AUSTIN, Texas — The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Texas continues to fall from record highs as the state nears the end of what has been its deadliest month of the pandemic.
State health officials Monday reported fewer than 13,000 people were being treated for the virus in Texas hospitals, marking the seventh consecutive day of declining patient loads.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the area was “starting to see some metrics go in the right direction” as the average number of daily new cases fell by 800.
More than 34,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas, the second-most in the nation behind California. More than 5,000 new cases were reported statewide Monday.
Nationwide, coronavirus deaths and cases per day in the U.S. dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels. The U.S. is recording just under 3,100 deaths a day on average, down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Online error messages and jammed-up hotlines slow vaccine rollout for those over 80 in Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state
— The European Union is pressuring the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to deliver more vaccines as promised
— Facing questions about its vaccines and its early COVID response, China is hitting back by encouraging fringe theories that may harm
— Mexican President López Obrador says he has mild COVID-19 symptoms as his country registers its highest infections and deaths
— For emergency medical technicians, the coronavirus is constant, riding with them in ambulances from patient to patient
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING.
SEATTLE - Seattle has joined other cities in approving extra pay for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City Council on Monday approved legislation requiring large grocery stores to pay an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay. The Seattle Times reports the legislation passed 8-0, clearing a requirement that it receive a three-quarter super-majority in order to go into effect immediately.
Mayor Jenny Durkan called the policy “a strong step forward in Seattle’s recovery.”
The new requirement applies to grocery companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and to stores larger than 10,000 square feet. It does not apply to convenience stores or farmers markets.
Covered businesses will have to pay their retail employees $4 an hour on top of the pay they currently receive as long as the city’s coronavirus civil emergency, first declared in early March of last year, remains in effect.
The California cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Berkeley have within the past month forwarded or approved similar “hazard pay” boosts for grocery workers.
BOISE, Idaho -- Legislation to end coronavirus restrictions limiting private and public gatherings to 10 people or fewer has passed the Idaho House and is headed to the Senate. But the measure faces legal and constitutional questions.
The House voted 55-15 Monday to approve a concurrent resolution aimed specifically at a Dec. 30 health order by Republican Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The 10-person limit doesn’t apply to religious or political gatherings.
Backers of the resolution say they want to remove a portion of an emergency declaration by Little but leave the declaration in place. However, the resolution targets a health order, not an emergency declaration.
NEW ORLEANS -- Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Louisiana have dropped to the lowest level since late December — prior to a post-holiday season surge that saw the number hit a record high.
Figures posted by the state health department Monday showed the number of people hospitalized with the disease caused by the new coronavirus at 1,638. The number was 2,069 on Jan. 7, higher than the peak of just under 2,000 in the first deadly surge that hit the state in early 2020.
The Louisiana numbers are similar to a national trend. The number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital in the U.S. has fallen to about 110,000 from a high of 132,000 on Jan. 7.
The government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the improvement appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge, rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.
Louisiana, like other states, continues to have more interest in the vaccine than shots available. Some hospitals and clinics have reported having to cancel immunization appointments because they didn’t have enough vaccine doses to distribute.
On the other hand, officials at the Ochsner Health system, with facilities throughout the state, have seen a reluctance among some employees to get vaccinated. A little more than half of Ochsner employees have yet to get the vaccine, officials said at a news conference Monday.
Ochsner Chief Medical Officer Robert Hart and system infectious disease specialist Sandra Kemmerly said some employees have been reluctant based on pervasive misinformation about side effects.
“We continue to stress to our employees and everybody that will listen to us how safe and effective this vaccine is,” Kemmerly said.
JUNEAU, Alaska — Eligibility criteria for COVID-19 vaccines in Alaska is expected to remain the same through much of February, with a continued focus on vaccinating those 65 and older, a vaccine official said Monday.
Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead of Alaska’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, told reporters the state expects to learn soon what its vaccine allocation will be for February. She said officials did not expect any new eligibility tiers opening next month.
“We are really focused on 65 and older for the rest of February,” she said.
Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said the emphasis comes with wanting to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19.
Certain healthcare workers and long-term care residents and staff also are among those currently eligible for vaccinations in Alaska.
Walker Linderman said she would not encourage people to wait outside pharmacies or clinics in hopes of getting a leftover shot that might otherwise be thrown out. She said providers are asked to have wait lists for those who meet eligibility criteria and to vaccinate individuals who fall within those eligibility tiers.
MINNEAPOLIS -- A new Brazilian variant of the coronavirus has made its first known appearance in the United States, in a person who had recently returned to Minnesota after traveling to that country, state health officials announced Monday.
The virus known as the Brazil P.1 variant was found in a specimen from a patient who lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and became ill the first week of January, the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement. Epidemiologists were re-interviewing the person to obtain more details about the person’s illness, travel and contacts.
There was no immediate indication that the variant was spreading in the state.
Viruses are constantly mutating, and new versions – called variants – often emerge. Health officials are also worried about variants that were first reported in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Researchers believe they may spread more easily than the virus that’s been sickening millions in the United States and that has caused nearly 420,000 deaths.
The Brazilian variant was first identified in four travelers who were tested at an airport outside Tokyo, Japan. It contains a set of mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some researchers have raised a concern that the Brazilian variant may be able to re-infect people who already were sickened by COVID-19.
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina officials are shifting the state’s COVID-19 vaccination distribution strategy toward mass clinics in an effort to turn the corner on a slow rollout. But it’s leading to frustration for some hospital systems that have had their anticipated vaccine allocations reduced or eliminated, resulting in thousands of residents seeing appointments postponed or canceled.
Over the last week, North Carolina distributed more doses to large sites, such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, where nearly 16,000 people were vaccinated over the weekend. Other mass vaccination sites also are opening.
But UNC Health on Monday said the 10,000 doses it will now receive this week is less than half of what it expected, and far less than the 30,000 doses it has the ability to administer.
And Cone Health, a private healthcare system based in Greensboro, said it learned late last week that it would not get any additional first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines this week, resulting in 10,400 people having their appointments pushed back. Cone Health CEO Terry Akin said the decision “shocked” him and noted he is “very unhappy that the state appears to keep changing the rules for vaccination allocation.”
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on Monday that supply shortages are fueling the problem.
“As long as we are getting such a small amount of vaccine as a state, there are going to be challenges and shortages as we try to ensure equitable access to vaccine, while getting shots into arms quickly. We understand this is hard for providers who are doing everything right,” Cohen said.
MEXICO CITY — The son of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim announced Monday that his father has COVID-19 and is responding to treatment.
Carlos Slim Domit wrote in his Twitter account that his 80-year-old father started having minor symptoms a week ago, and has gone to one of the country’s foremost hospitals for care.
The son said the National Nutrition Institute had given his father “tests, monitoring and timely treatment.” With Mexico City’s hospitals at 89% capacity, many city residents have had a very difficult time finding a hospital with room for a sick relative.
“He is very well and has had a very favorable development,” Slim Domit wrote.
The elder Slim was once listed as the world’s richest man, though he has since fallen out of the top 10 on the world's richest people list.
The announcement came one day after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced he had tested positive for coronavirus. It was unlikely the two cases were related; Slim does not frequently see the president.
LAS VEGAS — Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Monday wrote a letter to the acting U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Norris Cochran asking why Nevada has received the second-lowest number of vaccine doses per capita among the states.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection data show Nevada has received 9,316 doses per 100,000 people, putting it above only South Carolina, which has received 8,803 per 100,000.
The Democratic governor says Nevada officials were told vaccine doses would be administered to the states based on population. Sisolak in his letter asked what data the government is using to allocate doses and requested the U.S. government find a way to send the state more.
DENVER — A Denver-based medical equipment company is expected to pay Colorado $70,000 after the state alleged the business made misleading claims about masks and respirators sold during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Denver Post reports the state attorney general’s office says Nationwide Medical Supply Inc. agreed to the payment.
The state alleged the company improperly identified products, made false claims about federal approval and inflated its prices, which is prohibited during public emergencies.
Nationwide Medical Supply denied the allegations but said the company would improve due diligence policies and procedures rather than fight the claims in court.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said schools should be made “safe and secure” for students and teachers as states look to ramp up in-person learning.
But Biden speaking to reporters on Monday sidestepped a question about whether school districts should wait until teachers are vaccinated before requiring them to return to the classroom.
That issue is at the heart of a standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to defy an order to return to the classroom to begin in-person learning in one of the nation’s largest public school districts.
While negotiations are ongoing, school district officials say the teachers’ absence would amount to an illegal strike.
“We need testing for teachers as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that the circumstance of the school is safe and secure for everyone,” said Biden, when asked about Chicago school district standoff.
O’FALLON, Mo. — Missouri ranks dead last among states for the percentage of residents receiving their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and two neighboring states don’t fare much better.
Information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday showed that 242,937 Missourians have received the first shot, or 3,958 people per 100,000 residents. Idaho, Nevada and Alabama had the next worst per capita rates, followed by Missouri’s neighbors on both sides — Kansas with 4,374 vaccinations per 100,000 residents, and Illinois with 4,392 vaccinations per 100,000 residents.
Across the U.S., the supply of vaccine to the states has failed to keep up with demand. Missouri’s health director, Dr. Randall Williams, said in a briefing last week that he has already been contacted by the new Biden administration, which sought details about Missouri’s plan.
WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is releasing some more information about its increasing role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, though it is not yet saying where it will be setting up federal vaccination centers.
FEMA announced Monday that it would be reimbursing states, territories and tribal governments for the use of National Guard troops to respond to the pandemic and plans to expedite reimbursement for eligible emergency projects such as leasing facilities or equipment to administer or store vaccines.
President Joe Biden last week directed FEMA to assist state and local governments with vaccination efforts that lagged under his predecessor.
Details have not been released but the agency said that it would support established vaccination locations and establish new ones in locations that have not yet been announced.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is considering extending eviction protections through the end of June and paying up to 80% of some tenants’ unpaid rent.
The proposal, which must be approved by the state Legislature, would extend a state law scheduled to expire on Monday that prevents landlords from evicting tenants who could not pay their rent between March and August because of the coronavirus pandemic. To be eligible for that protection, tenants must sign a “declaration of hardship” that they have been impacted by the pandemic and must pay at least 25% of their rent due between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31.
This new proposal would extend those protections until June 30. But it would also use $2.6 billion Congress recently approved for California to pay off some of that unpaid rent. The state would pay landlords up to 80% of their unpaid rent — but only if landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20% and pledge not to evict tenants.