Coronavirus pinatas, cathartic effigy, immigration limbo: News from around our 50 states
Birmingham: Hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 have jumped about 20% in less than two weeks in the state, a trend that health officials said Tuesday they were monitoring but don’t consider a sign of another coming crisis in the pandemic. Statistics from the Alabama Department of Public Health showed 362 people were hospitalized Monday for the illness caused by the coronavirus. Though up from the 301 patients just 10 days earlier, the total was still just a fraction of the 3,070 patients who pushed the state’s intensive care wards to near-capacity in mid-January. The increase in cases is concerning but doesn’t immediately threaten the state’s health care system because the number of people being treated remains far below levels from earlier this year, said Dr. Don Williamson, chief executive of the Alabama Hospital Association. Also, he said, a major spike in the number of severely ill patients isn’t expected because more and more people are being vaccinated, and increasing numbers of patients are young people, who tend to fare better than older patients with health complications. “It’s nothing dramatic, but it’s something we need to be aware is happening,” said Williamson, who previously served as state health officer.
Anchorage: When the pandemic began last year, Carolina Tolladay Vidal’s pinata business went to pieces. “Many of the projects I had were moved to other dates,” she told Alaska Public Media. “Many were canceled.” She had to find fresh ideas to rejuvenate her business and settled on making large, coronavirus-shaped pinatas. After Tolladay Vidal posted a photograph of one of the homemade virus pinatas on social media, the orders started piling up, she said. “I think you really smash them and break them and hit them with meaning,” she said. “Because it has been tough for everybody.” Tolladay Vidal – who started her pinata business about four years ago to make a custom design for one of her daughters – grew up in Mexico, spending years creating pinatas with her family. Rose Consenstein, age 8, said she felt like “beating the heck” out of a coronavirus pinata at her birthday party. “I couldn’t see it, since I had a blindfold,” Rose said. “But I was just like, ‘I want to get you!’ ” Her mom, Kate Consenstein, said it was the perfect addition to her daughter’s outdoor, socially distanced party. “Coronavirus is the perfect villain for children,” Consenstein said. “They can really just simply understand that that is the thing that we want to defeat. There was so much cheering when it exploded.”
Phoenix: Gov. Doug Ducey used his executive powers Monday to prohibit local and regional governments from making so-called vaccine passports a requirement for people to enter businesses or get services, calling it an encroachment on private medical information. The Republican governor signed an executive order that also bans state agencies or businesses that contract with state government from requiring proof that people have been inoculated against COVID-19. Businesses that decide they want to require vaccine passports – along with health care providers, child care facilities, schools and universities – are exempted from the ban. Later on Monday, Ducey rescinded his executive order from July that directed K-12 schools to require face masks. The move punts decisions about masking to K-12 school districts and charter schools. He said he made the decision “in alignment” with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that guidance says the “universal and correct use of masks” is essential to safe in-person schooling. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, said the decision destabilizes schools during an already challenging year.
Little Rock: The state reported 59 new coronavirus cases Monday and five more deaths from the illness it causes. The Department of Health said the state’s virus cases since the pandemic began now total 333,511, and its COVID-19 deaths total 5,699. The state’s active cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have died or recovered, dropped by 121 to 1,789. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Arkansas rose by three to 164. Nearly 6,500 additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered. More than 1.5 million of the 2.2 million vaccine doses allocated to the state have been given so far. More than 626,000 residents have been fully immunized, the department said. “Our combined efforts are keeping the numbers low, but we will lose momentum if we do not increase our vaccination numbers,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.
Sacramento: Lawmakers on Monday revived a multibillion-dollar tax break for some businesses after the Biden administration assured them the proposal would not jeopardize the state’s own federal coronavirus aid. The U.S. government has given California companies about $97 billion in loans during the pandemic, the majority of which owners won’t have to pay back. Congress already lets business owners deduct expenses associated with those loans from their federal taxes. But California business owners still owe state taxes on that money. Lawmakers wanted to change that and were prepared to follow through earlier this year. But they put it off because they were afraid the proposal could force them to lose some of their own federal pandemic relief money, given that Congress barred states from using the aid to pay for tax cuts. Since the proposal would reduce how much money business owners pay in state taxes, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration worried it would count as a tax cut and put some of the state’s $26 billion at risk. The U.S. Treasury Department assured the state it could pass the bill without forfeiting the aid. The state Senate voted 37-0 on Monday to do just that. The bill now heads to the state Assembly, where Speaker Anthony Rendon called it “one of the biggest proposed tax cuts in California history.”
Colorado Springs: A public health report found a vaccine clinic operating without proper temperature storage or social distancing, as well as unmasked workers. The Associated Press received the report on the Dr. Moma Health and Wellness Clinic by an El Paso County public health employee in response to a records request. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment stopped vaccinations at the site after nearly 4,000 people got one or more doses of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines at the facility. “None of the people in the room were wearing masks. On the desk there were several silver trays loaded with filled syringes in a pile and a bowl with vaccine in it,” the report says. “I did not see any temp logs or vaccine coolers/fridges. There were no labels on any of the syringes.” The aesthetic day spa, Dr. Moma Health and Wellness Clinic, is run by Sylvienash Moma, who has a doctor of nursing practice degree, according to her website. That degree includes advanced training in nursing skills and disciplines. The El Paso public health employee visited the clinic April 9 after receiving phone calls and emails with concerns and complaints. The employee described the clinic’s operations as “very confusing and chaotic” and said: “At one point I assisted with traffic control.”
