Hands Across America, whale watching, masked festival: News from around our 50 states

·49 min read

Alabama

Montgomery: Three state lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus this week, a legislative spokesman confirmed Tuesday. Alabama House of Representative spokesman Clay Redden said three representatives received positive test results this week. He did not disclose the legislators’ names for privacy reasons. Lawmakers and legislative staff have been receiving regular tests since the session began last month. Lawmakers have been taking precautions such as wearing masks, limiting access to the building and spreading out the 105 House members over two floors. A number of lawmakers tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 before the session began. Legislators are on spring break next week.

Alaska

Anchorage: The Department of Corrections is allowing attorney-client visits to resume within its facilities after a yearlong suspension related to the pandemic. The department said visits can resume starting Wednesday, with limits. The inmate must be fully vaccinated, and attorneys will be subject to screening, including temperature checks, the department said. Face coverings and appointments will be required. Transparent dividers will be placed in visitation rooms with “enhanced cleaning” after each use, the department said. For the past year, those in department custody have had to rely on phone calls from lawyers to discuss their cases, Alaska Public Media reports. Anchorage defense attorney Rich Curtner said the change in policy is a “big deal.” He is among a group of attorneys who have pushed for more in-person access, which he called essential to preparing clients for court proceedings. “I think at least they recognize that the attorney-client constitutional rights for clients are important. And, you know, they have to be balanced with COVID risk,” he said. More than 2,000 people in Alaska’s prison system have tested positive for the coronavirus during the pandemic, department figures show. Curtner said he is concerned with the pace with which the department is vaccinating those in its custody.

Arizona

Phoenix: Just over 1 million residents are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, state officials announced Tuesday. That represents nearly 14% of the state’s estimated population of nearly 7.3 million, or about 1 of every 7 residents. “Every dose of the COVID-19 vaccine administered to an Arizona resident represents an essential step forward in our fight against COVID-19,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement. The Department of Health Services said nearly 2.6 million doses had been administered as of Tuesday morning to more than 1.6 million people. The state’s vaccination program began in December and now includes four large outdoor state-run sites, three in metro Phoenix and one in Tucson. Vaccines also are being administered at county sites, pharmacies, congregate care facilities and other locations. The health services department said it is preparing to allow vaccinations for all people 16 or older by May 1 and to move some outdoor vaccination operations to indoor locations or to nighttime hours as summer approaches to protect staff, volunteers and vaccine patients from extreme heat. Meanwhile, the Phoenix City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to reopen its outdoor park amenities as COVID-19 cases continue to decline.

Arkansas

Little Rock: The state on Tuesday made vaccines available to nearly 1 million more residents, expanding eligibility to a wide category of people that includes food service workers, the incarcerated and people with certain health conditions that put them at higher risk. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state was opening up the 1C phase of its vaccination plan, citing President Joe Biden’s goal to have all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1. Arkansas had previously made the vaccine available to people who are at least 65 years old and several other groups that included teachers and health care workers. “It is important to move to 1C so that we can open up more and keep the demand coming for the vaccine to make sure there’s not any gap and to give everyone the best opportunity to get the vaccine who wants it and needs it,” Hutchinson said at his weekly news briefing. Others in the newly eligible category in Arkansas include essential workers in the energy, finance, legal and media sectors; the incarcerated or detained; and those living in high-risk settings such as group homes and college dorms. Hutchinson also cited a slowdown in demand for the vaccine, particularly in rural parts of the state, as a reason for opening up eligibility further.

California

Sacramento: The family of a 61-year-old inmate who died of the coronavirus sued state corrections officials Tuesday, blaming a botched transfer of infected inmates to San Quentin State Prison that killed 28 inmates and a correctional officer last year. Daniel Ruiz was serving a four-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance for sale and for being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to corrections officials. He died July 10. Corrections officials said he was scheduled to be released in September 2021. The lawsuit says he had several risk factors, including asthma, obesity, hepatitis C and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. By the time his family found out he’d contracted COVID-19, he’d been in a hospital intensive care unit for two weeks, was on a ventilator and was near death. His family’s attorneys said it’s the first such federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from officials’ decision to transfer 122 inmates from the California Institute for Men near Los Angeles to the prison north of San Francisco in late May, before they had been properly tested for the coronavirus. But a class-action lawsuit is pending in Marin County Superior Court on behalf of inmate Steven Malear and what that suit said were at least 1,400 other San Quentin inmates infected in a transfer that state officials have acknowledged was disastrous, if well-intended.

Colorado

Fort Collins: A surge of COVID-19 vaccine shipments is expected starting next week, kicking distribution of the doses into high gear and opening more mass vaccination sites across the state in the process, Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday. Polis learned on a call with the White House on Tuesday that Colorado would receive 3,000 extra doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines next week and a significant amount of additional Johnson & Johnson doses the week after next, he said in a news conference. The Democratic governor said he expects the state to see shipments of roughly 400,000 vaccine doses per week by the end of April. To administer this surge of vaccines – staying in step with the state’s new goal of getting doses into the arms of the general public by mid-April – Polis said the state will rely on roughly half a dozen mass vaccination sites sprinkled across Colorado that are expected to open in the next few days at the earliest and next two weeks at the latest. Meanwhile, after a rapid and steady decrease of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations this winter, progress in the state’s fight against the virus is stalling, top epidemiologists said Tuesday. “We’ve reached a bit of a high plateau in the state,” Colorado State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said.

