Selma: This year’s commemoration of a pivotal moment in the fight for voting rights for African Americans will honor four giants of the civil rights movement who lost their lives in 2020, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Organizers on Monday announced plans for the March 7 celebration that is being conducted differently this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian, attorney Bruce Boynton and Lewis will be honored during the 56th annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when civil rights marchers were brutally beaten on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Martin & Coretta King Unity Breakfast will be held as a drive-in, and people will remain in their cars while speakers will address the crowd from a stage. There will then be a “slow drive” across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and wreaths will be placed honoring the four, former state Sen. Hank Sanders said. Sanders said the pandemic did not allow the four to have large funerals with the exception of Lewis, who was honored with events in Georgia, Alabama and Washington, D.C. The former Georgia congressman was beaten during Bloody Sunday. While much of the annual Bridge Crossing celebration will be virtual this year, Sanders said organizers wanted to have events that people could safely attend.
Juneau: A nonprofit health organization plans to donate some of the COVID-19 vaccine supplies it receives from the federal Indian Health Services to the City and Borough of Juneau. Juneau City Emergency Manager Robert Barr said the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium vaccine donation will be used during the borough’s next mass vaccination clinic March 12-13, KTOO Public Media reports. The consortium and the city are partnering to help vaccinate a larger portion of the Juneau area’s eligible population, Barr said. “I think due to the progress that SEARHC has made throughout Southeast Alaska, they have some vaccines in the IHS allocation that can be delivered via these clinics,” Barr said. The consortium said in a statement that it maintains sufficient vaccine supplies for its patients, Alaska Native beneficiaries and their families. Juneau’s vaccine eligibility was previously limited to front-line medical workers and people who are 65 and older. Eligibility has now been expanded to include many educators and child care workers, people 50 and up, pandemic workers, and those living in congregate facilities like prisons, shelters and psychiatric facilities.
Phoenix: Gov. Doug Ducey has joined President Joe Biden in ordering the lowering of flags for five days starting Tuesday to honor the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19. Ducey said in a statement Monday that “every life is precious” and that Arizona was grieving and praying for all the lives lost to the disease. Arizona’s death toll from the coronavirus passed 15,000 last week, while COVID-19 as of Monday had claimed more than 500,000 lives nationwide. Biden late Monday delivered a eulogy at the White House, saying the nation was marking a “grim, heartbreaking milestone” but “will smile again.” Arizona on Tuesday reported 1,184 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 148 deaths, increasing the state’s pandemic totals to 810,658 cases and 15,650 deaths. The number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and rolling seven-day daily averages of new cases and deaths continued to decrease, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard and the COVID Tracking Project. The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Little Rock: The state on Monday continued seeing a low number of new coronavirus cases after a week of winter weather slowed down testing and vaccinations. The Department of Health reported 245 new virus cases, bringing the state’s total since the pandemic began to 315,759. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 11 to 588, while deaths increased by six to 5,363. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Arkansas has decreased by about 78%, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. “We’re distributing vaccine doses throughout the state and encourage those who are eligible to make sure they’re signed up,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement. “We expect vaccine and testing numbers to increase this week with clear roads across the state.” Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield announced a new initiative it was leading in collaboration with the state Department of Health, Walmart, the state Chamber of Commerce and several others to encourage more people to get vaccinated. The Vaccinate the Natural State Campaign is aimed both at businesses and at people in the community.
Sacramento: More vaccines are headed to the vast Central Valley, an agricultural region whose workers and residents have been hard-hit by coronavirus, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. The multicounty region, which includes Fresno and Bakersfield, will get significantly more vaccines this week dedicated to farmworkers. The shifting allocation comes as California moves to inoculate others beyond health care employees in essential jobs, including workers in the food supply chain and teachers. The state had been distributing doses based on the estimated number of health care workers and seniors in each county but is revising its formula. California also will take 34,000 doses from a pharmacy that wasn’t using them quickly enough and distribute them to food and agricultural workers through 11 new mobile clinics in the Central Valley, Newsom said. The clinics will be set up to ensure vaccines get to people who don’t have transportation to a mass vaccination site or can’t navigate the sign-up portal, including in the small city of Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, where Newsom spoke. “These are the folks that never took a day off; these are the folks that never complained, these are the folks that wake up every single day and (are) there for the rest of us so we can go about our lives,” Newsom said.
Pueblo: A recent report from the Colorado Education Association found nearly 40% of teachers across the state are considering leaving the profession after the 2020-21 academic year. The report found the main sources of teacher dissatisfaction are the increasing workload, current working conditions during the pandemic and low salaries. “I’m not all that surprised. School districts in Colorado are chronically underfunded. District 70 is at the bottom of that list,” said Amy Spock, president of Pueblo County Education Association, the union that represents teachers at D70. “We (Colorado) are well under the national average for teacher pay. We are also well underfunded compared to other states.” Older teachers were found to be more likely consider leaving after this year – 53% of teachers ages 60-69 and 45% of those ages 50-59, according to the report. Spock said as a result of funding cuts, classroom sizes have increased. Elementary classes are up to nearly 30 students each, and secondary classes are getting up to 35 students or more. Working conditions during COVID-19 restrictions are also a major concern for educators. Having to teach in-person while wearing personal protective equipment and worrying about their personal health has made work more difficult for teachers.
