Montgomery: Before his death from COVID-19, former state senator Larry Dixon spoke to his wife of 53 years from his hospital bed and asked her to relay a warning. “Sweetheart, we messed up. We just dropped our guard,” Dr. David Thrasher, a pulmonologist and friend of Dixon, recalled him saying. Dixon, 78, died Friday from complications of COVID-19. Thrasher said his longtime friend had been mostly careful but may have contracted the virus after gathering with friends. “Larry has been conscientious with masks, doing everything right, social distancing since March … he made one slip-up,” Thrasher said. Three people at the gathering became ill, he said. “The last thing he told her was, ‘Gaynell, I love you. We’ve got to tell people this is real,’ ” Thrasher said. He said he’s telling his friend’s story with the family’s permission in the hopes that people can learn just how easily the virus can spread at casual gatherings. He said it is also important for people to seek medical care when they first get sick.
Anchorage: Officials at the state’s largest homeless shelter are optimistic that demand for services has stabilized for now. The emergency mass shelter at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena serves 400 people, with about 200 more at a newly opened shelter at the Fairview Recreation Center and in hotel rooms funded by the city, Alaska Public Media reports. There are more people in the Anchorage shelter system now than there have been during any other year on record, Anchorage Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator Nancy Burke said. However, a moratorium on evictions of people behind on rent payments because of the coronavirus pandemic is scheduled to end Dec. 31. “People, frankly, are running out of money with the assistance that was coming in from the federal government,” Burke said. “So we could see an increase even beyond what we’ve seen so far.” Sullivan Arena workers observed an increase in demand as temperatures dropped in recent months. They laid out extra floor mats to increase capacity, but demand has continued rising, said Cathleen McLaughlin, who oversees that shelter.
Phoenix: A judge has ruled the city erroneously excluded immigrants from receiving coronavirus aid to cover utility bills, mortgage and rental costs. The city required applicants to its $25 million utility, rent and mortgage assistance program to provide proof of legal status in the United States. The coronavirus’ current surge saw Arizona on Thursday report nearly 5,000 additional known COVID-19 cases, the eighth day in the past 10 that the state has reported over 4,000 additional cases. It added a record 12,314 cases Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Dominic Lanza concluded Wednesday that Phoenix isn’t required to exclude unqualified immigrants from participating because the assistance program falls within exceptions in federal law for “short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief.” The judge said the city’s decision to exclude immigrants was trumped by federal law. The judge said the city has said its decision to exclude immigrants wasn’t a policy decision but rather based solely on its interpretation of federal law. Lanza said Phoenix has indicated it will begin allowing immigrants to participate in the program in the future.
Mountain Home: The Baxter County Library is hosting a virtual visit from Santa Claus on Saturday morning, live from 9 to 10 a.m. Viewers can wear pajamas, drink milk and eat cookies at home while joining a special live Storytime with Santa on Facebook Live on the Baxter County Library’s page. They can enjoy time with Santa to sing songs and listen to stories. Those unable to join during the live Storytime can visit the library’s YouTube channel. To keep up with other programs happening at the library, visit the library’s website at baxlib.org.
Sacramento: The state changed its rules overnight Wednesday to allow outdoor playgrounds to stay open in regions under strict stay-home orders, apparently swayed by broad criticism that closing them would harm children who have few options to safely romp outside. On its website, the state said playgrounds could stay open to “facilitate physically distanced personal health and wellness through outdoor exercise.” Ali Bay, a spokesperson for California’s Department of Public Health, said in an email that the change was new as of Wednesday morning, and the department was working to share the news more broadly. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has come under heavy criticism for the closure of children’s playgrounds when the administration has repeatedly said being outdoors is safer than being indoors, and there is little evidence of virus spread on playground structures. Playground advocates have said children need fresh air and exercise for their emotional and physical health, and many don’t have access to private backyards. Fraught parents also need a place to take their cooped-up kids, advocates said.
Denver: A Colorado Springs barbershop owner has sued the governor in relation to roughly $4 million in coronavirus relief designated for minority-owned small businesses, claiming the funding is unconstitutional, and the race-based requirement should be removed. Locals Barbershop owner Etienne Hardre, who is white, filed the lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, the state minority business office and its director. Hardre argued the aid intended for businesses that are at least 51% minority-owned is based entirely on race and is discriminatory, The Denver Post reports. “The Supreme Court has held that if you are going to do race-conscious measures, you are required to specify the past or present discrimination you are remedying,” Hardre’s attorney Michael Kuhn said. “And societal, so-called systemic racism isn’t sufficient.” The lawsuit said Hardre lost a third of his barbershop’s revenue during the pandemic, but since he is white, he can’t receive the aid designated for minority-owned businesses. “We have nothing against minorities, minorities are fantastic,” Hardre said. “However, everybody, all Americans, all Coloradans have been hurt. Business owners of all kinds, whites as well as minorities.”
Hartford: A coalition of public education unions is demanding that schools shift to full-time remote learning if statewide COVID-19 safety protocols and a uniform policy for reporting and responding to positive cases are not required. The group, which submitted a petition signed by nearly 14,000 education and community members to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s office Thursday, contends that policies are inconsistent by district and that teachers and staff, as well as students, are being put at risk for contracting COVID-19. “What we know is that in different places in Connecticut, in different districts, superintendents are under tremendous pressure to try to make sure that every kid is coming into school,” said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He said there are some districts where students are not wearing masks, and superintendents are not sending them home, as well as schools where the standard 6 feet of social distancing has dropped to 3 feet or less. Meanwhile, union officials acknowledged that social distancing and other safety measures are working in some districts and said those schools should remain open.
Wilmington: The state reported records Wednesday for its daily average of new coronavirus cases and for hospitalizations. The state reported 925 new cases, the second most it’s reported in a single day trailing only last Thursday, when there were 936 new cases. The seven-day average for new cases increased to 810.9. The daily case average record has been broken in 11 consecutive days. On the day after Delaware surpassed its spring peak, the number of hospitalizations in the state increased by 10 to 348. Based on the increasing case counts over the past several weeks, the number of hospitalizations will likely continue to increase and threaten the state’s capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. “Those hospitalization numbers are as real as real can be,” Gov. John Carney said Tuesday. Since the start of November, the average daily case count has quintupled. It’s increased from 531.4 to 810.9 (a 52.6% rise) since the start of December. Increased testing accounts for some of the increase, but the percentage of tests that are positive is also rising, with the seven-day average now 10%, the highest it’s been this fall.
District of Columbia
Washington: Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., wants the National Park Service to ensure its employees are safe from contracting COVID-19 and asked NPS in a letter to close monument access and visitor centers even more amid the pandemic, WUSA-TV reports. Norton sent a letter to Margaret Everson, acting director of NPS, about the safety of employees amid the highest levels yet of the coronavirus in the capital region, the congresswoman’s office said in a statement. Norton’s letter asked Everson to close the Washington Monument, visitor centers, and any other indoor properties in the National Capital Region until this wave of the virus has subsided. “I understand that there have been at least four cases of COVID-19 and one hospitalization among NPS employees who work on the National Mall,” Norton said. “NPS employees need to be able to protect themselves and their families during this time of crisis.”
Tallahassee: Democrats in the state Senate on Thursday called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to either lead the state’s coronavirus fight or get out of the way and allow the Legislature to do it. Gathered in a video conference on Facebook, the group accused the Republican governor of rarely being seen or heard since the Nov. 3 election, maintaining a tight grip on public information about the virus, and politicizing a public health crisis. Some public health officials criticized Florida’s lifting of restrictions over the summer and DeSantis’ resistance to a statewide mask mandate as reckless. “A mask is not a symbol of liberty. It is a tool that will stop the spread of this terrible disease and save lives,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. Talking to reporters two weeks ago, DeSantis mocked mask mandates and lockdowns as ineffective tools to fight the virus. And this past weekend, he hosted Republican Party activists at the Governor’s Mansion. In tweeted photos, it appeared no one was wearing masks.
Atlanta: As COVID-19 continues to rise in Georgia, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Martin is urging the state’s courts to reevaluate resuming jury trials and other in-person court proceedings. In a statement Wednesday, Melton said judges may need to reverse course on the in-person hearings if the spread of the virus prevents them from doing so safely. Melton made the statement after signing his ninth order extending the statewide judicial emergency he first announced March 14 due to the pandemic. “While this order does not impose a blanket shutdown of non-essential in-person proceedings, courts should remain vigilant of changing COVID-19 conditions and be prepared to suspend jury trials as necessary and to reconsider grand jury proceedings as well,” the order says. It also urged courts to conduct proceedings remotely if possible. “We recognize there is such a thing as Zoom fatigue,” the chief justice said. “But we urge people not to get weary just yet.” The latest order extends the judicial emergency another 30 days to Jan. 8.
Honolulu: The state’s biggest surfing competition of the year has started amid ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus among fans eager to watch the action. The 2020 Billabong Pipe Masters began Tuesday on Oahu’s North Shore and is scheduled to run through Dec. 20, with crowds watching surfers ride waves reaching up to 30 feet high, Hawaii Public Radio reports. Hundreds of spectators were at Ehukai Beach Park on the first day, with few wearing masks and limited social distancing. The World Surf League, which organizes the annual event, has changed the format in an attempt to reduce the large crowds associated with pro surfing contests. The organization is trying to minimize the in-person audience by eliminating announcers and other public attractions that are normally staples of surfing events, said Michele Nekota of the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, which issues permits for the competitions. “They are basically advertising as a virtual event, so we’re having competitors, but not spectators,” Nekota said. Mailers were sent to North Shore households urging residents to stream the event live from home.
Boise: Gov. Brad Little said Thursday that residents can expect diminished health care if hospitals fill with COVID-19 patients and the state has to initiate crisis standards of care. The Republican governor warned of the impending standards during a news conference on the same day health officials announced COVID-19 was the state’s leading cause of death in November. Little also said county morgues were asking for mobile refrigerators to hold bodies. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said the illness killed 247 people last month. COVID-19 has killed just over 1,100 residents to date, making it the third-leading cause of death in Idaho for the year. That’s about four to five times the number of annual deaths from flu and pneumonia. More than 116,000 residents have been infected. A northern Idaho doctor who took part in the news conference said some of them could face lasting lung damage from the disease. “This is not like any virus I’ve ever seen,” said Robert Scoggins, a doctor at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene who specializes in pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine.
Springfield: Public health officials on Wednesday reported 179 deaths related to COVID-19 in the state. That’s the fourth-highest single-day fatality total since the coronavirus entered Illinois in February. The largest total was 238 on Dec. 2. Officials are still expecting darker days ahead – a surge of new cases of COVID-19 and deaths to accompany them because of holiday gatherings where the virus can spread. But the number of fresh infections recorded Wednesday was 8,256, marking the fifth day in a row the number has fallen below 10,000. There were 5,284 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, a number that has not been lower than 5,000 since Nov. 10. There was a slight uptick from the previous day in the sickest patients, with 1,176 in intensive care and 647 on ventilators. Overall, 13,666 Illinoisans have died as a result of COVID-19 complications, and 812,430 have tested positive for the virus.
Indianapolis: The state’s hospitals will have to postpone elective surgeries starting next week under an order the governor said Wednesday was needed to free up hospital capacity amid steep recent increases in serious COVID-19 illnesses. An initial shipment of some 55,000 doses of the first coronavirus vaccine is expected to arrive at Indiana hospitals next week as front-line health care workers start to receive shots. Gov. Eric Holcomb said hospitals were being directed to postpone all non-urgent inpatient surgeries beginning Dec. 16 through Jan. 3. Holcomb said Indiana is “on fire” with coronavirus spread, as the number of counties with the highest risk level of coronavirus spread more than doubled in the state health department’s weekly update. The state halted elective medical procedures for most of April, but Holcomb lifted that restriction as concerns eased about availability of equipment and protective gear. But Indiana’s hospitals are currently treating more than quadruple the number of COVID-19 patients than they were in September, with health officials worried about facilities being overwhelmed.
Des Moines: Public health officials posted another 99 coronavirus-related deaths Thursday, raising the state’s death toll to 3,120. The state this week modified the methodology for counting COVID-19 deaths, which has added 399 deaths to the state total in the past three days. COVID-19 cases increased by 2,246, pushing the state total to 251,028. Hospitalizations and admissions were lower Thursday, with 863 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospitalizations and new positive cases have been trending lower, giving health care officials hope that Iowa may not see the spike in virus activity after Thanksgiving that was anticipated. “I still think we’re not out of the danger zone. We’re still facing a winter season that’s going to keep people indoors,” said University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran. “There’s going to be an opportunity with another holiday season right around us to be vulnerable for this.” Vaccinations of front-line health care workers and nursing home residents and employees may begin next week, but the White House Coronavirus Task Force warns against complacency about mask-wearing, distancing and handwashing.
Topeka: Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday imposed stronger coronavirus testing rules for several hundred state-licensed nursing homes that will have most of them testing their employees twice a week. The executive order on testing comes as Kansas waits to receive its first shipments of a vaccine made by Pfizer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to consider within days whether to authorize emergency use of the two-dose vaccine. If it does, the state expects the first shipments by the end of next week. The order affecting nursing homes applies to more than 470 facilities and imposes the same testing requirements already faced by about 360 homes in Kansas licensed by the federal government. The rules require greater testing of employees if a county’s rate of positive tests grows. “Now that we have broader testing capacity in the state, it’s really a commonsense measure,” Laura Howard, the top administrator at the state Department for Aging and Disability Services, said during a Statehouse news conference.
Frankfort: Legislative Republicans who expanded their supermajorities in last month’s election were given a mandate by voters to put limits on the Democratic governor’s executive powers in times of emergency, a leading GOP lawmaker said Wednesday. Senate Republican leaders outlined main issues awaiting them when the General Assembly convenes in January for a 30-day session. Passing another state budget tops the agenda, but debate about limiting the scope of a governor’s emergency powers will be a priority, too. Kentucky’s response to the coronavirus threat “pointed out holes” in state laws and the constitution, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said. The push to rein in the governor’s authority represents something of a turnabout from the position Republican lawmakers generally took with Beshear’s predecessor, GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, when they largely stood by as he wielded his gubernatorial powers. But Bevin didn’t confront a crisis on the scale of the global pandemic during his one term in office. Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley responded that it’s “unfortunate” the governor is being attacked while he’s “focused on defeating COVID-19 and saving lives.”
Convent: St. James Parish canceled its annual Christmas Eve bonfire celebration due to an increase in coronavirus cases, officials said. Parish officials called off the event Wednesday after discussing possible plans with the State Fire Marshal’s office, news outlets report. Officials said they were concerned about the crowds the event could bring in and how they could maintain social distancing, as the event runs for miles along the Mississippi River levee. The two groups tried to find an alternative way to hold the bonfire safely, but rising COVID-19 cases halted the discussion. On Wednesday, the parish said its positivity rate had nearly doubled, hitting 16.9%. “This was by no means an easy decision to make, as this tradition is long-standing and special to our community in particular,” parish officials said Wednesday. “We understand this has been an extremely difficult year for many of us, and we have hoped for a sense of normalcy in the Christmas season especially; however, we must first and foremost protect the health, safety and well-being of our residents.” The Christmas Eve bonfire celebrations in St. James and other river parishes may have begun in the late 1800s. The bonfires are tepee-shaped and are said to light the way for Papa Noel on his nighttime ride to deliver gifts.
Portland: The bishop of Maine’s Roman Catholic diocese is calling on all Christians – and everyone else – to get the coronavirus vaccine when it’s available to them. Bishop Robert Deeley of the Diocese of Portland said he has been fielding questions from Christians in the state about his perspective on the vaccine. He said Thursday that he unequivocally supports vaccines for everyone. “Our first response must be to give thanks to God for the scientific advancement and talent that helped to create such lifesaving vaccines,” Deeley said. “I have already been asked several times: Should I receive the vaccine when it is available to me? My answer is a resounding yes.” Deeley said he is concerned about enough people using the vaccine in Maine because the state has had lower-than-average rates of vaccine uptake in the past. That has led to resurgences of diseases such as whooping cough in Maine. He said it’s imperative for Catholics to “care about the common good.”
College Park: The University of Maryland will begin its spring semester with virtual learning and continue the semester with a similar “look and feel” to its fall classes, according to the school’s president. Students will mostly have virtual classes for the first two weeks of the semester before the school shifts to hybrid learning, University President Darryll J. Pines wrote in a Tuesday letter to the university community. Only about 25% of the classes will be in-person when hybrid learning resumes. “If there is a lesson that we have learned throughout this pandemic, it is this: We must remain nimble and flexible and expect change,” Pines wrote. “If new information comes to light, we will not hesitate to adapt our plans accordingly.” All students are required to submit a negative COVID-19 test before coming back to campus. Everyone who will be on campus will also have to get tested for the virus every two weeks. Pines said students will have two weeks of virtual classes after spring break to allow for campuswide testing before in-person classes resume. Dorms will also operate at a reduced capacity, with students residing only in single rooms.
Boston: Gov. Charlie Baker did not overstep his authority when he issued sweeping orders to close businesses and limit gatherings to control the spread of the coronavirus, the highest court in Massachusetts said in a ruling released Thursday. The Supreme Judicial Court rejected a challenge brought on behalf of a group including salon owners, pastors and the headmaster of a private school, who accused the Republican governor of exercising “legislative police power” by declaring a state of emergency under the state’s Civil Defense Act. The court said the pandemic clearly merits action by the governor under the Cold War-era law. It also rejected the lawsuit’s argument that the governor’s actions infringe on people’s constitutional rights to due process and free assembly. “Given that COVID-19 is a pandemic that has killed over a million people worldwide, it spreads from person to person, effective vaccines have not yet been distributed, there is no known cure, and a rise in cases threatens to overrun the Commonwealth’s hospital system, it is a natural cause for which action is needed,” the court wrote, quoting the state law.
Detroit: The state’s top epidemiologist said Wednesday that there’s reason for “cautious optimism” as new data emerges about the spread of coronavirus in the state. COVID-19 case rates are starting to dip, and Michigan is now averaging about 516 cases per million people, down from 610 cases per million last week, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health at the state health department. And hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 symptoms and the rate of intensive care unit admissions appears to be plateauing or declining, too, she said, even though the state overall is now seeing hospitalizations at about 90% of the spring peak. These are encouraging signs that suggest the coronavirus public health restrictions put in place last month – temporarily halting indoor dining at bars and restaurants and canceling in-person classes at high schools and colleges – might be starting to flatten the curve. It’s still too soon to say definitively whether Thanksgiving might change the outlook for Michigan when it comes to COVID-19, Lyon-Callo said.
Minneapolis: State health officials said they’re grateful that the spread of the coronavirus appears to have stabilized in recent days but cautioned Wednesday that case growth and hospitalization levels remain worryingly high. Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Walz formally called a special session of the Legislature for Monday to pass a relief package for businesses and workers affected by the four-week “pause” he ordered last month. Those restrictions included a shutdown of bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery, gyms, and other activities, including high school sports. The governor has not yet said whether he’ll extend any of those restrictions past Dec. 18. The Minnesota Department of Health reported 4,539 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and 82 new deaths, the state’s third-highest one-day total of the pandemic. Three-fourths of the deaths were patients from outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The new cases raised Minnesota’s total case count to 363,719 and its cumulative death toll to 4,109. The state is on pace to surpass 400,000 cases “within the next week or so,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
Jackson: Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday defended his decision to hold Christmas parties at the Governor’s Mansion, despite repeatedly warning residents to avoid social gatherings as coronavirus cases surge. The Republican governor said he invited family, friends and state officials to the multiple parties, but he expects many will choose not to attend. The front part of the Governor’s Mansion is a museum that is open by appointment only, and the Reeves family lives in a private portion in the back. Reeves compared the parties to tours that have been happening during the pandemic. No more than 10 people are allowed on each tour of the historic home, and masks are required. “What I think we are doing by offering the public the opportunity to, for instance, tour the Governor’s Mansion, is to offer a sense of normalcy,” Reeves said during a news conference. In a story first reported by Mississippi Today, elected officials said they were invited to a governor’s Christmas party happening Wednesday. The governor also invited lawmakers to separate parties next week.
O’Fallon: The state’s health department on Thursday reported 67 new deaths from the coronavirus, adding to a total that has risen sharply since the start of the month. Only 10 other states have reported more deaths than Missouri over the past seven days, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service’s daily tracking dashboard. Since Dec. 1, the state has cited 195 new deaths among the 290,000 Americans killed by the virus since its onset. Among the recent deaths was a young woman in her upper teens from Taney County. Hospitals remain dangerously close to full. Inpatient bed capacity is down to 22% statewide, and intensive care unit bed space is in even worse shape – 18% statewide. In northeast Missouri, just 3% of ICU beds are available, 6% are available in the southwestern part of the state and 9% in northwest Missouri, according to health department data. KCUR reports that state data on hospitalizations – often cited by Gov. Mike Parson and other leaders as evidence that hospitals were not at risk – was unreliable into the fall, in part because many hospitals failed to follow reporting guidelines.
Great Falls: Alluvion Health is holding a drive-thru flu shot clinic Friday that is open to the public for people age 12 and older. Shots are available for $30 but are offered at no cost with most health insurance plans, according to a release, and no one will be turned away for financial reasons. The drive-thru clinic is being held at the Montana ExpoPark from noon to 4 p.m. Friday. “This year, it is more important than ever to ensure you and your family are protected against influenza,” the release says. Immunization is the best way to stop the spread of influenza, Alluvion said, but officials also encouraged the same methods used for combatting COVID-19, such as regular hand-washing, covering coughs, wearing a mask and staying home when sick.
Omaha: A prisoner in his 60s died at a Lincoln hospital Wednesday after testing positive for the coronavirus in mid-November, corrections officials said. Corrections officials said the inmate had underlying medical conditions, and the exact cause of death hasn’t been confirmed. Officials did not release the inmate’s identity but said he was serving time for a robbery conviction in Seward County. A grand jury will investigate the death, as is normal procedure. Nebraska officials reported 781 coronavirus patients who were hospitalized in the state as of Wednesday evening, a decline from last month’s record highs but still far more than the number earlier this year. The state confirmed 1,321 new cases, bringing the total to 143,924 since the pandemic began. So far, 1,294 people have died after contracting the virus. About two-thirds of those who have died were at least 75 years old, according to the state’s online tracking portal.
Las Vegas: The state is adding another voluntary, free app to efforts to track person-to-person coronavirus contacts, with the launch Thursday of the Exposure Notification Express program developed by Apple and Google. The Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that Nevada will be the first state to use both ENX and a COVID Trace app the state launched Aug. 24. COVID Trace has more than 130,000 downloads, representing a fraction of the more than 3 million people in a state where 176,334 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since March. ENX is available for all Apple devices, said Julia Peek, the state official overseeing contact tracing efforts in Nevada, and COVID Trace will continue to be available in both the iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play Store. Peek said the apps are “completely anonymous, private and secure.” By opting in, app users receive COVID-19 notifications informing them if they have been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and reported their exposure to the program. ENX and COVID Trace both use Bluetooth technology and will work together, Peek said.
Concord: State House Speaker Dick Hinch died from COVID-19, a medical examiner ruled Thursday following his unexpected death. Hinch, who was only sworn in as leader of the state’s newly Republican-led Legislature a week ago, died Wednesday. Hinch was 71 and was starting his seventh, two-year term in the state House. His death was announced Wednesday night by his office, which did not give any details of what it called “this unexpected tragedy.” Hinch is the first New Hampshire speaker to die during the session, according to House Clerk Paul Smith. “We are sitting in unchartered territory here,” Smith said. The swearing in of the the 400-member House and 24-member Senate was held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire because of the pandemic. More than a quarter of House members, most of them Democrats, skipped the ceremony after learning the day before that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for the virus after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting Nov. 20 where many attendees weren’t wearing masks.
Trenton: How New Jerseyans handle the upcoming holidays could prevent thousands of people from going to the hospital with COVID-19 and hundreds from needing to be put on ventilators, according to new four-month modeling predictions from the state Department of Health and the Office of Innovation released Wednesday. In the worst-case prediction, more New Jersey residents could be hospitalized than during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring – if people travel for the holidays and continue social gatherings. That interaction would cause the virus to spread more than during past religious holidays and after the reopening of indoor dining and schools, according to both agencies. About 8,747 people could be hospitalized during the peak of the second wave Jan. 13, predicts the state Department of Health, while the Office of Innovation’s best guess is a peak of 8,689 people in the hospital Feb. 5. During the first wave, 8,270 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on April 14, according to the governor’s office.
Santa Fe: The state has begun monitoring sewage from prisons and youth rehabilitation facilities to more efficiently detect COVID-19 outbreaks in the southwest of the state, the state Environment Department announced Wednesday. The agency says the goal is to sample human feces in group-living situations to quickly identify coronavirus outbreaks. The results may be used to more effectively deploy individual testing to pinpoint infections and halt the spread. Sampling will take place at federal, state and local jails, along with facilities overseen by the state Children, Youth and Families Department. Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the initial effort comes at a cost of about $300,000, utilizing federal relief funds. The southwest region was selected for the initial phase of testing because of high positivity rates along with limited access to testing. New Mexico on Wednesday reported an additional 1,759 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to nearly 113,000 since the pandemic began. An additional 34 deaths also were reported, including a woman in her 30s.
Albany: Coronavirus infections and deaths are rising in the state’s nursing homes amid a race to deploy a COVID-19 vaccine among frail and elderly people most vulnerable to the respiratory disease. Since late September, at least 2,240 nursing home residents have contracted COVID-19 in New York, resulting in 219 deaths, according to USA TODAY Network analysis of the latest federal data through Nov. 22. Of the deaths, about 45% hit during a two-week stretch as infections spiked last month inside nursing homes, offering an early warning of the virus’s renewed assault on long-term care facilities just days before the expected arrival of 170,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in New York as soon as this weekend. And while state government plans to prioritize all 170,000 initial doses for nursing home residents and staff, the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine involved requires each person to take two doses separated by 21 days to build up immunity, meaning New York nursing homes will remain at risk into January.
Raleigh: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders said Thursday that they’ve found a solution to address the potential loss of $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funds that lawmakers earmarked for rural broadband projects. A state law approved in September had funneled the money to a broadband program. But Cooper’s administration and GOP lawmakers disagreed on whether federal guidance required the money be spent by Dec. 30. Under the announced agreement, Cooper will redirect the $30 million to other federal COVID-19 relief qualifying expenses that would have otherwise been paid for with state government operating funds. The legislature, in turn, will vote in early 2021 to spend $30 million in state funds for the rural broadband initiative called the GREAT program.
Bismarck: Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday extended an executive order that requires people to wear masks and limits the size of gatherings until next month but will allow high school sports to resume next week. The Republican governor issued the executive order Nov. 13, and it was set expire Sunday. The mandate, which has been extended until Jan. 18, requires residents to wear face coverings in indoor businesses and indoor public settings, as well as outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible. Burgum also directed all bars and restaurants to limit capacity to 50% and closed all in-person services between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Large-scale venues also are limited to 25% capacity. The governor extended that part of the order until Jan. 8, saying the shorter extension “recognizes the economic impact” the restrictions have placed on businesses. Since the order has gone into effect, North Dakota has dropped from first to 10th in the country for new cases per capita in the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Cincinnati: For years, alumni of an area high school have gathered to raise scholarship money in memory of three classmates killed in a crush of people at a 1979 concert by The Who in Cincinnati. And they were determined to do it again in 2020, despite the pandemic. They just didn’t know how. But with the help of their friends – including two famous ones – they had their most memorable evening yet. Fred Wittenbaum, one of the organizers of the fundraiser, said he and others had kicked around “some strange ideas” for the benefit, normally held over the past decade in the Finneytown High School performing arts center. In the end, Saturday night’s show included prerecorded video interviews with The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey and guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, plus a mix of recorded and live discussions with relatives of the 11 people killed Dec. 3, 1979. There were also plenty of covers of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers’ music performed by alumni rock bands and taped in a park along the Ohio River and at other scenic venues in and around Cincinnati.
Tulsa: Mayor G.T. Bynum said Wednesday that he’s disgusted that some cities, particularly in the Tulsa area, have not mandated mask-wearing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Cities with mask ordinances listened to medical professionals, Bynum said, suggesting city leaders in some other municipalities who opposed mask mandates took advice from “Facebook epidemiologists who can cite some sham website and claim that makes them an expert on the value of mask-wearing.” Many Tulsa suburbs have adopted mask ordinances, but officials in nearby Broken Arrow on Nov. 23 rejected a proposal to strongly encourage mask-wearing. Meanwhile, Tulsa International Airport announced Thursday that it will begin offering coronavirus testing for current and recent airline passengers. The airport board approved testing at a terminal beginning Jan. 4 for people who are flying or have flown in the previous three days. Tests will cost from $70 for the rapid antigen test to $185 for a complete respiratory test. The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Thursday reported 2,460 new cases of the virus and 35 more deaths.
Salem: The state continues to break records for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state reported 10,355 new cases between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6 – a 14% increase over the previous week and a record high for the seventh week in a row. Through Dec. 6, a total of 85,788 cases had been reported. That means 2% of Oregonians have had positive or presumptive cases. COVID-19 hospitalizations for last week increased to 494, a 24% increase over the previous week. There were 133 COVID-19 deaths reported over the week, an average of 19 per day. That’s the highest since the pandemic began. There were 170,964 COVID-19 tests administered in Oregon during the week. The percentage of positive tests was 8.1%.
Harrisburg: A group of Democrats in the state House of Representatives wants their adamantly maskless Republican colleagues to be sworn in next month after everyone else, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a safety measure, the 203 state representatives will take the oath of office Jan. 5 in four sets of about 50 people each, starting with newly elected members, the House speaker’s office said Wednesday. Philadelphia state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, who has objected strenuously to some Republicans remaining maskless during recent State Government Committee meetings, said there is “significant support” among his fellow Democrats to have the maskless “just simply be placed at the end of the line so that they don’t potentially contaminate the House floor.” Hohenstein said a medical exception to the House bipartisan leadership group’s policy on masks needs some teeth, suggesting the leaders might require a doctor’s note verifying the maskless member’s condition. In a memo to members sent last week, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said masks “will be required of everyone unless an individual cannot wear a face covering due to a medical condition.”
Providence: Restrictions on some businesses that began late last month to counter a second surge of COVID-19 cases in the state will be extended one more week, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Thursday. Raimondo’s “two-week pause” that began Nov. 30 will now run through Dec. 20, the Democrat said at a news conference. Certain key metrics used to measure the spread of the virus, including the hospitalization rate and the percent positive rate, have not declined as hoped, she said. She also noted that Rhode Island has the highest infection rate per capita in the country, something she attributed in part to the state’s aggressive testing program. “If we continue to stay at home as much as possible for that week, for next week, I believe it will have the impact that we need,” she said. An extra $200 per week in unemployment benefits for workers who have lost their jobs will be extended another week. When the pause ends, starting Dec. 21, closed businesses will be allowed to open with limited capacity, and restaurants will be allowed to move to 50% capacity, Raimondo said.
West Columbia: Prisoners and poultry plant workers will follow soon after front-line health care employees in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday. At the outset of the first phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, the state will focus on health care employees including physicians, medical students, speech pathologists, and residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, McMaster said. He said the second half of the state’s first phase will include people living in settings such as prisons, jails and homeless shelters, as well as processing plant and other food production workers, plus utilities employees. The governor said others included will be those age 75 and older and people with two or more underlying health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Among people to be prioritized in the state’s second phase are pharmacists, K-12 school employees, child care workers and food delivery workers.
Sioux Falls: State residents who have been exposed to COVID-19 or think they might have been can now take an at-home saliva test free of charge. The state will send Vault Health saliva tests to residents who have been exposed, think they’ve been exposed or want to use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention method of ending quarantine with a negative test. The test can be ordered through the South Dakota Department of Health website. Vault Health requires a telemedicine Zoom consult to watch the user take the saliva sample. The sample can then be sent to the lab, located in Minnesota, with a prepaid UPS package. Results should be available in 24 to 48 hours after the sample arrives at the lab. The test is free and can be ordered more than once if COVID-19 symptoms surface. The South Dakota Department of Health website also offers a COVID-19 quarantine guideline calculator and COVID-19 risk calculator.
Memphis: Shelby County health officials said Thursday that inspectors visiting restaurants and other businesses to ensure they are complying with coronavirus-related rules have received threats of violence and are being accompanied by police officers as they make their rounds. The county sends inspectors to businesses to check that they are following regulations, such as employees wearing masks, proper social distancing, and closing times. Police officers are going with the inspectors after some received racial slurs and threats of violence, said Dr. Bruce Randolph, the county’s chief health officer. “We’re not out to just close businesses,” Randolph said Thursday. “We’re out to protect the public’s health.” Memphis officials also say health care facilities are seeing a shortage of nurses and other staff. Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer, has put out a call for people with medical training and experience, such as retirees, those who are working administrative jobs, or those employed outside the health care field to contact the Tennessee Medical Reserve Corps if they are willing to help ease the staffing shortage.
Houston: Houston-area authorities have announced a new task force to combat a more than 30% rise in road rage incidents this year, an increase that officials are blaming in part on the stress of the pandemic. The rise in road rage incidents coincides with an overall increase in violent crime in Houston during the public health and economic crisis, including a homicide rate that could be the city’s highest in nearly 30 years. “We’re not psychologists here at the Houston police department … but we do know that COVID has had an impact on the collective psyche of the American people,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said. More than 200 road rage incidents in which someone was shot have occurred during the first 10 months of this year, compared to 150 during the same period a year ago, Acevedo said. Six of these road rage incidents this year have resulted in murder. “This year has been very difficult, and there’s been a lot of loss both in our community and our nation, and we shouldn’t be compounding that suffering with unnecessary carnage on our roadways,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.
St. George: Scenes reminiscent of an early-pandemic summer have returned to Zion National Park, with rangers regularly closing the road into the park’s main canyon due to overcrowding. Nearly every day since the park’s shuttle system closed for the season Nov. 30, the popular Scenic Drive roadway has filled with cars before noon, forcing officials to close the gates to ease the traffic and prevent illegal parking. During the early summer when there was no shuttle service due to COVID-19 precautions, the scenic drive was packed with cars filling up parking lots in order to hike The Narrows. So when the shuttle opened in July this year, required tickets sold out almost immediately and remained in high demand through the end of the season. However, when the gate is down, there is no passage through the canyon, in contrast to past years when park rangers have occasionally let people by to just drive through when the canyon is full. The Scenic Drive will remain open to private vehicles and commercial shuttles through Dec. 24, when it will close for shuttle operation until Jan. 2, 2021. Throughout the winter season, biking and hiking up the canyon are still permitted.
Montpelier: A legislative panel considering how the state should spend the remaining federal coronavirus relief money has approved about $3.1 million of the administration’s $24 million worth of proposals but needs more information and time to decide on the rest. The money must be allocated by Dec. 30, or it goes back to the federal government. The Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee voted 9-1 on Wednesday to turn down reallocations for grants and hazard pay proposals, including a $10 million addition to an existing grant program for non-food and hospitality businesses, the Bennington Banner reports. Secretary of Administration Susanne Young and Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein warned the committee the administration’s ability to process grants and issue checks becomes more difficult as time runs short and the holidays approach. Lawmakers including Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, however, said the proposals were given to them on short notice without enough background for them to consider.
Richmond: Gov. Ralph Northam announced new measures to combat the coronavirus Thursday that include a stricter mask mandate and a curfew that will requires most Virginians to stay at home between midnight and 5 a.m. The executive order is set to take effect Monday and will also reduce the state’s cap on public gatherings from 25 people to 10. Northam is expanding the state’s long-standing mask requirements to include outdoor areas where social distancing isn’t possible and all indoor areas shared with others, except for households. The current mask mandate requires only that masks be worn in indoor public settings. The new mandate does not apply to children under 5. The order will be in place through the end of January. Asked why he chose midnight to 5 a.m. for a curfew, Northam said it was “common sense.” “I’ll also say something that my parents taught me when I was younger, and that is nothing good happens after midnight,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference. He added that the state will be stepping up enforcement efforts against businesses that “flout” coronavirus-related restrictions.
Seattle: With an additional 49 deaths reported Wednesday, the death toll from the coronavirus in the state has surpassed 3,000, according to health officials. Since the pandemic began, 3,016 people in Washington have died from the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health. The total number of confirmed cases in the state is now nearing 190,000, officials said. Health officials also reported that a total of 11,996 people have been hospitalized in the state because of the virus, including 155 new hospitalizations as of Tuesday. Also on Wednesday, the state Department of Corrections reported 740 cases among the approximately 1,900 inmates at the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. The prison had just seven cases last week, The Spokesman-Review reports. “The humanity of what’s going on here is decaying faster and faster every day,” inmate Tobin Sather told the newspaper. He’s had two showers in the past 15 days and hasn’t had a single change of clothes in that time. For six days, the room’s temperature was hovering around 55 degrees after the heating system broke down, Sather said.
Huntington: Marshall University’s first virtual commencement ceremonies are this weekend, celebrating both recent graduates and those who completed their degrees earlier in the pandemic, and will be livestreamed at https://livestream.com/marshallu. The ceremony for spring 2020 graduates will be at 9 a.m. Saturday. Marshall alumna Jennifer Leslie Wells is the keynote speaker. She is the senior regional organizer for Community Change and Community Change Action, a national organization that strengthens social change from the ground up, Marshall said. The second ceremony, for summer 2020 and winter 2020 graduates, will be at noon Saturday. Professor Dan Hollis, recipient of the university’s Dr. Charles E. Hedrick Outstanding Faculty Award, will be the guest speaker. Jazz great Ellis Marsalis Jr., whose namesake jazz piano competition has been held at Marshall, will be awarded a posthumous honorary degree, to be accepted by his son, Ellis Marsalis III, by video during the second ceremony. Robert Simpson, former interim dean of the Lewis College of Business, will receive an honorary degree during the morning ceremony.
Madison: The Legislature’s top Republicans have signaled they want oversight of how Democratic Gov. Tony Evers divvies up any future federal pandemic relief money and distributes vaccines. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu said during a conference call with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on Wednesday that they believe Evers is making too many unilateral decisions on how to respond to COVID-19 without any public input. They said legislative oversight of federal aid and vaccine distribution would create transparency. Evers rejected suggestions of legislative oversight Thursday, saying having more than 100 lawmakers figuring out who gets a vaccine first “doesn’t pass the smell test.” “We need to make decisions in a timely manner,” he said. The Republican leaders also said they want to restore a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits that Evers and the Legislature suspended in April. They said unemployment has subsided since then, and the state shouldn’t provide incentives for people to stay home and not work.
Casper: The University of Wyoming has banned new ticket sales to home sporting events until at least 2021 after new statewide public health orders imposed by Republican Gov. Mark Gordon went into effect Wednesday. The university said no new tickets will be sold until at least Jan. 8. There will be no additional ticket sales for two upcoming home games scheduled this week, but fans who bought tickets before noon Tuesday will still be allowed to attend. The new state orders were implemented in response to the recent spike in statewide coronavirus cases. The state reported 128 deaths from the coronavirus in November, the most in a single month since the pandemic began. The new measures imposed a statewide mask mandate in most public settings and limited indoor gatherings to 10 people if social distancing is not possible. Up to 250 people are allowed to gather outdoors as long as attendance does not exceed 50% of the capacity of venues.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports