AlabamaAuburn: Auburn University is fully resuming on-campus operations that were disrupted by the coronavirus last year. All optional remote instr
Auburn: Auburn University is fully resuming on-campus operations that were disrupted by the coronavirus last year. All optional remote instruction ended Sunday, and most employees who have been working on a virtual basis will return to campus Monday, the Opelika-Auburn News reports. The decision to reopen was based on multiple factors, said Dr. Fred Kam, director of the university medical clinic. “You’re looking at all the data, all of the information and … you’re forecasting on where you think things will be,” Kam said. The university has seen a downward trend in COVID-19 since 113 cases were reported during the week ending Jan. 17. The university said 75 new virus cases were self-reported during the week ending Jan. 31, three fewer than the previous week. The school also reported a 0.9% positivity rate among those tested through its voluntary sentinel testing, according to data released Tuesday. Multiple safeguards are in place for the campus to reopen safely, including a universal mask policy. Still, not everyone will return. “Some of the faculty who are vulnerable are going to continue to teach their courses remote,” Kam said. “Some are going to flex, so they’ll do some on campus, some remote.”
Anchorage: A home for older adults has reopened its doors to family members and others eager to see the residents after a lockdown of 11 months. Anchorage Pioneer Home welcomed back visitors beginning Wednesday. The largest state-run assisted living facility closed to outsiders in March 2020 to protect its vulnerable residents from the coronavirus. The state operates six homes serving nearly 500 Alaska residents ages 60 and older in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. While some of the facilities have allowed visitors at points throughout the pandemic, high rates of community spread and several virus outbreaks among residents and staff kept the Anchorage home closed off until now. “We haven’t had anybody coming in unless it’s family in a hospice or end-of-life type of situation,” Anchorage Pioneer Home Administrator Rich Saville said. The decision to renew visitations followed a recent downward trend in coronavirus cases in the community, along with the vaccination of about 90% of current residents. About 50% of the home’s staff have been vaccinated, Saville said. Families had been relying on phone calls and video to stay connected.
Phoenix: All five Democratic members of the state’s U.S. House delegation want Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to explain how his use of nearly $400 million in federal coronavirus relief funds met Congress’ intent that the money be used only for pandemic relief. Ducey used more than 20% of the $1.86 billion the state received in federal relief last spring to backfill agency budgets, allowing them to return cash to the general fund. The strategy contributed to a major state budget surplus that the governor now wants to use to cut income taxes by $600 million a year. He also plans to use $134 million in remaining federal cash to boost the state unemployment insurance fund, allowing businesses to avoid a small increase in the rate they pay to the program. A letter sent by Reps. Raul Grijalva, Ruben Gallego, Ann Kirkpatrick, Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton questions whether funding agency budgets met congressional intent to provide relief to businesses, schools, renters and others. The letter notes that the governor’s office didn’t publicly disclose its use of the money, even as it has consistently touted expenditures that help the public. Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said Friday that the money was all used for COVID-19-related expenses as required by Congress.
Little Rock: There were 58 fewer people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state Saturday, continuing a recent decline, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. There were 750 hospitalizations, down from 808 on Friday, while the number of reported coronavirus cases rose by 1,341, and there were 11 more deaths due to COVID-19, according to the health department. Overall, the numbers of deaths and cases have also declined during the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state has dropped from 40.86 per day Jan. 22 to 31.29, and the average number of new cases has fallen from 1,963.86 per day to 1,737.14 during the same time period, the Johns Hopkins data shows. There have been 306,064 total virus cases and 5,061 COVID-19 deaths in Arkansas since the pandemic began in March, according to the health department. The Johns Hopkins data also reflects a drop in the seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate, from 17.44% to 12.1% during the same time period. Arkansas had the sixth most new cases per capita in the nation with 774.46, according to the Johns Hopkins data.
Pasadena: A man who was refused service at a Southern California restaurant because he was not wearing a mask came back with a gun and robbed the eatery of chicken and waffles. The robbery occurred Wednesday evening at the Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles location in Pasadena, police Lt. Marcia Taglioretti told Southern California News Group. No one was hurt, and the man got away. After being turned away, the man showed up with a gun in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, and security cameras recorded the scene. “He comes straight toward me with a gun, pointing at me and saying put all the chicken in the bag,” cook Robert Gonzalez told KABC-TV. Manager Angela Prieto said the man did not take any cash. “He took actually chicken and before he walked out the door he took syrup for his chicken,” Prieto told the station.
Denver: The state will use an updated COVID-19 dial that allows counties to move between public health restriction levels more swiftly, officials said Friday. “When disease transmission is low, there’s ample hospital capacity, we can sustain a lot greater degree of ability to engage in closer one-on-one interactions in the final months of the pandemic,” Gov. Jared Polis said. The state’s amended dial, which dictates countywide restrictions on businesses and gatherings based on new cases and hospitalizations, went into effect at 9 a.m. Saturday. “There will likely be one additional update to the dial in the next couple months that will also directly tie into where we are with vaccinations before we abolish the dial,” Polis said. The new dial will use seven-day metrics – from the previously used 14-day metrics – accounting for virus spread, percent positivity and hospitalizations. Some of the color-based indicators will have different capacity levels. For instance, “yellow,” which previously meant businesses would limit capacity to 100 people, can now have up to 50% or 150 people depending on the indoor space. As of Friday, most of the counties were at an “orange” level. But with the new measures, several counties including Denver were to be moved to “yellow.”
