Tuscaloosa: The Alabama Department of Public Health is asking residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus to participate in a confidential survey that will help experts learn more about the virus’s spread. The department said its online survey is designed to “supplement ADPH investigation and contact tracing efforts.” All answers will remain confidential, and the survey is estimated to take about five to 10 minutes to complete, ADPH said in a news release. Meanwhile, virus-related hospitalizations in the state have reached a low that compares to COVID-19 inpatient totals reported in late September and early October. Just 589 newly confirmed cases were reported Friday, with a seven-day average of 662 cases, according to Bama Tracker. According to data published by Bama Tracker, 722 COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported Thursday, down 54 from Wednesday’s report and roughly 350 fewer than the COVID-19 inpatient totals reported the Wednesday prior. The last time hospitalization numbers were in the low to mid-700s was in late September and early October, per Bama Tracker. Since last March, 7,734 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths have been reported in Alabama.
Pelican: In an unusual example of the effectiveness of social distancing, residents of a southeast Alaska fishing community have so far escaped the coronavirus pandemic without any infections. The town of Pelican is one of at least 10 communities in the state that has avoided the illness by remaining isolated, Alaska Public Media reports. Pelican, which can only be reached by bush plane or boat, has no recorded cases of COVID-19 and has vaccinated more than half of its adults. “Everybody claims that it’s so hard to get in and out of here. I say, that’s perfect,” Pelican Mayor Walt Weller said. “There is no better time to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.” State officials said privacy considerations prevent them from identifying communities without cases. But discussions with residents and social media posts indicate Pelican is not alone. Alaska’s unique geography and isolation have helped villages thwart the pandemic with astonishing success. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said there is a degree of luck in play among villages that have escaped the virus completely. But she also observed “patterns of success” in those that have kept numbers low. “Mitigation strategies work,” Zink said.
Phoenix: Many grocery store workers in the state say they’re still anxious about customers who won’t wear masks, with 1 in 5 employees affiliated with a major grocery union saying they’re worried they could be physically assaulted by a shopper. Preliminary results of a University of Arizona online survey showed that members of a union representing about half the state’s grocery workers said they believed customers were becoming a bit better about wearing masks but were complaining more about it, as the coronavirus pandemic grinds into its second year. Nearly 4,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 union in July responded to the university’s email invitations to participate. They were contacted again last month for updated responses. In February, about 19% of the workers said they feared being physically assaulted by a customer, down slightly from 22% last July. About 45% of respondents said they feared being verbally attacked by a customer, down from 54% last summer. “How long can workers continue in these conditions, and how is that affecting health and well-being?” said Brian Mayer, an associate sociology professor at the University of Arizona. He’s head researcher on the study that was carried out with the local union.
Little Rock: Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday lifted most of the safety restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, except for a mask mandate he said would remain in place until at least the end of March. The Republican governor announced the rollback of the safety rules as he extended the public health emergency he declared last year until the end of March. The move came a day after lawmakers advanced a bill requiring the state to refund fines it has collected from businesses for coronavirus safety violations. The limits being lifted include capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms and large venues. They will remain in place as a guideline, or strong recommendations from the state health department. Hutchinson left open the possibility of reinstating the restrictions if there’s another surge in cases. “You can’t have (restrictions) in place forever, and at some point we have to move away from those directives,” Hutchinson said. “This gives us a safe path to move forward following the guidelines.” But public health experts say it’s too soon for states to ease up on their safety measures, especially with multiple virus mutations spreading across the U.S.
Sacramento: The Medical Board of California said it would investigate a plastic surgeon who appeared in a videoconference for his traffic violation trial while operating. The Sacramento Bee reports Dr. Scott Green appeared Thursday for his Sacramento Superior Court trial, held virtually because of the pandemic, from an operating room. “Hello, Mr. Green? Hi. Are you available for trial?” a courtroom clerk asked. “It kind of looks like you’re in an operating room right now?” “I am, sir,” Green replied. “Yes, I’m in an operating room right now. Yes, I’m available for trial. Go right ahead.” The clerk reminded Green the proceedings were being livestreamed, and Green said he understood. He appeared to continue working with his head down while waiting for Court Commissioner Gary Link to enter the chamber. When Link appeared and saw the doctor on the screen, the judge hesitated to proceed with the trial out of concern for the welfare of the patient. “I have another surgeon right here who’s doing the surgery with me, so I can stand here and allow them to do the surgery also,” Green said. The judge said he didn’t think it was appropriate to conduct trial under the circumstances. He told Green he’d rather set a new date for trial “when you’re not actively involved or participating and attending to the needs of a patient.”
Denver: Anyone 60 or older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine beginning this Friday, followed by those 50 and older toward the end of the month, Gov. Jared Polis said. Speaking at a virtual news conference this past Friday, Polis said some front-line essential workers also will qualify for the first phase, including those who work in the grocery, agriculture and meatpacking industries. Younger people with two or more qualifying medical conditions also can get the vaccine. “We are moving forward with this plan because of what we know now about the science and our supplies and because we firmly believe that this is the best course of action for the state of Colorado,” the Democratic governor said. “We’re moving as quickly as we can, making every effort to get it right.” The group expected to become eligible toward the end of March includes a long list of professionals, such as higher education teachers, restaurant workers, Postal Service employees, faith leaders, and those who work in public transit and manufacturing. Colorado has already vaccinated about 90% of front-line health care workers, Polis said. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of residents 70 and up and just over a third of those between 65 and 69 have received at least one dose.
Hartford: Some proponents of the latest effort in the state to allow physicians to prescribe medication to terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives said Friday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for such a law. Opponents of the legislation, however, argued at a virtual hearing at the Legislature that it’s the absolute wrong time to bring up the bill again. Tina Balmer of Manchester wrote in testimony to the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee: “This is NO time to make suicide more socially acceptable,” noting the “mental stress” the pandemic and lockdowns have taken on children and teenagers. But Dr. Jeff Gardere of Weston, a clinical psychologist and ordained minister, said he believes the pandemic, which has been blamed for more than 7,600 deaths in Connecticut, has proven the need for legislators to finally pass the “Aid in Dying” bill after about eight years of consideration. “Many of these patients died in the hospital, isolated from their loved ones,” he said. “And this is perhaps the kind of death we fear the most and a stark reminder that we should not be lulled into the fallacy of a false sense of security, that the end-of-life period only comes to those in old age or who have been chronically ill.”
Newark: At the University of Delaware, 300 students tested positive for the coronavirus last week – the most cases in one week the school has ever seen. “We are at a decisive moment in our fight against COVID-19,” Dennis Assanis, university president, wrote in a message to students and staff Friday. “We are on track to quickly exceed the number in the entire fall semester.” Assanis urged students to limit gatherings and get tested regularly to help slow the spread of the virus. This semester, UD is offering more in-person courses, and the number of students living on campus has tripled from 1,300 in the fall to 3,900, all in their own single bedrooms. The university is testing more people: In the fall, about 2,000 students and faculty were tested weekly. This semester, testing has been expanded to accommodate about 6,000 tests each week. Assanis connected last week’s steep increase in cases to student behavior, and the university took preliminary precautions by limiting dining halls to grab-and-go meals and restricting indoor gathering over meals. If the rate of cases does not improve in the next few days, more restrictions could be put into place, Assanis said, such as moving classes online or locking down residence halls for all but essential activities.
District of Columbia
Washington: Problems persist with DC Health’s vaccination website as residents struggle to sign up for a shot, WUSA-TV reports. The district made thousands more appointments available Friday to eligible residents. And DC Health added a registration session Saturday morning for people with qualifying medical conditions in priority ZIP codes. City officials said 3,500 appointments were made available, and they were booked in less than an hour Saturday. Dozens almost instantly voiced their frustration on social media Friday and Saturday, as the website crashed both days. The system seemed so fragile that it would crash repeatedly on users even if they were able to click on a time slot, some residents said. Most of the people unsuccessful in booking an appointment kept receiving error messages, forcing them to sign up constantly. Councilman Charles Allen reported more than 30,000 people clicked the portal when it opened at 9 a.m., with only 4,300 slots available. “We experienced extremely high volume as demand for the vaccine remains high,” Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted. “DC needs more vaccine.”
Tallahassee: State lawmakers gavel into session Tuesday amid a pandemic that will play a starring role on their agenda and influence how they conduct business over the next two months. The Legislature will have to grapple with a health threat that has loomed large on public life and the state’s economy. The coronavirus is already influencing how lawmakers are conducting business. Social distancing rules will remain in place at the Capitol to keep the coronavirus from infiltrating the hallways of power – even though a fourth of the state Senate, perhaps more, has been infected by the disease, including the chamber’s president and its top Democrat. Lawmakers, staffers and anyone regularly given entry into the Capitol, such as journalists, must undergo weekly testing for the virus. Temperature checks will also be conducted. It’s unclear how many of the 120-member House have been infected, but some members over the months have gone on social media to share news that they had come down with the disease. Widespread infections among lawmakers could lead to an abrupt recess to the session if attendance falls below the necessary quorum. That could scuttle debate over key legislation being advanced by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, including a measure that would shield businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
Atlanta: Lawmakers are considering a reorganization of the public health system that would strip power from county boards of health and give it to the state public health commissioner, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need for a more centralized structure. Now, each county board must approve its local health director, even when multiple counties share a district director who covers more than a dozen counties. Senate Bill 256 would give Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey the power to choose directors without having to get county board approvals, making Toomey their sole boss. The measure was discussed by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Friday without getting a vote. It would make county heath boards purely advisory, removing any ability to make rules or any requirement that they agree to rules made at the state level. “This bill is no reflection on the people who work in the department,” said Republican Dean Burke, a Bainbridge physician who is sponsoring the bill. “In fact it is an attempt to give them more tools and more resources and a better structure so they can be more effective.” The bill would also allow the state to hire people with public health degrees to be health directors, instead of only physicians as mandated now.
Honolulu: The Hawaii Nature Center has become an outdoor classroom for children who have been huddled in front of screens for their school lessons but want more than virtual learning during the pandemic. The center on the outskirts of urban Honolulu that has connected kids to nature for nearly 40 years has taken on a renewed purpose in the age of COVID-19, Hawaii Public Radio reports. The center’s weekday Outdoors EDVenture Program offers science-based environmental education to children ages 6 to 11. Kids in face masks crisscross the Kanealole Stream in Makiki Valley dipping nets in the hopes of finding shrimp or guppies. Others explore the nearby meadow trying to catch butterflies, grasshoppers and other bugs. “What we see is a lot of growth there with the families that have decided that home school is a better option or that their schools get out early enough on the virtual learning day,” center Executive Director Todd Cullison said. Leon Geschwind has been sending 6-year-old daughter Anna to the center at least once each week since the summer. “We realized the importance and value of being outdoors and kind of what outdoors means to the kids,” Geschwind said. Cullison hopes to expand the center’s reach through its Oahu headquarters and a second location in the Īao Valley on Maui.
Nampa: Residents could see millions of dollars in rental assistance during the pandemic if the governor signs a bill authorizing the spending. The Idaho Senate unanimously voted Thursday to authorize the spending of $175 million in rental assistance from funds the state was granted under a coronavirus relief bill signed into law in December by former President Donald Trump, the Idaho Press reports. The bill previously passed the House and will next head to Republican Gov. Brad Little for consideration. Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, said Friday that the bill will likely reach the governor’s desk this week and that Little doesn’t comment on pending legislation before it reaches his office. The money is part of about $900 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that have been languishing since the state’s legislative session began in January. Democratic state Sen. Ali Rabe voiced her support for the bill and disclosed a potential conflict of interest under Senate ethics rules because of her work for Jesse Tree of Idaho, a housing organization. “I work directly in eviction court in my other job, and I know that more and more families are in need of rental assistance,” Rabe said. A third of residents in Treasure Valley, which includes Boise, “are literally living paycheck to paycheck, month to month,” she said.
Chicago: The days of paying cash on the Illinois Tollway are gone forever. The tollway announced Thursday that it is permanently eliminating cash toll collections and will accept only I-Pass, E-ZPass or online payments. Customers unable to pay online can pay by check or money order. The move comes nearly a year after the tollway suspended cash tolls in mid-March because of the coronavirus outbreak. The tollway also said it will begin a program in May to help low-income drivers by waiving deposits on I-PASS transponders and adding $20 in tolls to people with household incomes up to 2 1/2 times the poverty line. “We remain committed to helping the state’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” tollway Executive Director José Alvarez said. More than 92% of toll payments in 2019 used I-Pass or E-ZPass, and that number has grown during the pandemic, the tollway said. The tollway allows drivers who don’t use I-Pass and E-ZPass to pay within 14 days or risk a $3 fine for passenger vehicles.
Indianapolis: The city is relaxing coronavirus restrictions on bars and restaurants ahead of the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. The changes announced Thursday allow bars to operate at 50% capacity instead of 25% starting Monday, while restaurants will see their indoor capacity increase from 50% to 75%. Bars, restaurants and music venues will also be able to close two hours later, at 2 a.m., instead of at midnight, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced. He said the capacity and time changes were prompted by drops in the city’s COVID-19 cases and its coronavirus positivity rate and were not due to the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. “I want to make it clear though that these decisions were in no way driven by March Madness,” Hogsett said. The NCAA said last month that games would have audiences of up to 25% capacity for the men’s tournament, which begins in mid-March. The 68-team tournament will be played entirely in Indiana because of the pandemic, with most games in Indianapolis. Marion County has seen its positivity rate drop from 16.4% in December to 3.8% most recently, said Dr. Virginia A. Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Health Care is warning the community of a phone scam in which callers claim to be calling on behalf of UIHC to schedule appointments to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but ask for personal and financial information in the process. According to a Thursday news release, the scammers pretend to be university employees and request callers’ Social Security and credit card numbers. “The public should be aware that UI Health Care will never ask for this information to schedule a vaccination,” the release said. “If individuals receive this call, they should hang up immediately.” In December, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller warned Iowans about potential stimulus and COVID-19 vaccine scams. “Scammers follow the headlines, and they’ll take advantage of our excitement, confusion and other emotions,” he wrote in a newsletter after Iowans were contacted by someone offering “to sell a ticket of some kind to you or an older adult guaranteeing a place on a waiting list for the COVID-19 vaccine,” according to Aging Resources of Central Iowa. The executive director of the Iowa Association of Area Agencies on Aging urged older Iowans on Thursday to be vigilant and not give away personal or financial information. “The vaccine is free of charge,” Joe Sample said.
Topeka: Republican lawmakers advanced a new proposal Friday to put $450 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government into the state’s unemployment program to help cover losses from fraudulent claims. GOP members of the House commerce committee included the measure in a bill aimed at overhauling the unemployment system and giving lawmakers more control over an upgrade of computers at the state’s Department of Labor. The committee approved the bill on a voice vote, sending it to the full House for debate, possibly as early as this week. The Department of Labor’s problems in keeping up with a flood of filings for benefits from jobless workers and combating bogus ones have emerged as a major issue since last summer. GOP lawmakers are worried that employers, who pay taxes to finance unemployment benefits, will be on the hook to cover fraudulent claims and that the state will be forced to cut parts of its budget if it tries to protect employers. The department estimates the state paid $290 million in fraudulent unemployment claims last year. But a legislative audit released Wednesday put the figure at roughly $600 million, and some Republicans argue it could be higher.
Frankfort: The state Senate advanced a bill Friday that would allow the overpayment of some unemployment claims to be waived, but legislators bickered over the long delays many people have endured in seeking jobless assistance in the past year. Lawmakers recounted heartbreaking calls from constituents desperate for help after losing their jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic that battered the economy. Republicans condemned the massive claims backlog and the long waits people have faced in trying to talk to officials in the unemployment insurance system, laying blame at the feet of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. GOP lawmakers repeatedly said: “Answer the phone.” They asked what his administration was doing to resolve the problems. Democrats countered that the system – overwhelmed by record numbers of claims – suffered from staffing cuts before Beshear took office, three months before the pandemic hit. “We can yell and scream about answering the phone. Let’s just be honest about why there’s no one on the other end,” said Sen. Morgan McGarvey, the chamber’s top-ranking Democrat. The legislation, which now goes to the House, would allow the state Labor Cabinet to waive overpayments when the unemployment office was at fault. Recipients would be expected to request the waiver.
New Orleans: Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office relaxed coronavirus pandemic restrictions Friday. “The past 30 days have shown a sustained decrease in case counts, transmission rate, and positivity rate,” a news release said Thursday. Groups of up to 75 may now gather indoors and 150 outdoors, and restaurants, bars, breweries, libraries and other businesses may seat up to 15 people at a table. Indoor stadiums may admit up to 15% of the maximum number of fans usually allowed, with outdoor stadiums admitting up to 25%. The news release was sent hours after Gov. John Bel Edwards said steadily declining numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide may indicate vaccines are making a difference. More than 2,000 people were hospitalized statewide in January, but the number was 679 on Thursday. New Orleans’ changes bring the city’s guidelines closer to the state’s, the city said. New Orleans has averaged about 50 new COVID-19 cases a day, with less than 2% of tests indicating infection with the novel coronavirus that causes it, the statement said. Case counts in January averaged more than 170 a day.
Portland: With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more plentiful, the state is expanding eligibility to those 60 and older this week and will use an age-based approach moving forward, Gov. Janet Mills said Friday. Noting that 98% of Maine’s COVID-19 deaths have been of people 50 and older, the age-based approach to determining eligibility for vaccines is the most practical and equitable, especially in the state with the nation’s oldest median population, the governor told reporters. Based on her approach, the state will expand vaccine eligibility to people 60 and up Wednesday, followed by those 50 and older in April, 40 and older in May, and 30 and older in June. Mills acknowledged it was disappointing news for younger people suffering from chronic health conditions along with educators and others who’ll have to wait their turn by age, she said. “Please keep the faith and stay safe. Together, we’ll get through this. This simple-age based eligibility will get us through this more quickly than any other approach that I can think of,” she said. Currently, Mainers 70 and older are eligible along with first responders, health care workers and long-term care residents. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said there’s a strong basis for the age-based approach in science.
Annapolis: The General Assembly gave final approval Friday to expanding a state tax credit for low-income workers to include immigrants, including some living in the country illegally who work and pay taxes in the state. The House of Delegates voted 91-44 for the measure already approved by the Senate, sending it to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, said the measure will become law without the governor’s signature. The measure, an emergency bill that will take effect right away, will extend the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income residents to people who use individual taxpayer identification numbers in addition to those who have Social Security numbers. They were left out of an initial relief bill that already has been signed into law. Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat, said she has seen lines of people waiting to get food near her home in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. She also said she regularly gets calls from people who can’t pay their mortgage or rent. “These are difficult times that we’re living in,” Pena-Melnyk said. “Should we turn away when we see these needs? Or should we do what people with a generous spirit will do, which is to find a way to help?”
Newburyport: It could take years to help students fully rebound from the emotional cost of spending months in virtual classes – some for nearly a year – away from teachers and friends, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Friday. “As we go forward, this isn’t just kind of a summer school thing that needs to be fixed. It’s going to be a several-year process to get our kids back to where they need to be,” Riley said. “We have to work on the social, emotional needs of our students, make sure they have everything from the food they need to the counseling services to the special education supports.” The pandemic forced most schools to transition initially to a virtual setting with students staying home and connecting to online classes – a change that has taken an emotional toll on many students suddenly denied the chance to interact with teachers and friends. “We’ve got to make sure our students are in the right place mentally, and then after that we can take care of the academics,” Riley said. “That’s what we are going to do.” Riley made the comments during a press conference at the Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport to highlight the state’s pooled coronavirus testing program, which Gov. Charlie Baker said is one more tool districts can use to get students and teachers back into nonvirtual classrooms.
Lansing: Those working the late shift could catch last call, and bars could pocket extra sales after missing out heavily because of coronavirus restrictions, under legislation under consideration that would allow alcohol sales at bars and restaurants until 4 a.m. Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Berman testified in front of a state House committee last week that the measure would allow municipalities to adopt their own rules to extend the pre-pandemic cutoff of 2 a.m. to make it 4 a.m. Indoor dining and bars currently have a 10 p.m. curfew under state restrictions. Berman said having the extension ready and waiting is important to help businesses financially recover from the pandemic. “Not everybody, in what we’re learning, has the same schedule,” the Commerce Township Republican said. “Not everybody works 9 to 5; not everybody is on the same sleep schedule.” Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said though the legislation is not a high priority at the moment, the association is seeking opportunities to get businesses back on their feet after the end of COVID-19-related that devastated the industry. Some groups oppose the bill, citing concerns about drinking and driving and about addiction being escalated by extending the hours.
Minneapolis: State health officials on Sunday reported a daily record for COVID-19 vaccinations, with nearly 70,000 doses administered in the past day. It was the second straight day of record-high inoculations, after about 56,000 doses were given out Saturday. The state has been working to catch up after delays in supply caused by bad weather around the country. More than 47,000 of the newly reported vaccinations were initial doses. Minnesota averaged more than 34,000 vaccinations a day over the past week, the highest numbers since immunizations began in December. At that pace, about 80% of residents would be able to get a shot by August, Minnesota Public Radio News reports. On Friday, advocates for some vulnerable populations raised concerns that people with some chronic conditions were not prioritized in the state’s vaccination rollout plan that was announced Thursday. Advocates noted that some people with conditions that could put them at higher risk for complications – such as intellectual and physical disabilities, schizophrenia or type 1 diabetes – won’t be prioritized. The Star Tribune reports disability advocates met with officials from the health department and the governor’s office Friday, but no agreement was reached.
Starkville: The state’s longest-running film festival is underway, but it’s mostly virtual this year due to the pandemic. Magnolia Independent Film Festival, or The Mag, is offering a slate of 42 films on its website for viewers to purchase. Festivalgoers can also pay more to access additional online workshops and panels. “You can watch it on your own time, in your home or with a group of friends, ‘on-demand’ as we’re calling it,” festival director Bailey Berry told The Dispatch. “You can watch it whenever you feel like it.” Films were available to purchase starting Thursday. Access will end March 13. This Saturday, a drive-in showing will be held at Mississippi Horse Park in Starkville. Ten short films and one feature film will be presented at 6 p.m. The late-night drive-in screening at 10:45 p.m. will include two short films and one feature-length film. The Mag is typically held as a fully in-person event at Hollywood Premier Cinema. Berry said the new format will allow festivalgoers to adhere to social distancing restrictions. “It was difficult at first trying to navigate around COVID, but once we decided on having a drive-in and virtual experience, it was pretty simple organizing it,” Berry said.
Columbia: The University of Missouri plans to hold in-person graduation ceremonies this spring after canceling them last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. May and August 2021 graduates will be honored in ceremonies the weekends of May 7-9 and May 14-16. Students who missed in-person ceremonies last year will be invited back to campus to be honored the weekend of April 23-25, the university announced Thursday. “We are excited to celebrate our recent alumni and new graduates after a year that has tested all of us,” Mun Choi, University of Missouri system president and MU chancellor, said in a news release. Some restrictions will be imposed on those attending the ceremonies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students will be allowed to invite up to six visitors, who will be grouped together and distanced from others. Masks will be required. The ceremonies will be livestreamed for those who can’t or don’t wish to attend. Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla earlier announced it would hold in-person graduation ceremonies this year. Missouri Western State University’s Board of Governor’s voted Thursday to return the school in St. Joseph to mostly in-person classes in the fall.
Missoula: The nominee to be the state’s next health director faced an unwieldy disease outbreak and pushed Medicaid work requirements – two issues looming in Montana – when he held a similar job in Kentucky. State senators will soon decide whether to confirm Adam Meier, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s pick for director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. He would earn $165,000 leading Montana’s largest state agency, which oversees 13 divisions and is a leader in the state’s pandemic response. Some have praised the job Meier did in Kentucky, including his spearheading of a program that would have created work requirements in the state’s Medicaid program. But others criticized those proposed changes as well as his handling of a large hepatitis A outbreak that spread through rural Appalachia starting in 2017, ultimately sickening more than 5,000 Kentuckians and killing 62. The Montana Senate has to take up Meier’s confirmation, which moved out of a committee Feb. 17. While he awaits confirmation, Meier is already engaged in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts and is working on the agency’s daily tasks, department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said in a statement. Meier is “focused on the job at hand,” Ebelt said.
Omaha: Officials expect to release a plan in the next two weeks for vaccinating residents with underlying health conditions after they were removed from the high-priority group of senior citizens who are eligible now, the state’s chief medical officer said Friday. Dr. Gary Anthone said the plan will likely give priority to people on dialysis, with lung problems or with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients and recent organ transplant recipients. “Those are the top three that we’re considering right now,” Anthone said at a news conference with Gov. Pete Ricketts. The Republican governor has defended the focus on age, noting that people 65 and older account for a large majority of coronavirus deaths and that many of them also have health conditions. He also said Friday that the state will migrate all of Nebraska’s different vaccine registration and tracking sites into one central, state-run site. Douglas and Lancaster counties have created their own sites, but Ricketts said having all registrations in one spot will help officials keep tabs on who has been vaccinated and who still needs shots. He said it would allow residents to get their first shot in one county and their second in another if needed. Ricketts said the state is working with Microsoft to build an inventory management and scheduling system.
Las Vegas: The Department of Corrections has been incorrectly reporting COVID-19 cases in facilities because of data entry errors, state officials said. The prison system and the Department of Health and Human Services released a joint statement Friday that said errors were found in data posted to Nevada’s coronavirus dashboard, which tracks cases and deaths in state facilities. Records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said the errors caused cumulative case counts among prisoners and staff to drop by 268 since last week. “Incorrect identification of facilities resulted in duplicate entries, coding issues and the inclusion of negative COVID-19 test results which were then posted to the dashboard as confirmed positive cases,” the health department said. Department spokesperson Shannon Litz said the agency discovered the errors last week when the data was reviewed with the Department of Corrections. She said she believes the errors were all made “recently,” but some date back weeks. Litz attributed the discrepancies in part to how the Department of Corrections categorized test kits. “Some kits were shared among neighboring facilities, and the results were assigned to the wrong institution,” she said.
Concord: Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster said the authorization of a third COVID-19 vaccine has the potential to be a “game changer” for the state and the nation. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine Saturday. Kuster said the news came the same week that COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Hampshire fell below 100 for the first time since November. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, and by working together, relying on science and following the guidance of public health officials, we will have brighter days ahead,” Kuster said.
Trenton: To meet the increased demand for accessible mental health assistance during the pandemic and its related shutdown orders, the state’s Department of Community Affairs is allowing any mental health professional to offer free services to low-income patients and health care workers as part of their biannual recertification. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the program Thursday. It permits therapists, psychologists and counselors to trade two hours of free services in exchange for one credit of continuing education training normally required when they seek renewal of their license. “By partially freeing up time for mental health care professionals, this order will make it easier for practitioners to give back during this time of crisis,” said acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs Kaitlin A. Caruso. Professionals can partially satisfy their required training by working with uninsured residents who meet the U.S. Housing Department’s rubric for low-income individuals and front-line health care professionals or by working with a crisis intervention organization. The program will run through the duration of either Gov. Phil Murphy’s state of emergency order or the public health emergency, whichever remains in effect longer.
Santa Fe: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday signed legislation that will provide some relief to businesses that lost money in 2020 amid the pandemic and emergency health restrictions. The measure will make $200 million in grants available, underwritten by a state job creation fund. Businesses may qualify for grants of up to $100,000 that will be distributed in four quarterly payments. The money can be used to help pay for rent and mortgage obligations in exchange for the businesses rehiring workers or hiring new employees. The governor and other lawmakers said the extra assistance will help get businesses back on their feet as many begin to reopen. Public health restrictions are being eased in more counties where positivity rates and daily case totals are declining. Just last week, more counties joined the ranks of those where indoor dining can be expanded along with other activities. “We convened the 2021 session knowing that getting economic relief into local economies was the most critical action that we would take as lawmakers. Now we are continuing our work on subsequent bills. Help is on the way,” House Speaker Brian Egolf said in a statement. The New Mexico Finance Authority is expected to make a formal announcement when the application portal opens.
New York: In a promotion that could be straight out of the Don Draper playbook in “Mad Men,” Brooklyn’s famed Peter Luger Steak House has teamed with Madame Tussauds to have celebrity wax figures mingle with patrons, promoting the easing of coronavirus pandemic restrictions on indoor dining in New York City. A wax Jon Hamm – known for his portrayal of ad executive Draper in the hit TV series – could be found at the restaurant’s bar Friday with a cocktail in hand. Other figures on loan from Madame Tussauds include Michael Strahan, Jimmy Fallon, Al Roker and Audrey Hepburn in Holly Golightly of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” mode. Peter Luger “thought this would be a fun, safe way to fill some of the seats that need to remain empty as we continue to fight the pandemic,” restaurant vice president Daniel Turtel said. As of Friday, restaurants in the city were allowed to fill 35% of their indoor seats, up from 25% previously. Peter Luger, in business for more than 130 years, will keep the mannequins in place through Monday. After that, they’ll return to the recently reopened Madame Tussauds in midtown Manhattan.
Raleigh: Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday rejected a bill that would compel the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts to reopen with at least partial in-person instruction, while also allowing parents the option of keeping their kids learning remotely. The plan introduced by Republican lawmakers could still become law if enough of the handful of Democrats who supported the bill decide to override the governor’s veto. “As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic. Therefore, I veto the bill,” Cooper wrote in a message. The Democratic governor has called on school boards that haven’t yet done so to transition to in-person instruction but opposed the statewide mandate that would’ve required them to reopen with about two weeks’ notice. In some places, students have been kept out of physical classrooms for 11 months, prompting outcry among parents concerned about learning loss. Following demands from the state’s largest lobbying group for teachers, Cooper announced he would open up vaccine eligibility to child care workers and pre-K to 12th grade principals, teachers and school staff above all other “front-line essential workers.” Teachers are eligible starting Wednesday, while other subgroups can get the vaccine as early as March 10.
Bismarck: A total of 69,786 people, or 9.5% of North Dakota’s population, have received the full two-dose series of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data posted online Saturday. The North Dakota Department of Health reported 17.3% of the state’s population, or 126,570 people, received at least one dose of vaccine. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Department of Commerce announced $20 million in grants to help the state’s hotels, motels and lodging businesses that lost revenue due to the pandemic. Businesses may begin applying for round two of the Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant PLUS on March 9. “North Dakota’s lodging sector lost more than $178 million in visitor spending in 2020 with demand continuing at depressed levels to start off 2021,” Interim Commerce Commissioner Shawn Kessel said. “These businesses are vital to our communities for visitors and the local workforce and supporting business.”
Cincinnati: Officials are moving to relax COVID-19 safety restrictions to permit school proms, graduations, weddings, sports and other spring events to accommodate more people as hospitalizations decline and vaccinations increase. The state plans to permit 25% capacity at indoor venues, while outdoor settings, such as sports stadiums, will be allowed to admit crowds of 30% of capacity, Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday. The venues will have to follow some rules and guidelines, such as mandatory mask-wearing for employees and customers, seating in pods of no more than six people, and separating groups of spectators by at least 6 feet. The capacity limits would also apply to theaters, a DeWine spokesman said, and take effect Monday. Ohio’s health orders for restaurants and catering facilities and banquet halls will be revised to remove the current capacity limit of 300 people. But masks and distancing between groups will still be required. DeWine said he plans to announce further changes to rules for fairs, festivals and parades at a later date. “We hope to loosen up and expand,” DeWine said. “The whole goal is get back to where we want to be, to what our lives were before the pandemic.” But the governor cautioned against relaxing too much, especially when it comes to masking and distancing.
Oklahoma City: The number of active COVID-19 cases in the state fell Sunday, health officials reported, continuing a downward trend in the count of residents fighting the disease. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 12,768 people with active known coronavirus cases Sunday, 161 fewer than the day before. Health officials also reported 706 new cases of the virus and 49 more deaths associated with it, bringing the state’s totals to 424,508 confirmed cases and 4,428 fatalities. There were 528 Oklahomans hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, the most recent day for which state data was available. As of Sunday, more than 546,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Oklahoma, according to the health department. More than 293,000 people have received the second dose to complete their vaccination. Health officials announced Friday that the state had passed the 1 million mark in doses administered. Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed said the milestone was reached after data was obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on federal doses administered through the Indian Health Service and U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. According to CDC data, Oklahoma ranks 11th nationally for doses given per capita.
Portland: All Oregonians who are 16 and older will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations no later than July 1, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday. The Democratic governor presented her new vaccine eligibility timeline for the state during a news conference Friday. “Yes, you are hearing me correctly,” Brown said. “Come summer – provided supplies from the federal government continue as planned – any Oregonian who wants the vaccine will be eligible to receive it.” The next round of distribution will occur in waves. People eligible in the first wave, which begins March , are residents who are 45 to 64 with underlying health conditions; seasonally impacted front-line workers, such as migrant seasonal farm workers, seafood and agricultural workers, and food processing workers; displaced victims of the September 2020 wildfires; wildland firefighters; people living in low-income and congregate senior housing; and individuals experiencing houselessness. The second wave, which begins May 1, will include all other front-line workers as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are 16 to 45 with underlying health conditions, and multigenerational household members. No later than June, all adults 45 or older will be eligible.
West Chester: A second health system has acknowledged it gave the COVID-19 vaccine to employees’ family members but said it halted the program after discussions with the state Department of Health. The University of Pennsylvania Health System said its Chester County Hospital ran a “lottery system” for family members of employees who otherwise met the state’s eligibility requirements. “Based on guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on this matter ... Chester County Hospital has discontinued this practice,” Patrick Norton, Penn Medicine’s vice president for public affairs, said in a statement. The family members were chosen blindly. About 1,600 relatives of Chester County Hospital staff were vaccinated through the lottery system, which launched Jan. 22, Norton said Friday. “We continue our commitment to protect as many individuals as possible while following all applicable eligibility guidance,” he said. Earlier last week, another large health network, Geisinger, acknowledged it had allowed employees’ family members to skip the vaccine line, holding three weekend clinics at which Geisinger employees were permitted to bring up to two family members so long as they were eligible under the state’s phased vaccine rollout.
Newport: The Breakers is taking a break. The Preservation Society of Newport County says it’s closing the famed Gilded Age mansion for three months starting Monday. But there’s good news for mansion aficionados: Marble House, a popular Newport destination and National Historic Landmark that’s been closed since last March because of the coronavirus pandemic, is reopening to visitors. “We are excited to welcome people back to this spectacular house and share its fascinating history,” Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director of the Preservation Society, said in a statement. Marble House was completed in 1892 as a summer home for William K. and Alva Vanderbilt of New York City. It was designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt with inspiration from the Petit Trianon at Versailles, France. Hunt was also commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II to design The Breakers after it burned down in an 1892 fire. The Italian Renaissance-style mansion was completed in 1895. The Breakers is scheduled to reopen by May 28, Coxe said.
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster is lifting pandemic restrictions on mass gatherings and alcohol sales, his office announced Friday. Starting Monday, restaurants and bars will be able to sell alcohol after 11 p.m. again, and event organizers will no longer have to secure permits for groups of more than 250 people. McMaster is removing the safety measures as coronavirus cases in the state have dropped in recent weeks, he said. “With the spread of the virus consistently decreasing across the country and more of the most vulnerable South Carolinians being vaccinated every day, I believe these targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary,” McMaster said in a statement. “The virus is still among us and we all must continue to make responsible decisions to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, but those decisions are for South Carolinians to make.” The Republican governor instituted the late-night booze ban in July, attempting to squelch the spread of the virus among young adults. He loosened restrictions on mass gatherings in August, allowing event organizers to apply for exemptions for groups of more than 250 through the Department of Commerce. State health officials said Friday that people should still practice social distancing and wear face coverings, along with taking other safety precautions.
Sioux Falls: Health officials on Sunday confirmed two new deaths due to the coronavirus and 134 new cases of COVID-19 across the state. The update increased the number of fatalities to 1,888 and the number of overall cases to 112,427 since the start of the pandemic. There were about 237 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks in South Dakota, which ranks 31st in the country for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. One in every 782 people in the state tested positive in the past week. The state’s death count is the 41st highest in the country overall and the seventh highest per capita at about 214 deaths per 100,000 people, researchers said. State health officials said 214,507 doses of the vaccines had been administered as of Sunday morning. More than 25% of the state’s population has received at least one dose, and more than 13% have completed both shots.
Nashville: Top health officials revealed Friday that the state has asked federal law enforcement to investigate alleged theft of COVID-19 vaccine doses in Shelby County. They also announced that a volunteer in the county, which includes Memphis, improperly vaccinated two children despite the shot not being cleared for young minors. Later Friday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced that Dr. Alisa Haushalter, the director of the county health department, has resigned. The developments came after the state previously announced that roughly 2,400 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been wasted in Shelby County over the past month due to miscommunication and insufficient record-keeping inside the local health department. The county had also built up nearly 30,000 excessive vaccine doses in its inventory. Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey declined to elaborate on the extent of the theft allegations but said the Shelby County Health Department only alerted the state about the stolen doses after Tennessee had asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch its own investigation. Piercey said the stolen shots are believed to have been taken by a volunteer who ran off with the vaccine in syringes – not the actual vials in which doses are kept.
Houston: Making his first trip to the Lone Star State as president, Joe Biden offered words of encouragement Friday after touring several Houston sites to assess recovery efforts after a recent bout of crippling winter weather. The president received private briefings from emergency officials and toured the Houston Food Bank with first lady Jill Biden before ending his roughly six-hour visit at NRG Stadium, where a federal-state COVID-19 mass vaccination site opened last week with the goal of administering 6,000 shots a day over the next two months via an 11-lane, drive-thru clinic. “Jill and I wanted to visit Texas today for a couple of reasons, first and foremost to let Texas know our prayers are with you in the aftermath of this winter storm,” Biden said from a lectern set up in the stadium parking lot with a Federal Emergency Management Agency truck as the backdrop. “We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storms and this pandemic and the economic crisis. We’re in it for the long haul.” The president also used the massive vaccination effort in Houston to encourage people to get COVID-19 shots. “The vaccines are safe, I promise you. They are safe and effective,” he said.
Utah: The state is canceling about 7,200 COVID-19 vaccine appointments after an error in the state health department’s registration website allowed people without qualifying conditions to register for the shots. Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said in a statement that the error allowed residents who are not 65 or older or who don’t have an underlying medical condition to sign up. The Salt Lake Tribune reports those appointments are being canceled. Those affected will receive emails about the cancellations. People who meet the state’s conditions can keep their vaccine appointments scheduled through vaccinate.utah.gov. Public school teachers and first responders also are eligible for doses. Additional eligibility criteria for getting a vaccine shot can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine. Utah so far has administered more than 680,000 vaccine doses and estimates that 10% of its population has been fully vaccinated.
Montpelier: The state is much closer than many of its counterparts in getting kids fully back to in-person learning amid the pandemic, but even with improvements to remote learning and some in-person instruction, it’s not sufficient, and many students are struggling, Gov. Phil Scott said Friday during his twice-weekly coronavirus briefing. It’s not a reflection on the hard work of teachers, the Republican governor said. A study done in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Health and the University of Vermont found that youths ages 12 to 17 reported increases in depressive symptoms and anxiety in the fall of 2020, compared to the fall of 2019, according to Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrel. Reports of anxiety in young adults 18 to 25 also increased significantly, she said Friday during the briefing, and about 70% of youth reported that the pandemic made their anxiety, worry, mood or loneliness “a little” or “a lot” worse. The rate of youth emergency department visits for mental health rose last year, and pediatricians across the state are reporting increased demand and mental health needs, she said. “Access to school is one of the most powerful protective factors that we can provide to our children and youth,” she said.
Richmond: Lawmakers gave final approval Friday to a measure that would provide certain home health care workers paid sick leave. The final product was a compromise agreement that fell far short of what advocates of the measure were initially hoping to see. Still, the bill’s sponsor and other supporters called it a first step forward on what’s been a divisive issue, even among the Democrats who control state government. The House voted 54-44 to approve Senate changes to the bill, sending it to Gov. Ralph Northam. The measure as passed would allow up to five sick days a year, unless an employer chooses a higher limit, for home health care workers serving Medicaid patients. Advocates of the bill have said that’s about 30,000 people. The bill as introduced would have covered a far wider range of workers deemed “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic. Del. Mark Sickles urged final passage of the bill, saying the measure would not affect the private sector “whatsoever.”
Bremerton: St. Michael Medical Center has been fined $17,800 by the state for safety violations following a major outbreak at the hospital in late summer. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries cited the hospital for six violations, including a lack of barriers to ensure social distancing and issues with respirator protocols. Those findings were based on an L&I occupational safety and health investigation started days after hospital officials reported a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak at St. Michael’s former Bremerton campus in August. According to the report, St. Michael did not have barriers or other ways to separate employees who were working close together and patients entering through the main entrance and emergency room. State L&I investigators also found the hospital did not have a written plan in place for using respirators, failed to ensure respirators were properly stored and didn’t provide proper training for employees using Control Air Purifying Respirators, the type of face shield that resembles a beekeeper suit. Those issues were all serious violations that resulted in monetary fines. St. Michael’s coronavirus outbreak last August infected more than 70 people at the Bremerton campus and led to the death of three patients.
Charleston: Republican Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that Congress should “go big or go home” on federal pandemic stimulus, breaking with opposition to the plan from within his own party, a day before the House passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion package. “We have tried to underspend and undersize what was really needed to get over the top of the mountain,” he told reporters at his coronavirus briefing. “You got a lot of people across this nation who are really hurting.” Justice, who won office in 2016 as a Democrat before switching parties, has surprised some by backing Biden’s proposal. He said that “an awful lot of Republicans are saying, ‘We don’t want to do this, and we don’t want to do that,’ ” but he supported a big relief package for people and businesses struggling to pay bills and rent. He said he did not support “bailing out a bunch of pension plans that were mismanaged,” likely a reference to aid to states and cities that many Republicans oppose. “I respect his point of view,” U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney said about the governor on MetroNews radio Friday morning. The state GOP on Twitter has ridiculed Biden’s plan, highlighting its opposition to measures such as transit projects in California.
Madison: Over half of residents 65 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and the state plans to begin vaccinating teachers, child care workers and other eligible groups Monday. As of Friday, 521,354 people 65 and up had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, representing 51.3% of that population, according to state data. When looking at all age groups, 14.9% of all Wisconsinites have received at least one dose, and 7.6% have received the full two-dose series of shots. In addition to teachers, some of the newly eligible groups Monday include public transit workers, utility workers and food supply chain workers, including retail food workers. State health officials say those ages 65 and older should continue to be prioritized. To help connect residents to vaccination sites, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services also unveiled an interactive online map that shows the state’s more than 500 vaccine providers, along with links to their websites. Vaccine providers say they can administer more doses than they’re getting. State health officials say they expect to see a rise in vaccination supply in coming weeks. They expect more Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are on the way, along with the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Casper: Gov. Mark Gordon has announced plans to lift all coronavirus restrictions on personal care businesses for the first time since the public health orders were introduced early last year. The Republican governor said Thursday that the changes will go into effect Monday for hair and nail salons, barber shops, tattoo and massage parlors, and other cosmetology businesses, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. Those establishments will no longer have to monitor their customers for symptoms, maintain a record of customers for contact tracing purposes or restrict the number of customers allowed in the facility at one time. However, remaining orders must still be followed, including a statewide mask mandate that went into effect in early December. Restrictions on businesses have been gradually loosened, but this marks the first time a public health order will be eliminated from the state’s roster of mandates during the pandemic. Gordon said he anticipates more restrictions will be lifted if the state’s number of COVID-19 cases remains low. “The efforts made so far have allowed us to maximize attendance safely at larger events like the state high school wrestling championships this weekend and the state high school basketball tournament that was canceled last year,” Gordon said.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dining with the stars, multitasking surgeon: News from around our 50 states