Idaho State police on Sunday were investigating a protest at the state Capitol in Boise during which scores of Idahoans burned masks to protest coronavirus public health recommendations they view as restrictions on freedom.
Health experts say masks are critical tools against a disease that has killed nearly 525,000 Americans, including almost 2,000 in Idaho. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, has never ordered a statewide mask mandate, but seven counties and 11 cities have them in place.
State police say the protest Saturday drew about 100 people to the Capitol steps. Videos posted on social media showed adults encouraging children to toss masks into a fire.
“During the event, an open flame was ignited in a barrel,” police said in a statement. “Those involved with the event were informed both before and during the event that open flames are not allowed on State Capitol grounds. The incident is under review.”
Republican lawmakers in Idaho have introduced legislation to prohibit mask mandates across the state. Visitors to the Capitol are asked to wear masks, but they’re not required, and few Republican lawmakers wear them. Little, however, wore a mask to sign unrelated legislation Friday.
Also in the news:
►A vaccination site in the Miami suburb of Florida City was overwhelmed Sunday after it drew so few eligible takers that is started inoculating any adult to avoid wasting vaccine. Word spread, and police had to calm the crowd when the site again enforced state eligibility rules: 65 and older; medical workers and police officers, teachers and firefighters over 50; and younger people with a physician’s note saying the virus would endanger their lives.
►The Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out of Sunday’s All-Star Game, the NBA said in a statement. Their personal barber tested positive for COVID-19, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
►Schools across England are reopening to all students Monday, part of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as a plan to get the country to “start moving closer to a sense of normality.”
►Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on state TV that all Italians who want to be vaccinated will be able to do so by summer’s end.
►The Dalai Lama, the 85-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader, has received the first shot of the coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in the north Indian hill town of Dharmsala.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has almost 29 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 524,900 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 116.7 million cases and 2.59 million deaths. More than 116 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and more than 90 million have been administered, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: COVID-19 fueled a domestic violence crisis. Now, the stimulus bill could help women and children leave abusers.
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Variant cases continue to spread quickly across US
The U.S. added a record 380 new coronavirus variant cases Sunday, continuing a trend that has seen the country double its known total of such coronavirus infections since Feb. 18. Different versions of the virus that causes COVID-19 are spreading quickly even as the pace of new infections has generally been falling nationwide.
The variants can spread more easily, dodge some treatments and immunities or both, leaving them a threat even as more Americans get vaccinated. The U.S. has 3,133 known variant cases, up from the 2,753 reported Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control said Sunday.
Most of America’s known variant cases are of B.1.1.7, which was first seen in the United Kingdom, with 3,037. Vaccines have proven effective against it but the variant is considered at least 50% more infectious than the original strain, making fast, widespread vaccination imperative.
– Mike Stucka
Growing demand for Russian vaccine as skepticism dwindles
The early questions about Sputnik V, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine touted by President Vladimir Putin, have been replaced by admiration and surging demand as countries seek to protect their citizens from the coronavirus in the face of vaccine scarcity.
Slovakia got 200,000 doses of Sputnik V on March 1, even though the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing its use Thursday in an expedited process. The president of the hard-hit Czech Republic said he wrote directly to Putin to get a supply. Millions of doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.
The initial skepticism about the Russian vaccine, fueled in large part by insufficient testing, has tapered off after a report in the respected British medical journal The Lancet said large-scale testing showed it was safe and had an efficacy rate of 91%.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Sunday that he will end a mask mandate next month if the state’s test positivity rate or hospitalizations are low. Hutchinson on Friday lifted most of the safety restrictions placed on businesses to curb transmission of the coronavirus. He said that it’s time to “rely upon common sense and good judgment” versus mandates that are crippling businesses.
Last week, President Joe Biden dismissed the decision by some Republican governors to end mask mandates as “Neanderthal thinking.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the comment as a “reflection of his frustration” about Americans refusing to follow public health guidance. Hutchinson does not agree.
“Just give us our freedom back and lift some of our mandates,” he said. “That’s not caveman thinking, that’s common sense.”
Students struggle to learn to read behind masks, screens
Too many children may be falling behind in reading during the pandemic, teachers and experts say. The USA TODAY Network visited a handful of classrooms in different states to see how schools are adapting at a time when the teachers’ axiom about students learning to read in early grades so they can read to learn the rest of their lives is getting tested. Lost time from when schools shut down, inconsistent schedules since then, the limitations of teaching over video conference or even in person with masks and social distancing – these handicaps are hurting children learning to read more than kids at other grade levels, said Anjenette Holmes, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Picard Center for Child Development & Lifelong Learning.
“Learning to read is so challenging,” said Laura Taylor, a professor of educational studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. “It’s a long process that takes years.”
– Leigh Guidry, Mandy McLaren, Laura Testino, Isabel Lohman and Gabriela Szymanowska
Senators thank Georgia after Senate passes COVID-19 relief package
After more than 24 hours of debate, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Saturday passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock – two Democrats elected in Jan. 5 runoffs in what was once considered a Republican stronghold – spoke hours after the 50-49 vote that fell along party lines, saying the package would likely have never come to pass without their upset victories in November. Said Ossoff: “We will crush COVID-19, recover economically, safely re-open our schools, and get our daily lives back – and we’ll do it thanks to Georgia voters.”
GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming wasn’t as warm to the bill, describing it Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as a “wish list of liberal spending just basically filled with pork.”
The bill would provide millions of Americans with $1,400 direct payments, billions of dollars for vaccine distribution and funds to help reopen schools and colleges. It also extends the federal unemployment benefit at $300 per week through the end of August, down from a $400 extension in the original bill.
California counties don’t want Blue Shield’s vaccine program
Counties across California are increasingly asking to opt out of the state’s centralized vaccination program run by Blue Shield, further complicating Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to smooth out what has been a confusing and disjointed rollout of coronavirus vaccines. None of the state’s 58 counties have signed contracts with the insurance giant even as the state moved ahead with plans to bring 10 counties in the inland sections of central and Southern California under Blue Shield oversight beginning this week, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.
The state is in the process of switching over to a vaccine appointment and delivery system administered by Blue Shield that is expected to be completed by March 31. The decision announced in February to outsource functions to Blue Shield that had previously been managed by public officials at the state and local levels was intended to ensure vaccines are distributed equitably and reach low-income communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Study: Intellectual disability second-greatest risk factor for COVID-19 death
People with intellectual disabilities are at “substantially increased risk” of dying from COVID-19, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine Friday. Researchers with Jefferson Health in Philadelphia reviewed data on nearly 65 million patients – including nearly 130,000 with a recorded diagnosis of intellectual disabilities – across 547 health care organizations and found that having an intellectual disability was the strongest independent risk factor for presenting with a COVID-19 diagnosis and the strongest independent risk factor, other than age, for COVID-19 mortality.
People with intellectual disabilities may face higher risk of COVID-19 exposure for various reasons, researchers said, such as the inability to social distance because of regular contact with support personnel or sensory issues that make it difficult to wear face masks. The pandemic has also made it harder for people with intellectual disabilities to receive health care support, the researchers said.
Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi, Matthew Brown and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.