Hartford: The state plans to phase out many pandemic restrictions affecting businesses next month, including long-shuttered bars, while keeping the mandatory indoor mask-wearing rules in place for now, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday. The announcement came as the state surpassed 8,000 COVID-19-associated deaths. Beginning May 1, outdoor restrictions will be lifted on businesses, such as wearing masks when social distancing can’t be observed. Also, the rule that alcohol can’t be served without food will be lifted, essentially allowing outdoor bar service. Table seating outdoors will no longer be limited to eight people, and business curfews will be moved back from 11 p.m. to midnight, giving restaurants an opportunity to have a second seating and putting Connecticut on par with New York. “I think these are all ways we have earned the right to get back to our new normal,” said Lamont, who urged people to still “continue to be cautious with the mask.” Beginning May 19, indoor bars that don’t serve food will be allowed to reopen, and all remaining business restrictions will end, including capacity limits on movie theaters and outdoor gatherings. Lamont said he expects the state will issue guidance, but it will essentially be left up to businesses to decide what safety measures to keep.
Dover: About 4,000 applications for visas and other necessary paperwork for immigrants are waiting to be processed at the state’s only Application Support Center due to reduced hours and staffing shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some immigrants have lost their jobs, health insurance, driver’s licenses and maternity benefits due to their visas expiring while they awaited an appointment to submit their fingerprints, photographs and signatures. That set of information, also known as biometrics, is a necessary step for immigrants to renew their visas, adjust their status, continue the green card process and receive an employment authorization document. The Application Support Center, based in Dover, is run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and is the only center in the country still operating at reduced hours since November 2020. It’s open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, giving applicants a weekly eight-hour window to have their appointments scheduled by USCIS. After hearing from a rising number of affected residents who contacted her office, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., announced last week that the Dover center would fully reopen May 3 and begin processing the backlog with help from the Biden administration and Homeland Security Department.
District of Columbia
Washington: Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that D.C. will resume enforcement of all parking restrictions starting June 1 after almost a year of suspending driving regulations and requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WUSA-TV reports. That will include all parking enforcement; towing of vehicles violating parking zones, plus associated fees; street sweeping enforcement; display of valid D.C. registration and inspection stickers; and new tiered residential parking permit fees. Parking, photo and minor moving violation tickets issued after June 1 will be subject to adjudication hearing timelines listed on the back of the ticket. Starting July 1, the district will resume booting of vehicles with two or more unsatisfied tickets that are 60 days old; all D.C. driver’s license and ID cardholders must display the valid credential; renewal applications will be accepted for occupational and professional licenses; and medical cannabis program or caregiver registration cards must have a valid expiration date. The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will have appointments available for residents to get their registration or identification issues up to date. They can also apply for a four-month ticket amnesty program to give them time to pay for tickets on their vehicle and registration.
Tallahassee: Continuing what appears to be a national trend, women in the Sunshine State are choosing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 at higher rates than men – and medical professionals aren’t surprised. Statewide as of Wednesday, women made up about 57% of fully vaccinated people, according to the Florida Department of Health. Women make up 51% of Florida’s population as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One reason for the gap between the sexes is that women are more likely to seek out preventive care than men, according to Arch Mainous, a health services researcher at the University of Florida. Mainous also said women in Florida make up a large part of the workforces that were prioritized for vaccines. For instance, women hold about 76% of all health care jobs, according to a 2019 analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau. But another possible reason affecting people’s decisions is Florida’s limited, targeted messaging, said Kartik Cherabuddi, another UF professor. State officials aimed vaccine rollout messages toward vulnerable populations like older Americans, people who are immunocompromised and caregivers, he said. Since more women tend to be caregivers, they are getting vaccinated to take care of not just themselves but their loved ones as well, he said.
Atlanta: Five private colleges in the area will require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations before class begins next fall. Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College made the announcement Monday. The five join dozens of colleges and universities that have made the decision nationwide, although they are among the first in the South to make the move. Emory President Gregory Fenves said in a statement that vaccinations will make it healthier for students to be in full classrooms and to take part in athletics and performance events. He said the university will also continue to use masks and testing to contain the spread of the coronavirus, though students with medical conditions or “strong personal objections” can apply for an exemption. Emory is Georgia’s largest private university, with 15,000 students. The university and its health system is one of metro Atlanta’s largest employers. The four historically Black institutions that made the announcement are all part of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of colleges that share resources and allow students to cross-register for classes. They are requiring employees as well as students to be vaccinated.
Honolulu: As vaccine eligibility has finally expanded to all residents 16 and up across the state, demand has fallen everywhere but Oahu, Hawaii News Now reports.
Boise: Voters will get the chance to decide whether lawmakers in the part-time Legislature will be able to call special sessions, a power currently limited to governors. The state House voted 54-15 on Tuesday to clear the two-thirds threshold needed for proposed constitutional amendments. The resolution has already passed the Senate. The measure will go before voters in November 2022, needing a simple majority. The Idaho Legislature typically meets from January through March before adjourning for the rest of the year. Backers said the Legislature isn’t an equal branch of government without the power to call itself back into session. Opponents said that allowing lawmakers to call special sessions could lead to the Legislature becoming full time. If voters approve, the Legislature could call itself back into session if 60% of lawmakers in each the House and Senate agree. The special session would be limited to specific topics agreed to by lawmakers beforehand. Republican Rep. Jason Monks, during debate on the House floor, said lawmakers once in a special session could also consider additional topics if 60% of the House and Senate members agreed. Based on the joint resolution’s language, that would appear to have the effect of creating another special session to address a new topic.
Jacksonville: Illinois College will hold an in-person commencement for its graduates, though parents, friends and other guests will have to watch remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A news release from the school indicated the decision to limit the event to just students was “a difficult one” made between college administration and student leaders from the class of 2021. Typically, commencement week activities can attract about 1,000 people from all over the world. Graduates will receive their diplomas during a senior celebration at King Fieldhouse in Bruner Fitness and Recreation Center on May 11. The ceremony will be livestreamed. On May 16, the traditional baccalaureate service will premiere at 11 a.m. including readings, musical performances and comments by members of the graduating class. At 1 p.m., viewers can tune in to the commencement ceremony as degrees are officially conferred upon the class of 2021. Last month, University of Illinois Springfield officials announced students would be given the option of having an in-person “stage experience” days before its May 15 virtual commencement celebration. UIS graduates who opt for that will be allowed up to four guests in the audience, and the ceremony will be livestreamed on the UIS website for guests to watch.
Indianapolis: Legislative negotiators have reached an agreement on limiting the authority of county or city health departments by allowing local elected officials to overturn orders or enforcement actions issued during emergencies. Republican supporters say the proposal is meant to provide a “check and balance” protecting the rights of business owners following complaints about COVID-19 orders closing or limiting businesses that have been imposed over the past year. The agreement released Tuesday requires any local public health order that is more stringent than one issued by the governor to be approved by an elected county or city board. The deal also creates a procedure allowing the public to appeal enforcement actions such as citations, fines or an order to close a business. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he was concerned about the proposed limitations on local health officials and would “take a hard look” at the bill. The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply Tuesday to a request for comment. Legislative Republicans voted last week to override Holcomb’s veto on a bill giving themselves more authority to intervene during statewide emergencies declared by the governor. The Senate and House are expected to vote Wednesday on final legislative approval for the bill.
Des Moines: A top workplace safety regulator warned the Republican leaders of the Legislature that conditions inside the state Capitol are hazardous and may be exposing workers to the coronavirus, according to documents released Monday. Russell Perry, administrator of the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, warned in a “hazard alert letter” dated April 13 that an inspection by his agency raised concerns for the potential of worker illnesses tied to the exposure. Perry wrote that social distancing is not always practiced or enforced inside the building, temperature checks and health screens are not performed on everyone entering, and employees are not required to report positive tests to legislative leaders under their policy. In addition, cases that are reported are not examined to determine whether they were work-related. Perry wrote that the conditions do not amount to a violation of Iowa law but “may expose workers to COVID-19 hazards.” He asked Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Senate President Jake Chapman, House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl and House Speaker Pat Grassley to “please facilitate immediate corrective actions where needed.” In addition to not requiring members to report virus cases, legislative leaders have declined to require people inside the building to wear masks.
Topeka: COVID-19 anxieties kept some potential freshmen from setting foot on college campuses this past fall, but the pandemic also led to an increase in out-of-state students at private schools like McPherson College, which saw a 6.1% surge in that student group. In a year when most colleges have seen a drop in students as 2020 high school graduates skipped or postponed postsecondary education, Kansas’ private colleges bucked that trend and either kept headcounts stable or found ways to attract more students. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, total undergraduate headcount at 20 private colleges, which are part of the Kansas Independent College Association, actually increased by 2.1%. Meanwhile, fall headcount numbers at state universities fell by 3.5% over that time period. Matt Lindsey, KICA president, said he believes the phenomenon likely has a few reasons. A downward trend in Kansas high school students’ college-going rate was buoyed by a significant increase in out-of-state students, who Lindsey said might have seen the more rural Kansas as an “oasis” amid the pandemic. Of KICA’s 20 colleges, 18 participate in intercollegiate sports, which Lindsey said could have helped attract student-athletes so they could actually compete. And Lindsey said the private colleges offer a smaller, more personal atmosphere.
Frankfort: The state has surpassed another COVID-19 vaccination milestone, but the pace needs to pick up among younger adults to defeat the coronavirus, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday. More than half of Kentuckians who are 18 and older have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, the governor said. While about three-fourths of Kentuckians 70 and older have been vaccinated, the rate drops off considerably among people ages 20-49, he said. “So we need to pick it up for our younger Kentuckians if we want to lessen the number of cases and ultimately defeat this virus,” Beshear said at a news conference. Last week, the Democratic governor pledged to lift capacity and physical distancing restrictions for nearly all businesses, venues and events catering to 1,000 or fewer patrons once 2.5 million Kentuckians receive at least their first COVID-19 shot. He also would remove curfews on bars and restaurants. More than 1.6 million Kentuckians have received at least their first COVID-19 shot, surpassing half the state’s adult population , Beshear said Monday. “That is a big milestone,” he said. “It’s one we ought to be excited about. But we also know that we have a lot further to go.” The state still has about 400,000 doses available even before getting its next shipment of at least 150,000, he said.
Houma: A youth soccer club hoping to welcome its new coach from the United Kingdom to the U.S. has been caught up in a morass of bureaucracy deeper than any Louisiana bayou, according to a federal lawsuit recently filed by the team. The case involves a soccer team, the coach it has recruited since 2018 and a presidential order aimed at curbing travel to stop the spread of COVID-19. It names the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in London as defendants. The State Department cited a Jan. 25 proclamation signed by President Joe Biden that bans certain travel from the U.K. due to COVID-19 and said the coach’s visa application could not proceed, the lawsuit says. But a lawyer for the Houma Terrebonne Soccer Association said the coach’s visa is a separate issue from the travel rules and should have been approved months ago. The travel restriction should not interfere with the issuance of a visa for coach Matthew Ferguson, she said. The State Department said Tuesday that it generally does not comment on pending litigation. Ferguson is considered invaluable to the Louisiana team, said New Orleans lawyer Leah Spivey, who represents the coach and the soccer association.
Portland: More New Englanders have dug in the tidal mudflats during the past year, but the clams aren’t cooperating. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired more people in the Northeast to dig for soft-shell clams, which are also called “steamers” and have been used for generations to make chowder and fried clams. The era of social distancing is conducive to the often solitary work, said Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association, which represents commercial clammers. But the U.S. haul of clams has dipped in recent years as the industry has contended with clam-eating predators and warming waters, and 2020 and early 2021 have been especially difficult, industry members said. In Maine, the largest clam-producing state, fishermen produced their lowest haul in more than 90 years at a little more than 1.3 million pounds in 2020. The lack of clams has contributed to higher prices to consumers, Coffin said. It has also sparked fears that future generations of clams will be even smaller in number, he said. The prices are rising due to factors such as interest in local food during the pandemic and a limited supply of clams on the market, said Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias whose research focuses on shellfish.
Baltimore: Gov. Larry Hogan announced a plan Monday to help downtown Baltimore by relocating about 3,300 state employees to the city’s central business district. The state will move 700 employees from the Maryland Department of Human Services downtown. Another 1,200 employees from the Maryland Health Department also will be relocating there. They will be the first of the 3,300 state employees who will work downtown. The governor said the state is budgeting $50 million for the relocation. Hogan said the plan is to help revitalize the central business district, where office vacancies are up nearly 34% because of the pandemic, and major businesses have announced plans to relocate to other parts of the city.
Boston: Five front-line workers and community members were gifted entries into this fall’s Boston Marathon on Monday, the Patriots’ Day holiday when the race is normally run. The Boston Globe reports Boston Marathon champion Des Linden surprised the five after they jogged across the finish line with her during a ceremonial mile-long run. This year’s marathon will take place in October because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It means the world to me, honestly,” Chris Vasquez, a member of the local Pioneers Run Crew, told the Globe. “I was definitely blindsided.” The others invited were Dorothy Anderson, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard; Jessie Chen, who recently organized a #StopAsianHate relay along the marathon route; Lindsay Devers, a nurse anesthetist at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Rochelle Solomon, a compliance officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Linden, who won the marathon in 2018, also announced Monday that she’ll compete in the 125th running. “I’ve fallen in love with this race, and I’m always excited to be here,” she said, according to the paper. “I’m thrilled to be back.” This year’s race will have space for 20,000 entrants – a smaller field than prior years. The marathon, first run in 1897, was canceled for the first time last year because of the pandemic.
Lansing: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer traveled out of state more than a month ago to visit her elderly father, who has a chronic disease, her office said Monday. The disclosure, which confirmed reporting by the Lansing-based publication MIRS, came weeks after the governor warned the public about spring break trips, particularly to Florida, amid a surge in coronavirus cases. Two of her top aides, including Michigan’s health director, vacationed in Southern states despite a state recommendation to avoid travel. Spokesman Bobby Leddy said Whitmer “did not go on spring break” and went to “assist her elderly father, who is battling a chronic illness.” He did not say which state she visited, but the governor said early in the pandemic that her father was a snowbird in Florida with “compromised lung function, and I’m worried about him.” The trip was her third out of state in the past six months, Leddy said. She went to President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January and visited National Guard troops in Washington, D.C., in March. “All trips were very brief, two full days or less, closely followed public health guidelines, and were made when Michigan’s daily positivity rate was in the low single digits,” Leddy said. Whitmer was not vaccinated when she visited her father but is regularly tested for the coronavirus. Her father, 81-year-old Richard Whitmer – a retired president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – was fully vaccinated. The Michigan Republican Party accused the Democratic governor of hypocrisy.
St. Paul: Aiming to wipe out a backyard colony of about 25 cats in the gentlest way possible, Maia Rumpho’s nonviolent approach is to sterilize the cats and remove the kittens, so the colony slowly dies off. She said it’s the humane way to deal with a surprising result of the pandemic: a population explosion of tame-turned-wild cats. The pandemic reduced animal-control efforts, exactly when stressed pet owners began to dump unwanted cats on street corners. The cats bred quickly, moving into backyards and looking for food. That is why spring is somewhat more quiet this year, said cat-protector Christine Gruber – feral cats eat songbirds. She monitors six colonies in the Dayton’s Bluff area of St. Paul but said she can’t keep up with the rising tide of unadoptable cats. “It’s becoming harder,” Gruber said, “for me to even make a dent.” When the pandemic forced a statewide lockdown in March 2020, the animal welfare system was a casualty. Meanwhile, Minnesotans wanted more pets. Demand for adoptions and veterinary services grew. At one point, the Animal Humane Society had 8,000 adoption requests and 1,200 animals waiting to be sterilized. Cats multiplied quickly in low-income communities as COVID-19 forced nonprofits to suspend their mobile spay/neuter vans, which serve those areas.
Jackson: A multimillion-dollar grant from the Bower Foundation to the University of Mississippi Medical Center is funding graduate-level education of 64 registered nurses around the state. The project, Building a Strong Future for Nursing in Mississippi, is fueled by the $3.8 million, four-year grant and aims to increase the number of nurse educators in the state. It covers full tuition and a stipend to registered nurses with associate degrees who will enter UMMC’s master of science in nursing program through a virtual platform. The 64 scholarships will be split among two master’s degree programs. Like the rest of the nation, Mississippi is in dire need of nurse educators and health care administrators. In 2019, more than 80,000 students in the United States who were eager to enter nursing school were turned down, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. There weren’t enough nurse educators. The number of clinical sites and classrooms had dwindled. Budgets were strained. Dr. Julie Sanford, dean of UMMC’s School of Nursing, said the pandemic only worked to exacerbate these trends as many nurse educators left their work to take high-paying clinical jobs, many leaving Mississippi.
Rolla: Pro-mask candidates are leaving office and occupancy limits are falling by the wayside in the state as communities tire of pandemic restrictions. In the central Missouri city of Rolla, a slate of anti-mask candidates joined the City Council on Monday after being elected this month even though the mask mandate they opposed was allowed to expire two months ago, St. Louis Public Radio reports. “We recognized that ‘Hey, we’ve got people on the council that don’t necessarily go along with our value system,’ ” said Robert Kessinger, who was among those who defeated five council members who backed the city’s mask requirement and capacity restrictions. Other anti-mask elected officials also gained seats in April elections, including in the tourist community of Branson. Joplin, meanwhile, dropped all its occupancy limits Monday, The Joplin Globe reports. Active COVID-19 cases have dropped dramatically in Joplin since their winter peak, although they recently increased from 19 two weeks ago to 25 as of Monday, said Ryan Talken, the city’s health director. He also noted that nearly half of a local clinic’s 300 vaccine appointments Tuesday were still unfilled as of Monday, mirroring what is happening in communities around the state.
Helena: Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a bill limiting the power of local public health boards to issue mandates in response to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. Local elected officials such as county commissioners can change or rescind health mandates following Gianforte’s signature Friday. GOP state Rep. David Bedey sponsored the bill in response to what some Republicans have described as unelected health officers overstepping their authority. Before the law, appointed local health boards could enact rules such as mask mandates without consulting elected officials. The law explicitly prohibits health mandates from interfering with religious services. It also limits the allowable penalty for businesses that violate health regulations to $250. The Legislature passed the measure largely along party lines. Most Democrats opposed it, saying it could allow politics to overpower science when making decisions during a health crisis. The law comes after months of anger from some residents and lawmakers over what they have called arbitrary and unfair health orders, including mask mandates, business restrictions and limits on gatherings. Some local health officials in Montana have resigned after encountering a lack of support from elected officials for their efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
Lincoln: The state’s unemployment rate in March dropped to 2.9%, tying the state for the lowest rate in the country. The Nebraska Department of Labor reported Friday that the rate was down from 3.1% in February and marked a 0.2 percentage point decline from March 2020. “Nebraska’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has reached pre-pandemic levels,” Commissioner of Labor John H. Albin said in a news release. Nebraska’s rate was tied with South Dakota, Utah and Vermont for lowest in the nation. The national rate for March was 6%.
Carson City: The head of the state coronavirus response effort acknowledged Monday that almost 58,000 people who received COVID-19 vaccine shots in Nevada didn’t provide an in-state address, but he did not see that as a cause for concern. “Everyone deserves access to this lifesaving vaccine,” COVID-19 Task Force chief Caleb Cage said, comparing the number with the nearly 1.7 million doses of vaccine reported as administered by the state Department of Health and Human Services. “The information we are seeing … is not cause for concern.” Vaccinations are now offered to anyone 16 and older in every state. In Nevada, health officials reported upticks in the statewide test positivity rate, to 5.9% from 5.7% on Friday, and added 698 new cases and three deaths to totals posted on the state coronavirus website. Officials said the large number of new cases, bringing the state total during the pandemic to nearly 311,000, was due to the state stopping its reporting of COVID-19 metrics during weekends. The official number of deaths from the pandemic in Nevada is now 5,368. The rise in the percentage of people who are tested who are found to have the coronavirus comes after Gov. Steve Sisolak raised maximum capacity levels to 50% at most businesses about a month ago.
Concord: Dartmouth College plans to host vaccination clinics on campus now that the state has lifted its residency requirements for COVID-19 shots. As of Monday, anyone 16 or older is eligible for a vaccine in New Hampshire regardless of where they live. Dartmouth plans to partner with the state to open clinics starting the week of May 3, officials said in a message to faculty, students and staff. The college is planning to increase access to campus facilities and ease travel restrictions on a rolling basis through the summer and into the fall, officials said. Last week, Provost Joseph Helble announced that all students coming to campus in September will be required to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, some K-12 schools have started their first full week of in-person instruction in more than a year, though waivers allowed eight districts to maintain at least partially remote schedules. Gov. Chris Sununu had ordered all public K-12 schools to begin offering in-person education five days per week by Monday. According to the Department of Education, a dozen districts requested waivers because of staffing shortages or other issues.
Trenton: As hospitalizations began to steadily increase this spring during another wave of the pandemic, emergency departments filled with a new demographic: working-age adults. “The overall COVID population in our hospitals is getting significantly younger,” said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive of Hackensack Meridian, the state’s largest hospital network. “It’s very different from what we were seeing this time last year.” The percentage of COVID-19 patients being admitted to hospitals who were under 60 years old jumped to 49% last week – a sizable increase from December, when that group represented about 35% of COVID-19 admissions, according to the state Health Department. Public health officials say the trend shows the efficacy of vaccines, since the vast majority of New Jersey seniors have received at least one dose. On the flip side, it also shows two worrisome trends for health officials: the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants and younger, unvaccinated people engaging in more risky behavior, such as gathering maskless in groups indoors. “The older patients were doing what they needed to do, staying inside and wearing masks,” said Dr. Michael Cascarina, who runs a family practice in Brick. “It’s not followed nearly as strictly as you look at younger patients. Part of it is pandemic fatigue. Part of it is not liking being told what to do.”
Las Cruces: Las Cruces Public Schools is shortening the amount of time students who attended a “secret prom” have to quarantine, and it’s not likely attendees will face disciplinary action, the district’s superintendent said. LCPS Interim Superintendent Ralph Ramos said the district was notified last week of Mayfield High’s off-campus “secret prom” that happened April 10. A community member reported the gathering to the governor’s office, which then forwarded the report to the Public Education Department and the Department of Health. Once the district was notified Thursday, it announced that Mayfield High would transition to remote learning for 10 days, from Friday through next Monday. District officials say the switch to remote learning is meant to mitigate any potential spread of the coronavirus and comes under advisement from state education and health officials. “There was approximately 200 to 500 students in one place without face masks,” Ramos said Monday. “To me, that’s a huge concern. I’m not here to police private properties. I’m not here to police anything but what happens on campuses. … When I see a mass gathering like that, when we know that our county is not (allowing) us to have more than 10 people at one location, that brings safety concerns to us at LCPS.”
Albany: The state’s attorney general is investigating whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke the law by having members of his staff help write and promote his pandemic leadership book. In a letter dated April 13 and made public Monday, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli authorized Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the work state employees did on drafting and editing the book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which was released last fall. James’ office confirmed it received the referral letter but declined further comment, citing an “ongoing investigation.” Cuomo and his spokespeople have acknowledged that senior members of his staff helped with the book, but they’ve insisted the work was done on a voluntary basis on their private time. DiNapoli, an independently elected fiscal officer, asked James to investigate the “alleged commission of any indictable offense or offenses in violation of” laws barring public officials from using state resources for private purposes. DiNapoli authorized the attorney general to convene a grand jury, if she chose to do so, and prosecute anyone believed to have violated those laws. A spokesperson for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, dismissed the idea of an investigation as a political stunt. “We have officially jumped the shark,” he said in a statement.
Raleigh: The current longest-serving member of the state House was stripped Tuesday of her chairmanship on the powerful House Finance Committee. Speaker Tim Moore removed 17-term Rep. Julia Howard from the tax-policy committee and placed her on the Appropriations Committee, according to a document from the House Clerk’s Office provided to the Associated Press. Moore’s initials affirming the change are on the paperwork. Neither Howard nor Moore immediately responded Tuesday to phone calls or email messages seeking comment on what happened. But the two have been in an unusually public feud in recent days over tax legislation. Howard has criticized Moore and other fellow House Republicans for advancing a measure that would give additional state tax breaks to businesses that took federal loans to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Many House members from both parties took the Payroll Protection Program loans as well, including Moore. Howard, one of four senior co-chairs of the committee until Tuesday, said last week that she was pressured by House Republicans to hear the bill in the committee. She told The News & Observer of Raleigh that the measure was an ethical conflict because her colleagues’ businesses would benefit if the measure became law.
Fargo: A man who used an ax to smash windows at the entrance of Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven’s office in downtown Fargo over frustrations about a coronavirus bill pleaded guilty Monday in federal court. Thomas Starks, 30, of Lisbon, about 75 miles southwest of Fargo, is charged with destruction of government property for causing the damage discovered by staffers Dec. 21. Later that day the Senate passed a COVID-19 relief package, following months of delays. Tatum O’Brien, Starks’ lawyer, said her client and his family were struggling financially and “relying heavily” on the pandemic aid to be approved. “When the individual economic relief was reduced, he felt frustrated, stressed, and reacted very poorly when he felt his voice was not being heard. He did not intend scare or harm any person, and he deeply regrets his actions,” O’Brien said in a statement. “He pled guilty today because he wants to accept responsibility for his actions and move forward with his family as a law-abiding productive member of society.” Hoeven’s office did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. Investigators said the damage exceeded $1,000. The federal charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Cincinnati: Miami and Xavier universities have scheduled extra vaccination clinics just before students pack up to leave for the summer. Many universities across the region had been prepared to provide the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to students, in addition to Moderna and Pfizer. Doug Ruschman, associate vice president for marketing and communications at Xavier, said the J&J pause complicated things for universities because students might be gone by the time they would need their second dose of Moderna or Pfizer. University of Cincinnati spokesperson M.B. Reilly said the school is not hosting any more vaccine clinics for students. There is a second-dose clinic for students, faculty and staff at the Fifth Third Arena on May 5 for those who received their first Pfizer vaccine earlier in April. Miami and its partner TriHealth will offer a Pfizer vaccination clinic April 27 at the Oxford campus, the university confirmed Tuesday. Xavier is offering appointment-only Pfizer vaccinations at Student Health Services from Wednesday through Friday this week. Ruschman said students are also encouraged to find appointments at local Kroger health locations. More than 50% of Xavier students have been vaccinated through the university’s mass vaccination clinics so far, he said.
Oklahoma City: Nearly one-quarter of Oklahomans are now fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data shows 24.5% of Oklahoma residents have been fully inoculated against COVID-19, slightly better than the national average of 23%. The CDC data shows 36.9% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. Meanwhile, Oklahoma reported 186 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 21 new deaths. That brings the total number of confirmed coronavirus infections to 445,650 and the state’s death count to 8,145.
Salem: State health and safety officials have fined Lowe’s home improvement stores in Albany and Redmond more than $35,000 for failing to ensure that customers wore masks, face coverings or face shields. Through employer and employee interviews and an examination of records, the inspections determined supervisors at the stores were aware of the requirement to ensure customer use of facial coverings and yet intentionally decided against carrying out their responsibilities, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials said in a news release. “The stores’ purposeful infractions illustrate failures to account for reasonable and established measures to help prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 through customer-to-employee transmission,” they said. Each store was cited $17,500 for disregarding Oregon Health Authority requirements to ensure customers older than age 5 wear face coverings. The Redmond store was cited for two additional serious violations: failing to develop a complete risk assessment to identify potential employee exposure to the coronavirus and failing to develop and implement an infection control plan. It was fined $300 for each of those violations. The stores have 30 days to appeal the citations.
Harrisburg: The state’s unemployment rate fell slightly in March, as payrolls expanded and every economic sector except for construction recorded growth, according to state figures released Friday. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 7.3%, down a tenth of a percentage point from February’s adjusted rate, the state Department of Labor and Industry said. That was more than a whole point above the national rate of 6% in March. In a survey of households, the labor force remained virtually the same in March, at almost 6.34 million. The number of employed rose 8,000, while the number of unemployed fell by 7,000. The state hit a record high labor force of almost 6.6 million just before the pandemic. In a separate survey of employers, payrolls in Pennsylvania expanded in February by 24,000. Pennsylvania has regained about 60% of the 1.1 million jobs lost in the pandemic. It hit a record high for payrolls of 6.1 million in February 2020, according to state figures. The education and health services sector and the leisure and hospitality sector led the gainers. The leisure and hospitality sector – which includes restaurants, bars and hotels – remains down about 25% from pre-pandemic levels, or about 140,000 jobs, after shedding an estimated 60% of its jobs last spring.
Providence: Medical experts in New England suggest it might soon be safe enough for states to lift mask requirements when outdoors. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, tweeted Sunday that wearing masks indoors should still be required, but outdoor infections are rare and mostly tend to happen when large groups gather in confined spaces for long periods of time, The Boston Globe reports. “I think it’s pretty safe to be out and about walking around without a mask, especially in large parts of the country where infection numbers are under reasonable control,” he said on CNN. Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, also agreed it might be time to lift the mandates, especially in places were people can safely distance. “Transmissions do not take place between solitary individuals going for a walk, transiently passing each other on the street, a hiking trail, or a jogging track,” he said in a blog post on the New England Journal of Medicine website. “That biker who whizzes by without a mask poses no danger to us, at least from a respiratory virus perspective.” Sax similarly stressed that indoor mask regulations should persist, at least until more people are vaccinated.
Columbia: The COVID-19 economic downturn was not as bad as feared in the state, so lawmakers suddenly have a lot more money to spend. The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday set aside money for a 2% raise for state employees and a $1,000 raise for all teachers as the panel approved its version of the roughly $10 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Between one-time money from lawsuit settlements and saved from previous budgets and an extra $386 million mostly in tax revenue thanks to federal stimulus money and economic problems that did not turn out as bad as expected, South Carolina lawmakers have nearly $1.7 billion extra to spend in the 2021-22 fiscal year. And that does not count $2.1 billion of federal stimulus money Congress approved in March that the state has years to spend. Sen. Sean Bennett said lawmakers need to ask state agencies to spend federal money before state tax dollars when they can and remember they may be back in more than one special session after the Legislature adjourns in May to figure out spending plans for all that cash. “We should almost approach this year as an ongoing budget,” said Bennett, R-Summerville.
Sioux Falls: The state again reported no additional COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, but hospitalizations tied to the coronavirus have increased to a number not seen since early February. South Dakota reported 171 new cases from the prior day, while active cases went down by 75 and now stand at 2,078, according to the state. Deaths stand at 1,953 since the start of the pandemic, the state reported. South Dakota has seen 121,360 cases of the coronavirus since last spring, the department of health reported. Hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 rose by 12. The reported 124 COVID-19 patients hospitalized are the most since Feb. 4. There were 42.7% of hospital beds available in the state Tuesday, with 44.1% of adult intensive care beds available, according to the state. Out of those hospitalized with the virus, 24 were in ICUs and 11 on ventilators, both up from Monday’s numbers. According to the health department, 537,671 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in South Dakota. Out of all the people who received a vaccine, 317,780 have completed their respective series of dosages.
Memphis: The city has the capacity to vaccinate 60,000 people per week, but only 23,101 people received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine last week. The week prior, 35,343 people received a shot. But even as demand is shrinking for the vaccine, the reproductive rate of the coronavirus is increasing as the B.117 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, has become the dominant strain in Shelby County. “In spite of the fact that we only had 65 cases reported yesterday, we know the epidemic is growing. That’s what we’re concerned about,” said David Sweat, deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department. The reproductive rate of the virus is now 1.14, meaning each case is creating 1.14 new cases, growing the outbreak. The B.117 strain is 50% more contagious and 30% more lethal, Sweat said. But the vaccines appear to protect against the strain. Sweat urged people to continue masking, social distancing and hand-washing and to get vaccinated. “Crucially, a year ago, when we were at this podium talking about the epidemic, a tool we did not have was the vaccine,” Sweat said. “We had no way to immunize people against this virus and prevent them from getting infected. Today we have that tool. … That’s a miracle of science.”
Austin: State health officials are launching a $1.5 million radio and television ad campaign to promote the next phase of vaccinating residents against COVID-19, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Monday. The campaign will include commercials aimed at specific groups of Texans shown by research to be least likely to be vaccinated. Later this week, state health officials will hold the first of 22 parking lot pop-up events around Texas. The four-hour events hosted in Walmart parking lots through mid-May will feature a 16-foot video wall displaying facts about COVID-19 vaccines. The first three events will be Thursday in Austin, Friday in Houston and Saturday in Beaumont, according to a statement from health officials. Johns Hopkins University researchers said 35% of the state’s population had received at least one vaccine dose, while 22% had been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, weekend report delays are being cited for depressed Texas coronavirus numbers. State health officials reported just 1,178 new cases and nine new deaths from COVID-19 on Monday. Those totals are down from 2,430 new cases and 65 new deaths Saturday. Johns Hopkins University data also shows they are significantly lower than seven-day rolling averages of 3,360 new daily cases and 52 new deaths daily.
St. George: Health officials on Monday announced more options for free rapid antigen coronavirus testing across the state. The test sites, which are determined by state health officials based on an area’s positivity rates, testing rates, wastewater sampling and other surveillance data, offer free tests to anyone age 3 or older, with test results typically expected in less than an hour. Some of the locations are drive-thru, while others are offered indoors. Those held indoors ask people to wear masks and maintain social distancing while waiting in line. Anyone with symptoms associated with COVID-19, even if they are minor, is encouraged to get tested. Those who have been in contact with someone who has had COVID-19 while they could have been infectious are also encouraged to get tested. The Utah Department of Health asks that anyone seeking a test register online first. Registration can be done on-site, but it could take longer to receive a test. Identification may also be required. Rapid antigen tests are less sensitive than the also-common polymerase chain reaction tests, according to UDOH. This means PCR tests are better than antigen tests at detecting the virus, especially when a person has small amounts of virus in their body. Health officials may recommend a follow-up, confirmation PCR test.
Montpelier: The state is seeing a steady drop in COVID-19 cases and a strong rate of people getting vaccinated, state officials said Tuesday, making them optimistic about the future and a more normal summer than last year’s. The seven-day average number of coronavirus cases has dropped 39% since April 1 and 24% in the past week, according to Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, who has been monitoring COVID-19 statistics during the pandemic. Vermont also has among the highest rates in the country of people 65 and older getting vaccinated, at 93%, and is in the top 10 of states in the amount of shots given and the percentage of the population that is fully vaccinated, he said. “We have made remarkable progress here in Vermont,” said Deputy Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson. “Vermonters are known to stick together through difficult times, and this is just another example of our extraordinary resilience and dedication to doing the right thing.” Cases are falling fast among the younger populations in Vermont that were thought to be driving the spread of the coronavirus at the end of March, Pieciak said. They just became eligible for COVID-19 shots, so vaccinations are not the reason for the decline, Pieciak said.
Richmond: Jobless workers collecting unemployment benefits will be required to report looking for work beginning in early June, the Virginia Employment Commission announced Tuesday. The work search requirement, part of state and federal law, was suspended during the pandemic. The commission announced earlier this month that it would be reinstated and on Tuesday gave the effective date: the week ending June 5. “Claimants must search and report two job searches per week,” commission spokeswoman Joyce Fogg wrote in an email. The requirement will also apply to people who get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess said earlier this month that the requirement is coming back as demand for workers rises and as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.
Olympia: New coronavirus cases leaped in the state in the week ending Sunday, rising 19.1% as 9,319 cases were reported. The previous week had 7,827 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19. Washington ranked 26th among the states where the coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Within the state, the worst weekly outbreaks on a per-person basis were in Ferry, Cowlitz and Whitman counties. Adding the most new cases overall were King County, with 2,676 cases; Pierce County, with 1,400 cases; and Snohomish County, with 959. Weekly case counts rose in 29 counties from the previous week. The worst increases from the prior week’s pace were in King, Snohomish and Clark counties. Washington ranked 22nd among states in share of people receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 40.3% of its residents at least partially inoculated. The national rate is 39.5%, a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data shows. In the week ending Sunday, Washington reported administering another 529,802 shots, compared with 507,122 the week before that. In all, Washington reported it has administered 4,965,443 doses.
Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice on Monday lifted a limit on the number of people who can gather for social events and tweaked the state’s face-covering mandate to allow people exercising indoors to go maskless. The governor had already lifted most other restrictions on businesses and public life, leaving in place an indoor mask mandate. Residents engaging in physical activity at a fitness center or other indoor space can take off their masks but are expected to wear them at all other times, such as when resting at a gym, the governor’s new executive order said. About 38% of residents have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 28.4% are fully vaccinated, state data shows. Justice highlighted that more than 46% of residents ages 16 and over – those currently eligible for a shot – have received at least one dose. He has a goal of covering 85% of senior citizens. About 75% are partially vaccinated so far, he said. He also made a plea for younger people to get shots. “I am urging the young people especially right now, and older people, to help me make sure that we get our 16- to 35-year-olds vaccinated,” he said at his regularly scheduled news conference. Officials have recently urged residents to step forward to receive vaccines after the pace of administration slowed down due to declining demand.
Madison: Schools across the state will receive more than $175 million in federal funding to pay for school-based coronavirus testing for teachers, students and staff, Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday. The money is coming to Wisconsin as part of $10 billion that the U.S. Department of Health Services announced in March it was targeting to help schools reopen across the country. The tests would be voluntary. Evers said the state Department of Health Services will be working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to develop a testing program in conjunction with what schools may already have in place. Schools were sent a survey last week to ask what type of programs would best meet their needs, Evers said. Different testing options will be available to schools, and more information will be released as they are developed, Evers said. Concerns about new coronavirus variants more easily infecting people under age 16, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, have increased as case counts have gone up. In Wisconsin, just over 16% of all confirmed cases have been among people 19 or younger. As of Tuesday, more than 40% of people 16 and up in Wisconsin have received at least one vaccine dose, including 19% of people ages 16 or 17.
Gillette: Celebrating their vaccination status, a local ranching family has burned COVID-19 in effigy, setting aflame a more than 20-foot-high structure shaped like a man with a “COVID” shirt and a coronavirus-spiked head, the Gillette News Record reports.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports