Birmingham: With the state struggling to improve its last-in-the nation vaccination rate for COVID-19, officials say workers at some immunization sites are providing only a fraction of the shots they could give out. A vaccination clinic in its third week of operation in Lauderdale County has provided about 500 doses, but project manager Mike Melton told WAAY-TV the site could easily provide 500 shots a day “if the demand was there.” In metro Birmingham, where a mass vaccination site was set to open Wednesday at an outlet mall, some questioned whether the facility was even needed since so few people have shown up at an immunization site at the Birmingham Crossplex, an indoor sports facility. WBMA-TV reports it visited three vaccination locations Tuesday, and none had lines or were requiring appointments. Jefferson County’s top health official, Dr. Mark Wilson, said the county couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring more vaccine doses to the state’s most populated area. Multiple hospitals also have seen a decline in demand for vaccines, said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association. It’s unclear whether the addition of new immunization sites or low demand are behind the trend, he said, but some hospitals are looking at scaling back vaccination programs.
Anchorage: The Alaska Railroad has reported that ridership fell by about 94% between 2019 and 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. While 522,000 people rode the Alaska Railroad in 2019, only 32,000 people rode it last year, prompting a loss of about $8 million for the state-owned company, Alaska’s News Source reports. The railroad also moved 26% less freight in 2020 compared to 2019. A railroad spokesman, Tim Sullivan, expressed optimism that there will be more riders and freight this summer as vaccination rates increase and tourism rises. “We are on the bucket list of a lot of people,” Sullivan said. “You see all the time, when people say they’re coming to Alaska, one of the things they want to do is be on the Alaska Railroad.” The railroad’s main route main route stretches from Seward to Fairbanks and has a stop in Anchorage.
Phoenix: Federal coronavirus relief funding will help schools hire 140 counselors and social workers as children return to classrooms with pandemic-induced stresses and isolation, Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman said Monday. Hoffman said the $21 million plan will provide two years of funding to eliminate a waitlist for mental health professionals requested by schools in 2019. State lawmakers that year expanded a school safety grant program that had long funded police officers to also cover counselors, but demand outstripped the available funding. The $21 million in federal coronavirus relief will run out after two years. Hoffman called on the GOP-controlled Legislature to permanently fund the new hires, saying her agency is “stepping in where the Legislature has failed to act.” Even with the new positions, Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio will still be too high, she said. Hoffman said she’s taking steps to boost the social and emotional well-being of students, including those struggling after the pandemic upended schooling and everyday life in what she called a “genuinely traumatic year” for kids. “Our students are facing weighty, weighty issues as we return to in-person learning,” said Sarah Skemp, a counselor at Lake Havasu High School and board chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association.
Little Rock: State lawmakers on Tuesday gave initial approval to measures prohibiting so-called vaccine passports and government-imposed mask mandates. The majority-Republican Senate approved by a 23-8 vote a ban on governments or private entities requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to access goods or services. Federal officials have said there is no plan to require them broadly, but some Republican governors have nonetheless issued orders preventing businesses or agencies from mandating them. “We can either address it today, or we can allow it to steamroll us over,” Republican Sen. Trent Garner, who proposed the legislation, said before the vote. The bill now heads to the House. The majority-Republican House, meanwhile, approved a separate measure that would prohibit state agencies or local governments from imposing mask mandates. GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month lifted the state’s mask requirement but said cities could continue enforcing their own. Little Rock and Fayetteville have imposed face-covering rules. The measure, which the House passed on a 69-20 vote, heads back to the Senate for a final vote. Hutchinson had previously said he would veto the mask mandate ban, but it has since been scaled back to no longer prevent businesses from imposing their own requirements.
Sacramento: A Northern California woman who acknowledged using U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s name and Social Security number to receive $21,000 in pandemic-related assistance pleaded guilty Monday to stealing unemployment benefits. It was part of nearly $200,000 in unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits contained in debit cards shipped to the home of Andrea M. Gervais, 44, of Roseville, authorities said. She pleaded guilty to theft of government money for filing 97 such fraudulent claims, at least 10 of which were approved by California’s beleaguered Employment Development Department. If all 97 had been approved, it could have brought her more than $2 million, federal prosecutors said. Investigators say overall losses from widespread unemployment fraud will top at least $11 billion. That includes at least $810 million in the names of roughly 45,000 inmates, some of them on death row, according to a state audit in January. Gervais, who worked for the state unemployment agency until she was fired in 2018, could face a maximum of 10 years in federal prison when she is sentenced in August.
Fort Collins: As COVID-19 hospitalizations increase, Gov. Jared Polis announced four sites will begin allowing people to get vaccines without an appointment. As of Wednesday, The Ranch in Loveland, the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo County, Ball Arena in Denver County and the Grand Junction Convention Center in Mesa County all accept walk-ins or drive-ins. “There’s no more excuses,” Polis said. “It’s free, quick and easy at multiple sites across the state.” He said allowing walk-in vaccinations is not indicative of the state having more supply than demand but is an effort to reach those who have put off getting a shot but are not resistant to vaccination. “For those of you who have been putting it off, now’s the time to get it,” Polis said. “Maybe you’ve thought, ‘Hey, I’m 24 and healthy; I want to let my elders get it first.’ Well, guess what? Now it’s your turn.” As of Tuesday, Polis estimated about half of adults in the state are at least partially vaccinated. Colorado conducted two data analyses to determine how effective the vaccines are, and both showed that fully vaccinated Coloradans were 93% to 95% protected against COVID-19. Since late January, there have been 819 cases among fully vaccinated people, compared with almost 107,000 among all Coloradans, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said.
