Montgomery: A state Senate committee has advanced a bill that would let the governor pick the state’s top public health official. The Senate Health Committee voted 8-3 on Wednesday to advance the bill by Sen. Jim McClendon to the Senate floor. McClendon, an optometrist, said the change would make the position more accountable to elected leaders. But two other doctors on the committee argued it is wrong to interject politics into public health decisions. The state health officer, a position currently held by Dr. Scott Harris, is selected by the state public health committee, which consists of members appointed by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. The bill does away with the position of state health officer and creates the Cabinet post of secretary of health, who would be appointed by the governor. The secretary would then appoint a chief medical officer. McClendon said the bill was not about Harris and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but debate on the bill comes at a time where there has been pushback against business closures and restrictions to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Two doctors on the Senate committee said the change would wrongly interject politics into health decisions.
Anchorage: The city will lift its coronavirus-related capacity restrictions on many businesses and ease limits on other places where people gather under a new emergency order set to take effect Monday. City officials announced the changes Thursday, saying retailers, bars, restaurants and other businesses will have their capacity restrictions eliminated, the Anchorage Daily News reports. Requirements for wearing masks and maintaining distance will remain in effect. The businesses must operate in ways that allow customers to stay 6 feet apart from people outside their households. Indoor gatherings with food and beverages will be allowed to have 25 people, while indoor gatherings without food or drinks can have up to 35 people. Previously, up to 10 were allowed with food or beverage around and up to 15 people without food or drinks. Outdoor gatherings with food and drink will be permitted to have up to 60 people, and the same gatherings without food or drink can have up to 100 people. That doubles the prior allowances. Entertainment venues such as theaters will be allowed to operate at full capacity as long as patrons wear masks. Groups of people must stay 6 feet apart. Gyms and fitness centers will have no capacity restrictions, but masks and social distancing will remain mandated.
Phoenix: Gov. Doug Ducey lifted capacity restrictions at gyms, restaurants and other businesses Friday, citing fewer COVID-19 cases and increased vaccination, as he eases up on the pandemic restrictions that have upended life for nearly a year. His order does not change mask mandates imposed by cities and counties, which remain in effect across most of the state. The decision to lift capacity restrictions applies to gyms, restaurants, theaters, water parks, bowling alleys and bars providing dine-in services. Ducey again ignored the guidance his own administration issued last year, which said those businesses should be closed altogether under the current “substantial” level of virus spread across most of Arizona. “Today’s announcement is a measured approach; we are not in the clear yet,” Ducey said in a statement. “We need to continue practicing personal responsibility. Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay home when you’re sick, and wash your hands frequently.” Dr. Cara Christ, the state Department of Health Services director, said some businesses will now be able to serve more people but still maintain the recommended distance of 6 feet apart. There will still be fewer people than normal in venues such as movie theaters and stadiums, she said. The move was met with opposition from most of the state’s big hospital chains.
Little Rock: Gov. Asa Hutchinson says residents will be required to wear masks in public through at least the end of the month, but health officials are developing criteria for when to lift the measure aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. In contrast to the swift rollbacks of mask mandates in the neighboring states of Texas and Mississippi, Hutchinson told “Fox News Sunday” that he loosened restrictions on businesses but wanted a gradual approach to face coverings. “I wanted to set a goal and give people hope that we can end the mask mandate if we get to these – this place and where we feel more comfortable that our hospitalizations are still down, and so we wanted an off-ramp; we didn’t want a cliff,” the Republican told anchor Chris Wallace. “I wanted an off-ramp.” Health experts say masking is among the most effective ways to curb transmission of COVID-19. The disease has been linked to nearly 5,300 deaths in Arkansas. On Saturday, state health officials reported 327 confirmed and probable cases of the coronavirus and 14 more deaths from it. There were 345 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Arkansas, 14 fewer than on Friday.
Sacramento: Public schools can tap into $6.6 billion in a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Friday to try to pressure districts to reopen classrooms by the end of March, but educators, parents and lawmakers question whether it will work. After nearly a year of distance learning for most K-12 students amid the pandemic, parents say they are frustrated and losing hope their children will see the inside of a classroom this year. “Is this money going to be a motivator? I don’t know,” said Dan Lee, a father in San Francisco, a city that sued its own school district to reopen classrooms. “We throw money at them; we sue them; we shame them. They still haven’t moved.” The state is dangling $2 billion before cash-strapped school boards, offering them a share only if they start offering in-person instruction by month’s end. The rest of the money would go toward helping students catch up. Teachers from some of the biggest districts have come out against it, saying schools can’t reopen until infection rates drop and enough educators have been vaccinated. Among them is the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles, whose members voted Friday to reject what they called an unsafe return. Last week, the union slammed the reopening plan as “a recipe for propagating structural racism” by benefiting wealthier, whiter areas with lower infection rates.
Greeley: A meatpacking plant that saw a deadly coronavirus outbreak last year suspended operations Friday so workers could receive COVID-19 vaccines on-site. Workers at the JBS USA-owned plant received their shots in a temporary clinic set up in a hallway, The Greeley Tribune reports. More employees were vaccinated Saturday in a partnership with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. The union said it expected as many as 350 people per hour to get shots. Six employees and a corporate supervisor at the plant died and 291 workers tested positive for the virus during an outbreak last year, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. JBS suspended operations in April to deep-clean the plant, install a new ventilation system and physical barriers on production lines, and enhance social distancing protocols. JBS also said the employees’ coronavirus infections were not work-related – a claim disputed by the union. In September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company more than $15,000 for failing to adequately protect its employees from the coronavirus. JBS objected to the fine and said OSHA was trying “to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance.”
