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Coronavirus Update: Biden administration to elevate HHS division to handle pandemic response, and New York Gov. Hochul maintains public-transit mask mandate for now


Even as the president himself was revealed early Thursday to have tested positive for COVID-19, the administration of President Joe Biden is planning to overhaul the federal health department and create a new independent division to lead the nation’s pandemic response, the Washington Post reported, citing seven people briefed on the plan.

The move, which comes amid frustration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would elevate a 1,000-person team known as the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, or ASPR, to an Operating Division from its current status as Staff Division, according to a memo from ASPR head Dawn O’Connell.

“This change allows ASPR to mobilize a coordinated national response more quickly and stably during future disasters and emergencies while equipping us with greater hiring and contracting capabilities,” O’Connell wrote in the memo which the Washington Post obtained.

The idea is to phase in the new division over two years to bolster federal government’s response to medical emergencies, whether a pandemic or the recent monkeypox outbreak. The World Health Organization’s emergency committee is meeting Thursday to consider for the second time within weeks whether to declare monkeypox a global crisis, as the Associated Press reported.

The ASPR has played a role in handling the pandemic but has been caught up in turf wars with other agencies, such as the CDC with which it clashed over evacuating coronavirus-infected Americans from Asia in early 2020, the Washington Post reported. The ASPR oversees the Strategic National Stockpile after a battle with the CDC over which agency should control it.

That led to criticism early in the pandemic when it was found to have a serious shortage of PPE and other medical equipment. O’Connell on Tuesday called members of Congress to inform them of the administration’s plan, according to people with knowledge of those calls.

The news comes as U.S. COVID cases are rising again after being steady for several months, as the BA.5 omicron subvariant becomes dominant. BA.5 is understood to be the most transmissible variant seen so far and to have an ability to break through vaccination and cause reinfection.

The daily average for new U.S. cases stood at 127,758 on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 18% from two weeks ago. The daily average for hospitalizations rose to 41,852, up 19% in two weeks. The daily average for deaths is up 32% to 426.

While the president tested positive on Monday, first lady Jill Biden, on an official trip to Detroit, reported that she had received a negative result. The twice-boosted President Biden is said to have been prescribed Paxlovid and to be experiencing only very mild symptoms.

At LinkedIn’s new flagship office, desks are no longer the primary focus. With dozens of different work settings and conference room setups, the company is using its office as a hub for its hybrid workforce. WSJ gets an exclusive look inside. Photo: Karl Mollohan for The Wall Street Journal

See now: Are you confused about BA.5 and the current state of the pandemic? Here’s how the experts are thinking about it.

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she does not expect to mandate face masks for students when they return to school in the fall, but will reserve the right to do so if case numbers change, the Daily News reported. The state will be sending out about three million test kits to districts ahead of start of the school year. New York’s current infection rate is around 37 per 100,000 over a seven-day average, relatively low when compared to the 381 per 100,000 recorded at the height of the omicron surge earlier this year, Hochul said. The governor is sticking with a mask mandate for public transit for now.

• Authorities in southern China have apologized for breaking into the homes of people who had been taken to a quarantine hotel in the latest example of heavy-handed virus-prevention measures that have sparked a rare public backlash, the AP reported. State media said that 84 homes in an apartment complex in Guangzhou city’s Liwan district had been opened in an effort to find any “close contacts” hiding inside and to disinfect the premises. The doors were later sealed and new locks installed, the Global Times newspaper reported.

As foreign investors and home buyers lose confidence in China’s property market, developers are offering cars and pigs to boost sales. WSJ examines ads and policies to see how the country’s real-estate turmoil could ripple out into the global economy. Photo composite: Sharon Shi

• Britain’s Chris Froome has been forced to withdraw from the Tour de France after testing positive for COVID before Thursday’s stage 18, BBC News reported. Froome is a four-time winner of the bike race and was showing signs of a return to form after being seriously injured in a crash in 2019.

•Oregon health officials are urging people in 21 counties with high COVID-19 cases — including the three Portland-area counties — to return to mask wearing because the hospital system is again under extreme strain, the AP reported. While COVID-19 hospitalizations are lower than past surges, staff shortages, patients who delayed care and elevated COVID-19 infections have substantially reduced hospital systems’ capacity to care for patients, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Read also: COVID patients with weak immune systems should get priority care to avoid new variants emerging, experts say

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 567.2 million on Friday, while the death toll rose above 6.38 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 90 million cases and 1,025,796 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 222.7 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 67.1% of the total population. But just 107 million have had a first booster, equal to 48.1% of the vaccinated population.

Just 18.2 million of the people 50 years old and over who are eligible for a second booster have had one, equal to 28.5% of those who had a first booster.

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