Hartford: The state is turning to music in an effort to get kids more interested in school and help combat the learning loss suffered during the pandemic. Gov. Ned Lamont and state education officials announced Tuesday that Connecticut’s public schools will be integrating a curriculum called TeachRock, the brainchild of Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Steven Van Zandt and his nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. The curriculum includes lesson plans in most subjects, tailored to different grade levels, all viewed through the lens of music. Subjects include things like the Vietnam War and protest music, Langston Hughes’ poetry and the blues, and hip-hop and its influence on politics. “Statistics show that if a kid likes one single teacher or one single class, they will come to school, and we want to be that class,” Van Zandt said. “The days of dragging young people to some old-school education methodology, I think, are over.” Lamont said the program ties in perfectly with his push to reengage children who may have fallen behind during the pandemic or have been absent from school altogether. Van Zandt and the TeachRock board – which includes his E Street Band partner Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Martin Scorsese and Bono – developed the curriculum over 15 years with the help of education experts. Van Zandt said it is a response to No Child Left Behind, which he said pushed the arts out of schools in favor of test-based results in core subjects.
Wilmington: Despite increasing vaccination rates, the state is among the nation’s leaders in new coronavirus infections per capita. “It’s an interesting time in which it’s kind of like sunny on one side of the house and raining on one side of the house,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health. “We’re excited that more people are vaccinated, but it’s also very disappointing that we have more cases. We’re just not out of the woods yet.” Over the past week, Delaware has averaged 370 new cases per day, a 70% increase from four weeks earlier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Delaware ranks fourth among all states in terms of cases per capita over the past week, behind only Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In that time, 6.1% of coronavirus tests in Delaware have been positive, indicating the case increase is not solely due to an increase in tests administered. The World Health Organization has set 5% as the threshold for concern. State officials said there isn’t one specific reason cases are increasing. Most of the spread is coming from household or social events, particularly Easter gatherings. “It’s general community spread,” Rattay said Tuesday. But she said the state is seeing a flattening of cases and deaths among senior citizens.
District of Columbia
Washington: Unemployment insurance has been a huge issue during the pandemic, but the systems to help people in D.C. are not making it any better, WUSA-TV reports. Thousands of people have been stuck in limbo while the city updates its claims website. This week the city said the update is complete, and those residents can return to filing claims on it. But some say they still cannot access their benefits, and now their situation has gotten worse. “The reason that we’re talking by phone is because I don’t have internet access,” Dan Hendry said. “I can’t pay my bills; I can’t pay my internet bill.” Hendry said he is a former city worker who has been out of work since the pandemic began. According to the city, he is one of 2,500 people who got stuck in benefits limbo because of a mid-March update to D.C.’s unemployment claims website. The old site needed the update to meet the requirements of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress to extend unemployment benefits for people who have been on them for more than a year. The director of the city’s Department of Employment Services, Unique Morris-Hughes, said the update did not affect all weekly filers – about 2,500 of 70,000. The agency has 300 call-takers and 300 caseworkers to help those people, she said.
Palm Beach: With interest in getting a COVID-19 vaccine waning, Palm Beach County health officials are planning to close their three mass vaccination sites by the end of May and take the shots on the road. While officials expected demand to increase this month when residents as young as 16 became eligible, instead it has tanked, Darcy Davis, CEO of the county’s health care district, told county commissioners Tuesday. Vaccination centers at the South Florida Fairgrounds, the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach and the Burns Road Community Center in Palm Beach Gardens are operating at 50% capacity this week because no one signed up for 10,000 of the 16,000 slots that were available, she said. The use of three mobile units, each capable of vaccinating 500 people a day, will enable health officials to reach minority groups and others who, for whatever reason, aren’t signing up to get COVID-19 shots at the mass vaccination centers or retail locations. “It makes more sense to go to them instead of waiting for them to come to us,” Davis said. As planned, the last first doses will be given at the Burns Road site Thursday, at the South County Civic Center on Saturday and at the fairgrounds May 6. After that, only second shots will be administered.
Athens: A concert series kicking off next month will offer a return to outdoor shows that allow for social distancing. Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show is scheduled to headline the first in the series at Cloverleaf Farm beginning May 28. The all-ages event is the first for Into the Wildwood, a comeback of sorts for the Wildwood Revival Summer Concert Series that took place at the Arnoldsville farm from 2014 to 2019 and was founded by Athens-born siblings Libby Rose and Jesse Collier. Tickets to the May 28 concert are available in private, socially distanced “pods” of two or four people according to the tier package purchased. Food from Maepole and Cafe Racer will be available for preorder or on-site purchase, and the beverage menu will include beer from Creature Comforts Brewing Co. Though the number of shows in the series has yet to be determined, event spokesperson Chad Shearer said organizers anticipate Into the Wildwood to have several pop-ups over the next couple of months, depending on fan response and ability to produce the concerts in a safe, socially distanced manner. Visit www.wildwoodrevival.com for tickets and detailed safety information.
Honolulu: State officials will allow residents who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to skip pre-travel testing and quarantine requirements for flights between islands. That makes Hawaii the second state in the nation, after New York, to implement a vaccination verification program, state officials said at a news conference Tuesday. The plan does not change anyone’s ability to travel and avoid quarantine by testing negative for the coronavirus, as is currently required for trans-Pacific and interisland travel, but adds another option for Hawaii residents who are 14 days past their final vaccination shot. People must have received their shots in the state to be eligible for the exemption. Gov. David Ige said the state hopes to add the option for trans-Pacific travelers this summer but wants to test the program among island residents first. “Since the very beginning of this pandemic going back to March 7 of last year, Hawaii has had the best outcomes in the nation from the health perspective,” Ige said, noting that the state has had among the lowest infection and mortality rates in the nation. The program will begin May 11. At the onset, vaccination records will be checked manually by people at airports. Soon, travelers will be able to upload their verifications to a state website that is already being used for pre-travel testing.
Boise: The Republican-dominated state House on Wednesday voted to override GOP Gov. Brad Little’s veto of a measure seeking to curb a governor’s power to respond to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers voted 48-19 to attain the two-thirds threshold needed to override the veto and send the measure to the Senate. Its fate in the Senate is uncertain, as lawmakers there on Monday opted not to override a veto of similar legislation to curb a governor’s emergency powers. It’s not clear when the Senate will hold an override vote. Supporters of the measures said the governor has too much power during emergencies. Opponents said the Legislature shouldn’t have emergency authority because it would be too slow to act during a time of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic spurred the legislation, with lawmakers taking aim at rules intended to stem the spread of the virus, such as limiting gatherings and nonessential travel. Legislators were especially incensed that Little imposed a statewide stay-at-home order last spring that limited gatherings, including church gatherings, and classified some workers as nonessential to try to reduce infections and deaths as hospital systems neared collapse.
Chicago: Several hospitals in northwest and central Illinois are running out of beds because of the coronavirus pandemic, officials say. About a half-dozen hospitals operated by OSF HealthCare had 90% or more of their beds filled Tuesday, chief operating officer Dr. Michael Cruz told the Chicago Tribune. OSF’s St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria was at 97% occupancy, its St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford was at 96%, and its St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington had no available intensive care unit beds, Cruz said. OSF has been transferring patients to other hospitals and moving staff as needed, he said. It’s also having some patients stay in emergency room beds until ICU spots become available. Statewide, 2,288 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday night, up from 1,648 about two weeks earlier, the Illinois Department of Public Health said. Amita Health was also near capacity at some of its 14 acute care hospitals in Illinois because of COVID-19 and other factors, said Dr. Stuart Marcus, its chief clinical officer and executive vice president.
Indianapolis: A year after the Indianapolis 500 was held without a single fan in attendance for the first time ever, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway plans to host up to 135,000 fans for the May 30 Indianapolis 500, or 40% of the track’s unofficial capacity, Penske Entertainment Corp. officials announced Wednesday. That number of fans, as well as the track’s health and safety plan, has been approved by the Marion County Public Health Department. At that capacity limit, race day at IMS stands to be the highest-attended sporting event in the U.S. – and potentially the largest enclosed gathering of people – since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year. Mask-wearing will be required and enforced throughout the track unless attendees are eating or drinking. Temperature checks will be required at the gate to receive entry. Social distancing guidelines will be instituted, with fans spaced throughout the track’s grandstands, and enforced elsewhere. IMS is hosting drive-up vaccine clinics throughout May and plans to allow for fans to attend walk-up vaccine centers around the track on some practice days. IMS projects that by race day, nearly 60% of its fans will have been vaccinated, which officials believe, along with mask-wearing and spacing, should ensure safety.
Des Moines: Nearly half of the state’s counties have rejected new doses of COVID-19 vaccine because of a lack of demand, officials said Tuesday amid a public information campaign meant to drum up interest in immunization. Forty-three of Iowa’s 99 counties declined additional shipments, the state reported. Of the 43 counties, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 12 as having high rates of coronavirus transmission: Clay, Clayton, Dickinson, Emmet, Fremont, Ida, Lyon, O’Brien, Palo Alto, Sac, Taylor and Woodbury. Voter registration information shows that all 12 are heavily Republican counties, which have shown to be more resistant to vaccine acceptance. A poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in late March found that 36% of Republicans said they will probably or definitely not get vaccinated, compared with 12% of Democrats. Similarly, a third of rural Americans said they were leaning toward not getting shots, while less than a fourth of people living in cities and suburbs shared that hesitancy. The state, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa have hosted live, virtual information sessions on COVID-19 vaccination during which experts answered questions about vaccine creation, safety and effectiveness.
Wichita: The number of coronavirus variants in the state has risen sharply, even as parents in some schools push to drop masking requirements and as vaccine appointments go unfilled. In the past week, the state had a 32% increase in the total number of confirmed variant coronavirus cases, as all five strains of concern have now been identified in the state, The Wichita Eagle reports. Despite the spread, more parents are challenging mask requirements in schools, with the Mulvane district the latest in the Wichita area to reject a complaint about school rules for COVID-19 control. Parents are raising the challenges under a new state law that requires school boards to use the least restrictive means possible to control the spread of the coronavirus. In rejecting the complaint, school board President Jeff Ellis criticized the law, saying it has “continued to divide the community, divide teachers, divide students, divide board members.” About a dozen parents and students who signed on to the complaint were present in the audience. Most went unmasked in defiance of district rules. “They’re not actually protecting the kids from anything as far as I’m concerned,” said parent Lacy Collins. “To actually protect yourself from the small particles of COVID you’d have to wear a HazMat suit or something. I just don’t feel like there’s any purpose.”
Louisville: Kentucky State Fair Committee members have seen the progress in the commonwealth’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic and, after unprecedented circumstances caused organizers to scale their plans back in 2020, are hoping this year’s celebration looks more like 2019. At a committee meeting Monday afternoon, members voted to recommend Kentucky Exposition Center staffers base plans for the 2021 fair around the “more normalized fair” of 2019, when attendance was not limited by social distancing restrictions, and attendees were free to pack the fairgrounds for rides, shows and deep-fried Oreos. Last year, the fair was not open to the public. The plans aren’t set in stone but are a recommendation to the full Kentucky State Fair Board and can still be adjusted as state officials monitor the pandemic. Modifications to that 2019 plan that could be used as an outline for this year’s fair are “likely,” according to a release from the organization. But committee member Keith Rogers said it’s a “whole lot easier to scale back than it is to scale up, especially when you get into June and July.” The committee’s recommendation – which sets the starting date of the 2021 Kentucky State Fair on Aug. 19, running through Aug. 29 – will be presented to the full Kentucky State Fair Board for approval Thursday.
Baton Rouge: Two professors are asking Louisiana State University’s Faculty Senate to call on the school to require its 34,000 students in Baton Rouge to receive COVID-19 shots before returning to campus for in-person classes next fall. The Faculty Senate will discuss the resolution Thursday afternoon that calls on LSU to add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of mandatory immunizations for students that includes measles, mumps and other diseases or to implement a COVID-19 vaccine requirement through other means. In the resolution, the professors, Inessa Bazayev and Tara Houston, who teach in the College of Music and Dramatic Arts, cited the growing number of universities around the country that are requiring vaccines and asserted that numerous LSU faculty members have expressed support for the requirement. A copy of the resolution was released Tuesday, a day after interim LSU President Tom Galligan announced that the school could not require vaccinations given that federal regulators approved the COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use without completing full safety investigations. Dr. Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, cited the same reason in saying he did not plan to require vaccinations before students return in the fall.
Bar Harbor: Another private college in the state has said it will require students and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall. College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor joined Bowdoin College, which was the first college in Maine to require the new vaccines. College of the Atlantic said Monday that people working and studying on campus in the fall will be subject to the requirement once the vaccines gain full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Bangor Daily News reports. The University of Maine System, the largest university system in the state and Maine’s flagship public education institution, has said it is not requiring them at this time. Meanwhile, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said the state’s mobile vaccination unit planned to offer COVID-19 shots without an appointment Wednesday and Thursday. Shah said the unit is located in Windham this week and using the Moderna vaccine. He said appointments are still preferable, and walk-ups will only be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The state plans to use the mobile unit to bring COVID-19 vaccines to rural and underserved communities around Maine.
Ocean City: Crime, especially violent crime, spiked in 2020 for the first time in five years, according to statistics from the Ocean City Police Department, which pointed to “cabin fever” as the pandemic dragged on as a factor. The agency reported a 21% increase in a category that includes rape, robbery, assault and other types of crime, according to the 2020 annual report released by Tuesday. “The year 2020 was a challenging time, not just for Ocean City but the entire community, as we fought our way through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Chief Ross Buzzuro said. “By the time the peak season occurred, individuals were traveling to Ocean City more and more due to cabin fever and wanting to get out.” The report comes as the department and town gear up for the tourism season. This summer is expected to resemble more of a traditional year after COVID-19 travel restrictions and other pandemic-related limits and fear kept some tourists from visiting in 2020. Despite the smaller crowds, Ocean City experienced several notable violent incidents on the Boardwalk last June, including multiple assaults and stabbings, along with a large brawl that left the public and business owners uneasy about safety.
Boston: A conservative group on Tuesday called on the governor to lift the state’s outdoor mask-wearing mandate. The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, in a statement directed to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, argued that most of the state’s most vulnerable residents have been inoculated against COVID-19, and anyone who is 16 or older who lives, works or studies in the state is now eligible to receive a vaccine as of Monday. “It’s time to start taking steps back to normal,” said Paul Diego Craney, spokesperson for the group, which advocates for fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability in state government. The organization noted that neighboring New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, dropped the state’s outdoor mask order last week but encouraged residents to continue social distancing and wear masks if they cannot. The group also noted that the policy change in New Hampshire doesn’t prevent private businesses and local cities and towns in that state from imposing their own mask rules. Baker’s office didn’t comment, but the governor, as of last week, said he had no immediate plans to drop the mandate. The calls come as medical experts in New England acknowledge it might soon be safe enough for states to lift mask requirements when outdoors.
Detroit: Grants from $5,000 to $20,000 are being made available for houses of worship struggling financially during the pandemic. Churches, synagogues, mosques and small nonprofits can apply beginning May 3 for funding through the Faith Forward program, the city said Tuesday. Informational sessions about the program begin next Tuesday. The city said $650,000 in funding is available. Major donors include the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Catholic and Jewish organizations. Grants will be available to eligible organizations providing COVID-19-related community services that include those partnering with the city on vaccine sites. Organizations that provide emergency support services like housing, food and utility assistance, health enrichment for senior citizens, and mental health services also are eligible to apply. “At times like this, we rely on the faith-based community to support us,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a news release. “Like all organizations, our faith-based partners have suffered during the pandemic as they have served others. The Faith Forward program can help sustain them as they have sustained us.”
Minneapolis: State health officials are turning buses into mobile COVID-19 vaccine units that will focus on serving communities with a high rate of coronavirus infections. The buses are staffed to provide up to 150 shots per day and are available to community groups that want to host events to deliver shots. The state Health Department said vulnerable areas include agricultural workplaces, homeless encampments and housing complexes where residents lack transportation. Targeted communities include people of color, urban Native Americans and people with disabilities, the Star Tribune reports. “Folks who live in high social vulnerability index communities have had a very disproportionate impact from COVID-19,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday. “So this idea of these mobile buses is the next piece of our strategy to get the vaccine into the communities where it is so critically needed.” The retrofitted Metro Transit buses include space for two patients to wait for shots, while two others receive them, said Nicole Nee, a clinician with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Two buses are being used this week, and the state plans to add four more in coming months.
Jackson: As businesses and towns look for a way to bounce back from the pandemic, film production could help communities turn a corner. At least three feature-length films have already completed production in the state in 2021, and more are planned for the rest of the year, according to the Mississippi Film Office. Dozens of other films and television shows have already featured Magnolia State locales in their stories over the decades. Even before Bruce Willis-helmed bank heist action flick “A Day to Die” began filming in Jackson this year, Mississippi has long been part of some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, such as 2011’s “The Help.” Nina Parikh, director of the Mississippi Film Office, said besides “A Day to Die,” which will finish filming Friday, five projects have already been completed, with three more in production. Another four are scheduled to shoot this year, she said. On the small screen, Parikh said HGTV’s “Home Town,” which films in Laurel and finished production on its fifth season in 2020, has brought new residents and business opportunities. “People have seen the show, and now they want to live here,” she said. John Gomez, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said a local crew using local businesses and employing residents means a lot to the community, especially given the pandemic’s impacts.
