Montgomery: New statistics indicate a disproportionately small number of Black people are getting vaccinations against the coronavirus, a trend the state’s top health official said Friday shows the need to increase immunization efforts in the minority community. While demographic data compiled by the state has big gaps, with the race of tens of thousands of vaccine recipients not reported, Dr. Scott Harris said the numbers that are available show about 55% of vaccines have gone to white people so far compared to about 11% for Blacks. By comparison, Alabama’s population is about 27% Black, census figures show. Factors including hesitancy to accept the vaccine and the demographic makeup of groups that were allowed to receive vaccines during the earliest rounds could help account for the difference, Harris said. “This speaks a lot to our equity concerns. We know that African Americans are more likely to have serious illness or death from COVID-19 in Alabama. We have to make very sure we reach that community,” he said. Aside from making sure shots are available in areas where the African American population is concentrated, the state is working with organizations and leaders including pastors while planning a campaign to reduce the hesitancy of some Black people to get vaccinated, Harris said.
Juneau: Lawmakers, facing a looming deadline and disorganization in the state House, have asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to issue a new disaster declaration to aid Alaska’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic despite legal questions surrounding his authority to act. Dunleavy is “evaluating the options and will make an announcement soon,” Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor, said by email. In a statement late Friday, Dunleavy said in the absence of a declaration, “my administration is fully prepared to manage the rollout and distribution of the vaccine to ensure anyone that wants a vaccination will be able to get one. We will also continue to respond to COVID-19 as we begin the process of getting back to normal as soon as possible by focusing on the economy and assisting Alaskans in staying healthy. As we move forward, we will notify Alaska and stakeholders of our plans.” Dunleavy, a Republican, was criticized for issuing successive orders between November and January, when lawmakers weren’t meeting, with legislators from both parties questioning the legal underpinnings of his actions. Under state law, a disaster emergency proclamation is not to remain in effect more than 30 days unless extended by the Legislature.
Phoenix: The number of inmates in the state’s prisons has declined 11% since the start of pandemic, reflecting a slowdown in the court system that has held far fewer criminal jury trials over the past year as it took steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading at courthouses. Corrections officials say they are seeing fewer sentenced inmates being sent to prison from counties and fewer revocations of probation and community-supervision releases that would send people back behind bars. Defense lawyers say people charged with crimes are reluctant to accept plea offers out of fear that they might be exposed to COVID-19 if they were sentenced to Arizona’s prisons, where 31% of inmates have tested positive over the course of the pandemic and where 50 inmates have either been confirmed or suspected to have died from the virus. Pima County hasn’t held a criminal jury trial since March 2020 and has called them off through next month. Maricopa County went a few months in 2020 without criminal trials, but it resumed them during the fall in limited numbers because it has a small number of courtrooms that are equipped with plexiglass barriers and spacious enough to allow jurors to be distanced.
Little Rock: Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday that states need to take the lead in administering the COVID-19 vaccine, as the number of new coronavirus cases in the state dropped. Hutchinson was among a bipartisan group of governors and mayors who met with President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. During the meeting, Hutchinson said they also discussed vaccine administration. “I emphasized one particular point, and that’s the states need to take the lead in vaccine administration, and we don’t need to have duplicate programs that are hard to coordinate,” Hutchinson said. Meanwhile, an Arkansas House spokeswoman on Friday said that Republican Rep. Marsh Davis tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming at least the 25th lawmaker in the state to contract the virus. Davis is recovering at home with mild symptoms, House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said. Davis was last at the Capitol on Wednesday, the final day the Legislature was in session last week.
Sacramento: The state will soon expand its list of people eligible for vaccinations by another 4 million to 6 million people by adding the severely disabled and those with health conditions that put them at high risk for infection and death, state Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Friday. Among those who will become eligible March 15 are people with certain cancer, heart, lung and kidney conditions, as well as pregnant women, those with Down syndrome, organ transplant recipients and the severely obese. They join people 65 and over and those in high-risk job descriptions who already were eligible under the state’s plan. California has been plagued by vaccine shortages, and Ghaly couldn’t say how long it will take for the state to vaccinate the estimated 17 million to 19 million people who will be eligible for the vaccine once the new additions are made. “Without that crystal ball on the allocation, it’s going to be really hard to answer,” he said. The nation’s most populous state can expect to receive more than 1 million doses each week at least for the next few weeks, Ghaly said. Judy Mark, the president of Disability Voices United, thanked the state for moving up vaccinations for disabled people but said it should be immediate. Ghaly said the extra time is needed for the state to ramp up capacity.
Denver: More than two dozen people have sued the Denver sheriff’s department, claiming they were exposed to the coronavirus while incarcerated, a newspaper reports. Most of the federal lawsuits, largely handwritten, were filed without the help of attorneys since the beginning of the year, The Denver Post reports. The lawsuits claim inmates are unable to socially distance, deputies inside the jail fail to wear masks, and new inmates are housed without being tested. “I contracted the COVID-19 virus due to them not upholding social distancing, having four men in one eight-man cell,” Johnny Hurley said in one complaint. “The department has no right to expose us to severe illness that could result in death and long-term side effects.” Mark Silverstein, a legal director at the ACLU of Colorado, said the lawsuits are unlikely to succeed because the inmates face numerous challenges in court without attorneys. But the legal actions do highlight the ongoing struggles faced in jails and prisons throughout the pandemic, he said. “An inmate who is concerned about taking all COVID precautions just can’t do it in a jail,” he said.
Stamford: Gov. Ned Lamont credited the growing number of vaccinations in the state for its declining rate of COVID-19 infection, noting Friday that the number of nursing home residents and people 75 and older who are getting infected is “way down.” According to data through Thursday from Johns Hopkins University, the rolling average number of daily new cases in the state has dropped by slightly more than 630, a decrease of 34%. “It’s making a difference in the terms of we’ve got everybody in our nursing homes vaccinated and the number of complications coming out of our nursing homes is way down. Number of infections way down,” Lamont said Friday outside Stamford Hospital, where a vaccination clinic was happening. The Democrat also noted that COVID-19-related hospitalizations are declining. “That’s because Connecticut is smart; they’re getting vaccinated; they’re wearing the mask. It’s making a difference,” Lamont said. ”Do things that make a difference a little bit longer … and it will be a great spring here in Connecticut.” Last week, residents 65 and older were able to begin signing up for vaccination appointments. “Usually people lie about their age in the other direction. This is a time where people are pretty happy to be 65 or over,” Lamont said Friday. “I’ll get vaccinated, I hope next week.”
Wilmington: The state’s Latinos have received significantly fewer COVID-19 vaccine doses compared to white residents, despite being hit disproportionately harder. But the reason it isn’t because Latinos don’t want the vaccine. It’s because many don’t know how to sign up or face barriers every step of the way, longtime advocates say. Only 2% of Delawareans who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine are Latino, according to state data. Just 1% of those who have signed up for a vaccine identify as Latino. Yet Latinos and Hispanics account for about 10% of the state population and make up 17% of overall COVID-19 cases. In interviews with half a dozen advocates, all expressed varying degrees of frustration with the state’s COVID-19 outreach in the Latino community. Many felt the state hasn’t done enough to gain the trust of the community or educate and properly communicate with its residents, especially about the safety of the vaccine. The language barrier is one hurdle. Many elderly residents are dependent on their children or grandchildren to find and translate information for them. And all the advocates interviewed said the state’s reliance on technology to get people to sign up for vaccines has prevented thousands from getting the shot.
District of Columbia
Washington: Lunar New Year celebrations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and tainted by a string of attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the country, WUSA-TV reports. It’s unclear if the cases are race-related, but numerous national, state and local organizations have voiced concerns about the increase in violence, including the National Association of Asian American Professions, Washington, D.C., which condemned anti-Asian racism and xenophobia being increasingly fueled by COVID-19. “Even before the first case of COVID-19 here in the U.S., our communities, both business and individuals, have been under attack,” said John Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “The rhetoric from the prior presidential administration certainly did not help.” Former President Donald Trump has been blamed for stoking anti-Asian rhetoric after calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Valley Brook Tea owner Yunhan Zhang was working at his Dupont Circle store in November when a stranger walked in without a face mask and yelled “Chinese” and “COVID-19” at him. Surveillance video captured the man taking out a can to pepper-spray Zhang before fleeing. Police have still not arrested his attacker. The D.C. police department’s Asian Liaison Unit has added three more Cantonese or Mandarin-speaking officers for outreach to ensure the Chinese community feels safe reporting any concerns.
Orlando: A student at the University of Central Florida has been diagnosed with a variant of the coronavirus first found in the United Kingdom and thought to be more easily transmissible. The unidentified student tested positive last week, Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services, said Thursday in a statement on the university’s website. The Orlando-based university is one of the nation’s largest with more than 66,000 students. University officials said the student was isolated, and contact tracing measures were taken. “The tools that we use to fight this variant are no different than the steps we have taken for nearly a year,” Deichen said. “COVID-19 and these new variants are not easily transmissible when face coverings are worn properly, physical distancing is maintained, and hands are regularly sanitized.” The Florida Department of Health announced the state’s first case of the U.K. variant at the end of last year, and the state now leads the nation in cases of the variant, with almost 350 confirmed diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of thousands of college students around the nation have tested positive for the virus, and some campuses have seen spikes in cases with students returning to campus.
Atlanta: Lawmakers in the state House are considering legislation that would require hospitals and nursing homes to allow visitors, after many cut visitor access because of the coronavirus pandemic. Rep. Ed. Setzler, R-Acworth, the bill’s chief sponsor, said in a recent committee hearing that it recognizes that connection with family and friends can be a key component of patient wellness. “Health care inextricably includes wellness, mental health, activity, purpose, engagement of people with familiarity, connection and individual advocacy,” Setzler said. The measure would require that hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities allow patients to have two visitors for up to two hours per day. It would only be applicable to patients who are in a facility for more than 24 hours, and the facilities would be able to set requirements for visitors, such as a mask or testing requirement. If passed, the legislation would take effect July 1. The bill was being debated in the House Human Relations and Aging Committee in a hearing Wednesday. Several citizens told gut-wrenching stories about the loneliness that loved ones faced in hospitals and nursing homes since the beginning of the pandemic, sometimes in ways that became detrimental to their health. But hospital representatives raised concerns that the measure could heighten the risk of the virus spreading among vulnerable populations.
Honolulu: Mayor Rick Blangiardi has extended coronavirus restrictions for another month through mid-March starting Monday but said that could change if confirmed cases remain low. “I don’t want to mislead the public in any way,” Blangiardi said during a news conference Friday, adding that he believes he is being realistic and managing expectations following potential coronavirus superspreader events like the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. Blangiardi said he will shift the island to the next reopening stage before March 15 if numbers remain low. “The health and safety of everyone in the City and County of Honolulu remains our top priority, and I want to move us forward in a way that is deliberate and based on science,” he said. Currently, social distancing and masks are required. Up to five people may dine together inside a restaurant, and gyms and fitness facilities are allowed to operate indoors at 25% capacity. The announcement came after the state Department of Health reported low COVID-19 cases for about two weeks and a positivity rate of 1.5%, KHON-TV reports. Some business owners have disagreed with the decision, arguing their businesses are still struggling.
Boise: Legislation to make permanent changes in the state’s absentee ballot counting procedure headed to the full Senate on Friday. The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously approved the measure intended to speed absentee vote counting, which was used in the last general election and spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers during an August special session approved a law allowing the opening and scanning of absentee ballots beginning seven days before Election Day. It passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Brad Little. But that law expired Dec. 31. Election officials said the change allowed county clerks to quickly report results of the November election after receiving about 400,000 absentee ballots. The law would also require that if any absentee ballots are opened before Election Day, they are maintained in an electronically accessed, secured area under 24-hour video surveillance livestreamed to the public. The law would require the video to be archived for at least 90 days after the election.
Springfield: State public health officials on Friday reported administering more than 95,000 COVID-19 vaccinations in the previous 24 hours. That number represents a single-day record for a state struggling to get doses of the vaccine into the people who need it most. The 95,375 shots outpaced by more than 20,000 the previous high set Feb. 5. Officials reported 32 deaths from the highly contagious coronavirus, and there were 2,598 confirmed and probable infections. But after a late fall and early winter when daily deaths routinely topped 100, they have hit that mark only twice in the past three weeks. And daily cases have been below 3,000 for six days. The overall toll has been heavy, with 1.16 million infections in the 10 months of the pandemic, leading to 19,873 deaths. The numbers of those most seriously ill with COVID-19 are slowly declining, too. On Friday, there were 1,915 people hospitalized, with 437 in intensive care units and 211 on ventilators. Those are the lowest totals since the middle of October. Of 2.39 million doses of the vaccine delivered to the state, 1.64 million, or 69%, have been injected.
Indianapolis: Federal jury trials suspended last fall amid a surge in coronavirus cases are expected to resume in April in all divisions of the Southern District of Indiana, a judge announced Friday. Chief Judge Jane E. Magnus-Stinson said the court anticipates in-person jury trials to resume April 5 in all divisions of the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana, which has courts in Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Evansville and New Albany. Magnus-Stinson also said clerk offices will reopen Tuesday to the public in all the divisions. The Southern District had suspended jury trials in November after Gov. Eric Holcomb reinstated limits on crowd sizes for nearly every Indiana county in response to weeks of sharp increases in Indiana’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections. Indiana’s rates of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have declined steeply since peaking in early December. The resumption of jury trials does not preclude a judge from continuing a jury trial for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Magnus-Stinson said in a statement. She said court clerks may temporarily excuse any person summoned for jury service “upon a showing of undue hardship or extreme inconvenience.”
Iowa City: Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration informed bidders Friday that it would not award a contract for an outside vendor to operate a call center to help residents set up COVID-19 vaccine appointments. The Iowa Department of Public Health informed several companies that had submitted emergency bids for the contract that it would not select any of them and was “continuing to evaluate call center solutions.” The department’s notice did not elaborate but cited an administrative rule that allows for bidding processes to be canceled when in the state’s interest. The call center was to field inquiries about vaccines, including helping screen residents for eligibility and set them up with providers to make appointments. It was to be part of Iowa’s effort to improve on a rocky vaccine rollout that has frustrated many residents and has the state lagging far behind the national average for the percentage of its population getting shots. As of Friday, federal data showed Iowa in 43rd place, with only 9% of its residents having received one or more doses. Last Monday, the department selected Microsoft to develop and deploy a centralized online system for people to register and schedule vaccine appointments, a task that eligible workers and people over age 65 have struggled to complete on their own. Reynolds said Microsoft hopes to have the system available to the public in two weeks.
Mission: The state’s schools would be required to offer full, in-person instruction starting March 26 under a bill introduced Friday. Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson said in a news release announcing the bill that students must not continue to “languish in virtual learning.” The state Department of Education recommended last week that school districts allow middle and high school students to resume full-time in-person instruction if precautions are taken. Several of the state’s largest districts have been offering in-person classes only part time for middle and high schoolers or teaching students only online. “Kansas parents have been patient, but they have seen their children struggling, and they have had enough,” Masterson said. “It’s time to do what is desperately needed and get Kansas kids back to school.” Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said he hadn’t yet had a chance to review the bill. But he noted: “Schools have been open since the beginning, but returning to in-person instruction in a time of a pandemic should happen when it is safe to do so according to the medical experts. That has been our position all along, and that will continue to be our position.”
Louisville: A Bullitt County fire department announced one of its officials has died of the coronavirus, just over two months after its chief died following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Battalion Chief Major Garry Key of the Zoneton Fire District died shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday after a nearly monthlong fight with the deadly disease. Key had been acting fire chief until he fell ill. His death comes just over two months after the department’s Chief Robert Orkies died after battling cancer and the coronavirus. “Garry was highly respected by all who knew him and all of us are deeply saddened by his loss,” acting fire Chief Kevin Moulton said in a statement. “This is a difficult time for the entire fire department.” Key spent more than five decades in service, including nearly 30 years with the U.S. Army and a tour in Vietnam in 1970-71, the department said in a news release. He joined the Zoneton Fire District in 1984, making him the department’s longest-serving volunteer member. While coronavirus case totals in Kentucky have dropped recently, the state has reported record-high death counts over the past month. At least 4,253 Kentuckians have died from complications with the virus since the start of the pandemic, and more than a quarter of those deaths occurred after Jan. 14.
New Orleans: Mayor LaToya Cantrell couldn’t join mayors and governors meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday because a screening test – which turned out to be inaccurate – was positive for the coronavirus, her office said. A later genetic test at a clinic in Washington showed she has not been infected by the virus that causes COVID-19, a news release said. Cantrell was among officials Biden had invited to discuss the importance of state and local funds in the next stimulus and relief packages being considered by Congress. Cantrell’s press secretary, LaTonya Norton, said in a news release that “at no time did the Mayor display any symptoms, and she remains asymptomatic and in good spirits.” Norton said Cantrell received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday. “The vaccine does not cause a positive test, as it does not contain any actual virus,” Norton stressed. “It takes time to build full immunity.” She said the mayor was disappointed about missing the meeting. “She remains confident that the new administration will be a strong partner for New Orleans,” Norton said. “She looks forward to receiving her second dose of vaccine in a few weeks.”
Portland: Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, increased capacity limits for some houses of worship Friday. The houses of worship are now able to accommodate five people per 1,000 square feet, or up to 50 people, whichever is greater. The previous standard had been capped at 50 people. The standard of five people per 1,000 square feet is the same limit applied to retail spaces, Mills said. Other public health measures, such as maintaining 6 feet of distance from other people and wearing face coverings, remain in effect, she said. Mills also said she received her second and final dose of COVID-19 vaccine Friday. Meanwhile, vaccines cannot come soon enough for Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works, which has recorded 36 cases since the start of the month. Several hundred Bath residents also have tested positive. Dr. Christopher Bowe, chief medical officer at Mid Coast Hospital, said he hopes there will be an expansion of who can receive the vaccine in the next month, allowing shipbuilders to be vaccinated. Since March, 279 workers have tested positive across the main shipyard and the company’s Bath and Brunswick facilities.
Annapolis: The General Assembly passed a pandemic relief measure Friday that will deliver more than $1 billion in tax relief and economic stimulus for low-income families and small businesses. Lawmakers gave the bill final approval after the House withdrew provisions that would have expanded relief to families who use Individual Tax Identification Numbers instead of Social Security numbers. Critics of the proposal said it would have steered relief to undocumented immigrants. Leaders in the Legislature said they plan to approve separate legislation this week for people who use ITIN numbers. The pandemic relief measure passed Friday was initially proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan. A spokesman for the governor said Hogan plans to sign the bill Monday. The package includes payments to low-income residents, including $500 for families and $300 for individuals who filed for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The measure includes $1,000 payments to people who have unemployment claims in limbo. It also includes up to $9,000 in tax relief for small businesses.
Boston: The state has launched an online tool designed to make it easier for residents to find COVID-19 vaccination locations, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration announced Friday. The COVID-19 Vaccine Finder lets users search for locations near them by entering their ZIP code, city or town name, or the name of a vaccination location. Residents can also filter results by site type, such as mass vaccination locations, locations run by local health departments, retail pharmacies or health care locations. The tool can be accessed through the state’s vaccination website at www.mass.gov/COVIDvaccine or directly at vaxfinder.mass.gov. The finder displays all vaccination locations open to residents but includes only appointment details for mass vaccination locations and some sites operated by local health departments. Appointment details for additional sites will be added later. The state hit two milestones in the fight against the coronavirus Friday, administering its millionth vaccine dose but crossing the 15,000-death threshold since Massachusetts’ first COVID-19 death less than 11 months prior.
Detroit: More than $4 million in COVID-19 relief grants has been disbursed to 144 nonprofits throughout Wayne County. Each one-time grant provides funding of up to $49,999. Nonprofits have stepped up as county residents face financial hardships and other losses during the coronavirus pandemic, according to County Executive Warren Evans. “These organizations play an important role in communities but are increasingly stretched thin as they provide essential goods, services and resources,” Evans said. “We need to have their back just as they’ve had ours to ensure they can continue the great work they are doing.” Wayne County’s Nonprofit COVID-19 Relief Fund was started in October with funding from federal coronavirus relief passed last spring. The county has awarded more than $90 million in relief funding that includes direct aid for service workers, tenants owing back rent, homeless veterans, and small businesses trying to maintain payroll and operate safely.
Minneapolis: Gov. Tim Walz on Friday said he would relax several restrictions in place, including raising the maximum occupancy in bars and restaurants and at private events and celebrations. Starting Saturday, top capacity at bars and restaurants and indoor entertainment venues rose to 250 people, with up to 50 people allowed at private events and celebrations. The governor’s order doesn’t change the limit on capacity by percentage, meaning bars and restaurants still may not go above 50% of capacity. The limit for indoor entertainment venues stays at 25%. Gyms and pools can also now have a maximum of 250 people, although percentage limits there also remain unchanged at 25% of capacity. Walz said during a news conference Friday that falling hospitalizations, lower test positivity rates and increased vaccination efforts across the state influenced his decision to lift some restrictions. The governor said input from small businesses affected by the restrictions and the consistency of the data also played a role in dialing back restrictions. “This is very much targeted at those small businesses in the hospitality sector that have been incredibly hit,” he said. “They’ve done what was asked of them. Minnesotans have done what was asked of them, and it makes sense now that the science shows that.”
Jackson: The number of African Americans in the state who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 rose slightly in the prior 10 days, although overall numbers of Black residents getting vaccinations are still lagging far behind white Mississippians, according to data available Friday. About 20% of all of those in the state who have now received the vaccine are Black, according to the Department of Health. More than 70% are white. As of Feb. 2, only 17% of all residents who had been vaccinated in Mississippi were Black. The Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity created a survey for Black residents so officials can better understand some of the barriers to access within communities, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said. “There’s a lot of Black folks who don’t trust (the vaccine), and I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Dobbs said Friday during a virtual panel conducted by historically Black Tougaloo College. “But I think we need to make sure we really do everything we can to provide that reassurance, answer those questions and understand, ‘What are those foundational issues that lead to that lack of trust?’ ” Dobbs said one move that has been working is connecting with community leaders in order to educate residents about the vaccine.
Liberty: St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Friday that better communication about the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan should help reduce frustration that erupted publicly last week between Gov. Mike Parson and some eastern Missouri health officials. Parson on Thursday said St. Louis-area health officials – particularly Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Pandemic Task Force – were misleading residents when they complained that the region was not getting enough vaccine doses to serve its high population. Page praised Garza’s efforts to help distribute the vaccine in eastern Missouri and said it serves no purpose to cast anyone as a villain at a time when “anxiety is high and opinions differ” on the best way to distribute the doses. Page said the public feud was fueled by frustration being felt everywhere because demand for the vaccine greatly outstrips supply. He acknowledged that the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services is doing the best it can to distribute the vaccine under difficult circumstances and said he appreciated the department’s efforts to clarify the distribution plan. Parson on Thursday announced the state would begin sending 3,000 vaccine doses directly to the St. Louis County Health Department.
Helena: A statewide mask mandate that had been in place since July was lifted Friday by Gov. Greg Gianforte. But some cities and counties are keeping local mask requirements because they think the governor’s move was premature. Gianforte, a Republican, promised the day after assuming office in January that he would lift the state’s mask mandate once there were liability protections in place for businesses and health care providers and once vulnerable Montana residents began receiving vaccines against COVID-19. The governor said last week that both requirements had been met after he signed a law that would protect businesses from lawsuits by customers and employees related to contracting the virus. The state’s chief medical officer resigned from his post Thursday, the day after Gianforte announced he would lift the mask mandate. Dr. Gregory Holzman, who has been a key figure in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, will continue to serve in the role until April 16. Holzman did not say in his letter of resignation whether the move was connected to the governor’s decision to lift the mask requirement.
Omaha: State officials have told retail pharmacies and local public health agencies offering COVID-19 vaccinations to give at least 90% of their doses to senior citizens, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday, even though other groups are also eligible under the state’s distribution plan. Ricketts said the directive was intended to protect residents who are at the greatest risk of dying if they catch the coronavirus. Nebraska is currently in a vaccination phase focused on the elderly, adults with underlying medical conditions, first responders, education workers such as teachers, and people who work in fields deemed critical. Asked why the state is prioritizing elderly residents, Ricketts pointed to statistics showing that they account for the largest proportion of people in Nebraska who have died from the virus. The number of statewide deaths has now reached 2,002 since the pandemic began, and 83% of those who have died were at least 65 years old, according to the state’s online tracking portal. “Those are the people who are most at risk of dying,” Ricketts said at a news conference to discuss the state’s pandemic response. He said state officials contacted participating pharmacies and local health directors to “make sure they’re in line with the state’s expectations.”
Las Vegas: School and union officials have approved a plan for employee coronavirus testing when the youngest of students in the Las Vegas area return to campuses March 1 for partial in-person learning. Clark County School District trustees voted 4-3 Thursday to approve an agreement with unions to reopen elementary schools for prekindergarten to third grade students for families who want what officials termed face-to-face hybrid instruction. No timeline was provided for other grades. Clark County has the nation’s fifth-largest public school district, with more than 300,000 students, 35,000 employees and an annual budget of about $5.2 billion. Its more than 330 campuses were closed, and lessons went online almost a year ago because of the pandemic. The agreement allocates $3.3 million for daily symptom screenings for students and employees and monthly virus testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment for employees. Workers who are considered vulnerable to the virus will not be required to return to campuses, officials said. Two previous plans to return to some form of in-person learning stalled when coronavirus cases spiked in Clark County.
Concord: The 400-member state House is heading back inside. In the calendar published Friday, House Speaker Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, said the House will meet Feb. 24-25 at a sports complex in Bedford. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and last month from their cars in a parking lot. Packard said the NH Sportsplex facility includes more than 50,000 square feet of floor space, more than double the usable area at the UNH arena. His office is working with health and safety officials “to ensure a risk-mitigated and secure environment for all members and staff in attendance,” he said. Former House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, died of COVID-19 a week after being sworn in at the outdoor session in December. Democrats have pushed for remote sessions, but Republican House leaders have said is not possible because no rules exist to allow it, while blocking attempts to create such rules. “We continue to research if a reasonable remote solution exists that will not compromise the operation of the 400-member House of Representatives,” Packard said. He said remote participation may eventually be possible – but only for those members with specific health issues.
Trenton: Parents can again attend their children’s school sporting events. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that he was signing an executive order to permit up to two parents or guardians to attend indoor and outdoor school sporting events. The order will continue to cap indoor attendance at 35% of capacity or 150 people, the governor said. Spectators were not permitted at school sport events under a Murphy order from late last year. Murphy cited COVID-19 trends heading in the right direction as the reason for the change, which takes effect immediately. “As a father of four, I know how difficult it has been for many parents to not be able to see their kids participate in sports,” he said. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Jersey fell from 5,013 on Jan. 28 to 3,891 new cases per day Thursday. Mike Cherenson, a spokesperson for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the group welcomed the order. The association also called on parents to give schools time to review the order to determine feasibility.
Santa Fe: The New Mexico Supreme Court has rejected a Republican challenge to emergency procedures in the state House of Representatives that have moved hearings and deliberations almost entirely online as a precaution against COVID-19. The high court declined to hear the lawsuit from leading Republican House legislators Friday in a shortly worded order. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf has said emergency legislative procedures that rely heavily on videoconferencing are necessary in light of the pandemic. He has said more people are participating in online legislative hearings than could possibly fit physically into committee rooms under normal circumstances. An unnamed Republican lawmaker tested positive in January for the coronavirus at the Capitol, along with several staff. The Statehouse is closed to the public and lobbyists, while the House limits participation in floor sessions to the speaker and one additional legislator from each party. The state Senate has its own pandemic rules that allow legislators to attend floor sessions in person or remotely from an office in the state Capitol building. House members can participate from home.
Albany: Gov. Andrew Cuomo further loosened coronavirus restrictions on restaurants statewide Friday as parts of New York City reported upticks in new cases. The Democratic governor said restaurants and bars would be able to stay open until 11 p.m. starting Sunday. The state’s restaurant industry had pushed to loosen the previous cutoff, which was 10 p.m. “Loosening the curfew will allow operators to comfortably seat guests at 9 p.m., bringing in business that had previously been cut off,” Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said in a statement. Cuomo had said industry groups representing restaurateurs had asked for the ban on indoor dining to be lifted in February to let them cash in on Valentine’s Day. He has also allowed New York City and counties statewide to vaccinate restaurant workers, though many county executives say they lack the supplies. “If we keep the infections down and vaccinations up, we will continue to stay ahead in the footrace against this invisible enemy,” Cuomo said. But parts of the city are seeing signs of upticks: The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island had together averaged about 2,580 new cases each day over the seven days through Thursday, up 16% from the prior seven days.
Raleigh: The state is in a stronger financial position than budget analysts anticipated last year at the start of the pandemic, according to a report from a group of economists. The analysis from the Office of State Budget and Management and the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division projects the state will receive $4.1 billion more in revenue this fiscal year than expected. The change represents a nearly 18% increase from what was forecast in May 2020. The extra revenue primarily came from higher income and sales tax collections and strong business tax collections. The state has not seen as serious of a recession as expected. But the recovery has not spread equally across the workforce. The report issued Thursday noted that a chunk of the state’s workforce will continue to struggle if transmission of the coronavirus remains prevalent. Workers in the service industry, particularly in retail and leisure and hospitality, are seeing the most economic damage, as many small businesses have already folded or are struggling to hang on, according to the report. Meanwhile, higher-income workers were more likely to be able to work from home and remain on company payrolls. The economists noted that most North Carolina tax revenue comes from middle- and upper-income households.
Bismarck: State health officials on Sunday reported 47 new positive coronavirus tests, lifting the total number of confirmed cases to 98,597. State lab officials processed 1,725 tests since Saturday, a positivity rate of 3.5%. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in North Dakota has decreased by 37%, Johns Hopkins University researchers reported. There were about 130 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks in North Dakota, which ranks 50th in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 1,708 people in the state tested positive in the past week, researchers said. No new deaths were included in Sunday’s update. A total of 1,431 North Dakotans have died from complications due to the virus since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations were up by two, to 38. Six patients were being treated in intensive care units. The state’s hospital tracker showed 40 staffed ICU beds and 398 staffed inpatient beds available throughout North Dakota. The number of active COVID-19 cases was 792 as of Sunday.
Columbus: Gov. Mike DeWine on Friday publicly rebuked school officials in Akron and Cincinnati for backtracking on commitments they’d made to offer in-person learning by March 1, calling that unacceptable after employees in those districts were among those prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines because of their reopening promises. The Republican governor was upset to learn that Akron students weren’t slated to return until mid-March and that Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills High School was sticking with remote learning over concerns about crowding and the ability to keep students socially distanced. The governor said he isn’t telling schools or parents what to do but is warning schools that made reopening commitments in exchange for getting prioritized vaccines to live up to their word. “These vaccinations, if they’re not going to get kids back in school when they need to be back in school, we need to take them and vaccinate other people – vaccinate people who are older,” DeWine said. He said he also asked Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon whether the teacher vaccinations underway there should be halted because of uncertainty about whether the district would have kids back in classrooms by March 1. DeWine said Gordon assured him he’s doing everything possible to meet that goal.
Oklahoma City: An expected winter storm led the Tulsa Health Department to cancel vaccination appointments Friday and Monday, with the vaccinations to be rescheduled by staff. “We know residents are anxious and ready to receive their first or second dose; however, it comes down to the safety of them and our staff” traveling to and from the vaccination site, said Kelly Van BusKirk, chief of THD’s Division of Prevention, Preparedness and Response. The Oklahoma City-County Health Department’s planned vaccination clinic Friday was operating, and plans for a clinic Saturday were unchanged, pending the weather, said spokesperson Molly Fleming. Gov. Kevin Stitt declared an emergency ahead of a storm that was forecast to bring more than a foot of snow. Stitt on Friday also extended an executive order that includes mask-wearing inside state buildings and new restrictions on bars and restaurants and plans to require mask-wearing inside state buildings and limiting occupancy to 50% in public buildings. The number of deaths in Oklahoma due to the illness caused by the coronavirus neared 4,000 on Saturday, with 35 additional deaths reported by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Portland: Four people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 tested positive for the coronavirus, the state health authority reported Friday. Oregon is among the first states nationwide to report “breakthrough cases” – people who test positive for coronavirus at least 14 days after receiving their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. “(This is) not to be unexpected in a vaccine that, while phenomenal, with 95% effectiveness, still means 5% may still be infected,” Patrick Allen, the director of the health authority, said Friday. Officials said two “breakthrough cases” are in Yamhill County, and the other two are in Lane County. The four people had mild or no symptoms. Officials say studies show that the vaccine may help reduce the severity of the illness. “What all this means is that we can expect to see more breakthrough cases,” Dean Sidelinger, the health authority’s state health officer. “Getting as many Oregonians as possible vaccinated remains a critical objective to ending the pandemic.” Sidelinger said he anticipates as people continue to be vaccinated, more states will report “breakthrough cases.” Health experts are monitoring the cases, and genome sequencing is underway, with results expected next week.
Harrisburg: After weeks of complaints about the state halting its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the Health Department on Friday ordered providers to get shots into arms more quickly, offer more convenient scheduling and make sure that scarce supplies are only going to eligible recipients. The state also plans to dramatically cut the number of providers administering the vaccine so that more doses will go to those that have proven adept at swiftly using their weekly allotments. Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the moves are intended to hold hospitals, pharmacies and other providers accountable for the vaccine doses with which they’ve been entrusted and to address widespread frustrations among residents about how difficult it can be to secure an appointment. Pennsylvania is among the lowest-ranked states in how efficiently it is vaccinating its population. “I want Pennsylvanians to know that we have heard you, and we are taking bold, decisive action,” Beam said at a media briefing. Under the order, hospitals, pharmacies and other providers must administer at least 80% of their allotment of first doses of vaccine within a week of getting them and offer live telephone operators to assist people who don’t have the ability to schedule their appointments online.
Providence: Providence College is temporarily restricting student movement in response to a recent increase in confirmed coronavirus cases on campus. Students who live both on and off campus are required to limit their activities to essential travel, including going to class, picking up food or groceries, medical appointments, outdoor recreation, and work, President Rev. Kenneth Sicard said in a message to the campus community Thursday. In addition, visitors are not allowed in dormitories, and on-campus students are not allowed to visit off-campus student residences, he said. The college recorded nearly 100 positive cases last week, according to the school’s dashboard. “We are experiencing more positive COVID-19 cases than we would like,” Sicard said. “While increased testing is a factor, these additional steps are necessary to ensure that the overall positivity rate stays below the approximately 2% we are currently seeing.” In-person classes will continue, and libraries will remain open. The private Roman Catholic school has about 4,800 students.
Columbia: State economists decided Friday to make no changes to 3-month-old revenue estimates because COVID-19 is still causing so much uncertainty in the economy. Revenues in South Carolina have grown nearly 5% since the fiscal year started in July, while official estimates predicted a 3.5% decline. That’s good news on its face, said state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office Executive Director Frank Rainwater. But Rainwater said behind that number are a lot of questions, chiefly how much of that surge in revenues is thanks to federal stimulus money. Other unknowns include whether the lower-than-predicted unemployment rate is as rosy as it appears or will have to be adjusted, as well as whether people will continue to spend more than typically anticipated in a recession. “We want to be cautious. We don’t want to be careless in this uncertain time,” Rainwater said at Friday’s meeting of the state Board of Economic Advisors. That means the official prediction for South Carolina remains unchanged from three months ago: The annual budget is expected to grow by $36 million in the fiscal year that ends in June. The conservative estimate will help avoid any immediate budget cuts in agencies, Rainwater said.
Sioux Falls: The Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office has tapped about 20 police reserve officers to help with scheduling holes from COVID-19-related staffing issues, including shifts at the county jail. When the coronavirus reached South Dakota, the sheriff’s office asked the Minnehaha County Law Enforcement reserves if they’d be up to filing gaps should the pandemic cause staff shortages or excessive overtime. That request proved useful quickly. Since March, 47 inmates and 43 correctional officers have tested positive for the virus. The Minnehaha County Jail trained 23 of the reserve officers to work in the jail if needed. Of those, six officers worked at the jail as of last week. While there wasn’t an entire shift of jail staff affected all at once, it was important to have a group of extra trained workers, said Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Gromer. Police reserve officers normally spend their required minimum of eight hours per month of volunteer hours helping with special events or riding along with law enforcement, both of which were mostly halted during the pandemic. In 2020, many of those hours were filled in the jail and doing traffic control at the food handouts at the fairgrounds.
Nashville: The state’s Department of Health announced access to COVID-19 vaccinations is being expanded under the launch of a federal government program. The vaccinations will be provided for free under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, a state and federal partnership that targets getting immunizations in underserved areas. More than 120 Walmart pharmacy locations across the state will participate in the program. “We continue to advocate for Tennesseans by maximizing every dose of COVID-19 vaccine made available for people in our state. We are eager to collaborate with our federal partners to expand access to this vital resource for Tennesseans in the communities where they live and work,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in a statement. Vaccinations under the program will be available depending on the rollout phase of the counties in which the pharmacies are located. Tennesseans can learn more about individual county plans at covid19.tn.gov/covid-19-vaccines/eligibility.
Austin: The state reported 324 more deaths Friday from COVID-19 as the state’s pandemic death toll topped 40,000. The Texas Department of State Health Services said the state’s COVID-19 deaths now total 40,095. The state’s confirmed and probable coronavirus cases rose by 11,371 to 2,541,845. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Texas has fallen by 5,941.3, a decrease of 34.3%, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. But only 9.8% of the Texas population has received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 3.6% of residents have completed their two-dose round of vaccinations, the CDC said.
St. George: A crowd of about 100 people gathered outside the St. George Seniors Active Life Center on Thursday morning, filling out forms and waiting in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. They were part of the largest COVID-19 vaccination clinic held so far by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Health Department Spokesman Dave Heaton said he expected 3,100 shots to be given by the end of Thursday, compared to the 2,000 or so vaccines that have so far been typical over a given week. The department also expects to hold at least one or two of these clinics every week for the foreseeable future, he said. The increase is attributed to a number of second-dose shots given during Thursday’s clinic, he said. Under the Health Department’s streamlined vaccination process, once checked in at the door, patients wait in line just outside the gym until a station becomes available. With two nurses per station around the gym, up to 34 nurses are giving shots at a time, Heaton said. Medical personnel in a separate area prep the vaccines for injection, which speeds up the process. At the station, patients quickly receive their vaccine, then are asked to sit in the waiting area for 15 minutes in case they experience any immediate, adverse reactions. The whole process takes less than a half-hour per patient.
Montpelier: The next age group eligible for vaccinations – people 70 and older – may start registering for appointments this week, state officials announced Friday. Appointments can be made starting at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday on the Health Department’s website, which is encouraged, or by calling 855-722-7878, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at the governor’s twice-weekly virus briefing. The vaccine center is open seven days a week, from 8:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. “We would urge you to use the online registration system … while recognizing that some may prefer calling,” he said. Those seeking appointments should pick a vaccine site closest to their home, Smith said. Vermonters ages 75 and older may still register for appointments, Smith said. So far, 38% of them and 538 homebound Vermonters have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said. Walgreens is participating in the federal pharmacy vaccines and will receive doses above the state allotment, Smith said. The retailer was starting vaccine clinics for Vermonters 75 and older on Friday and on Tuesday will schedule appointments for Vermonters ages 75 and up, he said.
Roanoke: The state Department of Health began moving all the local health districts’ waiting lists into a central system Friday, meaning residents were unable to preregister for the COVID-19 vaccine over the weekend. The agency will be replacing local surveys with a link to a unified system, The Roanoke Times reports. The new system is expected to launch at 8 a.m. Tuesday. It’s intended to offer a more user-friendly way for people to express interest in getting a shot and for public health officials to manage the lists. Virginia also has established a call center to help people with questions about vaccines. The hotline, 877-275-8343, will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with staff available to help people who don’t have computers or have difficulty using them. Language translation services will be available. Until now, Virginia’s local health districts have been on their own to use whatever resources they could cobble together to preregister people. Phone systems have been inadequate, and frustration has grown from the lack of response and coordination. Anyone 65 or older is eligible to receive the vaccine, along with certain essential workers and younger adults with chronic illnesses. As residents compete for limited doses, some people have registered multiple times in the same systems.
Olympia: The state will focus on administering second vaccine doses this week, making appointments to get a first dose extremely limited, health officials said Friday. Providers requested about 170,000 second doses for next week, an amount significantly higher than the state’s allocation of 92,325 second doses, the Department of Health said in a news release. The disparity likely occurred because some providers used doses of vaccine intended to complete the two-dose vaccine series as the initial dose in January. The focus on second-dose administration is anticipated to drop off in upcoming weeks, officials said. For first doses this week, the Department of Health plans to prioritize long-term care facilities; adult family homes; mass vaccination sites in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane counties; and other sites that address equity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also delay vaccine delivery until Tuesday because of weather concerns across the country, officials said. State health officials said Friday that more than 1 million doses of the vaccine had been administered in Washington since distribution started in mid-December.
Charleston: The House of Delegates’ finance committee received a presentation on Gov. Jim Justice’s budget proposal Friday morning. Justice’s plan calls for a no-growth, $4.56 billion budget that generally keeps funding levels flat across state government with no pay raises for public employees. Despite the pandemic, the state’s revenues were mostly unchanged from last March thanks to federal pandemic aid, low interest rates and tax collections faring better than the worst-case scenario. Over the 60-day legislative session that began last week, lawmakers will tackle Justice’s proposal to cut the state’s personal income tax. The Republican governor wants to initially cut the state income tax by half for everyone except “the super highest earners,” who would see a reduction by one-third. It would be funded by a 1.5% sales tax hike and tax increases on the wealthy and on the sale of soda and tobacco.
Madison: The coronavirus has taken its toll on the state’s transportation fund, the primary source for road and infrastructure projects, according to a new report released Friday. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum reported the top two revenue sources for the fund, fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, fell short of projections by more than $116 million in fiscal year 2020. Travel plans changed last year for many Wisconsinites who opted to stay at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The forum report said the future remains unclear, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. “Even if the virus is in retreat by late 2021, it remains unclear if more widespread adoption of remote work or online shopping may cause longer-term changes in travel patterns after July 1, the start of the next two-year budget cycle,” WPF said. A federal package passed in December could provide relief for the fund. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates the package will provide Wisconsin with about $188 million in transportation funding. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has projected fuel tax revenues to remain below 2020 levels for the next two years. Total revenue in 2022 is expected to be the lowest since 2013.
Cheyenne: Cheyenne Frontier Days lost $3.34 million in revenue last year after the pandemic forced the event’s first cancellation in its 124-year history in Wyoming, according to a newspaper. The cancellation, which was announced last May, leaves the rodeo with little financial wiggle room in the coming years, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. “It certainly was devastating to our organization,” CEO Tom Hirsig said. “It pretty much depletes our savings account to get to show this year.” Frontier Days is an outdoor rodeo and western festival that draws about 200,000 attendees each July. Its website calls it the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, which features competing professionals, behind-the-chutes tours, trick riding, a wild-horse race and other activities. Hirsig said he and other organizers have already started to meet with state health officials to discuss safety protocols that may be necessary this summer. “Let me put it this way: If we don’t have a show this year, Cheyenne Frontier Days will probably have to reorganize everything it does,” Hirsig said. “(But) things are looking good in our county right now – people are getting vaccinated, everything’s moving the right way – so I think we’ll have a show.”
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports