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Updated 1 hour ago

Walmart to Stop Requiring Masks for Vaccinated Workers and Shoppers

Disney said this week that it expects to see an immediate jump in the number of people inside its U.S. theme parks following the CDC’s relaxed guidance.Bing Guan/Bloomberg News

American companies began to rethink their requirements for face masks after federal health regulators relaxed their guidelines this week, and on Friday Walmart Inc. made the first big move to bend to the new view.

The U.S.’s largest private employer said it would no longer require vaccinated workers and shoppers to wear masks in stores and warehouses outside of municipalities that require it. Walmart’s new policy for its 1.6 million U.S. workers goes into effect May 18, the company said, while vaccinated customers could shop maskless immediately.

That made the country’s largest retailer by revenue an early mover in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance. Executives in sectors ranging from autos to grocers said they were still wrestling with how to respond to the new guidelines, which they note conflicts in many cases with state, local and other protocols specific to certain industries.

Car makers General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. said they are sticking with existing policies while awaiting guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has jurisdiction over their workplaces and still requires face coverings and social distancing. The agency didn’t immediately update its guidance based on the CDC announcement. OSHA representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Some national retailers said they were reviewing the CDC’s changes. Kroger Co. , the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, said it would continue requiring masks and encouraging social distancing. The company said it is asking employees for feedback as it reviews safety practices and the latest CDC guidance.

Another grocer, Trader Joe’s, said it would drop its mask requirements for vaccinated customers. “We encourage customers to follow the guidance of health officials,” the company posted on Twitter. It won’t require proof of vaccination for those who forgo masks, a spokesperson said.

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Updated 2 hours ago

Why the CDC Told Fully Vaccinated Americans They Didn’t Need to Wear Face Masks Anymore

An open-air bar in San Diego this week. Parsing the new recommendations shifts to states, communities and businesses.Bing Guan/Bloomberg News

Behind the decision by federal health officials to effectively end face-mask and distancing recommendations for the fully vaccinated, they said, was a mix of recent research, increasing vaccinations and declining case counts.

The guidelines now largely follow the growing body of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccines against Covid-19, especially given the current state of the pandemic in the U.S., according to public-health specialists.

Parsing the new recommendations and putting them into practice now shifts to states, communities and businesses. It will likely be especially difficult in public settings like stores or workplaces, health researchers say, since there isn’t an easy way to determine who is fully vaccinated.

“There are states that I believe will continue to require masks in public spaces, simply because we cannot tell who is vaccinated or who is not,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc. vaccines or two weeks following the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Throughout the pandemic, the CDC has faced sniping from lawmakers, researchers and other health authorities on its pandemic response, including criticism that the federal agency bowed to political pressure and wasn’t giving guidance specific enough for communities, schools and businesses to implement.

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2 hours ago

Covid-19 Variant From India Threatens U.K. Plans to End Lockdown

A street on Friday in Bolton, in northwest England, which has been affected by the coronavirus variant B.1.617.2.oli scarff/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

LONDON—The U.K.’s plans to cast off almost all public-health restrictions next month are in peril after a highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in India sparked new clusters of Covid-19, highlighting the risk of outbreaks even in countries where vaccination is widespread.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said some restrictions in England would be eased Monday as planned, but a bigger reopening scheduled for late June is under threat unless the spread of variant B.1.617.2 can be brought under control. More than 1,200 cases and four deaths had been linked to the variant in the U.K. as of May 12, after it hitched a ride among returning travelers.

British scientists now think B.1.617.2 is more transmissible than B.1.1.7, which was first detected in the U.K. last year and has since spread around the world, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said Friday, referring to evidence including the variant’s genetic mutations, the growth in cases and modeling of its potential spread. Exactly how much more transmissible B.1.617.2 is isn’t yet known. “That will have implications for the prospects of this epidemic in the U.K. and internationally,” Prof. Whitty said.

With more than two-thirds of adults in the U.K. vaccinated, the outbreak makes the U.K. a test case for the U.S. and other big nations for how effective vaccines are at keeping all the variants of the coronavirus at bay. The shots aren’t 100% effective at stopping the pathogen in its multiple forms and the U.K. immunization drive hasn’t yet reached all age groups, leaving millions of potential hosts.

“The race between our vaccination program and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter,” Mr. Johnson said Friday.

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3 hours ago

Some States Lift Mask Mandates After CDC Guidance

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state was reviewing the new guidance in partnership with surrounding states. A mall in Manhattan on Thursday.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

States across the U.S. are tailoring their rules on face masks and social distancing to align with new federal health guidance for fully vaccinated Americans.

Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington were among states that updated their public-health guidance.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday that the state would lift most mask requirements, social distancing and capacity and gathering limits, both indoors and outdoors.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic. That’s good,” said Mr. Cooper, a Democrat.

Washington state will also follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and permit fully vaccinated people to go mask-free in most indoor settings, as well as while outside, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

“This is a heckuva benefit,” the Democrat said Thursday. “People who have been annoyed by this mask, it’s a really good reason to get vaccinated. This is a ticket to freedom.”

Until Thursday, 26 states and the District of Columbia had statewide mask mandates still in place, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Almost all of those states have updated their masking policies to follow the CDC’s guidance either immediately or in short order, while the leaders of a handful of remaining states said they were still reviewing the guidance.

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4 hours ago

CDC’s New Face Mask Guidelines: How They Affect You

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its broadest easing of pandemic recommendations so far, stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks either indoors or outdoors.

“We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “That moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”

Do you still have to wear face masks indoors and outdoors?

Fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask or physically distance when outdoors or indoors, in large or small gatherings, according to the new CDC guidelines.

That said, the fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask while traveling by plane, bus or train, and the guidance doesn’t apply to certain locations such as hospitals, nursing homes and prisons.

Unvaccinated people remain at risk, Dr. Walensky said, and should continue to wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible. People who are immune compromised should speak to their doctors to help determine whether to keep masking, she said.

As a fully vaccinated person, how does this affect me?

You could go out without a face mask. But the reality is that, at least for the near term, you are most likely going to end up needing to carry a mask with you, taking it on and off according to the circumstance.

Some state and city mandates still require masks. Some businesses, restaurants and retailers may also continue to require face coverings because it would be hard for them to tell who is and isn’t vaccinated.

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Updated 6 hours ago

Average U.S. Covid-19 Cases Continue Broad Decline

Newly reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. edged up from a day earlier but on average continued a broad decline, as federal health officials revised their recommendations for fully vaccinated people.

Federal health officials said those who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear a mask or physically distance during outdoor or indoor activities, large or small. The fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask while traveling by plane, bus or train, and the guidance doesn’t apply to certain places such as hospitals, nursing homes and prisons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

The fully protected can, however, resume doing many of the things they had to give up because of the coronavirus pandemic, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The news comes as vaccinations opened up for adolescents and parents rushed to get their children appointments.

Some 35.8% of people in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated, with 46.6% having received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. The overall pace of vaccinations has slowed somewhat, with an average of 2.1 million doses administered daily over the past week, according to a Journal analysis of CDC data.

Vaccination levels vary by state. In Maine, 47.3% of the population is fully vaccinated and 58.2% have had at least one dose. In Mississippi, 25.5% of residents are fully vaccinated and 32.3% have had one shot.

The country, meanwhile, reported 38,087 new cases for Thursday, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Thursday’s figure was slightly higher than the 35,878 new cases reported on Wednesday but marked the sixth consecutive day that the daily total was below 40,000.

Not all states report new data on a daily basis. The seven-day moving average of Covid-19 infections, which smooths out states’ irregular data reporting schedules, was 35,384 as of Thursday, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins data, while the 14-day average was 40,273. When the seven-day average is lower than the 14-day average, as it has been since April 17, it indicates that cases are falling.

Hospitalizations stood at 35,010, according to the latest data posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The country reported 802 Covid-19 fatalities for Thursday, bringing the total death toll to more than 584,500, according to Johns Hopkins data.

Pointing to the improving conditions and the academic, emotional and social effects that more than a year of disrupted school have had on students, the president of one of the nation’s largest teachers unions said school should reopen five days a week this fall.

“There is no doubt: Schools must be open, in person, five days a week, with the space and facilities to do so,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a speech streamed online.

6 hours ago

Irish Healthcare Service Shuts Down IT Systems After Ransomware Attack

Ireland’s Health Service Executive, led by Paul Reid, said people won’t be able to make appointments for Covid-19 tests following the cyberattack.Niall Carson/Zuma Press

Ireland’s public healthcare system said it shut down major technology systems Friday after a ransomware attack, causing disruption at hospitals and Covid-19 testing centers.

Paul Reid, director-general of the Health Service Executive, told Irish radio Friday the attack was sophisticated and used ransomware known as Conti. He said Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination services will continue normally because they use different technology than the country’s other healthcare operations.

Mr. Reid said the HSE hadn’t received a ransom note.

The attack appears to be the first major strike to disable a country’s centralized public health system during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, hackers have attacked individual hospitals and research centers around the world, including a Czech hospital treating coronavirus patients. Cyberattacks cost hospitals in the U.S. millions of dollars in 2020.

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7 hours ago

Russia Struggles to Meet Demand for Its Covid-19 Vaccine

A medical worker in Simferopol, Crimea, prepares a shot of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine as people line up for vaccinations.Alexander Polegenko/Associated Press

MOSCOW—Russia is struggling to meet demand for its Sputnik V vaccine, compounding a supply crunch for the shots in the developing world as Covid-19 infections surge in many poorer countries.

More than 60 countries have approved the Sputnik V shot and Moscow has struck deals to sell more than 630 million doses, according to analytics company Airfinity, which tracks global vaccine distribution.

Those doses are especially important to the developing world, as multilateral efforts to supply poorer countries have stumbled badly in recent weeks—a development that has opened the door to Russian- and Chinese-made vaccines.

But Russia is late on some deliveries and analysts tracking the rollout say it lacks global production capacity to fill the orders. So far, it has delivered only about 15 million doses.

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9 hours ago

Parents Rush to Get Covid-19 Vaccines for Their Children

A vaccination site in Stamford, Conn. Some parents and school officials want children to get vaccinations ahead of summer camps and the start of the next school year.GABBY JONES for The Wall Street Journal

Parents across the U.S. are rushing to get their adolescent children vaccinated against Covid-19 after regulators authorized the use of the Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE vaccine for children ages 12 to 15.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Wednesday the use of the vaccine in the younger age group. More than a dozen states—including California, Washington, Maine, Illinois, Massachusetts, Arkansas and Florida—followed the CDC’s recommendation and made the 12 to 15 age group eligible, many scheduling vaccination appointments starting Thursday.

Public-health experts say vaccinating children is crucial to protecting them from infection and achieving communitywide immunity. Some parents and school officials want children to be vaccinations ahead of summer camps and the start of the next school year. And many teens are eager to resume social activities with friends.

Jen Ferris, who works in communications for a nonprofit in Chapel Hill, N.C., has been texting with other moms for weeks in anticipation of the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for adolescents.

“When the news came through, my mom network just lit up—my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing,” she said. “All the messages were, ‘FDA-Approved,’ then a bunch of heart emojis.”

She scheduled her 13-year-old son for a vaccine appointment at his pediatrician’s office for Thursday and then sent the doctor’s number to a half-dozen friends so they could make appointments for their children.

Elliott Ferris, who likes videogames and fishing, shouted, “That’s so dope!” upon hearing the news, his mother said.

“I’ve had such a long year-and-a-half without friends,” Elliott said. “We’re just so bored and a little bit lonely.”

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16 hours ago

Singapore Tightens Restrictions to Combat Rise in Infections

Singapore on Thursday, when the country recorded 24 new local Covid-19 cases and 10 imported infections.roslan rahman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Singapore plans to tighten its Covid-19 restrictions after a spread of unlinked coronavirus cases in the city-state, health officials said Friday.

Beginning Sunday, gatherings will be limited to two people, down from five, and work from home will be the default for workplaces, the Southeast Asian nation's Health Ministry said. Dining in at restaurants will cease, with services limited to takeout and delivery. Malls will remain open, but occupancy limits will be tightened. The new measures will last through June 13.

"A pattern of local, unlinked community cases has emerged and is persisting," the Health Ministry said. "This is worrying, as it suggests that there may be unknown cases in the community with possible ongoing community transmission and that our earlier measures to break the chains of transmissions may be insufficient."

Singapore has largely controlled the spread of the coronavirus and in recent months eased restrictions on social gatherings and working from offices. But the number of recorded cases has risen in recent weeks, with the number of locally transmitted cases and unlinked community cases rising.

On Thursday, officials identified 34 new cases, 10 of them imported and 24 from within the community.