Tuscaloosa: Students across the three-campus University of Alabama System will return to in-person instruction for the fall semester with no limits on class size in Birmingham, Huntsville or Tuscaloosa to guard against COVID-19, officials said Monday. The system, which has held classes in multiple formats since the pandemic began a year ago, said in a statement that current models show it should be safe to resume traditional teaching after the summer break. Millions more should have been vaccinated against the disease by then. Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the medical dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and chair of the system’s pandemic task force, said leaders will continue trying to make decisions based on data and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health agency. “If safety concerns arise, we can adjust our plan; the safety of the 110,000 students, faculty and staff of the UA System remains our top priority as it has since our task force began its work one year ago when COVID-19 began to emerge,” he said.
Locals watch as workers unload fish into crates on a public dock in Cordova, Alaska. (Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren for USA TODAY)
Juneau: The federal government has approved the state’s plan to give its fishing industry almost $50 million in pandemic relief. The decision came after two major revisions to the plan and more than 200 public comments from every industry sector, CoastAlaska reports. Commercial applicants will be required to provide evidence that the coronavirus pandemic caused them to lose at least 35% of revenue in 2020. Applications will be accepted until May, and payments could begin as early as June, according to CoastAlaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker said the final plan excludes commercial permit holders who fish in Alaska but live in other states that received coronavirus relief. “Non-Alaska resident commercial harvesters who fish up here but live in a state that received a CARES Act allocation must apply to their state of residence,” Baker said. More than $17 million will be earmarked for commercial fishermen. Roughly $13 million will go to sport and charter guides, and about $500,000 will go to aquaculture businesses. About $2 million will go to rural households that had pandemic-induced problems accessing subsistence fisheries, with extra funds also available for households below the federal poverty line.
Phoenix: The city soon may have more shelters for people experiencing homelessness thanks in part to COVID-19 relief funds provided by the federal government. The City Council voted last month to set aside $14 million in federal funds to purchase or improve up to four homeless shelters. This is the first substantial financial commitment for new homeless shelters in recent years. The shelter money will be awarded to nonprofits through a city application process later this year, but the council made clear that it would like to see smaller shelters committed to helping specialized populations, such as older adults, people with medical conditions or veterans. Council members also said they want the new shelters to be located outside the downtown Phoenix core, where shelters and many nonprofits serving people experiencing homelessness are clustered now. Metro Phoenix has a severe shortage of emergency shelters. Maricopa County has about 1,700 emergency shelter beds, and they’re full nearly every night.
Mountain Home: North Arkansas Electric Cooperative has been awarded more than $28 million from the federal government to expand its NEXT fiber-optic internet and telephone service. Gov. Asa Hutchinson made the official announcement of NEXT’s funding from the Federal Communications Commission to expand its fiber-optic network during a visit to Mountain Home on Friday. “Why is this important? It’s about making sure our kids, if they have to go virtual in education, aren’t penalized for that. They can learn,” Hutchinson said, speaking at a brief ceremony in the bucket truck garage behind NAEC’s Mountain Home office. “It’s about the small-business person being able to operate in a rural environment and that they have internet access and can grow their business. It’s about that worker who has to work remotely to be able to continue to earn that paycheck and have the access so they can do it in that rural environment.”
The usually bustling San Diego Convention Center will be empty again this summer as Comic-Con is going virtual again and postponing its annual in-person event due to COVID-19. (Photo: CHRIS DELMAS, AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
San Diego: The San Diego Comic-Con will remain virtual for the July event, but organizers are planning for a smaller-scale gathering later this year. Comic-Con announced Monday that the annual confab will return to a virtual format July 23-25 for a second straight year. The in-person experience was canceled again due to coronavirus-related cautions around large gatherings. Organizers said postponements and other challenges caused by the pandemic left them with “limited financial resources.” As a result, the virtual convention in July was reduced from four to three days. However, organizers said they are planning a smaller in-person November event in San Diego. Comic-Con attracts more than 135,000 people – often elaborately costumed – to the Gaslamp District every year for the comic book convention. It is not uncommon for thousands of people to gather in a single room for a panel discussion, and the exhibit hall is usually jam-packed with people perusing merchandise. The event is a huge money-maker for the restaurants and hotels of San Diego and an important promotional stop for Hollywood television and films. It’s estimated to generate more than $147 million for the local economy each year.
Denver: The state has reported a substantial decrease in deaths and hospitalizations from influenza amid public health measures meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Health and Environment reported a total of 24 hospitalizations from the flu between Sept. 27 and Feb. 20. Around this time in last year’s flu season, more than 2,400 people had been hospitalized. The state reported a total of 3,546 flu hospitalizations across its 2019-20 flu season. This year’s flu season will last through May 22, according to the state health department. And while three Coloradans have died from the flu so far this season, 143 died during the 2019-20 season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I’ve never seen flu this low,” said Larissa Pisney, medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “This is certainly unprecedented.” Medical experts have attributed the decline in influenza cases to multiple factors, including COVID-19-related health orders and the fact that children have not been to school in-person for much of the pandemic, the Denver Post reports. There has also been a 13.5% increase in flu vaccinations this season over last.
Hartford: High school students learning exclusively at home during the pandemic are in greater danger of failing to advance to the next grade than those who opted for a model that includes at least some in-person learning, according to a report by the nonprofit educational organization RISE. The report found 33% of high schoolers in the nine urban districts it studied are in danger of not progressing to the next grade, compared to about 15% in a non-pandemic year. The report looked at more than 12,000 students in Hartford, East Hartford, Manchester, Middletown, Norwalk, Naugatuck, Meriden and Stamford in the first 21/2 months of the school year and found about 37% opted to participate exclusively in remote learning this fall. Of those, just 54% were on track to be promoted to the next grade after the first quarter, versus 74% of those in a hybrid model. The study also found female students, students of color and special education students were more likely to enroll in remote instruction. Among other things, the report recommends increasing communication with students learning at home. It cited programs such as “porch visits,” where educators in Middletown spend a day each week visiting with students who need help at their homes.
Wilmington: Vaccine skepticism has revived a debate over a near-20-year-old law allowing Delaware to quarantine and isolate people if they refuse an inoculation. The law was originally written to help the state respond to bioterrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Gov. John Carney has said he does not plan to use the authority during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill to make sure he doesn’t. The legislation by state Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, would remove the governor’s ability to isolate or quarantine people against their will during Carney’s COVID-19 state of emergency. The bill does not take the powers away from the governor for future emergencies. Lawson’s bill targets a state law that says Delaware can forcibly isolate or quarantine people who either refuse or are unable to take the vaccine or treatment due to health, religion or other reasons. The vaccine and treatment must not be “reasonably likely to lead to serious harm” to a person, according to the law. The state can also isolate or quarantine people if they pose “a significant risk of transmitting a disease to others with serious consequences” or if they refuse treatment or a medical examination. It’s not clear how these laws would be enforced.
District of Columbia
Every spring, the cherry trees donated to D.C. from Tokyo in 1912 bloom, and Washington celebrates the National Cherry Blossom Festival. (Photo: Destination DC)
Washington: A sure sign of spring is taking place this year despite coronavirus concerns. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled to take place March 20 to April 11 with a new format that organizers say is meant to honor the tradition of the festival while prioritizing health and safety during the pandemic, WUSA-TV reports. Organizers announced last year that the 2021 parade was officially canceled, but they say most of the events that remain will be free and open to the public, including a one-hour nationally syndicated television show; 20 large, vibrant cherry blossom sculptures displayed in dozens of locations throughout the city; and locally curated community experiences that focus on music, cuisine and visual arts presentations. The festival is working with the mayor’s office, the National Park Service, and other officials and partners to plan a variety of safe, entertaining and fun programming for the 2021 festival that aim to unite communities, help support economic recovery and embrace springtime in the district.
Tallahassee: Officials are recommending that the state’s antiquated unemployment processing system be replaced after a review confirmed what had long been recognized: a broken system full of glitches that was incapable of handling the unprecedented deluge of jobless claims spawned by the coronavirus outbreak. The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity is recommending that CONNECT be discarded and replaced with a more robust, modern system that employs cloud-based technology that could allow the system to respond more nimbly to increased demands. The department is asking lawmakers for $73 million over the next two years to modernize the system that left hundreds of thousands of jobless Floridians without unemployment checks for weeks and sometimes months. The director of the agency, Dane Eagle, told lawmakers Monday that Florida was not alone in its struggles. But as the unemployment rate surged when businesses closed at the outset of the pandemic, Florida was among the slowest states – if not the slowest – in getting unemployment checks out. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who likened the benefits claim system to an “old jalopy” breaking down at the Daytona 500, ordered the inspector general to investigate. The Economic Opportunity Department launched a review of its own, and the results were presented Monday to the legislative select committee on pandemic preparedness and response.
Atlanta: As people continue to work and attend school from home because of the pandemic, they should be vigilant for scammers posing as tech support, Georgia’s attorney general says. The scammers may call posing as a representative for a well-known tech company, or people might get a pop-up window on their computer saying a virus has been detected and providing a number to call, according to a news release from Attorney General Chris Carr’s office. Once scammers have an unsuspecting person on the phone, the scammer asks for remote access to the computer, the release says. If they get access, they can get usernames, passwords and other personal information and use it to access and steal money from existing accounts or open new credit accounts. Scammers may also ask for payment to remove an alleged virus. The attorney general’s office says people should not click on pop-up messages that claim to be from tech support or call a number in a pop-up message; shut down their computer and restart if they get a pop-up message and their computer freezes; hang up if someone calls and says they’re from tech support; and refuse to grant remote control of their computer to someone who calls out of the blue or whose number appeared in a pop-up message.
Honolulu: Public schools should resume in-person classes as soon as possible because children can attend class safely, said Dr. Sarah Kemble, the acting state epidemiologist. “As we have learned more about COVID-19 and schools, we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission,” Kemble wrote in a letter Friday to Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and the Hawaii Department of Education. “Rather schools are one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19.” Kemble said in-person instruction provides children better educational, social, emotional and physical support than online instruction. She said universal mask usage, hygiene and keeping kids in cohorts can dramatically minimize transmission risk. “Schools that have implemented mitigation measures are able to control COVID-19 transmission better than many community settings, where children may interact in less structured ways or attend gatherings with their families,” she wrote. Few students in the state have returned to school 100% in person. Elementary schools had the most students attending in-person classes daily at 12% of students in December. Just 5% of middle schoolers and 2% of high school students attended in-person classes daily, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.
Boise: Two former state attorneys general and a former deputy attorney general have formed a group to fight what they say are unconstitutional laws being proposed by the Legislature. Jim Jones, who is also a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, announced Monday that the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution will engage in various activities, including legal action if needed. “Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our State Constitution this session and it is incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account,” Jones said in a statement. The group said a bill to make ballot initiatives nearly impossible, another to limit a governor’s ability to respond to emergencies and others removing the attorney general’s office as the primary defender of state agencies are unconstitutional. Joining Jones are former Idaho Attorney General Tony Park, former Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong, and Bruce Smith, a senior lawyer of the Idaho Bar. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office, at the request of Democratic lawmakers, has written opinions questioning the constitutionality of some of the bills, including the one that said the bill limiting a governor’s powers during an emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Students play outside at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Chicago on Monday. (Photo: Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Chicago: Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to school Monday morning in the second – and largest – wave of students to go back to classrooms after almost a year of remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. CPS did not immediately provide any details on how many of the 37,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade who signed up for in-person learning actually showed up. Next Monday, another 18,500 students – sixth, seventh and eighth grades – who opted in for in-person learning in the nation’s third-largest school district will be allowed back into their schools. On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson welcomed students back to Hawthorne Elementary School in the Lakeview neighborhood on the city’s North Side. Lightfoot and Jackson spoke of happy students – some literally skipping to school – and of the $100 million spent to make safe those facilities that were closed last March because of the pandemic. “This is exactly what we fought for,” said Lightfoot, in an apparent reference to the contentious negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union that delayed the reopening of schools. “This is the moment that we knew would be possible and important in the lives of our young people.”
Indianapolis: More than 1 million residents have received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than half of those people are now fully vaccinated, state health officials said Monday. Since late December, a total of 1,000,321 Hoosiers had received at least one vaccine dose, and 569,465 are fully vaccinated, the Indiana Department of Health said. Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a statement that the state’s accomplishment in administering the vaccines “brings me indescribable hope.” State Health Commissioner Kris Box encouraged any eligible Hoosier to sign up now at one of nearly 400 vaccine clinics around the state to get their first shot. “The vaccine is a simple, safe and effective way to protect yourself and those you love against COVID-19,” Box said in a statement. “It’s an easy process that only takes a few minutes, and it could be the difference of a lifetime for vulnerable Hoosiers.” Indiana residents age 60 and older, health care workers and first responders are among those currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. To schedule a vaccine, go to ourshot.in.gov and select a clinic location. To date, 69% of Indiana residents 80 and older, 70% of those ages 70 to 79, and 49% of Hoosiers ages 60 to 69 have scheduled an appointment or received their first dose.
Iowa City: With the state’s public universities split on how to hold commencement ceremonies this spring amid the pandemic, an eastern Iowa lawmaker has proposed a bill that would require them to offer graduating students an in-person option. The University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are planning to hold their spring ceremonies virtually, while Iowa State officials announced Monday that they plan to hold in-person celebrations. The commencement ceremonies typically draw thousands of students, family and friends each year and were held virtually last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, the chair of the House state government committee, has introduced a bill that would prohibit that from happening for the second year in a row. Addressing COVID-19, the bill says each university “may establish protocols for the control and prevention of COVID-19, as deemed necessary by the institution, at the spring graduation commencement ceremonies.” However, each university would be required to allow each graduate to designate two persons, “at minimum,” to be allowed to attend the ceremonies.
Topeka: Conservative legislators, still smarting over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took early in the pandemic, pushed Monday to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings or keeping abortion providers open during emergencies. But Republicans are deeply split over how much to limit the power of state and local officials during future pandemics. Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks last spring to check COVID-19’s spread. But the GOP-controlled Legislature later forced her to accept local control over mask mandates and the restriction of businesses and public gatherings to keep a state of emergency in place under a law that expires March 31. Legislators are considering permanent changes in Kansas emergency management laws, and the state Senate was set to debate a bill that would go further in restricting the power of the governor, the state health department’s director and local officials during public health emergencies. The House Judiciary Committee debated a narrower measure aimed at giving legislative leaders a bigger role in managing disasters. “Our voices were silenced,” said Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville. “We were told what to do, and we weren’t allowed to do anything about it or have a voice at the table for two months that we’ll never get back.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear encourages people attending a gathering at the Louisville NAACP headquarters on Friday to seek vaccinations against COVID-19 and to trust the science behind the shot. (Photo: Marty Pearl/Special to Courier Journal)
Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear said fewer Kentuckians are going to hospitals with COVID-19, positivity rates are dropping, and the state just recorded a seventh straight week of declining cases. Beshear presented a burst of positive news on the coronavirus front during his daily briefing Monday and said restaurants, bars and other businesses will be able to slightly increase capacity Friday. New daily case reports in Kentucky are down 72% in the past seven weeks, and on Monday the state reported the fewest daily cases, 509, since late September, the Democratic governor said. The positivity rate, a seven-day average, was at 4.8%, according to state numbers. “These are numbers we haven’t seen in months and months and months,” Beshear said. More than 100,000 Kentuckians were vaccinated last week as vaccine centers received a surplus of doses after bad weather delays. The state has given a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to nearly 700,000 Kentuckians, the governor said. Beshear said several businesses that are welcoming customers at 50% capacity will be able to expand to 60% on Friday. That includes restaurants, bars, barbershops, retail stores, movie theaters and fitness centers.
Baton Rouge: The state reached a vaccine milestone Monday, with more than 1 million shots administered at pharmacies, hospitals, clinics and other sites in the 11 weeks since immunizations against COVID-19 began. The latest data from the state health department shows more than 657,000 people – or 14% of the state’s population – have received at least their first dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have been available. More than 368,000 people have gotten both required doses. “We still have work to do, but this milestone marks a big step in putting this pandemic behind us. These vaccines are saving lives every day and bringing us closer to normalcy,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a post on Twitter, celebrating the benchmark. The Democratic governor, who is scheduled to receive his second vaccine dose Tuesday, has credited the vaccine with helping to shrink the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospitalizations fell to 629 patients Monday after topping 2,000 in January. More than 1.6 million of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents currently have access to COVID-19 vaccines under the eligibility rules set by Edwards.
Portland: The state’s independent senator is taking another shot at promoting a $120 billion revitalization fund to help restaurants that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Angus King also supported the proposal when it was first floated last year. It would set up the fund to support independent restaurants and small franchises that are under tremendous financial pressure because of the pandemic, King said Monday. He said the proposal is especially important for the economy in Maine, which is dependent on tourism dollars. “Maine’s restaurants are central parts of our economy and our communities; they create jobs, drive tourism, and provide gathering places that add to the character of our hometowns – on top of cooking up delicious meals for all of us,” King said. Nationwide, restaurants wrapped up 2020 with losses of more than $240 billion, King said. The senator said they also lost 2.5 million jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels, and more than 1 in 6 is closed permanently or for an extended period. Under the proposal, restaurant owners could apply for grants of up to $10 million to cover expenses retroactively. King said the money could be used for costs including payrolls, benefits, mortgages, supplies and food.
Bushels of oysters are gathered on a boat on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland. (Photo: Brian Witte, AP)
Annapolis: The pandemic-affected oyster season has been difficult for the industry in Maryland, causing farmers and watermen to rethink how they sell their product. After restaurants reduced their capacity and a stay-at-home order was issued last spring, restaurant sales essentially went to zero within a week, said Scott Budden, founder of Stevensville-based Orchard Point Oyster Co. Since April, it has transitioned to directly selling to the public, through local pickups and cold shipping, Budden said. Many people only see oysters as something they enjoy at a restaurant, said Karis King, public relations and event manager at the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “With restaurant closures and events being pretty much nonexistent, oyster farmers are left with a ton of supply with oysters that need to be harvested right away, or else they are going to grow larger than the desirable market,” King said, putting the sweet spot for harvesting at 3 to 4 inches from one tip to the other. “Oysters don’t stop growing because of a pandemic amongst humans,” Budden said. To help address the demand problem, the Oyster Recovery Partnership has been working with oyster farmers to connect them directly to consumers and educate the public on how to shuck at home, King said.
Boston: The state eased some coronavirus restrictions on businesses Monday, making it much easier to grab dinner and a show. But health experts warn that lifting restrictions now as new cases of the virus and hospitalizations decline may lead to more misery down the road. Restaurant capacity limits have been lifted entirely, but parties must be spaced 6 feet apart with a maximum of six diners per table and a 90-minute limit per stay, Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week. Restaurants will also be allowed to host musical performances. Indoor performance venues including theaters are allowed to open at 50% capacity, with a maximum of 500 people. Capacity limits across all businesses have been raised to 50%. Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology, said the state is reopening too fast. “Opening up these restaurants is going to prolong the epidemic and increase the number of Massachusetts residents that die,” he told The Boston Globe. The city of Boston is being a little more cautious than the state as a whole. Indoor performance venues and indoor higher-contact recreational activities will remain closed until March 22. The city also won’t allow live musical performances in restaurants until then.
Detroit: The domed home of the Detroit Lions on Monday welcomed educators and school staff from southeast Michigan for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. Retailer Meijer and the Michigan Education Special Services Association worked together to identify and schedule 2,600 educational employees still needing shots. Kevin Woodard said it only took him about a half-hour to get the vaccine at Ford Field – something the 44-year-old substitute teacher from the Detroit suburb of Walled Lake said he was thrilled to finally do. “After a year of being in quarantine and worrying about catching (the coronavirus) from walking into a restaurant or walking down the street or meeting a random stranger in a random place, it’s nice to finally have the vaccination,” Woodard said. Dana Berry, a retired teacher from Hartland Township who still tutors students, said her frequent trips to Meijer paid off. “I saw that you could sign up there. And then I was able to get an appointment, which you feel like you won the lottery if you get one,” the 58-year-old said. Berry, Woodard and their fellow educators will return to Ford Field for their second shot in a few weeks.
St. Cloud: Another three Minnesotans have died of COVID-19 complications, and 636 more people have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health’s Monday report. The ages of those who died ranged from early 50s to early 90s. The number of coronavirus cases in the state since the pandemic began reached 485,230 Monday, and 6,486 people have died, according to MDH. Since the start of the pandemic, 25,727 people have required hospitalization in the state, with 5,308 people needing intensive care units. According to MDH, 471,647 COVID-19 patients no longer need isolation. More than 900,000 Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to MDH, and 467,300 people have received a completed vaccine series.
Jackson: Gov. Tate Reeves’ COVID-19 executive order will expire Wednesday, and coronavirus numbers are improving, but with spring break just around the corner, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs is urging residents to avoid travel. Once spring breakers resume their workweeks or go back to school, Dobbs said it will be easier to identify COVID-19 trends, as they tend to spike when vacations and holidays roll around. Daily cases are down from January, as are deaths. About 12% of Mississippians had received at least one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as of Friday, Dobbs said, and Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose shot is being distributed starting this week. Still, state health officials say people should stick to the game plan for COVID-19 safety, even if they’ve been vaccinated. “Prevention and vaccines go hand-in-hand,” Dobbs said. “One does not work well without the other.” Eligibility expanded Monday to include public safety officials, child care providers, and pre-K through 12th grade teachers and staff. More than 1.6 million Mississippians are eligible, State Epidemiologist Paul Byers estimated.
Cars line up at a mass vaccination event at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Leopold, Mo., on Feb. 24. (Photo: Photo via Missouri State Emergency Management Agency)
O’Fallon: Vaccinators across the state are expected to receive the first 50,000 doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by Wednesday, and Missouri’s health director said the shots can start as soon as the doses arrive. Some states expect to begin injections Tuesday, but Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox said Monday that the first doses in Missouri are expected a day later. The White House is encouraging Americans to take the first dose available to them, regardless of manufacturer. Missouri’s health director, Dr. Randall Williams, agreed. “The best COVID-19 vaccine you can get is the one you are able to get the soonest after becoming eligible,” Williams said. Thousands of urban dwellers have been signing up and traveling to rural communities in hopes of getting shots that remain elusive in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. Last week, a state-sponsored mass vaccination event at the Knights of Columbus in Leopold had 2,000 doses available – far more than were needed by the town’s roughly 65 residents or those in surrounding Bollinger County. Some of the vaccine at Leopold went unused but wasn’t wasted, Cox said. It was redistributed to other nearby vaccination sites.
Great Falls: Montana reported far fewer new coronavirus cases in the week ending Sunday, adding 1,175. That’s down 14.7% from the previous week’s toll. Montana ranked 33rd among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. The share of test results that came back positive was 3.9% in the latest week, compared with 4.9% in the week before, a USA TODAY Network analysis of COVID Tracking Project data shows. Within Montana, the worst weekly outbreaks on a per-person basis were in Wheatland, Valley and Silver Bow counties. Another 15 people were reported dead of COVID-19 in the week ending Sunday. In the week before that, 15 COVID-19 deaths were added. A total of 99,954 people in Montana have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 1,357 people have died from the disease, Johns Hopkins University data shows.
Omaha: The state could get its first doses of drugmaker Johnson & Johnson’s new COVID-19 vaccine this week, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday. He said Nebraska has been allowed to order up to 15,000 doses, but state officials don’t yet know how much they’ll get. Unlike the two-dose vaccines from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine provides immunity in just one shot. Ricketts said the state also expects to get 18,720 Pfizer doses and 17,000 Moderna doses this week. He said he was told on a recent call between governors and the White House that the Johnson & Johnson supplies may be inconsistent for the first few weeks of the rollout. Ricketts said residents who go to a clinic to get vaccinated will only be able to choose the vaccine that’s available on site, at least for now, and the newly approved version won’t change the state’s plans to focus almost entirely on residents who are at least 65 years old, the demographic that has been most likely to die from the virus in Nebraska. But Ricketts said the greater flexibility of the one-dose vaccine could be helpful in rural areas or with certain groups that are harder to reach for a follow-up shot.
Carson City: People who work in the Legislature were offered access to their first rounds of vaccines Thursday, almost one month into the 2021 legislative session. The statehouse remains mostly closed to the public, except for lawmakers, staff and a small group of reporters who are permitted inside. Unlike typical sessions, lobbyists, activists and members of the public can’t testify in front of committees in person, buttonhole lawmakers in the hallways or wait outside their offices. Republican leaders in the Democrat-controlled Legislature have said they want to open the doors of the building to the public. But Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Leader Nicole Cannizzaro have urged caution. The Democratic leaders have not introduced formal plans to reopen the building in any capacity, but they said Thursday that they hoped to reopen about halfway through the four-month session. A growing chorus of groups from across the political spectrum are also demanding lawmakers change their procedures to ensure members of the public can participate. Last Monday, conservative- and liberal-leaning groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Policy Research Institute joined together to write a public letter blasting how the Legislature has limited public participation.
New England's other maple capital (after Vermont), New Hampshire has more than 70 sugar houses. (Photo: New Hampshire Division of Travel & Tourism)
Concord: Some maple producers are welcoming visitors this season, with coronavirus-related restrictions in place. March is considered Maple Month in New Hampshire, with open houses held at maple businesses. The state’s “Maple Weekend” is March 20-21. Most operations had to close last year when the pandemic started, but this year, some will allow limited visitors, with social distancing, face masks and other requirements. At the Eldridge Family Sugar House in Tamworth, time slot tours will be held during the last two weekends of the month. “We will be offering two walk-through tours an hour, which will allow for us to sanitize between groups,” and have set up new serving windows for syrup and ice cream, the family said on its website. Just Maple at Green Acres Farm in Tilton said its gift shop will be open daily, and “we can welcome one group in at a time in order to social distance.” Many producers are offering curbside pickup and shipping options.
Trenton: Teachers, support staff and public transportation workers will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine March 15, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday. The Democratic governor said members of tribal communities, the homeless, migrant farmworkers and child care workers also will become eligible. Murphy said the state will be getting more than 70,000 doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine this week. He heralded the new vaccine as a “game changer” but said it’s unclear how many vaccines the state would be getting weekly in the future. Murphy also announced that beginning March 29, food production and distribution workers would be eligible for the vaccine, along with warehouse and logistics employees; social services, postal, elections and hospitality workers; and others. The decision comes as the state faces more demand than it has supply of the vaccine and with those 65 and older and those 16-64 with certain medical conditions still waiting for appointments. That’s why the new eligibility dates have been pushed two and four weeks out, the governor said. As of Monday, New Jersey has surpassed 2 million people getting at least one shot. It took 55 days for the state to reach 1 million shots and just 20 days to climb to 2 million, Murphy said.
Santa Fe: Education officials have clarified plans to seek a partial waiver from federal testing requirements as many students remain in remote or hybrid learning programs. State Education Secretary Ryan Stewart affirmed last week that the New Mexico Public Education Department has not canceled spring end-of-year assessments. “We have a request before the U.S. Department of Education to waive a requirement that 95% of New Mexico students participate in these assessments,” he said. “Instead, we have asked to test a representative sample of students, which would provide us with the information educators, families and communities need to gauge academic progress.” The clarification followed a statement made in January in which the department said it would request a waiver to allow schools and districts to skip high-stakes student assessments again this spring, shifting instead to optional testing. Instead of the traditional non-random survey of nearly all students, the Public Education Department wants to get a snapshot of student achievement by taking a sample of at least 1% of students.
New York has clarified its rules around music and dancing at wedding receptions. (Photo: kkshepel, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Albany: New York’s new coronavirus-era dance rules aren’t exactly “Footloose” strict, but don’t plan on cutting loose and kicking off the Sunday shoes with just anybody. The state says when wedding receptions resume this month, guests will be allowed to hit the dance floor only with members of their immediate party, household or family seated at the same table. Even then, the rules say, dancers must wear face masks and stay within their own “dancing areas or zones” – spaces that should be at least 36 square feet in size and positioned at least 6 feet apart from other dance zones and tables. There’s no switching dance zones, either. Happy couples can still take a twirl for a ceremonial first dance, and other couples can join in, but they must all stay 6 feet apart. Live music performers and other entertainers are allowed, but if they’re unmasked or playing a wind instrument, they must be separated from attendees by 12 feet or an appropriate physical barrier. Gov. Andrew Cuomo previously announced that weddings can begin again March 15. Venues will be restricted to 50% of capacity, up to 150 guests, and all must be tested for coronavirus beforehand.
Greensboro: The White House says it will include the state in its federal pilot program of community vaccination centers. Starting March 10, a Greensboro site will receive about 3,000 doses per day. The timing aligns with Gov. Roy Cooper’s expansion of vaccine eligibility to front-line essential workers. Teachers, child care workers and school staff were made eligible last week, while a far more sweeping group of workers ranging from grocery store clerks to elected officials can start getting their COVID-19 shots the day the clinic in Greensboro launches. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will support the site at the Four Seasons Town Centre. The three-story shopping mall will have options for the vaccines to be administered through a drive-thru in the parking lot or in person inside a space formerly occupied by Dillard’s department store. “This federally supported vaccine center will help North Carolina get more shots in arms and assist us in reaching more underserved communities,” Cooper said in a statement. He noted Guilford County was chosen for the pilot because of its sizable share of underserved and marginalized populations. His administration has previously come under scrutiny for redistributing doses away from Greensboro in favor of large vaccination clinics in Charlotte in January.
Bismarck: State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is encouraging public school students and families to take part in an online survey to describe their K-12 learning experiences this school year. The brief survey asks several questions, including whether student participants went to school in person, via distance learning, or a combination of the two from August 2020 through February 2021. It is intended for public school students and families in grades K-12 and should take no more than 15 minutes to complete, the superintendent said. The survey asks about whether students had reliable internet service and whether their school provided a tablet or similar connection device. It inquires about whether school staff kept in touch with students, whether “more challenging lessons were available, if needed,” and whether class grading and assessment was “clear and consistent.” The survey is a collaborative project between the Department of Public Instruction and the North Dakota University System. It provides students and their families an opportunity to express how North Dakota’s public education system worked for them during the COVID-19 pandemic, Baesler said. The survey should be completed by March 14.
Columbus: About 941,000 more Ohioans will be eligible to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday. Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday that residents 60 and older and those with certain conditions or professions that put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus can get a shot as soon as this week. About 246,000 people are part of Phase 1C, which includes those with Type 1 diabetes; pregnant women; bone marrow transplant recipients; those with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS; law enforcement and corrections officers, including active-duty police officers with at least 20 hours of service, including probation and parole staff, and firefighters with an active certificate; and child care services employees, including teachers, administrators and substitutes enrolled in Ohio’s Professional Registry who currently work in child care and pre-kindergarten programs. Ohioans 60 and up are in Phase 2, which includes about 695,000 Ohioans and is also eligible starting Thursday. Cancer and chronic kidney disease were not included in the new list of eligible health conditions. Restaurant workers and grocery store employees haven’t been given a date either because Ohio’s rollout has prioritized age over professions and conditions.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt answers a question during a news conference in Oklahoma City. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Oklahoma City: Less than a year after state lawmakers temporarily granted Gov. Kevin Stitt unprecedented emergency powers, they’re looking to curb his authority in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several Republican legislators have introduced bills aimed at telling the governor what he can and, more specifically, cannot do in emergency situations. They say the bills are intended to strengthen the state’s system of political checks and balances and prevent the governor from violating Oklahomans’ rights, regardless of the circumstances. Lawmakers in many states are pushing legislation to strip governors of some of their emergency powers, but Stitt has taken a more reserved approach to the pandemic than most. Some of Oklahoma’s health care professionals have criticized Stitt for not taking stronger action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “There’s never been a COVID pandemic before, but we’ve got 50 laboratories of democracy right now,” said Jason Reese, Stitt’s general counsel. “I would say that the governor has definitely shown restraint compared to other states.” Stitt is one of just a few governors that refused to impose a statewide mask mandate and frequently touts Oklahoma as one of the first to shed its COVID-19-related business restrictions and fully reopen its economy.
Salem: On the one-year anniversary of the state’s first coronavirus case being reported, Gov. Kate Brown praised the way people in Oregon have handled themselves during the pandemic. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oregon was announced Feb. 28, 2020, in Hector Calderon, a staff member at Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego. After being diagnosed, Calderon spent almost two months at Kaiser Westside on a ventilator, according to KGW. “Today and every day, we remember the more than 2,200 Oregonians we have lost,” Brown said in a statement Sunday. “Our hearts are with the families who have lost loved ones to this deadly disease. We must continue to keep each other safe by wearing masks, avoiding gatherings with people from outside our households, maintaining distance, washing our hands, and staying home while sick. But, while we must continue to keep our physical distance from one another, we will get through the rest of this pandemic the same way we have come this far: together.”
Harrisburg: The state is easing restrictions on large gatherings and eliminating a quarantine requirement for out-of-state travelers, reflecting a sustained slide in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the Wolf administration announced Monday. Outdoor venues are now allowed to host events up to 20% of their maximum capacity, regardless of venue size. Indoor occupancy will be 15% of maximum capacity, regardless of venue size, state officials said. For both indoor and outdoor events, venues must require masks and follow physical distancing guidelines, state officials said. Additionally, the state is doing away with a requirement that people who are traveling to Pennsylvania from another state, as well as residents who are returning home from out of state, must test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours prior to arrival. Under the order, people who refused to be tested were required to quarantine for 14 days. The changes take place immediately. “We need to balance protecting public health with leading the state to a robust economic recovery,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release. “We are lifting mitigation efforts only when we believe it is safe to do so.”
Brown University is dealing with a spike in COVID-19 cases. (Photo: Kris Craig/The Providence Journal, file)
Providence: Brown University is investigating an uptick in new coronavirus cases on campus, involving students, faculty and staff, a spokesperson said. The Ivy League school has reported 58 new cases in the past seven days as of Sunday, according to the school’s testing dashboard, but spokesperson Brian Clark said there were few connections behind the surge. “We were not seeing any kind of single event that had connections across the board,” Clark said. The numbers are updated daily, and if connections are found, emails go out reminding students, faculty and staff that COVID-19 precautions are still in effect. Since the start of the academic year, “students have behaved responsibly,” he said. Sanctions can be applied if a student is found, at the end of an adjudication process, to have violated the university’s COVID-19 policy. Possible disciplinary actions include a letter reminding the student of what is expected of them, a restriction of access to campus, a probationary period, a partial suspension and even expulsion.
Greenville: Officials at Bob Jones University said Monday that the private Christian college is stepping down its coronavirus-related mask requirements as it experiences fewer COVID-19 cases on campus. Beginning Tuesday, masks will no longer be required in classrooms once students are seated and instruction has begun, university President Steve Pettit announced Monday in a news release. Masks are still required to enter all public buildings at the school, as well as in other places around campus, officials said. Bob Jones officials said the campus has seen a 90% drop in its virus positivity rate since the beginning of February. As of Monday, officials said there were only three cases among the student body of about 3,000, as well as one case among faculty and staff. Masks are still largely required across South Carolina’s institutions of higher learning, even during in-person classroom instruction time.
Sioux Falls: The state is expected to receive 7,000 doses this week of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, bringing the state’s total allotment to just over 25,000 doses of vaccines per week. South Dakota Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a great option for people who have trouble being able to schedule a second dose. “Folks that maybe they are in another state for the winter, and they’re coming home, and just the logistics of the two-dose vaccine make it hard for some people, and so we do expect there to be some excitement among people to get the one dose and just be done with it,” Malsam-Rysdon said. One dose was found to be 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19 illness in a massive study that spanned three continents. The vaccine does not require extremely cold storage facilities. Dr. David Basel of Avera Medical said the storage differences will make a big impact, KSFY-TV reports. “It’s a lot more shelf-stable – so refrigerator stable – so it doesn’t have to require near the special handling that some of the vaccines that we’ve had out before need. So there’s a lot of advantages coming out with this vaccine,” Basel said.
Nashville: Residents in need of rental assistance can now sign up for help from the state’s housing authority, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. The statewide assistance program, fully funded by federal dollars, is estimated to help 25,000 to 30,000 households cover up to 12 months of rent or even utility payments if they are experiencing financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, THDA Director Ralph Perrey said. The agency received $384 million to develop the program, which will cover 91 of the state’s 95 counties. Davidson, Knox, Rutherford and Shelby counties have established separate federally funded rent relief programs, all of which are expected to be in place in March, Perrey said. The statewide program will cover tenants who lost their job or “significant income” and now make less than 80% of the area median income because of the pandemic, Perrey said. Residents who have been unemployed for 90 days or longer and those with earnings below half of the area median income will be prioritized, he has said. Residents in counties not covered by the program can contact their local county authorities for information.
Jean Lockhart, a 101-year-old resident of Belmont Village Senior Living Lakeway near Austin, Texas, received her second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Jan. 20. (Photo: Contributed photo)
Austin: Compared to the rest of the state, Travis County has the highest percentage of people who want to get vaccinated against COVID-19. According to a poll by the Episcopal Health Foundation, 38% of Travis County residents are “very likely” to get the vaccine when it’s their turn. Tarrant, Harris and Bexar counties are tied for second place, with 37% of their respective populations wanting the vaccine. And 1 in 5 Texans are “very unlikely” to get the vaccine. “The good news, though, is that vaccine hesitancy in Texas has been declining since September,” David McClendon, a data researcher with January Advisors, said at a Children at Risk conference. McClendon said the most hesitant Texans tend to be those who are low-income, less educated, young adults or uninsured, despite the vaccine being free. One factor influencing the numbers is how the government has handled the pandemic so far, said Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership. With contradicting messages on COVID-19 and the spread of misinformation, it’s reasonable that Texans are less trustworthy of the people in charge. “It’s really important that we emphasize that COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool we have to end this pandemic and return to life,” she said. “Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will save your life.”
St. George: The American Red Cross is hosting blood drives throughout southern Utah through March 15. With hundreds of the organization’s blood drives across the country canceled due to cold and winter storms last month, Red Cross is asking for donors to give now, especially those with type O blood. Additionally, Red Cross will test blood, platelet and plasma donations for coronavirus antibodies. The test may indicate if the donor’s immune system has produced the antibodies, regardless of whether an individual ever developed COVID-19 symptoms. These tests will also be helpful in identifying individuals who have antibodies and who may help current COVID-19 patients in need of convalescent plasma transfusions. Antibody test results will be available within one to two weeks of a donation through the Red Cross Blood Donor app or the donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org. A positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity.
Montpelier: The state is preparing to make it possible for more government employees to return to their pre-pandemic workplaces, Administration Secretary Susanne Young said Monday. Due to improving pandemic conditions, beginning April 1 state officials will be able to authorize requests from more workers to return to their worksite, if they would like and if there is enough capacity to do so in the office while meeting state distancing guidelines. In general, though, state employees who can telework should expect to do so through at least May 31, she said. The state is also preparing for a post-pandemic environment. The results of an employee survey will be taken into account. “A majority of employees who responded to the survey expressed interest in continuing to work remotely on either a full- or part-time basis,” Young said in a statement.
Buffalo Gap: Augusta County Public Schools requires spectators at sporting events to wear masks, but photos taken at Buffalo Gap’s home football game Saturday show more than half of fans not wearing face coverings. This past weekend was the first of high school football in the county and, with the exception of some usually indoor track meets that took place outdoors, the first outdoor sporting events for high schools in the area since the start of the pandemic. Greg Troxell, director of athletics for Augusta County Public Schools, said that “masks are required at all Augusta County events.” An executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam also requires masks at recreational sporting events, the classification for high school sports in Virginia. “Spectators must wear masks over their nose and mouth in accordance with section II,” the order says. That same order also requires 10 feet of physical distance between spectators who are not family members. Photos from the weekend’s Buffalo Gap game show very little distancing between fans.
Tom Gallagher, right, wears a Seattle Seahawks Julian Peterson jersey and holiday hat as he is offered a bottle of wine by a server while dining with his wife, Debbie, in an outdoor dining tent set up on the turf at Lumen Field on Feb. 18 in Seattle. The couple, Seattle Seahawks season ticket holders, were celebrating their 45th anniversary by taking part in the “Field to Table” event at the Seahawks’ home stadium on the first night of several weeks of dates that offer four-course meals cooked by local chefs and served at socially distanced tables. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)
Seattle: For a limited time, foodies can score a socially distanced, outdoor meal at the home of the city’s NFL team, the Seahawks. The “Field to Table” dining series kicked off last month at Lumen Field, offering upscale eats with a view of the stadium normally reserved for players and coaches. It’s not cheap, though: The cost is $100 per person, plus tax and a service charge. Beverages are also extra. But it does include arrival through the same Seahawks-logo steel tunnel used by the team on game day, a seat under an open-sided tent on the field near the north end zone, and a four-course meal served up by a rotating roster of local chefs. Event producer Sam Minkoff said he believes the dining series is the first of its kind in the U.S. And people are eating it up. All the original dates quickly sold out, but Minkoff noted additional reservations will be available soon. He said his company, SE Productions, was able to book two weeks of overtime, extending the event through March. Field to Table meals are prepared in the stadium kitchen and an adjoining warming tent. There are two seatings per evening, accommodating about 100 people each, as night falls and the stadium is transformed by the glow of purple and green lights.
Madison: Services at the Boone County Health Department have been suspended following an investigation by state health officials. An on-site evaluation by the Bureau for Public Health found deficiencies with operations, including that the Boone County agency did not have written policies for infection prevention, hand hygiene or environmental cleaning, news outlets report. It also found that the facility needed a deep cleaning. The suspension was announced in a Feb. 17 letter from Dr. Anye Amjad, state health officer and commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health. “The results of this assessment indicate several areas of operational concern that require immediate attention in the interest of patient safety for the citizens of Boone County,” the letter said. The Boone County agency’s health officer, Dr. Philip Galapon, said in a statement that it is “working diligently” with state officials to fix the problems “as quickly and efficiently as possible.” “The findings of the report are a combination of a declining economy, a declining budget and a very limited staff at this point,” he said. The investigation came on the heels of the health department mistakenly giving 44 people an antibody treatment Dec. 30 instead of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Madison: Assembly Republicans urged Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Monday to divert more federal COVID-19 relief dollars to schools offering in-person instruction. Evers ordered schools closed in March as the pandemic was seizing the state. The governor has since allowed local school districts to decide whether to offer in-person instruction, online instruction or a hybrid model. Republicans have been pushing for a broad return to in-person classes. Last month the Legislature’s budget committee shifted $65.5 million in federal aid for schools that offer in-person instruction. A group of GOP Assembly members led by budget committee Co-Chairman Mark Born held a news conference in the Capitol to urge Evers to use more discretionary funding from last spring’s congressional coronavirus relief package to defray costs for in-person schools. They said those schools are racking up costs for substitute teachers, personal protective equipment and bus transportation. They argued that multiple studies show children learn better in person than virtually and that school-age children make up a relatively small percentage of cases in the state. As of Monday, children younger than 9 made up 4.2% of the state’s total infections, according to the state Department of Health Services. Those 10 to 19 made up 11.6%.
Laramie: The University of Wyoming is seeing far fewer coronavirus cases on campus this semester than in the fall, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. The school’s positivity rate for virus tests has fallen to 0.07% after nearing 1% at one point last semester, according to the paper, which cited a news release from the university.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
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