Montgomery: The state’s top health official said Friday that a study showed about 30% of adults in Alabama are hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine, a reluctance that concerns medical officials as they try to keep case numbers on the decline. The Department of Public Health released the results of the survey done to gauge vaccine hesitancy and figure out how to craft messaging to reach reluctant groups. “There is around 30% of people who indicate they are not interested in being vaccinated,” State Health Officer Scott Harris told reporters. He said the hesitancy cuts across racial lines. He said the reasons vary from being staunchly against vaccinations to just having questions. Alabama on March 22 expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to include more front-line workers; people 55 and older; those with intellectual and developmental disabilities; and residents ages 16 to 64 with certain high-risk medical conditions. Alabama does not have an estimate of when it will open eligibility to all adults, but the state expects to beat the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden, Harris said. “This script is going to flip completely, you know, from a month ago when people couldn’t find vaccine – it seems like no matter how hard they look – to in April, we’re going to have the opposite problem,” he said.
Juneau: The state had 22,300 fewer jobs last month than it did in February 2020, the state labor department reported Friday, citing an ongoing economic toll from the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest losses were in the leisure and hospitality sector, which had 7,300 fewer jobs last month than a year prior, a department jobs report showed. Oil and gas had 3,900 fewer jobs, and the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector had 1,800 fewer jobs. The report showed 2,000 fewer local government jobs last month compared to February 2020, with losses primarily tied to K-12 education. There were 200 more jobs in state government compared to February 2020, which the report said is largely due to pandemic-related hires for work such as contact tracing and processing unemployment insurance claims. The department said job losses remain “historically large,” with unemployment claims during the second week of last month nearly four times higher than the same week a year earlier.
Phoenix: Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration said Friday that it will allow a federally supported vaccination site in the Tucson area, begrudgingly reversing course while blasting Pima County’s management of coronavirus testing and COVID-19 vaccinations. Ducey’s top health official, Dr. Cara Christ, said she’ll let the county work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on vaccines, but only if the county can prove it won’t need state help and if FEMA commits that it won’t reduce the supply of vaccines flowing through her agency, among other conditions. In a blistering letter, Christ accused FEMA staff of being so disrespectful to local and state workers that some needed counseling. And she questioned whether Pima County is capable of managing a vaccination site financially or logistically. Arizona’s second-largest county had been pushing the state to approve an offer from FEMA to establish a community vaccination center to serve its Hispanic population. In a news conference Friday, Christ defended Ducey’s decision to lift remaining restrictions on large gatherings and businesses and to prohibit local governments from requiring masks – a decision criticized by the state’s major hospitals. Christ said there could be an uptick in infections, but with most older people vaccinated, hospitals are unlikely to become overcrowded.
Little Rock: Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday signed into law legislation allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone because of religious or moral objections, a move opponents have said will give providers broad powers to turn away LGBTQ patients and others. The measure says health care workers and institutions have the right to not participate in nonemergency treatments that violate their conscience. The new law won’t take effect until late this summer. Opponents of the law, including the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it will allow doctors to refuse to offer a host of services for LGBTQ patients. The state Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, saying it sends the wrong message about the state. Hutchinson opposed a similar measure in 2017 that failed before a House committee. But he said the law he signed was narrower and limits the objections to particular health care services. “I support this right of conscience so long as emergency care is exempted and conscience objection cannot be used to deny general health service to any class of people,” Hutchinson said in a statement. Opponents have said types of health care that could be cut off include maintaining hormone treatments for transgender patients needing inpatient care for an infection, or grief counseling for a same-sex couple.
Los Angeles: The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to stop operating two mass vaccination sites next month, just days before the state makes everyone 16 and older eligible for a shot. The sites in Oakland and Los Angeles opened in February for an eight-week pilot program that concludes April 11. The sites will switch from the Pfizer to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just one shot, during the final two weeks of operation so people don’t have to sign up for a second dose elsewhere. State and county officials said they would have liked the program to continue, though it provided a small fraction of California’s overall shots. Each site was set up to vaccinate 6,000 people per day, but they have been administering up to 7,500 shots per day, according to the state Office of Emergency Services. Because the sites are federally managed, those shots are separate from California’s overall weekly allocation, now about 1.8 million a week. The two sites combined have administered half a million doses, with about 67% going to underserved communities and people of color, according to OES. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the agency, said the state is working with Los Angeles and Alameda counties to see if they can continue to put the sites to use. The state asked for an extension of the program, but it has not been granted.
Denver: Eight billionaires in the state have acquired $9.7 billion in new wealth over the past year despite the coronavirus pandemic. Charlie Ergen, the co-founder of Dish Network and EchoStar Corporation, gained the most between March 18, 2020 and March 18, 2021, The Denver Post reports. Forbes data revealed Ergen was worth $5.4 billion last March and is now worth $10.7 billion, a 98% gain that made him the state’s wealthiest person. Ken Tuchman, founder of the Englewood-based outsourcing giant TTEC Holdings Inc., had the largest percentage increase of the state’s billionaires from $1.3 billion in March 2020 to $3.1 billion last week, according to Forbes data. Liberty Media Corporation Chairman John Malone gained $2.3 billion over the past year and is now worth $8.1 billion. Pat Stryker, the medical technology heiress and the state’s richest woman, took in $900 million and is now worth $2.9 billion. Media heir Gary Magness gained $500 million and is worth $1.6 billion. The Denver Post reports messages left with the billionaires’ spokespeople seeking comment were not returned.
Hartford: Workers will go door to door in 10 cities starting this spring, urging residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Hartford-based Grossman Solutions will oversee the $2.9 million outreach effort under an agreement with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration announced Friday. “The door-to-door canvassing program will focus on knocking on doors in areas of need and getting residents scheduled for vaccination appointments,” Lamont’s office said in a press release. The program also will promote mobile and pop-up clinics and “work to assist residents in hosting virtual house parties with their friends and neighbors to help ensure residents have the facts about the COVID-19 vaccine and can share their experiences,” the governor’s office said. The Connecticut Department of Public Health also announced a $5.3 million plan to expand call center services for the state’s Vaccine Appointment Assist Line. Access Health CT, a quasi-public state agency, will amend a contract with Faneuil, Inc. to target communities high on the social vulnerability index. The door-to-door program will prioritize Black and Latino neighborhoods in Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Hartford, Waterbury, Norwalk, Danbury, New Britain, Bristol and Meriden, according to job postings on Grossman Solutions’ website.
Wilmington: Many of the ZIP codes with the highest percentage of white residents – also the oldest, richest and most highly educated – have the largest percentages of fully vaccinated Delawareans. Meanwhile, those with the lowest vaccination rates are often home to people whose median income and education levels are lower than the state average. An analysis found a larger portion of these residents live in poverty. When looking at the race data available for each ZIP code, the information contained significant holes. Officials say this is in the process of being fixed. Census race data offered the chance to see at a bird’s-eye view how the ZIP codes compared. As of now, it is not possible to know the racial breakdown of who is receiving the vaccine in a particular ZIP code. Still, the overarching narrative is clear: Lewes and Greenville, areas with residents who are mostly white and older, have the highest percentage of people fully vaccinated, with more than a quarter having received shots. ZIP codes with a higher percentage of people of color are lagging. Georgetown, once the center of a COVID-19 hot spot, has vaccinated 9% of its residents. Downtown and south Wilmington, one of the poorest areas in Delaware, has just 6% of its residents fully vaccinated. The ZIP code with the lowest vaccination rate is University of Delaware’s campus. Most young adults have not yet been eligible for the vaccine.
District of Columbia
Washington: As vaccine disparities persist, with many Black and Brown communities falling behind, leaders are working to bring doses directly to the people who need them most, WUSA-TV reports. Charles Allen, D.C. councilmember for Ward 6, worked with Howard University Hospital, Mount Moriah Baptist Church and Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid to set up a mobile vaccination clinic at the church Friday morning. Lucius Dalton, senior pastor at Mount Moriah, said many of the 180 people who got their Johnson & Johnson shots at the clinic said they had not been planning on getting vaccinated. Offering doses at the church changed their minds. “The church, especially the African American church, has always been a place of trust, of hope, and I think that when persons see that it is happening at a church, they feel a sense of security,” Dalton said. “They feel as if everything is going to be alright simply because they’re coming to a church.” Vaccination data from D.C. Health shows neighborhood disparities in vaccine administration. “It’s going to take this type of intentional, direct neighborhood-focused outreach to make sure we can reach folks,” Allen said.
Tallahassee: Businesses, governments and health care providers will be protected from coronavirus lawsuits if they made a good effort to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, under a bill the House sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday. In order for a lawsuit to move ahead, a plaintiff would have to show that the defendant deliberately ignored guidelines. A plaintiff would also need a signed affidavit from a doctor stating with reasonable certainty that injury or death caused by COVID-19 was a result of the defendant’s actions. The bill “provides limited liability protection to those entities in Florida that tried day after day to do what they were told they needed to do,” Republican Rep. Colleen Burton said. Democrats said the measure will deny access to the courts for people who were damaged by the disease or whose relatives died from the coronavirus. They said the language in the bill and need to prove gross negligence will make it difficult to bring a case forward.Republicans argued that in the early days of the pandemic, there were changing theories on how the virus spread and what protocols should be taken to prevent it. They also said there were shortages of supplies like masks and other personal protective equipment. The issue is a priority for DeSantis, who is expected to sign the bill.
Waycross: The governor received a COVID-19 shot Friday in southeast Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Ware County Health Department in Waycross, his office said in a news release. He was joined by his youngest daughter, Amy Porter. “We are both feeling great and are so thankful for the medical miracle that is literally saving countless lives here in Georgia and around the world,” Kemp said in the release. “We encourage every Georgian to join us and help our state get back to normal.” Georgia on Thursday opened up access to COVID-19 vaccines to everyone over 16. The governor traveled to the the southeastern part of the state to reinforce that vaccines are safe and effective, his office said.
Honolulu: Weddings on Oahu can now be held outside with a maximum of 100 people after an easing of public health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Friday that the loosened restrictions would be effective immediately. Weddings were previously restricted to 10 people. A limit of 10 people will continue for indoor weddings. For outdoor weddings, a maximum of 100 people will be allowed, seating will be limited to 10 people per table, everyone will be required to wear masks, and each wedding must be supervised by “event planning professionals.” Temperature checks will also be required. The news was applauded by members of the state’s wedding industry, which was dramatically affected by the pandemic. “This is a significant and incredibly important step to revitalizing our industry,” Oahu Wedding Association President Joseph Esser said in a statement. “While our industry has a long road to recovery, we are beyond thankful to Mayor Blangiardi for his swift action to reopen weddings over the past few weeks.” Dancing will be allowed, as long as dancers wear masks and follow social distancing mandates of two dancers for every 36 square feet, with a maximum of 32 dancers.
Moscow: A former county commissioner candidate and a couple have filed a lawsuit against the city and multiple civic leaders and police officers alleging their First Amendment rights were violated after they were arrested on accusations of not following coronavirus safety measures last fall at a church singing event in the City Hall parking lot. Gabriel Rench, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Latah County Commissioner in November, and Sean and Rachel Bohnet filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court, The Lewiston Tribune reports. The lawsuit alleges Moscow police officers’ “reckless indifference” to their rights resulted in their arrest and detainment. “This is a lawsuit in order to make reparations for their wrongful arrests and the fact that they were humiliatingly prosecuted for criminal activity when there was no violation of the law,” said Michael Jacques, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. Police cited Rench, the Bohnets and two others for suspicion of violating the city’s public health emergency order at the event Sept. 23. Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert issued the order requiring face coverings in public when physical distancing could not be maintained with people not in the same household. Jacques said the singing event was held to protest the order.
Springfield: Public health officials on Friday approved universal COVID-19 vaccination in areas where demand for the shots is lagging and pledged to dispatch mobile teams to boost vaccine distribution in one trouble spot as the disease’s toll started to creep back up. And while other states are dumping mask mandates, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the Illinois public health director, reemphasized the need for face coverings and other well-known precautions such as social distancing, despite increasing supplies of vaccine. The single-day total of confirmed and probable cases of the illness topped 3,000 Friday for the first time in seven weeks. Hospitalizations because of the virus jumped by 15% in the prior five days. The seven-day test positivity rate crawled up to 3.2% after hitting a post-October low of 2.5% on March 11. “We don’t want to go down the same path we’ve seen before and experience a resurgence in the pandemic, which is why Gov. Pritzker directed us to use all our resources to halt these upticks,” Ezike said in a statement. Those include mobile rapid-response teams that will be dispatched to five counties – Boone, Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside – in northwest Illinois. Those areas have witnessed a week’s worth of increased hospital bed usage and test positivity.
Indianapolis: Another 20 residents have died from COVID-19, pushing the state’s pandemic toll to more than 13,000 deaths over the past year, state health officials said Friday. The Indiana Department of Health also reported that another 1,136 Hoosiers have tested positive for the coronavirus, boosting the state’s known case total since the pandemic began to 682,099. State heath officials announced Thursday that more than 1 million Indiana residents had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with state’s health commissioner Dr. Kris Box calling the accomplishment “an exciting milestone.” The health department said Friday that a total of 1,561,705 first doses of vaccine have been administered across Indiana, and 1,042,768 Hoosiers – more than 15% of Indiana’s population – have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Residents age 40 and older, along with health care workers, long-term care residents, first responders, are currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Educators up to grade 12, along with other school workers such as classroom aides and bus drivers, are also eligible.
Des Moines: Coronavirus data continued to suggest Friday that activity is increasing in the state, with virus infections and deaths rising further. Similar trends were noted Friday by White House COVID-19 Response Team members who expressed concerns about rising cases. “We have seen cases and hospital admission move from historic decline to stagnation to increases, and we know from prior surges that if we don’t control things now, there is a real potential for the epidemic curve to soar again,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Please take this moment very seriously.” Iowa reported 979 new cases Friday and 19 additional deaths, increasing the state’s death total to 5,708. The seven-day positivity rate increased to 4.8%. The state has 207 people hospitalized after having dropped below 200 in late February. There were 46 COVID-19 patients in intensive care. Walensky advised people to continue wearing masks and practicing other safety measures to reduce virus transmission. Iowa has delivered nearly 1.37 million doses of vaccine, and nearly 525,000 people, or 16.8% of the population, have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
Mission: Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly announced Friday that anyone 16 or older will be allowed to get a COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday because the state expects to get enough of the medicine to speed up its inoculation process for the second time in two weeks. Kelly’s announcement means Kansas will enter the fifth and final phase of its vaccine distribution. The move to make vaccines available to another 400,000 people comes after weeks of criticism from Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature that the effort is not moving quickly enough or organized well enough. Democratic President Joe Biden on Thursday doubled his goal for shots during his first 100 days in office to 200 million. “With the anticipated increase in supply from the federal government, we must get every dose of vaccine into arms quickly,” Kelly said in a news release. “I strongly encourage every Kansan to get the COVID-19 vaccine so we can get back to school, back to work, and back to normal.” Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said some county health officials have asked state officials about refusing vaccine shipments for the next week or two. He said some were struggling to get people on their vaccine lists, even with last week’s expansion of eligibility.
Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear has proposed nearly $700 million in direct aid to small businesses and low-income Kentuckians as part of a multilayered plan he presented to lawmakers for spending about $2.4 billion in federal pandemic aid being funneled to the state. The Democratic governor has been negotiating with leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature on how to use the massive infusion. Kentucky’s leaders face a tight timeline to reach an agreement in this year’s legislative session, with lawmakers set to reconvene Monday for the last two days of work. Meanwhile, Beshear issued a series of line-item vetoes Friday to budget bills passed by lawmakers. One vetoed provision would restrict him from spending the federal relief money without the Legislature’s approval. Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers and are poised to take up override votes on Beshear’s vetoes this week. Beshear has called the federal assistance a “once-in-a-generational opportunity” to improve lives. His plan for spending the federal money reflects a mix of direct aid to individuals and businesses along with long-term investments in water and sewer projects, broadband and school construction.
Baton Rouge: The state’s historically Black college system on Friday launched a statewide vaccination campaign trying to encourage minority residents to get COVID-19 shots. The Southern University System said it created the “Don’t Wait. Vaccinate!” campaign because communities of color are disproportionately affected by the disease but getting vaccinated at lower rates than white people. “As the only historically Black university system in the country, located right here in Louisiana, it is our obligation to ensure that African Americans and other ethnic minorities are well informed about the dangers of COVID-19 and the significance of getting vaccinated,” Southern System President Ray Belton said in a statement. Southern’s campaign comes as Gov. John Bel Edwards has expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone age 16 and older. The outreach effort will include social media promotion, public events and advertising. Southern’s Baton Rouge campus held a drive-thru vaccination event Saturday with Ochsner Health, and a mass vaccination event across nine locations including all Southern campuses will be held April 10. University leaders are enlisting alumni, faith-based associations and social organizations to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Portland: The state’s combined commercial fishing industries managed to top $500 million in value last year despite challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The state’s fisheries were valued at about $516.8 million at the docks last year, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday. That was the ninth-highest value in the history of the state, the department said. The state’s lobster fishery anchored the total at about $406 million. State marine resources commissioner Patrick Keliher said lobster dealers developed new markets in the face of a market collapse caused by the pandemic. Lobstermen also adjusted their fishing effort to the market, and the industry’s adjustments “resulted in a good boat price during a year with seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” he said. The second-highest-valued marine species in the state was the softshell clam, which was valued at about $15.7 million. Clams were followed by scallops at about $6.8 million. Other valuable fisheries included menhaden, a fish which is used as bait for lobster, and oysters, which are grown by aquaculture businesses.
Baltimore: The state is extending its health insurance special enrollment period until the middle of August. Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange announced Friday that uninsured state residents will have the chance to enroll in health coverage until Aug. 15. This deadline aligns with the federal special enrollment period extension announced by President Joe Biden for those 35 states that use HealthCare.gov, the federally run health insurance marketplace. Hogan said his administration remains committed to ensuring Marylanders have access to the resources they need to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the state, 144,000 people have enrolled in the coronavirus special enrollment period since its beginning last March. The number includes both private health plans and Medicaid.
Amherst: The number of cities and towns across the state that are at high risk for COVID-19 transmission has more than doubled in the past two weeks, to 32 this past week from a low of 14, prompting public health officials to warn of another surge. “We are already seeing a little surge,” Worcester Medical Director Dr. Michael Hirsh said Thursday, the Boston Herald reports. He warned that the return of students who went on spring break to states where coronavirus variants are more prevalent, along with the upcoming Passover and Easter holidays, could be “a setup for even a bigger surge.” The number of high-risk communities had fallen to 14 after peaking at 229 in January. Many of the new cases are in people under age 30, Gov. Charlie Baker said. “While these residents are far less likely to be hospitalized, it remains critically important for all residents, particularly young people, to continue to practice prevention strategies and not let down their guard,” the Republican governor said. There were more than 2,300 newly confirmed cases Friday, while the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts rose by 40. That pushed the state’s confirmed COVID-19 death toll to 16,771 since the start of the pandemic, while its confirmed caseload rose to more than 588,000.
Lansing: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday again vetoed about $652 million in proposed pandemic relief spending after the Legislature passed it without negotiating with her administration. Majority Republicans reapproved the funding following the Democratic governor’s first veto weeks ago during a fight over an attempt to link federal funds to her agreeing to cede certain pandemic powers solely to local health departments. One bill proposed $405 million in state-funded business relief and a $150 million deposit into the unemployment insurance fund. Another would have given $87 million in federal funds to private schools and $10 million to reimburse parents for summer school expenses. In a letter to lawmakers, Whitmer said she vetoed the measures because they primarily included spending she previously rejected. “I remain ready and willing to negotiate regarding the allocation of the more than $2 billion in federal money now sitting idle in the Michigan treasury,” she wrote. “That’s money that could be immediately put to work supporting our kids, families, and small business.” GOP legislators had urged the governor to approve the spending because it was not tied to bills that would have required her to get legislative approval to extend state coronavirus restrictions.
Minneapolis: Gov. Tim Walz on Friday announced a final expansion in vaccine eligibility to all residents 16 and older starting this week, though securing an appointment may prove difficult for much of the state. The expansion, which will go into effect Tuesday, comes before an anticipated increase in the state’s weekly allotment that will amount to about 424,000 doses delivered to Minnesota in early April, according to Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Walz acknowledged that demand will outpace supply before the increased shipments from the federal government arrive but urged the newly eligible Minnesotans to get in line. The governor set a goal for the state to be the first in the country to reach the milestone of 80% of its population fully vaccinated. “We want to keep the queue loaded so that we go for that goal we need to get to – 80% or above of our population vaccinated – to get that immunity that we need to truly turn back to all of the things we love so much,” Walz said. Malcolm said the state’s current vaccine infrastructure – which includes health care providers, pharmacies and local public health agencies – has the capacity to administer 500,000 doses every week. State-sponsored vaccination sites, community pop-up sites and employers willing to do vaccinations at workplaces can further augment that capacity.
Jackson: A little more than a year after the Mississippi State Department of Health reported the state’s first coronavirus-related death, the state has now reached 7,000 deaths. The department reported two more deaths Saturday, bringing the total to 7,000 since the virus hit the state. The number of people who have died due to complications from COVID-19 in Mississippi would completely fill the seats of the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. “We don’t know where it’s (going to) stop,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said during a briefing this month as the toll was just approaching 7,000. “Most of those people didn’t have to die.” The state’s vaccination efforts have continued to grow, and it appears weekly COVID-19 deaths have decreased. Yet, as new cases of the different variants are identified and reported, with two tracing to California noted in Mississippi last week, Dobbs has been urging residents to continue to be diligent in taking precautions. “Get vaccinated. Now,” Dobbs said during Friday’s weekly roundtable discussion. “That’s going to be the thing that makes all the difference.”
Kansas City: Jackson County is the state’s latest jurisdiction to ease COVID-19 protocols as the numbers of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to drop. County Executive Frank White Jr. said Friday that as of April 9, all businesses can open at full capacity. That includes gyms, fitness centers and recreation centers. White said restaurants and bars also can operate at full capacity and serve food and alcohol. Masks will be required when patrons aren’t consuming food or drinks, and social distancing is still required. The county also is dropping capacity limits, but the mask mandate and social distancing protocols remain in effect. “If we remain diligent in our prevention efforts, we will be one step closer to getting back some normalcy in our daily lives,” White said. Also Friday, Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order extending the state of emergency through Aug. 31. The extension gives the state flexibility in distributing resources and eases regulations during pandemic recovery efforts. It also allows for continued use of the Missouri National Guard and federal funding for response efforts.
Helena: As lawmakers decide how to allocate millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act money, some Republicans are looking at ways to reduce the federal stimulus funds awarded to local governments, Native American tribes and schools that have stricter COVID-19 guidelines than the state. A “significant portion” of Republican lawmakers “are concerned that part of the challenge will be a resistance to open up the economy fast enough,” Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, requested an amendment to reduce funding to local governments with stricter directives by 20%. “It’ll put some pressure if some area holds out,” Jones said of the amendment. The reduction would apply to infrastructure grants and other funds allocated by the Legislature, he said. State law allows counties and cities to have stricter health guidelines, and several have continued to require face coverings after Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate Feb. 12. Tribes have also had stricter guidelines, and some school districts have enacted mask requirements. The proposal to allocate the money will continue to be discussed by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.
Omaha: Douglas County could start giving vaccinations to residents who are at least 16 years old by mid-April, catching up with parts of rural Nebraska that have already moved onto that phase. The Douglas County Public Health District lists the timeline on its website, and local public health officials say it seems realistic. Other public health districts have started vaccinating younger residents, including the Public Health Solutions Health Department, which represents Filmore, Gage, Jefferson, Saline and Thayer counties in southeastern Nebraska. Health officials in the district said they’re vaccinating residents who are at least 18. The Two Rivers Public Health Department, which represents seven counties including Buffalo, Dawson and Kearney, is now vaccinating those 16 and up. All districts in Nebraska are vaccinating residents 50 and older. Previous phases have focused on residents who are older than 65, those in the health care industry, and people in certain professions such as first responders and educators. Rural areas have generally vaccinated residents faster than in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, partly because their populations are smaller. Statewide, health officials have vaccinated 19.8% of residents who are at least 16 years old, according to the state’s online tracking portal.
Carson City: State health officials reported 445 new coronavirus cases Friday, reflecting a minor uptick from the average over the past two weeks, along with 11 new deaths. Recently, the state has reported far fewer cases and deaths than it did at the peak of a surge several months ago. Still, officials are monitoring whether relaxed prevention measures that accompanied the decline could be leading to another surge in cases. Photographs from a casino in Las Vegas showed swarms of people crowding its pool, prompting Gaming Control Board Chairman J. Brin Gibson to notify resorts that their pools remain subject to a 50% capacity cap. The statewide directives are “clear that variants of the COVID-19 virus do exist, and medical experts have determined that several of these variants are significantly more contagious than the original virus,” he said. Nevada has fully vaccinated more than 437,000 residents, or roughly 14% of the population. The state plans to open up vaccine appointments to people 16 and older April 5, but officials have repeatedly said availability depends on supplies provided by the federal government. Nevada Health Bureau Chief Candice McDaniel said health officials were confident they could manage the challenges expected to accompany the eligibility expansion.
Concord: Gov. Chris Sununu has urged residents to exercise patience as the state’s COVID-19 vaccine appointment website opens up to people 40 and older Monday. The Republican warned Sunday that during high-volume times in the morning, people may have to wait to book appointments through the Vaccine and Immunization Network Interface. A new online waiting room feature will give VINI users an estimated wait time, he said. And people should only attempt to sign in using one device. “We have made upgrades to the system which will allow more than 1,000 people per minute to register with plenty of appointments for everyone,” Sununu said in a statement. The University of New Hampshire, meanwhile, is pushing back its commencement ceremonies from May 15 to May 23. University President James Dean said in a message Friday that the change allows the ceremony at Wildcat Stadium to be held on a weekend day, which graduates had requested. Dean said graduates need to register to attend and will have to submit a proof of a negative coronavirus test. No decision has been made yet on whether guests will be allowed to attend, he said.
Trenton: The state will expand vaccine eligibility beginning April 5 to those 55 and older, as well as to people 16 and older if they have intellectual or developmental disabilities, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday. The expansion to millions of residents and those who work in New Jersey means millions more people will be able to get a shot. It comes just as the state expects to see what Murphy has called a quantum leap in the number of vaccines it receives from the federal government. The newly eligible also include higher education teachers and staffers, along with communication support workers, including engineers and members of the media. Real estate, building and home service workers will also be permitted to get shots, along with sanitation workers and bank tellers, accountants and other financial industry employees. Laundry service workers, utility workers and librarians round out the 1C category that Murphy greenlighted Friday. Murphy, a Democrat, has set a goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million people, or 70% of the adult population, by July. On Friday, he said the state would surpass the goal he set in December.
Santa Fe: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has received an initial vaccination shot as the state opens up eligibility to more residents. The 61-year-old governor and former congresswoman announced Friday in a news release that she received the shot of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine at a clinic on a school campus in Santa Fe. The state is making shots available to residents 60 and older, essential workers, and a variety of health and hospice workers, among others. “I will keep wearing my mask and I will keep up the physical distancing to protect myself, my family and my neighbors,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. Nearly 1.1 million vaccine doses have been administered across the state of 2.1 million residents, according to its vaccine information dashboard. About one-quarter of New Mexico residents are fully vaccinated. Department of Health data also show that nearly half of residents from ages 60 to 74 have received at least one vaccine shot. Local rates of coronavirus positivity in testing and related deaths in New Mexico have plummeted in recent months.
Herkimer: Vaccines have begun saving lives in the state’s nursing homes, but they haven’t yet cured another crisis caused by the pandemic: loneliness. Persistently high rates of COVID-19 have left the majority of New York’s nursing homes off limits to visitors, despite relaxed guidance meant to help reopen them. Until last week, under state and federal rules, they could admit visitors only if they had no new infections among either patients or staff for 14 days. That mark proved too hard for most to reach. A little more than half of the state’s 616 nursing homes were ineligible for indoor visits in mid-March, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare. That’s the highest percentage of any state. New York updated its visitation rules Thursday in a way that will now allow visits to resume under certain conditions, even if a resident or staffer has recently tested positive. But that relaxed standard might not clear the way for visitation in many homes having trouble keeping the virus out. Under the new guidelines, homes would still have to halt visits after any resident or staffer tested positive for the coronavirus, but they could potentially resume for some patients if a thorough round of further testing revealed the outbreak was confined to just one part of the facility.
Raleigh: The state’s unemployment rate fell for the fifth consecutive month in February, the Commerce Department said Friday, as its economy continues to recover from the COVID-19 recession. The seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 5.7%, compared to 5.9% in January. The state unemployment rate spiked at 13.5% last spring as Gov. Roy Cooper and governors nationwide mandated severe business restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. rate in February was 6.2%. In February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold nationally, the state rate was under 4%. The number of employed workers last month rose by 4,800 compared to January, or to nearly 4.75 million, according to department data. The number of unemployed people dropped by more than 10,900 to about 286,800. Industry categories seeing the most month-over-month employment increases were in business and professional services as well as in trade, transportation and utilities, according to department figures.
Bismarck: The Republican-led Legislature moved Friday to allow booze sales on Sunday mornings, marking further relaxation of what had been the nation’s toughest business restrictions on that day. The House voted 49-41 to allow alcohol sales seven days a week beginning at 8 a.m. Bars and restaurants can’t serve alcohol from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sundays, while liquor stores can’t sell alcohol until noon. The Senate narrowly approved the measure last month. It now goes to GOP Gov. Doug Burgum. If signed, the change would take effect Aug. 1. North Dakota has had “blue laws” restricting business on Sundays since it became a state in 1889, stemming from fears that shopping on Sunday morning would compete with church. After many failed attempts over the years, the Legislature in 2019 repealed Sunday business restrictions but left in place the prohibition of early alcohol sales. The measure got a “do-not-pass” recommendation in the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Robert Paulson, R-Minot, who carried the bill on the House floor, said the committee felt there was “plenty of time to buy alcohol in our state as it is now.” Supporters of the measure said it was unfair to single out alcohol sales now that most other Sunday shopping bans have been repealed.
Columbus: Gov. Mike DeWine unsuccessfully pushed a last-minute compromise with fellow Republican lawmakers over a bill restricting the state’s ability to respond to public health emergencies like the pandemic, records show. The governor was open to giving lawmakers some oversight over public health orders. But he wanted more involvement from them when it came to overturning such orders, according to an email obtained by the Associated Press. DeWine also proposed putting representatives of the governor’s office at the table with lawmakers as they reviewed public health orders, according to the March 21 email from Dan McCarthy, DeWine’s legislative affairs director, to GOP Senate President Matt Huffman. “We hope they provide a solid foundation for a further conversation,” McCarthy told Huffman, referring to the governor’s proposals. The bill in question would allow state lawmakers, by a simple majority, to rescind public health orders issued by the governor or the state Health Department as soon as they take effect, as well as prevent the governor from reintroducing similar orders for at least 60 days. The bill would also limit state-of-emergency orders to a period of 90 days but allow lawmakers to extend them in 60-day increments indefinitely.
Oklahoma City: The state’s epidemiologist is defending the health department’s change from daily to weekly reporting of coronavirus information. The daily reports did not provide a true picture of the virus, epidemiologist Jared Taylor said Friday. “Just quite simply that does not tell the true story of what’s happening in a community, what’s happening in the state, how we need to be perceiving things and how we need to be responding to things,” Taylor said. Weekly reports that began March 17 level out one-day changes, Taylor said. Public health officials have criticized the change, including Tulsa Health Director Bruce Dart, who has said his agency used the daily data in making virus response decisions. University of Oklahoma Health COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said he is not happy that county, city and ZIP code data are now not being reported. “We won’t be able to tell quite as well whether we see hot spots or outbreaks that happen in the state,” Bratzler said. “Perhaps the state health department will be able to do that, but we won’t be able to see it because it’s not transparent right now.” Taylor said if the state sees value in returning to a daily report, it will do so.
Salem: Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that she will accelerate the state’s vaccine eligibility timeline by two weeks for those over age 16 with underlying medical conditions, front-line workers and those living in multigenerational homes. Those groups will now be eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines April 5. Those over age 45 with underlying conditions become eligible for the vaccine Monday and are already eligible in 22 counties that have inoculated most of their older population. All Oregonians over 16 will become eligible no later than May 1, Brown said. She said the number of counties ahead of schedule on inoculating their population and increased vaccine supply from the federal government made it possible to speed up the timeline. Under current projections, Oregon will receive enough doses to inoculate all eligible residents by the end of May and will be able to deliver them all by early to mid-June, said Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, said large public events such as the Olympic track and field trials scheduled for June in Eugene and the Pendleton Round-Up in September could likely go forward this year with COVID-19 safety precautions. State health officials are working on guidance for event organizers, he said.
Harrisburg: The state’s unemployment rate was stable in February, with the labor force and payrolls both growing as they creep back toward pre-pandemic levels, according to figures released Friday. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 7.3%, the same as in January, the state Department of Labor and Industry said. That was more than a whole point above the national rate of 6.2% in February. In a survey of households, the labor force grew by an estimated 35,000 in February, to back above 6.3 million. The number of employed accounted for most of that, rising by 30,000. The number of unemployed also grew slightly. The state hit a record-high labor force of almost 6.6 million just before the pandemic. In a separate survey of employers, payrolls in Pennsylvania expanded in February by almost 17,000, to above 5.65 million. Pennsylvania has regained about 60% of the 1.1 million jobs lost in the pandemic. It hit a record high for payrolls of 6.1 million last February, according to state figures. Leisure and hospitality grew the most of any sector, by almost 13,000 jobs to 439,000. The hard-hit sector remains down about 25% from pre-pandemic levels after losing an estimated 60% of its jobs last spring. Restaurants and bars remain under stricter pandemic rules than other businesses.
Cranston: The state’s congressional delegation is highlighting the important role community health centers will play in getting more vaccines to people in underserved communities that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said he’ll join Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline at the Comprehensive Community Action Program in Cranston on Monday. The Democrats will discuss more than $33 million in federal funds that community health centers in the state are set to receive to expand vaccine access, conduct outreach and support essential workers. The money comes from the nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief bill recently signed into law by President Joe Biden. The eight health centers receiving the money are located in Cranston, Pawtucket, Newport, Burrillville, Providence, Woonsocket, Johnston and Hopkinton. The congressional members will also be joined by Jim Vincent, executive director of the NAACP Providence Branch, and other community leaders.
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all residents 16 and older, saying Friday that they could begin scheduling appointments this week and receive shots starting Wednesday. State officials initially had planned to implement the 16-and-up rule in May, after completing a final priority phase for people 45 and older. “Our priority with the vaccine has been to save the lives of those at the greatest risk of dying,” McMaster said in a news release. “By staying the course and resisting distractions, we’ve expanded South Carolinians’ access and eligibility for vaccinations faster than originally anticipated.” As of last week, more than 1.1 million people in South Carolina, or about 27% of the total population, have gotten at least one vaccine dose, according to public health officials. Nearly 618,000, or about 15%, have been fully vaccinated. In January, the governor said he was frustrated by what he characterized as a slow vaccine rollout. The Republican governor credited former President Donald Trump’s administration with the vaccines’ speedy development but bemoaned “bottlenecks” that he said were hindering dissemination to those in the first priority group, including health care workers.
Eagle Butte: Citing improving case numbers and vaccination rates, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has taken down the coronavirus checkpoints on its reservation that were a point of contention between the tribe and Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and the former Trump administration. Cheyenne River spokesman Remi Bald Eagle said the approximately 175 workers who staffed the nine checkpoints around the clock will be offered jobs helping with vaccination sites, contact tracing and quarantine support. The tribe also hopes to work with President Joe Biden’s new Bureau of Indian Affairs staff to maintain control over its police department, after the Trump administration sent a letter in December saying the agency would begin managing the department. The tribe filed a lawsuit alleging the BIA began to aggressively pursue a long-standing issue over tribal officers’ background checks in order to pressure it to shut down its checkpoints, the Rapid City Journal reports. The tribe established the checkpoints to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and barred some drivers from passing through or stopping on the reservation. Noem said the checkpoints on state and federal highways were illegal because they were interfering with interstate commerce.
Memphis: Encouraged by improved COVID-19 case trends and increased vaccine availability, Rhodes College and Christian Brothers University are both planning for a more normal campus experience this fall. The schools’ presidents shared plans of fall returns with their campuses last week, both planning for a return of mostly in-person courses. In general, higher education institutions in Memphis have restricted campus density for most of the pandemic. “We are planning to be on campus this fall so you will be able to live and learn in person and experience the full range of campus life,” Marjorie Hass, president of Rhodes College, wrote to students. The college’s return will include some remote courses, but all Rhodes students, rather than just first-years, will be eligible to return to campus housing for the next academic year. CBU President Jack Shannon said the university’s hybrid courses will return to traditional in-person classes at traditional capacity. The university is simultaneously increasing its online course offerings, Shannon said. Faculty who are not comfortable returning are instructed to contact human resources. Both colleges join the University of Memphis in announcing expanded in-person campus density for the fall semester.
Houston: The state is making COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone starting this week. Texas on Monday becomes the most populous state to expand eligibility to all adults. The state has nearly 30 million residents. Anyone 16 or 17 years old will also be able to get a vaccine starting Monday. But the Texas Department of State Health Services said only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for individuals in that age group. Texas has one of the nation’s slowest vaccination rates. About 12% of the population had been fully vaccinated as of Saturday, and about 24% had received at least one dose, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In comparison, neighboring New Mexico has fully vaccinated more than 21% of its population and given at least one dose to 36% of its residents. More than 10 million vaccinations have been administered in Texas, according to state health officials, and more than 1 million more doses are expected in the state this week, the health department said Saturday. More than 3.5 million Texans are fully vaccinated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Salt Lake City: The state is on pace to remove all coronavirus-related restrictions by July if transmission rates keep dropping, but the situation could change, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday. He urged residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to remain cautious. Cox made the announcement before he and his wife received their first dose at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Utah County, days after the state opened eligibility to everyone 16 and older. More than 450,000 of the state’s 3.2 million residents have been fully vaccinated, and over 814,000 have received at least one dose, according to state data. “Even if we do see an increase in cases, the fact that we have vaccinated so many of our most at-risk population makes us even less vulnerable to the outcomes,” Cox said at his weekly COVID-19 briefing. About 80% of people 65 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Over half of that group have been fully vaccinated, said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. New coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Utah are expected to continue decreasing as the vaccine rollout continues, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.
Montpelier: The Vermont Health Department on Friday reported the largest one-day increase in the number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said half the 251 new cases reported Friday were in people under age 30 and only four in people 65 or over. Despite the increase in cases, the number of residents being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 is continuing to decline, a testament to the vaccination program that has focused first on older adults, officials said. Levine cited a variety of factors for the increase in cases, including people moving around more with the arrival of warmer weather, virus fatigue and the continued spread of some of the more transmissible strains of the virus in Vermont. He noted that some countries in Europe are locking down again and said the world is still not safe from the virus. “The reality is we should always continue to be humbled by the virus,” Levine said during the state’s twice-weekly virus briefing. Despite the increases, Vermont is continuing its gradual reopening. Gov. Phil Scott said state officials plan to outline in the next 10 days how the virus-imposed restrictions will continue to be loosened.
Richmond: Health officials have reported the first cases in the state of a highly contagious coronavirus variant that first emerged in California last summer. The discovery of the two California variants in Virginia means there have been a total of four variants found in the state, including strains first discovered in South Africa and the United Kingdom. The Virginia Department of Health said in a news release Thursday that the California variants are associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19, but there is no evidence at this time that infections with the variants cause more severe disease. In total, state health officials have reported 176 cases of coronavirus variants in Virginia. The DPH said it is likely that additional cases with “variants of concern” will be identified. Health officials urged people to continue to comply with mitigation measures, including wearing face masks correctly, staying at least 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds, washing hands often and getting vaccinated for COVID-19 when they become eligible.
Seattle: The union representing 7,000 Seattle Public Schools employees has ratified an agreement to bring elementary students back into classrooms for in-person instruction April 5. The Seattle Times reports the agreement makes official a return to school buildings for the district amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle is Washington’s largest public school district, with more than 50,000 students. The Seattle Education Association had 82% of members approve the deal last week. The parents of about 58% of SPS students indicated in a districtwide survey last week that they plan to return their children to school for hybrid instruction, a district spokesperson said. The district received responses from families of 14,272 of its 24,648 currently enrolled students. Under the agreement, elementary school students and secondary students with disabilities would return to buildings April 5 – Gov. Jay Inslee’s deadline for districts to offer in-person instruction for young students. Some elementary students receiving special education services would return March 29. Students would attend schools four days per week on half-day schedules for just under three hours, with some attending in the morning and others in the afternoon.
Charleston: Up to a quarter of senior citizens who have preregistered for a COVID-19 vaccine through the state system have yet to book an appointment, the health secretary said Friday. About 22% to 25% of residents 65 and over don’t have a shot scheduled yet, said Bill Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources. But he said that “a lot of these individuals,” making up a total of 11,000 to 12,000, may have separately found an appointment through a local pharmacy or clinic. “We’re moving very quickly to get that list down,” Crouch said at the governor’s press conference. Republican Gov. Jim Justice has a goal of vaccinating 85% of senior citizens. He said last week that more than 70% are at least partially vaccinated. The state opened three new regional vaccine clinics in Kanawha, Berkeley and Monongalia counties for residents 65 and over, who are urged to call the state’s vaccine hotline at 1-833-734-0965 if they are still waiting for an appointment. “We will get you in that day if you call us,” Justice said. “And to be perfectly honest, we have the supply that we’re going to end up putting stuff on shelves if you don’t come and you don’t come in droves to get the vaccine.” The state expects another increase in doses from the federal government this week.
Madison: Gov. Tony Evers on Friday vetoed a Republican-supported bill that would have required him to submit a plan within three weeks for returning state employees to work out of their offices during the pandemic. Evers said in his veto message that more state employees are scheduled to return to their offices starting April 5 and that the goal is to resume normal operations this summer. Evers said he was vetoing the bill because it encroaches on his authority as governor to administer and oversee employment policy. Republicans in the Legislature have been pushing for state employees to return to their offices as COVID-19 case counts drop in Wisconsin and vaccinations go up. Evers, in his veto message, also defended the work being done remotely by state employees, saying they have gone above and beyond to serve during the pandemic. “This work should not be discounted or demeaned,” Evers said. “These workers deserve our gratitude and respect.” In addition to pushing for state workers to return to the office, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos last week called on Wisconsin’s business community to “step up” and return workers to offices by the Fourth of July.
Casper: The number of deaths in the state rose significantly in 2020 over the previous year, and authorities say COVID-19 was a key factor in the increase. The Wyoming Department of Health documented 5,983 deaths last year, an increase of 862 deaths – or 16% – over 2019, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The coronavirus was a clear driver of the increase, implicated in the deaths of 528 Wyoming residents last year, state health authorities said. “Our data has shown steady, small increases in deaths for several years largely due to our state’s aging population,” said Guy Beaudoin, the Vital Statistics Services deputy state registrar with the health department. “But before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we never would have predicted the large jump we saw in 2020.” COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death among the state’s residents after heart disease and cancer. Ranking fourth was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, followed by various types of accidents.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
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