Hartford: A major change to the state’s vaccination schedule was announced Monday, with leaders continuing with a mostly age-based system to make the rollout less complicated after seeing the challenges others have faced in vaccinating essential workers and people with underlying health conditions. “I’m going to focus on the old business motto ‘KISS’ – keep it simple, stupid – because I think a lot of complications were the results of states that tried to finely slice the salami, and it got very complicated to administer,” Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters. He said it became particularly challenging to determine which essential workers and which underlying health conditions should be included in the next group, which was expected to be announced this week. Instead, Lamont said his administration decided to focus on the close links between age and risk, noting that 96% of coronavirus-related deaths in Connecticut involved people over 55. Under the revised plan unveiled Monday, anyone 55 to 64 will be allowed to get a vaccine beginning March 1, then those ages 45-54 on March 22, 35-44 on April 12, and 34 and younger May 3. The only exception will be for pre-K-12 school staff and professional child care providers, who will be able to get their shots in March at dedicated clinics set up for them.
Wilmington: State officials have received anecdotal reports that some health care workers have been hesitant to receive their shots. The state is not tracking any occupation-related COVID-19 vaccine data. And because Delaware is now in Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout, “it is more difficult to say with certainty how many health care workers in 1A have been vaccinated,” said Jennifer Brestel, spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health. While most hospitals are remaining silent about their vaccine data, one reported that about two-thirds of its employees have received at least one dose. In a recent state survey, about 10% of residents, of all occupations, said they would not receive the vaccine, while others indicated hesitation. Gov. John Carney said Delaware saw hesitancy among health care workers, particularly in the early weeks of the state’s distribution efforts. A few weeks ago, he noted, one hospital system returned thousands of doses to the state because of hesitancy among staff. Other hospital systems have seen the same thing, he said. But “people are coming around,” Carney said. Nationally, 29% of health care workers expressed hesitancy about receiving the vaccine, according to a study by the Kaiser Family foundation.
District of Columbia
Washington: More than two weeks after D.C. announced a pilot program to partner with churches to better distribute vaccines to underserved communities, a second church has been added to join the initiative, WUSA-TV reports. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a briefing Monday that New Samaritan Baptist Church will start holding clinics to immunize residents 65 years and older. The church will utilize a mobile clinic that was once a school lab for STEM students starting this Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “The faith community is absolutely essential to the health of the overall community, and we as a part of the community consider ourselves to be of compassion, conviction and connection,” Bishop Michael Vernon Kelsey said. “This is just very, very consistent with who we believe we are called to be. We’re very excited and grateful.” Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast was the first partner under the program. People who signed up for an appointment online are placed in a waiting area of the church before they’re called into the mobile clinic to receive the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. They’ve held their clinics every Thursday and Saturday.
Hialeah: Teachers and law enforcement officers who are 50 and older will be the next groups to get COVID-19 vaccines as the percentage of older residents inoculated is reaching a point where the program can be expanded, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday. He did not specify when they’ll be eligible but said he expects it to be soon through the recently added sites run by the federal government. Currently, Florida – which surpassed 30,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths Monday – limits vaccines to residents 65 and older and front-line medical providers such as doctors and nurses. Many firefighters also fell into that group because they are paramedics, but DeSantis said any who have not been eligible and are 50 and above will also be added to the next wave. The Republican governor said at least 50% of the state’s 4 million residents who are 65 or older have been vaccinated, and the numbers of active coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations have continued to fall. “You are going to see some positive trends because of these vaccines,” DeSantis said during a news conference at a Hialeah pharmacy. “We are trying to get the vaccine to the people it will have the most impact for.”
Atlanta: A new study finds that teachers may be more important drivers of COVID-19 transmission in schools than students. The paper released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied nine coronavirus transmission clusters in elementary schools in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta in December and January, including one cluster in which 16 teachers, students and relatives of students at home were infected. In only one of the nine clusters was a student clearly the first documented case, while a teacher was the first documented case in four clusters. In another four, the first case was unclear. Eight clusters involved probable teacher-to-student transmission. Two saw teachers infect each other during in-person meetings or lunches, with a teacher then infecting students. The 8,700-student Marietta district, like all but a handful in Georgia, has been offering in-person classes since the fall. Superintendent Grant Rivera said more than 90% of elementary students came back in person, making some classrooms relatively crowded. All the clusters also involved “less than ideal physical distancing,” with students often less than 3 feet apart, although plastic dividers were placed on desks. Although the authors said they observed students wearing masks, interviews found that “inadequate mask use” by students could have contributed to the spread of infection in five clusters.
Honolulu: The state Senate is reconsidering allowing county emergency departments to charge out-of-bounds hikers for rescue costs as government spending remains under pressure because of the coronavirus pandemic. A Senate bill would allow counties to issue criminal fines in addition to seeking reimbursement from hikers requiring rescue after leaving marked trails or ignoring “closed” or “no trespassing” signs, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. The bill also would add new petty misdemeanor penalties for hiking illegally. A revised version of a different Senate bill would only give counties the option of seeking reimbursement. Similar bills previously were introduced in the House and Senate, but the current strain on government resources because of the pandemic adds new motivation, Democratic state Sen. Chris Lee said. “It’s an issue that has been brought up in the past in a number of ways, especially in times when budgets are thin and resources are limited,” Lee said. The city’s fire department opposes seeking rescue reimbursement. “The Honolulu Fire Department does not want to deter anyone from calling 911, thinking there is going to be a cost associated with them getting help,” spokesman spokesman Carl Otsuka said.
Boise: Legislation defining pandemics that would appear to eliminate the current coronavirus pandemic from qualifying as an emergency headed to the state House on Monday. The House State Affairs Committee approved the measure that’s part of the Legislature’s overall effort to limit the powers of the governor during declared emergencies and to increase their own. Specifically, the legislation changes a section of Idaho’s State Disaster Preparedness Act by including for the first time definitions of epidemics and pandemics and setting a minimum death rate for either to qualify as an emergency. The new section lists the minimum death rate at 1.5%. Numbers provided by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare show that about 170,000 residents have been infected with the coronavirus, and about 1,800 have died, for a death rate of just over 1%. Johns Hopkins University lists the United States’ overall coronavirus death rate at 1.8%. Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri said he was in favor of the legislation because it set precise numbers. Idaho’s State Disaster Preparedness Act allows a governor, after having declared an emergency, to issue executive orders and proclamations that have the force of law.
Springfield: Public health officials on Monday reported 1,246 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 and 34 additional deaths across the state. Officials of the Illinois Department of Public Health said there have been 1.17 million coronavirus cases in the state since the start of the pandemic, including 20,303 deaths. Health officials say the state administered 59,748 vaccine doses Sunday, reaching a total of 2.2 million. The latest numbers come as the state ramps up efforts to get residents vaccinated against COVID-19. The health department opened two new vaccination sites Tuesday, one in Rockford in northern Illinois and the other in Collinsville in southern Illinois. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration also announced the activization of additional Illinois National Guard members to support efforts in Winnebago and Madison counties with mobile vaccination sites to reach rural and underserved communities. As of late Sunday, 1,504 people in Illinois were hospitalized with COVID-19, with 337 of them being treated in intensive care units and 169 on ventilators.
Indianapolis: Residents ages 60 to 64 are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, health officials announced Tuesday in the latest expansion of the state’s vaccine rollout. The Indiana Department of Health said the expansion makes the free shots available to another 432,000 Hoosiers. Indiana’s vaccine eligibility pool had previously included those 65 and older, health care workers, long-term care residents and first responders. Additional groups will be added as more vaccine becomes available, officials said. The health department said people 60 and older represent more than 22% of Indiana’s population but account for 64% of the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and 93.3% of its COVID-19 deaths. Vaccine appointments for the 60-to-64 group will be available over the next four to six weeks to align with the state receiving its expected weekly vaccine allocation, the state health department said. To schedule a vaccine, Hoosiers can visit ourshot.in.gov and select a location from one of more than 370 clinics around the state. Those who do not have a computer or cellphone or who need assistance scheduling an appointment can call 211 or contact one of Indiana’s Area Agencies on Aging or AARP. Nearly 70 libraries around the state also are helping residents schedule appointments.
Des Moines: A Republican proposal to cut unemployment insurance benefits won approval from the Iowa House Labor Committee early Tuesday after a contentious hearing. Committee Chair Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, said he is pushing the legislation to decrease the amount of money drained from the state’s unemployment trust fund, which affects companies’ employment tax rate. Iowa businesses currently pay the second-lowest possible rate. After a year of record unemployment, the trust fund sat at $940 million as of the beginning of February, down from $1.21 billion at the same time last year. The legislation would decrease the maximum weekly benefits that claimants can receive and require workers to wait a week before receiving unemployment insurance. It also would require them to accept lower-paying jobs than they formerly held, potentially moving them off benefits faster. The bill would cut a provision that allows claimants to receive standard unemployment insurance for 39 weeks if their place of employment closes, lowering it to the 26 weeks. If signed into law, the legislation would take effect in July 2022. Democrats argued the Legislature should not curb unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deyoe responded that Iowa Workforce Development needs more than a year’s head’s up about potential changes. It has taken the agency up to two months to implement some new federal unemployment programs over the past year.
Wichita: The largest school district in the state plans to transition more students to in-person classes next week. Wichita Public Schools announced that starting Monday, seniors and sixth grade students will attend class on site every day except Wednesdays, which will remain remote. Freshmen will start March 8. The change affects only students whose parents opted for on-site learning, the Wichita Eagle reports. Parents who chose the remote learning model will continue to keep their children at home. School officials previously said about 40% of students enrolled in remote-only classes. The district said social distancing will occur as possible, and students are expected to wear masks, wash hands and stay home if they are sick. It cited decreasing COVID-19 numbers in making the decision. “I think we’re all excited that we’re moving closer and closer, and we’re inching forward toward providing at least a little bit more normalcy,” said Stan Reeser, president of the Board of Education. The move comes as more teachers and school staff have received first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. The district held its second vaccination clinic over the weekend.
Frankfort: The state is expanding its vaccination eligibility to anyone over 60 beginning next week. Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that the state’s regional vaccination sites will move to phase 1C on March 1, expanding the pool of eligible recipients to the 60-plus group and anyone over age 16 who has a high-risk health condition. Beshear said during a pandemic briefing Monday that more than 580,000 Kentuckians have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The 1C tier also includes remaining essential workers who weren’t in the higher-priority categories. The state has had six weeks of declining new case numbers, and Monday’s case total of 530 is the lowest since Oct. 5, the Democratic governor said. “This is all in all some really good news,” Beshear said. There were 13 coronavirus-related deaths reported Monday. Winter weather delays in shipping lines last week affected the state’s vaccine shipments, Beshear said. Kentucky had expected to received more than 70,000 doses Feb. 16 but only got about 6,000. But Beshear said the state will get a large shipment this week, and officials will be able to catch up on the missed vaccination injections in the next two weeks.
Lafayette: The Louisiana Department of Health announced 501 health care providers will get COVID-19 vaccines this week to distribute to the public after the state’s eligibility criteria expanded Monday to include teachers and people over 55 with underlying conditions, as well as several other categories. Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the expanded access to the vaccines last week, and estimates from LDH show the expansion will increase the vaccine-eligible population from 1.1 million people to more than 1.6 million, adding just shy of half a million residents to the list. “Being able to get to teachers is really important to our state,” Edwards said Thursday. “They’ve been on the front lines of the pandemic and play a critical role.” This week, Louisiana is expecting to get more than 90,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna varieties, for first-dose distribution at the hundreds of vaccine providers across the state. That marks an increase from just over 74,000 initial doses last week. Appointments are required to get vaccinated at all participating locations.
Augusta: Supporters of a proposed “COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights” for Maine made the case for the bill at a Tuesday public hearing. The proposal is designed to “require state-regulated health insurance companies to cover COVID-19 screening, testing and immunization at no cost to the patient,” the Maine Legislature Office of the Presiding Officers said Tuesday. A pair of high-ranking Democrats, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford, touted the effort. The proposal “will bring us closer to a world where we can hug our loved ones, a world where we can gather with friends in celebration or in sorrow, and a world where we can simply be together in person again,” Jackson said. The proposal will be subject to work sessions in committee in the coming weeks.
Annapolis: The state will launch a statewide preregistration system online next month for appointments at mass COVID-19 vaccination sites, Maryland’s acting health secretary said Monday. The preregistration system will enable the state to manage the flow of appointments, Dennis Schrader told a panel of lawmakers during an online meeting about the system. He also said it would improve coordination with county health departments to manage appointments. Schrader said it’s expected to improve the user experience and better prepare for the day when vaccine supplies are much more abundant. Lawmakers on the panel have criticized the state’s vaccine rollout for not having a centralized way for people to register for appointments. Maryland now has two mass vaccination sites: one at the Baltimore Convention Center, the other at Six Flags American in Prince George’s County. A third is scheduled to open Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Boston: A top education official said Tuesday that he wants all of the state’s elementary school students back in the classroom for in-person learning five days a week in April. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said during the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s monthly meeting that he would ask the governor next month to give him the authority to instruct districts statewide to open their classrooms full time, five days a week. The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases has been dropping since vaccinations have started. Riley said the state’s pool testing program – with 157 districts and schools opting into the program as of last week – will also keep students and teachers safe. Under the program, 10 nose swabs from one classroom or cohort of students and staff will go into one tube to be tested together. If the pooled sample is negative, all the individuals are presumed negative. If the pooled sample comes back positive, all the individuals will be retested with a rapid test. Remote and hybrid learning models are having an adverse affect on students’ mental health, he said. Parents would retain the right to keep their children out of school and learn remotely, Riley said.
Lansing: At least 85,000 nursing home staff, home health aides and other direct care workers will lose a $2 hourly pandemic pay raise next week if the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer do not enact COVID-19 relief aid. Disability advocates sounded the alarm ahead of lawmakers’ return to session Tuesday. Medicaid-funded caregivers, including those who help people in their homes, first got the wage hike last April through an order issued by the governor. The increase was extended in July to direct care workers at area agencies on aging and an estimated 35,000 to 37,000 nurses, nursing assistants and respiratory therapists in nursing homes under a bipartisan law. Sherri Boyd, executive director of The Arc Michigan, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said inaction “would have drastic consequences” – especially during the coronavirus pandemic. “Direct care workers provide essential services, and their work is more important than ever. The clock is ticking, and we urge the Michigan Legislature to avoid this massive pay cut and support our most vulnerable,” she said. The raise is due to end Sunday.
St. Paul: Those 65 years and older are eligible to receive vaccines, but whether they are inoculated has a lot to do with they live. In some rural Minnesota counties, older residents are more than twice as likely to have gotten at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine than if they live in most parts of the Twin Cities metro area, Minnesota Public Radio reports. Many of the places in the state with the highest vaccination rates for people 65 and older are in rural areas that have multiple streams of the vaccine. Mahnomen and Red Lake counties, for example, have vaccine coming in from the state and the federal governments, to clinics, pharmacies, local health departments and Indian Health Service facilities. Both are among the top five counties statewide with the highest vaccination rates among residents who are 65 and older. “Rural residents are older, on average, than urban residents,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center. “And as we’re prioritizing older adults and health care workers, we should be seeing higher rates of vaccination in rural places.” If some rural communities are getting seemingly disproportionate allocations of the vaccine, that’s as it should be, she said.
Jackson: The state saw a steep decline in COVID-19 vaccinations last week as several drive-thru vaccination sites were closed because of freezing temperatures and icy roads. The state Department of Health said Monday that 32,540 dose were given during the week that ended Saturday. That is down from 106,691 the previous week, which was Mississippi’s busiest week for the vaccinations so far. The department said it is automatically rescheduling appointments that had to be canceled at 21 drive-thru sites, and people are being notified by text or email. More people than usual are being scheduled for COVID-19 vaccinations in the state this week, and some appointments will be set for the weekend. The Health Department is asking people to arrive at least 15 minutes before their scheduled time and to be patient.
St. Louis: Several local health departments are preparing to administer extra vaccinations this week, the result of postponed appointments necessitated by last week’s brutal winter weather. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the weather delayed the expected delivery of 3,000 doses to St. Louis County, where officials expect to receive and administer double the normal number of vaccinations this week. They say the existing sites have capacity, though they may need to add staff. Other places around the state will be busy, too. State data shows that 13,300 vaccine doses were given Feb. 15, the day the winter storm slammed much of Missouri, compared to about 22,000 the previous Monday. Most facilities canceled appointments to prevent residents from being forced to travel in dangerous weather conditions. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Tuesday reported 443 newly confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the pandemic total to 475,791. The state also reported 175 more coronavirus deaths, though many were from a weekly review of death certificates to determine COVID-19 deaths not previously recorded.
Helena: The state House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would ban discrimination based on vaccination status and prohibit its use to grant or deny services or access to businesses. Under the bill, public schools and child care facilities would be prohibited from requiring vaccination proof for children. Employers – including health care facilities – would be banned from requiring vaccinations as a condition for employment. Current Montana law requires children to receive certain vaccinations to attend public schools, unless parents fill out medical or religious waivers. Licensed child care facilities also require certain vaccinations and allow for medical exemptions and religious exemptions for some vaccines. Several private health care facilities require that their staff members receive certain vaccinations as a condition for employment. COVID-19 vaccines are not mandated under existing rules. Supporters of the bill told the committee it would protect the freedom and privacy of families to make their own medical choices, and they expressed doubt about the medical safety of vaccines. Opponents, including several health care and child care organizations, said mandatory vaccinations ensure the health of children and prevent outbreaks of diseases such as measles.
Omaha: Officials are watching for variants of the coronavirus by sequencing the entire genome of samples of the virus. Peter Iwen, the director of Nebraska’s Public Health Laboratory, said the detailed tests performed each week help scientists identify mutations of the virus and track how they affect the spread of COVID-19 in the state. So far, the lab hasn’t identified either of the main variants of the virus that were first identified in the United Kingdom and in South Africa in the state. But the researchers have found two other mutations that may affect the virus’s ability to cause infections and severe symptoms, according to the Omaha World-Herald. The lab uses an automated machine that can map the DNA of 32 samples of the virus at once. Iwen said the lab’s goal is to complete three runs of the tests every week. He said that’s more than most labs have the capacity to do. Each batch of 32 samples costs $3,500. Federal officials are working to expand such DNA testing of the virus across the country to better track variants of the coronavirus. The Nebraska lab recently received federal funding to help expand its work.
Reno: The state’s percentage of positive coronavirus tests dropped Saturday to 9.9% statewide, marking the first time since November that the positivity rate has fallen below the 10% threshold and continuing a downward trend begun Jan. 14. Washoe County’s test positivity rate is 7.5%, maintaining a downward trend since a record-high positivity rate of 21.5% on Dec. 8. “Great news, Nevadans. Our efforts to work together & slow the spread are showing results!” Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote in a tweet. “Please, continue to stay home if you are sick, wear your mask, wash your hands, get a test if you may have been exposed to #COVID19 & when it’s your turn, sign up for the vaccine.” Washoe County reported 41 new cases and one death Sunday, with 449 active cases Monday. The Washoe County Health District had administered 227 tests in the prior day. So far, about 13% of Washoe County’s population has initiated the vaccine process, and about 7% has received two doses, according to the state. The World Health Organization says regions should have a trend of 5% test positivity for at least 14 days before reopening.
Concord: Labor union members plan to hand out personal protective equipment outside the sports complex where members of the New Hampshire House will be meeting this week. The 400-member House is meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Bedford, where legislators will sit 10 to 12 feet apart to prevent spread of COVID-19. Democrats with serious medical conditions went to court seeking remote access to the sessions, but a federal judge declined Monday to order Republican Speaker Sherm Packard to accommodate them. While the House will provide members with masks and hand sanitizer, members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the AFL-CIO of New Hampshire also will be at the facility’s entrances with similar supplies, including masks and gloves.
Trenton: The state will make its first full public pension payment for the first time in a quarter-century, boost school aid by 7% and offer 760,000 families a $500 tax rebate under a new $44.8 billion budget proposal Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy introduced Tuesday. The first-term governor’s proposal includes no new tax hikes or fees and few spending cuts, mostly from savings his administration says it will realize from underused programs. He unveiled the spending plan during a remote, roughly 45-minute-long speech delivered at the Trenton War Memorial because of the pandemic, instead of with the usual pomp and ceremony during a joint legislative session in the General Assembly. A former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany under Barack Obama, Murphy held true to his left-leaning philosophy and pledged to move forward despite the economically crippling COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to record-high unemployment rates and quarterly gross domestic product declines. The state’s revenue picture has improved since the direst predictions last year, though. “It is the time for us to also lean into the economic policies that will not just get us through the remaining months of the pandemic but which will supercharge our reemergence from it and the recovery that awaits on the other side,” he said.
Albuquerque: The state’s largest school district is asking to separate athletics and other extracurricular activities from the hybrid learning structure being used because of the coronavirus pandemic. Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education members said during a special meeting Monday that they do not believe activities should be connected to a hybrid learning model, a current requirement set by the state Public Education Department, KRQE-TV reports. Board members said students involved in extracurricular activities would perform better in school if they were allowed to continue doing extracurricular activities they love. Athletes, parents and coaches over the weekend protested the school board’s decision to remain in the online hybrid class model through the remainder of the school year, which would prevent participation in activities including band, choir, chess, drama and others overseen by the New Mexico Activities Association. The Albuquerque board approved a letter Monday to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking for the separation with assurances the split can be conducted safely.
New York: The city’s movie theaters can open their doors again at limited capacity starting March 5, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday. Movie theaters can only operate at 25% capacity, with no more than 50 people per screening, Cuomo said. His announcement came nearly a year after he shuttered movie theaters statewide in mid-March last year along with concert venues and nightclubs as part of efforts to limit spread of COVID-19 in crowded, indoor settings. Cuomo eased restrictions last fall to allow movie theaters to reopen at limited capacity in most counties outside densely populated New York City. The governor said theaters must require and enforce assigned seating, masks and social distancing. He said they also need to meet the state’s air filtration standards. Cuomo has pushed this year to start easing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in hopes of jump-starting an economy hit by a drop in sales tax revenue. The state weathered a mid-January spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Cases and hospitalizations are now dropping overall statewide, but parts of New York City – particularly the Bronx – are still seeing high rates of infection and slower declines in hospitalization.
Lincolnton: Authorities say a woman has been charged after she claimed to have the coronavirus and blew into a sheriff deputy’s face. The Charlotte Observer reports the incident occurred Sunday evening in Lincoln County, northwest of Charlotte. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said Jasmine Louise McClain, 27, was already in police custody because she had been identified as a suspect in a stabbing. “While being processed into the jail, McClain is accused of blowing into the face of the processing officer twice after admitting she had tested positive for COVID-19 eight days earlier,” the sheriff’s office said. “She was charged with assault on a government official.” The sheriff’s office did not say whether McClain has actually tested positive for the virus. McClain lives in the Lincoln County community of Iron Station. Police said she was suspected in the stabbing of a man who was later taken to a hospital. The man who was stabbed, Marcus McDowell, was taken to the hospital, officials said. In addition to assault on a government employee, McClain was charged with assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury.
Bismarck: The Republican-led state House endorsed a measure Monday that would prohibit state or local governments from mandating face coverings. Representatives approved the measure 50-44. The bill also prohibits “making use of a face mask, shield, or covering a condition for entry for education, employment, or services.” The bill now goes to the Senate. Bill sponsor GOP Rep. Jeff Hoverson and others argued there was no proof that masks work to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and they questioned the government’s role in mandating them. The state health officer, backed by Gov. Doug Burgum, imposed a mask mandate in November after months of refraining from such an order, hoping to stem a coronavirus surge that had been among the worst in the U.S. and threatened to overwhelm the state’s hospitals. The Republican governor dropped the statewide mask requirement as well as limits on the number of people who gather in restaurants, bars and event venues about two months later, citing a dramatic drop in active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus. Burgum has said that active cases dropped more than 80% and that hospitalizations decreased by about three-fourths during the time the restrictions were in place.
Columbus: Major league sports teams beginning their seasons this spring could be allowed up to 30% of fan capacity under approved pandemic plans, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday. Permitting 30% of fans into stadiums would be contingent on social distancing and continued mask-wearing, the governor said. The expanded fan capacity would apply to the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds, along with minor league baseball teams and the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati major league soccer clubs. “We can do that if everyone is masked,” DeWine said, adding that the state has learned a lot from the experience of mask-wearing in schools. “Kids have been relatively close together, and yet we’ve not seen the spread in classrooms,” he said. These plans could change if a new coronavirus variant becomes dominant in Ohio by the end of next month, DeWine cautioned. Not every team plans to allow that many fans. Minor league baseball’s Toledo Mud Hens announced Friday that the club will allow 1,500 fans per game – roughly 15% of the 10,300 seats at Fifth Third Field. Other teams have yet to announce specific plans. DeWine said he’s had extensive conversations with the Reds and Indians. For Cleveland, 30% could mean as many as 10,000 fans in the city’s downtown ballpark.
Oklahoma City: The state hopes to be back on schedule for COVID-19 vaccinations by next week following a powerful storm that forced clinics to postpone inoculations and delayed shipments of the medicine, Oklahoma’s deputy health commissioner said Tuesday. “The week of bad weather kind of threw us off … and we’ve had to reschedule quite a few of those appointments” last week, Keith Reed said. “I would like to be at a steady state where we’re at least burning through the vaccine that comes into the state within seven days.” A delayed shipment of about 110,000 doses began arriving Monday, and about 137,000 more doses are expected by the end of the week, said Reed, who added that nearly 800,000 doses had been administered in Oklahoma thus far. The state Department of Health on Tuesday reported 359 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 24 more deaths, continuing a welcome decline in daily totals. The state recorded an average of 797 daily cases during the seven-day period that ended Monday, which was less than half of the 2,018 it recorded during the seven-day period that ended Feb. 8, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Average daily COVID-19 deaths during those periods also declined, from 36 to 23.
Salem: Health officials have identified five more cases of the more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, bringing the state’s total to nine. The Oregon Health Authority did not say in which counties the variant was identified. The variant, also called strain B.1.1.7, was first identified in Oregon in a Multnomah County resident in mid-January. Federal health officials said they expect the variant to become the dominant source of infection by March. It is one of three variants circulating globally that are of particular concern. The others were first identified in Brazil and South Africa. Oregon has not identified any cases of those strains. On Tuesday, Oregon reported 528 new COVID-19 cases and eight new deaths. That brings the state’s cumulative case total to 153,645 and the death toll to 2,162. There were 165 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 statewide Tuesday. Of those, 44 were in intensive care, and 22 were on ventilators. As of Tuesday, Oregon had administered 836,073 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, 266,162 people have received their first vaccine dose, and 282,236 people are fully vaccinated.
Harrisburg: Expanding access to broadband internet service is vital for rural communities and school districts, state legislators were told during a hearing. Customers across the seven-state region served by the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative fear “they’re being left behind in a new digital age” and given “second-class citizens status,” Tri-County President and CEO Craig Eccher said in a two-hour hearing conducted by the Legislature’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania last week. Eccher said there are “striking” similarities between the effort to deliver rural broadband to calls nearly 100 years to bring electricity to those same areas, calls that were frequently swatted down by companies claiming it would be too difficult or expensive. Broadband access has taken on a new significance under the COVID-19 pandemic as school districts have been forced to hold virtual classes and as many rural residents, especially seniors, have been required to schedule telemedicine appointments rather than in-person ones with their doctors. “In my district, broadband is the No. 1 issue,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, the chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
Providence: The Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging has awarded a total of $200,000 in grants to 10 organizations to help connect the state’s older residents with their families through modern technology. The funded agencies will equip residents living in areas hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with smart devices, internet services and related training to help them better access online resources, work and study remotely, and virtually connect with family and friends, the agency said in a statement Friday. According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 41% of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older are not broadband users, and more than 25% of older adults in the state are not online. “The internet is a basic necessity today,” Director Rosamaria Amoros Jones said in a statement. “So much of how we manage our lives and connect with one another and to services is driven by technology now; yet inequities persist, with many older adults and families in lower-income neighborhoods lacking access to, or fluency in, digital tools.”
Greenville: The state’s vaccine distribution is back on track after weeks of weather-related shipment delays that had canceled many appointments, according to state officials. AnMed Health will extended hours, an extra half-hour for three days, at vaccine clinics this week to handle scheduled second-dose appointments. There is no way to tell whether there will be future weather-related delays, but the delayed shipments have all been received, according to a statement from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Vaccine providers – including health care systems and pharmacies – are notified of potential delays, and there are no current notifications of delays. Nick Davidson, a spokesman for the state agency, said last week that providers should be working to make up for delays created by severe weather. Prisma Health was asked if it planned to ramp up distribution this week, but the health system was not immediately available for comment.
Sioux Falls: The City Council will consider a second extension of a local mask mandate at its next meeting next week, with a plan to tie its expiration to vaccination progress. Councilor Rick Kiley said he and Councilor Curt Soehl would bring the ordinance to a first reading March 2. The mandate, which requires the wearing of a face covering inside “indoor retail businesses” and city-owned facilities where social distancing of 6 feet cannot be achieved, would be nearly identical to the one that’s been in place since November, with the same exemptions and lack of a penalty for violating it. But rather than expiring on a specific day, the proposed new ordinance states that the mask mandate would end when the South Dakota Department of Health begins vaccinating subgroup 1E, which includes fire service personnel and other public-facing workers in critical infrastructure positions. The state agency’s latest estimate shows vaccinations for subgroup 1E beginning in mid-April.
Nashville: The state Senate on Monday advanced legislation that would allow the governor to issue an executive order requiring schools to offer in-person learning. The GOP-dominant chamber easily passed the measure on a 27-5 vote, with only Democratic senators opposed. The bill comes as Republican leaders have lobbed criticisms against Shelby and Davidson counties – the state’s most populous counties with Democratic strongholds – after they declined to provide an in-person schooling option for months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While both counties have since reopened in-person teaching, GOP lawmakers want to ensure the governor can intervene when weighing whether to offer in-person learning. GOP Gov. Bill Lee declared earlier this year that districts that refused to offer in-person learning were not using science to make such decisions – a criticism that has sparked objections from Democratic lawmakers and education advocates. Lee’s administration has particularly focused on Tennessee’s dismal third grade reading scores, warning that student learning was suffering outside the classroom.
Houston: Authorities are opening a giant COVID-19 vaccination center that will serve an estimated 126,000 people over the next three weeks. The federally funded site will fully open Wednesday at Houston’s NRG Park, near the home stadium of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Staff will distribute first doses seven days a week for three weeks, then transition to second doses. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief elected official, said authorities will prioritize people who live in areas hit hardest by the coronavirus. Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said their staffs have identified ZIP codes where people have been most affected and lack the same access as other places to medical care. The site opens as Texans recover from a devastating winter storm that killed at least 35 people and left millions without power and water. While Houston and other cities have lifted boil orders on drinking water, many people are still affected by broken pipes and shutoffs of systems. “It’s been trauma after trauma, and people deserve some good news, some hope,” Hidalgo said. The COVID-19 death toll in Texas is more than 42,000, the third-highest in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins.
Salt Lake City: Legislative leaders have announced a nearly $100 million package of tax relief bills involving families with children, veterans and older residents receiving Social Security. One of the three bills would allocate about $55 million toward restoring residents’ income tax dependent exemption that was lost in federal tax cuts in 2017 under the Trump administration and caused a tax increase on many families. It could reduce taxes for about 390,000 taxpayers by an average of $140 a year, according to the bill. Another bill would use about $18.3 million to eliminate income tax on some Social Security income. Utah is one of a handful of states that taxes that income. The final part of the tax relief plan would aid retired military residents. It would use $44 million for residents on retired military pay and a tax credit for Social Security recipients to reduce the tax burden for more than 18,000 people by an average of $1,315 a year. However, retirees on Social Security could only claim one of the two tax credits under consideration. Some have questioned why there are not further tax cuts since new revenue estimates show that lawmakers have an additional $1.5 billion to spend this year because the economy is improving faster than predictions despite the pandemic.
Montpelier: The state is continuing to expand the ages of people eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, officials said Tuesday. At the same time, officials announced that the progress Vermont is making in getting people vaccinated is making it possible for people who have been fully vaccinated to visit with people outside their households, even those who have not gotten shots. “We continue to see encouraging trends across the nation, and in Vermont the spread of the virus continues to go down,” Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday. Meanwhile, the federal government is continuing to increase the amount of vaccine that will be distributed to the state, and another vaccine is expected to be approved for use soon, which would further increase the availability of vaccines, Scott said. On Monday, the state will open up vaccine appointments to people 65 and older. And the state expects to release information next week about the vaccination process for those ages 16 to 64 who have medical conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19 complications or death.
Richmond: Lawmakers advanced a new version of bipartisan school-reopening legislation Monday, moving to tighten the requirements for in-person instruction that districts must offer in the next school year. The lawmakers negotiating the bill said the latest version aims to require school districts grappling with the pandemic to offer a full-time, in-person option for students, with limited exceptions. If a school has high levels of coronavirus transmission, it could temporarily revert to virtual learning under the measure, said the negotiators – a Democrat who is a teacher and a Republican who is a doctor. The latest version of the bill also includes a new definition of what counts as in-person learning. Some districts have turned to setups that involve a non-teacher monitor proctoring online learning in a classroom, but that would not meet the standard. “Our schools must reopen five days a week, with teachers in the classroom, as soon as possible. The science says they should be open. The data shows they need to be open. And parents are saying they must be open. It’s the right thing to do for our children,” the bill’s sponsor, GOP Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, said in a statement.
Olympia: The state Utilities and Transportation Commission has extended protections for electric and natural gas customers struggling to pay their bills because of the pandemic. A previous order issued last April by Gov. Jay Inslee that prevented investor-owned energy utilities from disconnecting customers was set to expire April 30 but has been extended to July 31, the state regulatory agency announced Tuesday. In addition, utilities will continue to waive late fees and deposits through Jan. 27, 2022. The order allows utilities to begin sending notices to customers in June, reminding them that disconnections will resume and supplying information about payment options and customer assistance programs. As of December 2020, nearly 277,000 of the state’s residential electric and natural gas customers had past-due balances totaling $79.1 million, a 65% increase from 2019. Utilities project that this debt will continue to increase in 2021.
Charleston: As new coronavirus case reports continue to drop, the state Board of Education said Tuesday that counties should return elementary and middle school students to in-class instruction five days per week. The board’s vote will eliminate blended schedules in which students have alternated between classroom and home-based online learning in response to the pandemic. The move is effective March 3. Counties can apply for a waiver to conduct in-person learning four days per week and virtual instruction on the fifth day. In-person instruction at high schools will continue to be determined by a color-coded state map. Many counties have returned to in-person instruction. Families who previously chose online-only learning for their students regardless of grade are unaffected. The West Virginia Education Association asked the board to allow counties to remain flexible with virus-based decisions. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic barreled into our lives, our driving concern has been and continues to be the safety of our students, their families and educators,” said WVEA President Dale Lee. “West Virginia educators have done the impossible to reach each student even with the lack of technology and broadband, all the while caring for their own families.
Madison: The state will open four additional community vaccination clinics, joining one already up and running in Janesville, as the supply of vaccine increases amid a push to inoculate people in underserved areas, Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday. The state will be receiving an additional 115,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine for at least the next two weeks, up more than 64% from the 70,000 doses it was getting a month ago, said Julie Willems Van Dyke, deputy secretary of the Department of Health Services. “There is more vaccine coming,” she said, noting that a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson could be approved soon. The new community clinics will be in La Crosse, Racine and Marathon counties, with a fourth split between Douglas and Barron counties in northwest Wisconsin, the governor’s office announced. They are all expected to open within the next two months. Clinic locations were based on population demographics, local health capacity, operations and concentration of other vaccine providers, Evers’ office said. Eventually, 10 community clinics are planned for around the state. Everyone eligible for the vaccine, no matter where they live, will be able to schedule an appointment.
Cheyenne: Another nine deaths among residents who tested positive for the coronavirus have been confirmed, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. All but one were 65 or older, and most had health conditions known to increase the risk of serious complications from COVID-19. The state has recorded a total of 671 coronavirus-related deaths, 45,780 lab-confirmed cases and 8,164 probable cases since the pandemic began.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports