Montgomery: The state is preparing to execute an inmate by lethal injection in what would be Alabama’s first death sentence carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Willie B. Smith III, 51, is scheduled to be put to death Thursday at a south Alabama prison for the 1991 shotgun slaying of Sharma Ruth Johnson. U.S. District Judge Austin Huffaker Jr. on Tuesday denied Smith’s lawyers’ request for a stay. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled the execution could go forward with precautions. Smith’s attorneys have sought a stay arguing that the pandemic and the prohibition on in-person prison visits had made it difficult for them to adequately represent him. They said Smith has been unable to receive the number of in-person visits from attorneys, friends and a pastor that death row inmates normally do before their date in the execution chamber. Attorneys also argued the execution would be a super-spreader event. Some COVID-19 cases have been linked to recent federal executions. The Alabama attorney general’s office wrote in court filings that the state is no longer under a stay-at-home order and said carrying out executions is one of the functions of state government.
Juneau: A disaster declaration intended to aid the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is set to expire this weekend unless action is taken to extend it. Health and emergency officials warn that a failure to extend could restrict the state’s ability to distribute vaccines and set back progress in combating the illness. Three weeks into the legislative session, the politically divided House has yet to organize, and until it does, it can’t consider or act on bills. Members of the Republican-led Senate have chafed at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal for an extension through September and say they are looking at whether they can provide the tools Dunleavy needs to respond to the pandemic separate from a declared disaster. The pushback is fueled, in part, by anger in places like Anchorage, where local officials have imposed restrictions on businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19, though that action is not dictated by the state declaration. Some lawmakers also think Dunleavy, a Republican, overstepped in issuing new declarations without legislative involvement in recent months. “I think Alaskans want the disaster declaration to end,” Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, said last week.
Phoenix: Restaurants are trying to convince state lawmakers to let them sell cocktails to go, looking to make permanent a temporary right they gained during the pandemic as they chart an uncertain future. Restaurant owners supporting the measure say it would help them get back on their feet after the pandemic devastated the industry. But others in the industry, namely bar owners and liquor stores, say it would devalue their businesses. Gov. Doug Ducey temporarily allowed restaurants to sell alcohol to go at the onset of the pandemic, when he ordered them to close their dining rooms. “It was great. It’s what helped us get through some of these hard times,” Matt Fulton, owner of Pigstail and the Whining Pig, told lawmakers Tuesday. But a judge ended the practice in November, siding with a group of bar owners who sued to block it. The proposal has divided the industry, with restaurant owners largely lining up in support and many bar owners in opposition. The grocery industry trade group, the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, also is opposed. Critics say the measure would devalue the liquor licenses they’ve spent a fortune to obtain. The number of bar and liquor store licenses is limited based on population.
Little Rock: The state on Tuesday reported 42 more deaths from the coronavirus as hospitalizations from the virus continued to drop. The Department of Health said the state’s COVID-19 deaths now total 5,148, while its hospitalizations dropped by two to 775. The state’s coronavirus cases rose by 1,475 to 308,848. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Arkansas has decreased by 222.9, a drop of 12.5%, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters the state needs to make more progress in getting the COVID-19 vaccine to people age 70 and older before expanding to other groups. Hutchinson said he hoped to be able to expand into more populations by March 1, but “we have to get further into the 70-plus population.” The state in December began providing the vaccine to health care workers, first responders, law enforcement, and nursing home residents and staff. Last month, it expanded to teachers and people at least 70 years old. The Health Department said 413,116 of the 651,275 doses of the vaccine Arkansas has received have been given so far.
Sacramento: The California Department of Public Health is investigating whistleblower allegations of mismanagement and incompetence, including reports of workers sleeping on the job, at the state’s new billion-dollar coronavirus testing laboratory. Internal documents from the PerkinElmer-run lab north of Los Angeles detail alleged problems like contamination causing inconclusive tests, swapped samples and inaccurate results sent to patients, according to records obtained by CBS13 TV in Sacramento. Documents also reveal that some employees handling patient specimens were unlicensed and inadequately trained, the report said. The news station interviewed current and former lab employees who claim to have found test swabs found in restrooms and witnessed technicians dozing off while processing samples for testing. Republican state Senator Melissa Melendez said the whistleblower allegations are “concerning and downright shameful” in a statement calling for an investigation. “The state is taking this very seriously, and we’re looking into the allegations,” Tomas Aragon, director of California’s health department, told lawmakers Monday. He didn’t respond to any specific allegations or offer a timeline for the investigation.
Denver: The state Department of Labor and Employment has reported an increase in fraudulent unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic as the agency attempts to assist people who are struggling. An investigative department for KUSA-TV found the state has filed more fraudulent claims filed by scammers than legitimate claims filed by residents, the station reports. The state agency said 1.1 million fraudulent claims and 1,043,760 legit claims have been filed since the pandemic began in March. “We have to walk a tightrope from the demand and mission to get out these benefits quickly as possible to people who are experiencing financial hardship,” department Executive Director Joseph Barela said. The state said it paid out more than $6.5 million to scammers over the past year. Some residents have said they received unexpected employment benefit debit cards in the mail, while others have said their name was used to file for assistance. Others said they are unable to get assistance because their accounts are locked because of identity thieves. Barela acknowledged the agency’s phone lines are busy but said people can use a new system called ID.me to verify their identity and remove any fraud flags on their accounts.
Hartford: Democrats in the General Assembly hope to pass health care legislation this year that they contend will lower health insurance prices and expand coverage options for individuals and small businesses, arguing Tuesday that it’s needed now more than ever given the coronavirus pandemic. Republican leaders, however, say the proposal is the wrong way to address the high cost of health care coverage. The Democrats’ wide-ranging bill was the subject of a public hearing held Tuesday by the Legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee, which is controlled by Democrats. The debate comes as an estimated 180,000 individuals in Connecticut currently have no health insurance coverage, including many who lost their jobs and employee-sponsored coverage during the pandemic. “People were losing their health insurance at the worst imaginable time,” said state Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, the committee’s co-chair, who noted how this year’s version of the bill is “tailored specifically” to people who’ve experienced job losses and small businesses struggling financially because of the pandemic.
Lewes: The pandemic has caused the cancellation of the Great Delaware Kite Festival for the second time. The event sponsored by the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation takes place annually on Good Friday at Cape Henlopen State Park. It was canceled last year due to coronavirus limitations, and organizers have again decided it would be unsafe for the thousands of attendees. Alternative plans were considered, but organizers felt the event could not be safely managed while retaining key elements. “This would have been the 53rd Kite Festival, and we are all extremely disappointed that it will not take place,” said Betsy Reamer, organizing committee member and executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce. “We look forward to next year when hopefully the pandemic will be under control, and the kites will be flying high over beautiful Cape Henlopen.”
District of Columbia
Washington: In response to the COVID-19-related death of a schoolteacher, the Washington Teachers’ Union is demanding changes at DC Public Schools, WUSA-TV reports. Helen Marie White was a beloved cosmetology teacher at Ballou Stay Opportunity Academy, an alternative adult program. While it is unclear where or how she contracted the virus, according to Ballou Stay Principal Cara Fuller, White was among the first volunteers to return to the classroom in the fall. “She was excited and willing to come in to teach a craft that she loved,” Fuller said. According to DC Public Schools, White was last in the building Jan. 11 and reported her positive coronavirus test result Jan. 21. On Jan. 22, Fuller sent a letter to the school community informing them that an individual tested positive and that the school was “deep cleaned and sanitized out of an abundance of caution.” In a letter addressed to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, the Washington Teachers’ Union asked for stricter procedures and virus metrics.
Tallahassee: Gov. Ron DeSantis again lashed out at the news media Wednesday when he suggested a bias in coverage of the pandemic, even as concerns swirl about more contagious coronavirus strains potentially spreading at gatherings celebrating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory in the Super Bowl. “The media is worried about that, obviously,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Venice. “You don’t care as much when it’s a peaceful protest. You don’t care as much if you’re celebrating a Biden election. You only care about if it’s people you don’t like.” DeSantis has routinely asserted that there is a bias against conservatives and Republicans, particularly among reporters who have asked tough and sometimes uncomfortable questions about the governor’s handling of the public health crisis. But when a journalist asked DeSantis about the spread of a more contagious variant of the virus in the context of super-spreader events following the Super Bowl, the governor took it as an unjustified hit against the home team. “I’m a Bucs fan,” he proclaimed. “I’m damned proud of what they did on Sunday night.” DeSantis himself did not appear to be wearing a mask at times while attending the Super Bowl. “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on? Come on,” the governor was quoted by a Politico reporter as saying.
Atlanta: Officials are proposing one-time bonuses of $1,000 to many state employees who make less than $80,000 a year. Gov. Brian Kemp, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, all Republicans, announced the plan Wednesday. They said they wanted to recognize the hard work of employees during the pandemic. “Our state employees work incredibly hard despite the global pandemic,” Kemp said. “They have to be going above and beyond the call of duty to deliver essential services to our most vulnerable, keeping our businesses open and delivering financial assistance to those that quite honestly many days were losing hope.” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said the bonuses would come from money the state won’t have to spend on the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program because the federal government is picking up a greater share of the program during the pandemic. Ralston said overall spending on the state employee bonuses would be $59.6 million, covering about 57,000 employees. Both teachers and state employees are getting extra pay because of federal spending.
Honolulu: The governor has said he is cautious about loosening air travel restrictions for people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, while stressing that new coronavirus variants are not widespread in the state. Democratic Gov. David Ige said Monday that researchers are still unclear about whether the vaccine hampers virus transmission. “Until the science (tells) us that those who are vaccinated cannot carry the virus and, I think most important, do not transmit it to other people, I think it would be irresponsible to say that those vaccinated can travel about freely,” Ige said. Ige’s comments contradicted Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who said last week that changes could be in store for Hawaii’s Safe Travels program for people who show they have been vaccinated. The program requires visitors and returning residents to receive coronavirus tests before arrival to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine. New variants of the virus have been confirmed in Hawaii. But Ige said those strains have not become prevalent. Versions first detected in the United Kingdom and Denmark have been identified in a handful of cases on the islands.
Boise: The Legislature’s budget committee has approved $175 million for emergency rental assistance for people struggling to pay rent because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 16-4 on Monday to approve the money that also requires approval in both the House and Senate, plus Republican Gov. Brad Little’s signature. The money is part of the $900 million the state received under $900 billion in coronavirus rescue funding signed into law in December by then-President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden last month extended a nationwide eviction ban that started in March 2020 to the end of March 2021. The federal eviction moratorium is intended ensure people can stay in their homes even if they cannot afford their monthly bills. It’s part of an overall plan to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by preventing people from falling into homelessness. The rental assistance money can be used to pay rent, utilities and other expenses related to housing. The budget committee’s action follows a letter sent to the committee last week by 39 Idaho affordable home advocates saying 34,000 households are at risk of eviction or homelessness.
East St. Louis: The city’s public school students are slated to return to the classroom next month, nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the district, officials announced Tuesday. District 189 officials have tentatively scheduled preschool and elementary school students to return to in-person learning March 2. However, remote learning will remain an option for families. District officials say the return to the classroom for middle and high school students will be scheduled after assessing how the transition for younger students goes. There was no school for the district’s approximately 5,200 students Tuesday so that teachers could receive the first dose of the vaccination, according to District 189 spokesman Sydney Stigge-Kaufman. Because the second dose is supposed to be delivered 21 days after the first, the March 2 start date could be pushed back slightly, depending on when vaccines are available for staff. Nearly 600 District 189 teachers and staff members are scheduled to be vaccinated this week, according to officials.
Indianapolis: State health officials will soon expand COVID-19 vaccines to Hoosiers ages 60 to 65 as they continue to sidestep federal recommendations for vaccine rollout and delay the timeline for teachers and other essential workers to become eligible for shots. The decrease in the age of eligibility will happen “as soon as possible” once vaccine becomes available, the state health department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lindsay Weaver, announced Wednesday. Hoosiers ages 50 to 59, as well as those under age 50 who suffer from certain comorbidities, will be on deck, Weaver said, although there are no specific timelines in place for when new eligibility expansions will take effect. “After we reach age 60, when we have enough vaccine and have vaccinated an appropriate portion of the 60-to-65 age group, we will then incrementally expand eligibility,” Weaver said, noting it will take time to inoculate the group that includes some 432,000 people. Indiana officials have based shot eligibility on age rather than moving up teachers and other essential workers as other states have done, arguing that vaccinating those most likely to be hospitalized or die will have the biggest impact.
Johnston: Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday defended her decision to end mask requirements and other rules designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even as public health officials warned against ending the measures when a new more contagious variant of the virus is spreading in the U.S. Reynolds announced Friday that she would lift a partial mask requirement, limits on crowd sizes and other mitigation measures. Asked at a news conference why she decided to end those rules, Reynolds repeated her frequent refrain that Iowa residents can make decisions without government mandates. “I’m not saying, ‘Go out there and be carefree and not be responsible.’ I’m saying I trust Iowans to do the right thing,” she said. “I don’t think they need me to say mandate it.” Since its peak in November, Iowa has seen significant drops in hospitalizations and less robust virus spread. However, it has the highest seven-day rolling average positivity rate in the nation at just under 26%, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Several lawmakers who were on a call with IDPH officials on Monday reported the agency admitted that Reynolds had not conferred with them before lifting the mask mandate.
Mission: A virulent strain of the coronavirus that first appeared in Kansas in a Fort Hays State University athlete hasn’t spread widely among the student’s friends, although wastewater samples in the community have raised concerns, health officials say. Officials sent a mobile lab to Hays after the variant that is wreaking havoc in the United Kingdom was detected last week during routine testing of athletes at the school, state health department head Dr. Lee Norman said Tuesday during a webcast with doctors at the University of Kansas Health System. But he said only one of the 200 contacts or potential contacts of the student-athlete who were tested were positive for the virus. Officials are trying to determine whether that person has the same strain as the student-athlete. Norman said the state has been seeing numbers of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations fall in recent weeks as the vaccine rollout gets underway. As of Monday, the health department reported 8% of the state’s population had been vaccinated, with 73% of doses sent by the federal government administered. But Norman said the real number of vaccinations is actually higher and blamed the problem in part on what he described as a clunky system for inputting data.
Frankfort: The federal government has increased the state’s vaccination supply by 6% as its vaccination program continues to expand, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Tuesday. “It’s not enough, but it’s great,” Beshear said, insisting that the Bluegrass State continues its goal of using 90% of supply within seven days of delivery. As of Tuesday, Kentucky has utilized 80% of doses allocated for its state vaccination program and 91% set aside for long-term care facilities. As supply increases, more Kentuckians will become eligible to receive doses. Currently, health care workers, first responders, K-12 school personnel, and residents age 70 or older are eligible. The Democratic governor also said that, in anticipation of a winter storm, vaccination appointments for Wednesday and Thursday at Kroger regional vaccine sites would be rescheduled. “If you have waited a long time to get this appointment, I am really sorry. But I also don’t want to put you out on the roads with thick ice,” Beshear said. “Wear your mask, be careful over this next week, and we will get you vaccinated.” Kentucky reported 2,339 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 35 virus-related deaths Tuesday. More than 1,200 people are hospitalized.
Baton Rouge: Gov. John Bel Edwards decided against loosening his coronavirus restrictions Tuesday and received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a day after expanding access to the shots to include state government officials involved in pandemic response work. Though access to COVID-19 immunizations is widening, the Democratic governor announced he was maintaining Louisiana’s current business limitations and statewide mask mandate through March 3, rather than letting them expire Wednesday. He cited concerns about the more contagious U.K. variant of the virus spreading in Louisiana, along with the risks of possible Mardi Gras gatherings despite parade cancellations. Edwards, 54, got his Pfizer shot in the afternoon at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center campus in Baton Rouge, along with several other state officials newly able under Louisiana’s latest eligibility criteria. “I have been looking forward to this day for some time,” Edwards said, smiling, shortly before he was scheduled to receive the immunization. “For me, quite frankly, waiting hasn’t been easy.” While at Pennington, the governor discussed the creation of what could eventually become a Baton Rouge mass vaccination site.
Bangor: Democratic leaders criticized MaineHealth on Tuesday for providing COVID-19 vaccinations to out-of-state consultants hired to fight an effort to unionize nurses. Gov. Janet Mills called the move “an inexcusable act.” Senate President Troy Jackson said vaccinating the consultants diverted vaccines from vulnerable Mainers. “Every out-of-state consultant and lawyer that MaineHealth flew in as part of their intimidation campaign got the vaccine instead of someone’s grandparent or loved one,” Jackson said. MaineHealth, the state’s largest health network, said in a statement that it vaccinated a small number of out-of-state individuals and “erred” in doing so. Jeanne M. Lambrew, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the state would “continue to be more aggressive with our providers to make sure they are following our guidelines.”
Annapolis: Signing up to speak at a bill hearing or file written testimony got harder – and, for some, maybe impossible – after the coronavirus pandemic shifted how the General Assembly accepts witness testimonies. In previous years, interested parties would trek to Annapolis the morning of a bill hearing and sign up to testify. If they needed assistance in the process, lobbyists could do it for them. While the online system makes it accessible for people who couldn’t previously go to Annapolis in person, it has its own set of challenges. If an individual or lobbyist wants to sign up to testify, in either the House or the Senate, they have to sign up 48 business hours before the hearing date, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., on the Maryland General Assembly website. This time frame is challenging for people who work during the day and for voters with disabilities, said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. For instance, if a voter is blind, and they have to join a meeting at home, and their Zoom account is not identical to their sign-up name, they won’t be let into the electronic room, Antoine said.
Boston: The state is getting miserable grades for its efforts in fighting the coronavirus. The state received three F’s and a D in four key performance areas, according to a report released Tuesday by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Massachusetts got F’s for deaths per capita, vaccinations per capita and vaccinations as percentage of doses available. In the “months to finish vaccinating eligible,” Massachusetts got a D. Grades are assigned on a curve in which the top 10 are awarded an A and the bottom 10 an F. “If we compare the states to 50 runners in a series of marathons, we can see who is leading – as well as who is bringing up the rear. In the first race to protect the lives of its citizens and thus have the fewest deaths per capita, at this point Massachusetts has fallen so far behind that it is almost impossible for it to catch up,” professor Graham Allison and research assistant Hugo Yen wrote in their analysis. As of Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health had reported more than 519,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 15,000 virus-related fatalities. Overall, the Belfer Center’s report called the nation’s handling of the pandemic “appalling.”
Detroit: City leaders are pushing to get senior citizens, some of the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, vaccinated through clinics at two of the city’s largest churches and by providing rides to the TCF Center garage mass drive-thru vaccination site. Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday that of the 1,800 Detroiters who have died from the virus, more than 70% were 65 or older. In the past two weeks, he said, 15 of the city’s 16 deaths from the virus were people 65 and up. Duggan said the city also has recorded its first two cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus. Before Duggan’s briefing, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the state health department, said she was “very concerned about what we are seeing with the new B.1.1.7 variant,” also known as the United Kingdom strain. “We now know of 45 cases of the variants identified in Michigan, across 10 counties. And there will be more,” she said. Meanwhile, Khaldun has been tapped by the Biden administration to join a federal COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force whose goal will be to address disparities that have emerged during the pandemic in testing, cases, hospitalizations and mortality, the White House announced Wednesday.
Minneapolis: The Minnesota Orchestra has posted another record-breaking deficit as the coronavirus pandemic continues its disruption. The orchestra is reporting an operating loss of $11.7 million, the largest in its history and topping last year’s $8.8 million deficit. The orchestra canceled 52 concerts and 19 rental events. “We had to cancel about a third of our concerts in fiscal 2020, along with our annual fundraising event, the Symphony Ball,” President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns said. “Those two things combined had a very significant impact.” Some of Minnesota’s other major arts institutions have also reported losses, the Star Tribune reports. The Guthrie Theater had a record $2.7 million operating deficit for the fiscal year ending in August. The Minneapolis Institute of Art posted its first loss in 27 years. The Minnesota Orchestra, with its 86 full-time musicians, has avoided layoffs, although about 200 part-timers have been on hiatus since in-person concerts were canceled. The orchestra used $4.5 million in funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to keep paying people, Miller Burns said. When that ran out, musicians and staff members took pay cuts.
Jackson: Hinds County, home to the capital city, appears poised to become the worst area in the state for total number of COVID-19 cases, but testing disparities across Mississippi could be skewing the overall picture, officials say. Since its focus shifted to the accelerated COVID-19 vaccination plan announced by Gov. Tate Reeves in January, the Mississippi State Department of Health has decreased testing at some of the 21 drive-thru locations the state runs or supports, said Liz Sharlot, director of communications for the agency. That means some counties may not be getting a full picture on how many people are actually infected. Since November, DeSoto County – just south of Memphis, Tennessee – has consistently recorded the highest number of total coronavirus cases in the state. Mark Davis, director of emergency medical services in DeSoto County, said residents are following state guidelines on how to protect themselves. But he said he feels the reason cases are coming down is that testing has substantially decreased in recent weeks. “The people that are asymptomatic that were just getting tested because it was free and it was available aren’t getting tested, and we’re missing those cases,” he said.
Kansas City: The state tasked nine regional groups with making sure Black and Latino communities have equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, but the effort got off to a slow start. Nearly two months into the vaccine rollout, four of the groups still aren’t operational, KCUR reports. Overall, just 5% of the doses Missouri has received have gone to Black residents, even though Black people make up about 11.5% of the population. “It’s a life-and-death situation,” said Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who is also president of the Black Health Care Coalition, a local nonprofit that seeks to eliminate health care disparities in the Black community. The theory behind the state’s plan was that a regional organization would know its area best and understand how to reach at-risk community members. But regional officials say the effort is being hampered by a lack of state funding and confusion about what they see as vague expectations. The nine regional teams would get no more than $128,479.88 from the state, and that’s not enough, said Dr. Rex Archer, who heads Kansas City’s health department. “You get what you pay for,” he said. “And sometimes you don’t get what you don’t pay for.”
Helena: A fourth state lawmaker has tested positive for the coronavirus during this year’s session, COVID-19 panel chairman Sen. Jason Ellsworth said Wednesday. GOP Rep. Becky Beard of Elliston received the positive results Wednesday morning and gave permission for her name to be released, Ellsworth said in a statement. Beard was not a direct contact to fellow Republican Rep. Brian Putnam of Kalispell, who received a positive test result Sunday. Beard is asymptomatic and has been participating in the Legislature remotely this week. She was last in the Capitol on Friday, Ellsworth said. Contact tracing is ongoing.
Omaha: The city has extended its mask mandate for another three months to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Omaha’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the requirement through May 25. The council also rejected a proposed change to the rule that would have exempted children ages 5 to 12. Currently, the mandate generally requires everyone 5 and older to wear masks anytime they can’t stay 6 feet apart from others indoors. Council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding said they proposed the amendment to offer more flexibility to parents and schools to make judgment calls on whether to exempt young children from wearing masks. Councilman Ben Gray said he opposed the change because infectious disease experts recommended maintaining the city’s mask mandate. The state said 5% of Nebraska’s population has now received both required doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 246,623 doses have been administered.
Reno: Schools are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases among students even as infections and fatalities in Washoe County are dropping to levels not seen since the lead-up to the holiday season. Washoe County School District is averaging about 24 new cases per week among students after returning to a hybrid schedule in late January – a pace not seen since November. The University of Nevada, Reno, also reported an increase in cases during the week between Jan. 30 and Feb. 5. The increase in school numbers is occurring despite an overall decrease in cases in the community. The county reported 769 new COVID-19 cases during the seven-day period ending Feb. , down 15% from the previous week. New infections also averaged about 110 cases per day, which is the lowest number since mid-October. The lower numbers are being driven by a decline in cases among most age groups, according to data from the Washoe County Health Department. Cases were up slightly for those ages 10 to 29 as well as people 40 to 49 but otherwise showed significant declines. Deaths are also averaging about 2.5 per day, significantly down from the 7.6 per day seen toward the end of December.
Concord: The state Senate is considering a COVID-19 catch-all bill that seeks to help nursing home residents, live performance venues, small-business owners, and employees required to get tested for the coronavirus. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on a bill that would bring in outside consultants to assess the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, create grant programs to support the live performance industry and businesses with five workers or fewer, and require employers to bear the cost of virus tests that aren’t covered by insurers when they require employees to get tested. The bill includes $250,000 for the nursing home assessment and $1 million for the business grant fund, both of which would come from federal funding. “This focuses not just on the emergency and the pandemic we see before us today,” said Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-Lebanon, sponsor of the section related to small businesses and virus testing. “By doing this, we put these smaller businesses in a better position into the future as a microenterprise.”
Trenton: Gov. Phil Murphy canceled in-person public events Wednesday because a family member tested positive for the coronavirus. The governor, a Democrat, declined to identify the family member but said during a video news conference that it wasn’t first lady Tammy Murphy. He said the person who tested positive hadn’t been to any large indoor gatherings, and the positive test likely stemmed from a smaller gathering. The governor received a test earlier Wednesday that came back negative. He doesn’t qualify as a close contact to the family member, his office said, but “out of an abundance of caution” he was voluntarily quarantining. Asked how he doesn’t qualify as a close contact to a family member living in the same household, the governor said his family takes precautions, like keeping distance and opening windows, even at home. The governor and first lady have four children. It’s the second time the governor has gone into isolation or quarantine. In October, he abruptly left an event, saying he just found out a person with whom he was in contact over the weekend tested positive. Murphy tested positive after contact with that person.
Santa Fe: The Legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet. The effort comes a year into a pandemic that has pushed education and health care online, eroding residents’ access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection. “We watched the collapse of our educational system during the COVID and during the shutdown. And we all were watching our kids and our grandkids, dealing with this problem,” said Rep. Susan Herrera, of Embudo, who represents residents in three surrounding rural counties north of Santa Fe. Roughly 1 in 5 students didn’t have access to the internet at all in the first months of the pandemic, according to a survey by the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority. At-home coronavirus testing rolled out by the state last year required participants to use video chat. Vaccine distribution efforts focus on getting residents to sign up online. The Connect New Mexico Act introduced by Herrera and four others made it through a House committee focused on infrastructure Tuesday in an 8-1 vote. It will next be heard in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
New York: The New York Mets’ home, Citi Field, joined Yankee Stadium on Wednesday in offering COVID-19 vaccinations to eligible residents, but a lack of supply means only a few hundred people a day will initially get shots there. The Citi Field vaccination hub will be reserved for taxi drivers, food service workers and vaccine-eligible residents of the borough of Queens. “This site will be for the people of Queens; it will be for folks who take care of us and protect us and serve us as taxi drivers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said after touring the vaccination site. “It’ll be the place for folks who work in food service. Working people, essential workers who have given their all to us during this crisis, and we need to be there for them.” Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced two new mass vaccination sites will open up in Brooklyn and Queens on Feb. 24 in hopes of expanding access to vulnerable minority communities. He said New York hopes to vaccinate as many as 3,000 people a day at each site, and he acknowledged there’s a long way to go to build trust with communities who might be skeptical. He said the sites will receive doses from a “special federal allocation” but didn’t say how many or when.
Raleigh: Gov. Roy Cooper signed a coronavirus relief bill Wednesday that will dole out money the state received as part of a stimulus bill Congress passed in December. The federal funds provide money for schools to reopen, public health officials to distribute the vaccine and residents to help pay their rent. “This pandemic continues to strain communities across our state, and this investment of federal funds in critical areas will help us defeat COVID-19 and build back a stronger and more resilient North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. The law includes $1.6 billion for education with the aim of helping get kids back to school quicker and addressing learning loss the pandemic has exacerbated. The bill also distributes $546 million for emergency rental assistance and $95 million for the state Department of Health and Human Services to improve vaccine distribution. Parents who missed last year’s deadline will have another opportunity to apply for a $335 one-time check meant to help offset child care costs and expenses associated with remote learning. North Carolina parents would have until May 31 to take advantage of the so-called Extra Credit grants.
Bismarck: Lawmakers are considering a proposal to make mental health and wellness studies mandatory for middle and high school students. According to health officials, North Dakota’s rate of teen suicide is well above the national average. While some schools have elements of mental wellness in the classroom, a proposed bill would have mandated resources to help them, and schools would be given standards on how to handle students who need help. Some teen suicide survivors came forward to tell their stories at the Capitol on Tuesday. Kennedy Gjovik told lawmakers her first attempt at suicide was in middle school. “I had all the warning signs, but no one noticed. Or even if they did notice, no one spoke up. And after getting that message, I decided I was done fighting. That night, I made my first suicide attempt,” Gjovik said. After other attempts at taking her own life, Gjovik said it wasn’t until she switched schools that she started getting substantial help. It’s that disparity that lawmakers are trying to resolve, KFYR-TV reports. The bill also allows for school districts to collaborate in the classroom and with distance learning so that rural schools can get help to their students.
Columbus: Nursing home workers who declined the COVID-19 vaccine during the first round of shots will be given another opportunity to take it, Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday as he outlined plans for providing ongoing access to the vaccine in the state’s long-term care facilities. Only about 4 of every 10 nursing home and assisted-living facility employees have received doses, the governor has said. Workers have cited distrust of the vaccine and concern about side effects. Providing that second opportunity is part of the state’s plan to make vaccines available for new residents and employees of nursing homes and assisted living facilities now that the initial round of shots is over. Details are coming next week. The goal is “continuing access to this life-saving vaccine,” DeWine said. More than 1 million Ohioans received at least the first vaccine shot as of Tuesday, or about 9% of the population, according to the state Department of Health. Also Tuesday, the governor said he wants Ohio schools to develop plans by April 1 for addressing educational setbacks experienced by children during the pandemic, and he’s making $2 billion in federal aid available to help.
Oklahoma City: Wintry weather that left roads slick and hazardous statewide Wednesday has led to the closings of some COVID-19 vaccination sites, including the state’s two largest. Both the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and the Tulsa City-County Health Department were closed Wednesday because of inclement weather and said they were notifying people who have appointments by phone and email to reschedule their vaccinations. Tulsa County had 2,000 appointments scheduled, said Leanne Stephens, spokesperson for the Tulsa department. Oklahoma County had 700 appointments that have already been rescheduled for March 10, according to spokesperson Molly Fleming. Some hospitals in the two cities that had vaccination appointments remained open, including Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. “We’re leaving it up to how the people (with appointments) feel” about driving to the hospital, said spokesperson Meredith Huggins. The state health department on Wednesday reported 30 additional deaths due to COVID-19 and 1,660 more cases for totals of 3,900 deaths and 407,724 cases since the pandemic began.
Portland: Recent estimates show renters across the state could owe up to a staggering $378 million in back rent as the pandemic and widespread unemployment rage on. But researchers say this is a small fraction of the cost to Oregon if leaders don’t act to avert the evictions of the estimated 89,000 households that have fallen behind on rent, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports. A report out Tuesday by Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative put downstream costs of the mass evictions predicted to occur in Oregon once the eviction moratorium expires in June at as high as $3.3 billion. The authors of the report arrived at the figure using estimates of households that owe back rent, which were derived from a U.S. Census Bureau survey and a cost-of-eviction calculator devised by the University of Arizona. The calculator takes into account some of the major costs associated with eviction, including emergency shelter, medical care and child welfare services.
Harrisburg: The Wolf administration and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers are forming a vaccine task force that will brainstorm ways to get COVID-19 shots into Pennsylvanians’ arms more rapidly. A persistent lack of supply and the state’s laggy distribution system have slowed efforts to vaccinate more than 4 million residents who are currently eligible. Only about a quarter of those residents – including people age 65 and over and younger people with serious medical conditions – have gotten at least one of the two required doses. The task force will include officials in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration who are running the state’s vaccine effort, along with Democratic and Republican appointees from the House and Senate. Wolf and the lawmakers said the task force will collaborate on ways to speed up delivery. “We need to do a better job in Pennsylvania. That is not mystery. That’s not something that I am at all reluctant to acknowledge,” Wolf said at a media briefing Tuesday, while also stressing that Pennsylvania, like every other state, needs more vaccine.
Providence: While acknowledging there have been “bumps in the road,” Gov. Gina Raimondo in her first media interview since December defended the state’s vaccination efforts and pledged to keep working on improvements to the system. “I know folks are frustrated with the pace of vaccinations, but our strategy is working, and you can see that because hospitalizations have been dropping like a rock,” Raimondo said outside the State House on Tuesday after a virtual vaccination rollout briefing. The Democrat has been nominated by President Joe Biden to be his administration’s commerce secretary and had not answered questions from the media since Dec. 22. She said she remains committed to working for Rhode Islanders until her confirmation. “I can tell you I’m working as hard as I ever have as the governor,” Raimondo said. “My day-to-day hasn’t changed that much.” The state’s vaccination efforts have been hampered in part by supply, but that is expected to be bumped up to 19,000 first doses per week by the end of February, she said. So far almost 90,000 residents of Rhode Island have received a first dose, and almost 38,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health statistics released Wednesday.
Columbia: The state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday for a proposal that would make all teachers and other critical school staff – along with day care workers – eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The resolution also would require all school districts to offer students in-person classes five days a week immediately after spring break, even if teachers aren’t fully vaccinated by then. “We either vaccinate the teachers now, or we don’t need to vaccinate them til June,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said. Teacher groups say educators must get vaccinated soon because already low staffing levels in schools are being exacerbated by the pandemic, with staffers out on medical leave or quarantined. That makes it hard for schools to maintain in-person learning options. Currently, teachers are grouped with other front-line essential workers in Phase 1B of the state’s plan; the proposal would move them to 1A. But senators struggled over how to slot teachers into the state’s vaccine plan without pitting them against senior citizens also clamoring for the shots. Thousands of seniors are still on vaccine waitlists, and others have struggled to navigate online appointment systems.
Pierre: Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday used an announcement that the state will have an additional $125 million in one-time funds to tout her hands-off approach to the pandemic, while acknowledging that much of the windfall was thanks to the federal stimulus. The Republican governor pointed to the state’s unemployment rate, which is among the lowest in the nation, as proof that her decision to keep South Dakota “open” was the right one, even though the state has the highest rate of virus deaths per capita in the Midwest. The state suffered through one of the nation’s worst waves of the virus late last year, and 1,809 people have died from COVID-19. In recent weeks, the numbers of new cases and deaths have steadily declined. Noem contended that her decision has helped South Dakota avoid the dire economic straits seen in other states. “South Dakota is in the position that we are today because of the approach that we took over the last year,” Noem told lawmakers. “As states across the country were shutting down, South Dakota remained open.” The governor called an 11% growth in ongoing revenue “unprecedented” in the past 30 years. But she warned that the boom could be short-lived, blaming both President Joe Biden’s energy policies and federal stimulus dollars running out.
Memphis: The FedEx Express pilots union has requested that Gov. Bill Lee have the state prioritize commercial pilots for COVID-19 vaccinations, saying it will help keep vaccine distribution running smoothly. The Feb. 5 letter to Lee, written by FedEx Master Executive Council Chairman Capt. Dave Chase, requests the governor “prioritize, on a voluntary basis, COVID-19 vaccination for all pilots employed in commercial aviation.” “The quicker we can get our shots, the more likely we can maintain our health as we continue to deliver the vaccine and ensure a robust supply chain,” Chase said. The push to accelerate vaccinations for FedEx pilots isn’t only coming from the union. FedEx said in a statement that it “is actively working with state agencies to attempt to prioritize vaccine availability for our frontline team members including our pilots.” “Until that time, we strongly encourage all employees to pay close attention to the current vaccination schedule in their states and counties and to take advantage of any vaccination opportunities provided to them through that process,” the company said Wednesday.
Houston: Three mega-sites to administer COVID-19 vaccines will be set up later this month at stadiums and a fairgrounds site in Houston and the Dallas area, federal and state officials announced Wednesday. In Houston, the vaccination site will be at NRG Stadium, where the NFL’s Texans play. In Dallas, it will be set up at Fair Park, home to the Texas State Fair. In Arlington, officials will set up a site at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Last week, the NFL told the federal government it would make all of its stadiums available as COVID-19 vaccination sites. The three sites, being set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in cooperation with local and state officials, are expected to be open Feb. 24. “These mass community sites will allow us to expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations in underserved communities and help us mitigate the spread of the virus,” Gov. Greg Abbott said. State officials say FEMA will supply the vaccine, meaning the doses are expected to be on top of the allocations Texas is already receiving each week. White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the three sites will be capable of delivering a combined 10,000 shots per day.
St. George: Zion National Park has released details on how rangers plan to enforce a recently enacted federal mask mandate. In a virtual press conference, spokesperson Amanda Rowland and Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren said masks are required in all areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as the lines for the shuttle and plaza areas. “Our approach to this is going to be using extreme patience and education and really trying to help people understand the science behind wearing masks and the data that supports that,” Fagergren said. Since Utah’s state mask mandate in November, the park has been following but not enforcing the guidelines. Now, as masks are mandated by federal law, all national parks, including Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, must enforce mask-wearing. While he is prepared to ask someone to physically distance or leave an area if they refuse to wear a mask, Fagergren said he does not believe the situation will escalate to removal from the park. “We’re not trying to make this more difficult than it needs to be,” he said. Citations will be issued, however, for failure to comply.
Montpelier: The state is offering identity theft protection to more than 100,000 people who received unemployment benefits last year after tax forms were inadvertently sent to the wrong people. Last week, the Department of Labor announced that some people who received unemployment benefits in 2020 were sent 1099-G forms that included tax information for someone else. While not all people who received benefits last year were affected, the service will be offered to everyone who received them. People who received the benefits will receive instructions next week on how to sign up for the service. “As soon as the person enrolls, the protection will be retroactive to the date of the breach,” Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday. “My hope is that this will provide some reassurance, though I don’t know – this doesn’t come close to making up for the harm and worry this has caused Vermonters.” Initial cost estimates to provide the service are up to $7 million, but the state has insurance to cover such losses and thus will only have to pay the $250,000 deductible.
Richmond: School leaders in the city say they’re not optimistic that they can meet the governor’s request to open schools to students by March 15. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports officials said at a Tuesday school board meeting that buildings aren’t cleaned or safe enough for COVID-19 prevention. School officials also said too few teachers and staff have been vaccinated. And they’re concerned about how they’ll continue to use buses to bring food to students and to bring students to school. “I have significant concerns about reopening,” Superintendent Jason Kamras told the board. “It is literally not possible to do the air-quality enhancements that we would like to do by March 15.” But the administration is considering allowing a small number of “vulnerable” learners, such as students with special needs, to return. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and a doctor, called for students to at least have the option of returning. He cited the pandemic’s steep emotional and academic toll on students and families.
Bremerton: Even during a pandemic, Kitsap County’s housing market was hot all year long, driving median home prices up as 2020 went on and hitting a high in November at $439,000. Julie Cooper, sales manager at Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, wondered what COVID-19 would do to the market – would it slow? As the year went on, it became evident business was accelerating, and those considering buying a home were prompted to act, she said. “I think people serious about buying got with lenders, got pre-approved, then went shopping,” Cooper said. The market’s been moving at a very fast pace, said Frank Wilson, Kitsap regional manager for John L. Scott Real Estate. Listings come and go fast. Wilson described Kitsap County as an extreme seller’s market. In December, only 195 homes were on the market in all of Kitsap, down from the previous year’s 325, he said. Low inventory is a byproduct of high buyer demand, he said. Cooper said people in Seattle are thinking about a 60-minute boat ride to commute to work in exchange for living in a place more affordable than the city.
Charleston: A lawmaker has renewed an attempt to punish teachers for striking in a state where work stoppages have occurred in two of the past three years. Senate Education Committee chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson County, introduced a bill Wednesday on the first day of the regular legislative session that would allow striking teachers to be fired. Under the bill, county boards of education could instead order the prorated salary or hourly pay of a public employee to be forfeited for each day of their participation in a strike. County superintendents also would be barred from closing schools in anticipation of or to facilitate a strike. While the bill’s prospects of passing are uncertain, the November election produced a supermajority for Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature. Having a two-thirds majority gives the GOP the ability to advance bills without Democratic support. Rucker’s bill “doesn’t surprise me,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. “I think they can pass anything they want to pass.” Similar anti-strike provisions were removed from an education bill that passed the Legislature in 2019.
Madison: A new legal challenge to Gov. Tony Evers’ latest mask mandate is before the state Supreme Court, filed less than a week after the Legislature struck down a previous order and the governor quickly issued a new one. Prominent Republican donor Jere Fabick asked the court late Tuesday to issue a temporary injunction to block the mask order Evers issued Feb. 4. Fabick’s lawsuit challenging Evers’ authority to issue multiple emergency orders remains before the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November but has yet to issue a ruling. Republicans and Fabick contend the Democratic governor exceeded his authority by issuing multiple public health emergencies due to the coronavirus pandemic. Evers tied the mask mandates to each emergency order. They argue Evers must get legislative approval to extend a health emergency beyond 60 days for the same event. Evers contends the changing nature of the pandemic warranted his issuing new health orders. Nearly 60 organizations opposed repeal of the mandate, including groups representing hospitals, doctors, nurses, EMTs, school administrators, businesses, children, unions, Milwaukee schools, American Indian tribes, pharmacists, firefighters, local health departments, senior citizens, churches and dentists.
Cheyenne: The owner of a burger joint has defied public health orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, arguing he had to do so to stay in business and keep his staff employed. Sanford’s Grub and Pub has a sign posted in front of its door calling safety regulations “unconstitutional” and saying the business “is NOT following social distancing mandates,” The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. The sign said that the restaurant is not following capacity and seating restrictions or mask requirements for customers but that employees wear masks. “The reason why we put the sign up there was to let anybody know that’s coming in, ‘If you’re not comfortable with coming into our restaurant, then don’t come in, because this is what we’re doing,’ ” owner James Yates said. He said several other local restaurants and bars are also not following coronavirus prevention health orders. The state’s public health order requires restaurants to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between people seated at different tables and allows for no more than six people at a table if those customers are from different households. Yates argued the order is inconsistent, saying it does not require social distancing at booths, only tables.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cocktail carryout, pandemic ‘bias’: News from around our 50 states