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Preaching vaccines, bonnet scheme, well water: News from around our 50 states

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports  |  USA TODAY

Alabama

Montgomery: The state health officer said Friday that he is cautiously optimistic about improving COVID-19 numbers but urged people to maintain precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds. “This is the most optimistic we’ve been, I think, maybe since this all began,” Dr. Scott Harris said. Three major barometers of the pandemic’s severity – hospitalizations, daily new cases and coronavirus test percent positivity – have fallen to levels the state last saw in fall or summer. “We are not out of the woods, but we see how to get out of the woods. Please don’t stop doing the things that you are doing. This is not the time to ease up wearing your mask. It’s not the time to go be in large groups of people,” Harris said. The number of COVID-19 patients in Alabama hospitals Friday dipped below 1,000 for the first time since October. Harris said there may be increased immunity both from vaccinations and from temporary natural immunity in people who have been exposed to the virus. The end of the holiday season and related large gatherings likely also plays a part, he said. “Frankly, it has been a breath of fresh air for all of us in health care. This has been a tremendous burden for all of us,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, vice president for clinical services at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.

Alaska

Juneau: Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his administration will no longer respond to or participate in hearings led by state Sen. Lora Reinbold, telling the fellow Republican in a withering letter that she has used her position to “misrepresent” the state’s COVID-19 response and that her demands for information have gone beyond checks and balances and are “not based in fact.” “It is lamentable that the good citizens of Eagle River and Chugiak are deprived of meaningful representation by the actions of the person holding the office of Senator,” Dunleavy wrote in the letter dated Thursday. “I will not continue to subject the public resources of the State of Alaska to the mockery of a charade, disguised as public purpose.” Reinbold has criticized the governor for issuing pandemic-related disaster declarations while the Legislature was not in session and taken aim at health restrictions imposed by local governments, airlines and the Legislature, including mask requirements. On social media, Reinbold has accused the Dunleavy administration of being “wild” about “these experimental” COVID-19 vaccines, “bragging over 100,000 have gotten them in Alaska,” and characterized the administration as seeking disaster declarations to get mass vaccination clinics. Health officials say the vaccines are safe and effective, and no steps were skipped during the clinical trials.

Arizona

Phoenix: The state on Friday announced it would provide $100 million of federal funding to counties for coronavirus testing and related work. The state Department of Health Services said the $100 million initial allocation is being provided for staffing, laboratory testing “and other activities critical to combating COVID-19.” The announcement followed Pima County officials’ recent declaration that they might have to suspend testing as of Monday because of a lack of funding. Arizona received $418.9 million in January from the federal government for virus testing and related work and must submit a budget by mid-March to detail how it will spend the money, the department said. In addition to allocations to counties, the state will use some of the money for statewide testing programs, including testing done by Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, the department said. Of the $100 million to counties, $60.6 million is being sent to Maricopa County and $14.4 million to Pima County, which include most of metro Phoenix and most of the Tucson area, respectively.

Arkansas

Little Rock: The number of coronavirus cases in the state rose by more than 500 on Saturday, and the death toll increased by 12, the Department of Health said, as the averages of both numbers continued to decline. According to the department, 5,348 Arkansans have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. The number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus fell by 25 to 605. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Arkansas has decreased by nearly 75%, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Gov. Asa Hutchinson planned to visit vaccination clinics over the weekend, a senior citizen’s center in Lavaca and a pharmacy in Bryant, after urging vaccine providers on Friday to schedule extra weekend hours to make up for a slowdown because of last week’s snowstorms. “It is critical to get our vaccines out as quickly as possible, and we have to catch up on the missed appointments and slow vaccine distribution over the last week,” he said in a statement. Hutchinson has said the state needs to vaccinate more people age 70 and older before expanding the vaccine program to others.

California

Sacramento: The state plans to set aside 10% of first vaccine doses for educators, school staff and child care providers starting in March to help get children back in classrooms, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday. The move is aimed at jump-starting in-person learning after nearly a year of distance learning for most of California’s 6 million K-12 students. The announcement came a day after legislative leaders announced a $6.5 billion proposal aimed at reopening schools this spring. Newsom said that’s not fast enough and suggested he could veto it. “I can’t support something that’s going to delay the safe reopening of schools for our youngest kids,” he said. Lawmakers didn’t appear deterred by Newsom’s comments and still planned to take up the school legislation Monday, said Nannette Miranda, a spokeswoman for Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat who heads the chamber’s budget committee. California on Friday also announced a more rapid return to athletic playing fields for youth sports, while Newsom recently said more counties will soon be able to allow various businesses to reopen and expand customer volume. But school districts in many areas of the state such as San Francisco and the city of Los Angeles remain closed to in-person learning.

Colorado

Denver: Out-of-work residents are able to reopen and file new claims after a program distributing pandemic unemployment assistance ended in December, officials said. Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Director Joe Barela said residents could begin filing Saturday, marking the second launch of federal extended jobless benefits this year, Colorado Public Radio reports. The first phase began in February for people who still had money remaining on their account in December, when federal programs funded through the coronavirus relief bill ended. “They will be able to begin certifying their weeks or the payments filing new claims and reopening if they were moving into programs,” Barela said. “That’s really exciting.” The state does not know exactly how many people qualified over the weekend but said about 289,000 were contacted with information on how to sign up for the benefits. The state was delayed in revamping the benefits because it upgraded its system and needed to reprogram the benefit options. Phil Spesshardt, benefits services manager with the department, said the delay was caused in part by Congress, which waited until the program ended to take any action and then waited for additional information from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Connecticut

Hartford: The state is partnering with a Hartford-based nonprofit organization that advocates for health equity across the state to reach out to more than 10,000 minority residents over the next three months and dispel myths about the COVID-19 vaccine. The arrangement announced Friday is part of the state’s efforts to reach out to Black and Latino communities that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and may be reticent to get vaccinated. “We want to ensure that communities at highest risk have equitable access to the vaccines that will protect them and allow everyone to return to a sense of normalcy,” Dr. Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting public health commissioner, said in a statement. “The team at Health Equity Solutions will strengthen and enhance our outreach efforts in the Black and Latino communities.” The organization plans to focus on faith- and education-based networks to reach the widest audience possible with information about the vaccine. There will be a particular focus on issues concerning distrust of the medical system within the state’s Black community. Health Equity Solutions already hosted webinars that have reached more than 3,000 people, and more than 20 events have been scheduled, with more being planned.

Delaware

Wilmington: With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continuing to plummet, Gov. John Carney on Friday announced a loosening of the restrictions for indoor gatherings at businesses and other indoor spaces. The new rules allow for a maximum of 25 people or 50% of the stated fire occupancy restrictions, whichever is lower, though organizers may submit a plan to the Division of Public Health to host larger events up to 150 people. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 people or up to 250 with an approved plan from DPH. “I don’t think anything else is imminent after today’s announcement,” said Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for Carney. “We are continuing to see positive trends in the numbers – hospitalizations, percent positive and cases. That’s good news. We are also still moving down from the winter peaks, which is why the governor and the public health team are taking a cautious approach as we see sustained decreases in spread. We’ll continue to follow the numbers and ask everyone to do their part.”

District of Columbia

Washington: The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith started his virtual Valentine’s Day sermon at Shiloh Baptist Church by talking about love and vaccinations. “When you get a vaccination, you are saying to everyone around you that you love them enough that you don’t want any hurt, harm or danger to befall them,” he said. “In the spirit of love, keep at it until you get your vaccination. That’s the only thing that’s going to erase this terrible scourge.” Health officials in the nation’s capital are hoping Smith and other Black religious leaders will serve as community influencers to overcome what officials say is a persistent vaccine reluctance in the Black community. Smith and several other local ministers recently received their first vaccine shots. Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city’s COVID-19 deaths. D.C. is now offering vaccinations to residents over age 65, but numbers show seniors in the poorest and blackest parts of Washington are lagging behind. Officials partially blame historic distrust of the medical establishment, especially among Black seniors, who vividly remember medical exploitation horrors such as the Tuskegee syphilis study. The D.C. government is giving priority for vaccine registration to predominantly Black ZIP codes and running public information campaigns. “There’s distrust in our community. We can’t ignore that,” said the Rev. James Coleman of All Nations Baptist, who was vaccinated along with Smith. “The church, and particularly the Black church, is essential. … That’s what pastors do.”

Florida

Orlando: Two women who dressed up to make themselves appear older to get COVID-19 vaccinations were turned away and issued trespass warnings, officials said. Dr. Raul Pino, state health officer in Orange County, said the women disguised themselves Wednesday with bonnets, gloves and glasses. Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Michelle Guido told the Orlando Sentinel the women altered their birth years on their vaccination registrations to bypass the state system, which prioritizes people 65 and older. It appeared the women had gotten the first shot, but it was unclear where. “Their names matched their registration but not their dates of birth,” she told the newspaper. The women were 35 and 45 years old, officials said in a news release. Health Department officials asked deputies to issue trespass warnings. In a video provided by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, a deputy could be heard saying, “You’ve stolen a vaccine from somebody that needs it more than you.” Guido said the warning means the women can’t return to the convention center for any reason – including a vaccine, coronavirus test, convention or show. If they do return, they could face arrest.

Georgia

Atlanta: The state is renewing its request to again be exempted from federal requirements to administer standardized tests. State Superintendent Richard Woods announced Thursday that he and Gov. Brian Kemp had resubmitted a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in September that she would deny waiver requests for the 2020-2021 school year, after granting them last year. Woods argues that tests are useless because they’re supposed to measure instruction in a regular learning environment. “This unprecedented school year has been anything but traditional, and experts know tests cannot be completely redesigned and revamped overnight,” Woods said in a statement Thursday. Most Georgia school districts have been offering in-person instruction for most of the year, but a substantial portion of students have chosen to learn remotely from home. A handful of districts have offered no in-person instruction. It’s unclear how the Biden administration will receive renewed waiver requests, which are being submitted by a number of states. Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, has yet to get a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate. Woods said it will be hard for all students to take tests in-person, as testing security rules required.

Hawaii

Lihue: More than 200 people gathered on Kauai last week to show support for reopening tourism on the island amid the pandemic. The group outside Vidinha Stadium on Wednesday primarily consisted of business owners, The Garden Island reports. Attendees said they wanted to express concerns to county and state officials about the continued economic impact of restrictions on tourism. Kauai requires visitors to take part in the Safe Travels Hawaii pre-travel testing program. Those who stay at a county-approved resort can bypass the state’s mandated 10-day quarantine with a negative coronavirus test taken after at least three days on the island. Cynthia Keener shared the struggles she and her husband have experienced under travel restrictions while trying to operate their business, Ohana Fishing Charters. “Just like many in the business community, we had a thriving growing business before COVID,” she said. “As a result of these policies, we have almost lost 100% of our revenue and acquired mountains of debt from government loans just to hang on.” Keener said there is “no transparency” from the Kauai County Council or the office of Mayor Derek Kawakami about future plans. “Keep me alive; (don’t) kill my dream. Don’t kill that,” said David Stewart, who owns a landscaping business he hopes to pass on to his children..

Idaho

Boise: A bill to outlaw demonstrating at a person’s residence headed to the full state House on Friday, after a series of demonstrations at the homes of officials and police officers spurred by frustration with restrictions on gatherings or mask-wearing mandates to slow coronavirus infections and deaths. The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee voted 11-4 to approve the bill backers say is needed to prevent mobs from trying to intimidate and even terrorize families in their homes. Backers say allowing the demonstrations will tear the social fabric by causing people to avoid public service or join police agencies. “When we turn the volume up this high on political discourse, we crowd out anybody not willing to be equally as confrontational, angry, loud or violent,” Republican Rep. Greg Chaney said. He is a co-sponsor of the legislation with Rep. Brooke Green, a Democrat from Boise. In the past year, “a new playbook has been written, and several groups of individuals across the spectrum used it to terrify families in their homes,” Green said. The public hearing drew so many people wanting to testify that comments were taken Wednesday and Friday. After Wednesday’s raucous hearing, torch- and pitchfork-wielding protesters gathered outside Chaney’s house that evening.

Illinois

Chicago: The state’s top doctor has vowed wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccine to residents but said it’ll take months for supply to meet demand. Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike’s comments in a weekend Chicago Tribune opinion piece come amid complaints of shortages and difficulties in obtaining appointments. A recent blast of winter weather also delayed shipments, leading to canceled appointments. “It will be months before our supply comfortably outpaces demand – an obstacle we always expected, and the very reason we have devoted so much time and thought to the phases of prioritization,” Ezike wrote. “Everyone deserves their turn to get the vaccine, and it’s my promise to Illinois that we will get there – as efficiently, quickly and equitably as we can.” Currently, health care workers, residents 65 and older, and essential workers are eligible in Illinois. State officials announced an expansion starting later this month to include people with underlying health conditions, but Chicago and other areas are delaying, citing a vaccine shortage. More than 2.1 million doses have been administered in Illinois, according to state officials. Overall, Illinois has reported more than 1.1 million COVID-19 cases and more than 20,000 deaths.

Indiana

Indianapolis: Legislators are supporting proposals that would permanently allow members of local government boards to participate virtually in public meetings. Similar bills approved by the state House and Senate would permit boards to adopt policies allowing members to vote virtually as long as they can be seen and heard. State and local government boards have generally been allowed to hold all-virtual meetings since Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an exemption to the current state law requiring in-person meetings last spring as part of COVID-19 public health measures. The proposals would require that at least half of board members attend public meetings in person and that members participate virtually in no more than half of the meetings except for limited reasons such as illness or military service. The House-passed version would require meetings with virtual participation to also allow the public to observe the meeting online starting in July, while the Senate version would delay that requirement until January 2023.

Iowa

Des Moines: Seventy-six of the state’s 82 critical-access hospitals ended the last fiscal year with negative operating margins, an IowaWatch analysis of their most recently reported financial data shows. Only six critical-access hospitals – facilities with 25 or fewer beds and designated by Congress as essential for rural communities – brought in more revenue from patient care than what they spent on providing that care, the data shows. “If you were vulnerable before this, you’re more vulnerable now,” said Kirk Norris, the Iowa Hospital Association’s president and CEO. The new data includes the distribution of federal stimulus money to stem revenue losses after the onset of COVID-19. Stimulus money helped 37 of the 50 hospitals ending their fiscal year in June 2020 to report net income, IowaWatch’s analysis showed. But COVID-19 clearly disrupted hospitals forced to switch from offering their main revenue producer – outpatient services – to focusing on patients with COVID-19 last spring. The Iowa Hospital Association reported last year that 17 hospitals already were at financial risk more than a year before COVID-19 hit the state. The association reported in December that Iowa hospitals, overall, lost an estimated $433 million in March through October because of COVID-19.

Kansas

Mission: Gov. Laura Kelly has announced plans to fix issues that have led the state to underreport the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19. Kansas’ vaccination rate consistently ranks among the lowest in the country, and Kelly has blamed technical problems with the tracking system, called KSWebIZ. As of Friday, 11.1% of the state’s population, or 456,093 people, had received at least the first of two required doses, state health data showed. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed the state had administered only 72% of 581,975 doses received, up from 60.2% a week ago. The state’s data showed that 78% of 581,975 doses had been administered. Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the state health department, said last week that 100,000 doses administered had not been registered as such because of system glitches. Kelly said in a statement released Thursday evening that the state is working on addressing underlying data transfer problems with KSWebIZ. In the meantime, providers are required starting Monday to report daily on the number of doses received, administered, in inventory and transferred.

Kentucky

Frankfort: The state is relaxing coronavirus-related restrictions at some of its long-term care facilities. Indoor visitation will resume at non-Medicare-certified facilities that have been through the COVID-19 vaccination process, Gov. Andy Beshear said. Group activities, communal dining and visitations among vaccinated residents will resume, he said. Included in the updated protocols are assisted living facilities, personal care homes, intermediate care facilities for people with intellectual disabilities and independent living centers, Beshear said. “It’s been a long journey, and it’s exciting to be able to relax some restrictions,” said state Cabinet for Health and Family Services inspector general Adam Mather. People will be expected to schedule their visits with the facility, and up to two visitors from the same household can visit a resident at one time, state officials said. Visitors will need to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of the visit. The new protocols took effect Saturday. Beshear said Friday that more than 550,000 Kentuckians had received at least one dose of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine.

