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National News

McConnell unmoved on debt limit, risking turmoil for Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has been enlisting one emissary after another to convince Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to help raise the federal debt limit.
It’s not working.
Despite the high-level conversations, including a call from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the GOP leader is digging in and playing political hardball. He’s telling all who will listen that it’s up to the Democrats, who have narrow control of Congress, to take the unpopular vote over federal borrowing on their own.
McConnell’s stance is deepening a political standoff and risking turbulence in the financial markets that could ripple into the broader economy. His refusal to rally Republican votes leaves Democrats with only tough choices as they rush to ensure the nation does not default on any of its accumulated debt, which now stands at $28.4 trillion.
President Joe Biden and the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, spoke late Thursday. The White House said after the call that keeping the government running and ensuring the full faith and credit of the United States are bipartisan responsibilities.
“Any suggestion by Republicans that they will shirk their responsibility is indefensible,” the White House said.
While there is little doubt the Democrats will be able to avert a crisis and vote to allow additional borrowing, the path ahead is uncertain and potentially treacherous.
“We are working, there are a number of different options,” Schumer told reporters earlier this week at the Capitol. “We will do it because its imperative to do it. And Leader McConnell, as I said, is playing dangerous political games by not stepping up to the plate.”
The showdown is sparking a fiscal battle that is reminiscent, but different, from those that have set Washington and Wall Street on edge at times over the past decade. Unlike the brinksmanship of past battles, this one is unique in that there is no deal to be brokered — McConnell simply will not participate.
Late Wednesday, McConnell warned Yellen he is not changing his mind. “The leader repeated to Secretary Yellen what he has said publicly since July,” said McConnell spokesman Doug Andres. “They will have to raise the debt ceiling on their own and they have the tools to do it.”
It was a similar situation Tuesday when Hank Paulson, who was Treasury secretary in the Bush administration, paid McConnell a visit at the Capitol.
Lawmakers appear to have only a few weeks to devise a plan for approving the federal government’s debt limit before the U.S. Treasury is forced to delay or miss payments.
Stocks and bonds have been relatively calm recently, indicating investors expect Washington will ultimately reach a deal on the debt ceiling. The S&P 500 remains within 2% of its record set two weeks ago, and prices in the bond market are moving more on reports about the economy and inflation. But the ride could get bumpier in coming weeks.
Because they’re seen as the world’s safest possible investments, U.S. Treasury bills and bonds form the bedrock for financial markets. So a default on the U.S. debt would quickly cascade through markets around the world.
Treasury spokeswoman Lily Adams said in statement Thursday, “Secretary Yellen will continue to talk to Republicans and Democrats about the critical need to swiftly address the debt ceiling in a bipartisan manner, to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences of default.”
The debt limit caps the amount of money Treasury can borrow to keep the government running and pay its debts.
Once a routine task in Congress that brought grumbling from lawmakers but not high-stakes opposition, votes to increase or suspend the debt ceiling are now often contentious.
The debt ceiling vote became a political weapon in 2011, wielded by a new class of tea party Republicans eager to confront the Obama administration as the debt load ballooned during the Great Recession. Prolonged and heated discussions during that crisis risked a federal default, a first in the modern era, but eventually a deal was brokered to begin to curtail spending levels.
Democrats note that on three occasions during President Donald Trump’s presidency, they worked with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House to suspend the borrowing limit. They are insisting that Republicans reciprocate and share in what can be a politically unpopular vote that allows the government to not only promptly pay its bills but also to take on more debt.
But in McConnell’s view, if Democrats are going to go it alone to push Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan through Congress, they can use their majority to shoulder the debt limit vote.
According to Andres, McConnell told Yellen, “This is a unified Democrat government, engaging in a partisan reckless tax and spending spree.”
An Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Treasury shows that nearly 98% of the nation’s $28.4 trillion debt predates Biden’s inauguration in January. That includes about $7.8 trillion heaped onto the pile during Trump’s four-year presidency.
One option would be for Democrats to force the issue by holding a debt ceiling vote either on its own as part of a must-pass bill to keep the government funded past Oct. 1 — and try to make McConnell and the Republicans blink.
It would take 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a Republican filibuster, but it’s not at all clear McConnell or any other GOP senators would break ranks to join Democrats.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., predicted McConnell will hold firm. “I think he is like that Missouri mule that just sat down in the mud and is not going to budge.”
If Republicans refuse to help, Democrats may need to take the more cumbersome route of amending their $3.5 billion budget resolution to include the debt ceiling. That vote would need just 51 votes for approval, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Yellen has been using “extraordinary measures” to conserve cash. But once those measures and cash on hand are fully exhausted, the U.S. will have to rely on incoming receipts to pay its obligations, forcing the Treasury to delay or miss payments. Yellen has projected that moment will arrive sometime in October.

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International Headlines

China applies to join Pacific trade pact abandoned by Trump

BEIJING (AP) — China has applied to join an 11-nation Asia-Pacific free trade group in an effort to increase its influence over international policies.
Commerce Minister Wang Wentao submitted an application to the trade minister of New Zealand as a representative of the Comprehensive and Progress Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Commerce Ministry announced Thursday.
The CPTPP originally was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a group promoted by then-President Barack Obama as part of Washington’s increased emphasis on relations with Asia. China was not included in the initial group and Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, pulled out in 2017.
President Joe Biden has not rejoined the group.
An official Chinese newspaper, Global Times, said the application cements Beijing’s “leadership in global trade” and leaves the United States “increasingly isolated.”
The CPTPP, which took effect in 2018, includes agreements on market access, movement of labor and government procurement.
Other members include Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Britain is negotiating to join. If China joins, that would quadruple the total population within the group to some 2 billion people.
China’s government has promised to increase imports of goods but faces complaints it is failing to carry out promises made when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 to open finance and other service industries.
China is also a member of various other trading arrangements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes many nations in Asia that are not part of the CPTPP.

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International Headlines

Putin: Dozens in inner circle infected with coronavirus

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin says dozens of his staff have been infected with the coronavirus and that he will continue his self-isolation because of the outbreak.
The Kremlin announced earlier this week that he would self-isolate after someone in his inner circle was infected although Putin had tested negative for the virus and he’s fully vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V. But Putin said Thursday the infections were extensive.
“Cases of coronavirus have been identified in my immediate environment, and this is not one, not two, but several tens of people. Now we have to observe the self-isolation regime for several days,” he said by video link to a summit of the Russia-led Collective Treaty Security Organization.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that those infected were “mainly those who take part in ensuring the work and activities of the head of state, his security.” None of the cases are severe, he said.
Although Russia was the first country to roll out a coronavirus vaccine, less than 30% of the country is fully vaccinated.
The national coronavirus task force says about 7.2 million infections have been recorded in the country of 145 million, with 195,835 deaths.

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International Headlines

EU earmarks 30 billion euros for health crisis agency

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union said Thursday that it will fund its new health preparedness and rapid response agency to the tune of 30 billion euros ($35 billion) over the next six years, even pushing it higher if individual efforts from the member nations and private sector are taken into account.
Caught off guard by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the 27-nation bloc long lagged behind the U.S. and Britain in vaccination rates before regrouping and meeting its goal of having 70% of EU adults vaccinated this summer.
With Thursday’s official launch of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA, it wants to make sure the bloc will be ready when the next crisis strikes.
“We need to be better prepared for future health crises. HERA will establish new, adaptable production capacities and secure supply chains to help Europe react fast when needed,” EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said.
HERA will be able to draw from several of the EU’s Byzantine budget lines for a total of almost 30 billion euros ($35 billion). This however excludes investments at member nation level and from the private sector.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who first announced plans for such a medical response agency last year, said this week that the overall total until 2027 could reach 50 billion euros ($59 billion) by 2027.
During the crisis, the EU saw the limits of its health outreach because the essence of pandemic policies are still handled at national level. The EU was slow in getting the first shots in the arms of citizens and the public uproar about initial shortages was such that the need for HERA quickly became apparent.
“HERA will have the clout and budget to work with industry, medical experts, researchers and our global partners to make sure critical equipment, medicines and vaccines are swiftly available when and as necessary,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas.
While some nations like the United States and Britain fully centered on getting their own people vaccinated first, the EU continued to export doses amid the pandemic. Von der Leyen stressed that on top of delivering 700 million vaccine doses to Europeans, the 27-nation bloc had also sent as many shots to 130 nations.
“We are the only region in the world to achieve this,” she said in her State of the Union address on Wednesday.
HERA should be fully operational as of early next year.

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International Headlines

Zimbabwe orders government workers to get COVID vaccinations

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s government has ordered all its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or they won’t be allowed to come to work.
The Public Service Commission, which is in charge of employment conditions for government workers, issued an internal notice Wednesday ordering employees to get vaccinated.
“All civil servants should be vaccinated without delay, and unvaccinated members shall not be allowed to report for duty,” said the notice, which has been seen by The Associated Press. The commission “urged” heads of government departments to make arrangements for their employees to be vaccinated “and to explain to any who elect not to be vaccinated that they will not be deemed to be working.”
It wasn’t made clear what would happen to employees who refused to be vaccinated, although state-owned newspaper The Herald reported that the government would adopt a policy where unvaccinated workers wouldn’t be paid.
Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced the mandatory vaccination program for government workers earlier this week. She didn’t give any timeframe for workers to receive vaccinations and also didn’t clarify what the repercussions would be for any who refused.
The government is Zimbabwe’s biggest employer and has about 500,000 workers.
Zimbabwe is one of the leading countries in Africa in terms of vaccinations, with more than 12% of the country’s 15 million people fully vaccinated. That compares to just 3.6% of people across Africa who have been fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zimbabwe has received more than 11 million doses, mainly Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.
The southern African nation announced last month that it was opening COVID-19 vaccinations to children between the ages of 14 and 17, one of the first countries in Africa to do that. It was already offering jabs to anyone 18 or older.

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National News

Job market disconnect raises concerns over economic recovery

The gulf between record job openings and a lack of people taking those jobs is forcing Wall Street to reassess the pace of the economic recovery.
Jobs were gutted during the pandemic and employment growth has been a closely watched gauge for investors. Increasing employment eventually results in increased consumer spending, which is the biggest driver of economic growth. Without the former, analysts have said, it will take longer than expected for the economy to operate at some semblance of a pre-pandemic normal.
“That time horizon keeps getting extended,” said Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.
The Labor Department has reported that job openings reached 10.9 million in July, the most on record dating to 2000. Yet, there were roughly 8.7 million people considered unemployed during that same month, which is the biggest gap of its kind between available jobs and the unemployed since the Labor Department started keeping track of job openings in 2000.
Typically, the gap is much wider the other way, with more people unemployed then there are job openings.
Rising COVID-19 cases are one of the biggest culprits driving the jobs divide. People are hesitant to head back to work because of health concerns as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, analysts have said. Many are also concerned about childcare as schools open for a new year with a high level of unpredictability because of the virus.
More than 22 million jobs were lost through March and April of 2020 when the pandemic prompted widespread business shutdowns. Roughly 16.8 million of those jobs have returned through July of 2021 in a seemingly swift recovery, but the employment crisis still remains more severe than the recessions of 1974, 1981, 1990 and 2001 were at their worst, according to Ross Mayfield, investment strategist at Baird.
“The developments in the labor market are among the more important in the world today,” Mayfield said, in a note to investors. “A lagging recovery will keep the Federal Reserve on the sidelines, but also limit economic growth.”
The Federal Reserve is also closely watching the recovery in the jobs market. The central bank has made it a priority to maintain its policy to keep interest rates low until it is satisfied with the jobs recovery. That has left investors torn between balancing the benefit of a sluggish jobs recovery that prolongs low interest rates with the damage to longer term growth if the economy continues struggling to make a full recovery.
The inability to get back to some semblance of a full staff means that many companies, particularly in the services sector, can’t take full advantage of increases in consumer demand. Hotels, for example, have trouble meeting any increase in demand if they don’t have the full staff to service paying guests.
The divide between job openings and people taking those jobs has also prompted companies to raise wages and offer bonuses. Those higher wages have raised concerns from analysts that wage inflation could add to already increasing inflation and crimp the broader recovery.
“Lots of firms are coming out and we’re starting to see some bearish forecasts,” said Katie Nixon, chief investment officer at Northern Trust Wealth Management. “We’re now seeing some strategists sort of take their foot off the accelerator.”

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National News

Small agency, big job: Biden tasks OSHA with vaccine mandate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t make many headlines. Charged with keeping America’s workplaces safe, it usually busies itself with tasks such as setting and enforcing standards for goggles, hardhats and ladders.
But President Joe Biden this month threw the tiny Labor Department agency into the raging national debate over federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The president directed OSHA to write a rule requiring employers with at least 100 workers to force employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are virus free.
The assignment is sure to test an understaffed agency that has struggled to defend its authority in court. And the legal challenges to Biden’s vaccine mandate will be unrelenting: Republican governors and others call it an egregious example of government overreach. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to fight the mandate “to the gates of hell.”
“There are going to be some long days and nights for the folks who are drafting this rule,” says labor lawyer Aaron Gelb, a partner in the Chicago office of Conn Maciel Carey. “It’s an interesting time to be an OSHA lawyer for sure.”
When Congress created OSHA 50 years ago to police workplace safety, 38 workers were dying on the job every day. Now that figure is closer to 15 — even though the American workforce is has more than doubled in the interim. OSHA writes rules designed to protect workers from dangers such as toxic chemicals, rickety scaffolding and cave-ins at construction sites.
“The hazard in this case is the infectious worker,” says epidemiologist David Michaels, OSHA director in the Obama administration. “This rule will tell employers: You have to take steps to make sure potentially infectious workers don’t come into the workplace.”
OSHA will use its power under a 1970 law to issue an expedited rule – called an “emergency temporary standard” or ETS — and bypass its own cumbersome rulemaking process, which typically takes nearly eight years from beginning to end, according to a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office. To fast-track the rule, OSHA must show that it is acting to protect workers from a “grave danger.”
The mandate the White House announced this month will cover 80 million employees — nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.
Businesses are anxious to see how OSHA handles questions like: Which vaccines and tests are acceptable and which aren’t? How should employers handle requests from employees who seek exemptions on medical or religious grounds? Who’s going to pay for the testing? Some employers won’t be happy if they have to foot the bill for employees who refuse free vaccinations.
Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states such as California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures. The OSHA rule would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure.
“There are going to be legal challenges brought to whatever rule,” attorney Gelb said. “OSHA is going to really devote time and effort to drafting a rule that will survive those legal challenges.” He predicts the rule won’t be published in the Federal Register until November.
The agency is already often stretched thin. Even including what OSHA calls its “partners” at state workplace safety agencies, there are only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. “It is not helpful to have a critical agency like this understaffed, particularly because of moments like this,” says Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Until June, when it issued a COVID-related ETS covering the health care industry, OSHA hadn’t implemented an emergency rule since 1983. Overall, it has issued 10. But courts have overturned four and partially blocked a fifth, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Michaels, now a professor of public health at George Washington University, says the “grave danger” is obvious in a country battling a pandemic that has killed more than 650,000 Americans. “OSHA’s plan very clearly fits those requirements,” he says. “And I’m not worried about a court saying it doesn’t.”
Many employers may welcome the mandate. They wanted to require vaccines but feared alienating their workers who resist being coerced into getting inoculated. “Most employers in my view should greet this with relief,” says McNicholas, former special counsel at the National Labor Relations Board. “This gives them a roadmap of exactly what they need to do.”
Then again, at a time when companies are posting job openings faster than applicants can fill them, some big employers fear losing vaccine-resistant employees to smaller businesses that aren’t covered by the mandate. “It may actually help these smaller businesses who are struggling to attract employees,” says Nicholas Hulse, a Fisher Phillips labor lawyer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hulse says the mandate is “going to be difficult to enforce.” OSHA, he says, likely will rely less on its own inspectors uncovering violations and more on complaints from insiders — workers who grow “frustrated either with the employer for not implementing it or with fellow employees who are not following the mandate.”
Former OSHA chief Michaels calls Biden’s mandate “a very good first step. But we need more.” He wants to see the rules expanded to smaller employers. “Until we stop this, losing hundreds of people every day to this disease, we’ll never get back to any sort of normalcy,” he says.
More than 175 million Americans are fully vaccinated. But 80 million of those eligible for inoculation haven’t yet received their first shot, the White House says.
The Biden administration is also requiring vaccinations for federal workers and contractors and for 17 million healthcare workers. Those initiatives plus the vaccination or testing mandate for big employers should add 12 million to the ranks of the vaccinated by March 2022, Goldman Sachs estimates.
“Most employers will voluntarily meet the standards because that’s what they do with all OSHA rules,” Michaels says. “Large employers in particular, they have (human resources) teams, they have attorneys who tell them: ‘This is what the law says and this is what we have to do’ … I think most employers are going to do the right thing here, and we’ll see very high levels of compliance pretty quickly.”

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National News

GOP prosecutors threaten lawsuits over vaccine requirement

Two dozen Republican attorneys general warned the White House on Thursday of impending legal action if a proposed coronavirus vaccine requirement for as many as 100 million Americans goes into effect.
“Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the prosecutors, led by Attorney General Alan Wilson of South Carolina, wrote in a letter sent to President Joe Biden. “If your Administration does not alter its course, the undersigned state Attorneys General will seek every available legal option to hold you accountable and uphold the rule of law.”
The letter is the latest GOP opposition to sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for private-sector employees, health care workers and federal contractors announced by Biden earlier this month. The requirement, to be enacted through a rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is part of an all-out effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant.
The OSHA rule, which covers nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce, would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.
Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states like California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures.
Republican leaders — and some union chiefs, too — have said that Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers. One of the first to speak out was Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, who said on Twitter that his state would fight to “the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian.”
Writing to Biden that the vaccine “edict is also illegal,” Wilson warned that courts have fully upheld only one of 10 emergency temporary OSHA standards in recent decades
The prosecutors also cautioned that the “edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism” over vaccines.
“Your vaccine mandate represents not only a threat to individual liberty, but a public health disaster that will displace vulnerable workers and exacerbate a nationwide hospital staffing crisis, with severe consequences for all Americans,” they write.
In lieu of vaccine or weekly testing requirements, the prosecutors proposed that some companies could have employees work remotely, rather than report in person.
In addition to Wilson in South Carolina, the letter was signed by attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

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International Headlines

Italy requires COVID-19 pass for all workers from Oct. 15

MILAN (AP) — Italian workers in both the public and private sectors must display a health pass to access their workplaces from Oct. 15 under a decree adopted Thursday by Premier Mario Draghi’s broad-based coalition government.
The measures are the first by a major European economy requiring proof of vaccination, a recent negative virus test or recovery from COVID in the previous six months for all categories of workers.
“The Green Pass is an instrument of freedom, that will help us make workplaces safer,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told a press conference. “The second reason is to reinforce our vaccine campaign.”
Slovenia and Greece adopted similar measures this week. But Italy’s 2-trillion-euro ($2.35 trillion) economy, the third largest in the European Union, is a far larger target, and the measure underscores the government’s determination to avoid another lockdown even as the numbers of new virus infections creeps up, mostly among the unvaccinated.
Ministers said the measures were aimed at reinforcing Italy’s economic recovery, with GDP forecast to grow 6% this year, at a critical moment in the pandemic as schools reopen and cooler fall weather moves more activities indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. They also expressed concern about the impact of any possible new variants.
Workers face fines up to 1,500 euros ($1,765) and employers up to 1,000 euros if they do not comply. Public sector employees risk suspension if they rack up five absences for failure to show up with a Green Pass; private sector workers can be suspended after the first failure. The measures remain in effect as long as Italy is in a state of emergency, currently until Dec. 31.
Labor Minister Andrea Orlando said that no one risked being fired if they didn’t present a Green Pass, and the public administration minister, Renato Brunetta, acknowledged that checks in some workplaces would have to be random.
“It is very likely that the effect of the announcement will already bring in the next four weeks an acceleration in Green Passes, yes, but also of vaccinations,” Brunetta said. “The result could already be achieved, or partially achieved, or perhaps — optimistically — exceeded, before the decree even takes effect.”
Unions and right-wing parties lobbied unsuccessfully for COVID tests to be provided free of charge to workers. The price will be set at 15 euros for adults, and 8 euros for anyone under 18.
Italy surpassed the threshold of 80% of the eligible population having received at least one dose of the vaccine this month, with more than 81.7 million vaccine doses administered through Thursday. Three-quarters of the population, or 40.5 million people, are fully vaccinated.
While the Green Pass was supported by parties across the political spectrum, critics have signaled concerns about a gradual and ongoing erosion of civil liberties during the pandemic. Court challenges are likely, as the right to work is enshrined in Italy’s constitution.
Legal expert Vitalba Azzollini, a fellow at the Bruno Leoni Institute think tank, said the measures lack the necessary transparency to evaluate if they are proportionate to the situation, without specific goals for adequate vaccination coverage, or guidelines on exactly how often the Green Passes need to be checked.
In addition, she noted, such decrees are supposed to be for emergency situations but this one had been approved a full month before implementation.
“The Green Pass is not a nudge to get vaccinated, it is a not-so-gentle push,” she said.
Italy was the first country in the West to be hit by local transmission of the virus in February 2020, and the government took the extraordinary measure of closing all non-essential manufacturing for seven weeks as part of a draconian lockdown.
The Green Pass requirement covers 14.7 million private sector workers and 3.2 million in state-supported jobs.
Until now, only medical personnel have been obliged to be vaccinated, while the Green Pass mandate was in place only for school employees. Green Passes also are necessary for indoor leisure activities, such as dining, theater-going or museum visits, and for long-distance domestic travel.
Azzollini also underlined the difficulty in enforcing the Green Pass rules. She noted that even though medical personnel have been subject to an obligation to be vaccinated since April, only a handful have been suspended.

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National News

NY governor vows to fight lawsuit over vaccine mandate

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed this week to fight a lawsuit launched by a group of Christian health care practitioners who argue that New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for many health care workers is unconstitutional because it lacks a religious exemption.
A federal judge temporarily blocked the state Tuesday from enforcing any part of its mandate that prohibits religious exemptions for healthcare workers. The court will hold arguments in coming weeks.
The judge’s order means healthcare workers must still get vaccinated before Sept. 27 — but for now, they can ask for religious exemptions.
Hochul said Wednesday she’s not aware of any major religious group that has prohibited adherents from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Everyone from the Pope on down is encouraging people to get vaccinated,” she said, referring to Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The nurses, doctors and other New York health care workers in the lawsuit say they don’t want to be forced to take any vaccine that employs aborted fetus cell lines in their testing, development or production.
Fetal cell lines were used during research and development of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Thomas More Society senior counsel Stephen Crampton, who’s representing the anonymous group of nurses, doctors and other health care workers, said he’s confident the courts will find that people have a right to refuse the vaccine on religious grounds, even if they are part of a religious group that is endorsing the shots.
“My sincere religious convictions may not be 100% the same as the leader of my church or my denomination,” Crampton said. “And the law respects that and it should.”
New York has a long history of requiring health care workers to be immunized against diseases that pose a major public health threat, including measles, mumps and rubella. Schoolchildren are required to be vaccinated against many diseases, too.
The state doesn’t offer religious exemptions for vaccination requirements for schoolchildren or health care workers and has argued it isn’t obligated to do so for the COVID-19 vaccine, either. Courts have agreed states don’t have to offer a religious exemption for childhood immunization.
Students at colleges and universities, however, can be exempt from New York’s vaccine mandates if they hold “genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required.” New York also has a religious exemption for a requirement to vaccinate infants born to a mother with Hepatitis B.
The use of human cell lines is commonplace in the manufacture of vaccines including rubella, chickenpox, shingles and Hepatitis A. For decades, researchers have multiplied cells from a handful of legally aborted fetuses from the 1960s to produce human cell lines that provide cell cultures used to grow vaccines. Those cell lines are also used to make drugs treating rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.
Religious leaders have disagreed over the issue: the Vatican issued guidance saying it’s morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses when alternative vaccines aren’t available.
When asked whether the health care practitioners have received other vaccines, Crampton said the group isn’t “anti-vax” in general.
Hochul, a Democrat, said getting vaccinated is the “most beautiful way” for individuals in healing professions to demonstrate their passion and concern for others.
Seven other states besides New York don’t offer a religious exemption for school and childcare immunization requirements, according to the Immunization Action Coalition. Some have removed exemptions in recent years over concern about outbreaks of once-contained diseases: Maine’s sweeping law removed both religious and personal belief exemptions.
The Thomas More Society is a national not-for-profit law firm that describes its mission as “restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.” Last year, the law firm represented two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews who successfully overturned then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attendance limits for houses of worship during the pandemic.
New York is now averaging around 5,200 new cases of COVID-19 per day, up from a low of around 300 per day in late June.
On Sunday, a federal judge in New York City rejected a similar lawsuit lodged by Long Island nurses who argued the lack of a religious exemption violated their constitutional rights.