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Shadow seekers, billionaire tax, vaccines for cabbies: News from around our 50 states

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/3/2021 From USA TODAY Network and wire reports, USA TODAY

Alabama

Montgomery: The state on Monday launched an online portal for people to check their eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations and make appointments. The Alabama Department of Public Health said the site at alcovidvaccine.gov will allow those eligible to make an appointment if shots are available in their county of choice. The portal also provides information about additional drive-thru and walk-in clinics being offered. Starting next Monday, Alabama will expand who is eligible for the vaccine to everyone 65 and older, educators, court officials, corrections officers, postal employees, grocery store workers, some manufacturing workers, public transit workers, agriculture employees, state legislators and constitutional officers. Currently, only people 75 and older, first responders, health care workers and long-term care residents are eligible. Health officials have cautioned that the state has not received enough doses to vaccinate everyone who will be eligible for shots. “We need people to understand there’s not enough to go around,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said in a recent media briefing.

Alaska

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Anchorage: Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have been the groups hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic in Alaska, but state data shows they’re also least likely to be vaccinated. The state’s vaccination tracker showed just 143 residents who identify as Pacific Islanders or Native Hawaiians were vaccinated as of last Wednesday, Alaska Public Media reports. The figure indicates those in the Pacific Islander population are about 10 times less likely to be vaccinated than the general population, while the most recent state data on mortality shows Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19. Nurse Judy Tanuvasa, a Samoan community leader, said her community has not been adequately addressed by state officials. Tanuvasa, who has given dozens of vaccine shots to patients at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said she has seen the effectiveness of health care infrastructure designed for Alaska Natives, who also have been hit hard by COVID-19 but benefit from the tribal health system. Health officials said they are working to correct the inequity, but the issue is complex and includes factors such as language.

Arizona

Peoria: Hopi Tribe leaders on Monday extended the reservation’s lockdown and curfew orders through March 1 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order said the Hopi Reservation has continued to see a rise in coronavirus cases in every village and community, with a positive test rate of 25.6% and 115 cases over the past 14 days, according to an executive order from the tribe shared on KUYI Hopi Public Radio’s Facebook page. According to a report shared by the tribe’s radio station Tuesday, family and cultural gatherings continue to serve as a hot spot for COVID-19 transmission. In the most recent report shared Monday, the Hopi Tribe Department of Health and Human Services said the reservation has recorded a total of 1,141 tribal members testing positive. Approximately 120 members have died due to COVID-19 complications, according to the station. Widespread community transmission is reported in all villages, said the radio station’s post. According to the executive order by the Hopi Tribe, the lockdown requires masks to be worn at all times. A daily reservation-wide curfew extends from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Arkansas

Little Rock: The state on Monday reported 27 new deaths from the coronavirus, while the number of people in the hospital due to the virus declined. The Department of Health said the total number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began has hit 4,895. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped by 24 to 889. Virus cases rose by 1,226. The number of active cases, which excludes people who have recovered or died, dropped by 489 to 16,665. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state’s active cases have dropped by more than 7,200 since the beginning of the year. “We are seeing the effects of our combined efforts of vaccine distribution, mask wearing, and social distancing,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “Some positive trends have started to emerge, but we cannot use this as a reason to relax in following the guidelines.”

California

Sacramento: State prison officials wanted to shield inmates from the coronavirus at one facility by transferring them to another but instead unleashed a “public health disaster” that led to thousands of prisoners being infected and 28 dying, along with a correctional officer, the state inspector general said Monday. The report provided new details on last spring’s catastrophic decision to move inmates from the California Institution for Men east of Los Angeles to San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco. The inmates were put onto buses for the more than 400-mile trip, and the tight quarters increased the risk of infections spreading. The inspector general found that pressure to meet self-imposed deadlines led authorities to ignore warnings from health officials, and outdated tests failed to detect that some of the transferred inmates already were infected. Numerous officials with the state corrections department and the office of the federal court-appointed receiver who oversees prison medical care knew the tests were too old to be valid, according to the report. Yet emails show a health care executive at the Southern California prison “explicitly ordered that the incarcerated persons not be retested the day before the transfers began.”

Colorado

Fort Collins: The system in place for the state’s seniors to get on the list for COVID-19 vaccines has created obstacles for some. Phone calls often end with busy signals or are never answered. And websites require computers or smartphones, along with email addresses and internet connectivity, to access. While many of those eligible managed to navigate the system and get their first doses, others are still trying to figure out when and where they’ll be able to get a potentially life-saving vaccine. Joyce Metier, 92, said she doesn’t have a computer anymore and isn’t always sure what the instructions are asking her to do when she calls into phone lines manned by automated attendants. And she generally doesn’t answer calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. She finally got onto waiting lists for the COVID-19 vaccine with help from family members, who signed her up and check her missed calls and voicemails daily. “I’m fortunate to have family here who can help me,” she said. “I have friends who don’t have family at home, and older people often are not as good with the new technology, so they have a hard time following directions and knowing what to do and who to contact.”

Connecticut

Hartford: Gov. Ned Lamont says the winter storm that dropped snow across much of the state Monday forced the postponement of about 10,000 COVID-19 vaccinations and delayed the arrival of the weekly supply of vaccine into Connecticut. The governor on Monday asked that providers who were forced to cancel appointments reschedule them and extend their hours if necessary to get all those shots in arms by the end of the week. “We’ll make up for that lost day, and everybody will be caught up by Sunday,” Lamont said. The governor said the weekly shipment of vaccines did not arrive as expected Monday afternoon. But he said trucks delivering vaccines are exempted from a travel ban on tractor-trailers, and the state was expected to get this week’s allocation of 98,000 first and second doses Tuesday morning. Lamont said he was not concerned that any of the vaccines that were thawed for use Monday would go to waste. “The vaccines, kept refrigerated, are good for eight to 10 days, so that’s not a problem,” he said. “And if this is three or four weeks since your first vaccination, if it gets put off a few days, don’t worry; it will still stay very effective.”

Delaware

a group of people sitting at a table in front of a crowd: Patricia Bennett receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from New Castle County Paramedics Sgt. Scott Kier on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. The state vaccinated 950 health care workers and senior citizens as part of its "soft launch" of administering the vaccine to residents who are 65 or older. © John J. Jankowski Jr./Special to Delaware News Journal Patricia Bennett receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from New Castle County Paramedics Sgt. Scott Kier on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. The state vaccinated 950 health care workers and senior citizens as part of its "soft launch" of administering the vaccine to residents who are 65 or older.

Wilmington: Early data from the state Division of Public Health shows a striking racial disparity in the early weeks of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Black and Latino residents make up a small percentage of those who have received at least one dose. More than 100,000 doses have been administered. Of those, 38% were to people who are white, 4% to people who are Black and 2% to people who listed their race or ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino. The data also shows that 1% of recipients are Asian. However, about 23% of recipients listed their race or ethnicity as “another/multiple.” And the race of 31% of recipients is unknown, despite the fact that the information is a required component of vaccine reporting. State health officials say some providers did not collect race data or input it correctly. The health department is working to correct the issue. Delaware is still just beginning its first phase of vaccinations. And residents who are 65 and older just got access to immunizations less than two weeks ago.

District of Columbia

Washington: The district has filed a temporary restraining order against the Washington Teachers Union in D.C. Superior Court in an effort to stop delays in the in-person learning D.C. Public Schools is set to start this week, WUSA-TV reports. D.C. says in its proposed order that students in the district would “suffer profound and irreparable harm if not let back in the classroom.” D.C. Public Schools, local government officials and WTU have had a contentious relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic that was only heightened last fall as the school district tried to phase in-person learning back into its curriculum. “Teachers want to go back to school but also want to be sure that they and their students are safe,” WTU President Elizabeth Davis said. WTU announced in November that it had declined to sign a tentative Memorandum of Agreement with DCPS to reopen schools for in-person learning. “DCPS fulfilled its health and safety commitment to students and staff, and these measures were reaffirmed by an arbitrator’s decision made over the weekend,” the district said about the court filing. D.C. teachers who will be in the classroom have gotten their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but most are weeks away from the second dose that is needed to be fully inoculated.

Florida

Tallahassee: The state Department of Health is shifting 28,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to 27 hospitals around the state this week to immunize people under 65 who are considered “extremely vulnerable” if infected with the coronavirus. The decision came Friday “in response to a pressure campaign of emails, calls & interviews” from constituents under 65 who have underlying medical conditions that put them at a higher risk than healthy seniors, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, tweeted Saturday. “It’s a sign that our advocacy efforts are working.” The DOH was able to allocate more resources to hospitals because of a 16% increase in shipments to the states ordered by President Joe Biden, resulting in 307,000 first doses to Florida instead of the usual 266,000. The state also received 254,000 second doses. A Dec. 23 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis said hospitals could give the vaccine to “extremely vulnerable” people under 65 but provided no specific guidelines. Advocates say thousands of people under 65 have cancer, heart disease and developmental disabilities that put them at much higher risk.

Georgia

Atlanta: Some retired teachers could return to work and collect both a full salary and a full pension under a proposal that Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled Tuesday to bolster the state’s teacher workforce. The Republican governor said he wants to let educators return to work if they can teach in one of the top three subject areas in which a local region’s schools most need more teachers. “I knew we needed to strengthen our teacher pipeline,” he said. Kemp also called for the recruitment of more teachers from the military and from historically Black colleges. Georgia isn’t experiencing as severe a teacher shortage as some other states, boosted by a growing population and salaries that are high for the region. But Southern Regional Education Board President Stephen Pruitt said it’s still a problem in the state, particularly with declining enrollments in colleges of education. Kemp hasdelivered teachers $3,000 of a $5,000 yearly pay raise he has promised and is working with the state Board of Education to pay all education employees a $1,000 bonus this year out of federal coronavirus relief money. He also wants to use better-than-expected state revenues to restore more than half of what was cut last year from Georgia’s K-12 funding formula.

Hawaii

Honolulu: Educators and child care workers across the state have become eligible and started receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. Their status as front-line, essential workers allows educators to begin receiving vaccine shots under Tier 1-B of the state’s distribution plan, Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. The tier also includes seniors 75 and older. Hawaii’s oldest residents were initially given priority for vaccinations because doses were in short supply, and they are most at risk from the disease. Hawaii Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said 18,200 education workers completed online forms saying they want to be vaccinated, and their names have been submitted to the state Department of Health. The department is sharing the list with medical providers who administer the vaccines. Hawaii has about 44,000 public school staff including contract workers and casual hire employees. Some private schools also have submitted lists of employees who want to be vaccinated. The education department included all school workers in its priority list – from classroom teachers to bus drivers – rather than favoring any job category.

Idaho

Boise: Gov. Brad Little is moving Idaho into the third stage of his coronavirus reopening plan, lessening restrictions on the size of group gatherings, as the rate of COVID-19 infections continues to drop statewide. Little made the announcement Tuesday morning, urging residents to “stay vigilant” in working to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “When we moved back to Stage 2 in November, case counts were spiking and hospitals were bracing for the worst,” Little said in a statement. “Today, thanks to our collective good efforts, those case counts are much lower and trending downward. Idaho now has one of the lowest rates of spread in the nation.” There were just under 434 new cases for every 100,000 Idaho residents in the past two weeks, ranking the state 35th in the country for new cases per capita, according to numbers from John Hopkins University. One in every 560 people in Idaho tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. Little noted that a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has been detected in surrounding states. Idaho doesn’t have as much testing capability as many other states and doesn’t routinely test for new virus variants.

Illinois

Woodstock: One of the nation’s lesser-known groundhogs disagreed with his more famed East Coast counterpart on the notion of a longer winter. In the northern Illinois community of Woodstock, where Bill Murray filmed the 1993 motion picture “Groundhog Day,” Woodstock Willie didn’t spot his shadow the way Punxsutawney Phil did. That means Willie is calling for an early spring. The event, though it included some of the common trappings of the day, was decidedly altered by the pandemic. Willie appeared on stage surrounded by humans in surgical masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “I am happy we will be able to hold the main event, but with everyone wearing masks, I will miss seeing all the smiling faces,” Rick Bellairs, chairman of the Woodstock Groundhog Day committee, told Chicago’s WLS-TV. Bellairs also lamented that the event was a streamlined version of the celebration the community has held for years. The continuous showing of Murray’s movie that put Woodstock on the Groundhog Day map had to be scrapped, as did the chili cookoff and any events that typically are held indoors.

Indiana

Indianapolis: City-County Council members pushed millions more in funding Monday night to various needs stemming from the pandemic following the latest federal coronavirus relief package passed in December, bringing the city’s total relief funding to more than $200 million. The boost provides another $29 million in federal funding for rental assistance, nearly doubling the initial amount the city received for its rental assistance program, which has taken up a large portion of the city’s multimillion-dollar coronavirus relief initiatives. The city also will use $10 million from its own general fund to fund Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses in Marion County. That money can also be reimbursed by the federal government through the second relief package. Another $3.7 million will be spent on coronavirus-related expenses – including personal protective equipment, overtime, cleaning services and other supplies – that are eligible for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Eligible renters in Marion County whose income has been reduced due to the pandemic can apply for assistance online at indyrent.org.

Iowa

Des Moines: Testing has identified three cases in the state of the coronavirus variant strain found in the United Kingdom, public health officials said Monday. Two of the cases were found in Johnson County in eastern Iowa and one in Bremer County in northeast Iowa. Based on scientific study of the variant strain called B.1.1.7., researchers believe it can spread more easily than the original strain that causes COVID-19 and is believed to be deadlier. Current vaccines are believed to be effective against the strain. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports Iowa has delivered 190,689 first vaccine doses to individuals, or 6,044 per 100,000 people, the third-lowest rate in the nation. Although virus activity generally has slowed in Iowa from a peak in November, aggressive community spread is still occurring in many counties. Iowa reported five additional deaths Monday, increasing its total to 4,906. The state reported 1,010 coronavirus-related deaths in December. The state reported 250 deaths Sunday but said many of those cased dated back several weeks, highlighting the delay in the reporting of virus-related deaths.

Kansas

Topeka: Lawmakers plan to rebuke Gov. Laura Kelly over her decision to put inmates in state and county correctional facilities in Phase 2 of Kansas’ vaccination plan, arguing it unfairly puts them ahead of other law-abiding individuals. A resolution to that effect, introduced in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee on Tuesday morning, asks Kelly to reverse the decision, but it is nonbinding and would not likely force the governor to change course. Still, it’s the latest sign from Republicans that they will use the decision as a key talking point ahead of Kelly’s reelection bid next year. When the move to include correctional facilities in Phase 2 was first made known, it was framed as a way not just of ensuring the health of a population that has been ravaged by COVID-19 but also of protecting corrections officers and other staff. But Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, who chairs the health committee, said the lack of supply meant giving the vaccine to inmates should be deemphasized. More than 5,800 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, and 19 residents and staff have died from the virus.

Kentucky

a group of people standing around a table: Gov. Andy Beshear talks with medical staff as he arrives at the new COVID-19 vaccination site at the Kentucky Horse Park on Tuesday. © Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal Gov. Andy Beshear talks with medical staff as he arrives at the new COVID-19 vaccination site at the Kentucky Horse Park on Tuesday.

Lexington: Regional vaccination centers like the one that opened Tuesday at the Kentucky Horse Park will mark a “turning point” in the state’s fight against COVID-19, Gov. Andy Beshear said. Until vaccine supplies increase considerably, the state will rely on regional sites to meet the logistical challenges of getting limited doses into arms, the governor said. The network eventually will spread to health departments and pharmacies when more vaccine is available, he said. The eventual goal as vaccine shipments ramp up is to make sure that no Kentuckian has to drive more than one county away to get the shot, said Jim Gray, who oversees the vaccine distribution project. That will require a big expansion of the vaccination network in a state with broad stretches of rural territory. Until then, regional centers will play the primary role in getting Kentuckians inoculated, Beshear said. About 600 people were to receive first doses Tuesday at the horse park site operated in partnership with Kroger Health, the state said. The high-volume site is expected to vaccinate about 3,000 people weekly. Kentuckians 70 and older are getting the highest priority for vaccinations. Paul French, a 74-year-old veteran from Lincoln County, received the first vaccination at the regional center on the outskirts of Lexington.

Louisiana

Baton Rouge: Nine months after the state’s public schools received $287 million in federal coronavirus aid to defray pandemic expenses, school systems still have not spent more than half that assistance, even as they are slated to get another round of more than $1.1 billion. The first federal allocation – approved by Congress in March and sent to districts in late April – was supposed to help with costs of computers, personal protective equipment, summer school and other expenses related to the virus outbreak. But The Advocate reports data from the state education department shows $146 million remains unspent. “The wheels of a big system sometimes move slowly,” said Wes Watts, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and West Baton Rouge Parish schools superintendent. State officials are sending messages to local superintendents, directors of federal programs and business managers urging them not to delay spending the money and detailing how it can be used. “They were cautious on whether they would have to carry it into next year as well,” state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said. “They did not know that they would be getting additional dollars.”

Maine

Portland: A judge has ruled that an $18-per-hour emergency minimum wage increase in the city does not go into effect until next year, but supporters say they’ll appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. A Superior Court judge on Monday validated the time-and-a-half hazard pay provision that’s part of a referendum approved by Portland voters in November. But the judge ruled the change does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2022. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce contended lifting the minimum wage from $12 to $18 during the pandemic would hurt businesses that are already struggling. The provision for extra wages during a declared emergency was included in a proposal that will increase the minimum wage from $12 to $15 an hour by 2025. A Whole Foods worker who intervened in the lawsuit said in a statement that he hopes the high court will make the supermarket “pay us the compensation we deserve.” “Nearly every week, I learn that one of my co-workers has tested positive for COVID-19,” Mario Roberge-Reyes said. “But Whole Foods – part of one of the richest companies in the world – does not think that risk to its workers’ health is worth an extra few dollars an hour.”

Maryland

Annapolis: Health care systems have received less than half of their expected allocations of second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for front-line health workers this week, Maryland’s acting health secretary said Monday. Dennis Schrader made the comment in response to a question from Sen. Clarence Lam, a Johns Hopkins physician, who asked about availability of second doses during a virtual hearing on vaccine distribution in the state. Schrader attributed the discrepancy to the transition between presidential administrations in Washington. Lam said he had heard about multiple hospitals and health systems on Monday having difficulties in getting second doses for their health care workers. He said there were second doses that were supposed to delivered last week that are still missing, and now second doses for health care workers this week “are less than half of what hospitals are expecting.” Schrader said state officials were “on the phone with (federal Health and Human Services Department officials) all weekend” trying to figure out what happened. “They haven’t been able to put their finger on what the issue is,” he said.

Massachusetts

Boston: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is scheduled to reopen to the public Friday after being closed for seven weeks because of citywide coronavirus restrictions. Although the museum was allowed to reopen Monday, it needs a few extra days to bring in more than 300 tropical plants from greenhouses for a new display museum officials hope will be a welcome break from the cold and pandemic. “The Gardner Museum offers the community a much-needed respite during these stressful times,” Director Peggy Fogelman said in a statement. “In addition to the Palace’s galleries, we have two extraordinary offerings: the critically-acclaimed Shen Wei exhibition and our recently-installed tropical Courtyard.” The lush display includes dozens of bright Cymbidium and Lady Slipper orchids alongside calla lilies, flowering jasmine, eucalyptus and date palms. COVID-19 safety protocols remain in place, including reserved visit times, face coverings for all visitors and staff, and a 25% capacity limit.

Michigan

Detroit: A prosecutor is dismissing more than 1,700 tickets that were issued for violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. The cases were filed before the Michigan Supreme Court in October said Whitmer’s emergency orders were made under a law that was unconstitutional, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy said Monday. Most cases – 1,632 – were misdemeanors filed in Detroit and still pending when Worthy made the announcement. Detroit police were aggressive in writing tickets for large gatherings or violations of other orders that were aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. About 50 cases in suburban courts already have been resolved, according to the prosecutor’s office. Anyone who paid fines should be able to pursue a refund. “It is my earnest hope that people will continue to wear face masks, social distance, quarantine when warranted,” Worthy said.

Minnesota

Minneapolis: The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis said Tuesday that getting Minnesotans vaccinated against the coronavirus will be key to reviving the state’s economy. Neel Kashkari told a legislative hearing that the country and state have made progress toward putting people back to work amid the pandemic. The national unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7%, while the state’s jobless rate is down to 4.4%, but he said those figures mask how many people have given up on finding work. The Minneapolis Fed estimates the true national unemployment rate is actually about 10%, which Kashkari said is as bad as it got in the 2008-09 recession. “We just need as many Americans and as many Minnesotans as possible to be vaccinated so that we can have confidence and we can restore much of the economy back to the way it was,” Kashkari said. “But it’s really critical right now that the virus is in charge of the economy, and the sooner we can get the vast majority of Minnesotans and the vast majority of Americans vaccinated, the sooner we’ll be able to get back to normal.” The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported that 447,610 people had received their first vaccine doses as of Sunday, or 8.1% of the state’s population.

Mississippi

Oxford: The University of Mississippi will be holding two in-person graduation ceremonies this spring. One event will celebrate this year’s 2021 graduating class and another the Class of 2020, which saw its ceremony delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Commencement exercises for this year’s graduating class will be held April 29 to May 2. Events for the class of 2020 are slated for May 6 to May 8. “We are particularly pleased to uphold our commitment to the Class of 2020 by welcoming them back to campus and celebrating them in person,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said in a statement. Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the university, said the ceremonies will look different than in years past, but the school is working hard to make them “in-person, wonderful and memorable.” Some events will be ticketed to keep attendance low because of the pandemic. Face coverings and social distancing will be enforced.

Missouri

a man and a woman looking at the camera: Tricia Derges listens to a patient's chest at the Lift Up Springfield medical clinic in 2018. © Nathan Papes/News-Leader Tricia Derges listens to a patient's chest at the Lift Up Springfield medical clinic in 2018.

Springfield: A federal grand jury has indicted a legislator on fraud charges after she falsely promoted a treatment she was selling at medical clinics as containing stem cells that could treat various diseases, including COVID-19. The 20-count indictment unsealed Monday also accuses state Rep. Tricia Derges, R-Nixa, of illegally providing prescription drugs to clients and making false statements to federal agents. Derges was released on her own recognizance after pleading not guilty to all the charges. Her defense attorney, Stacie Bilyeu, said that after the U.S. attorney’s office held a news conference to announce the indictment, Derges’ social media was flooded with comments by people who assumed by what they heard that she was guilty. Prosecutors say Derges administered amniotic fluid, which she falsely claimed contained stem cells, as a treatment to patients who suffered from various diseases, including erectile dysfunction, Lyme disease and urinary incontinence. Derges, elected in November, also allegedly wrote in an April Facebook post: “This amazing treatment stands to provide a potential cure for COVID-19 patients that is safe and natural,” according to the indictment.

Montana

Helena: Lawmakers in the state House voted largely along party lines Monday to advance a bill that would protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a step the Republican governor said was necessary to remove a statewide mask mandate. Gov. Greg Gianforte endorsed the move last week during his State of the State address, saying it would allow businesses to safely open during the pandemic and move “away from impractical government mandates.” He has also said more vulnerable residents would have to receive COVID-19 vaccines before he lifts the mask mandate put in place by his Democratic predecessor. As of Monday, almost 27,000 Montana residents – representing 2.5% of the state population – had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Under the bill, businesses could not be sued by individuals exposed to the coronavirus on their premises, except in cases of “gross negligence” or when businesses intentionally spread the virus. Business owners would not be required to uphold federal or state mask requirements or temperature-check requirements if they remain in place.

Nebraska

Omaha: Meatpacking companies and public health officials are trying to overcome any reluctance workers may have about COVID-19 vaccines before they become eligible to get them. Major companies such as Tyson Foods and JBS are encouraging workers to get the vaccine with campaigns to educate them about the benefits and safety of the shots. Also, JBS and Pilgrim’s Corp. are offering $100 bonuses to workers who get inoculated. Last spring, the virus spread quickly through meatpacking plants, where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder as they carve up meat on production lines. But some workers, who are largely immigrants, distrust the government, and some question the safety of the shots because they were developed in less than a year, said Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293 union. “It’s the same thing as when we tried to get people involved in the (vaccine) trials,” Reeder told the Omaha World-Herald. “We had a hard time with the non-English-speaking population. A lot of them felt like this was a government plot to kill them.”

Nevada

Las Vegas: The state recorded its deadliest month of the coronavirus pandemic in January after adding eight deaths over the weekend. The additional deaths Sunday boosted the statewide death toll for the month to 1,132, more than a quarter of the 4,278 deaths since the pandemic began, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. The state surpassed the previous monthly record of 982 deaths set in December. University of Nevada, Las Vegas epidemiologist Brian Labus said the current figures are a lagging indicator because the people who died in January were mostly infected between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. “So it doesn’t tell us about what’s going on now,” he said. “It tells us about what was going on a while ago.” Labus said data showed the state is averaging 16 deaths a day over the past two weeks. Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, said an increase in deaths associated with the most recent holidays are likely to continue for several more weeks before they start declining. He also the fatalities in the daily report could be understated because reporting during weekends often results in lower numbers on Mondays.

New Hampshire

Concord: Some renters facing eviction amid the coronavirus pandemic would get extra time to come up with cash under a bill before a state House committee Tuesday. The measure sponsored by Rep. Casey Conely, D-Dover, would require courts to pause eviction cases for 30 days if the renter has applied for help from a federal, state or local housing assistance program. “This 30-day period just gives people facing eviction this narrow window to pursue this support before they lose their home,” he told the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s a temporary, critical lifeline for tenants facing financial difficulties during the pandemic.” While a federal eviction ban is in place, that will expire in March. Conley said his goal is to address the uncertainty around that ban, as well as the lengthy process of applying for assistance. The next round of federal virus relief funding will include $200 million for rental and utility help in New Hampshire, but those programs have yet to be set up. Nick Norman of the Apartment Association of New Hampshire spoke against the bill, calling it “ridiculous” and saying landlords are “suffering.”

New Jersey

a group of people sitting in a chair talking on a cell phone: Charles Bianco is vaccinated against COVID-19 by CVS pharmacist James Kee at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, N.J., on Dec. 28. © Ed Murray/ NJ Advance Media pool photo Charles Bianco is vaccinated against COVID-19 by CVS pharmacist James Kee at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, N.J., on Dec. 28.

Trenton: Some CVS pharmacies in the state will begin offering COVID-19 vaccines to eligible recipients starting Feb. 11, the company announced Tuesday. A “limited rollout” of 19,900 doses provided by the federal government will be made available. As more supplies are provided, additional locations and appointments will be added, the company said. The pharmacies are located in Brigantine, Edison, Elizabeth, Flemington, Green Brook, Hoboken, North Bergen, North Plainfield, Princeton, Seaside Heights, Stanhope, Union, Voorhees and West Orange, the company said. Appointments can be made starting Feb. 9. Residents currently eligible under state guidelines are health care workers, first responders, seniors 65 or older, and anyone 16 or older with a condition that makes them vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19, including cancer, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, lung disease, heart conditions, obesity and sickle cell disease. Smokers are also eligible. Patients must register in advance at CVS.com or through the CVS Pharmacy phone app, or they can contact CVS customer service at 800-746-7287.

New Mexico

Albuquerque: One of the state’s largest vaccination clinics will hit the pause button this week and temporarily stop giving vaccines after administering shots for more than a week, citing limited supplies. But state officials expect an increase in vaccine deliveries in coming weeks. Officials with University of New Mexico Health Sciences said they want to ensure they have enough vaccines to to give booster shots to people who already received their first shots. The clinic at the university’s arena, also known as The Pit, is expected to be closed Tuesday through Saturday. “This is just a pause, so I really want to stress that The Pit will be a vaccination clinic in the future,” spokeswoman Alex Sanchez said Friday. The clinic was administering about 1,600 doses per day, with a goal of eventually hitting 3,000 shots daily. Sandoval said the intent is still to hit that mark as soon as more vaccine doses are available. State officials said Monday that they are not aware of any other providers planning to halt vaccination operations this week. New Mexico is receiving about 56,000 doses per week. That’s expected to continue over the next three weeks, representing a 16% increase in allocations, said Matt Bieber, a spokesman with the New Mexico Department of Health.

New York

Albany: Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that he was giving county officials the power to add taxi drivers and restaurant workers to the list of people eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. If counties take the governor up on his offer, that would mean another major expansion of eligibility rules, even as the state struggles with an extremely limited supply of shots. There are nearly 200,000 licensed cabbies and ride-hail drivers in New York City alone. Statewide, New York had an estimated 865,800 restaurant and food service jobs as of 2019, according to the National Restaurant Association. Cuomo has spent days complaining that the rapid expansion of eligibility is making it harder for the people most at risk to get shots. Just days ago, the Democrat slammed elected officials for pushing to vaccinate restaurant workers when supply was limited. But Cuomo said Tuesday that the federal government is signaling it will send New York more doses in coming weeks, which could free up more doses. “If they want to add taxi drivers, Uber drivers, restaurant workers, they can do that if they think it works within their prioritization locally,” Cuomo said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this week said he supports vaccinating restaurant workers.

North Carolina

a group of people walking up a hill in the snow: Visitors take in the view from the summit at Mount Mitchell State Park on Oct. 19, 2020. © Angeli Wright, ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES Visitors take in the view from the summit at Mount Mitchell State Park on Oct. 19, 2020.

Asheville: North Carolina State Parks had record-breaking visitation last year. The high numbers underscore the public’s craving for outdoor space and exercise amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. State parks spokeswoman Katie Hall said North Carolina’s 41 state parks and recreation areas had 19.8 million visitors in 2020. That is 400,000 more visitors than any other year on record. It’s also 1.2 million more visitors than in 2019. The previous record for visitation was 19.4 million visitors in 2017. North Carolina Parks staff say the public has recognized that outdoor recreation is a safer activity compared to the indoors during the pandemic. Health officials say the coronavirus spreads mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes. But the increased crowds have led to increased challenges. They include overflowing parking lots, litter and damage to natural resources from heavier use of trails and popular sites.

North Dakota

Bismarck: State officials and business leaders voiced strong support Tuesday for a bill that would create a broader investment policy for North Dakota’s voter-approved oil tax savings account. The bipartisan legislation would tap 20% of future oil tax collections coming into the Legacy Fund to help establish loans for expensive infrastructure projects and provide capital for in-state companies. GOP Rep. Mike Nathe, the bill’s sponsor, has said less than 2% of the Legacy Fund’s principal is currently invested in North Dakota. Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread and others said that if passed, the bill would diversify the state’s economy and establish a broader tax base by “developing and advancing North Dakota.” “This is North Dakota’s money,” Godfread told the House Finance and Taxation Committee. “These are the people’s dollars.” Officials from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Commerce Department, chambers of commerce representatives and others spoke in favor of the legislation. No one at the hearing spoke in opposition.

Ohio

Columbus: Gov. Mike DeWine and his wife, Fran DeWine, received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday in a procedure streamed live in a feel-good moment later overshadowed by a mishap with vaccinations given to a number of nursing home residents. Some doses of vaccines administered by Walgreens at five nursing homes in northeastern Ohio were not kept properly in cold storage and will have to be given a second time, the governor said. There was no harm from the compromised vaccines, DeWine said. Walgreens was working with nursing home medical directors to determine which patients received the vaccines, said Bruce Vanderhoff, the Ohio Health Department’s chief medical officer. “If there is any breach in that cold storage process, the vaccine can’t be relied upon to be effective, to work as it was designed,” Vanderhoff said. Also Tuesday, DeWine said his administration is trying to boost the number of vaccines administered to and available for minority communities. With feedback from the state’s minority health vaccine advisory group, “we will continue to gain a better understanding of the barriers to vaccination and this will help develop solutions,” DeWine said.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma City: Gov. Kevin Stitt maintained pressure Monday on schools to teach in person despite the pandemic and proposed a significant change to education funding. In his annual State of the State address before the state House Chamber, Stitt singled out Tulsa Public Schools for remaining in virtual learning while most schools in the surrounding area educate students traditionally. The majority of districts in Oklahoma have spent most of the school year in person, and Oklahoma City Public Schools reopened its middle and high schools this week. “The only difference between schools that stay closed and those that have safely reopened is the mindset to find a way to make it happen,” Stitt said in his address. Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist said the governor is “a bully” deflecting attention from failed leadership in the pandemic. “Our governor only attacks,” Gist wrote in a Facebook post after Stitt’s speech Monday. “He pits families against teachers and districts against other districts and confuses an already tumultuous time for all of us. He is intentionally seeking to divide us more than this horrible situation already has.”

Oregon

Salem: A temporary homeless shelter opened Monday at the Pavilion at the Oregon State Fairgrounds. Left largely unused after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of events, the Pavilion can house 100 people on a temporary basis. An undetermined number of people will also be able to use the adjacent parking lot as a safe vehicle camping spot. The temporary shelter is funded in part by the City of Salem, which allocated $733,000 in November for homeless shelters, and the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency. The shelter will be run by Church at the Park, a Salem Leadership Foundation program that already provides homeless services at Cascades Gateway Park. Church at the Park will have five staff members operating the shelter 24/7, and security will be provided.

Pennsylvania

Punxsutawney: There will be six more weeks of winter, Punxsutawney Phil predicted as he emerged from his burrow on a snowy Tuesday morning to perform his Groundhog Day duties in a ceremony without the usual crowds. Members of Phil’s “inner circle” woke up the furry critter at 7:25 a.m. at Gobbler’s Knob to see whether he would see his shadow. One of the members of the inner circle later shared a message he said Phil had told him earlier in the day: “After winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.” Another member of the “inner circle” noted the uniqueness of the past year. “People have been referencing ‘Groundhog Day.’ It has felt like at times we’re all living the same day over and over again,” one of the members said, referring to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. “Groundhog Day also shows us that the monotony ends. The cycle will be broken.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, revelers weren’t able to see Phil and celebrate in person: This year, it was all virtual and included cardboard cutouts to represent spectators. The famed rodent’s 2020 forecast called for an early spring – however, Phil didn’t say anything about a pandemic.

Rhode Island

Pawtucket: The city on Tuesday announced a new resource to make it easier for residents to find out about COVID-19 vaccination opportunities. The form, in multiple languages, is intended to connect all residents with information on upcoming clinics as it becomes available, according to a statement from the city. “There has been a strong demand for vaccination and information from our community,” Mayor Donald Grebien said. “The form will make it easier for residents to know that they will be contacted for an opportunity to sign up once vaccines are available.” The form will serve as a contact list for residents to submit their information and be contacted by the BEAT COVID-19 team when an upcoming clinic for which they are eligible is announced by the state Department of Health. The form does not serve as preregistration for a clinic, and residents are still required to register for an individual clinic once they are notified that they qualify. Filling out the form does not guarantee a spot in a vaccination clinic.

South Carolina

Columbia: State senators are moving quickly to greenlight the military doctor tapped to lead South Carolina’s beleaguered health and environmental agency. The Medical Affairs committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend Dr. Edward Simmer, the nominee chosen in December by the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, to the full Senate. He would be the agency’s first permanent director in more than half a year. Simmer must still get approval by the Senate in a confirmation hearing before he can take the reins, a vote committee chairman Sen. Danny Verdin said he hopes will be in the books by the end of this week. Senators grilled Simmer on how he would improve the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, communicate with lawmakers and balance public health duties with those of environmental regulation. The board-certified psychiatrist explained flaws he saw in the state’s vaccine plan, including an appointment system difficult for people without internet access to use in the early weeks of the rollout. “Obviously, we need to solve the COVID problem today,” Simmer said. “But we need to be able to apply the lessons learned from COVID to whatever the next crisis may be.”

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: Average new coronavirus infections in the state have fallen to their lowest level in five months. The South Dakota Department of Health reported 116 new COVID-19 infections and one additional death Tuesday. The latest death was a woman in her 50s, bringing the total to 1,779 South Dakotans who have died with COVID-19. With Tuesday’s latest infections, the seven-day average for new cases fell to its lowest level since Aug. 23. But deaths remain stubbornly high, averaging about 10 per day over the past seven days. An additional 343 residents have recovered from the disease, lowering the number of active infections to 2,600. The number of COVID-19 patients occupying a hospital bed increased by five during the prior 24 hours to 131. Of those, 21 were receiving intensive care, and 17 were on ventilators. Both those numbers were the lowest they’ve been since the pandemic peaked in November.

Tennessee

Nashville: Health officials announced Monday that the state will soon begin administering COVID-19 vaccinations to residents ages 70 and older. The state Department of Health said on its website that Tennesseans can begin checking with their counties to learn more about information about eligibility and registration. Residents in the state’s metropolitan areas may have different instructions. The health agency estimates roughly 300,000 Tennesseans fall into the 70- to 74-year-old age group. The state is already vaccinating people 75 and older. It’s expanding the vaccination access due to a recent increase in its weekly COVID-19 vaccination allocation, up from an average of 80,000 doses to about 93,000 a week. The state says people ages 70 to 74 have a 70% higher rate of death and a 40% higher rate of hospitalization from COVID-19 compared with those ages 65 to 69. Nearly 7% of Tennessee’s population had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday. Meanwhile, Nashville school officials announced the district will begin allowing students to return to the classroom in phases later this week.

Texas

Austin: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas is on a comeback from a pandemic that has killed more than 36,000 of its citizens – the third-most in the U.S. – and steered America’s biggest red state Monday night into a thicket of battles over voting, policing and immigration that are likely to deepen political divides in the months ahead. Democrats used their rebuttal to narrowly tear into Abbott’s handling of the pandemic and paint a bleaker picture than his upbeat assessments, saying an uneven response continues letting cases spread and leaves cities powerless to manage outbreaks. Abbott, who has not ruled out a 2024 presidential run, delivered his State of the State on prime-time television for the first time, rather than in front of lawmakers in the state Capitol, where COVID-19 worries continues to restrict gatherings. But that gave Abbott an even larger audience than usual to defend his pandemic response. He praised front-line hospital workers for their resilience and declared expanding broadband access a priority in the aftermath of lockdowns that forced millions to work and go to school from home. There was no mention of direct relief for Texans put of work but a demand for legislation that would protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits.

Utah

a man standing in front of a mountain: David Hunter, a night sky photographer, is one of Capitol Reef National Park's 2021 Artists in Residence. © National Park Service David Hunter, a night sky photographer, is one of Capitol Reef National Park's 2021 Artists in Residence.

St. George: A painter, a printmaker, a photographer and a writer walk into a national park – for their artist residency, of course. Capitol Reef National Park announced its 2021 Artists-in-Residence last week, marking the fifth year of the program. David Hunter, Maureen Moll, Rick Young and Claire Giordano will be showcasing their crafts in June, July, September and October, respectively. Artists-in-Residence can be found in more than 50 national parks around the country, including Arches and Zion National Parks, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Residents at Capitol Reef receive a rent-free furnished house in the Fruita district of the park and a $500 award from a local conservation group, the Entrada Institute, for expenses. “Especially now, during the pandemic, art can bring joy to our lives,” program coordinator Penni Torgerson said in a press release. The residency allows for these artists to practice their crafts amid spectacular landscapes, the application website said. Applicants were chosen based on merit and ability to “communicate the park’s national significance and its relevance to park visitors,” it said.

Vermont

Montpelier: State officials said Tuesday that they are beginning to make plans to allow residents of long-term care facilities to have more contact with each other and the outside world. The move comes after 85% of people living in Vermont long-term care facilities, which include skilled nursing facilities, residential care and assisted living facilities, have had at least the first of the two doses of the vaccine that provides immunity to COVID-19, Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said during the twice-weekly virus briefing. No date has been set to ease those visiting restrictions, but with such a large percentage of residents having received the shots, it is a big step toward allowing those people to have more contact with each other and the outside world. “Our seniors living in long-term care facilities have been isolated for far too long, and it is our hope to reestablish those social connections as soon as possible,” Smith said.

Virginia

Staunton: Coronavirus cases seem to be down, at least in public schools, according to numbers reported by local school districts for the week of Jan. 25. Augusta County reported just 11 cases last week, its lowest number since Oct. 26. In Waynesboro Public Schools, officials reported just two cases of the virus last week, both in students. That’s the fewest since the week of Nov. 16. Staunton City Schools only reports active cases, not total cases for the week. For last week, Staunton had three active cases. All three school divisions either have held or are planning COVID-19 vaccination clinics for teachers and staff. Augusta County teachers received the vaccine last week. According to Superintendent Eric Bond, approximately 83% of staff signed up for the shots. Waynesboro Superintendent Jeffrey Cassell said 78% of staff signed up to get vaccines this week. In Staunton City Schools, 80% of staff have signed up for the vaccinations, which will take place Monday. All three school divisions are using the hybrid model of instruction, with students attending in person twice a week and learning virtually three days a week.

Washington

Olympia: The state’s richest residents – including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates – would pay a wealth tax on some financial assets under a bill proposed by a lawmaker who says she is seeking a fair tax code at a time when so many people are struggling due to the pandemic. Under the bill, a 1% tax would be levied on “extraordinary” intangible financial assets including cash, publicly traded options, futures contracts, and stocks and bonds – but not income. The first $1 billion in value would be exempt from the tax that would apply to taxable worldwide wealth. Forbes magazine says about a dozen of the richest people in the world live in Washington state, including Bezos and Gates, who top the global list after making their fortunes from Amazon and Microsoft. About 100 taxpayers in the state have wealth in excess of $1 billion, according to the state Department of Revenue. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Noel Frame of Seattle, said the measure isn’t an attack on the state’s richest residents. “It actually really isn’t about them; it’s about the working people of Washington who right now are disproportionally paying for community investments like public education, public health, you name it,” she said. “This is about equity in the tax code.”

West Virginia

French Creek: The state’s furry prognosticator says there will be an early spring. Nudged to come out in the snow, French Creek Freddie made the prediction Tuesday during a private ceremony on Groundhog Day at the West Virginia Wildlife Center in Upshur County. The annual public celebration was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Freddie wishes he could have celebrated his special day with all his friends this year, but he’s in high spirits and hopes an early spring will encourage folks to visit him at the Wildlife Center soon,” said Trevor Moore, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. The 338-acre Wildlife Center is otherwise open to the public every day through the end of March. Admission is free. This marked the second straight year that Freddie called for spring to arrive early. He’s been correct about half the time in more than 40 years of Groundhog Day predictions. “Freddie might be predicting an early spring, but don’t put your coats and mittens away just yet because there’s still plenty of time to get out and enjoy beautiful winter scenery here in West Virginia,” Zack Brown, the DNR’s assistant chief of operations, said in a statement.

Wisconsin

Madison: The state’s COVID-19 vaccination rate increased relative to its counterparts over the past week, and demand continues to far exceed supply, with roughly one dose delivered to vaccinators for every four requested. Last week alone, nearly 300,000 doses were requested by Wisconsin vaccinators, but the federal government delivered only about 77,000 doses, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “I know it sometimes feels like a broken record to hear us saying over and over again, ’We need more vaccine, we need more vaccine, we have people who want it, we have vaccinators ready to give it,’ ” Willems Van Dijk said Tuesday. “But that is the bottom line: We need more vaccine.” Still, Wisconsin is making progress. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Wisconsin 29th in terms of people vaccinated per capita as of Monday. It had been as low as 44th last week. “For sure, we’re improving,” she said. “We’re on a roll. We’re moving forward. We promised you we would.”

Wyoming

Jackson: Rescuers were called after a skier was injured by an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park. Four skiers were caught in the snow slide on the east face of the Olive Oil peak Sunday afternoon, Jackson Hole News & Guide reports. One of the skiers triggered the avalanche, which was about 40 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep, the park said in a statement. The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center said in a social media post that one of the skiers was buried but carried a device for maintaining oxygen and was able to dig out. Rescuers from Teton County Search and Rescue along with Teton park rangers were called to the scene after one of the skiers called 911. Stanley Edwards, 52, of Driggs, Idaho, was transported off the peak by rescuers and taken to St. John’s Health hospital in Jackson. Details of his condition were not immediately available. The other three members of the party were able to ski out with rescuers, the park said.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shadow seekers, billionaire tax, vaccines for cabbies: News from around our 50 states

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