Louisiana

New Orleans: The state is asking President Joe Biden’s administration to establish one of its planned federal COVID-19 vaccine sites at the New Orleans convention center, but state officials would like that site to come with extra doses of the shots rather than a reshuffling of current supply. Negotiations continue with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Key questions remain unanswered about how such a site could be financed and whether that would help Louisiana get new doses of the vaccine, said Dr. Joe Kanter, the top public health adviser to Gov. John Bel Edwards. Kanter said New Orleans is prepared to staff the vaccination site itself, working with LCMC Health, which operates six hospitals and urgent care centers in the region. But Kanter said the city “would like some financial reimbursement on it. And the doses would be important to all of us. So those are the two biggest things.” The Biden administration said it intends to open 100 federal vaccination sites by the end of the month in an effort to speed the immunizations. But governors and health officials around the country are mixed on the offer because they don’t necessarily need more places to administer the vaccine – just more doses overall.

Maine

Manchester: Pediatricians are reminding parents to get their children caught up on routine immunizations, which many students have missed during the coronavirus pandemic. The Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Thursday that a Blue Cross Blue Shield analysis found a 26% drop in vaccine doses last year. The analysis also found 40% of parents surveyed said their children missed shots because of the pandemic. The chapter called on parents to get in touch with their pediatricians to schedule visits to keep their children up to date. Data indicates adolescents in Maine are behind on vaccines for certain cancers, pertussis and meningitis, the organization said in a statement. The chapter said parents have delayed or skipped vaccination appointments because of fear of catching the coronavirus, economic hardship, and greater demands on their time and attention. Immunizations are required to attend school in Maine, and a new law goes into effect this year that takes away philosophical and religious exemptions.

Maryland

Annapolis: The state Senate voted Friday to expand a tax credit for low-income workers to include immigrants, including those living in the country illegally, who work and pay taxes in the state in a measure that adds to a broader pandemic relief initiative already enacted last week. The measure, now in the hands of the House of Delegates, is a follow-up to more than $1 billion in relief that passed with bipartisan support this month and was signed into law last Monday by Gov. Larry Hogan. The House had added the provisions but withdrew them over the Republican governor’s opposition. Democrats, who control the General Assembly, are moving forward now in separate legislation. The measure, which extends the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income residents to people who use individual taxpayer individual numbers rather than Social Security numbers, was approved 32-15, largely along party lines. Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll County, noted that the measure would cost about $60 million in each of the next three years. But supporters say the workers covered under the measure pay more than $100 million in taxes annually without being eligible for most tax credits or public assistance programs.

Massachusetts

Boston: The medical director of the city agency coordinating Boston’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been working remotely from Hawaii for several months, and even though she has permission to do so, some critics say it may hinder her effectiveness. Dr. Jennifer Lo relocated with her family in November with approval from Rita Nieves, the Boston Public Health Commission’s executive director, NBC10 Boston reports. Since then, the city has had to deal with a post-holiday surge in cases and the vaccine rollout. As medical director, Lo’s job is to advise the commission on medical policy issues. Lo, in an email to the station, said she and her husband made “the difficult decision” to temporarily relocate to Hawaii for personal reasons, including to take care of two sets of aging parents. She said plans on returning to Massachusetts this summer. She offered to resign, but the commission “determined I would be able to effectively continue my work remotely while maintaining the same level of responsibilities required in this role,” she wrote. Nieves said she consulted with other city leaders before approving Lo’s work arrangement. She said it took about a year to fill the position the last time it opened, and she didn’t want to risk being without a medical director during an emergency.

Michigan

Lansing: A $2.5 million federal grant will be used to address health care staffing shortages in the state’s rural communities. Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said the grant will support the addition of more than 430 new health care workers over the next four years. The agency will lead MiREACH, a network of employer-led collaboratives, to identify targeted health care occupations based on employer demand and feedback. The grant program aims to help individuals gain the skills necessary to provide needed services, fill vacancies and allow employers to find skilled workers more readily. The coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for health care workers, particularly in rural areas, according to the state.

Minnesota

Minneapolis: Public school enrollment in the state dropped by about 17,000 students as families turned to home schooling, private schools and delaying entry into kindergarten amid the coronavirus pandemic, education officials announced Friday. The enrollment figures from the Minnesota Department of Education represented a 2% drop from the previous year. The state allocates school funding based on enrollment, and districts stand to lose about $10,164 for every student they failed to keep. Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed education budget includes $25 million in one-time money to compensate. “COVID-19 has already robbed our students of so many milestones that make school memorable,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said in a statement. “Now, our schools are potentially facing a huge loss in funding and resources, which will mean schools faced with eliminating learning opportunities and experiences for our students, especially students who need them most.” The “vast majority” of the decline in public school enrollment was among white students, the department said. It said the change was driven mostly by younger students, with public kindergarten enrollment dropping 9% even as private kindergarten enrollment rose 12.4%. And 49.5% more students were home-schooled.

Mississippi

McComb: Neither rain, snow nor waterless pipes could prevent Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center from helping patients in need, as employees carried buckets of water drawn from a well to clean and sanitize during the city’s water crisis last week. The hospital’s clinics closed ahead of the winter weather and remained closed when the water shortage hit. “Water is for sure vital to the operation of the hospital,” hospital CEO?Charla Rowley said, noting that cleaning and sanitation is impossible without it and that many operations in the hospital could not function either. She said she was proud of the hard work of the maintenance staff for keeping the hospital operating during the storm and outage, noting that the dietary department also played a huge role in the hospital’s operations. With the closure of clinics and the cancellation of elective surgeries, Rowley said the hospital has taken a half-million-dollar hit a day, which could come back with some serious repercussions in the long run. “We have had tornadoes, hurricanes, COVID and now this freeze,”?she said. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin Richardson said the lack of water could not stop the hospital from serving the community. “Mother Nature’s challenges were not enough to dampen the grit of our front-line providers,” he said.

Missouri

St. Louis: The city’s NAACP chapter filed federal civil rights complaints against the state over the lack of COVID-19 vaccinations for prisoners. No Missouri prisoners had been inoculated, a state corrections department spokeswoman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday. The St. Louis NAACP filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division over the lack of vaccinations, the chapter president said in a Thursday news release. “While we are well aware that the CDC makes recommendations with respect to who should be offered COVID-19 vaccine first, and each state has its own plan for deciding who will be vaccinated first and how they can receive vaccines; that ‘Does Not’ exempt the State from long-standing civil rights nondiscrimination requirements when utilizing Federal assistance,” St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt said in a statement, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said about 8,000 Missouri inmates, or roughly a third of the total imprisoned population, now qualify for the vaccine. Of those, 6,000 said they would like to be vaccinated.

Montana

Great Falls: Cascade County residents ages 16-69 with underlying health conditions are now eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccination appointments. People eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1B include people 70 and older, people 16-69 with qualifying health conditions, and Native Americans and other people of color. Qualifying health conditions in Phase 1B include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Down syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised state from solid organ transplant, severe obesity, sickle cell disease, diabetes and other conditions on a case-by-case basis determined by medical providers. Proof of medical conditions is not required to make an appointment. As of Friday, 12,749 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Cascade County, and 3,514 residents had been fully immunized, meaning they had received both doses. For more information and to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, visit www.benefis.org/COVIDvaccine.

Nebraska

Omaha: Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday defended the state’s decision to prioritize the elderly for vaccination shots over people with underlying health conditions, noting that most residents who have died so far were at least 65 years old. Ricketts’ administration amended its COVID-19 vaccination plan last week. People who have cancer, diabetes and other major health problems were previously eligible in the current phase of the state’s vaccination plan, but they were removed from their spot on the list so health officials could focus on older residents. Essential workers such as first responders, teachers and corrections employees also qualify, but state officials have ordered local public health districts and pharmacies to give at least 90% of their available doses to senior citizens. Approximately 82% of the 2,043 people who have died from the coronavirus in Nebraska were at least 65 years old, according to the state’s online tracking portal. Age isn’t the only risk factor, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people with ailments such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, heart disease or obesity are at greater risk of getting severely ill. Ricketts said giving too many of the state’s limited doses to people besides seniors is a “less efficient” approach.

Nevada

Carson City: Restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the Legislature have changed the nature of lobbying and raised new questions about how to regulate it. Public access to the legislative building has been restricted since lawmakers reconvened Feb. 1, leaving the normally bustling corridors empty aside from staff and reporters. But that hasn’t stopped advocates from pursuing their usual work, lobbying for and against the hundreds of bills that have already been introduced. Unlike other states, Nevada’s Lobbying Disclosure and Regulation Act only requires lobbyists to register if they lobby in person. With the building closed, no lobbyists have registered since lawmakers reconvened three weeks ago. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Assemblywoman Brittney Miller introduced a bill last week that would require lobbyists to register whether they advocate on behalf of their clients in person or remotely. Many lobbyists say they support the bill. But Melissa Clement of Nevada Right to Life and three other lobbyists for conservative groups and causes filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming the closure of the legislative building violates their First Amendment right to petition government.

New Hampshire

Concord: A federal judge heard arguments Friday on whether medically vulnerable lawmakers should be given remote access to state House sessions this week or whether separate entrances for Democrats and Republicans and other safety measures would suffice. Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week, arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions. It also forces them to choose between risking their lives and not performing their duties as elected officials, attorney Paul Twomey said at a hearing Friday. If all 28 lawmakers with medical disabilities stayed home, nearly 100,000 residents across the state would lose representation, he said. Republican House leaders have said fully remote sessions are not possible because no rules exist to allow them, while blocking attempts to create such rules. But the Senate has been meeting remotely without an explicit rule, and the House has been holding “hybrid” committee hearings that allow for remote participation. Judge Landya McCafferty gave the parties more time to provide more background material.

New Jersey

Newark: As debate mounts over how to reopen schools during the pandemic, some parents are taking to federal court, arguing that their children’s struggles with remote learning represent a violation of constitutional rights. The South Orange and Maplewood district joined the legal parade late last month, with parents asking a judge to end nearly a year of online-only instruction for its 7,000 students. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Newark stood out not only for its wrenching stories of students slipping behind as they study in isolation but also for the full-scale reversal it seeks: Parents asked the court to force the K-12 district for both towns, known locally as SOMA, to resume full-day classes, five days a week. The “arbitrary” closures during the pandemic violate students’ constitutional rights and have wreaked havoc on their psyches and academic performance, the lawsuit says. Two parents said their 7-year-old has struggled with digital lessons and “often says he is ‘stupid’ and ‘the dumbest kid in the class.’ ” But two Rutgers University law professors questioned whether the heartbreaking anecdotes will be enough to convince the courts that constitutional violations had occurred or that a judge should overrule local officials.

New Mexico

Santa Fe: Legislators are sprinting amid the pandemic to come up with a framework for regulating and taxing recreational marijuana after voters ousted key opponents of pot legalization in 2020 elections. Four Democrat-backed proposals with a social-justice bent are competing for traction at the Legislature, along with a Republican proposal aimed at stamping out the illicit pot market. The Legislature has until March 20 to send a cannabis bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an enthusiastic backer of marijuana as a tool of economic development and fiscal security for the state. The primary election in 2020 unseated several staunch legalization opponents, including the former top-ranked Senate Democrat. The New Mexico Constitution doesn’t allow for ballot initiatives, leaving cannabis legalization to the legislative process. A House panel last Monday advanced a bill that places an emphasis on economic and social issues by subsidizing medical marijuana for poor patients, underwriting grants for communities affected by drug criminalization, and expunging convictions for cannabis use and possession. Senate committees are poised to vet at least three separate proposals. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, an arbitration attorney by trade, said he’s eager to bring a compromise bill to the floor.

New York

New York: The city’s restaurants will be allowed to serve more customers indoors starting this Friday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced late last week that New York City indoor dining will be able to expand from 25% capacity to 35% capacity – in line with New Jersey’s current limit. His announcement came as the state sees a continued drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations. The rate of New Yorkers testing positive for the coronavirus has fallen to the lowest mark since before Thanksgiving, state officials said Saturday. Cuomo said the state’s seven-day rolling average positivity rate had fallen 43 straight days, hitting 3.5% on Friday. The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus, meanwhile, fell below 6,000 for the first time since Dec. 14. The state said 97 New Yorkers died of the coronavirus Friday, bringing the state’s official death total to 37,776. Cuomo asked New Yorkers to remain patient with vaccinations, as the state’s distribution network and population of eligible recipients – 10 million – continues to far exceed supply coming from the federal government. The state now has the resources to vaccinate up to 100,000 New Yorkers every day, he said, but not nearly enough vaccines to do so.

North Carolina

Raleigh: President Joe Biden’s administration told the state Friday afternoon that it will see further delays in shipments of COVID-19 vaccine doses. North Carolina public health officials said they now expect more deliveries of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to resume at the start of the week. The state health department also warned that some providers may choose not to go forward with plans to vaccinate teachers and school staff once eligibility opens up to that group Wednesday. Severe winter weather has fueled delays across the country, causing tens of thousands of North Carolinians scheduled to be vaccinated last week to have their appointments pushed back. “What we are being informed by Operation Warp Speed is that shipments are being held by the producers and distributors until they are sure shipments won’t be delayed,” the department said in a statement. “To our knowledge, operations are being planned to help ensure spoilage isn’t an issue.” The delay could affect North Carolina’s transition to its third phase of vaccine distribution, which expands eligibility Wednesday to child care workers, pre-K-12 educators and school staff. A far more expansive group of “front-line essential workers” ranging from mail carriers to elected officials is scheduled to become eligible starting March 10.

North Dakota

Bismarck: Visitation to the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction fell last year, but it wasn’t all because of the coronavirus pandemic. Theodore Roosevelt National Park saw about 558,000 visitors in 2020, the fewest since 2013. Visitation fell 20% from 2019, but some months last year spiked substantially over the previous year – including December, which saw a 173% jump. Visitation is measured in an algorithm counting people who stop in visitor centers combined with an average of people in vehicles. Park Superintendent Wendy Ross said she sees “so many variables, especially this past year.” “I don’t put much stock in the fact that we were down 20%; in fact, I’m a little surprised we weren’t down more, but it was a very busy year. It felt like a ‘normal’ year,” Ross said. Annual visitation averaged about 700,000 people from 2015 to 2019. The emerging pandemic and reduced oil and gas activity likely brought more people to the park in February, March and April, according to Ross. Visitation in February and March leapt 253% and 106%, respectively, over the same months in 2019, The Bismarck Tribune reports.

Ohio

Columbus: Legislative testimony made Wednesday in support of a GOP-backed effort to limit public health orders made by the governor was removed from YouTube after the service deemed it contained COVID-19 misinformation. The Google-owned platform said it removed content that was uploaded last week to the Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom channel for violating the company’s terms of services. The video showed Thomas Renz, an attorney for Ohio Stands Up, a citizen group, making the opening testimony during a House committee hearing on a bill that would allow lawmakers to vote down public health orders during the pandemic. In the more than 30-minute testimony, Renz made a number of debunked or baseless claims, including that no Ohioans under the age of 19 have died from COVID-19 – a claim that has been debunked by state data. “We have clear Community Guidelines that govern what videos may stay on YouTube, which we enforce consistently, regardless of speaker,” said Ivy Choi, a spokesperson for Google. “We removed this video in accordance with our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content that claims a certain age group cannot transmit the virus.”

Oklahoma

Oklahoma City: More than 681,000 Oklahomans have now received COVID-19 vaccine shots, including more than 204,000 who have received both required doses, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The state ranked 12th in the nation Saturday with 14.3% of the population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and the state health department scheduled vaccination clinics over the weekend to replace those canceled because of a winter storm. There have been a reported 418,318 total coronavirus cases and 4,155 deaths due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, increases of 973 cases and 23 deaths since Friday, according to the health department. The seven-day rolling average of new cases in the state has fallen below 1,000 in the past two weeks, dropping from 2,215.7 per day to 932.4, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling average of deaths declined from 34.1 per day to 24.7 during the same period.

Oregon

Portland: Despite historic winter weather across the country causing shipment delays and forcing mass vaccination sites to reschedule appointments, health officials said Friday that the state’s vaccination timeline remains on schedule. While more than 10,000 vaccine appointments were canceled earlier this month, beginning Monday people 70 and older will be eligible to receive doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and people 65 and older will be eligible March 1. “I want to reassure every Oregon senior – nothing that’s happened in the past week will slow down our schedule,” Pat Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, said during a news conference Friday. “It seems like every season brings a new test on top of the pandemic. Oregon’s vaccination clinics were no exception.” However, health officials said they do not expect that “these problems will have a long-term impact on our vaccination schedule.” During the past week, Oregon averaged more than 14,000 vaccinations per day. As of Thursday, 12% of the state’s population has been vaccinated with first doses, and 5% of residents had been fully vaccinated.

Pennsylvania

Harrisburg: The state Department of Health announced a change Friday in its vaccine distribution plan that aims to ramp up the number of COVID-19 inoculations by distributing more doses to large hospitals and removing smaller physician practices and clinics from the provider list altogether. Tried-and-true distribution methods in Pennsylvania are insufficient for vaccines that require subzero transportation and storage temperatures and require people to come back for a second dose. Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said the four groups handling distribution going forward would be hospitals, federally qualified health centers, county health departments and pharmacies. Primary care doctors, long the mainstay of vaccination efforts, are being left out and left in the dark when it comes to battling the coronavirus, said Dr. Tracey Conti, a physician and president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians. They have no information for the patients calling daily with pleas for the vaccine. Yet they believe their involvement is essential to counter the misinformation that could undermine the whole effort. “People would rather get vaccinated by their doctor,” Conti said. “It’s not clear they’ll accept it from anyone else.”

Rhode Island

Providence: As part of the state’s plan to get vaccines to residents who cannot leave their homes, health officials on Friday launched a website to gather information about the housebound. The site does not allow people to sign up for a vaccination appointment – it is simply to collect information for planning purposes, the Department of Health said in a statement. The information in most cases is already being provided by cities and towns and home health agencies, but the state wants to make sure everyone limited to their homes is covered. Health care providers or family members can help fill out the form, the agency said. The state has been vaccinating residents 75 and older, and starting Monday, people 65 and older are eligible to make appointments. Also, the number of retail pharmacies in the state offering the vaccine will increase significantly by the end of the week, the agency said. CVS should be vaccinating at 14 locations, up from the current seven, while Walgreens should be vaccinating at 24 locations, up from the current 15. Nearly 127,000 people have received a vaccine first dose in Rhode Island, while 57,000 people have been fully vaccinated, according to health department data released Friday.

South Carolina

Columbia: The leader of the state agency that provides services for people with disabilities has been fired without explanation. After meeting privately and with no discussion Thursday, the board of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs voted 5-1 to immediately fire Director Mary Poole, The Post and Courier of Charleston reports. She had been at the agency for less than three years and made $171,400. Commissioner David Thomas of Greenville made the motion to dismiss Poole. A former state senator, Thomas told the newspaper he couldn’t say why she was fired because it was a personnel issue. He said Poole’s firing is for the good of the agency and hopefully will lead to the agency serving more people and serving them better. Poole said she has worked honestly and diligently for more than 30 years with people with disabilities and was not given an opportunity to discuss with the board any concerns with her work. “We found and corrected many long-standing and significant issues within the agency and provider network,” Poole said in a statement. “My only regret is that these efforts were cut short with so much work left to be done.” When Poole was hired in mid-2018, the department was suffering from years of abuse allegations with its providers, financial problems and long waiting lists.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: State health officials said Sunday that the number of hospitalizations due to the coronavirus continues to fall, although a virus research group ranks the state among the top 10 for the number of deaths relative to population. The state reported 140 new cases and four new deaths in the past day, raising the totals to 111,309 known cases and 1,863 fatalities since the start of the pandemic. The COVID Tracking Project ranks South Dakota seventh in the country in the number of deaths per capita. The update showed that the number of hospitalizations fell from 95 to 90. Of those patients, 17 were being treated in intensive care units, and nine required ventilators. There were about 230 new cases per 100,000 people in South Dakota over the past two weeks, which ranks 38th in the country for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. One in every 919 people in South Dakota tested positive in the past week.

Tennessee

Nashville: Residents bought more guns in 2020 than ever before, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found. The state law enforcement agency found 740,580 gun transactions were performed last year, a 53% jump compared to 2019. Tennessee outpaced the national average in gun purchases, which saw about a 40% increase. TBI personnel track gun purchases and perform background checks on prospective gun buyers. Pam Beck, assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, pointed to four main causes in the spike of firearms purchases: the coronavirus pandemic, talks of defunding the police, bouts of civil unrest and the 2020 election. “People feel like they have to protect themselves,” she said. According to data provided by TBI, the state saw the biggest jump in gun purchases in March, when residents purchased more than 77,000 firearms. This came at the start of the pandemic, when the first coronavirus case was discovered in Tennessee and when then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of the virus. Some states began announcing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, and grocery store shelves emptied as panic buying ensued.

Texas

Austin: The number of COVID-19 deaths across the state increased by more than 200 on Saturday, while the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus declined, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There were an additional 227 COVID-19 deaths, more than 4,900 new cases and 7,535 hospitalizations, a decline of 222 people hospitalized, the department reported. Texas has recorded more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began and more than 42,000 deaths due to COVID-19, the third-highest death count in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling average of new cases has fallen from nearly 18,980 per day to nearly 5,041, and the average of daily deaths has dropped from 305.7 per day to 127.3, according to the Johns Hopkins data. During the past two weeks, the rolling average of daily new cases in Texas has fallen by 13,849.3, a decrease of 74.7%, according to the Johns Hopkins figures.

Utah

Salt Lake City: Utah State Parks has reported park visitation increased by 2.6 million between 2019 and 2020 despite safety restrictions implemented during the coronavirus pandemic. “Our state parks saw elevated visitation numbers throughout the traditional summer season,” Utah Division of Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Rasmussen said. “Not only that, but record-breaking visitation continued into the fall and winter and has not tapered off like it normally does.” The agency reported that the 44 parks across the state recorded 10.6 million visitors combined last year compared to the 8 million recorded in 2019, according to KSTU-TV. Officials said popular boating and off-highway vehicle areas statewide also saw increase use. Park officials announced in April last year that many state parks would reopen after weeks of being restricted to in-county residents to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some stayed closed based on local public health orders. “We never closed our doors to the public. While there was a time when visitation was restricted due to local health orders, we were always open,” Rasmussen said. Utah State Parks expects visitation to remain high this year as people continue to find outdoor spaces to escape during the pandemic.

Vermont

Montpelier: The state is easing travel restrictions for Vermonters and visitors who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 starting this week, Gov. Phil Scott announced Friday. Two weeks after receiving their second dose of the vaccine, Vermonters do not have to quarantine after travel starting Tuesday, Scott said during his twice-weekly virus briefing. Out-of-state visitors also are exempt from quarantining if they can prove they have been fully vaccinated. “Of course they’ll still need to comply with all our other health guidance like masking and distancing,” Scott said. The state is also easing restrictions for fully vaccinated residents of long-term care facilities in areas where there are no current outbreaks beginning this Friday. The state is encouraging full vaccination status as a factor in planning for activities, such as eating together and participating in other group activities, and for having indoor visitors, said Human Services Secretary Mike Smith. Residents of all skilled nursing facilities have received the second dose of the vaccine, Smith said. A total of 93% of residents of all skilled nursing, assisted living and residential care facilities have gotten their first dose, and 74% have received their second dose, he said.

Virginia

Richmond: Lawmakers have passed bills that allow certain first responders to file workers’ compensation benefits for being disabled from COVID-19, but legislators still need to reach agreement on some differences. The measures would make COVID-19 an occupational disease for firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, and law enforcement or correctional officers and allow these individuals to file for workers’ compensation benefits. The workers’ dependents also would be eligible for benefits if the workers die from COVID-19. Occupational diseases arise out of and in the course of employment, according to state law, and include hepatitis, meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis or HIV. Senate Bill 1375, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 2207, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D- Norfolk, had mostly unanimous support. The main difference is that the House bill would extend the compensation to regional jail officers. The Senate also rejected an amendment by the House that would allow compensation for cases going back to March 2020. The bills would apply to persons diagnosed with COVID-19 on or after July 1 whose death or disability from COVID-19 occurred on or after that same date, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, said in an email.

Washington

Olympia: More than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding will be allocated across the state under a measure signed into law Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee. The legislation, which received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate this month, spends $2.2 billion on various efforts, including vaccine administration, rental assistance and money for school districts. “The focus this year is relief, recovery and resilience, and this legislation will make big progress in all three,” Inslee said before signing the bill. It stipulates that $714 million will be allocated to schools as they move toward welcoming students back to the classroom. An additional $618 million will go toward vaccine administration, contact tracing and testing, and $365 million will go toward rental assistance to help renters and landlords affected by the pandemic. The bill also allocates $240 million to small-business assistance grants that will be administered through the state Department of Commerce and $70 million to assist undocumented immigrants affected by the pandemic who do not qualify for federal or state assistance. An additional $50 million is for grants to help child care businesses stay open and expand capacity, and $26 million is for food assistance.

West Virginia

Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the loosening of pandemic restrictions on businesses after a decline in coronavirus deaths and cases, and he sought the return of all elementary and middle school students to in-person learning. In a flurry of announcements, the governor on Friday said small businesses and grocery stores can double their allowed capacity, and the limit on social gatherings will go up from 25 to 75 people. Bars and restaurants can allow 75% of seating capacity, up from 50%, if social distancing is possible. Hours later, the state health department announced that the first three cases of the coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom have been detected in West Virginia. It is among one of three variants already found in other states that researchers believe may spread more easily. “While the presence of this COVID-19 variant in West Virginia is not surprising, it’s a good motivator for us to double down on the prevention efforts we’ve had in place for many months now,” Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said in a statement. Justice said all teachers and school workers over age 50 who accepted the offer for a vaccine will be given their second doses this week. He said he is asking the State Board of Education to bring all students from kindergarten to eighth grade back to classrooms.

Wisconsin

Madison: The University of Wisconsin-Madison warned of a recent spike in coronavirus cases Friday, a day after a more contagious variant of the virus was detected in the county, and the university system’s president said he wanted students to attend nearly all classes in person this fall. The warning emailed to students, faculty and staff told of a “significant increase” in COVID-19 cases among students on and off campus. There were 112 newly confirmed cases reported Wednesday and 99 more Thursday, according to the email from Jake Baggott, the head of University Health Services. “Equally concerning, contact tracing suggests that many of the students who have tested positive had attended gatherings, sometimes without wearing masks,” Baggott said. The seven-day average of new cases both on and off campus was up 13.2%, according to the UW dashboard. Although no immediate mitigation steps were being taken on campus, Baggott said the university was preparing to take action if necessary. He said that could include limiting access to or temporarily closing recreational facilities; placing residence halls under quarantine; increasing testing frequency for students off campus; and directing students to stay at home except for attending class and work.

Wyoming

Cheyenne: National weather issues prevented some shipments of vaccines against COVID-19, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. WDH said last week that it was not expecting any Moderna vaccine doses to be delivered to Wyoming locations due to weather problems in other states. Wyoming was slated to receive 5,700 first doses and 3,700 second doses for its distribution process. Shipments to the Walmart locations involved in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program were also affected. “At this point, we are awaiting updates from our federal partners about next week’s shipments,” said Angie Van Houten, Community Health Section chief with WDH. More than 93,000 residents have received their first dose so far when state and special federal counts are combined. Each of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines requires two doses for maximum effectiveness. Because some of the affected vaccine shipments included second doses, Van Houten said individuals who are delayed in receiving their second dose can still receive the vaccine when it is available. “There will not be a need to ‘start over,’ ” she said.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

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