The Supreme Court has stopped the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.
At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S.
The court’s orders Thursday during a spike in coronavirus cases was a mixed bag for the administration’s efforts to boost the vaccination rate among Americans.
The court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected.
“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.
In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts.
“Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.
When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harbored doubts that it could withstand them. The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at prompting millions of people to get vaccinated and private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees is difficult.
The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide covers virtually all health care workers in the country. It applies to health care providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding, potentially affecting 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.
Previously blocked in many states
Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half the states. The administration was taking steps to enforce it elsewhere.
In the health care case, only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito noted their dissents.
“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have,” the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion, saying the “latter principle governs” in the health care cases.
More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.
The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict that they issued Thursday.
Two U.S. government agencies – space agency NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said Thursday 2021 was the sixth hottest year on record.
In separate reports, the agencies also said their data indicates the last eight years were the eight hottest since modern recordkeeping began. They also said global temperatures in 2021 were .85 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average. NOAA says last year was also the 45th year – since 1977 – average global temperatures rose above the 20th century average.
The agencies’ data shows global temperatures, averaged over a 10-year period to take out natural variability, are nearly 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than 140 years ago.
In an interview with reporters, NOAA analysis chief Russell Vose said it is “warmer now than any time in at least the past 2,000 years, and probably much longer.” He predicted 2022 would also be among the warmest years ever.
Both agencies attributed weather anomalies from the past year, like melting sea ice, severe wildfires, and record flooding, as attributable to the warming climate.
NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt told the Associated Press the long-term trend is “very, very clear. And it’s because of us. And it’s not going to go away until we stop increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, and Reuters.0
A SpaceX rocket launch Thursday carried three small South African-made satellites that will help with policing South African waters against illegal fishing operations.
Produced at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the satellites could also be used to help other African countries to protect their coastal waters.
SpaceX’s billionaire boss Elon Musk has given three nano satellites produced in his birth country, South Africa, a ride into space.
The company’s Falcon rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in the U.S. state of Florida with 105 spacecraft on board. All three South African satellites deployed successfully.
This mission, known as Transporter 3, is part of SpaceX’s rideshare program which in two previous outings has put over 220 small satellites into orbit.
The three South African nano satellites on this trip were designed at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Africa Space Innovation Centre.
The institution’s deputy vice chancellor for research, technology and innovation Professor David Phaho says “it marks a quantum leap in terms of South Africa’s capability to participate in the space sector. As you can imagine the issue of oceans economy has become topical globally. And the fact that we’ve developed this capacity in South Africa, and we are launching this (sic) satellites will go a long way in enhancing our capabilities to monitor our coastline and grow our economy.”
Phaho notes the university has been building up to the launch of these satellites, known collectively as MDASat-1, with a previous satellite launch in 2018.
“These three satellites, there was a precursor to these current three satellite constellation. Zcube2 is the most advanced nano satellite developed on the African continent and it was launched in December 2018 so these ones are basically part and parcel of that development. And they are probably the most advanced nano satellites developed on the African continent,” Phaho expressed.
Stephen Cupido studied at the space center and graduated in 2014. Today, he works here as a software engineer and points out that “it’s been a ride, it’s been amazing, ups and downs but this is definitely an up today. Just to get everything ready for today has been a lot of pressure.”
And the interaction with SpaceX has been complicated he says laughing “but it’s necessary. We are putting objects in space and space is for everyone, we have to keep it safe for everybody so we understand the paperwork involved but we’ve got all the information through to them. They’re launching our satellite so everything is in order.”
The university paid almost $260,000 to secure its spot on the SpaceX craft. It says it hopes to continue the relationship with Elon Musk’s company.
In an attempt to attract more foreign students, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire says it will admit international students regardless of their ability to pay tuition.
International students will be admitted through a “need blind” process used for U.S. students.
The college charges about $80,000 per year for tuition and accommodation.
“Talent is spread all across the world,” college president Philip Hanlon told the Financial Times. “We want to remove any financial barriers. This move benefits every student on campus, not just international ones. Tomorrow’s leaders have to be global citizens. By us bringing together students from all over the world … they will learn from their peers.”
A variety of factors has led to decreased numbers of international students applying to U.S. colleges. These include rising costs, stricter visa policies and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dartmouth said its most recent class took in 14% international students, compared to 8% in 2013 when Hanlon took charge.
A handful of other universities is taking similar measures.
In the Dartmouth College statement, Hanlon said that while there was no target, he expected “international applications will skyrocket” and would not be surprised if the proportion reached 25 percent in the coming decade.
“Dartmouth has stepped up recruitment abroad, diversifying from students often drawn from richer families in Canada, Europe, China and India to offer financial aid to those from countries such as Kenya, Vietnam and Brazil,” the report said.
A new Hong Kong mandate that restaurants and other establishments require use of an app aimed at recording people’s locations and telling them if they have been near a COVID-19 patient has spurred opposition from the city’s pro-democracy voices.
The LeaveHomeSafe app scans a two-dimensional QR barcode at taxis and other locations. If a COVID-19 patient has been there, the app will alert users and provide health advice. The government required the use of the app Dec. 9 in all indoor premises including government buildings, restaurants, public facilities, and karaoke venues. Those over the age of 65, 15 years or younger, the homeless and those with disabilities are exempt.
Previously Hong Kongers could record these movements using a paper form, but the cursive characters written by opposition Hong Kongers or pro-democracy activists expressing their distrust in government were often illegible for authorities.
Hong Kongers believe the app can be a tool used by authorities to monitor citizens, according to a human rights advocate.
“Given Beijing’s use of mass surveillance in China, many Hong Kong people suspect that the app is one way for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong,” Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Maya Wang told VOA by email.
An office worker in her 20s entering a Taiwanese restaurant recently was one of the Hong Kongers harboring doubts about the app. Before entering the restaurant, she said she stopped texting on her phone to use a second phone to scan the restaurant’s QR code using LeaveHomeSafe.
“It’s an act of human right and privacy violation as we can no longer choose the way we live and the app is part of the digital surveillance system,” she told VOA, referring to the government app.
Government officials sought to allay such privacy concerns last February, as health secretary Sophia Chan said the COVID-19 tracking app would not send personal data to the authorities.
“The fact is there is no issue of data privacy, because the data would be just stored in the phone of the person. There is no platform that collects those data,” Chan told reporters.
Hong Kong also has a new Health Code app for people to show they have not been exposed to COVID-19 to travel to mainland China, using LeaveHomeSafe records. The LeaveHomeSafe privacy statement says users are required to upload their visit records from the app to the health code system “only with their express consent” and “at their sole discretion.”
“The visit record, which by itself in isolation is not personal data, will be kept in users’ mobile phones for 31 days and will then be erased automatically,” the privacy statement adds.
The government announced the requirement for broader use of the LeaveHomeSafe app in November, before the omicron variant and when Hong Kong’s confirmed infection number was in single digits.
The government said in a statement then it had made the decision “amid the severe COVID-19 pandemic situation across the world” and that “it strives to foster favourable conditions for resuming cross-boundary travel with the Mainland and cross-border travel in the future.”
Wang said Hong Kongers are right to be suspicious of the government’s intentions with the tracing app.
Even though Hong Kong differs from China in significant ways, such as a privacy ordinance that protected people’s privacy for many years, she said, “these legal protections are increasingly being undermined as Beijing and Hong Kong governments do away with other protections of civil liberties, such as a free press and freedom of expression.”
The announcement of the mandate followed a clampdown on the use of the fake version of the app in the same month. The police arrested five people for using fake apps.
Two were confirmed to be arrested on suspicion of using false instruments — the same charge for using a falsified passport or fabricated visa to enter the city — that can send offenders to prison for up to 14 years and incur up to about $19,000 in penalty.
Officials have long been wary of certain residents’ opposition to the use of the app. In September, the police arrested three core members, aged 18-20, of the pro-democracy student activism group Student Politicism under the national security law.
They have been charged with conspiracy to incite subversion for “stirring hatred towards the government … including urging people not to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and to fill in fake [personal] information on the paper forms,” Steve Li Kwai-wah, superintendent of the police national security department told media in a September press conference.
Eric Lai, researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law and the former spokesperson of the now-disbanded protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front, said the measure seeks to “repress” Hong Kongers’ rights.
“The government of Hong Kong has a track record of using COVID-preventive measures to repress the exercise of citizen’s rights, such as the use of social distancing rules to criminalize citizens protesting in public sites” he told VOA by email.
The police were accused of targeting restaurants and shops that support democracy by conducting checks only in such shops, according to local media StandNews, which is now closed.
Many of such shops complained about losing the freedom not to use the app and said they would offer carry-out orders that do not require its use instead.
The Chinese city of Tianjin ordered a second round of COVID-19 testing for all of its 14 million residents on Wednesday after an initial screening of the population found 97 positive cases. The port city is about 100 kilometers southeast of the Winter Olympics host city of Beijing.
Authorities locked down several of the port city’s contaminated districts as epidemiologists warned that the spread might have begun earlier than detected in last week’s screening. Tianjin authorities began tightening anti-virus and travel measures on January 9, fearing a prolonged outbreak.
Analysts who spoke with VOA Mandarin said the Chinese government finds Tianjin’s new cases particularly alarming due to the city’s proximity to Beijing, the host city for the 24th Winter Olympics, scheduled to open February 4 and run through February 20. It takes less than 30 minutes to travel between the two cities by high-speed rail.
Health experts said the rigid disease control lockdowns will be unsustainable as the more contagious variant omicron spreads across the country, which has adopted a zero-tolerance policy to fight the deadly coronavirus first detected in humans in China in late 2019.
“With omicron, there’s a high proportion of asymptomatic cases, so I believe the number of confirmed cases will keep increasing in the next few days,” said Twu Shiing-jer, former minister of Taiwan’s Department of Health and chairman of the Development Center for Biotechnology in Taipei.
“There’s a high probability that omicron will be brought to the Olympic Village in Beijing, since all the food and other logistic supplies will be transported into the venue from other cities,” he added.
Tianjin is the latest city placed under strict controls by Chinese authorities eager to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China and until now perhaps best known as the home of thousands of ancient terra cotta warriors, is locked down, as are Anyang and Yuzhou, in China’s central Henan province.
Huang Chun, an official with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, said in a briefing on January 11 that unless there are large-scale outbreaks in the competition zones, “we don’t plan to adjust the COVID-19 control measures yet.”
He said that judging from the current situation, there’s no need to impose a lockdown in Beijing.
Tianjin’s “soft lockdown”
Tianjin reported 33 domestically transmitted coronavirus infections with confirmed symptoms on Tuesday, up from 10 on Monday, according to national data, which did not specify how many of the infections were omicron.
For now, most of the cases were found in the southeast area of Tianjin.
City officials ordered a half-day off for all employees and other institutions on Wednesday and required all residents to stay home unless they have pressing needs, such as health workers conducting the second round of mass testing, according to Reuters.
In the meantime, authorities have suspended most of the transportation services between Tianjin and other cities. People who want to leave Tianjin must show a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of travel as well as approval for travel from their employer or local government offices.
VOA Mandarin spoke to several Tianjin residents on January 11 and most said their day-to-day routines remain little affected by the lockdown.
Ms. Wu, 69, who asked that her full name not be used so she would not attract official attention, said she returned to Tianjin from Beijing on December 23. Since she lives far from the contaminated districts, she said she can still go out to get groceries.
“I’m not worried. I have enough food stocked at home, I made sure to purchase all necessities in advance, and everyone has got two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, including my 6-year-old grandson,” she told VOA Mandarin.
She said she hadn’t noticed any food shortages, even though the supermarket was busier than usual on Sunday.
Tianjin resident Mr. Sun, 70, said that other than venturing out for nucleic acid tests, he’s stayed home watching TV for the past two days. Mr. Sun requested that VOA Mandarin not use his full name for fear of attracting official attention as well.
Li Wenbo, an assistant professor of economics at Tianjin University in China, told VOA Mandarin that he expects the new wave of the COVID-19 variant will have a limited impact on Tianjin’s economy.
“The authorities have taken swift actions. All schools, from kindergarten to universities, suspended classes immediately. Taking my school for example, final exams have been pushed until the start of the next semester, and all faculties are working from home now,” he told VOA Mandarin.
Li said that while there’s enough food, some of the city’s sectors, such as restaurants and entertainment, will likely take a hit from the latest outbreak
Li said he believes that China’s zero-tolerance policy explains why the economy is relatively normal. “Since China has been keeping COVID numbers low for two years, it doesn’t have to choose between people’s health and economic activities like developed countries in Europe and America.”
Twu, Taiwan’s former minister of health, is less optimistic. He argued that since omicron is one of the most contagious pathogens health workers have seen, it will be impossible for China to maintain the zero-tolerance policy.
“It’s exceptionally difficult to completely contain the virus, especially for omicron. First, it’s highly contagious. Second, there will be so many asymptomatic cases compared to previous variants,” Twu told VOA Mandarin.
Even if the Beijing Olympics take place in a “closed loop,” he continued, there will be so much movement of people and goods to and from the Olympic sites “that some of the spread is almost inevitable.”
“Therefore, there are only two situations if China were to insist on a zero-tolerance policy,” Twu said. “One is to ‘pretend’ there are no cases, and the other is to be so strict with pandemic control measures, to the point that it cancels the Winter Olympic Games.”