Connecticut

Hartford: State lawmakers have begun combing through the dozens of executive orders signed by Gov. Ned Lamont over the past year during the pandemic, trying to determine which should be extended and which need to be enacted in state law. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate plan to meet Thursday with the Democratic governor’s administration to discuss how best to proceed. Republican legislative leaders, who in January opposed extending Lamont’s emergency powers until April 20, said they had not yet been invited to Thursday’s meeting. The GOP at that time suggested Lamont’s powers should be extended until March 1, so long as there was a “metric-based case” for each particular order, and that lawmakers could discuss which orders could be codified through a vote of the General Assembly. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he’s glad Democrats are discussing how best to proceed with Lamont’s executive orders, even though it’s “late in the process.” Lamont has been slowly relaxing some of his executive orders. Beginning Friday, for example, capacity limits will be eliminated on restaurants, libraries, museums, aquariums, gyms, retail stores, hair salons and churches.

Delaware

Wilmington: Lawmakers introduced a bill late Tuesday to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, heeding the growing call for the pay increase that neighboring states have already implemented. But the COVID-19 pandemic has only bolstered opposition from Delaware’s business-friendly community, which has prevailed in stopping such an increase in the past. Advocates said much has changed since last year, and not just because of the virus. Delaware is more likely this time around to succeed in hiking the minimum wage because voters replaced several moderate Democratic and Republican lawmakers with progressives in the November election. Democrats now hold a three-fifths majority in both chambers of the Legislature. And even Gov. John Carney appears potentially more open to it than in years past. Still, that might not be enough to pass it, especially because the pro-business state is still feeling the pandemic’s toll on the local economy. The food industry, which has been hit particularly hard by Carney’s yearlong COVID-19 restrictions, may put up the hardest fight. “It’s puzzling to me, when we have an economy that’s not even open at 100%, why they are pursuing a bill like this,” said Carrie Leishman, CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “It’s irresponsible.”

District of Columbia

Washington: Restaurant workers have been added to the eligibility list for COVID-19 vaccines, WUSA-TV reports. The essential workers may start receiving appointment invitations beginning Thursday. The update this week from Mayor Muriel Bowser expands the group of food service workers eligible. Previously, only grocery workers and those in food manufacturing were allowed to get a shot. Monday’s vaccine eligibility expansion also covers courtroom staff and those who provide legal services; front-line employees of public transit; U.S. Postal Service employees; and essential employees in local government agencies and public utilities. People working in health, human and social services organizations who weren’t vaccinated as outreach workers are also included for vaccine eligibility, as well as employees working in commercial and residential property maintenance and environmental services. The next eligibility expansion is in two weeks, starting March 29, to all essential workers, including ride-share and delivery drivers, plus journalists and other workers in mass communication.

Florida

Tallahassee: Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans Tuesday to shore up his state’s emergency management system, as well as give $1,000 bonus checks to the state’s cadre of first responders, under a spending proposal to disburse some $10 billion Florida is expected to reap under the latest federal COVID-19 relief bill. During a Capitol press conference, DeSantis announced a laundry list of spending priorities totaling about $4.1 billion – a big slice of the money Florida is expected to get from the pandemic aid package President Joe Biden signed last week. State lawmakers will get to decide whether to implement the governor’s recommendations as part of the budget they must approve before they adjourn in late April. With the additional spending, the governor is now asking lawmakers to consider funding nearly $100 billion in programs. Even as he listed his spending priorities, DeSantis bemoaned how the Biden administration would be distributing $1.9 trillion in relief money to states and local governments in the coming weeks and months. The federal government is distributing money not by population but based on the number of unemployed residents – a method that DeSantis contends penalizes states like his whose economies are recovering more quickly than other big states.

Georgia

Atlanta: The state’s failure to open mass vaccination sites earlier and relatively slow expansion of eligibility for shots are to blame in part for its dismal COVID-19 inoculation rate, health experts say. Georgia ranks dead last among states in the percentage of its adult population that has received at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly a third of the doses delivered to the state are still awaiting injection, the second-worst among states, according to CDC numbers. Gov. Brian Kemp again disputed those numbers Tuesday, saying Georgia has identified about 250,000 doses that have been injected but not recorded, and accused reporters of playing “pandemic politics” by focusing on Georgia’s poor rankings. Sarah McCool, a professor in public health at Georgia State University, said Georgia was slow to open a mass vaccination site in the Atlanta area. She said in addition to getting more shots administered, a centralized site could have eased confusion about where to get inoculated, which also hampered the state’s rollout. There are other mass sites being run by county health departments, but people can’t make reservations using the MyVaccineGeorgia.com address Kemp promotes for sites run by the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.

Hawaii

Honolulu: Public schools in the state will bring more students back to campus in coming weeks under COVID-19 prevention guidelines agreed to by administrators, union leaders and health officials. The circumstances will differ across schools, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports, depending on campus conditions, student needs and parent preferences. Christina Kishimoto, the state’s education department superintendent, said the goal was for more than 50% of elementary school students to receive in-person learning during the fourth quarter, which begins Monday. She said students who want to learn in person would go to campus on a rotating basis. At the end of the second quarter in December, 12% of elementary students were attending school on campus. Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said the union concluded the timing was right after consulting with officials from the state Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said “the vast majority” of teachers will have been vaccinated, and Hawaii has one of the lowest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the nation. “With this agreement we do now believe that it’s safe for more of our students to return,” Rosenlee said.

Idaho

Boise: Legislation intended to shield businesses, schools and government entities from lawsuits if someone catches the coronavirus headed to the governor’s desk Tuesday. The state Senate voted 32-2 to approve the measure that extends a law passed last summer during a special session called by Republican Gov. Brad Little due to the coronavirus pandemic. Little signed that legislation last year that has an end date of July 1, 2021. The legislation now headed to his desk is the same as that bill but extends the end date to July 1, 2022. The House approved the legislation 62-7 earlier this month. The legislation drew protests at the Statehouse last summer amid concerns it protected bad actors in the government, turning the three-day special session into a chaotic event that saw anti-government activist Ammon Bundy arrested twice. Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne spoke against the legislation. “I am opposed to liability immunity bills, so I won’t be voting for this,” he said. “But I do thank those who brought it for being responsible with the sunset clause and only extending it for a year, which I think is appropriate under the circumstances.”

Illinois

Chicago: Public high school students in the city could return to class for limited in-person instruction starting next month under the outline of a plan district leaders unveiled Tuesday as negotiations with the teachers union over COVID-19 precautions continued. It would be the first time high school students in the nation’s third-largest school district have the option to be back in classrooms since going fully remote a year ago amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, the Chicago Teachers Union, which fought the district’s safety plans for younger students and nearly went on strike, said no deal had been reached. Chicago Public Schools started bringing younger students back last month in phases, offering students in grades K-8 limited in-person instruction with online learning. The union, which said the district’s initial COVID-19 safety plans fell short, eventually agreed to a plan that included teacher vaccinations. School leaders said they hoped to offer at least two days a week of in-person classes for high school students starting April 19, the first day of the fourth quarter. Union leaders accused the district of “distorting” the status of negotiations and called for more information from the district, including on teacher vaccinations.

Indiana

Indianapolis: A state Senate bill aimed at ensuring public schools receive full funding for all students during the coronavirus pandemic is headed to the governor after lawmakers fast-tracked its passage Tuesday. The bill redefines what constitutes a “virtual student” and ensures schools receive full funding for all students, regardless of whether they are receiving instruction online or in the classroom. A twice-yearly count of students attending schools is used to determine how much money the state allots to each facility. According to the Senate bill, students will not be counted as “virtual” in the most recent fall and spring counts. Without that change, an estimated $160 million would be on the line for schools using hybrid formats or offering distance learning only as a means to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding. The proposal prompted criticism from virtual learning supporters who questioned why the 85% rule exists at all, noting that the legislation exempts regularly full-time virtual schools. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler additionally argued that the bill encourages kids to stay home and receive virtual education, which he said causes them to fall behind.

Iowa

Festivalgoers watch Kacey Musgraves perform at Hinterland in St. Charles, Iowa, on Aug. 2, 2019.
Festivalgoers watch Kacey Musgraves perform at Hinterland in St. Charles, Iowa, on Aug. 2, 2019.

Des Moines: The organizer of Hinterland Music Festival announced Tuesday that the Aug. 6-8 gathering near the Madison County village of St. Charles will go on after the cancellation of the 2020 show, but with precautions that include mandatory mask-wearing. Both in-person and virtual tickets will be available for the festival at Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater, with limitations on the size of live audiences and the number of camping spots. The festival, first held in 2016, has drawn up to 14,000 people in past years. Among this year’s precautions are more bathrooms and food vendors to reduce lines, as well as an additional entrance and exit to the festival grounds. Festivalgoers will be able to get their wristbands the week leading up to the festival to shorten entry lines. More space will be offered in camping areas, with the option to reserve a tent site and adjacent parking space. High-contact areas will get extra cleaning, with touchless hand sanitation stations throughout the festival grounds and camping areas. Festivalgoers, staff and vendors will be required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. In addition, temperature checks may be required for entry. “This is not the year for people who refuse to wear a mask,” said festival founder Sam Summers. “I’m looking for people who are down to stop the pandemic.”

Kansas

Topeka: The state will give COVID-19 vaccinations faster than planned so that all adults with medical conditions can seek shots next week, and the state will aim for President Joe Biden’s goal of having inoculations available for all adults May 1, Gov. Laura Kelly announced Monday. She said the state will launch both the third and fourth phases of its planned vaccine distribution next week, covering about 600,000 of the state’s 2.9 million residents, after the first two phases covered twice that number. “I know we are all ready to resume our pre-pandemic lives, and we’re getting close,” Kelly said after touring a mass vaccination site at Topeka’s largest arena and convention center. Both Kelly and Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state Department of Health and Environment, said the supply of vaccines from the federal government has been the biggest hurdle to moving faster on giving shots. Yet Kelly declared herself “pretty comfortable” that the state can hit its new timetable. People ages 16 to 64 with medical conditions, including cancer, diabetes and asthma, that put them at risk of complications or death from COVID-19 will be eligible for shots. Kelly and the state Department of Health and Environment had held some counties back from starting inoculations for such residents until all counties had finished vaccinating residents 65 and older.

Kentucky

Frankfort: Students whose academic years have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic are a step closer to getting a “do-over” year after the state House passed a Senate bill Tuesday evening, sending the measure to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk for a signature or veto. If it’s signed into law, students from all grades would be able to remain at their current grade next year and use the next school year to redo or supplement classes they’ve taken during the pandemic. It would also give student-athletes another year of athletic eligibility. Most existing KHSAA rules, including the age limit on sports and transfer rules, will remain in effect. Local school boards would have final say over whether students get a repeat year. The bill requires districts to either accept all applications to repeat a grade or none. It is unclear how many students will ultimately choose to redo a year. Previous estimates from district and state officials put the figure around 3% of students in each district. A fiscal note on the bill said the measure would have an indeterminable financial impact on districts.

Louisiana

Lafayette: The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.6% in January, reaching the lowest point since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. In December, the state’s unemployment rate was 7.9%. January’s rate is still high compared to pre-pandemic rates. In March 2020, the rate was 5.3%, and the unemployment rate in January 2020 was 5.1%. The state has regained about 153,680 employed workers since May, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission. “As Louisiana moves into Phase 3 and the amount of vaccinations increase, businesses across the state will be able to begin the path back to normal,” said Louisiana Workforce Commission Secretary Ava Dejoie. Data from February will be the first real look at how COVID-19 vaccines have affected the state’s unemployment rate. Only three of its nine metropolitan statistical areas gained jobs from December, the seasonally adjusted data shows, and all but one saw their unemployment rates increase from December.

Maine

Portland: The state’s push to deliver more COVID-19 vaccine includes longer hours and weekend service as Maine prepares to open eligibility to 660,000 members of the general public in six weeks. The vaccine is currently available to people 60 and older, and availability will widen to those 50 and older April 1. By May 1, vaccines are slated to be available for all adults. The state is working with providers to determine if they have the capacity to increase both the number of shots delivered and the hours and days of clinics, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The effort could require more staffing, including family doctors and independent pharmacies. “Basically what my message to vaccination sites across Maine is, ‘Let’s drill the well before we get thirsty,’ ” he said.

Maryland

Annapolis: The state is setting aside more priority vaccine appointments for residents in communities around mass vaccination sites, Gov. Larry Hogan announced this week, as lawmakers continued to press for improved equity in distribution. Officials in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties have criticized the administration over inequities and requested priority appointments for residents at mass vaccination sites in their communities. The Hogan administration said the state will provide at least 2,100 appointments a week for Baltimore residents at the M&T Bank Stadium site, in addition to the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital’s focus on city residents in underserved ZIP codes. The state also announced that Regency Furniture Stadium in southern Maryland will provide at least 2,100 priority appointments each week for residents of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. The state has said the appointments will be divided equitably by population. The Wicomico Youth and Civic Center on the Eastern Shore will provide at least 2,100 for residents of Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset and Dorchester counties. The site is scheduled to open Thursday. A site at the Hagerstown Premium Outlets in western Maryland will set aside 2,100 appointments a week starting March 25.

Massachusetts

Boston: All residents 16 and older will be eligible for a vaccine beginning April 19, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday. Those 60 and older as well as workers considered essential can get a vaccine starting Monday, while those 55 and older can get a shot beginning April 5. The essential workers eligible March 22 include those who work at supermarkets and convenience stores, restaurant workers, transit employees and funeral home workers. Depending on supply, it could still take weeks for people to be notified that an appointment is available at a mass vaccination site. All residents can preregister to book an appointment at a mass vaccination site at mass.gov/COVIDVaccine. The state so far has been concentrating its vaccination efforts on first responders, health care workers, residents 65 and up, teachers, and those with underlying health conditions. The April 19 target is ahead of President Joe Biden’s goal of making the vaccine available to all adults who want it by May. Baker said that state is seeing what he called significant support from the federal government with increases in doses of vaccine.

Michigan

Lansing: Republican state senators critical of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic are weighing whether to reject her appointee to run the health department, which has issued orders restricting business capacity and gatherings to limit COVID-19’s spread. Elizabeth Hertel took over the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 22, the day Robert Gordon abruptly resigned. Her appointment will stand unless the GOP-controlled Senate blocks it by Tuesday. Hertel’s nomination is drawing considerably more attention than any in years. She has spent hours answering questions in Advice and Consent Committee hearings and may return for more this week. About a third of the 20-member GOP caucus has publicly opposed Hertel, voicing long-running frustrations with pandemic restrictions and concerns that Hertel represents more of the same. But Republicans would need to be in near-lockstep because Democrats support her. Hertel, 42, has cachet with several GOP senators from her past jobs in the Legislature with the House Republican Policy Office and former Rep. Bruce Caswell, a Republican. An array of hospital, insurance and other health groups are backing her nomination, as is the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, despite battles with the Whitmer administration.

Minnesota

Minneapolis: Health officials say teenagers are behind a slight increase in coronavirus activity. The state Department of Health reported 6,818 additional COVID-19 cases in the week ending Tuesday. About 10% involved teenagers 15 to 19 years old. The risk for that age group increased when in-person instruction and sports activities resumed earlier this year. State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said mask-wearing and social distancing are still needed to slow the transmission of the coronavirus even as schools reopen and as bars, restaurants and entertainment venues are allowed to host larger groups, the Star Tribune reports. “We just need to keep attending to those basic prevention steps that we know are so critical for helping to control spread of the virus as we continue to make progress on vaccinations,” she said. State health officials said Tuesday that 1,265,430 people in Minnesota have received COVID-19 vaccines, and 729,294 have completed the series by receiving either two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer versions or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Minnesota has reported 498,926 COVID-19 cases and 6,749 deaths, including 716 infections and two deaths that were added Tuesday.

Mississippi

Jackson: State and county drive-thru vaccination sites were closed Wednesday, and thousands of planned appointments will be rescheduled, Mississippi State Department of Health officials announced Tuesday ahead of expected severe weather. The storms forecast to bring possible tornadoes and hail are likely to continue the ebb and flow of COVID-19 vaccines given each week in Mississippi, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said. Only 32,540 doses were administered during the third week of February when two winter storms rattled the region. The next week, doses shot up to 132,042. In the most recent two-week period, the number of administered doses has dropped. State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said Tuesday that 60% of Mississippians 75 and older have had at least one dose. About 330,000 residents have been fully vaccinated, but the state still lags the nation’s 11.5% total vaccination rate. “We have a long way to go,” Byers said Tuesday. Dobbs has said prevention and vaccines go hand-in-hand. And Gov. Tate Reeves announced this week that all residents 16 and up can now make appointments for shots. It was the right time to open eligibility for all, Dobbs said Tuesday. “It’s like surfing – we need to get ahead of the wave so we can ride it,” he said.

Missouri

Columbia: Plans for a full Missouri State Fair are back on after the event was canceled last year because of the pandemic, a spokeswoman for the state’s agriculture director confirmed Tuesday. Officials canceled 2020’s event over concerns about safety. The Sedalia fairground was instead used for a smaller youth livestock show. This year’s fair is scheduled for Aug. 12-22. Plans for the annual tradition come as coronavirus cases throughout the state continue to drop after peaking in November. The state health department reported another roughly 2,400 confirmed virus cases this past week, or about 344 new cases per day on average. In November, there were at times more than 4,000 new cases reported each week. Meanwhile, state and local officials are gearing up for a mega vaccination event this weekend at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where 6,000 doses are expected to be administered. Another will be held next week at St. Louis Community College, Gov. Mike Parson announced Wednesday. The gap between the number of people eligible to be vaccinated and the number who have actually been inoculated against COVID-19 is highest in St. Louis, Kansas City and the counties nearest those urban centers.

Montana

Helena: Residents 16 and up will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines April 1, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Tuesday. Shots are currently available to residents 60 and older, health care workers, people of color and those with certain medical conditions. Educators are eligible through a federal partnership with several pharmacies in the state but remain ineligible for the vaccines through the state’s distribution plan. “As more Montanans get the vaccine, we will continue to approach the time when we are no longer in a state of emergency, and we can remove our masks and throw them in the trash can,” Gianforte said. More than 142,000 residents, or 13% of the state’s population, have received the vaccine doses necessary to become fully immunized to the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the health department. Over 100,000 residents have recovered after contracting the virus, state health department figures show. The department reported fewer than 900 active cases of COVID-19 in the state Tuesday, the lowest number since July. COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in Montana in 2020, following heart disease and cancer, according to a preliminary report released by the department Tuesday. Deaths attributed to the virus amounted to 9% of deaths in the state, the report says.

Nebraska

Lincoln: In an effort to reach out to minority and refugee communities, the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Douglas County Health Department are partnering with the Mexican Consulate in Omaha for a Spanish-language town hall Thursday on Facebook Live to discuss COVID-19 vaccines. The Omaha consulate, which serves an estimated 330,000 Mexican citizens throughout Nebraska and Iowa, is an official branch of the Mexican government. Its duties are focused on helping Mexican citizens living or traveling in the United States who need assistance from their home government. The 4 p.m. Facebook Live town hall will provide a space where Spanish-speaking residents can receive accurate information from public health and medical officials regarding various vaccines. Participants can ask questions in the comment section on the Mexican Consulate in Omaha’s Facebook page or email questions in advance to conomaha@sre.gob.mx.

Nevada

Las Vegas: People 55 and older can self-report to their pharmacist any underlying health conditions that make them eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, state health officials said. As eligibility has broadened in Nevada’s inoculation process, deaths from COVID-19 have fallen to an average of about four per day, state biostatistician Kyra Morgan told a statewide panel Tuesday. Average deaths during the pandemic peaked at 40 per day in mid-January. Morgan did not tie vaccinations to recent data showing fewer hospitalizations and deaths. But “this is really about the best we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic,” she told Nevada COVID-19 Task Force members. The panel is meeting this week with officials from Nevada’s 17 counties to plan a return of coronavirus response authority to local control May 1. Panel members on Monday cast efforts to reach people with underlying health conditions, disabilities and the homeless at retail pharmacies and supermarkets as an effort to get more shots in arms. “We will see how the appointment scheduling goes this week,” said Candice McDaniel, state vaccination chief. Of the decision on high-risk health conditions, she said that “I really hope that people attest to what they truly have.”

New Hampshire

Concord: The pandemic has highlighted a critical need to maintain or boost funding for schools, mental health treatment, child care scholarships and other programs, advocates told House budget writers Tuesday. In past years, hundreds of members of the public have packed into Representatives Hall to offer feedback to House Finance Committee members as they work on the next two-year state budget. Because of the pandemic, they instead offered testimony by phone or video Tuesday, with many opposing proposed cuts they said would hurt already struggling programs and people. Among the most vocal advocates were those pushing to maintain funding for a program that helps working families afford child care. Jackie Cowell, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Early Learning NH, said there was a waitlist for the program during the last recession, and many parents had to turn down jobs or leave jobs because they couldn’t afford child care without the assistance. She worries that will happen again. “We really believe with the pandemic … there could be very many more that are qualifying,” Cowell said. “We ask you to have some kind of mechanism in place to make sure we don’t have a waitlist.”

New Jersey

Joe Sommers receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Hackensack, N.J., on March 3.
Joe Sommers receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Hackensack, N.J., on March 3.

Trenton: State officials are making a concerted effort to get senior citizens vaccinated against COVID-19 almost two months after they became eligible and were hindered by a system that relied heavily on online portals and forced them to compete with younger people for a coveted shot. Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday that staff began reaching out to those 75 and older two weeks ago to book shots. First doses increased from 33% among that age group to 58% currently. The state has targeted those 75 and up for vaccination because they account for nearly half of New Jersey’s 23,000 COVID-19 deaths. Walmart and Sam’s Club have begun setting aside at least 10,000 doses weekly for seniors at about three dozen stores. And New Jersey now has a special hotline for seniors to get appointments: 856-249-7007. Unlike other states that initially limited vaccine elligibility to those 75 and older, New Jersey opened eligibility for those 65 and older in mid-January, along with those with underlying conditions and smokers, adding greater demand for limited appointments. Seniors with limited computer skills have been so stymied by cumbersome state and private websites to book vaccine appointments that a network of tech-savvy volunteers sprouted up to help them.

New Mexico

Santa Fe: A budget bill advancing toward a state Senate vote would boost public salaries, shore up spending on public education and provide at least $400 million on economic relief measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate Finance Committee voted 6-4 with majority Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition to endorse amendments to a House-approved budget plan for the coming fiscal year. State general fund spending would increase by $373 million to $7.45 billion under the proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1. State spending on public education would increase by 5.8% to $3.35 billion. Public schools in New Mexico rely almost entirely on state spending for operations. Senate amendments include a $1 million financial lifeline to the athletics department at the University of New Mexico, $750,000 toward the state government transportation fleet as it accelerates the transition to electric vehicles, and $2 million toward tourism marketing in the wake of severe financial losses in the hospitality sector. Approved pandemic relief measures include a tax holiday to restaurants and rebates of up to $600 to low-income residents.

New York

Albany: Residents will soon be able to stay out a bit later. The state will lift the 11 p.m. curfew for casinos, bowling alleys, movie theaters, gyms and billiard halls April 5, but restaurants and bars will still be closing by 11 p.m. for now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday. The announcement to end the curfew for select businesses is the latest in New York’s phased reopening as COVID-19 vaccinations gain momentum and coronavirus cases decline. It was unclear when restaurants and bars would be permitted to stay open later, and catering venues would also remain under a 12 a.m. curfew “for the time being,” Cuomo said during a conference call with reporters. “We’re evaluating both, and we will have an announcement on them in April,” Cuomo said. Meanwhile, restaurants and bars outside New York City, which have been operating at 50% indoor capacity, will move to 75% capacity starting Friday. The city’s indoor dining capacity will remain at 35% after indoor service resumed last month, when New York also extended the curfew for bars and restaurants to 11 p.m., allowing establishments to stay open another hour just in time for Valentine’s Day and beyond.

North Carolina

Raleigh: Republicans advanced a measure Tuesday that requires the governor to obtain formal support from other elected leaders to enforce long-term statewide emergency orders. A state House judiciary committee voted for the legislation, which marks another response by GOP legislators to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders since his March 2020 emergency declaration due to COVID-19. His directives closed school buildings, fitness centers and bars and restricted mass gatherings. Republicans and some allies have said Cooper has wielded too much individual power during the pandemic. The bill would require the governor to seek and receive backing for a statewide emergency declaration from a majority of the Council of State. The legislation identified the council as the lieutenant governor, attorney general and seven other statewide elected officials. Republicans currently hold six of those positions. While state law already requires a governor to run some orders past the Council of State, courts have nearly always upheld Cooper’s ability to act unilaterally during the pandemic due to the public health dangers. Last July, Cooper vetoed a bill somewhat similar to the one being considered.

North Dakota

Bismarck: The Legislature has passed a bipartisan bill aimed at shielding businesses and health care facilities from lawsuits over customers’ or employees’ coronavirus exposure. The Senate approved the bill 41-6 on Wednesday. The House passed the bill 77-17 last month. Republican Sen. Jerry Klein said about 30 states have passed similar legislation after a federal proposal led by Senate Republicans failed to win approval last year. Officials representing business and hospital groups spoke in favor of North Dakota’s legislation, while some attorneys and a union leader opposed it.

Ohio

Columbus: State Attorney General Dave Yost sued the federal government Wednesday over provisions in the latest pandemic relief package that prevent local governments from using the aid to pay for tax cuts. Ohio is in line to receive about $5.6 billion – roughly equal to 7.4% of total state spending in the last fiscal year – from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden last week. However, states that accept funding under the package cannot use those dollars to cut taxes. “It basically mandates that the states maintain their existing tax structure during the pendency of this spending bill,” Yost said in an interview. “That’s fundamentally unconstitutional.” The filing Wednesday came a couple of days after Republican attorneys general in 21 other states sent U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen a letter voicing concern about the tax provision. But Yost, a Republican, did not sign the letter, saying Wednesday that he did not need clarification about the constitutionality of the tax provision included in the relief package. The relief package refers to moves that may “directly or indirectly” lead to decreases in tax revenues. And there’s clawback language, enabling the federal government to recoup pandemic relief to states that break the tax mandate.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma City: State prison inmates will again be allowed visitors, more than six months after visitations were suspended due to the coronavirus, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced Tuesday. “Staff and inmate vaccinations offer protection to our facilities and communities and make it possible to resume visitation” starting April 1, according to a statement from the DOC’s director, Scott Crow. Inmate visitation was suspended Sept. 30. Visits will be limited to two hours, and visitors must follow requirements that include wearing a face mask supplied by the prison, completing a health screening and maintaining 6 feet of social distancing. The department reports 7,341 inmates and 1,034 prison staff have tested positive for the virus. Across the state, the seven-day rolling average of new cases fell from 719.3 per day Feb. 28 to 518.7 on Sunday, while the average of daily deaths dropped from 39.3 to 23.9 per day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Oregon

A gray whale breaches off the Oregon Coast near Depoe Bay.
A gray whale breaches off the Oregon Coast near Depoe Bay.

Depoe Bay: The tradition of heading to the Oregon Coast over spring break to catch a glimpse of nature’s grandest animal is still on this year, but it will be a little bit different, state officials said. Whale Watching Week, traditionally held March 23-31, won’t have volunteers stationed at the best whale watching spots across the state this year due to COVID-19 limits. And the Whale Watching Center at Depoe Bay won’t be open. But there’s no reason for Oregonians to skip the chance to scope out the ocean for one of the 25,000 gray whales migrating northward along the shores from late March to June, from breeding grounds in Baja to feeding grounds in the Arctic. State officials said people can still head to the very same 24 ideal spots to see whales, just with an additional level of caution. “Please, wear face coverings and give plenty of space to other visitors,” said Lisa Sumption, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “If a park is crowded, consider visiting another whale-watching site or returning later.” Updates on the status of each site are available online.

Pennsylvania

Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Department of Health is gearing up for a big influx of vaccine from the federal government and wants providers across the state to be ready for it and make sure they allow patients outside their networks to make appointments. Fewer providers, however, will be part of that provider network, state health officials said Tuesday. To improve efficiency, more vaccines will be heading to fewer places, according to Lindsey Mauldin, the Department of Health’s senior adviser for COVID-19 response. The agency is moving toward a more centralized distribution system. Health officials will be directing a larger volume of vaccine to the providers that are best equipped to get it out quickly, state health officials said. Barry Ciccocioppo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Health Department, said providers – especially those that have the ability to vaccinate large numbers quickly – can expect a big boost in supply in the next few weeks. He also said they can expect more “predictability and stability” with supply. The state is also looking to “ramp up” the provider network to make sure they are able to get the vaccine out quickly. “We want to make sure the providers have the system and infrastructure in place to offer large scale vaccine clinics,” he said.

Rhode Island

Smithfield: A recent increase in the town’s coronavirus infection rate is likely due to more cases among Bryant University students, according to state officials. For the past three weeks, Smithfield has had the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the state. “Cases among Bryant University students are believed to have been a big factor,” Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said in an email Tuesday. The number of Bryant students testing positive for the virus more than doubled from the middle of February to the end of the month, according to the department. The town had 227 new cases per 100,000 population for the week ending Feb. 13, but that climbed to 453 for the week ending Feb. 20 and 786 for the week ending Feb. 27. The number fell to 462 for the week ending March 6. As cases on campus rose, the university took immediate action, including doubling testing from once a week to twice a week, said Inge-Lise Ameer, Bryant’s vice president of student affairs. The university also halted in-person student activities except for classes. Students did not spread the virus off campus, and no students have been hospitalized for COVID-19, she said.

South Carolina

Columbia: The Republican leader of the committee that writes the state’s budget said he is waiting for more guidance before he makes any recommendations on how to spend the state’s share of $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief from the federal government. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson joined colleagues in 20 other states in a letter asking Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen for clarity on how the money can be spent, saying barring legislatures from using the money to cut taxes would be “breathtaking.” Budget leaders in South Carolina have made no announcements on how they might spend the $2.1 billion at their disposal. An additional $1.5 billion is heading directly to local governments. Officials will likely have up to three years to spend the money. “We’re not rushing into this right now without any knowledge of what the rules of the game are,” House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith said. The state could look at tax rebates, again refilling the unemployment benefits accounts with federal money instead of charging businesses or grants for small businesses. But that depends on what the federal government says, Smith said. “If you put it toward replenishing unemployment, is that considered a tax cut for businesses?” Smith said.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: The state will begin COVID-19 vaccinations for its final priority group Monday, including critical infrastructure workers. The final group, Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said Wednesday, comprises about 227,000 people, such as fire personnel and food and agriculture workers. The announcement came as the state reported an additional 175 coronavirus infections and three new deaths, bringing total deaths since the pandemic began to 1,915. State Epidemiologist Joshua Clayton said Wednesday that since January, the state has been seeing more than double the number of cases it experienced last summer. He cautioned that those larger numbers make it easier for the disease to mount a resurgence in the state. In addition to 201,813 South Dakotans who have received at least one dose of vaccine through the state, another 62,000 have received doses through the federal government, Clayton said. That represents about 35% of the state.

Tennessee

Nashville: In 1986, millions of people did something that feels a bit crazy in our pandemic world today: They held hands across the country to raise funds to combat hunger and homelessness in the United States. Thirty-five years later, the revolutionary event is coming back in a virtual setting. Hands Across America, initially organized by Ken Kragen, is being revitalized by Franklin resident Jeff Prescott, who began envisioning a second round in 2016. Years later, he feared the coronavirus was the death knell for the project. The original hand-holding event pulled out more than 6 million people across the United States, who clasped hands for 15 minutes in an attempt to form a ginormous human chain. COVID-19 “brought us an opportunity to now create a virtual event,” Prescott said. Drawing from his own experiences with hunger and homelessness in a rocky childhood, he hopes the event can help those in poverty. Americans are asked to pledge $1 to receive a virtual “hand” they can share on social media at 3 p.m. May 25 during a simultaneous virtual show of hands. The organization has an ambitious goal of raising $328 million to help those experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. Prescott said he also hopes the virtual event will spark a “fireball of love and passion.”

Texas

Austin: The state count of daily coronavirus cases is back above 4,000, with 4,838 new confirmed and probable cases reported Tuesday, state health officials said. Even so, the rolling average of new cases reported in Texas over the past two weeks has fallen by 3,078 per day, a 39.7% decrease, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas has recorded 2,726,194 COVID-19 cases during the year-old pandemic. Of those, an estimated 111,691 cases were active Tuesday, and 3,941 required hospitalization as of Monday, the most recent total available from the state. The 130 new COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday by the state push its pandemic death toll to 46,650, the nation’s third-largest, the Johns Hopkins researchers said. The 162.5 deaths per 100,000 population gave Texas the nation’s 24th-highest death toll per capita, they said.

Utah

St. George: Zion National Park resumed daily shuttle service for the 2021 season Saturday amid a wintry storm and COVID-19 restrictions. The park, which sees several million visitors each year, implemented precautions last July that included reserved tickets, social distancing on the shuttle and mask-wearing. Zion Ranger Gretchen Wise said the first day of regular shuttle service was moving quickly without much of a hassle about the federal mask mandate. “We’ve practiced a lot at this point,” Wise said. “Not much has changed since last summer.” With talk of how Utah’s mask mandate might be repealed soon but Zion being federal land, officials said they will decide what to do when the time comes. Lines were short or nonexistent toward the beginning of the day due to ticketing, but as the “walk-up” tickets were released, lines snaked through the corrals like old times. The only aspect that has changed is that $1 shuttle tickets are now released at 5 p.m. the day before the ticket date, instead of 9 a.m. Wise said the modification aims to accommodate people’s work schedules and be more convenient.

Vermont

A tent erected this semester dominates the University of Vermont's Redstone Campus quad Jan. 11. The structure covers approximately 3,750 feet to provide an auxiliary space for socially distanced activities.
A tent erected this semester dominates the University of Vermont's Redstone Campus quad Jan. 11. The structure covers approximately 3,750 feet to provide an auxiliary space for socially distanced activities.

Montpelier: The University of Vermont is reviewing all recent student suspensions related to COVID-19 rule violations, the school president said. “Understanding the anxiety, loneliness and stress our students have been feeling, I asked our Dean of Students and his team to review all recent cases of suspension,” President Suresh Garimella said in a message to the UVM community Sunday night. “This work is done, and students and their families are being notified of any changes in the outcomes.” The message came after a student-led petition, with more 3,800 signatures by midday Wednesday, called for a change to the suspension and other guidelines. About 96% of undergraduate students have not received sanctions, said UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera. The school is working to identify other ways to help students cope with the pressures they are experiencing, Garimella said in his message. “We know our outdoor ice-skating rink and fire pits have been useful in addressing social isolation, but we recognize additional measures will help,” he said. “We are partnering with our students as we develop solutions.”

Virginia

Richmond: Some areas will soon transition to Phase 1c of the state’s vaccine distribution plan and start giving shots to other essential workers. The Virginia Health Department said in a statement Tuesday that those areas will expand vaccination efforts to people who work in fields that include energy, wastewater, construction, food service, higher education, transportation and legal services. The state said some areas will begin the transition this week, including the Eastern Shore and the Danville-Pittsylvania County area. Others should be able to expand within weeks. Before expanding, VDH said, a local health department must have made strong efforts to reach all those eligible in Phase 1a and 1b, particularly communities that have been disproportionately affected. Meanwhile, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports four large-scale vaccination centers are opening to inoculate communities that have been heavily affected by COVID-19 or face barriers to getting a shot. Three – in Danville, Portsmouth, South Chesterfield – are starting operations this week. The fourth, in Prince William, should begin operations next week. The appointment-only centers do not replace other local efforts. All of the locations have majority Black and Latino populations.

Washington

Seattle: The state extended COVID-19 vaccination eligibility Wednesday to grocery store workers, transit workers and first responders, health officials said. The Washington State Department of Health estimates 740,000 more residents are included in the latest phase, raising concerns among people who were already residents but have not yet been inoculated, KOMO-TV reports. “We are worried about the thickness of traffic of some sites,” said Bonnie McGuire, a retired school principal turned volunteer. She said the trick is to get online early to reserve a vaccination, even overnight, and to remember to keep refreshing the reservation page while waiting and navigating through it. McGuire and 10 retired educators have booked about 900 appointments for senior citizens since Feb. 1. She said the assistance effort began by helping one person, and it expanded through word of mouth. Department of Health officials said this week that the state was allotted about 300,000 vaccine doses, or about 11,000 doses for a county like Snohomish County. “That leaves another 150,000 people vying for those 11,000 doses this week, so that means you have a 1 in 15 chance,” Snohomish County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said.

West Virginia

Charleston: Leaders cautioned residents to continue taking the coronavirus seriously as the state witnesses a slight bump in deaths and hospitalizations. “For many people, I’m worried that they’re starting to let their guard down a little bit,” said the state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh. Hospitalizations went up by 35 patients in two days to 190 on Wednesday. There have also been 34 new deaths reported this week so far. Outbreaks at churches grew to seven places across five counties. “We got to be really cautious,” Republican Gov. Jim Justice said at a coronavirus briefing. “All across America, we’re starting to see this thing heat back up in different areas.” The word of caution comes despite the governor choosing to lift capacity limits earlier this month at bars, restaurants and businesses and allow social gatherings of up to 100 people. A statewide mask mandate remains in effect. “We absolutely have made the right decision about continuing to wear our mask and not just jump … to make a political statement or a macho move,” Justice said. After weeks of seemingly declining COVID-10 deaths, the state’s progress was dealt a setback when the governor revealed last week that 165 deaths, mostly from December and January, went unreported by health facilities.

Wisconsin

Madison: The state is “woefully behind” in cleaning up COVID-19 data, and a renewed emphasis it has placed on making sure its case counts are more accurate has resulted in swings in previously reported numbers, state health officials said Wednesday. There’s a concern the public won’t understand why the numbers are changing, Department of Health Services officials said, even though they called it part of a routine process that fell behind in the fall as COVID-19 cases were spiking. “I think it’s fair to say we’re woefully behind in some of that cleanup work,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the department. The verification work has ramped up the past two weeks, she said. The swings can be particularly noticeable now that case counts are lower, said Traci DeSalvo, director of the department’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases. Coronavirus cases that were initially recorded based on a rapid antigen test but were later determined to be negative based on the more accurate PCR test are being corrected, Willems Van Dijk said. The department has also reduced the number of unknown deaths in group housing settings from 46% to 26% as it updates the data, DeSalvo said.

Wyoming

Cheyenne: Health officials reported two more confirmed coronavirus-related deaths among state residents Tuesday. Both were over 65 with health conditions seen as putting them at higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness. Wyoming has recorded a total of 693 coronavirus-related deaths, 46,861 lab-confirmed cases and 8,491 probable cases since the pandemic began.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hands Across America, whale watching: News from around our 50 states