Hartford: Coronavirus infections among students in prekindergarten through grade 12 across the state have dropped and leveled off after infection rates spiked to their highest levels of the school year in January. There were 467 new student infections from Feb. 25 to March 3, or 49 fewer than the previous week, according to the Department of Public Health. For the week that ended Jan. 13, there were more than 1,600 new infections. School staff infections also have declined substantially since mid-January but increased last week when 151 staff tested positive, up 18 from the previous week. There were 521 new staff infections during the week that ended Jan. 13. Only a small percentage of the more than 500,000 students and 50,000 educators in the state have contracted the virus. Both President Joe Biden and Gov. Ned Lamont have been pushing for schools to be open for in-person learning during the pandemic.
Dover: Inmates at state prisons will be able to receive visitors later this month as coronavirus cases among inmates and the population at large continue to drop. The Delaware Department of Corrections announced Friday that in-person visits can resume starting March 16. Those wishing to visit will be able to schedule appointments starting Monday. In-person visits were suspended in November as COVID-19 cases increased across the state and among inmates. The most recent report from the state shows that seven of its eight correctional facilities don’t have any active coronavirus cases among inmates. The Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington reported one symptomatic inmate and two who were asymptomatic.
District of Columbia
Washington: The capital’s first high-capacity COVID-19 vaccination site opened Saturday, WUSA-TV reports. The D.C. Health Department said it would distribute 2,500 vaccines in its first day at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Those who were able to book an appointment said it allowed them to breathe a sigh of relief after a long 12 months. “I’m just thrilled. I mean, it’s been a really tough year,” Michael Weinstein said before he entered the center to get his vaccine. “It just means the start of kind of coming back to some kind of normalcy,” Sarah Moody said as she waited to get her shot. It’s also the district’s first distribution site for the newest vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the one-dose version from Johnson & Johnson. D.C. Health Department Senior Deputy Director Patrick Ashley said the convention center vaccination site won’t be open every day but will be used whenever citywide vaccine supply levels allow. Many smaller vaccination sites across the district will continue to operate on a normal schedule. And two more high-capacity vaccination sites are scheduled to open in the district next weekend, Ashley said, at the Entertainment and Sports Arena and Providence Health System.
Daytona Beach: Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Daytona Beach’s annual Bike Week brought tens of thousands of motorcyclists to the city and its neighbors this weekend, with few wearing masks. The city made a bargain with its bars: 60% capacity indoors in return for the permits necessary for temporary outdoor sales and entertainment. The city is trying to avoid what happened at a South Dakota motorcycle rally in August, which led to a disputed number of infections around the country, ranging from several hundred to tens or hundreds of thousands. “I’m grateful to be open for Bike Week, grateful that the city allowed the vendors and the full Bike Week thing,” said Bobby Honeycutt, owner of Froggy’s Saloon, as the 10-day event began Friday. The bar is limited to 102 customers inside but is serving from tubs and bars outside. The Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, estimates 300,000 to 400,000 motorcyclists will attend. It typically draws 500,000. “We know it’s likely to be less just because of COVID concerns, as well as many still struggling to make ends meet due to loss of income from COVID,” said Janet Kersey, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Atlanta: The White House on Friday announced it will partner with Georgia to open a new mass vaccination center at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. The stadium will be capable of administering 42,000 doses of vaccine each week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. It will be open for seven days a week for an eight-week period. The site should be open in the next two weeks, federal officials said. Federal, state and local officials are now developing plans for operations at the site.
Honolulu: Sea Life Park reopened Saturday after being shut down for almost a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The park had been closed since March 17, 2020, and two-thirds of its staff was furloughed. The marine mammal park, bird sanctuary and aquarium will limit capacity, mandate masks, enforce social distancing and screen temperatures at the door. Sea Life Park will only be open on weekends during its initial phased opening. Park officials said they hope to return to a regular schedule by summer, Hawaii News Now reports. There will be a new insiders tour, reef and dolphin encounters, and table seating for a luau. “We’re really excited to make this back in again,” general manager Valerie King said. “We have a lot of new great programs starting up, including our new tours, our special animal shark tour. People can join us and see our new baby dolphin that was born during COVID.” The park said it would bring back employees and open more than a dozen positions. The jobs available include positions in customer service, housekeeping and food service.
Boise: Lawmakers in the state House have passed legislation that would require parents to opt in two weeks in advance before their kids can receive some sex education lessons in school. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, passed 56-12 on a party-line vote Friday and now goes to the Senate. If enacted, it would change the existing state law, which allows parents to opt out if they don’t want their child getting sex education lessons in school. Instead, parents who want their child to take part would have to give written permission two weeks before any lesson, discussion or reading assignment that involves human sexuality or topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Ehardt said her bill doesn’t change curriculum but encourages parental involvement in education decisions. “I’m just asking you to make sure that our parents are involved,” she told her fellow representatives. Opponents said the legislation would be challenging for teachers and parents, resulting in some kids missing out on sex education entirely because their parents miss the opportunity to sign permission slips two weeks before each lesson that touches in some way on human sexuality.
Chicago: The first case of the more infectious Brazil variant of the coronavirus in the state has been detected in a resident, public health officials say. Northwestern University researchers found the so-called P.1 variant in a test sample from a Chicagoan who came down with the disease, city and state health officials announced Friday. The infected person told contact tracers they hadn’t recently traveled outside Illinois. “We identified it through our research program following mutations in the virus over time in the Chicago area,” said Dr. Egon Ozer, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Northwestern and a Northwestern Medicine physician. The P.1 strain was first found in Brazilian travelers who arrived in Tokyo in early January. It appeared in Minnesota later that month and has since been identified in several other states. The Chicago Department of Public Health “is working to identify close contacts of the individual to reinforce the importance of adherence with quarantine and isolation measures,” health officials said in a statement. Evidence suggests that this variant can spread more easily than most currently circulating strains of the virus, health officials said. Variants from Great Britain and South Africa have previously been identified in Illinois.
Indianapolis: Gov. Eric Holcomb was jabbed with a COVID-19 vaccine shot when the state’s first mass vaccination clinic opened Friday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The governor was joined by Black elected officials who encouraged members of minority groups to put aside concerns and get vaccinated. Holcomb wore a mask and sat in the front passenger seat of an SUV while getting his shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the drive-thru clinic. Holcomb said his message to Indiana residents is: “Do it, just do it.” “This is going to help us beat COVID-19,” said Holcomb, a Republican. “The more, the faster.” The Indiana State Health Department said nearly 17,000 people snatched up four days of appointments at the speedway clinic from Friday through Monday. State officials are planning mass shot clinics for South Bend, Gary and Sellersburg during the next three weeks. Democratic U.S. Rep. Andre Carson and state Rep. Robin Shackleford, both Black and from Indianapolis, were among the officials joining the governor Friday. Shackleford, chairwoman of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said the vaccines are especially important for minority communities that have had higher rates of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. “We wouldn’t be out here unless we thought it was safe,” she said.
Des Moines: The state on Friday was among just 10 with a trend of more coronavirus cases as federal officials urged leaders to continue restrictions on mask-wearing and social distancing. The 14-day positivity rate showed Iowa was one of 10 states seeing an increase in confirmed virus cases, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate also has risen over the past two weeks from 14.15% on Feb. 18 to 19.37% on Thursday. Iowa’s increasing infection numbers come as Gov. Kim Reynolds has ended her orders requiring masks in public places and social distancing. Several other states have taken similar moves, leading President Joe Biden and health officials to criticize such steps and urge officials to retain restrictions for a few more months. Iowa public health officials reported 564 new confirmed cases and 13 additional deaths Friday, bringing the total number of deaths to 5,549. The state’s per capita death rate is 16th highest in the nation at 175.8 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins data. The most recent CDC data shows Iowa has received just over 1 million doses of vaccine and administered over 773,000. The CDC report said 6.5% of the population has received both doses for full immunization – the second-lowest rate in the nation.
Topeka: Slightly more than 15% of the state’s residents have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with white residents getting the shots at higher rates, according to health department data released Friday. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported on its website that 439,127 people have been vaccinated, with 658,459 doses of the vaccines administered so far, including 219,306 second doses. A racial breakdown shows that 311,948 people who got the shots were white, a rate of about 124 per 1,000. That compares to the 9,781 Black Kansans who have been vaccinated, a rate slightly below 55 per 1,000. A breakdown of people vaccinated by ethnicity shows 324,827 who self-identified as not Hispanic received the vaccine, a rate of more than 127 per 1,000. That compares with 27,023 Hispanic Kansans who got the vaccine, a rate of nearly 76 per 1,000. Health officials also updated the state’s coronavirus count Friday with 752 new cases added since Wednesday, bringing the total to 295,861 since the start of the pandemic. No new deaths were added to the state’s death toll 4,812.
Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear on Saturday announced the creation of a fund to develop a permanent monument for the state’s COVID-19 victims. Beshear made the announcement during a memorial service commemorating the one-year anniversary of Kentucky’s first COVID-19 case. It was held in front of the Capitol, where the lawn was covered in small American flags, one for each of the 4,754 Kentuckians who have died from the coronavirus. “We must never become numb to what these represent or the staggering number of flags,” Beshear said. Those who died were “unique and irreplaceable human beings.” Several family members of victims spoke about those they have lost, often tearing up as they recounted the lives of firefighters, pastors and school workers killed by the virus. Beshear said this anniversary is also one of hope, with the state now vaccinating tens of thousands of people each day. All qualified adults who want to be vaccinated should be able to get a vaccine by the end of May, he said. “There will be no unknown soldier in this battle against COVID,” the Democratic governor said.
New Orleans: The state is launching a new $161 million program to aid renters and landlords affected by the pandemic, the governor’s office said Friday. Money for the new program comes from the state’s share of $25 billion for rental assistance included in a coronavirus relief package passed by Congress late last year. The governor’s office said the money has been allocated for relief to 57 Louisiana parishes. Seven parishes – Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Lafayette, Orleans and St. Tammany – are getting relief directly from the U.S. Treasury. The director of the state’s Louisiana Housing Corporation said Friday that lessons learned in running a $24 million rental assistance program will help the LHC do a better, more efficient job of getting the money from the new program to tenants and landlords. That program was announced in July but stopped accepting applications within a few days due to high demand. As of Friday, LHC Executive Director Keith Cunningham said, the 956 applications had been funded with $2.3 million. In a Friday interview, Cunningham said some 7,000 people whose applications were approved pending additional documentation in the first program will be given priority in the newly launched program.
Augusta: The state is increasing capacity for indoor and outdoor gatherings and easing travel restrictions on other New England states in anticipation of the summer tourism season. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said Friday that Maine will raise indoor capacity limits to 50% on March 26 and 75% on May 24. Outdoor gatherings will increase to 75% on March 26 and 100% on May 24, she said. The state had been using a harder cap to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, allowing 50 people indoors, 100 people outdoors or five people per 1,000 square feet. Mills said the state is also adding Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island to its list of states whose visitors do not need to quarantine or produce a negative coronavirus test upon arriving in Maine. The list previously included Vermont and New Hampshire. She said the moves reflect the state’s success in controlling the spread of the coronavirus and were made in anticipation of spring and summer visitors from out of state. “We’re reopening Maine. Maine is open. You’re welcome to come here and enjoy our beaches and mountains in the coming months,” Mills said. She said the capacity rules can be made more strict if the state’s public health metrics require it.
Baltimore: Strippers are back to the grind after the city lifted a pandemic-related shutdown of gentlemen’s clubs. City strip clubs were allowed to reopen Friday after a prolonged closure of nearly three months. The city’s order allowing strip clubs to resume operations came in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the clubs. They argued that the city had been discriminating against them because other indoor venues were allowed to reopen while clubs had remained closed. The Baltimore Sun reports dancers wore masks and maintained distance during performances their first night back at the Penthouse Club. Patrons had their temperatures taken and signed in via a contact sheet to facilitate tracing if a coronavirus case is reported. Mayor Brandon Scott has said he will enforce regulations to ensure the clubs follow health guidelines.
Boston: State education officials on Friday postponed this spring’s standardized testing that would have clashed with plans to bring most students back to the classroom after nearly a year of remote and hybrid learning. Instead of starting April 5, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing for grades three through five is being moved to May 10 to June 11, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in an email to school districts. Testing dates for grades six through eight are yet to be determined. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said he would take a phased-in approach to reopening schools full time, starting with elementary schools in April. “We want to get kids back to school in a regular routine before they are assessed,” said Colleen Quinn, a state education spokesperson. The state already announced in January that this year’s test would be shorter for students in grades three to eight and that the competency determination for seniors would be modified. The state previously announced it also was planning to significantly reduce the length of the tests for this spring. Merrie Najimy, president of the 116,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, said Friday that MCAS testing should be canceled entirely this year.
Detroit: The city turned down 6,200 doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine last week, favoring shots from Pfizer and Moderna, but said Friday that it will accept J&J doses in the state’s next allocation. Mayor Mike Duggan had said Thursday that residents should get the “best” vaccines – from Moderna and Pfizer – conflicting with guidance from top state and federal health officials who caution against comparing the three vaccines and note all provide strong protection against the worst outcomes. Duggan had also said the allotment of 29,000 Pfizer and Moderna doses “covered everyone who wanted a vaccination this week.” On Friday, he called J&J vaccines “a key part of our expansion of vaccine centers.” No other local health department declined any of the 82,700 J&J shots sent to Michigan last week, the state health department said. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said earlier in the week that people who are offered the J&J vaccine should “take it because declining … could be the difference between life and death.” In a statement Friday, she cited differences in when and where each company conducted its studies, with the Moderna and Pfizer research finished before concerning variants began spreading.
St. Paul: Data from the state Department of Health shows nearly 91% of Minnesotans who have received the COVID-19 vaccine are white, whereas U.S. census data shows white residents make up about 82% of the state’s population. The latest vaccine data released Friday shows about 3.5% of those vaccinated in Minnesota are Black, 3% are Asian, and 1.7% are Hispanic. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports the figures only account for about 83% of those who’ve received a shot. Minnesota has been trying to distribute vaccines equitably, but efforts have been hard to track because state laws restrict how demographic information can be collected and distributed. Gov. Tim Walz announced Friday that the state will partner with Minnesota Electronic Health Record Consortium to track vaccinations by race and ethnicity. Health officials reported Saturday that more than 1 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including 61.7% of residents age 65 and up. A total of 543,696 people completed the full two-dose series. Walz also announced Saturday that nearly 55% of educators, school staff and child care providers have received a vaccine.
Jackson: White House officials publicly chastised the state’s move to repeal its mask mandate last week, calling the decision a big mistake and ill-advised, but Gov. Tate Reeves pushed back, saying he thought that “we should trust Americans, not insult them.” Reeves had pointed to whittling numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, filled intensive care beds and people on ventilators in pulling back on a statewide mandate Tuesday, but President Joe Biden countered Wednesday that “I hope everybody has realized by now these masks make a difference.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert, also admonished states’ mask mandate repeals Wednesday, saying decisions by Reeves and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are “really risky” and pointing to the plateau of case counts. “That’s a dangerous sign because when that has happened in the past, when you pull back on measures of public health, invariably you’ve seen a surge back up,” Fauci said. The country is close to having enough vaccines for every American, Biden said, but “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that ‘in the meantime everything is fine. Take off the mask. Forget it.’ It still matters.” Reeves responded Wednesday on Twitter to Biden’s rebuke, saying it’s up to Mississippians to “assess their choices and listen to experts.”
O’Fallon: Medical researchers in St. Louis are trying to determine why a small percentage of children and young adults who test positive for the coronavirus develop a life-threatening condition that can cause severe inflammation of the heart, brain and other organs, university officials said Friday. Washington University pediatric specialists are part of a research team led by the National Institutes of Health investigating how the virus affects children and young adults up to age 21, who account for about 13% of infections in the U.S. Most children and young people survive the coronavirus without serious illness. But researchers at Washington University want to know why some, weeks after infection, develop a condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, which causes inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes and gastrointestinal organs. Most survive, but researchers say the long-term effects are unknown. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to get MIS-C, according to researchers. “While MIS-C is rare, it is worrisome because most children hospitalized with the condition were healthy just a few weeks before,” Dr. Charles Canter, a Washington University professor of pediatrics who is leading the investigation, said in a news release.
Helena: Educators in the state will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines this week through a federal partnership with pharmacies, local health officials confirmed Friday. President Joe Biden announced the program last week, with the goal of vaccinating all teachers and child care staff by the end of March. The federal vaccine program is open to Montana educators even as the state has not made its vaccine allotment available to teachers. Montana was one of at least a dozen states that had not prioritized teachers as of Biden’s announcement. In Missoula County, vaccines will be available to all teachers through Granite Pharmacy, the Missoulian reports. Chuck Council, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the scope of the program remains “unclear” – including the total number of vaccines available in Montana through the federal program and the specific pharmacies participating. Also this week, residents 60 and older and those with chronic health conditions will become eligible for the vaccine. Previously, those 70 and older or with severe health conditions were eligible. Front-line essential workers are not yet eligible for the vaccine, with the exception of health care workers.
Lincoln: Early in the pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts delivered a simple message to Nebraskans to try to keep the coronavirus from spreading: If you want to see Husker football in the fall, you had better comply with social distancing measures. The warning fell a bit short, as Nebraska was forced to play its home games in a mostly empty Memorial Stadium. But now, a year after the state’s first known coronavirus case, Ricketts said he’s increasingly confident fans will be able to see those games in person later this year. “I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ricketts said in an Associated Press interview. “We’re just asking for people’s patience, to hang with us for a few more months to get through this. But by the second half of the year, we’ll be starting to get back to normal.” Ricketts pointed to the state’s ramped-up testing and vaccination efforts. More than 11% of residents who are at least 16 years old have been vaccinated so far, placing Nebraska in the middle of the pack among states. Officials have said they expect to get more vaccine doses in the coming months and should be able to vaccinate the general public by late April or early May.
Las Vegas: Gov. Steve Sisolak is marking a year since COVID-19 was detected in the state as a “somber milestone and anniversary” but said Friday that he’s hopeful for the future. The Democratic governor issued a statement to mark the anniversary of the first presumptive positive case of the coronavirus detected in Nevada. In the 365 days since, the state has neared 300,000 cases of the virus and on Thursday reached the grim milestone of 5,000 deaths. “That’s 5,000 of our neighbors, our friends and our family members. The loss is incalculable. The devastation will leave a permanent mark,” the governor said. In total, 5,036 deaths had been reported by Saturday. Sisolak said while the pandemic was one of the greatest challenges the state has ever faced, Nevada has not been broken and is working to overcome all the big challenges it faces. New reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been falling since mid-January, but Sisolak reminded people to continue wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and keeping up other mitigation measures in the meantime.
Loudon: Gov. Chris Sununu on Saturday toured a mass vaccination site at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the state kicked off a three-day vaccination push with the goal of giving Johnson & Johnson shots to about 12,000 people. Sununu said the state was able to move up to this past weekend vaccines for many people originally scheduled to receive their shots in April. “The opportunity to vaccinate nearly 12,000 Granite Staters at one site over the course of a single weekend is an incredible opportunity for New Hampshire,” the Republican said. The move was made possible by the delivery of Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses. Those scheduled to receive shots drove up to the area where they were being administered and then drove on to an observation area where they were monitored for a brief period of time before being allowed to leave. The J&J vaccine is a single-dose vaccine, meaning there’s no need for a second shot.
Trenton: Rebuffed by the Democrats who control the Legislature, Republican lawmakers conducted their own hearing Friday on Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s management of the pandemic, questioning his administration’s handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes. The committee met for the first time Friday, remotely, with testimony from a doctor, nursing home administrators, veterans homes residents and others. Lawmakers focused in part on a March 31, 2020, state health department directive requiring nursing homes not to turn away coronavirus-positive patients. The policy made headlines because of news that New York released 9,000 previously uncounted virus patients into facilities under a similar policy. New Jersey’s policy hasn’t been linked to a similar figure, but the legislators questioned if there could be deaths connected to the policy because the administration hasn’t given a full accounting of its handling of the pandemic. Indeed, lawmakers seemed left with more questions than answers Friday. In part, that’s because Murphy’s administration declined to make health department officials available. Democratic lawmakers also did not join them to form a select committee with subpoena power that could compel administration officials to testify at the hearing.
Santa Fe: The governor has signed economic relief legislation that provides $600 rebates to low-income workers and a tax holiday for restaurants that have been hobbled by aggressive pandemic health restrictions. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two bills last week that are part of an ambitious economic recovery package. New Mexico state finances and trust funds are rebounding amid a surge in oil production and prices, along with a boost from 2020 federal relief to state and local government, businesses, the unemployed, school districts and tribal governments. “This pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but the pain has been spread unequally,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “My hope is these economic relief efforts reach those who need them most.” A newly signed bill from Democratic Sens. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City provides a four-month holiday from gross receipts taxes on sales and business services for business operators at restaurants, bars, food trucks, small breweries, wineries and craft distilleries. The second bill from Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque expands an emergency loan program for businesses that lost income after the pandemic hit in 2020.
Albany: The Legislature has passed a bill to limit Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers at a time when he’s facing sexual harassment allegations and scrutiny over his administration’s reporting of deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes. Democrats who have expressed disappointment in the governor in recent days have trumpeted the bill as a “repeal” of Cuomo’s emergency powers. Those powers are set to sunset at the end of April when the state of emergency ends, unless the Legislature acts to end it sooner. The Senate and Assembly passed the bill in party-line votes of 43-20 and 107-43. It has been sent to the governor, who has said he supports it. Any governor in New York has the power to suspend laws in a state of emergency, but last spring, lawmakers approved Cuomo’s request for additional authority to pass sweeping mandates unilaterally. Republicans have long opposed the additional powers. Under the new legislation, the governor would no longer have the power to pass new mandates. But it would allow the governor to extend or amend dozens of his COVID-19 mandates, which include limits for restaurant capacity, eligibility rules for vaccinations, the number of vaccine locations, gathering limits, social distancing rules, testing, quarantine rules, and air quality or filtration requirements.
Fayetteville: As the one-year anniversary of the state’s first COVID-19 death nears, the governor wants to see more residents vaccinated. Gov. Roy Cooper stopped at the Crown Complex in Fayetteville on Friday to check out Cumberland County’s COVID-19 vaccination program. “I want to make sure that this is fast and fair and that we get vaccines off the shelf and into arms before the next shipment comes and that we make sure that those arms look like the people of North Carolina,” Cooper said. State Health Director Dr. Mandy Cohen, who received the Johnson & Johnson one-dose shot in Wake County before Friday’s visit to Fayetteville, said health care workers, residents 65 and older, and front-line essential workers are eligible for vaccination. Charles Evans, chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, said he wants to ensure more Black and Hispanic residents are among those in line. Evans cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows Black and Hispanic people are three times more likely to contract the coronavirus than white people. The data also shows that in the past month, only 16% of the state’s Black residents have received the vaccine; about 22% of the state’s total population is Black, and 10% is Hispanic.
Fargo: While older residents and health care workers have kick-started the state’s vaccine rollout, many health officials worry that turning out younger and healthier adults will be a more difficult chore. The state has started soft-selling via social media and word of mouth, emphasizing the safety of the vaccine and the importance of a strong turnout in thwarting the coronavirus. Molly Howell, the North Dakota Department of Health immunization program director, said the campaign will be ramped up once more vaccine is available and more people become eligible for shots. “Because the vaccine is in such short supply, it’s difficult to promote it,” Howell said. “We don’t want to create too much demand that people are stressed about getting the vaccine. So it’s a delicate balance of when to start more of a mass media campaign.” Sherry Adams, executive officer of the Southwestern District Health Unit, said she’s already seeing vaccine hesitancy among her clients in a seven-county area. Some people, she said, feel like the coronavirus has disrupted their lives, and the “further they can get away from it, the better.” Howell said the state is focusing its campaign on dispelling a wide variety of misinformation about vaccines, such as one claim that the medicine can lead to infertility. They’re also trying to take politics out of the equation.
Columbus: A mass vaccination clinic with the capacity to administer 6,000 shots a day will open in Cleveland this month with support from the Biden administration, Gov. Mike DeWine announced Friday. The community vaccination center will open March 17 at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center after state and federal officials designated the downtown area based on its proximity to high-risk communities and medically underserved populations. “Now that the supply of vaccine is significantly increasing, this is the perfect time for a large-scale clinic in Ohio to bolster our work to get shots in arms quickly, efficiently, and equitably,” DeWine said in a release Friday morning. The site in Cleveland joins the nearly 20 FEMA-supported sites that have been announced by the White House in recent weeks as part of a broader effort by the administration to get shots into arms more quickly and reach minority communities hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. The federal government is funding the site as well as providing the additional vaccine supply and the staff to administer it. Of the 25,000 people who live within 1 mile of the Wolstein Center, more than 60% are minorities, 6.36% are elderly, and almost 45% of households live in poverty, federal data shows.
Oklahoma City: The state will open its next phase of eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines starting next week, deputy state health commissioner Keith Reed said Friday, including those in prisons and at homeless shelters. “Starting Monday … Oklahomans in congregate care or work locations; city, county and state leaders or elected officials; and public health staff supporting” front-line health workers will be eligible for the vaccinations, Reed said. More than 1.2 million in Oklahoma have now received at least a first dose of a vaccine, and more 11% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to health department data available Sunday. Reed said he hopes to begin providing vaccinations to those in the next phase – which includes teachers, staff and students in higher education and vocational schools – by April.
Portland: Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that she is issuing an executive order mandating all K-12 public schools to provide universal access to in-person learning by the month’s end for students up to fifth grade and by mid-April for older students. The state’s coronavirus case numbers have fallen sharply in recent weeks, and Oregon put teachers ahead of older residents in the line for COVID-19 vaccines – a decision that angered many people 65 and up. As teachers get vaccinated, Brown has been under tremendous pressure from parents and local elected officials in many counties to reopen schools. Under her order, students in kindergarten through fifth grade must have an in-person learning option by March 29. Students in grades six through 12 must have one by April 19. Students who prefer to remain in online class will also have that option. State education officials have until March 19 to revise their guidelines for in-person instruction to help districts facilitate the return, she said. Rylee Ahnen, spokesman for the Oregon Education Association, said in a statement that teachers support returning to classrooms if it can be done safely. He said the union understands the frustrations of both school districts and parents as everyone navigates how to return to class.