Springfield: The state’s top public health official resigned Tuesday after four years in Jefferson City and 15 months at the helm of Missouri’s coronavirus response. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, announced the departure of Dr. Randall Williams, a North Carolina obstetrician brought in by Parson’s predecessor, in a news release commending his service. “Dr. Williams has been a huge asset to Missouri, especially this past year in dealing with COVID-19,” Parson said. No reason was given for the departure. The news release said Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff and a key player in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, will handle Williams’ duties until a permanent replacement is named. Williams leaves the Department of Health and Senior Services after an unusually tumultuous tenure for a state Cabinet official, including dust-ups related to a rare tick-borne illness, Planned Parenthood funding and medical marijuana. When the coronavirus began spreading in earnest, that brought him even more public scrutiny. As the months wore on and caseloads increased, Williams and Parson took more and more criticism for failing to enforce restrictions and declining to issue a statewide mask mandate. The health department was criticized for failing to report tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases until last month.
Great Falls: Benefis Health System will make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for its employees at the beginning of May. “Benefis is a leader in healthcare and we are responsible for doing our absolute best to protect our patients who turn to us in the most vulnerable times,” Benefis said in a statement. “We are also responsible for protecting the employees who support that effort. The vaccines are saving lives and Benefis hopes to be part of this continued effort towards the control of the worldwide pandemic.” To date, about 64% of Benefis employees have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The state posted 186 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, bringing Montana’s total to 107,379 confirmed reports. Of those, 104,802 are recovered, and 1,025 remain active. There are 66 COVID-19 patients actively hospitalized out of 4,933 total hospitalizations, according to the state’s virus-tracking website. Montana added six deaths since Monday’s report, bringing the total to 1,552 fatalities related to the respiratory illness. There have been 647,928 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in Montana, which is 4,645 more doses than were reported the previous day. To date, 281,469 residents are fully immunized.
Lincoln: Test Nebraska, a partnership between the state and Nomi Health, reached a milestone last week, surpassing 750,000 coronavirus tests given in communities throughout the state over the past year, according to the state health department. “Test Nebraska was – and remains – one of the only programs in the country offering burden-free testing,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement. “This model ensures that Nebraskans are not required to show a doctor’s note or proof of insurance to access a COVID-19 test.” Residents can visit TestNebraska.com, or TestNebraska.com/es for Spanish, to schedule an appointment. Those with questions about testing or results and those who need help completing the online assessment can call the Test Nebraska hotline at (402) 207-9377.
Las Vegas: Lawmakers in the city are linking plans to fully lift distancing restrictions beginning May 1 with vaccination rates in the state’s key tourism region, while Reno-area businesses could soon have no capacity limits and voluntary distancing rules. County lawmakers in the state’s two most populous areas approved separate plans Tuesday for consideration Thursday by the state’s COVID-19 Response Task Force appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. The Democratic governor has set a June 1 date to lift almost all coronavirus mitigation restrictions, except statewide mask mandates that will remain in place indefinitely. Several rural counties moved so quickly last week to relax restrictions and reopen businesses that the governor this week reminded officials that local plans can take effect no earlier than May 1. The Clark County Commission, with jurisdiction over the Las Vegas Strip, adopted a plan involving multiple area agencies to increase occupancy to 80% by May 1 and decrease the required social distancing between people from 6 feet to 3 feet. Capacity limits – currently at 50% statewide – and distancing rules would be lifted completely once 60% of Clark County’s 1.8 million eligible residents receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Concord: Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has started a post-COVID-19 program for people feeling shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches, rapid heartbeat, memory issues and other symptoms more than three months after they became infected. The center said in a news release Tuesday that the program for so-called long-haulers is the first in northern New England and will provide access to a 10-member medical team led by an infectious disease specialist. “We probably are only at the beginning of the impact of this virus,” Dr. Michael Calderwood, chief quality officer, said Wednesday. “We continue to learn about this virus and about post-COVID-19 symptoms, and these types of care centers are going to be really important as we think about our comprehensive and coordinated approach to COVID-19 aftercare.” Patients with Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome account for about 10% to 30% of those who contract the coronavirus.
Paterson: The Passaic County Sheriff’s Labor Assistance Program is back after more than a year’s hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. SLAP works with counties to allow nonviolent offenders to fulfill their sentences without incarceration through labor to many municipalities and organizations. Its absence became all too apparent this spring as roadside trash piled up. Among the jobs the crews perform is the removal of trash along roadways, highways and off-ramps. After a year’s hiatus, a number of the mayors in the area said the program’s presence was missed. “It was important to have the SLAP program restart operations,” Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik said. “We started back this week, with four offenders, and it is our hope to get back to pre-COVID numbers as the public health environment continues to improve.” Sheriff’s officials said a number of factors made the reactivation of the program possible, including warmer weather, a declining coronavirus infection rate and an increase in the number of vaccinations. “They are needed,” Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said, noting that in a section of the city’s highways including Route 20, trash is particularly noticeable. “Urban areas need more attention.”
Santa Fe: State labor officials are responding with reassurances to an onslaught of complaints about increased tax rates on businesses to support unemployment insurance. In addition, the state intends to extend the time employers can file appeals if they suspect inappropriate tax increases. A long list of business groups including the New Mexico Business Coalition began writing to the the Department of Workforce Solutions in February to express concern about calculations for increased unemployment tax rates and premiums. They are questioning the state’s compliance with a state pandemic relief law that omits any layoffs from March 2020 through June 2021 from consideration in setting insurance rates. The provision was enacted during a special legislative session in June 2020. Workforce Solutions Department spokeswoman Stacy Johnston said rate changes are based on a three-year average that can increase even as the state abides by the blackout period. “A tax rate may have gone up due to benefit charges that took place in the three years prior to March 1, 2020,” Johnston said in an email. “This is the most likely cause for an increase based on our review.”
Utica: Twenty children and teenagers tested positive for the coronavirus, and 300 students are under quarantine, after dance school students with virus symptoms attended a competition in central New York, county officials said. Multiple students from a dance school in the Utica area participated in a competition Saturday, in nearby Syracuse, despite experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. The students later tested positive, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said at a news conference Tuesday. “This is our largest cluster, our fastest cluster, and we’re a year into this,” Picente said. The 20 people connected to the dance school cases who have tested positive range from 6 to 17 years old and are from several school districts, Picente said. The Whitesboro Central School District near Utica resumed in-person learning Wednesday, a day after going fully remote because of the exposures. Superintendent Brian Bellair told the Observer-Dispatch of Utica that he expects about 300 students from a mix of grade levels, including a few entire elementary classes, to be under quarantine. Picente said the dance school, which he didn’t identify, failed to practice proper pandemic protocols. “Carelessness is preventing us from returning to normal and punishing the people who are doing all the right things,” he said.
Asheville: Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he expects to lift almost all restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic June 1 but will keep the state’s mask mandate in place. Restrictions limiting capacity at indoor restaurants, bars and concert venues are among those that will be lifted, as are limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings. “With increasing vaccinations and ongoing work to slow the spread, I anticipate we’ll be able to lift all mandatory social distancing, capacity and mass gathering restrictions by June 1,” Cooper said. The existing order expires April 30. Cooper said he’ll issue a new order next week with safety restrictions for May. The current order limits most outdoor gatherings to 100 people and indoor gatherings to 50 people. Retail establishments can operate at full capacity under the order, while restaurants are limited to 75% capacity inside. Bars, concert venues and sports arenas are limited to 50% capacity under the order. If two-thirds of adults get vaccinated, Cooper said, North Carolina would likely lift its mask mandate in outdoor spaces. “After June 1, we hope that that mask mandate would only be required for people in public places indoors,” the Democratic governor said.
Bismarck: Gov. Doug Burgum said Wednesday that he will lift the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration at the end of the month as the focus shifts to increasing vaccination rates. Burgum issued the order last March, two days after North Dakota confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. A week later, he ordered people to stay out of bars, restaurants, health clubs, movie theaters and other large-scale venues. Burgum said the decision to lift the emergency shows the progress the state has made in protecting its most vulnerable residents, preserving hospital capacity and making vaccines available to all residents. Nearly 70% of North Dakotans age 65 years and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 64% are fully vaccinated. North Dakota health officials on Wednesday confirmed 178 new coronavirus cases, nine new hospitalizations and two new deaths. More than 106,000 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 1,484 have died since the start of the pandemic. The state currently has no enforced business or event protocols related to COVID-19, though local measures or orders may still be in place. A statewide mask requirement issued Nov. 18 was lifted Jan. 18.
Cincinnati: More people younger than 50 need to get their COVID-19 shots, Gov. Mike DeWine said. “We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of first doses,” DeWine said. To date, 38% of residents have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 27.5% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to Ohio Department of Health data. “Unvaccinated Ohioans simply lack the same protection against the virus, which is more contagious,” Ohio’s chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said. “If you’re counting on herd immunity to cover you, you really can’t count on it yet.” Vanderhoff said unvaccinated Ohioans are playing “a COVID-19 lottery.” Local health departments are getting creative to vaccinate residents. For example, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is using ZIP code data to offer vaccines in underserved parts of the county, making calls and knocking on doors.
Tulsa: A federal center providing vaccinations to anyone 16 or older opened Wednesday, offering up to 3,000 vaccinations each Tuesday through Saturday for the next eight weeks. The center is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with state and local agencies at Tulsa Community College. Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said it is hoped the location will provide shots to underserved residents that include Blacks and Hispanics in north Tulsa. The center provides the Pfizer vaccine that is approved for anyone 16 or older. Those ages 16 or 17 must have a parent or guardian present to receive the vaccine. More than 2.5 million vaccinations have been administered in Oklahoma, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Totals of 445,963 coronavirus cases and 8,189 deaths, based on data provided to the federal Centers for Disease Control, have been reported in the state since the pandemic began, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Portland: State officials say despite a fourth surge and rising numbers of patients hospitalized because of COVID-19, Gov. Kate Brown will ease restrictions by allowing “indoor full-contact sports” to restart by the end of the week. The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority said the move is in recognition of “the importance of athletics for the physical and mental health of Oregon’s youth athletes,” although the loosened restrictions also apply to adults. Low-contact indoor sports already were permitted, but the new rules for the first time since last spring will allow Oregonians of all ages to engage in indoor basketball, cheerleading, wrestling and water polo, among other sports. Over the past month, new daily coronavirus cases have increased about 150%, including 55% in the past two weeks. That’s faster than the national average, with new cases rising in the United States up 4% in the past two weeks. The number of hospitalized patients in Oregon also has jumped from 106 people a month ago to 255 on Tuesday, roughly a 140% increase. In the past two weeks, Oregon’s number of COVID-19 patients has grown by 49%, compared with the national average of 10%.
Harrisburg: The state plans to greatly expand its network of COVID-19 vaccine providers as demand for the lifesaving shots begins to slow and as existing vaccinators order fewer doses, Pennsylvania’s top health official said Tuesday. Sending vaccine to neighborhood pharmacies and other smaller providers could potentially make it easier for people in underserved areas to schedule an appointment. The state had slashed the number of providers receiving vaccine by more than two-thirds as the Wolf administration, under pressure to speed shots into arms, redirected the state’s limited supply to hospitals, federally funded health centers, municipal health departments and pharmacies that could quickly inoculate large numbers of people. Smaller vaccine providers who were cut out said the move hurt some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. A new map produced for the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association’s vaccine task force shows that many of the providers who lost their ability to vaccinate are located in medically underserved areas of the state. “This poorly constructed decision resulted in heightened concerns among citizens relying on those pharmacy providers for vaccine,” Victoria Elliott, the association’s CEO, said via email Tuesday.
Providence: The state has been awarded nearly $1.5 million in federal funding to expand efforts to track coronavirus mutations, officials announced Wednesday. The funding comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was included as part of the $1.9 trillion relief bill that President Joe Biden signed last month. The White House recently announced that $1 billion would go to the CDC and state and local health agencies for genomic sequencing to track virus mutations. Gov. Dan McKee said the funding comes at a crucial time. The Rhode Island Department of Health has estimated that more than half of the state’s new COVID-19 cases are caused by variant strains. “Rhode Island is in a race against time with vaccines and variants,” McKee said in a statement. “As we continue to get shots in arms, investing in data collection is an asset that will help protect Rhode Islanders and our neighbors across the country.” The new funding will be used to collect coronavirus specimens, sequence the genetic makeup of viruses and share the data. The funding is expected to be distributed in early May. It’s intended to help respond to existing mutations along with future variants of this and other viruses.
Greenville: After more than a year of remote learning for some students, public schools across the state will have to offer students the option of attending full time, five days a week by Monday. The General Assembly passed the law Wednesday, sending it to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been a vocal proponent of keeping schools open full time throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson for the governor said he would “happily” sign the bill into law. One addition to the bill will prohibit school districts in the 2021-22 school year from “assigning a teacher to deliver instruction to students simultaneously in-person and virtually, unless it is reasonable and necessary due to extreme and unavoidable circumstances.” If a district determines it’s necessary, the district will have to provide additional compensation to the teacher. Immediately following the passage of the bill, the Palmetto State Teachers Association released a statement saying the bill takes a critically important step: “Over the course of the past year, schools across South Carolina have been forced to create completely new instructional models to meet the needs of students during a generational pandemic. While the legislation wisely provides districts with the ability to use dual modality instruction in ‘extreme and unavoidable circumstances,’ the experiences of students and teachers with this instructional model this school year have clearly shown that it should only be sued in the most exceptional situations.”
Sioux Falls: Gov. Kristi Noem has joined a handful of governors who have issued executive orders banning the development or use of so-called vaccine passports. Such documents could be used to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine. South Dakota has resisted government mandates, and the state “is stronger for it,” Noem said Wednesday in a statement. She encouraged all residents to get a COVID-19 shot but said the state will not require it. “We are not going to restrict South Dakotans’ exercise of their freedoms with un-American policies like vaccine passports. In our state, ‘Under God, the people rule.’ And that is how we will operate for as long as I am governor,” Noem said. South Dakota ranks 18th in the country for new coronavirus cases per capita in the past two weeks, and its death rate over the course of the pandemic is eighth-highest, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Nashville: Masks and social distancing at sports events are no longer a requirement of the state’s high school athletic association, as the state prepares to enter the spring postseason. They remain recommendations. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association informed schools in a memo this week that it had updated its COVID-19 regulations and considerations, making those two changes. The decision was made in consultation with the governor’s office. “We are not seeing people at outdoor venues wearing them anyway,” TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. “We do see them sitting away from each other.” Masks had been mandated at all sports events since the school year began, along with social distancing. The state also had recommended previously that capacities be limited to a third or a quarter and had mandated reduced crowd sizes to allow for social distancing.
Austin: Residents looking to get a COVID-19 shot will have a few more options to do so this week after Austin Public Health announced Tuesday that it would pilot walk-up vaccine clinics and expand its online appointment system availability. Austin Public Health said walk-up clinics will be held Thursday and Friday from noon to 7:30 p.m., or until doses run out, at the Delco Activity Center in northeast Austin. If all vaccines are administered before 7:30 p.m., staff and volunteers will help residents arriving to the site schedule an appointment to return for their shot. During the walk-up clinics, residents 18 and older can arrive without an appointment. While preregistration is not required, it is highly encouraged, officials said. Health officials also announced expanded appointment scheduling on its website. Scheduling will close Friday at 7 a.m., officials said. Moving forward, the appointment scheduling system will be open from 7 p.m. on Fridays to 7 a.m. the following Friday. The 12-hour Friday closure will allow health officials to finalize the appointment schedule and update times for the following week, officials said. Residents who cannot access the online scheduling system are encouraged to call 311 or 512-974-2000.
Salt Lake City: State epidemiologist Angela Dunn, who helped Utah navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, is leaving her job to take over the Salt Lake County health department, officials announced Tuesday. Dunn was a little-known public health official before the pandemic hit, and she was thrust into the vital position of helping map out the state’s strategy to deal with a pandemic that has killed 2,174 Utahns. She became a household name and a recognizable face across the state as she spoke at televised weekly briefings, repeatedly urging residents to wear masks and practice social distancing. Dunn sometimes interspersed humor and brevity to lighten the mood during the time of crisis, earning her widespread respect and fans. But her newfound prominence made her a target for people unhappy with state restrictions on businesses and mask mandates. In October, anti-mask protesters gathered in front of Dunn’s house after her personal information was leaked online. “It’s taken a really big toll on my family and myself,” Dunn said after the protest during one of her weekly COVID-19 briefings. “I think it’s really unfortunate we live in a state where people feel that it is OK to harass civil servants.”
Newport: Northern State Correctional Facility has been declared free of COVID-19, the Department of Corrections says. The all-clear came after five consecutive rounds of testing at the Newport prison found no cases of the coronavirus among inmates. Three cases were detected among prison staff, including one during the most recent round of testing April 15, but contact tracing found that the case posed no threat to the incarcerated population. The outbreak began Feb. 23 when testing found the virus in one staff member and 21 inmates. A total of 179 incarcerated individuals tested positive during the outbreak. “We are thankful the Vermont Department of Health has cleared us from all outbreak protocols,” Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said in a statement Tuesday. “We are thankful there was not serious illness, and we do not take that fact for granted.”
Richmond: Mental hospitals are struggling with dangerously high numbers of patients, a state official told lawmakers this week. The census numbers are prompting the facilities to delay admissions and are straining law enforcement’s ability to maintain custody of people waiting for treatment, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. The state’s eight public mental hospitals for adults are at 96% of their capacity, Behavioral Health Commissioner Alison Land told a committee of legislators studying mental health services Tuesday. Crowding is worst at Central State Hospital near Petersburg, which is 99% full. Land told the committee the pandemic has also triggered an exodus of employees, with hospitals operating at 60% to 75% of full staffing. “The picture is bleaker, not better,” she said. Virginia sheriffs are reporting being stretched thin after responding to psychiatric emergencies that require them to hold people and transport them for treatment. “I’ve had deputy sheriffs tied up for days at a time,” John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, told the newspaper in an interview Tuesday. “We’re at a crisis point.”
Port Orchard: A new community vaccination site will open in South Kitsap this week, run by the Kitsap Public Health District and Kitsap County’s Emergency Operations Center. The clinic will be at the Christian Life Center in Port Orchard, where staff will provide about 600 Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses Thursday and Friday. Appointments, open to everyone 16 and up, can be made at kphd.timetap.com. “We are excited to expand access to COVID-19 vaccination in South Kitsap with the help of our community partners and volunteers,” Yolanda Fong, community health director of the public health district, said in a statement. “This clinic will make it easier for South Kitsap residents to gain protection against COVID-19 and help slow the spread of the virus across our region.” The location would be the county’s third community vaccination site, alongside locations at Olympic College’s Poulsbo campus and the old St. Michael Medical Center campus in Bremerton. “Our goal has been to scale up our capacity to administer vaccines across our county,” health district spokesman Tad Sooter said in an email. “Now that we have vaccination sites established in Bremerton, Poulsbo, and Port Orchard, we will evaluate which clinics to operate from week to week based on community need, vaccine availability, and staffing.”
Charleston: A vaccine clinic at a casino is welcoming people from outside the state to get their COVID-19 shots as demand declines among residents. “Grateful was what we saw in their eyes,” said Betsy Gambino, a nurse with Berkeley Medical Center who helped administer the shots Tuesday. Without leaving their cars, people can get their vaccine in a parking garage at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. The drive-thru clinic is available to anyone 16 or older. Held in partnership with WVU Medicine, the clinic is being held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday over the next several weeks. “We know our neighbors in surrounding states are struggling, so we’ve opened our borders to allow them to receive their vaccine,” said Donnie Grubb, Berkeley Medical Center’s trauma program manager, who is overseeing the clinic. Gambling might be a unique side trip to getting the vaccine, although the clinic’s roadside advertising does not openly push the facility’s slots and table games. Gambino said a database shows residents from six other states arrived Tuesday, including California, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and a local worker who hails from Nova Scotia.
Milwaukee: For now, the Wisconsin State Fair is a go for August after canceling for the first time in 75 years last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And if the fair does go on, it won’t be the only chance to see live music at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. The park’s Bud Pavilion, one of the park’s largest stages, will host its Wednesday Night Live free concert series from June 9 to July 21 and again from Aug. 25 to Sept. 22. “We’re thrilled to be back in action,” Bud Pavilion co-owner Leanne Hock said in a statement. “Last year devastated so many entertainment and service workers. We’ll once again bring in the best cover bands in southeast Wisconsin with an extended schedule that adds more shows. It’s going to be great to have people back at the Pavilion.” The announcement doesn’t specify what safety protocols might be in place. But on the Bud Pavilion website, organizers suggest Wednesday Night Live “will look a little different.” The pandemic has prompted several summer events to cancel for a second year in a row, including Festa Italiana, Polish Fest, German Fest and Bastille Days. But with vaccinations underway, there’s hope among local festival organizers that conditions will be safe enough for mass gatherings to resume in some capacity this summer.
Casper: The state’s unemployment rate has remained better than the national average, signaling a positive trajectory more than a year into the pandemic, a report said. The state Department of Workforce Services Research & Planning Section released a March report Monday that showed the unemployment rate stayed at 5.3% from February to March after a steady run of 5.1% to 5.4% in the past six months, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The national unemployment rate is at 6%, the report said. “From March 2020 to March 2021, unemployment rates decreased in 17 counties and increased in six counties,” the department said. “The largest decreases were reported in Washakie (down from 7.0% to 5.3%), Sublette (down from 9.4% to 7.7%), and Big Horn (down from 7.6% to 6.1%) counties.” The report also showed that unemployment rates rose to 7.9% in Natrona, 6.3% in Converse and 6.6% in Campbell counties. A February jobs report said 26,733 jobs were lost in the state from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, department officials said. The leisure and hospitality industries lost 10,255 jobs, the mining, oil and gas industries lost more than 4,500 jobs, and local government lost more than 3,100 jobs. The new report showed each of those industries stayed steady from February to March.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Steven van Zandt, casino shots: News from around our 50 states