Hartford: Officials announced Friday that they are expanding the state’s COVID-19 vaccine appointment hotline to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The expanded hours begin Monday. A total of 125 trained workers will answer phone calls and help people book appointments at a dozen locations across the state, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. They’ll be able to book up to 10,000 appointments per week, according to the Department of Public Health. The phone number to schedule a vaccination appointment is 877-918-2224. Currently, the state is focused on residents who are 75 years and older. DPH and the United Way have been increasing the number of people answering the appointment hotline and the state’s 2-1-1 information line in recent weeks. Gov. Ned Lamont recently acknowledged that some older residents have had difficulties navigating the online appointment registration system, prompting the decision to beef up telephone services. “I understand how important that is, especially for those who are older, like myself … sometimes I find even Amazon confusing sometimes,” the Democrat said last month when 80 additional people were enlisted to answer appointment calls.
Dover: Despite the disproportionate number of deaths related to COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, many workers at the state veterans home are refusing to get the vaccine. Residents of long-term care facilities such as the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford account for less than 3% of COVID-19 cases in the state but more than half of coronavirus-related deaths. Secretary of State Jeff Bullock told members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee Wednesday that there have been no COVID-19-related deaths at the veterans home and only three cases. “All of our residents who are medically able have been vaccinated now, so that’s a really, really good thing,” he said. “I wish I could say the same for the staff.” The veterans home has not been accepting new residents because of the coronavirus and currently has only 56 residents, less than half its capacity of 144. The total number of staff is 176. Officials have held two vaccination events at the home, but only about 60% of staff have received at least one dose, compared with 98% of residents who have received both doses.
District of Columbia
Washington: The Biden administration is set to distribute more COVID-19 vaccines to major retail pharmacies across the country this week, but none of those pharmacies in D.C. will receive doses in the first phase of the federal program, WUSA-TV reports. CVS, Publix and Costco are among the program’s partners. Walgreens will be obtaining vaccines for locations across 15 states including Maryland, but D.C. was not included. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, D.C. is “pending” in the first phase of the federal rollout. It might be a tough pill to swallow for pharmacists such as Dupont Circle Pharmacy CEO Cyprian Sabah, whose pharmacy was certified by the federal government to provide vaccines once they become available. However, he said he’s hopeful his pharmacy will be next sooner than later. Sabah said he’s been receiving many calls from customers eager to receive the vaccine specifically through his pharmacy. “We provide a personal touch. You know customers by their names. Their families are your families,” Sabah said.
Longwood: A police officer has been fired following a co-worker’s complaint that he mocked her concerns about the coronavirus, hugged her against her wishes and misled investigators who probed the allegations against him, according to records. An internal investigation by the Longwood Police Department found Cpl. David Hernandez was “not fully forthcoming and not truthful” when questioned about the interaction in July with the woman, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The co-worker “told you not to touch her and physically backed away from you and crossed her arms,” police Chief David Dowda wrote in his review of the case, which the newspaper obtained through a public records request. The woman said she made it clear that she feared contracting COVID-19. Hernandez ignored her and followed her into her workspace, the report said. There he kept “taunting her with comments about her being afraid of contracting COVID-19,” while sitting at her desk and “touching items on her desk,” the report said. Hernandez, an officer with the department since 2005, only left when the woman went to a supervisor, the report said. Two witnesses corroborated the allegations against Hernandez.
Carrollton: Judges in at least two counties are refusing to acknowledge a federal order meant to protect most tenants from eviction amid the coronavirus pandemic. The magistrates in Carroll and Coweta counties are not halting evictions despite the order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says losing housing may cause the spread of COVID-19. “The CDC, as far as I know, has no control over Georgia courts,” Carroll County Chief Magistrate Alton Johnson told WABE-FM. Katie Duren said her family fell behind on rent after she and her husband lost work during the pandemic and neither was approved for unemployment. After several months, Duren’s landlord filed for eviction. Her family filled out the CDC form seeking protection, but when they showed up for court, Johnson told Duren that Carroll County doesn’t honor the CDC order. “He should have just ripped it up and threw it in the trash because that’s how I felt when he said that,” Duren said. Asked why most other Georgia magistrates have come to a different conclusion on the CDC’s authority, Johnson said he didn’t know. He said the eviction moratorium seems to violate landlord rights.
Honolulu: The number of properties listed as short-term vacation rentals across the state has declined by as much as half compared with last year, likely the result of the pandemic and new restrictions on the industry. The number of properties being used as vacation rentals has declined on all islands, Hawaii Public Radio reports. Hotel operators were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 75% of rooms empty in the normally busy month of December. Bookings for vacation rental properties were also down. All the state’s islands experienced occupancy decreases of at least 25% year-over-year from the 2019-2020 holiday season. Erik Kloninger, a visitor industry analyst, said the City and County of Honolulu and Hawaii County posted the largest declines in rental supply. “Oahu had the biggest decrease at about 49%, half as many vacation rentals as 2019,” Kloninger said. Hawaii island’s rental supply decreased about 43%, he said. Maui and Kauai counties experienced contractions in vacation rentals of about 21% and 23%, respectively. Economic forecasts predict Hawaii’s visitor industry will remain below 2019 levels for several years.
Boise: A girls’ basketball tournament triggered legislation introduced Friday targeting gathering-size limits instituted because of the coronavirus pandemic. The House State Affairs Committee approved a measure after the Idaho High School Activities Association on Thursday rejected a request from the committee’s chairman to allow more fans at the girls’ state basketball tournament later this month. Republican Rep. Brent Crane said the association’s limit of 1,800 fans in the 11,000-capacity Ford Idaho Center in Nampa will harm kids. He said the association’s board held an emergency meeting Thursday, then told him the number of fans allowed would not be increased. “I said, well, then you can expect tomorrow morning in our committee that we’re going to have legislation that addresses that issue,” Crane testified before the committee. “Should this pass, it would lift the limit for not just sporting events but for anything. Any type of event. A dance, a prom, whatever.” It’s not clear, though, that the legislation would affect entities like the activities association or even municipalities. Specifically, it’s a resolution that targets Republican Gov. Brad Little’s health order Tuesday that raised the limits on gatherings from 10 to 50. The resolution says the 50-person limit is “declared null, void, and of no force and effect.”
Springfield: Public health officials said last week that they will divert unused COVID-19 vaccine doses intended for long-term care facility residents to the supply for other prioritized recipients. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration said it will take 97,000 doses from Walgreens and CVS pharmacies intended for the federal Pharmacy Partnership Program. Pritzker has said the program is moving too slowly, while demand for the vaccine among other eligible populations far outstrips supply. However, he said the program was set up to ensure there would be more than enough doses on hand, and the diversion would still leave 110,000 doses for residents of nursing homes and similar facilities. The program is averaging 36,000 shots a week, and the state will be ready to replenish the pharmacy program if that rate increases. “We want to make sure every dose allocated to Illinois can be used as quickly and equitably as possible,” the state public health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, said in a statement. “Long-term care residents and staff remain a top priority and we will ensure there will be as many doses readily available to those facilities” as needed.
Indianapolis: Legislators are poised to finalize a fast-tracked proposal that will give a broad shield protecting businesses and others from lawsuits by people blaming them for contracting COVID-19. The proposal is a top priority of Republican legislative leaders and GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb even though supporters don’t point to any such lawsuits in the state. Supporters maintain that the liability protection is needed to remove a “cloud of uncertainty” for factories, restaurants, stores and other institutions like universities so that they can stay open without facing lawsuits from employees or customers over possible coronavirus exposure. Republicans who dominate the Indiana House and Senate have already approved similar versions of the liability protections, and a final bill could reach Holcomb’s desk within the next couple weeks and months before final action is taken on most of this year’s legislation. The proposal would be retroactive to March 1, 2020 – just before the first coronavirus infection was confirmed in Indiana – and only allow lawsuits against businesses when “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct” can be proved with “clear and convincing evidence.”
Des Moines: Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Friday that she was ending most restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Reynolds issued a proclamation that removes a mask requirement for those spending 15 minutes or more in an indoor area within 6 feet of people not in their household. She also ended mask requirements for those in state buildings and some businesses, such as barbershops. The new order ends limits on the number of customers in a business or a requirement that they stay socially distant. Reynolds issued the earlier restrictions in November when hospitals were struggling to care for a surge of COVID-19 patients. Those numbers have dropped, though the state typically reports dozens of deaths a day. The new rules took effect Sunday. Despite ending the restrictions, Reynolds said in her proclamation that “I continue to strongly encourage all vulnerable Iowans, including those with preexisting medical conditions and those older than 65, in all counties of the state to continue to limit their activities outside of their home, including their visits to businesses and other establishments and their participation in gatherings of any size and any purpose.”
Topeka: Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration plans to begin giving COVID-19 vaccinations to prison inmates this week, ignoring a call from the Republican-controlled Legislature to postpone their inoculations so that others can get doses first. Spokesperson Carol Pitts said in an email that the Department of Corrections had not yet vaccinated any inmates but would start giving them throughout its nine facilities. Her email Thursday came as the Kansas Senate was debating a resolution condemning Kelly’s decision to make inmates eligible for shots during the second phase of the state’s vaccine rollout, which launched last month. The Senate approved the nonbinding resolution on a 28-8 vote, with all but one vote for it coming from its Republican majority. The measure calls on Kelly to abandon the policy involving inmates “without delay,” but the governor already had signaled her intent to disregard it with her public comments. “You also have staff in prisons, and you have people going in and out of prisons, and so we need to control the spread in our prisons to control the community spread,” Kelly told reporters Friday at a vaccination clinic for Kansas National Guard personnel.
Frankfort: A Republican-led legislative panel dismissed two petitions Friday calling for Gov. Andy Beshear’s impeachment but kept alive another effort by citizens seeking the Democrat’s ouster for his restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19. The rejected petitions were the latest in a flurry of filings aiming to unseat prominent political leaders in Kentucky, an unprecedented phenomenon in the state’s recent history. Another pending petition targets the state’s Republican attorney general. The two anti-Beshear petitions were dismissed for failing to meet statutory requirements, said Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, the committee chairman. But the House panel renewed its request for more information from Beshear as it reviews the remaining petition, the first one filed against the governor, Nemes said. Just four Kentuckians signed that petition, though one of them signaled he wants to withdraw. All three petitions claim the governor improperly infringed on individual rights with his coronavirus-related orders. Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the governor had the authority to put restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the virus.
New Orleans: The city’s bars will be shut down, even for takeout service, throughout next week’s Mardi Gras weekend – usually among their busiest times of the year – in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Friday. Many bars already were closed to indoor service. Cantrell’s announcement means they won’t be able to sell drinks to go. And she said the city is expanding the closure order to include bars that have “conditional” food permits that allowed them to operate as restaurants during shutdowns. Stepped-up crowd control was to begin this past weekend, Cantrell said. The bar shutdown begins Friday and runs through Mardi Gras – also known as Fat Tuesday – on Feb. 16. Cantrell and other city officials said businesses that violate the rules face on-the-spot shutdowns and loss of licenses. And they warned visitors to the city during what is one of the biggest tourism times of the year to adhere to safety precautions. “If by chance you have an aversion to wearing a mask, stay where you’re at,” said City Council member Jay Banks, who said he knows 23 people who have died of COVID-19.
Auburn: The day after Androscoggin County commissioners considered a resolution against mask-wearing mandates, the sheriff said he and his staffers won’t attend future meetings in person because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. “I would encourage the use of Zoom for meeting purposes and if you do not wish to have staff present I would also be willing to participate via Zoom,” Sheriff Eric Samson wrote Thursday, the Sun Journal reports. “This is not a political stance or a criticism in any regard,” he said. “I just need to look out for staff health and safety.” Many people attending Wednesday’s meeting did not wear masks. Up for discussion was a proposal by Commissioner Isaiah Lary opposing orders from Gov. Janet Mills mandating face coverings in public, limiting the size of gatherings and other restrictions. More than 20 people spoke against the mask requirement; no one spoke in favor of the mandates. Commissioners voted 4-3 to postpone action on the resolution.
Annapolis: The state Senate approved about $1.5 billion in pandemic relief Friday, including direct stimulus payments to low- and moderate-income residents. The measure, first proposed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, includes benefits of up to $750 for families and $450 for individuals. The payments would reach about 400,000 Maryland residents. The measure repeals all state and local income taxes on unemployment benefits. It also includes sales tax credits of up to $3,000 a month for four months for small businesses. Hogan’s plan initially called for more than $1 billion in relief. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, added another $520 million. That includes aid for education, business, health, housing aid, transportation and unemployment assistance. The measure approved by the Senate includes $1,000 grants for jobless residents whose unemployment checks are stalled in adjudication. “This pandemic has been so difficult for everyone, and the combination of what the Senate was able to add to the governor’s package was really targeted at this diverse impact of this once-in-a-100-years experience,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore.
Boston: The state launched a new hotline Friday aimed at helping those 75 and older who are trying to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment but having trouble navigating the state’s vaccine website. Those 75 and older can connect with a hotline operator by dialing 2-1-1 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Operators won’t have any special access to appointments but instead will walk individuals through the same state website available to the public to help them make an appointment, Gov. Charlie Baker said at a Statehouse press conference Friday. The hotline will be staffed with both English- and Spanish-speaking operators who will have access to translators who can cope with about 100 additional languages, Baker said. Those who can should still use the state’s vaccine map website to help ensure that the hotline is available to those who most need the extra help, Baker said. “We believe this resource will be a huge help for individuals over 75,” the Republican said. When vaccines become available to those 65 years old and older, the hotline will also become available to that group, he said.
Lansing: Health officials said Friday that the state has capacity to vaccinate up to 80,000 people a day, but the supply of COVID-19 doses, while higher in recent weeks, remains limited. They also said their goal is to ensure that no one has to travel more than 20 minutes for the vaccine and that each of nine health care regions has at least one 24/7 mass vaccination site. Another priority is to allocate additional doses to areas based on factors such as poverty, lack of transportation and crowded housing. It “correlates extremely closely with the communities that were hardest hit by COVID-19 in the spring,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department. The city of Detroit, for instance, was an early hot spot. Racial disparities have diminished since, but Detroit still has seen a disproportionate death toll. So have Michigan’s Black residents, who comprise 14% of the population but account for 22% of deaths tied to the coronavirus. The state’s per capita vaccination rate was 18th-highest among the 50 states as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rollout has been messy, with complaints ranging from difficulties making appointments to line-cutting by potentially ineligible people to inconsistent local policies.
Minneapolis: The state’s food shelves saw a big jump in need in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic instability, according to an annual report released Friday. Hunger Solutions Minnesota, which collects data from 350 food shelves across the state, said they saw a record 3.8 million visits in 2020, up 7% from the year before, led by a 31% jump in visits by older people. Those numbers represent both the “great need” statewide and the “great work” by programs to adapt how they provide services and to take advantage of state and federal COVID-19 relief funding, said Colleen Moriarity, the group’s executive director. Hunger Solutions distributed $21 million of that aid money to food programs across the state. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area saw the greatest increase in need for food. Visits were up 17% overall and 39% among older residents in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis. Food shelves in several rural communities saw big increases in visits by older residents, the report said. Many adapted to the increased demand by spending relief funds on vehicles for delivering food to residents who otherwise might have been reluctant to visit a food shelf in person, it said.
Natchez: People who can do their jobs remotely could receive $6,000 to move to a region overlooking the Mississippi River, under a program designed to attract workers as the coronavirus pandemic is spurring more online work opportunities. The Shift South initiative was created by Natchez Inc., an economic development organization that aims to attract development to Natchez and Adams County in southwestern Mississippi. The program launched last fall, and the first incentive was offered in January. The organization will pay people who qualify $2,500 to offset moving expenses and then another $300-a-month stipend spread out over a year, according to the application. To qualify, people must buy a house in the city or county for $150,000 or more and must be working remotely for an employer outside the region. The campaign touts the benefits of living in the Natchez region, such as a low cost of living and the region’s cultural and outdoor amenities. As more companies are allowing or encouraging their employees to work remotely amid the pandemic, some areas have started offering those incentives to individual workers, as well.
Jefferson City: A consulting firm is helping the state identify “vaccine deserts” to try to make the rollout of COVID-19 immunizations as equitable as possible, with attention now focused on addressing areas within the two largest cities. The Missouri Independent reports Deloitte Consulting told a meeting of the Missouri Advisory Committee on Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution that the goal is to determine where residents have little or no access to vaccines. The global consulting firm with offices in Missouri has been paid nearly $600,000 by the state this fiscal year. Deloitte’s Andrew Miller said tracking has successfully helped turn around previously lagging vaccination efforts in Boonville, Owensville and Hayti. But Miller noted that vaccine deserts remain concerning in parts of north St. Louis and the Interstate 435 corridor in Kansas City. In some areas of Kansas City, some people are 7 miles from the nearest provider. While some areas of St. Louis are within a mile or two of a provider, the high density of residents may make access more difficult, and “it might be a little trickier to find new locations to provide access points,” Miller said.
Bozeman: Wildlife officials have approved new restrictions limiting the transportation of deer, elk and moose carcasses statewide to help prevent the additional spread of chronic wasting disease. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the restrictions, which require all hunters to either leave the spinal column and head of their hunted animals at the site or to dispose of the parts at a sanctioned landfill, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports. Previously, the rule limited carcass disposal in chronic wasting disease-positive management zones. Now it applies to the entire state. Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease that causes organ damage in hoofed mammals and is spread through direct contact between animals. The disease was first detected in Montana in 2017, but it has since spread multiple areas across the state. Brian Wakeling, the game management bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the department recommended the rule to the commission to prevent people from dumping carcasses in other parts of the state where chronic wasting disease is not present.
Lincoln: People trying to cure their coronavirus cabin fever last year looked to Nebraska’s outdoors in record numbers. The state Game and Parks Commission sold nearly 144,000 annual park permits in 2020 – 20,000 more than the year before and the most since 2000. It issued 125,000 annual resident fishing licenses, 32,500 more than in 2019 and the most since 2001. The agency sold 184,000 daily park passes to out-of-staters, 64,000 more than the previous year, and more than 27,000 nonresident daily fishing licenses, the most ever. In a year when virus-related rules seemed to shrink the state, limiting where Nebraskans could go and what they could do, the commission continued to offer thousands of acres of fresh air, said Jim Swenson, its parks administrator. “The park areas were always open,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star. Even the so-called iron rangers – the drop boxes at more remote recreation areas – collected a 235% increase in entry fees. More users than ever were discovering, or rediscovering, these unstaffed recreation areas, like Rock Creek Lake near Benkelman, Walgren Lake near Hay Springs and Danish Alps in Dakota County, Swenson said.
Carson City: In one of just six U.S. states in which a majority of the population is nonwhite, a disproportionate number of COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to white residents. The disparities shown in county-level data prompted Gov. Steve Sisolak to rebuke local health officials Friday and announce a new plan to ensure equity in vaccine distribution. As part of what Sisolak called an Equity and Fairness Initiative, state immunization officials will track vaccine distribution in southern Nevada and file reports to the state’s pandemic management task force on whether Nevada is living up to a promise made in its vaccination playbook: to distribute doses in an equitable manner. “I do not blame those that have been offered a vaccine for taking that opportunity. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of those in leadership positions. They know better. They have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the playbook,” Sisolak said in a YouTube video released Friday morning, in which he didn’t specify which officials he was referencing. Nevada is not yet among the 23 states that release vaccination rate data broken down by race and ethnicity.
Durham: The University of New Hampshire has canceled overseas programs for this summer and the fall, citing uncertainty about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus and restrictions on U.S. travel. The decision was announced Jan. 27 by the UNH Global office and the Education Abroad team. “We thought it would be important to be transparent and send this message at the beginning of the semester so that students can plan accordingly,” said Leonie Meijer, interim director of education abroad. Students can petition to override this decision on a case-by-case basis. Examples of possible exceptions are travel to a country that permits entry for study or internships and exchanges accepting U.S. students.
Trenton: Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed into law a bill aimed at extending a permit deadline letting bars and restaurants serve alcohol outdoors as part of the state’s response to COVID-19. The bipartisan legislation passed the Democrat-led Legislature last month with no opposition. “As we weather the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continually trying to find new and innovative ways to aid our state’s business community while not sacrificing our public health,” said Murphy, a Democrat. The legislation extends permits issued by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division made last summer that expanded where businesses with liquor licenses can serve alcohol to include outdoor locations. Under an order from the division, the expansion was supposed to last through November 2020, but the law expands it to Nov. 30, 2022, or when indoor dining returns to full capacity – whichever is later. The new law came the same day Murphy expanded indoor dining capacity. It rose to 35% for restaurants and bars, up from 25%. The governor said declining hospital admission rates from the coronavirus led to his decision to increase capacity.
Santa Fe: The state on Saturday reported 424 additional COVID-19 cases and eight deaths as the coronavirus outbreak continued to slow in New Mexico. The latest figures released by the Department of Health increased the state’s pandemic totals to 177,214 cases and 3,386 deaths, but rolling two-week averages of daily new cases and daily deaths both dropped over the past two weeks. The rolling average of daily new cases dropped from 846.6 on Jan. 22 to 570.7 on Friday, and the rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 29 to 18.6, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Albany: The governor announced Friday that the state will open up vaccine eligibility by Feb. 15 for people with a wide range of certain health conditions – from obesity to hypertension, cancer and intellectual and developmental disabilities – that put them at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Gov. Andrew Cuomo pointed to data suggesting nearly all people who have died from COVID-19 had other serious health conditions. “You do every group in the state when you do people with comorbidities,” he said Friday. The Democratic governor’s announcement came weeks after he said on Jan. 12 that New York would accept new federal guidance to expand vaccine access to younger people with certain health problems, including those with weakened immune systems. At least 13 states have opened eligibility to some people under age 65 with certain health conditions. Still, it was unclear Friday how people will prove they have an eligible condition, when they can start signing up or how many people in New York will become eligible. Local governments – tasked by Cuomo with vaccinating people with health conditions – are hoping for clear state guidance, more doses, and state assistance for rural counties with bare-bones public health departments.
Raleigh: A large group of activists turned out for an annual demonstration to push for causes ranging from racial equity and justice to a $15 minimum wage. The annual Moral March and HKonJ looked different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of hundreds of people marching through the streets of downtown Raleigh, the activists formed a motorcade, complete with signs, stickers and beeping horns. WRAL-TV reports this year’s theme was “Hope in Action: Living a New World Into Existence.” Vehicles began lining up about 7 a.m. Saturday at the Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts. The Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People’s Assembly Coalition is made up of the more than 125 North Carolina NAACP branches, youth councils and college chapters from across the state, as well as members of more than 200 other social justice organizations.
Bismarck: The state Senate has passed a bill that allows alcohol to be sold earlier on Sundays. Republican Sen. Scott Meyer, of Grand Forks, said he proposed the legislation to help the service industry, which has been dealing with restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, bars and restaurants can’t serve alcohol from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sundays. And liquor stores can’t sell alcohol until noon on Sundays. Meyer’s bill would move up alcohol sales to 8 a.m., like the rest of the week, the Bismarck Tribune reports. The Senate initially killed the bill Thursday. But Sen. Randy Burckhard asked for reconsideration Friday. The legislation was narrowly passed and sent to the House. The ban on early Sunday alcohol sales remained in place even after the Legislature in 2019 voted to eliminate North Dakota’s so-called blue laws that prohibited retailers from opening Sunday morning. Republican Sen. Doug Larsen said the bill is about reducing government restrictions on businesses.
Columbus: Public school enrollment dropped significantly in autumn amid the pandemic as widespread use of remote learning led some families to consider other options and as some students disappeared from schooling altogether, state data shows. For pre-K through 12th grade, enrollment decreased by about 53,000 students compared with a year earlier. Enrollment had fallen annually by a fraction of a percentage point in the previous few years, but this slide was about 3%, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The data can’t fully explain the challenges families faced and the reasons for their education choices but collectively points to the impact of concerns about the quality and feasibility of remote learning and about the safety of in-person learning as the coronavirus spread, the department reported. Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon said his district also saw families switching to home-schooling, parents postponing kindergarten, and high schoolers choosing to work instead of engaging with school. Nearly half the statewide decrease was concentrated among the youngest students. Enrollment decreased in preschool by about 27% and in kindergarten by about 8%.
Oklahoma City: State health officials say there have been more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases and 52 more deaths linked to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,174 newly confirmed cases Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 403,954. The newly reported fatalities bring the death count to 3,813. The department reported more than 26,600 active cases Sunday. But the actual number is believed to be far higher because many people haven’t been tested, and some who get sick don’t show symptoms. Over the past week, nearly 14% of coronavirus tests in Oklahoma have come back positive, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That’s down from an average of nearly 17% over the past month.
Portland: State health officials say they are expecting chaos this week, when about 167,000 people who are 80 or older will become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. In preparation for the drastic increase of eligible people, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday that 30 additional National Guard members will be deployed to help field calls and texts from seniors signing up and seeking information on vaccinations. Beginning Monday, Oregonians who are 80 or older are eligible for the vaccine. The week of Feb. 15, seniors 75 and older will become eligible, followed by those 70 and up the week of Feb. 22 and 65 and up March 1. Brown said Oregon’s phased approach for the elderly will help avoid the “nightmare” of extensive lines and wait times occurring in other states. The Oregon Health Authority has been working with counties to make sure seniors have access to the vaccine, although signing up for an appointment will vary by community. While 211info, Oregon and Southwest Washington’s information referral line for health and human services, is available, the health authority is launching an additional online tool Monday.
Harrisburg: A divided state House on Friday gave lawmakers’ final OK to put on the May ballot a constitutional amendment limiting governors’ powers during a disaster emergency. State representatives voted 116-86 for the GOP-backed proposal that would end emergency disaster declarations after 21 days, unless lawmakers approve an extension. It would also explicitly give lawmakers, with a two-thirds majority vote, the capacity to end a disaster declaration without the governor’s signature. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s first COVID-19 pandemic emergency order was issued in March for 90 days, the maximum allowed, and he has since extended it repeatedly. A separate disaster emergency for the opioid crisis has been in place for several years. “Businesses have been shut down – they don’t exist anymore under this order,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, referring to the pandemic. Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, warned of the proposal’s consequences. “It’s not the first and will not be the last power grab by this Republican – gerrymandered – Republican majority. This bill does not deal with the fact that on day 22 of any emergency, what will happen?” Davidson said.
Providence: Coronavirus testing at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence ended Friday, and the sports arena will eventually be converted into a mass vaccination site, a state health official said. “We have built out our testing infrastructure significantly over the last several months,” state Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said in an email to WPRI-TV. “We have testing sites all throughout Rhode Island at this point, so we decided that this will be the best use of this space going forward. We want these large, state-run sites to be as accessible as possible.” Vaccinations won’t be available at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center right away. Rhode Island plans to open five to 10 state-run vaccination sites to supplement pharmacy and local vaccination clinics, department Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said Thursday. “We don’t expect these state-run locations to be open until a little later this month, when we will have the vaccine needed to run these mass vaccination sites,” Wendelken said. Testing will still be available at other sites in the city, including at the adjacent Rhode Island Convention Center.
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster and his wife donated plasma Friday to help patients who have COVID-19 recover more quickly from the disease. McMaster and the first lady contracted COVID-19 in December, and doctors encourage people who recover to donate the blood product. The plasma is then transfused into the bodies of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients to lessen their symptoms and hopefully help them recover faster. “We were lucky – I had a light case, I guess,” McMaster said Friday outside the Red Cross Columbia headquarters. “They need plasma, so we’re here.” McMaster was inside for almost two hours. The 73-year-old Republican governor had to pass a health screening and then spend almost an hour with a needle in his arm. A machine drew the blood from his vein. Inside, the plasma was removed and replaced with saline and then sent back down the tube and into his arm, Red Cross South Carolina CEO Rod Tolbert said. McMaster’s plasma could help up to four patients. It will join 2,600 units of plasma from COVID-19 patients donated in South Carolina and 140,000 units donated nationally, Tolbert said. Once they are approved, people can donate plasma once a week up to eight times, he said.
Sioux Falls: State health officials on Sunday reported five new deaths due to the coronavirus, lifting the total number of fatalities to 1,809 since the start of the pandemic. There have been 31 deaths confirmed in February. The COVID Tracking Project ranks South Dakota’s death count at 40th highest in the country overall and the sixth highest per capita at about 204 deaths per 100,000 people. The update showed 98 new COVID-19 cases out of 509 examinations that were processed in the prior day, lifting the total number of positive tests to 109,229. South Dakota is 46th in the country for the number of new cases per capita in the past two weeks. In that time, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by 37%, researchers said. One in every 831 people in South Dakota tested positive in the past week. There were 113 people hospitalized due to complications from the coronavirus, with 25 in intensive care units and 15 on ventilators. As of Saturday’s report, the state had administered 115,783 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to 80,700 people. Of the residents who have received shots, 37,876 have completed both doses.
Nashville: As the state slowly begins to loosen restrictions on who may receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Nashville on Friday had the strictest eligibility to receive the dose in all of Tennessee. Last week the Department of Health announced people 70 and older may start receiving doses. While local counties had the authority to set different instructions, most areas quickly expanded to include the new eligible age group. However, Davidson County – which encompasses Nashville – has held off. As of Friday, the metro area was officially the only county limiting vaccine distribution to front-line workers and those 75 and older. “We’ll do all that we can to move as quickly as possible to move through that group,” Dr. Gill Wright, interim chief medical officer of Metro Nashville Public Health, told reporters Thursday. “We’re feeling more comfortable with the supply of our vaccine and look forward to make school vaccinations in the near future.” Nashville has distributed 105,000 doses of the vaccine to date, Wright said. Yet the city isn’t planning on lowering the age requirement until it clears the waiting list for 75 and older residents. “Be patient; we will get to you,” Wright said.
Dallas: The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state fell again Sunday after dipping below 10,000 for the first time since December on Saturday. There were 9,652 people in Texas hospitals with confirmed cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus Sunday, according to the Department of State Health Services. That’s the lowest figure recorded since Dec. 16. State health officials reported 5,278 newly confirmed cases of the virus Sunday, 1,499 probable cases and 167 more fatalities. Texas has reported 38,643 COVID-19 deaths and more than 2.16 million cases since the pandemic began. Over the past week, more than 16% of COVID-19 tests in Texas have come back positive, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The actual number of cases is believed to be far higher because many people haven’t been tested, and some who get sick don’t show symptoms. On Friday, state health officials announced Texas is expecting to receive more than 400,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine for this week. Roughly 7.5% of Texas residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 2% are fully vaccinated.
St. George: Two Smith’s Food & Drug locations in St. George and one in Cedar City will offer free COVID-19 vaccines starting Thursday. Smith’s has obtained a limited supply of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and will administer doses for free to senior citizens ages 70 and older, in keeping with Utah’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution timeline, according to a press release. Seniors desiring the vaccine must make an online appointment with their local Smith’s pharmacy starting Wednesday. “Individuals interested in receiving the vaccine can expect their appointment to be as fast and simple as getting an annual flu shot – reserve an appointment online, receive your vaccination from a licensed healthcare professional and wait 15-30 minutes after receiving the vaccine to ensure the absence of any side effects,” Jaime Montuoro, Smith’s Pharmacy Director, said in the press release.
Montpelier: The state is allowing school and recreational youth sports teams to start playing games again Friday, but spectators won’t be allowed, state officials announced. The sports include basketball, hockey, volleyball, indoor soccer and football, and broom ball, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, at the governor’s twice-weekly coronavirus briefing Friday. “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, things will look different this winter,” she said. Indoor sports teams that involve close proximity or moderate contact will be restricted to two games per seven days and a minimum of three days between competitions, Moore said. Players, staffers, referees and officials must wear masks. The state did not see any evidence of virus exposure amid teams from Dec. 26, when no-contact winter sports practices started up, until mid-January, she said. Teams are encouraged to find ways to allow for remote viewing, such as livestreaming games, Moore said. The updated guidance will be available on the state’s website by the end of Monday, she said.
Richmond: Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that all schools in the state should make in-person instruction available at least as an option next month, noting the coronavirus pandemic’s steep toll on children and families. Northam said during a news conference that all K-12 school divisions should make the option available by March 15. He also encouraged schools to offer summer classes for kids who want to take them. The governor did not say the guidance was mandatory, but his office later said Northam expects all districts in the state to be on board with the March 15 deadline. “My fellow pediatricians say they’re seeing an increase in behavioral problems, mental health issues and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients,” said Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist and the nation’s only governor who is a doctor. “They’re writing more prescriptions, such as antidepressants and stimulants,” he said. “And that’s just not a good direction for us to keep going. And we’re also seeing a decline in academic performance.” Ben Kiser, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said his organization was glad the governor did not issue a mandate. But he emphasized superintendents are generally anxious to get kids back to in-person instruction.
Seattle: Two grocery industry trade groups have filed a lawsuit against the city over its new law mandating $4-an-hour hazard pay raises for grocery stores. The suit was filed by the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, The Seattle Times reports. It alleges the city’s law interferes with the collective-bargaining process between grocery stores and unions and also “picks winners and losers” by singling out large grocery companies. Seattle’s law passed last week and went into effect Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the council’s unprecedented ordinance, its unilateral action, and unwillingness to work with the grocery industry has left us with no other option than to file a lawsuit against the city,” Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of WFIA, said in a statement. The law applies to grocers with more than 500 employees worldwide and stores larger than 10,000 square feet in Seattle. It mandates a $4-an-hour pay boost for all workers in retail locations, a bump that stays in effect as long as Seattle remains in a declared civil emergency.
Charleston: The state’s coronavirus czar said Friday that vaccinations are already reducing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. Less than two months into the vaccination drive, Dr. Clay Marsh, a high-ranking West Virginia University health official, said there was a 40% to 45% reduction in deaths linked to COVID-19 from December to January, and hospitalizations are down more than 50%. “Which we do believe is directly related to the aggressive vaccination that we’ve done,” Marsh said at the governor’s coronavirus news conference. About 11.5% of the state’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, while nearly 5% of residents are fully vaccinated. The separate doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna should be taken within a few weeks to reach their full effect. Twenty deaths from the coronavirus reported Friday, bringing the state’s total to 2,100. More than 100,200 residents 65 and older have received at least one shot. Marsh said the average age for a person dying of the virus is 77. Teachers 50 and over and health care workers are also currently eligible for vaccines. Officials urge everyone over the age of 16 to preregister for a vaccine online at vaccinate.wv.gov. The system is meant to notify residents when their time has come for an appointment.
Madison: Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the first bill passed by the Legislature to address the coronavirus pandemic in 10 months Friday, a Republican-backed measure that Democrats said would do nothing to combat the virus or help reopen the state. Evers vetoed the bill that put $100 million toward combating the virus two hours after the Senate voted along party lines to send it to him. The move came as Wisconsin topped 6,000 deaths from COVID-19. “Wisconsinites know a compromise when they see one, and this isn’t it,” Evers said. He said he would have signed a more limited version of the bill that passed previously, but since then Republicans added provisions the governor opposed. Added provisions to which he objected prohibited the closure of churches during the pandemic, barred employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated and gave the Legislature control of how federal money for fighting the virus is spent. GOP legislative leaders issued a joint statement saying Evers “cares more about his own power than the people of Wisconsin.” Evers called on Republicans to “stop playing politics” and send him the bill he worked with them on and agreed to sign previously.
Casper: More people born in the city are moving back home to raise their families as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it possible for those with office jobs to work from anywhere. Casper, where the economy is heavily reliant on oil and other blue-collar industries, may benefit from this influx of diverse labor, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. While newcomers and those returning to their hometowns may have been drawn to Wyoming by wide-open spaces, low real estate prices don’t hurt. “The interest rate you’re paying probably affects what you can afford more than anything,” Casper real estate agent Laurel Lunstrum said. “So you can afford a lot more house with your money.” Lunstrum said she saw a 15%-20% increase in people buying homes from out of state in 2020. Jim Edgeworth said people moving back to Wyoming made up about 3% of his total sales last year. Those people were usually either parents looking for a family home or older people looking to retire in Casper. “We were careful; we had to change the way real estate can be done,” Edgeworth said. “People were buying sight unseen. We were doing walkthroughs with FaceTime and video calls. Even during the pandemic, people are still trying to buy houses.”
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports