Prattville: Mary Poppins is well-known for swooping in unexpectedly to lift the spirits of young people in need – just what the woman who played her in 1964 has done for a group of Prattville Christian Academy students in mourning. Joey B. Fine, 48, who died in January from complications of COVID-19, was the founding pastor at Seasons Church in Prattville and Prattville Christian’s benefit play director. He’d been working with a student cast from grades 6-12 on a production of “Mary Poppins Jr.” “As high school students, for a lot of them this was their first big loss,” said Rebecca W. Thomas, marketing and communications director for PCA. After Fine’s death, a cast member’s parent had the idea to make contact with Andrews and, after days of research and many emails, reached Andrews’ manager. Soon afterwards, Andrews sent the PCA cast a personalized letter: “Hello Everybody! Greetings to you all. A little bird told me that you have been working on a special benefit production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ Great! I am sending you warmest wishes for success. Do it in honor of Mr. Fine. He must have been a really nice guy. Remember, also, to enjoy yourselves and give the audience the gift of this magical show. With love, Julie Andrews.”
Anchorage: Public health officials said more than 58% of residents 65 and older have received a COVID-19 vaccination since distribution efforts began. State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the state hopes to move the process along faster as more contagious and potentially deadly strains of the coronavirus emerge, Alaska’s News Source reports. “Right now, it’s sort of a race against the variants to get people vaccinated,” McLaughlin said. Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Wednesday that the state wants more Alaskans 65 and older to receive vaccinations. “We still want to prioritize that group and, looking at these variants, we just want that group to be vaccinated in every way we possibly can,” Zink said during a video conference with community officials. “I mean, 58% is great, but it would be great to be even higher on that.” After vaccine appointments prioritized for older residents remained opened for several days, the state moved into the next tier of its distribution plan earlier this month. Zink said that “there was an intentional pause given the really high risk of morbidity and mortality in that group.” The new phase includes educators, some essential workers, and people living and working in congregate settings such as prisons and shelters.
Phoenix: January was a lethal month in Arizona, with total deaths up by 66.5% over January 2020, preliminary state numbers show. The 9,481 deaths reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services for the month of January reflect the severity of the second COVID-19 pandemic wave. The death toll for January was higher than any single month of reported deaths in 2020, state numbers show. January’s death total nationwide of 95,020 was a pandemic record, according to Johns Hopkins University. In Arizona, coronavirus cases began surging in November and peaked Jan. 4, the latest state numbers say. Hospitalizations for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 in Arizona peaked Jan. 11. Deaths are a lagging indicator, meaning they typically spike several weeks after a rise in cases. Last month, the peak for known deaths that occurred on a single day was Jan. 18, with 167 known deaths on that day. January’s total Arizona death toll is a difference of 3,788 deaths over January 2020 and is similar to the number of known COVID-19 deaths reported in January, though the numbers could change. Arizona had one confirmed case of COVID-19 in January 2020 and no known deaths from the illness.
Little Rock: The number of coronavirus cases in the state rose by more than 280 on Sunday, and the death toll increased by nine, according to the Department of Health. The number of people hospitalized with the virus fell by 28 to 577. On Sunday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited a pharmacy in Bryant to discuss vaccine distribution. He had urged vaccine providers Friday to schedule extra hours over the weekend to make up for a slowdown because of last week’s snowstorms. The Arkansas Department of Health reported that more than 9,500 COVID-19 vaccine doses were given Sunday. “Today’s report shows the largest increase in vaccine distribution in over a week,” Hutchinson wrote in a tweet Sunday. “Our efforts to catch up on vaccine distribution this weekend are working.” More than 515,000 vaccine doses have been given in Arkansas. The seven-day rolling average of new cases has fallen during the past two weeks, from 1,737 per day to 443.6, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
Los Angeles: The state’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic remains alarmingly high, topping 49,000 over the weekend, even as the rates of new infections and hospitalizations continue to plummet. The number of patients in California hospitals with COVID-19 slipped below 7,000, a drop of more than a third over two weeks, the state Department of Public Health reported Sunday. The 6,760 new confirmed cases are more than 85% below the mid-December peak of about 54,000. Total cases are approaching 3.45 million. California reported another 408 deaths, bringing the total since the outbreak began to 49,105 – the highest in the nation. Despite the grim death count, the positivity rate for people being tested has been falling for weeks, which means fewer people will end up in hospitals. In Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, the daily test positivity rate was 3.8% on Saturday, public health officials said. Epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford with the University of California, San Francisco said one of the reasons why cases are dropping so fast in California “is because of naturally acquired immunity,” mostly in the southern part of the state. He estimated 50% of Los Angeles County residents have been infected with the virus at some point.
Fort Collins: A pair of childhood friends is looking to solve a pandemic-related dining dilemma. As an answer to restaurant capacity restrictions and unforgiving winter weather, Sean Hudgens, 27, and Seth Pearson, 26, recently launched The Nook, a rentable mobile dining room built to rove Northern Colorado and offer restaurants a new outdoor dining option. The Nook, which Hudgens and Pearson built on an 80-square-foot trailer, is insulated, heated, and outfitted with modern fixtures, a table for six and a Bluetooth speaker for diners to play music on. They see it as a nonpermanent option for restaurants looking to offer a warm, COVID-19-safe dining space for single parties. “I know how hard it’s been for small-business owners but especially restaurant owners,” Hudgens said. “My hope is we can help them provide a spectacular experience for their clientele outside of the normal eating experience. We wanted it to be above and beyond on every level.” He said he got the idea from a mobile dining trailer at The Regional in Old Town Fort Collins. “I was thinking how cool it was that they had provided a trailer that allows people to enjoy food in a safe setting,” Hudgens said, and his concept allows different restaurant owners to share such a space. The Nook is available to book for $80 per day or $500 per week. You can follow its travels across Northern Colorado on Instagram.
Hartford: Most students in the city will return to school five days a week beginning March 1 as Connecticut’s COVID-19 cases continue to decline. Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said the decision announced Friday was made in consultation with health officials and based on guidance from the state. Students in ninth grade and younger who opted for in-person learning will resume the five-day schedule, with half days on Wednesdays, that was in place until rising coronavirus cases forced a shift to a hybrid model in November. Students in 10th through 12th grades will continue in-person learning part time.
Dover: The state has begun its largest COVID-19 vaccination event to date. The inoculation effort kicked off Sunday at Dover International Speedway. The six-day drive-thru clinic represents a possible blueprint for future vaccine distribution in the state. And it will have the capacity to vaccinate 3,000 people a day. The event is being operated by the state government in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Staff conducted a dress rehearsal Saturday night before the event opened at half-capacity Sunday as a dry run. The event appeared to run smoothly Sunday. The five vaccination stations that were set up rarely had a line of more than a few cars.
District of Columbia
Washington: D.C.’s municipal courses are gearing up to make improvements to their links amid a pandemic in which golf has become a refuge for people to get outside and safely enjoy going places, WUSA-TV reports. The National Links Trust took control of running the three National Park Service courses during 2020, and the partners agreed to a 50-year deal to overhaul and run the East Potomac Golf Course, Langston Golf Course and Rock Creek Golf Course. Changes have already begun on the district’s courses, with long-term renovations that will include an overhaul of facilities and courses at Rock Creek, Langston and East Potomac. New golf carts, driving range mats, and other little improvements here and there around the courses have been noticeable to the regulars at the courses already. The clearing of non-native and invasive plants and a small number of trees is a noticeable change golfers will see once they make a trip to the courses again when temperatures warm up. The changes will not only create a better golf community for D.C. but also expand the game to communities that may not have as much exposure to the game – including veterans and communities of color.
Miami: Four federal mass vaccination sites are coming to the state, officials said Friday. Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville will be the locations of the new Community Vaccine Centers, according to a White House news release. The cities and locations were selected based on their proximity to vulnerable populations, and officials estimate the four centers will give up to 12,000 shots a day in total. The locations are Miami-Dade Community College, TGT Poker & Racebook in Tampa, Valencia Community College in Orlando, and Gateway Town Center in Jacksonville. So far, just over 3.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Florida. Since the pandemic began last year, nearly 30,000 Floridians have died. On Friday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced that her agency is launching a bilingual vaccine education campaign to encourage vaccination among the state’s farmworkers. She noted that people in the agricultural community are among the most at risk for dying from COVID-19, according to a recent University of California study. On Friday, Jackson Health System, one of the largest in the state, announced it will now vaccinate residents age 55 and older with specific medical conditions including certain cancers, congestive heart failure and morbid obesity.
Atlanta: One of the state’s largest school systems is recruiting volunteer medical professionals who would administer COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers and others. Atlanta Public Schools is taking the step in anticipation of shots becoming available to teachers and staff members, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Georgia teachers are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine, but Gov. Brian Kemp has said he will soon make an announcement about expanding vaccine eligibility to include more groups of people. Atlanta Public Schools is preparing for thousands of educators to take the vaccine once eligibility is expanded, Superintendent Lisa Herring wrote in a blog post. “We know that vaccinating as many staff members as possible will be critical for continuing to open our schools safely,” Herring wrote.
Hilo: Coronavirus testing of travelers arriving on Hawaii island is expected to continue after the end of February, but officials have not yet determined the duration of the extension. Partnerships between Hawaii County and private philanthropists allowing the county to test trans-Pacific arrivals are set to continue, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reports. “We’re still covered for the end of the month, and then after that we’ll probably extend the testing,” said Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth. “As for how long we’ll extend it, we’re not sure yet.” The terms of the continued testing are dependent on the level of funding Hawaii County receives from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill under consideration in the U.S. Congress, Johnasen said. The county will have a better sense of how long post-flight testing can continue after the final form of the legislation is passed and signed by President Joe Biden. “We’ll still be working with our private partners after this month, but we can’t negotiate about the testing if we don’t know how much money we’re getting,” Johnasen said.
Boise: The state House on Friday approved $175 million in emergency rental assistance as people struggle to pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers voted 59-8 to approve the money that also requires approval from the Senate, plus Republican Gov. Brad Little’s signature. The money is part of the nearly $900 million the state received under then-President Donald Trump’s coronavirus rescue bill signed into law in December. President Joe Biden last month extended a nationwide eviction ban through the end of March. That puts the financial strain on property owners. Money from Idaho’s program will go to property owners, not renters. The rent assistance money is part of a plan to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by preventing people from falling into homelessness. Republican Rep. Paul Amador said state officials estimate 10% of adult renters have fallen behind, and 34,000 households are at risk of eviction. He said the amount of rent that hasn’t been paid is between $73 million and $103 million. “Whether you want to claim that it was the exclusive fault of the government from preventing these people from working, or if you feel like there are direct impacts from COVID to people and their ability to earn dollars – I think it matters to both of those individuals,” he said.
Springfield: A food bank is $168,000 richer thanks to actress Jennie Garth. Garth is donating the money she won on ABC’s “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune” to the Springfield-based Central Illinois Foodbank. “It doesn’t come around too often, so we were really excited and blessed to receive the gift because an extra $168,600 really means a lot of food going out,” said Adam Handy, partner resource coordinator for the food bank. “It really helps us continue the work we’re already doing.” Garth, an Illinois native who grew up outside Urbana, wanted to do something to help people in the food bank’s 21-county service area with her winnings from her successful answer in the “food and drink” category on Thursday’s episode, Handy said. Garth starred in the television shows, “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and “What I Like About You.”
Terre Haute: A museum founded by a Holocaust survivor who championed forgiveness has reopened following a six-month-long closure prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. The CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center reopened in Terre Haute on Friday, when 26 visitors showed up to see a new exhibit and hear the stories of Holocaust survivors. “We are excited to have people back, and we are trying to be very cautionary with our cleaning routines and safety,” museum director Leah Simpson told the Tribune-Star. She said public interest in the museum and education center has remained strong during the monthslong closure amid the pandemic. The CANDLES museum, or Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, was founded by Eva Kor, who died in July 2019 at age 85. She and her twin sister, Miriam Zeiger, who died of cancer in 1993, endured medical experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where their parents and older sister – members of a Jewish family from Romania – died. A new digital exhibit at the museum, “In Their Own Words: The Mengele Twins Tell Their Stories,” includes videos of survivors of experiments conducted by Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted cruel experiments at concentration camps.
Orange City: Pizza Ranch, known for its buffet of pizza, chicken and other offerings, expanded last year, even as the pandemic hit the restaurant industry harder than most. Pizza Ranch, based in Orange City, has more than 200 locations in 14 states. The chain added five new locations last year and has six or seven more openings slated for this year, Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Achterhoff told the Sioux City Journal. “We really maintained momentum – that’s below our normal annual expansion of units, but most brands, most concepts, were not expanding at all this year,” he said. The National Restaurant Association reported in September that almost 100,000 restaurants – nearly 1 in every 6 – closed permanently or long-term due to the pandemic. Many restaurants struggled with government-ordered shutdowns across the country, and the industry was expected to lose about $240 billion in sales by the end of the year, according to the association. Even with the expansion, Achterhoff acknowledged that the past year has been challenging for Pizza Ranch, noting the chain weathered it by becoming more reliant on carryout and deliveries in 2020. “Delivery and pickup, or to-go, did overtake our buffet business (in) 2020,” he said. “Historically, we’re 80% buffet, dine-in buffet … that’s what people think of Pizza Ranch.”
Topeka: Meatpacking plants were hit hard by the coronavirus, yet thousands of workers at facilities in southwest Kansas are still waiting to hear when they’ll be vaccinated. The Kansas News Service reports the wait is frustrating for workers who have watched college faculty, first responders and postal workers get their vaccines, and Kansas has launched a program to get a first dose into the arms of every school worker by early April. Meatpacking plants have been the state’s third-largest source of COVID-19 outbreaks, topped only by long-term care facilities and correctional centers. “Meatpacking workers have taken one of the hardest hits of this pandemic,” said Monica Vargas-Huertas, political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2 representing 7,000 meatpacking workers in two southwest Kansas counties. “They kept working, securing the food (supply),” Vargas-Huertas said, “and securing the economy of the state.” But state officials say meatpacking facilities took steps that greatly reduced transmission. Kansas has some of the country’s most productive beef plants, driving the economies of towns such as Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal. Meatpacking workers are mainly immigrants and people of color.
Louisville: The congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church hasn’t missed a Sunday “service” since June, though like a lot of things in this pandemic, it looks different from what most might expect. For nine months – rain or shine, throughout sweltering and freezing temperatures – the congregation has kept up with its new tradition of filling pantries instead of pews. Every week a group of the faithful gather outside the church from 9 a.m. until noon and collects food for its sister church Calvary Episcopal Church just south of downtown. It’s a way to practice faith and enjoy fellowship without lingering inside the church and potentially spreading COVID-19. Back in August, St. Paul’s collected about 250 to 500 items per week. Since then, generosity has boomed. Now the church members collect upward of 600 items per week, and more than 75% of the people who drop things off don’t even go to St. Paul’s, according to Dave Dawkins, a church member, who helps deliver the donations to Calvary Episcopal Church each week. Just two weeks ago, the effort crossed a major milestone, gathering more than 20,000 items for people in need since the pandemic began.
Lafayette: It’s always tough for school districts to find substitutes. The pandemic is making it even harder, officials say. Vermilion Parish Assistant Superintendent E. Paul Hebert said the district’s substitute “pool” has dwindled, leaving fewer folks to fill shortages for all positions. “It’s much worse this year,” Hebert said. “Before COVID, the shortage has been manageable. This year, the shortage has been critical.” The biggest needs are for bus drivers, regular and substitute, as well as cafeteria employees, custodians, bus monitors and classroom teachers. Hebert said those jobs do not get done without a sub. “We need it across the board,” he said. The district has 1,300 employees and a sub list of 400, ranging in age from “right out of high school to senior citizens,” Hebert said. The number officially has remained the same, but the pool is much smaller than it appears. Some, especially older subs, on the list are opting out of any jobs this year due to health concerns, he said. “And we also have a high number of absences and quarantines,” Hebert said. The pandemic also affects how schools can respond to an employee’s absence. For example, classes can’t be combined when a teacher is out due to limits on group size and contact. “Now it’s almost daily that we need a sub,” Hebert said.
Portland: Vaccinations are coming to the state’s islands. Maine Seacoast Mission is providing island COVID-19 vaccination clinics starting this week with medical and support staff arriving on the organization’s 74-foot boat, Sunbeam. “We have been anticipating this opportunity to serve since the first vaccine was announced last fall,” said Seacoast Mission President John Zavodny. The organization is working in partnership with island residents, county officials, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Mount Desert Island Hospital, and Pen Bay Medical Center. The Sunbeam is equipped with health facilities including a medical-grade refrigerator. Mission Island Health Services Director Sharon Daley said she’s starting with 150 doses for islanders. Meanwhile, more than half of people over age 70 in the state have been vaccinated, the Maine CDC’s director said. Dr. Nirav Shah said Monday during an appearance on Maine Public that the use of multiple platforms has helped swiftly vaccinate older residents. That includes clinics, hospitals and other venues, he said. Shah also said Monday that the appearance of coronavirus variants in Maine and elsewhere is a concern but doesn’t have to be a disaster. Maine has been the site of two confirmed variants so far.
Baltimore: A large number of Marylanders signed up to get COVID-19 vaccines at a sports stadium only to have the appointments canceled. The Baltimore Sun reports most people had signed up using an invalid link. The University of Maryland Medical System said the booking link to schedule appointments at M&T Bank Stadium was “inadvertently” made public. Spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said people who had signed up have since been notified that their vaccines were canceled because eligibility couldn’t be confirmed. He said a nonpublic website had inadvertently made an appointment booking link discoverable. “Vaccination appointments were created in error by several thousand people via this invalid link, where vaccination eligibility was unable to be confirmed, and the link was shared widely before we were able to shut it down,” Schwartzberg said. M&T Bank Stadium is scheduled to open Thursday as the state’s third mass vaccination site. State health officials have yet to say when people can register for the vaccine.
Boston: The Boston Calling music festival has been canceled for a second year in a row, organizers announced Monday. “After exploring all possible options for hosting Boston Calling this year, we have made the difficult decision in conjunction with local and state authorities to cancel the 2021 festival,” organizers said in a statement on the festival’s website. “The health and safety of our entire community is always our top priority, and there was no appropriate scenario under which we could provide the Boston Calling experience you love and deserve.” The three-day festival is traditionally held on Memorial Day weekend in May. Although ticket refunds are being offered, tickets purchased for the 2021 event will be honored in 2022, organizers said. Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers were scheduled to appear at the 2020 festival before the pandemic forced its cancellation.
Detroit: In response to the pandemic and thanks to funding from Ford Motor Co., the Salvation Army of Metro Detroit is adding special trips to its daily Bed and Bread program once a month to provide hot meals, care packages and medical checkups and to offer shelter to the city’s homeless. “We’re trying to step up for our brothers and sisters in Detroit, and, just like someone would come to our home, we’re extending the best that we have to these people,” said Jamie Winkler, executive director of the Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Harbor Light System. “We’re doing that to meet a practical, human need that starts off with shelter and food, and at the same time we are giving a message of hope to them.” In 2019, Detroit’s homeless population reached 10,000, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, but city shelters are ill-equipped to meet the need with only about 1,900 beds. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated an already severe situation. Shelters have had to reduce the number of residents, people are more hesitant to accept shelter in fear of contracting the virus, and the places they could go for temporary reprieve – bus stations, restaurants, stadiums – completely shut down.
Mahnomen: The state’s only county located entirely within the borders of a Native American reservation has been vaccinating at rates that far surpass most other counties, authorities said. Mahnomen County is in the northwestern part of the state, about an hour’s drive from the Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, metropolitan area. As of this past week, 85% of people 65 and older in the county have been vaccinated. Public health leaders at the White Earth Nation and Mahnomen County credit that high vaccination rate to close collaboration between the tribe and the county to efficiently get those doses to residents, Minnesota Public Radio News reports. The White Earth Reservation is a patchwork of tribal and private land, and the people who live there are a nearly equal mix of Native Americans and non-Native people. Because White Earth is a sovereign nation, it has the authority to set its own parameters for who is eligible to be vaccinated. The tribe decided everyone 18 and up in the county should qualify. “Vaccine wasn’t limited to people who were enrolled members or who had a way to prove they had Native Nation blood,” said tribal public health medical director Dr. Carson Gardner. “We discussed that at length and decided that was the right thing to do.”
Jackson: The Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed 242 new cases of COVID-19 and no coronavirus-related deaths Monday, the second consecutive day with no COVID-19-related deaths reported. Since the virus hit the state in March, a total of 290,874 cases and 6,553 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported. January saw the most COVID-19 deaths in a single month in Mississippi, with 1,240. The single-day record of 98 deaths was reported Jan. 12. On Jan. 7, the state reported a single-day record of 3,255 new cases of the coronavirus. There are currently 93 outbreaks at Mississippi nursing homes. There have been 10,364 cases of the coronavirus in long-term care facilities and 1,937 deaths reported as of Friday, the latest figures available. Residents between the ages of 25 and 39 represent the largest portion of the infected population in the state, with 63,693 cases reported Tuesday, the latest figure available. Among patients under 18, children between the ages of 11 and 17 have the highest infection rate, with 22,157 cases identified. The 65-and-older age group has the highest total number of deaths with 5,004 reported. According to health department data, 336,932 people had begun the vaccination process in Mississippi as of Sunday.
O’Fallon: The number of new coronavirus cases continued to decline Monday, but state officials cited one cause for concern: Wastewater samples indicate the fast-spreading U.K. variant is “widespread” across the state. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 351 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths. The number of new daily cases has dropped off sharply over the past several weeks after a surge during the holidays, and hospitalizations have reached the lowest levels since the summer. The first Missouri case of the U.K. variant was confirmed Feb. 6 in Marion County in northeast Missouri. It remains the only confirmed case in the state. But the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said wastewater sampling has found the variant across the state. The sampling is part of the Coronavirus Sewershed Surveillance Project created by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia in partnership with the state health department and Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Marc Johnson, a university virologist, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the variant was detected in more than 13 wastewater systems in Missouri. Researchers say the project can provide early detection of an upcoming COVID-19 outbreak or emerging novel viral variants.
Great Falls: The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is building its health services largely from scratch roughly a year after becoming the United States’ 574th federally recognized Indigenous tribe. Because of the pandemic, it’s doing it on hyperdrive. The long-sought recognition came just months before the pandemic took hold, arriving in time to guarantee the right to crucial health care and a tribal supply of protective COVID-19 vaccines. Federal pandemic relief dollars are speeding up the Little Shell Tribe’s ability to build its own clinic. Without the federal pandemic funds, Indian Health Service and Little Shell officials said it would have likely taken years using only IHS resources to establish a clinic. The coronavirus has also stalled in-person celebrations and planning in the tribe’s first year of federal recognition. Worst yet, COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed Indigenous people nationwide, exposing long-standing health inequities caused by a history of colonization and underinvestment in Indian Country. In Montana, Native Americans make up roughly 7% of the population yet account for 11% of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 17% of related deaths. The Little Shell tribal health care system is so new that it doesn’t have electronic health records set up and hasn’t tracked the statistics.
Omaha: The state launched a federally funded aid program Monday for renters and landlords who have lost income due to the pandemic, but residents of the two largest counties won’t be eligible. The program managed by the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority offers a maximum of 15 months of rental or mortgage assistance per applicant, up to $20,000. State officials said it’s only available to tenants who make 80% or less of their county’s median income and can show they’re unable to pay rent because of a financial hardship caused by the pandemic or at risk of becoming homeless. “It’s our commitment to quickly communicate the availability and guidelines of this program those who are most in need,” Shannon Harner, director of the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, said at a news conference with Gov. Pete Ricketts. Harner said Douglas and Lancaster counties, home to Omaha and Lincoln, have their own programs that won’t launch until early March. Harner said the state’s program will cover the cost of utilities for renters, dating as far back as April 1, 2020. Landlords who have already evicted their tenants for not paying rent aren’t eligible.
Las Vegas: The Clark County School District is in need of hundreds of crossing guards for when schools return to in-person learning next month. KTNV-TV in Las Vegas reports Nevada’s largest school district is trying to fill 675 school crossing guard positions to cover 430 intersections. The district has been holding virtual learning since the school year started in August. But elementary school students will be allowed to return to campus March 1. According to the Nevada Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety, 41 children going to or coming from school were hit by cars during the last school year before virtual learning was implemented. Among them, three suffered serious injuries, and one died. The crossing guard positions are part time and pay $15 an hour. They would cover streets in Las Vegas, unincorporated areas of the county and Henderson.
Concord: The state House can proceed with in-person sessions this week without providing remote access to medically vulnerable lawmakers, a federal judge ruled Monday. Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions and forces them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials. They sought a preliminary order requiring remote access, but U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty denied their request. Without ruling on the merits of the case, she said the speaker can’t be sued for enforcing a House rule that is “closely related to core legislative functions.” Packard said in a statement that leaders “will continue to work with all House members to ensure that if they choose to attend any legislative meeting in person, that they can be confident that we are taking a high degree of precaution, and have extensive health and safety measures in place.” But House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, one of the suit’s plaintiffs, said ruling makes clear that the speaker is “solely to blame for active and obvious exclusion of members of the House.” “As we teach our children, just because you can do something does not mean you should,” he said.
Atlantic City: Fans will be allowed to attend sports and entertainment events at the state’s largest facilities in limited numbers starting next week, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday. Venues with an indoor seating capacity of 5,000 or more will be allowed to have 10% of those seats occupied by fans starting March 1, the Democratic governor said on the WFAN sports radio station. For outdoor venues over 5,000 seats, the number will be 15% of capacity. Murphy said he decided to allow the limited in-person attendance after reviewing a vast array of coronavirus-related statistics including hospitalizations, the number of hospital admissions versus discharges, overall positivity rate for the virus and the rate of transmission, and he determined small crowds can be permitted safely. He said face coverings and social distancing will be required at these venues. “If you buy tickets together, you can sit together, but otherwise, we have to spread apart,” he said. The order applies to the state’s major arenas, including the Prudential Center in Newark, where the NHL’s New Jersey Devils play, and outdoor stadiums including MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, home to the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets. The governor said about 1,700 to 1,800 fans should be allowed to attend Devils hockey games under the new rules.
Santa Fe: The state government is likely to deliver a jolt of one-time spending amid the pandemic and provide sustained funding increases on health care and public education under a newly drafted budget bill. The lead House budget committee on Monday unanimously endorsed the spending plan for the coming fiscal year that increases general fund spending by $332 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That represents a 4.6% increase over current fiscal year spending. Total general fund spending would increase to $7.39 billion under the plan that includes a 1.5% raise for employees throughout state government, K-12 schools, and public colleges and universities. Larger raises are slated for prison guards. A vote by the full House of Representatives is scheduled this week before the proposal moves to the Senate for possible amendments and approval. Public schools in New Mexico rely on the state for most is their funding, and the draft budget would increase K-12 spending by 5.5% to $3.39 billion. “We want to extend the school year regarding the loss of learning we’ve seen this last year,” said Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the House budget committee.
New York: The first case of the South African coronavirus variant has been discovered in a resident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday. The case involved a resident of Long Island’s Nassau County, Cuomo said in a news release. A Connecticut resident who had been hospitalized in New York City was found to have the South African variant last week. The mutated version of the virus, originally identified in South Africa, was first found in the United States last month. Scientists believe it is more easily spread than other virus strains. Cuomo said the variant’s arrival in New York means COVID-19 safety measures like wearing masks and maintaining distance from other people are more important than ever. “We are in a race right now – between our ability to vaccinate and these variants which are actively trying to proliferate – and we will only win that race if we stay smart and disciplined,” he said. Meanwhile, the state’s latest COVID-19 numbers show a continued downward trend in hospitalizations and deaths following the holiday season spike. There were fewer than 5,800 patients hospitalized with the virus Saturday, a decline of more than 800 from a week earlier. The state recorded 75 COVID-19 deaths Saturday, the first time since Dec. 16 that the daily death toll was under 100.
Asheville: The “Empress of Soul” has a soft spot in her heart for Haywood County, as well as the showing a brighter path forward in the coronavirus pandemic. Famed soul singer Gladys Knight and her husband, William “Billy” McDowell, who live in the Asheville area, recently received their COVID-19 vaccinations at Haywood Regional Medical Center and encouraged other folks to do the same at a vaccine drive Feb. 13. Knight and McDowell, a Canton native, are working toward establishing a community center with their nonprofit RHS Community Foundation. They worked in partnership with Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency to offer the free drive-thru clinic to help dispel vaccination fears within the community, said Allison Richmond, spokeswoman for Haywood County Emergency Management Team. “I’m concerned about everybody. I’m a people person. I love people, and if not for people I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Knight said in a statement as to why she got the vaccine. Knight, a Grammy winner best known for her hit with the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” also encouraged the community to wear masks to protect others.
Bismarck: The head of the state’s insurance department has long opposed the Affordable Care Act. But with a special enrollment period underway, residents facing more struggles because of the pandemic still are encouraged to seek out the program. The option to sign up for coverage under the ACA usually is open in November and December. But at the urging of consumer advocates, President Joe Biden authorized a new enrollment period, which started this week and goes until mid-May. Jon Godfread, North Dakota insurance commissioner, said the extended window could be a good safety net for residents who suddenly are without a job and the health coverage that goes along with it. “North Dakota’s been able to weather the storm a little bit better than some other states,” Godfread said. “But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been some changes and shifting of people’s employment status and what they’re doing.” He said that’s why those lacking coverage right now should visit the healthcare.gov website to see if it can help. North Dakota is one of 36 states opting for the federally run exchange and not a state marketplace.
West Chester Township: A doughnut shop says it had to call police because people who gathered for an event with a state lawmaker over the weekend weren’t abiding by pandemic guidelines, which those attending dispute. People who gathered Saturday for a “coffee chat” with the lawmaker weren’t exercising social distancing, Holtman’s Donut Shop wrote in a Facebook post. The store said staff at the West Chester Township business, outside Cincinnati, asked them to spread out and wear masks, and most abided by the request. A few people began to wander around the shop and mingle without masks, according to the post. Rep. Jennifer Gross, a Republican who represents the Ohio House’s 52nd district, was “conducting a meeting and standing without wearing a mask like we had asked,” according to the post. Gross told the paper the group complied with the staff’s instructions, but police arrived anyway. “Unfortunately, even though we were seated, drinking coffee, spread out, and eating donuts that was not enough,” the 21-year military veteran, who has been in office for six weeks, said in a response to the Facebook post by Holtman’s. The establishment said several other people walked up to the shop or inside but left because of the group.
Norman: The state opened its second phase of vaccinations Monday, providing inoculations to public school teachers and staff and to adults of any age with illnesses that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. “Our goal is to make sure that every Oklahoma teacher and staff member who wants the COVID-19 vaccine can get it by spring break” in mid-March, health commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said at a vaccination clinic in Norman. Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson and the six 2021 teacher of the year finalists were the first to be vaccinated at the clinic. More than 681,000 Oklahomans had been vaccinated as of Friday, according to the state health department, and an estimated 60,000 more vaccinations were administered over the weekend, said deputy health commissioner Keith Reed. About two-thirds of those eligible for the shot in Oklahoma have received a vaccination, Reed said. State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she expects a higher percentage of public school staff to accept the vaccine. “Teachers have been clamoring for the prioritization of having the vaccine,” Hofmeister said.
Salem: As thousands of Oregonians have lost their jobs or had their hours cut, the number of people working for the state has increased 4% from February of last year. Many of those hires reflect the increased demand for certain state services – like food assistance and unemployment benefits – during the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. State lawmakers tried to stave off big cuts to the state budget last year by using a mix of savings and “one-time” funds. State agencies in the executive branch had a net gain of about 500 permanent workers between February 2020 and February 2021, a jump of about 1%, according to data from the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. Among the gains: 440 new employees at the Oregon Department of Human Services and 76 new workers at the Oregon Health Authority. At the Department of Human Services, workers have been hired to help process food assistance benefits since more people have become eligible because of the pandemic, said a spokeswoman for the department, Lisa Morawski. Workers also have been hired in the child welfare system, and to help with a new system that allows Oregonians to apply online for medical, food and other benefits with one application.
State College: Penn State students managed to raise more than $10.6 million for pediatric cancer patients in the annual 46-hour dance marathon known as Thon despite mostly virtual fundraising efforts throughout the year and having the event online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The $10,638,078.62 total was announced Sunday at the conclusion of the Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, billed as the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. Money raised benefits pediatric cancer patients and their families at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Child cancer survivors and their families also usually participate. This year, dancers participated remotely from their own homes with a limited stage setup for a livestream broadcast. While dancers traditionally aren’t allowed to sleep or even sit during the event, aided by thousands of other students in support roles, the Centre Daily Times reports that this year they were encouraged to rest from midnight to 6 a.m. because they didn’t have access to the usual medical resources of the in-person event. Last year, the in-person event raised almost $11.7 million dollars. Officials say the event has raised more than $180 million since 1977.
Providence: The state on Monday started allowing residents 65 and older to schedule appointments for a COVID-19 vaccination. The state said in a statement that it expected to schedule about 10,000 appointments Monday for shots at two state-run vaccination sites at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence and the former Citizens Bank headquarters on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston. But the agency also said because of limited supplies, not everyone who wants to make an appointment will be able to right away. Vaccinations are also available at some CVS and Walgreens pharmacy locations and at local clinics. About 9,900 people were vaccinated at the two state-run sites over their first three days of operation, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the health department. Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s largest health care organization on Monday started allowing patients to have visitors again, in line with state Department of Health guidelines announced last week. At Rhode Island and Newport hospitals, two visitors may enter together, but the Miriam Hospital is only allowing one visitor to enter at a time, unless one visitor requires an escort, Lifespan announced in a statement on its website. All visits must be during designated visiting hours.
Greenville: After a year of cancellations and modified virtual experiences, the city is planning to hold a downtown festival live and in person. Artisphere, one of Greenville’s most popular cultural events, will take place May 7-9, spokesperson Taryn Scher announced Monday. The festival will be “safe, small and socially distanced,” according to a press release. To manage crowd size, Artisphere 2021 will use timed and ticketed entry. Walk-up tickets will be available at the gate during the festival, but organizers encourage reservations in advance. To track entries for each session, every festival attendee will wear a lanyard with a chip that will activate when they enter the gated section, executive director Kerry Murphy said. The area will be sanitized between sessions. Other COVID-19 precautions include required masking and widespread handwashing and hand-sanitizing stations. Social distancing reminders will be posted throughout the festival site, according to the press release.
Sioux Falls: The number of people vaccinated for COVID-19 in the state has surged ahead of the total number of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. Vaccinated individuals, plus the widespread number of people who caught and recovered from the virus, mean a growing number of people have acquired immunity to COVID-19, a major factor in why experts say positive cases have decreased. That was the major highlight emerging in the last week of the pandemic ending Friday. Some people who have battled COVID-19 have also been among those vaccinated, which limits the reach of calculating herd immunity via a simple count of positive cases plus vaccinated people. The Department of Health doesn’t have figures on the crossover between the two groups. And while some experts think people with natural immunity should be moved to the end of the vaccination line, federal guidelines don’t call for that, and thus some of those who already tested positive are getting vaccinated anyway. Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said those who have tested positive for the virus should still get vaccines if they can. “We just want to really encourage that group and not deprioritize them,” she said.
Nashville: Six weeks after the state’s coronavirus outbreak began to recede, the number of deaths reported has finally begun to drop – hopefully signaling the last gasp of the horrific winter surge. Tennessee’s counts of infections, hospitalizations and test positivity peaked in early January and have steadily decreased since, now falling to levels not seen since October or November. But the number of virus-related deaths, a lagging indictor of the pandemic’s strength, did not drop. Deaths continued to rise throughout January and into February, reaching a peak of 135 deaths per day in the first week of this month. Now, that appears to be changing. The average number of virus deaths reported each day has fallen by about 80% over the past two weeks, finally bringing the last measurement of the virus in line with the rest. As of Friday, Tennessee was reporting an average of 24 deaths per day, the lowest average in more than four months. Dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of the Nashville coronavirus task force, said it was logical for a drop in deaths to follow the state’s well-documented decline of infections and hospitalizations. Now it seems to be happening. “I do think this lowering death rate is real,” Jahangir said. “I think we are on the right track.”
Austin: Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped Sunday to their lowest level since mid-November, according to data released Sunday by state health officials. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 7,146 hospitalizations, the fewest since the 7,083 reported Nov. 12. Hospitalizations have been steadily dropping since mid-January. There were an additional 130 COVID-19 deaths and more than 4,259 new cases, the department reported. Texas has had more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began and more than 42,000 deaths due to COVID-19, the third-highest death count in the United States, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project and Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling average of new cases has fallen from nearly 18,980 per day to nearly 5,041, and the average of daily deaths has dropped from 305.7 per day to 127.3, according to the COVID Tracking Project data. During the past two weeks, the rolling average of daily new cases in Texas has fallen by 13,354, a decrease of 75.9%, according to the Johns Hopkins figures.
St. George: The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has announced plans to reschedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations delayed by a winter storm last week. The severe weather affected shipments of vaccine to area clinics from outside the state, KSTU-TV reports. Southwest Utah Public Health Department said its Feb. 18 appointments have been rescheduled for Feb. 22, 25 and 27. The Weber-Morgan Health Department also rescheduled Feb. 18 appointments for Feb. 22. Utah residents age 65 and older are now eligible to receive vaccines and should check with local health departments for appointment availability. Utah so far has distributed more than 607,000 vaccines, including more than 83,000 in the past week.
Colchester: Schools across the state have lost track of some students and are seeking to reconnect with them. Principals report truancy has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said Jay Nichols, head of the Vermont Principals Association. The Agency of Education is trying to determine the scope of the problem and last week sent a survey on the topic to school districts. “For whatever reason, the students are just not doing their classwork, they’re not signing into Google meets, they’re not coming in for their in-person days, and so it’s a real problem,” Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School in Newport, told Vermont Public Radio. Nichols said that in addition to the challenges of virtual learning, the pandemic has also increased financial stress for some families that were already on the economic margins. Young said getting students back into school isn’t about punitive measures. “It is about, ’We want you back, we need you back, we miss you when you’re not here, and what can we do to help you come back into the school environment?’ ” Young said.
Richmond: A bill that would have mandated paid sick leave for a range of essential workers cleared a key Senate committee Monday – but only after it was sharply whittled down to cover only certain home health care workers. The original House bill would have required paid sick leave for grocery store workers, prison personnel, child care providers, farmworkers, poultry workers and others. An amendment by Senate Democrats who did not want to impose such a mandate on private businesses limited the bill to cover only home health care workers serving Medicaid patients. Supporters said they would have preferred a more expansive bill but called the compromise a move in the right direction. “It’s a drastic reduction from what we had wanted, but it’s still a good step forward in that it gets paid sick days for 30,000 home health care workers,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The legislation would require employers to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave in a year, unless the employer selects a higher limit. The issue has been divisive, even among Democrats who control state government. Opponents have said the mandate would be onerous and costly for small businesses that are already struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Bremerton: Local health officials are stepping up efforts to address racial gaps among people getting the COVID-19 vaccine, a growing problem for vaccination efforts in Kitsap County and throughout the United States. The Kitsap Public Health District, tasked with supporting equitable vaccinations, is aiming to increase access to communities of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups through expanded outreach, reserved appointment slots and partnerships with community leaders. On Thursday, the health district launched a vaccine equity collaborative made up of local leaders and community organizations, which will provide input about ways in which vaccine providers can reduce barriers people face in getting a shot. That group is still in its beginning stages, but Kitsap Public Health has already started working with various groups to improve vaccine access. The Kitsap Immigration Assistance Center is helping with outreach in immigrant and Latino communities, while Kitsap County’s Department of Human Services is working to reach and register older people who need help with online systems. Data from the Kitsap Public Health District shows vaccination rates among Hispanic and Black residents significantly lag their white counterparts. The same trend has played out statewide.
Fairmont: While passing a basketball among a team of kids from different areas of Marion County is not the best activity idea during a pandemic, the Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission has created a new way to teach kids the fundamentals of basketball. MCPARC normally hosts a K-3 basketball league for kids throughout the county but this year will instead provide virtual clinics in partnership with D&C Basketball, a basketball camp and coaching organization based in Marion County. “Normally, we would hold a winter league for kindergartners through third graders that starts in October and runs until March,” said Rachel Mitchell, assistant director of MCPARC. “We were unable to do that this year due to the pandemic. We weren’t able to go into the schools to use their facilities, understandably so, so we decided to switch it to a virtual format.” According to Mitchell, the virtual platform allows MCPARC to hit a wider demographic of participants because the lessons taught by Deon Dobbs and Corey Hines, the co-founders of D&C Basketball, in the videos can be implemented at any level of basketball play. Mitchell said having video clinics also allows the kids who sign up to take the lessons at their own pace.
Madison: No COVID-19 deaths were reported Monday, marking the first time since early September that the state has had two such days in a row. The last time Wisconsin went two or more days without a single reported death from the coronavirus was the three-day stretch of Sept. 6-8. The state’s seven-day average of new cases was at its lowest point since early July, but it increased marginally from Sunday. The seven-day average Monday was 612, up from 610 the day before. Nearly 560,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive for the virus, and 6,284 have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started. Wisconsin’s death count is the 23rd highest in the country overall and the 34th highest per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by nearly 42%. Wisconsin’s vaccination rate dropped from a high of seventh nationally last week to 15th as of Monday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. As of Monday, 14.9% of Wisconsin’s population had received at least one dose, which was ahead of the national average of 13.3%. Nearly 353,000 residents have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, or about 6.1% of the population, the state health department said.
Cheyenne: Meteorologists have warned that low levels of precipitation across the state could increase the threat of wildfires over the summer. Tim Troutman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Riverton, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle the state is experiencing its worst drought since 2012, the same year it recorded one of its more active wildfire seasons. In 2012, fires in Wyoming burned 875 square miles and cost the state about $100 million to contain. Officials have said more moisture now can help prevent similar conditions later in the year. “If we begin to get more moisture into the area and more snow and rain, that definitely can alleviate conditions,” Troutman said. It is unclear if the state reached its desired precipitation threshold.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports