several Chicago Public Schools buildings and rallied in front of the district’s headquarters. Protesters demanded immediate mitigation measures during the pandemic, and better treatment of minority communities. 

Unvaccinated in Singapore Face Firing (5:24 p.m. NY)

Workers in Singapore who are not inoculated against Covid-19 may risk losing their jobs as new restrictions on office access take effect. 

From Saturday, a prior concession that allowed unvaccinated employees who test negative to go to workplaces will be removed, according to a government advisory. Employers can redeploy those with no shots to suitable jobs that can be done from home, place them on no-pay leave, or as a last resort, fire them if they can’t perform their contracted work outside the office.

Biden Forms Task Force for New Threats (4:55 p.m. NY)

The Biden administration has assembled a group that will prepare new countermeasures for the emergence of future Covid-19 variants and other pandemic threats, after the arrival of the omicron strain led to tumult in the U.S. economy and health-care system. 

The Pandemic Innovation Task Force, formed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, will focus on developing vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests and other tools, said officials familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity as the details aren’t yet public. That will help prepare the country in case new versions of the virus surface, and for future biological threats beyond Covid-19, they said.

Lawmakers Press Biden on Covid Response (4:48 p.m. NY)

President Joe Biden is facing calls from Democrats to improve his administration’s pandemic response, including access to at-home Covid tests.

“We write with grave concern regarding the current state of preparedness and response,” five U.S. senators including Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema said in a letter to White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients released Friday.

It was the third letter this week from a group of congressional Democrats raising alarm about testing shortages, suggesting growing concern ahead of this year’s mid-term elections.

Utah Recommends Against Testing (4:44 p.m. NY)

Utah urged most residents to skip Covid tests if they have telltale symptoms, citing a critical shortage of home and in-person testing capacity.

“If you’re symptomatic, we encourage you to assume you have Covid,” Leisha Nolen, Utah’s state epidemiologist, said at a press briefing. “Instead, stay home isolate for five days, act as if you are in fact Covid positive.”

Tests should be reserved for the elderly, medically vulnerable, or those working with or visiting those groups, she said. 

Orders to Begin for Free U.S. Home Tests (3:37 p.m. NY)

The Biden administration on Wednesday will begin accepting orders for free at-home Covid-19 tests, the latest government response to a record number of infections.

Each U.S. household that asks for tests via CovidTests.gov, or by phone, will receive four kits drawn from a 500 million-test order approved by President Joe Biden in December. 

The administration expects the tests to initially be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service in seven to 12 days. 

Nebraska’s Largest Hospital Limits Surgeries (2:31 p.m. NY)

The largest hospital in Nebraska is imposing crisis standards of care and suspending non-emergency surgery for 30 days as infections surge across the farm-belt state. 

In a statement issued Friday, Governor Pete Ricketts said the state granted Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha permission to curtail surgeries and that the halt will remain in effect until Feb. 13.

The hospital is licensed for 718 beds and Ricketts said it “remains focused on prioritizing care for patients with the most urgent medical needs.”

N.Y. ‘Turning the Corner,” Governor Says (2:11 p.m. NY)

New York State is “turning the corner” on the omicron surge, Governor Kathy Hochul declared on Friday.

The state had 49,027 cases as of Thursday, down from the high of 90,000 cases this time last week, she said at a virus briefing.

Downstate numbers including New York City and Long Island are trending downward, and Upstate numbers are lagging behind those, she said. The state had 12,207 hospitalizations and 177 deaths on Thursday, according to state data.

Illinois Fatalities Climb (1:43 p.m. NY)

Deaths in Illinois caused by Covid-19 have continued to climb this week, reaching the highest daily number in a year. 

On Friday, 153 Covid-19 deaths were reported, the highest in one day since January 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health website. The deaths come after the state reported a daily record number of confirmed and probable cases last week and amid declining availability of hospital and intensive care unit beds in the state.

BP Tells Houston Workers to Stay Home (1:41 p.m. NY)

BP Plc told employees at its largest U.S. office to work from home until next month due to rising omicron cases in Texas. 

The oil major reopened its sprawling glass-walled campus in west Houston last summer as the first waves of Covid-19 subsided, but its 3,500 employees were asked to return to remote work this week.

Netherlands Eases Lockdown (1:38 p.m. NY)

The Dutch government eased the strict lockdown that has been in place since last month amid a drop in fatalities and intensive-care admissions.

The announcement came even as infections continued to rise, reaching a record 35,521 on Friday, according to government data. 

Non-essential shops are set to re-open in the Netherlands from Saturday, with a closing time of 5 p.m. Hairdressers and other contact professions will be allowed to reopen but restaurants, cinemas, museums, theaters and concert halls will remain closed.

BofA Delays Office Return Again (1:04 p.m. NY)

Bank of America Corp. pushed back its return to office for staff in the U.S. again, until at least the fourth week of January, as Covid-19 cases remain escalated nationwide from the highly contagious omicron variant.

The company told employees they can work remotely through at least next week, and until they’re advised it’s time to come back, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The move follows last week’s decision to delay bringing back workers through this week.

U.K. Daily Cases Dip Below 100,000 (12:23 p.m. NY)

The U.K. reported fewer than 100,000 new cases for the first time since late December, raising hopes that the country is past the worst of its omicron wave.

The 99,652 infections recorded on Friday compare with almost 200,000 a day at the peak of the outbreak. 

Hospitalizations in London, the early center of the U.K. omicron onslaught, are below the recent high reached on Jan. 5., and show signs of decline elsewhere in the country as well. While the average number of fatalities is creeping upward, deaths have stayed relatively low compared with earlier waves.

Maryland Begins Distributing 20 Million Masks (11:44 a.m. NY)

Maryland began distributing the first of what it says will be a total of 20 million more-protective N95 and KN95 masks. Maryland, part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, has hit record cases and hospitalizations, though some health experts say the state’s omicron wave may be peaking. 

Adams Says NYC Can’t Function Remotely (11:06 a.m. NY)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams urged businesses to bring workers back and parents to send their kids to school. 

“We cannot run a city as complex as New York remotely,” Adams said at a press conference at the Steinway & Sons factory in Astoria, Queens. 

The mayor, who spoke on a podium in the middle of the factory as employees worked, continued his bid to will the city back to regular activity despite a daily average of more than 25,000 cases due to the omicron variant. 

More U.K. Babies Hospitalized (9:30 p.m. HK)

Omicron has resulted in a higher hospitalization rate for babies in the U.K. than seen for previous variants of Covid-19, though most hospital stays were short, researchers said. 

Infants under the age of one accounted for 42% of children hospitalized during the omicron wave, compared with 30% in May to mid-December when the delta variant was prevalent, the research team said in data presented on Friday. Outcomes for the hospitalized babies have been positive, however, with no deaths, less need for oxygen and proportionally fewer intensive-care admissions than during the delta wave. 

Omicron Less Severe for Unvaccinated: S. African Study (4:04 p.m. HK)

The omicron coronavirus variant causes less severe disease than the delta strain even in those who are unvaccinated or who haven’t had a prior Covid-19 infection, a study from South Africa’s Western Cape province showed. 

The findings add to growing evidence that while more infectious, omicron may be less virulent than predecessors. Data from South Africa, the first country to have a major outbreak caused by the strain, has so far shown lower hospitalization and death rates.

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