Harrisburg: One year after the pandemic hit Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday acknowledged the severe toll COVID-19 has taken on his state but said he sees “a light at the end of the tunnel” with the growing availability of vaccines. Wolf announced March 6, 2020, that Pennsylvania had confirmed its first two cases of the new coronavirus. Since then, Pennsylvania has counted more than 944,000 confirmed or probable cases and attributed more than 24,200 deaths to the virus. “I’m not sure there isn’t anybody in Pennsylvania who isn’t frustrated, sad, maybe even grieving for a loved one who has been lost,” Wolf said Friday at a news conference outside a Rite Aid pharmacy in Steelton, where people with appointments were waiting to be vaccinated. “There’s a lot of sadness,” he said. “But at this point, though, we have something we didn’t have a year ago and that is hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.” Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been trending down for weeks after a January peak. More than 868,000 people have been fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Health, and Wolf asserts the vaccine rollout is showing signs of improvement after early stumbles.
Providence: Gov. Daniel McKee vowed to lead the state back to a sense of normalcy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic during a ceremonial inauguration Sunday on the Statehouse steps in Providence. “Together we’re going to keep Rhode Islanders healthy. We’re going to get us back to work. We’re going to get teachers and students safely back in the classroom. And we’re going to get our businesses back in business,” McKee said. He pledged that the state will not just recover but come back stronger. “Thankfully the vaccines are here, and we’re getting shots in arms,” McKee said. The Democrat was sworn in Tuesday night in a private Statehouse event following the resignation of former Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is now President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary. McKee is serving out the remainder of Raimondo’s four-year term but has said he’ll run for governor outright in 2022. The 69-year-old served as lieutenant governor and is a former longtime mayor of Cumberland. McKee thanked Raimondo for her leadership during the pandemic and acknowledged the toll COVID-19 has taken on the state. “Many have lost their jobs or lost a business that they have built for decades. So many have lost friends and family members to this virus. This past year has been hard on all of us,” McKee said.
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster on Friday lifted orders requiring masks in government office buildings and restaurants, leaving it up to state administrative officials and restaurant operators to develop their own guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic. The executive order essentially reversed similar guidance from the governor issued in July, when McMaster made the face coverings a requirement for anyone entering a state office building, per guidelines developed by the Department of Administration. At that time, McMaster also issued a similar edict for restaurantgoers and employees. But given South Carolina’s declining number of COVID-19 cases, as well as the rising number of residents who have been vaccinated, McMaster said it was time to begin loosening more mandates – while still maintaining his recommendation that everyone wear face coverings in public settings where social distancing isn’t an option. South Carolina never had a comprehensive statewide mask mandate. Last month, McMaster lifted bans on late-night alcohol sales and gatherings of more than 250 people, encouraging people “to make responsible decisions” but saying in a statement that he believed “these targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary.”
Sioux Falls: The state is closing in on a major milestone in the fight against COVID-19. Nearly a third of the adult population had received at least one dose of a vaccine in the week that ended Friday. The South Dakota Department of Health reported more than 158,000 people have received at least one dose through its program. That number didn’t include 12,800 people vaccinated by Veterans Affairs, thousands through Indian Health Service and thousands more from the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which has expanded rapidly in the past three weeks. And the vaccine surge will only intensify. On Wednesday, Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon announced an increase in the state’s weekly allotment, with thousands more doses expected after a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson got approval from federal officials. Since vaccinations began in December, South Dakota has consistently ranked in the top five for per capita vaccine administration. Despite the positive numbers, South Dakota continues to see a stubborn level of new infections. A week ago, the state was averaging 157 cases a day. On Friday, it was closer to 167. But the increasing number of vaccinations and previous infections should start to bring numbers down.
Nashville: An advisory panel tasked with deciding in what order residents should receive the COVID-19 vaccine acknowledged that prison inmates in the state were at high risk but concluded that prioritizing them for inoculation could be a “public relations nightmare.” The result: Prisoners are in the last group scheduled for vaccines in the state, even though the Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group concluded that “if untreated they will be a vector of general population transmission,” according to records of the panel’s closed-door meetings obtained by the Associated Press. To date, there is no firm timeline for prison vaccine rollouts. Medical experts have argued since the beginning of the pandemic that prisoners were at extremely high risk for infection given that they live in such close contact with one another. “It shows a lack of morality and an absence of empathy to allow someone to die or expose them to greater risk because they happen to be incarcerated,” said Jeannie Alexander, executive director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Nashville-based grassroots organization. Tennessee ranks 24th in the nation for prisoner cases of COVID-19. To date, 1 in 3 state inmates – more than 38,800 in total – has tested positive for the coronavirus at some point. More than 40 inmates have died from COVID-19.
Austin: The state expects more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses next week, state officials said Friday. According to a Texas Department of State Health Services statement, the vaccines will be first doses, with 245,000 being the new single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The federal government will send more than 200,000 doses directly to pharmacies and federally qualified health centers. The state will distribute more than 930,000 first doses to providers in all but 20 of the state’s counties, along with 457,000 second doses. Meanwhile, the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths are rising, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Saturday. The seven-day rolling average of new cases in the state during the past two weeks has increased from 5,040.8 per day to 7,022.7, and the average number of daily deaths rose from 127 to 222. The rolling average of the positivity rate is also on the rise during the same time period, from 5.8% on Feb. 19 to 12.5% on Friday. The state health department on Saturday reported 4,713 newly confirmed or probable cases and 233 additional deaths due to COVID-19 for a fatality total of 44,367 since the pandemic began.
Salt Lake City: The Legislature wrapped up its business for the year Friday in a session that was conducted partially remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. A statewide mask mandate will be lifted April 10 under a measure that passed the full Legislature on Friday night. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has said he plans to sign the bill. The bill lays out a new timeline for when COVID-19 restrictions applying to businesses, events and schools would end. The mask mandate would still apply to gatherings of more than 50 people. Emergency powers for the governor, mayors and local health departments will also likely be restricted under a bill that passed the Legislature on Friday, nearly a year after the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration began. The legislation would limit the duration of a public health order to 30 days and only allow legislative bodies, including city councils, to extend or terminate an order. The measure also cuts government fines for people who violate public health orders from $10,000 per violation to at most $150 in most cases.
Montpelier: A year after the state reported its first coronavirus case, Gov. Phil Scott said Friday that he’s optimistic about the future. No one one could have predicted a year ago that “just 12 months later we’d already have three safe and effective vaccines rolling out to defend ourselves,” the Republican governor said during his twice-weekly virus briefing. “Think about that.” As of Thursday, 20% of Vermonters over the age of 16 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Scott said. Starting next week the state will open up the vaccines to residents with underlying health conditions, teachers and more public safety workers. “This means within a month, one-third of the eligible population could be vaccinated, and all the most vulnerable to severe illness and death will have had the opportunity to be protected,” he said. The state should see hospitalization rates and deaths continue to drop, and with possible increases in the supply of vaccines, the state may be able to open eligibility sooner than planned, the governor said. On Friday, Scott also announced a change to the rules on social gatherings. People who are vaccinated may now gather with other vaccinated individuals at their homes, he said. This can also include one other household that is not vaccinated, he said.
Staunton: Officials are telling residents who preregistered for vaccinations to take another look at the form. Laura Lee Wight, Central Shenandoah Health District’s population health director, said the state has added additional questions to the preregistration form that may change eligibility. Not all questions were available to the public on health district forms. “We want to make sure everyone’s data has the most up-to-date eligibility information,” Wight said. She said people who got a new job or were diagnosed with a medical condition also have a chance to update the forms to reflect it. Wight recommended everyone visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or, if their preregistration included a phone number, call 1-877-VAX-IN-VA. A button on the website allows users to verify and update records. “If you don’t update it right away, you won’t need to preregister again, but your record could be missing important information or contain outdated information and that could delay your appointment,” Wight said.
Olympia: The state has reached its goal of vaccinating 45,000 people per day against COVID-19, health officials said Friday evening. The Department of Health said in a news release that the daily goal had been reached and that more than 1.8 million vaccine doses had been administered in the state. That’s 77% of the 2.4 million doses that have been delivered to Washington’s providers and long-term care programs, officials said. The state also has been told to expect an increase in weekly dose allocations in the next few weeks. Although health officials said this means the state is moving in the right direction, the state is still not able to provide all the doses that providers request. The state also on Friday reported 784 new coronavirus cases and nine additional deaths. Those numbers bring the state’s totals to 343,868 cases and 5,041 deaths, state health officials said.
Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice loosened pandemic restrictions Friday at restaurants, bars and most businesses to allow full capacity at those establishments where social distancing is possible. The state’s mask mandate will remain in effect. Full capacity will be allowed at small businesses, retail stores, gyms and museums. Justice said standing room to congregate will not be allowed in places such as bars. Last month, Justice loosened restrictions on businesses after a dip in cases and deaths. But he said he will not be influenced by other Republican governors removing mask mandates, to avoid a “whiplash that really hurts us” in cases. “We absolutely expect you to continue to wear your mask,” Justice said. “We are not backing off of our mask mandate at this time.” The limit on social gatherings will go up from 75 to 100. Restrictions are also being lifted on youth travel sports in counties that are not labeled red on the state’s coronavirus map. Currently, no county has that designation, which is for the most severe level of virus spread. “I’m 100% comfortable” with the latest lifting of restrictions, said the state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, at a press conference with Justice.
Madison: More than 1 million residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Tony Evers said Friday. But that good news was tempered by the announcement that health officials have detected another highly contagious version of the coronavirus in the state. As of Thursday, Wisconsin had administered at least one dose to 17.6% of its population, ranking it 18th nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was ahead of the national average of 16.3%. More than 1.6 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in Wisconsin. More than 570,000 people have been fully vaccinated, based on the totals from the state Department of Health Services. The first shipment of about 48,000 doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is scheduled to arrive in Wisconsin this week. State health officials also said the next eligibility group would be announced this week, likely to include some people with preexisting health conditions. Teachers, health care workers and others became eligible last week, joining everyone over age 65 as well as front-line health care workers. More than 58% of people over age 65 had received at least one dose, the state reported.
Casper: Lawmakers have voted down two bills intended to increase the tax burden on companies generating electricity from solar or wind energy, which already pay property, sales and use taxes. The House Revenue Committee on Thursday voted to not advance a pair of renewable energy tax bills to the full House, The Casper Star-Tribune reports. The first bill would have levied a $1 tax on each megawatt hour of electricity produced from larger solar energy facilities, similar to a tax currently enacted on wind energy facilities. “I just feel like it’s an equity issue,” said Republican state Rep. Albert Sommers, who sponsored the bill. The second bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Timothy Hallinan, would have increased an existing wind generation tax by 100% and eliminated an existing three-year tax exemption for new projects. Currently, the state charges $1 a megawatt hour of electricity produced on wind facilities after three years of operation. Wyoming Department of Revenue Director Dan Noble said the current wind production tax generates about $4 million a year. Hallinan argued that the state doesn’t charge enough for developers and that the extra revenue would be beneficial as the state faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports