Music City moves, cannabis boost, bag ban delay: News from around our 50 states

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports


Birmingham: Mayor Randall Woodfin was released from a hospital Wednesday after being treated for COVID-19 and planned to continue recovering from the illness and quarantining at home. Woodfin, 39, was admitted to Princeton Baptist Medical Center on Monday with pneumonia in his left lung caused by COVID-19. He said a grandmother who died of the illness caused by the new coronavirus was being laid to rest as he was being discharged. “That pains me. I can’t be there, and I miss her. She was 87 years old and she died of COVID-19,” he said in a statement. “If you don’t have to be out, don’t be out. Wash your hands. Wear your masks and practice social distancing.” Woodfin received Remdesivir and convalescent plasma therapy during his stay in the hospital. Woodfin fell ill at the same time three other Alabama mayors from Auburn, Decatur and Florence were fighting the illness. Meanwhile, state health officials urged patience Wednesday amid a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, saying it plans soon to expand who is eligible to get the shots. The state is in the first phase of its vaccination plan, which prioritizes health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, about 377,000 altogether.But it has only received 226,000 vaccines so far.


Bethel: A school district established a limited intranet system in an attempt to provide students with more reliable distance learning amid the pandemic. The Lower Kuskokwim School District said every student has now received the hardware necessary for the intranet system, although a teacher said some homes are still not connected, KYUK-AM reports. “It’s a slow process because the actual hardware that families need to install on their home, it’s a self-install because of COVID, because of health mandates,” said Jeffrey Behselich, a science teacher in the village of Atmautluak. He said about a quarter of homes in the community are still not connected to the intranet system, which functions like a limited internet. Lockdowns of communities in the southwestern Alaska district to slow the virus’s spread left students and families navigating the new technology without assistance. Teachers also had to learn the software and remotely provide instruction to students about its use, Behselich said. Deployment of the district’s intranet was delayed for months, forcing schools to rely on paper packets. Many students withdrew from school activities as a result.


Phoenix: Five months after President Donald Trump hailed Arizona as a model for how it dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts warned Wednesday that the state has become “the hot spot of the world” and that health restrictions the governor has been hesitant to impose could have tamped down the crisis. “It’s way worse than July already, and it’s going to continue to get worse. We’re probably two weeks behind LA in terms of our situation,” said Will Humble, head of the Arizona Public Health Association, referring to Los Angeles County, where a COVID-19 surge has created a shortage of oxygen and led ambulance crews to stop transporting patients they can’t revive in the field. Arizona on Thursday reported nearly 300 more coronavirus deaths, a pandemic-high number of fatalities for the second time this week, along with nearly 10,000 additional known COVID-19 cases. The surge has stressed Arizona’s health care system, and the state’s coronavirus dashboard reported a record high of 4,920 COVID-19 patients occupying inpatient hospital beds as of Wednesday. The 1,101 patients in intensive care beds also set a record. Arizona has the worst coronavirus diagnosis rate in the country, with 1 of every 119 people in the state testing positive in the past week.


Little Rock: The state reported a near-record increase in coronavirus deaths Wednesday as cases continued to mount. The Department of Health reported 65 new deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, bringing the state’s total fatalities since the pandemic began to 3,901. The increase was the state’s highest since it reported a record 66 deaths Dec. 29. The state’s virus cases rose by 3,705 to 242,593. Its hospitalizations, which had hit record levels in recent days, dropped by two to 1,321. “It has been a tough day with the loss of another 65 of our friends and neighbors to COVID-19,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. “Vaccine doses continue to be distributed across the state to those in Category 1-A, and we are also receiving additional doses each week.” Nearly 4% of the state’s intensive care unit beds and 21% of its hospital beds are available, according to the Department of Health. There are 427 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.


Sacramento: Millions of low-income Californians would get a $600 payment from the state under a budget proposal by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The proposed payment, announced Wednesday, would go to people with annual incomes of less than $30,000, including immigrants living in the country illegally who file taxes with the state. Roughly 4 million people would be eligible for the payment, for a total state cost of $2.4 billion. Newsom is also asking the Legislature to extend a moratorium on evictions. Newsom called on lawmakers to join him with a sense of urgency to help Californians who are dealing with stress and anxiety about the prospect of putting food on the table, paying for child care or facing eviction. State lawmakers normally pass the budget in June, but Newsom is asking them to act early on several proposals to provide faster relief to people suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic. California’s unemployment rate was 8.2% in November, the most recent month with available state data. But that doesn’t reflect the true number of out-of-work Californians, as many people have stopped seeking work. A handful of Democratic lawmakers joined Newsom for a virtual announcement, indicating he’ll find support in the Legislature.


Denver: Gov. Jared Polis sought Wednesday to assure residents the state is vaccinating against COVID-19 as quickly as it can, urging patience as officials target highly vulnerable populations in the campaign’s initial stages. The Democratic governor had come under criticism over the holidays for slightly easing statewide restrictions on businesses without notice and adjusting a vaccination plan that put residents 70 and older in a high-priority vaccination category ahead of teachers. Polis defended those decisions Wednesday, arguing in the first instance that a recent downward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations allowed the easing of restrictions on businesses. The governor insisted that vaccinating residents 70 and older will significantly reduce virus deaths, saying that age group accounts for nearly 80% of the nearly 4,000 COVID-19 deaths to date in Colorado. Over the next two months, front-line workers such as bus drivers and grocery, farm and manufacturing workers will be eligible for vaccines, said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the state health department. That group potentially encompasses 1.3 million people, she said. The general population can expect vaccine availability this summer. Teachers can expect their vaccines beginning in March, Ryan said.


Hartford: The first two known cases of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus have been detected in the state, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday. The two people, described as between ages 15 and 25, live in New Haven County, and each had traveled recently outside the state, one to Ireland and one to New York state. Genetic sequencing showed the cases are unrelated, the governor’s office said. Meanwhile, the ability to install cameras in rooms, a statewide visitation policy and full-time infection control specialists are among recommendations by members of a committee considering pandemic-inspired changes at Connecticut nursing homes. Members are also suggesting that Lamont sign an executive order allowing residents of long-term care facilities to designate an “essential caregiver” for in-person visits. “There were a lot of people that wasted away because of their lack of being able to see family,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who co-chairs a subcommittee of the Nursing Home and Assisted Living Oversight Working Group that is focusing on improvements to socialization, visitation and caregiver engagement.


Wilmington: A group of lawmakers wants a special committee to investigate how the state’s Department of Correction has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislators will introduce a resolution to create the committee and have it make recommendations regarding prison health care. A separate bill is aimed at allowing some prisoners early release. Delaware’s prisons have seen more than 1,750 prisoners infected with the coronavirus and 12 die with it. Prisoners have questioned whether prison officials have exacerbated the spread of the virus. Prisoners have also said that vulnerable inmates have not been protected sufficiently from the virus. State prison officials have disputed those opinions as “false narratives” and portrayed the situation as under control. A Department of Correction spokesman said officials have been “actively and responsibly engaged with legislators, inmate families, and other stakeholders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

District of Columbia

Washington: The district is maintaining a “zero-waste” policy for the COVID-19 vaccine to ensure doses get used if people don’t show up for their appointments to be inoculated, WTOP-FM reports. According to the outlet, the policy helped a law student score an unexpected vaccination at a D.C. pharmacy.


Fort Lauderdale: The state launched an investigation Wednesday into an upscale nursing home amid reports that it administered COVID-19 vaccines to wealthy donors and members of a country club along with its residents and employees. The Washington Post and New York Post both reported that MorseLife Health System, a nonprofit that operates a nursing home and assisted living facility in West Palm Beach, has given vaccinations to donors and members of the Palm Beach Country Club, whose foundation has donated at least $75,000 to MorseLife since 2015, tax records show. The newspapers report the vaccinations were organized by MorseLife CEO Keith Myers and New Jersey-based developer David Mack, who is a member of various MorseLife boards and chairman of the country club foundation’s board. The vaccines were distributed at the Joseph L. Morse Health Center, which is on David S. Mack Drive. Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in an email that the governor “has been extremely clear that vaccine should only be administered to Florida’s seniors 65 and older, frontline health care workers, and long-term care facility residents and staff.”


Augusta: A study of health care and front-line workers in Augusta and across the country could reveal not only whether COVID-19 vaccines work better than antibodies from an infection but also how long those antibodies last and whether one vaccine is better than another, an investigator said. The study at Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University and four other sites around the U.S. was already collecting samples and testing thousands of health care and front-line workers who might be regularly exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. But now as those workers get vaccinated, it puts the study in a position to begin comparing antibodies and protection, said Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, principal investigator for the study at AU and director of the Georgia Esoteric and Molecular Laboratory at MCG. The study has enrolled more than 6,000 of those workers, including about 300 in Augusta, which is looking for more workers to participate, Kolhe said. That includes people who have already tested positive, which 50% of the Augusta participants have, he said.


Honolulu: Catholic Charities Hawaii announced the launch of a rent relief program for people affected by the pandemic, saying it will be conducted with state assistance. The Rent Assistance and Mediation Program administered by the social service organization will begin accepting applications next week, KITV-TV reports. The $6 million program is expected to provide assistance to renters who are at risk of eviction after experiencing reduced income, decreased work hours or unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will attempt to help tenants avoid eviction by providing payments for unpaid rent and mediation services. Payments will have a cap of $1,500 per household per month. The organization expects to offer a maximum of up to two months of past due and ongoing rental assistance. Catholic Charities Hawaii estimates the available funds will cover about 2,000 applications. The program is funded by a portion of settlement payments from Honda Motor Co. to the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Office of Consumer Protection.


Boise: An 87-year-old man has filed a federal lawsuit against Republican Gov. Brad Little and the state’s health department seeking to force the state to put people 65 and older at the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations. Richard Byrd of Rogerson said in the lawsuit filed Monday that it’s a life-and-death issue for older people who tend to die at much higher rates than younger people if they get COVID-19. Byrd contends denying him access to the vaccine immediately is a violation of his rights under the U.S. Constitution “and in reality is a ‘threat’ to my life.” The first phase of Idaho’s plan calls for vaccinating 130,000 front-line health care workers and long-term care residents. Little’s objective is to distribute the vaccine’s limited supply to preserve health care capacity and protect the most vulnerable. The first phase of vaccinations aims to fulfill both those goals by vaccinating health care workers who come in contact with COVID-19 patients and residents of long-term care facilities where outbreaks can be especially deadly. Byrd takes issue with vaccinating health care workers who he said tend to be younger and healthier and more likely to survive getting COVID-19 than older adults.


Springfield: Statewide Tier 3 COVID-19 mitigations could be lifted within 10 days. Starting Jan. 15, exactly one incubation period from New Year’s Day, any region that has met requirements for a reduction of mitigations will be able to move out of the Tier 3 mitigation plan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday. “I’m cautiously optimistic as there are some early signs indicating that some regions have made real progress and won’t reverse that progress this week or next,” he said. The entire state has been under Tier 3 restrictions since Nov. 20 in an effort to combat a potential holiday surge in cases. Under these increased restrictions, businesses are required to follow 25% capacity limits and close bars and restaurants to indoor service – a mitigation that will still be in place even when a region moves back to Tier 2. Pritzker said that despite not seeing a post-Thanksgiving surge, he is still advising Tier 3 restrictions be upheld for 14 days to ensure infection rates remain as low as possible. After Jan. 15, regions will be able to proceed past Tier 2, which could allow restaurants and bars to reopen for indoor service.


Indianapolis: COVID-19 vaccinations will start becoming available to residents 80 and older starting Friday as state health officials start expanding access to those shots. The next vaccination steps announced Wednesday come after vaccinations of Indiana health care workers began Dec. 16 and extended to nursing home residents and staffers last week. State health officials said they plan to start offering vaccinations in the coming weeks to those 70 and older and then those 60 and older. Those age groups make up 93% of Indiana’s more than 8,700 coronavirus-related deaths since March. “We are really concentrating on saving lives and reducing hospitalizations,” said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state health department’s chief medical officer. “If we vaccinate every Hoosier that’s 60 and older, that’s 1.5 million people, and so it’ll be quite some time before we get that vaccine in order to do it.” Notification postcards about scheduling vaccination appointments will be sent out to some 250,000 people ages 80 and older, State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said. Appointments will be available in all 92 counties and can be made starting Friday for those 80 and older at or by calling the state’s 2-1-1 telephone assistance service.


Iowa City: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and four aides helped make a marketing video for a Utah company that was awarded no-bid contracts for work on the coronavirus pandemic, a move that has raised allegations of favoritism and improper use of public resources. Domo Inc.’s video features interviews with Reynolds, state epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati and chief operations officer Paul Trombino portraying their COVID-19 management as a success for Iowa and the software vendor. The appearances go against long-standing guidance to avoid any hint of preferential treatment in relationships with contractors. The video puts a positive spin on their response to the virus, which has caused more cases and deaths per capita in Iowa than most other states. State Hygienic Laboratory director Michael Pentella said through a University of Iowa spokesman that he was asked to participate in the video by the governor’s office and was not told how the material would be used. Pentella’s appearance – in which he calls Domo “a great planning tool” – may contradict a university policy limiting product endorsements.


Wichita: The City Council is diverting COVID-19 grant funding that had been intended for hiring a pandemic-control officer and is instead using it to lease software that ensures police officers don’t cheat on their training. In May, the council earmarked about $250,000 to hire an emergency management coordinator to manage the police department’s pandemic response, the Wichita Eagle reports. Police told the council Tuesday that they were unable to fill the position and wanted to divert $165,000 of the funds to lease for three years software to track officers’ training online, a capability the department has sought for years. It had advertised the two-year position of COVID emergency manager, but neither of two finalists would take the job, said administrative division Capt. Dan East. Mayor Brandon Whipple said the money could have been better spent to hire someone to act as a liaison with county and state government to create a more coordinated response to the pandemic. He also questioned why city staff sat on the money for nine months before proposing an alternate use for it. Moore said the software meets the grant conditions because so much of police training has had to move online.


Frankfort: Rebuking the Democratic governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Republican lawmakers advanced bills Wednesday to limit his emergency powers and keep businesses open amid the pandemic. The measures, put on the fast track in the opening days of the 2021 session, reflect mounting GOP frustration with Gov. Andy Beshear’s use of his executive authority. His moves to put restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus have increasingly become politicized. The House State Government Committee advanced a bill to allow Kentucky businesses and schools to stay open if they comply with federal virus-related guidelines. The measure, a priority of House Republicans, cleared the committee over Democratic objections. The Senate State and Local Government Committee later approved a priority measure to limit the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. Beshear has criticized efforts to rein in his ability to respond to the pandemic, saying steps he has taken have saved lives. But Republicans have the votes to override his vetoes in both chambers. The governor has noted that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the virus.


Baton Rouge: As a slow distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out across the state, hospital leaders warned Wednesday that they are running dangerously short of beds because of the influx of coronavirus patients, a situation only expected to worsen after the holidays. Gov. John Bel Edwards described state efforts to improve the pace of vaccinations, but he and public health officials noted nothing would happen quickly enough to combat Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak except the precautionary measures they’ve been preaching for months. The Democratic governor, whose current virus restrictions expire next week, said he didn’t know whether he’d try to toughen the rules in place or renew them as is. New Orleans announced new restrictions Wednesday. “If they’re not following mitigation measures and restrictions that are in place, what makes you believe that if I impose more restrictions and mitigation measures, that they’re going to follow those? And this is the dilemma for me,” Edwards said, his voice at one point rising in frustration and emotion. “We’re either going to do the right thing, or we’re not. And if we don’t do better, we’re going to watch a lot more of our fellow Louisiana brothers and sisters die.”


Guilford: A local manufacturer of medical supplies that have proven critical during the coronavirus pandemic won the “Company of the Year” award from a business magazine. Inc. magazine bestowed the award on Puritan Medical Products of Guilford. The company has played a key role in diagnostics during the pandemic because it manufactures nasal swabs. Inc. wrote that Puritan “will have increased its production capacity more than 30-fold within a year.” The company recruited hundreds of employees to meet manufacturing demand, the Maine Department of Labor said Wednesday. It also opened a second facility in Pittsfield. Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said Puritan “embodies the long and proud tradition of Maine businesses stepping up during tumultuous times to meet the needs of our state.”


Baltimore: The city has delayed implementing its ban on single-use plastic bags, citing economic hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ban was supposed to take effect next week but now will be implemented July 9, The Baltimore Sun reports. Mayor Brandon Scott said it’s not responsible to implement the ban right now because residents who are out of work and local businesses are hurting due to the pandemic. Scott’s executive order said the ban could be pushed back further but will take effect no later than 30 days after the expiration of the governor’s coronavirus state of emergency. The ban requires city shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to stores, buy a reusable one, or pay at least 5 cents for each paper or compostable bag provided at checkout. The city had hoped to have thousands of reusable grocery bags to distribute to residents but had far fewer than expected when Scott took office last month. Local business owners complained that the ban, signed into law about a year ago, would have required restaurants and retailers to switch to paper or other bags at a time when many have closed and others are operating with limited capacity because of the pandemic.


Worcester: The coronavirus field hospital in the city has expanded to 75 beds and treated 275 patients since reopening last month, officials said Wednesday. The field hospital run by UMass Memorial Health Care first treated patients last spring. All told, nearly 500 patients were treated at the field hospital in 2020, UMass Memorial President Dr. Eric Dickson said during a virtual town hall meeting, reports. “The DCU field hospital really saved us the first time, but it’s been even more important the second time,” Dickson said. The average age of patients is 66 years old, and the average length of stay is four days, he said. The field hospital is expected to expand to 100 beds soon, he said. “When the dust all settles, you’re going to find that this is probably going to be the most efficient, in terms of cost-efficient, field hospital in the country and one of the most utilized field hospitals in the country,” Dickson said.


Lansing: A state fiscal agency is projecting a much rosier budget picture than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her budget officials have been projecting, despite a weaker outlook for economic growth. A Wednesday report from the Senate Fiscal Agency says the impact of the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic is unlike any Michigan has seen. Employment fell sharply in 2020, but both income and consumer spending rose, largely because of federal stimulus checks and federal supplements paid to those collecting unemployment. The result: At least for the short term, Michigan has about $1.4 billion more to work with than anticipated just a few months ago, in August. And the August estimates – which have now proved too pessimistic – represented a $2.3 billion upward revision from what officials had estimated in May. The upward revisions do not strengthen Whitmer’s case for more direct federal aid for Michigan, which she has called for repeatedly in recent weeks.


St. Cloud: The state has added 1,714 confirmed coronavirus cases and 44 COVID-19 deaths, according to Thursday’s report from the Minnesota Department of Health. The positivity rate of tests in the state has begun to increase again, from below 5% of samples testing positive for the virus to 6.6% as of Dec. 29, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during a conference call Thursday afternoon. The positivity rate appears to be continuing to increase during the first week of 2021, she said. “We think we might be seeing a little bit of that … bump in cases associated with the holiday gathering,” Malcolm said during the call. “We’ve averaged 2,300 new cases each day over the past seven days, and that’s up from about 1,800 a day during the week between Christmas and New Years.” Malcolm said the amount of testing over the first week of 2021 is “stable” but lower than before the holidays. She also said the state is seeing “a pretty encouraging trend in hospital beds for COVID care.”


Jackson: High school students will take end-of-course exams and third graders will take mandated reading assessments this spring, state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told lawmakers Wednesday. But she said the state should waive the requirement that students pass those tests because school routines have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. “I do believe this needs to be a year of grace for our schools,” Wright told members of the Senate Education Committee. Under a Mississippi law that’s been in place several years, students are required to pass a reading assessment at the end of third grade. Those who don’t pass are supposed to be held back. The Legislature could tweak the law to waive the passing requirement, or Gov. Tate Reeves could do it through an executive order. After the first coronavirus cases were found in Mississippi in March, Reeves ordered all public schools to stop in-person instruction for the final weeks of the 2019-20 school year. For the current school year, each school district could choose whether to have classes in person, online or both. Most have had at least some in-person classes.


O’Fallon: The coronavirus pandemic will get worse before it gets better, but vaccinations “will be the real gateway” to a return to normal, Dr. Anthony Fauci told a group of Missouri scientists and students Thursday. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, spoke remotely during the Washington University School of Medicine’s “Grand Rounds” forum. The live lecture allows experts to discuss clinical problems and new research. The event was accessible to the public via YouTube. Fauci said the nation is seeing up to 300,000 new coronavirus cases, up to 3,000 new deaths and record hospitalizations every day, calling the numbers “really stunning.” “We expect it to get a bit worse as we get into the middle and end weeks of January” because cases will likely surge from holiday gatherings, Fauci said. “On the other side of the coin, there is light at the end of the tunnel with regard to vaccinations,” Fauci said. He lauded the coronavirus vaccines as highly successful and very safe. The challenge, he said, “is to get the vaccine out and implemented in an efficient way so we can get the overwhelming majority of our population vaccinated within a several-month period.”


Great Falls: Cascade County Board of Health officials approved a motion Wednesday to support maintaining local COVID-19 regulations, including a mask mandate, that would remain in place even if statewide mandates are lifted. The motion expressed the Board of Health’s support for Cascade City-County Health Department Public Health Officer Trisha Gardner’s Nov. 20 order concerning COVID-19 safety measures. Gardner’s most recent order includes regulations on closing time and maximum occupancy rates for specific types of businesses, social distancing guidelines, limits on group gatherings and face-covering requirements. Former Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide mask mandate in July that remains in effect. On Tuesday, new Gov. Greg Gianforte announced plans to remove the mask mandate and make other changes to current COVID-19 guidelines. According to Gardner, Wednesday’s motion before the Board of Health was in anticipation of those proposed changes by Gianforte.


Omaha: The number of vaccines being administered in the state jumped significantly this week as it continued to inoculate health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. The state said 13,732 vaccinations were administered Tuesday, more than triple the previous daily high of 4,210 on Dec. 23. Officials have said they expect the pace of vaccine distribution to speed up over the next two weeks. At least 53,418 of the 108,188 doses of the vaccine the state has received have now been administered. The state reported 1,436 new virus cases and 11 deaths Wednesday to give Nebraska 172,469 cases and 1,703 deaths since the pandemic began. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases decreased over the past two weeks from 1,066.14 new cases per day Dec. 23 to 1,036 new cases per day Wednesday. The number of people hospitalized with the virus in the state declined Wednesday to 506 from the previous day’s 515. That number has stayed steady over the past two weeks.


Carson City: State officials reported 60 coronavirus deaths Wednesday, breaking the record for the highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic. The sum surpasses Dec. 31, when the state reported 59 deaths, and brings the cumulative total to 3,295 deaths – roughly 1 out of every 1,000 Nevada residents. Public health officials also reported 1,938 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to 237,393 since the start of the pandemic. Nevada has broken records for cases, deaths, positivity rates and hospitalizations on a regular basis throughout the months­long surge that began in the fall. Most cases have been in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, the region where most of the state’s population resides. Authorities nationally say the number of infections could be higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

New Hampshire

Concord: Republican Chris Sununu was sworn in for a third term as governor Thursday in a small, private ceremony shaped by concerns about both the coronavirus and potential violence. Sununu originally had planned to be inaugurated outside to allow for social distancing and avoid spread of the coronavirus. “Then unfortunately, public safety concerns over the past month and unfortunately really culminating with the tragedy that we saw yesterday in Washington, D.C., brought yet another change,” he said as he kicked off “what is going to go down as the shortest inaugural ceremony probably in the state’s history.” The Statehouse ceremony, attended by a handful of legislative leaders and streamed online, came a day after a violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. But Sununu’s decision to cancel the larger, outdoor inaugural was prompted in large part by events in his own backyard. Opponents of restrictions imposed by Sununu during the pandemic have been protesting outside his home in Newfields, where one was arrested last week carrying two dozen rounds of ammunition, Sununu said. On social media, some participants urged one another to bring weapons to future protests.

New Jersey

Trenton: Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law Thursday a bill authorizing more than $14 billion in tax credits for businesses. The massive tax break program is spread over as many as seven years and is meant to give businesses struggling from COVID-19 shutdowns a boost, the Democratic governor and the bill’s sponsors say. And while it passed with bipartisan majorities in the Democrat-led Legislature, opponents on the left and the right have attacked it. Progressives say it’s too big a giveaway, and Republicans argue it didn’t do enough for small businesses hurt by outbreak restrictions. Murphy signed the bill Thursday at a chocolate shop in Hamilton. The legislation had been in the works for three years, he said. “I am immensely proud of the result, which will not only provide much needed relief for our small businesses but will also fundamentally change economic development in our state while creating thousands of high-paying jobs for our residents,” he said. The legislation is designed to give an incentive to companies to rehabilitate historic properties, clean up brownfield sites, attract grocery stores to areas without them, invest in innovative projects and more.

New Mexico

Santa Fe: In final written arguments published Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration urged the state Supreme Court to reject demands that businesses be compensated for losses linked to pandemic-related public health orders. The high court is weighing whether financial compensation is due to businesses in response to the state’s public health orders that ban mass gatherings and prohibit business activities such as indoor dining. Businesses have scaled back or closed their doors as state health officials struggle to contain the coronavirus amid widespread testing and the rollout in December and January of the first vaccine doses. Attorneys representing the governor’s office and state Health Department say enforcement of public health orders derives from a long-standing principle that property rights contain an inherent limitation not to use property in a manner that endangers others. A coalition of businesses says pandemic restrictions have effectively seized private property from businesses that might otherwise have taken their own precautions against the spread of COVID-19. Their lawsuit characterizes the state’s public health emergency orders as a regulatory taking the merits compensation to businesses.

New York

Albany: For months, as they planned for a possible resurgence of the coronavirus, the state’s leaders talked about how a strict set of scientific metrics would guide decisions about whether to reimpose restrictions and closures that helped tame the virus in the spring. But as COVID-19 has made its expected comeback, several statistical thresholds that were once supposed to trigger shutdowns have been eased or abandoned. The latest example came this week, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo reversed course on a plan to force schools to switch to remote learning in regions where 9% or more of coronavirus tests come back positive. Schools can now stay open in counties that cross that threshold, if they launch testing programs and can show that the virus is spreading at a lower rate among students than in the general population, Cuomo said. “My position has always been if the children are safer in this school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school,” he said Monday. Unions representing teachers and school staff have objected to the change, saying the state is endangering workers by keeping schools open.

North Carolina

Raleigh: The state’s new chief justice says he’s asked Gov. Roy Cooper to consider getting COVID-19 vaccines more quickly to local court officials to meet a state constitutional requirement that “all courts shall be open.” Speaking at Wednesday’s online installation ceremony for himself and two new justices, Chief Justice Paul Newby said that “access to justice through the courts is not a luxury – it’s a mandate.” Newby, a Republican who as an associate justice narrowly defeated then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in November, said he’s communicated with Cooper to “enhance the availability of the vaccine to the courthouse personnel who bravely and I even say courageously open the courts to fulfill our constitutional mandate.” Under the current schedule from the state Department of Health and Human Services, essential workers in the legal field who aren’t at least 65 or facing high-risk medical conditions could have to wait for some time before having vaccine access. Sharon Gladwell, a North Carolina Judicial Branch spokeswoman, said the vaccination request seeks to cover all court officials, including clerks, district attorneys and magistrates. Court activities in all 100 counties have been dramatically scaled back since the pandemic began.

North Dakota

Bismarck: Some Republican lawmakers, upset with Gov. Doug Burgum’s moves on the coronavirus pandemic, want to limit emergency or disaster declarations and allow the Legislature more oversight of the executive branch action. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, would limit such a declaration to 30 days. It could be extended another 30 days if the governor calls a special session of the Legislature, which could be held virtually. The legislation was inspired by a rash of executive orders filed by the Republican governor, most in response to the pandemic. “This is not an anti-Burgum bill, nor is it a COVID bill,” Myrdal said. “This was requested by people we represent.” Burgum filed some 45 executive orders in 2020, from requiring face coverings to imposing business restrictions in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus as it stressed the state’s hospital capacity. Myrdal said a one-size-fits all solution doesn’t always work. For example, she said a bar in a tiny rural North Dakota town is not the same as a bar in Fargo.


Cincinnati: While the world has its eyes on vaccines to stop the coronavirus’ spread, therapeutic drugs are still needed to treat hospitalized patients. One of these treatments, remdesivir, is the first and only antiviral agent of its kind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved so far for COVID-19. But research performed at the University of Cincinnati concludes the drug is being used too indiscriminately when treating patients hospitalized with the virus. The study was published late last month in the online, peer-reviewed journal Fundamental & Clinical Pharmacology. The FDA approved remdesivir for emergency use authorization last May to treat COVID-19 and granted full approval for treatment in October. In the UC study, lead author Bingfang Yan, a pharmaceutical scientist, and his UC graduate students Yue Shen and William Eades found that the drug permanently stops the activity of an enzyme called CES-2, which is found in the intestine, liver and kidney and is needed for the breakdown of many medications. Yan said this breakdown increases the toxicity of many more medications such as with heart medicines and anticancer drugs.


Oklahoma City: The Republican-led state House rejected an attempt by Democrats to require members to wear masks on the House floor and take other steps to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. The House and Senate each convened Tuesday for a constitutionally mandated organizational day to formally elect leaders and seat elected members. They also voted to adopt rules ahead of the new legislative session that begins Feb. 1. During discussion of the new House rules, Democratic leader Rep. Emily Virgin proposed several amendments, including a requirement that members wear masks on the floor of the House and a provision to allow remote participation in meetings and floor votes. But all those amendments were rejected on mostly party-line votes. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed an executive order requiring state employees and visitors to state buildings to wear masks and maintain social distance, but the rule technically doesn’t apply to members of the House and Senate, and many Republican legislators opted not to wear masks or socially distance Tuesday. “Why are we acting like an executive order of the governor … doesn’t apply to us?” Virgin asked. “It’s hypocrisy at its finest.”


Portland: Recreational cannabis sales soared in 2020, peaking during a challenging summer of racial justice protests and coronavirus lockdowns. The result was a record year of business for the state’s marijuana purveyors, based on data from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees marijuana sales, The Oregonian/OregonLive reports. Total marijuana sales in the state jumped from $795 million in 2019 to more than $1 billion – $1,110,520,723 – for the year that just ended. Oregonians began buying a lot more recreational cannabis in March when Gov. Kate Brown instituted a stay-at-home order and other restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales numbers for marijuana spiked about 20% in March and kept climbing in the following months. In May, Oregon marijuana sales topped $100 million in a single month for the first time. Sales then surpassed $100 million in each of the three months that followed as well, with a high of more than $106 million in July. State tax revenue from marijuana sales in 2020 likely will exceed $150 million.


Harrisburg: Schools should consider a return to in-person instruction for elementary-age students, state health and education officials said Thursday, a change from previous state guidance that recommended online-only education in areas where the coronavirus is raging. Since the beginning of the academic year, state officials have urged virtual instruction in counties with a “substantial” level of community transmission – a number that rose rapidly as the virus surged this fall and winter. For the past month, all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties have been deemed to have a substantial level of viral spread. State officials now want schools to consider bringing elementary students back to the classroom, saying that’s where they belong. The change in guidance takes effect for the third marking period, which begins in late January. “We know that educators and families recognize that students benefit from being physically in their classroom. Research has taught us that this is especially true for our youngest learners,” Noe Ortega, acting secretary of the state Department of Education, said at an online news conference Thursday.

Rhode Island

Providence: The VA Providence Healthcare System has started giving COVID-19 vaccinations for veteran patients at the Providence VA Medical Center, authorities say. John Kirby was the first non-employee veteran to receive a first dose of the vaccination Wednesday. “As vaccine supplies increase, our ultimate goal is to offer free COVID-19 vaccinations to all veterans and employees who want to be vaccinated,” system Director Lawrence Connell said in a statement. VA Providence has a dedicated team that is actively contacting patients at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 to schedule vaccination appointments, the agency said. Veterans can also call for an appointment. The VA said even after receiving a vaccination, employees and veterans should continue wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing and washing their hands frequently.

South Carolina

Columbia: The state’s top jurist has again called off in-person hearings, saying he made the call because of the “ongoing increase” in COVID-19 cases across the state. “It is prudent to once again make changes to the operations of the circuit, family, probate, and master-in-equity courts for the protection of those who work within the courts, as well as those who use the courts,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Beatty wrote in an order dated Wednesday and posted online. In his order, Beatty suspended any in-person hearings that were to begin statewide on or after Jan. 11. Circuit and family court judges can still hear in-person emergency matters, like bonds, bench warrants, and protective custody or domestic abuse situations. This is the second shutdown of most of the state’s in-person courtroom operations. In mid-March, Beatty ordered the shuttering of all in-person judicial business as part of a broad effort to stem the spread of the pandemic. Judges at the circuit and family court levels subsequently held thousands of online hearings via WebEx. The high court itself held its first-ever virtual oral argument in May, in a case over voting access concerns related to the pandemic.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: The number of South Dakotans who died in the first 11 months of 2020 soared as the coronavirus pandemic became the third-leading cause of mortality. Data released Thursday by the South Dakota Department of Health shows COVID-19 caused a surge in deaths. From 2010 to 2019, the state averaged 6,931 total deaths from January through November. But in 2020, the state saw 8,804 deaths, 1,873 more than the average and 1,240 more than the same period in 2019. Even before the pandemic hit in March, causing the first two COVID-19 fatalities in the state, South Dakota was seeing higher mortality figures, a reflection of a growing and older population. But the pandemic accelerated deaths as it spread last summer. The rate of death among the state’s American Indian population – which suffers from higher rates of obesity and diabetes, two contributing factors in COVID-19 deaths – is higher than that of white South Dakotans. Across all age groups, the rate of deaths for whites is 129.5, but for Indians, the rate is 215.0. Among certain older age groups, the difference is even higher.


Nashville: The Volunteer State elbowed out Texas and Florida to welcome the nation’s largest net gain of new residents during the COVID-19 pandemic’s “Great American Move,” according to one weighty metric. In 2020, Tennessee topped U-Haul’s list of one-way moves for the first time, with a 12% jump in new arrivals over the prior year. Knoxville had a 23% spike in new arrivals over 2019, when Tennessee notched the 12th-most moves from U-Haul’s 22,000 truck- and trailer-sharing locations nationwide. “Places like Nashville, Murfreesboro and Clarksville are attracting tons of new residents,” U-Haul Company of Nashville President Jeff Porter said. “I’ve definitely seen an increase with the virus in just the sheer volume of rentals. We’re busier, but I don’t think it’s all just because of COVID-19. People are drawn to Tennessee.” People flocked to Middle and East Tennessee as waves of stay-at-home orders spread across the country. Knoxville, Johnson City, Cookeville, Clarksville, Cleveland, Murfreesboro and Maryville were top picks for newcomers traveling with U-Haul.


Austin: The state reported its first known case of a person infected with the new variant of the coronavirus Thursday, and health officials announced they will send most of the vaccine the state receives next week to large providers who can conduct large-scale vaccinations. Texas joins a handful of states with at least one known case of the new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. It was first identified in the United Kingdom and appears to spread more easily from person to person. But state health officials say there is no evidence it causes more severe disease and say current vaccines are expected to still be effective. The infected person was identified as a Houston-area man who is between 30 and 40 years old who has no travel history. Officials said he was in stable condition and would remain in isolation until cleared by local health officials. Statewide, Texas has seen nearly 28,000 COVID-19 deaths and reported a record 13,628 hospitalizations Wednesday.


Salt Lake City: Park officials say residents are seeing an increase in annual pass prices for state parks this year. Passes for visitors living in the state increased from $75 to $100, and senior passes increased from $30 to $50, marking the first increase in 25 years, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. “Money generated by these fees will be spent on maintaining visitors’ access to the best possible outdoor facilities and experiences,” the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation said in a statement Thursday. “Over the past several years the Division has reinvested over $42 million back into the parks to add and improve recreational opportunities, infrastructure, and facilities.” The statement attributed the rising cost to an increase in operating costs and visitation numbers. State parks visitation levels fluctuated wildly last year, with admissions nosediving during the spring lockdown and then skyrocketing as safety regulations were relaxed amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.


Bennington: The chief of the Bennington Police Department says the experience of contracting COVID-19 was “scary.” Chief Paul Doucette, four other officers and a civilian employee tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-December. One of those people is in the hospital, and the five others have returned to work, including the chief, the Bennington Banner reports. “I know there are many people that think that this was someone’s political agenda. And that COVID-19 is not real. I know that there are people that don’t want to wear masks. But I’m here to tell you that COVID-19 is real,” Doucette said. He isolated for 12 days at home and said he could not shake the fever. “There were times when I felt like someone had taken a ratchet strap and just wrapped it around my chest. I just couldn’t get a deep breath, and it was very scary for me,” Doucette said, noting that his wife and son also tested positive despite following recommended precautions. Officials think the virus was spread in the police department when officers shared a computer for a remote hearing, although employees had followed protocols of wearing masks, washing hands and staying 6 feet apart.


Richmond: Gov. Ralph Northam is urging hospital systems to move quickly to administer coronavirus vaccines, saying the state will now implement a “use it or lose it” policy designed to speed up distribution of the shots. “No one wants to see any supply sitting unused,” Northam said at a news conference Wednesday, saying health systems that don’t move fast enough will receive fewer doses in future distribution rounds. With frustration rising over the sluggish rollout of the vaccine, Northam is one of many state leaders and other politicians around the U.S. who are turning up the pressure to get shots in arms more quickly. The governor, a Democrat, has been criticized by Republicans for the pace of vaccinations. “There’s no question we need to speed the process up,” Northam said. He also named Dr. Danny Avula responsible for coordinating the state’s vaccination drive and announced details for the first time about who will be included in the state’s second and third tier of vaccine priorities. Police, grocery workers and teachers, along with residents over age 75, are in the next eligible group, 1B, and 1C includes essential workers in housing construction, food service, and transportation and logistics.


Seattle: Everyone over 70 years old and anyone over 50 who lives in a multigenerational household will be prioritized next for COVID-19 vaccines, state health officials said Wednesday. Newly installed Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah told an online media briefing that the state remains in the first phase of vaccination distribution, with high-risk health care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities first in line. But he said within two or three weeks the state should be able to move to Phase B1, which will focus on all residents over 70 and those over 50 who live in multigenerational households. That will be followed sometime next month by Phase B2, with vaccinations for high-risk critical workers over 50 who work in certain congregate settings like schools, jails, grocery stores and farms. Officials hope to get to those over 16 years old who have multiple underlying conditions in March. High-risk critical workers younger than 50 and those who live and work in other congregate settings – including inmates, homeless people staying in shelters and residents of group homes – would be eligible in April.

West Virginia

Morgantown: West Virginia University has extended a ban on fans attending home athletic events through Jan. 24 due to a recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state. The university said Wednesday that only families and guests of the players and coaching staffs along with essential game personnel will be admitted to the events on the Morgantown campus. “We continue to be disappointed not to allow fans at our home indoor events, but quite frankly, COVID-19 is not yet under control,” athletic director Shane Lyons said in a statement.


Madison: The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday passed a doomed COVID-19 response bill that Senate Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers oppose, and there’s no sign of an agreement on a plan to combat the virus that has killed more than 5,000 people in the state. Evers and Assembly Democrats have their own proposals that Republicans do not support. The Legislature hasn’t passed anything related to the pandemic since April, and recent talks between Evers and Republican leaders failed to result in a deal. The Assembly voted 56-34 to pass the bill Thursday, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against. Republicans voted down the Democratic proposal offered as an amendment, which included accepting the federal Medicaid expansion, something the GOP has long opposed. The measure contains many provisions Democrats oppose, including waiving liability for COVID-19 claims for businesses, making it more difficult for schools to remain all virtual, and giving the Legislature control over future federal money for pandemic response.


Casper: Leaders of several tribal nations said a Trump administration decision to permit five oil companies drilling rights in Wyoming will destroy cultural resources, compromise air and water quality, and violate existing treaty rights, Native American tribal leaders say. The Oglala Sioux Tribe said U.S. regulators failed to uphold federal law and fairly consult local tribes when they made their decision, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The tribe also said the environmental reviews that occurred in conjunction with the project were “deficient,” according to their recent protests. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued an order Dec. 23 that will allow for year-round drilling on federal leases in Converse County. The area carries significant meaning for over a dozen tribes with history in the southern Powder River Basin, the newspaper reports. Cultural resources, sacred sites and rivers within the area are important for many local tribes. The rivers within the approved project area serve as an important water source for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and other tribes in the Sioux Nation. Multiple treaties grant the tribes rights to the land.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

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