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Pfizer vaccinations may begin next month; Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine in the works

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Pfizer and its partner BioNTech filed Friday for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, two days after announcing its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective.

“Our work to deliver a safe and effective vaccine has never been more urgent, as we continue to see an alarming rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 globally,” Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

It’s been a hopeful week for vaccine candidates. On Monday, data released by drug company Moderna showed its vaccine has a high rate of efficacy. And Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientist said the drugmaker expects to seek authorization for its single-shot vaccine candidate by February or earlier.

The vaccine news comes as the coronavirus continues to ravage the U.S. ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. On Thursday, the nation reported nearly 188,000 new daily cases – the most on record since the start of the pandemic. The death toll has surpassed 252,000, including more than 2,000 reported Thursday alone. Hospitalizations across the nation have exploded, with almost 80,000 Americans now receiving inpatient treatment.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has reported more than 11.8 million cases and more than 253,300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: 57.3 million cases and 1.36 million deaths.

🗺️ Mapping coronavirus: Track the U.S. outbreak in your state.

This file will be updated throughout the day. For updates in your inbox, subscribe to The Daily Briefing newsletter.

Donald Trump Jr. tests positive for COVID-19

President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, according to his spokesman.

“Don tested positive at the start of the week and has been quarantining out at his cabin since the result. He’s been completely asymptomatic so far and is following all medically recommended COVID-19 guidelines,” his office said in a statement.

Trump Jr. is the latest person close to the president to test positive in recent days. Earlier on Friday, Rudy Giuliani’s son, Andrew, announced he also tested positive a day after attending a press conference held by his father at the Republican National Committee headquarters.

The White House has struggled to contain at least three outbreaks of the virus in recent months. Trump was hospitalized after he tested positive, and several aides have since been infected.

– David Jackson

Biden talks pandemic response in meeting with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer

President-elect Joe Biden met Friday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to discuss federal spending, both in response to the coronavirus pandemic and to keep the government open.

“I hope we’re going to spend a lot of time together,” Biden told Pelosi and Schumer in brief opening comments at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, before reporters left the room.

Biden has urged the Republican-controlled Senate to consider $2 trillion legislation for COVID-19 from the Democratic House aimed providing a second wave of direct payments to taxpayers, aid to state and local governments, and food and rental assistance.

But Republicans leery of the price tag supported a $500 billion package to focus on small-business loans, additional unemployment benefits and aid to schools, and for testing. Negotiations reached an impasse before the break for Thanksgiving.

– Bart Jansen

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida tests positive for COVID-19

The surge in coronavirus infections has hit Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who announced Friday he has tested positive for the coronavirus. He is the second Republican senator, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to announce positive tests this week. At least 32 members of Congress have tested positive or been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Scott, who turns 68 in December, entered quarantine earlier this week after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive.

“After several negative tests, I learned I was positive for COVID-19 this AM,” he said on Twitter Friday morning. “I’m feeling good & experiencing very mild symptoms. I’ll be working from home until it’s safe for me to return to DC. I remind everyone to be careful & do the right things to protect yourselves & others.”

He immediately followed that tweet with another to urge people to wear a mask and “be responsible.”

– James Call, Florida Capital Bureau

Rudy Giuliani’s son tests positive

Rudy Giuliani’s son, Andrew, announced Friday he has tested positive for COVID-19, a day after he attended a news conference with his father and other members of President Donald Trump’s legal team alleging baseless claims of widespread election fraud.

The news conference was held in a tightly packed room at the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill.

“This morning, I tested positive for COVID-19,” the younger Giuliani wrote on Twitter. “I am experiencing mild symptoms, and am following all appropriate protocols, including being in quarantine and conducting contact tracing.”

Andrew Giuliani, who serves as a special assistant to the president, is the latest member of Trump’s circle to test positive. The list of those close to the president who have been infected includes White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who tested positive earlier this month.

– Ledyard King

US borders with Canada, Mexico will stay closed through December

If you were hoping that the United States’ borders would reopen for holiday travel, don’t get your hopes up.

The land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed through Dec. 21, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday.

“In order to continue to prevent the spread of COVID, the US, Mexico, & Canada will extend the restrictions on non-essential travel through Dec 21,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are working closely with Mexico & Canada to keep essential trade & travel open while also protecting our citizens from the virus.

Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, wrote on Twitter that border-closure decisions “will continue to be based on the best public health advice available to keep Canadians safe.”

– Jenna Ryu

Pfizer takes candidate vaccine to FDA for emergency authorization

Pfizer said Friday it is filing for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, the next step in bringing its candidate vaccine to market. Health and other frontline workers could get the vaccine as soon as December but reaching everyone could take up to a year.

The move follows an announcement from Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech, that its vaccine appears 95% effective against the coronavirus. Also this week, drug company Moderna released positive news, with its vaccine also showing a high rate of efficacy. Both candidates, each of which require two shots, protect more than 90% of those immunized, self-reported results indicate.

The FDA and an independent advisory board will review Pfizer’s application before it is able to get into peoples’ arms.

“If we do get people vaccinated to a high degree, then you can start talking about this umbrella or blanket of protection on society that would diminish dramatically the risk of a person being exposed or even being infected,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told USA TODAY earlier this week.

– Cara Richardson

Johnson & Johnson to seek FDA authorization of vaccine by February, report says

Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientist told Reuters that the company expects to have all the data it needs to file for authorization of its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine by February or sooner.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine study resumed last month after being paused in October because a study volunteer developed a serious health issue which requiring a review of safety data.

Dr. Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer told the outlet the company is recruiting more than 1,000 people per day to its vaccine trial and expects to have 60,000 participants by the end of the year.

The company must provide that data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for at least half of study participants over the course of two months after they are vaccinated, Reuters reported. Unlike the vaccine candidates from competitors Pfizer and Moderna, Johnson and Johnson is developing a single shot which Stoffels told Reuters would benefit remote areas.

“In a pandemic a single shot is definitely important globally,” Stoffels said. “(A two-shot vaccine) is a very significant operational challenge. More so in healthcare systems which are less well organized.”

Rachel Maddow, back on MSNBC, warns of COVID-19 after partner’s illness

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who’s been off the air in quarantine since Nov. 6, returned to her show Thursday, explaining her absence in a sweet tribute to her longtime partner, artist Susan Mikula, and delivered an impassioned warning about the danger of COVID-19.

Maddow, 47, said she’s tested negative for coronavirus but that Mikula, 62, became seriously ill with the virus after testing positive two weeks ago.

“And, at one point, we really thought that there was a possibility that it might kill her. And that’s why I’ve been away,” she explained, adding that Mikula is now recovering.

In an unusually personal digression, Maddow, talked movingly about her relationship with Mikula, as a way of explaining to viewers the deep fear of losing a loved one.

Maddow then explained her quarantine will end soon and that she will do her show from home until that time. And then she began discussing the day’s news.

Landlords skirt COVID-19 eviction bans, using intimidation and tricks to boot tenants

Cash-strapped renters nationwide say their landlords tried to skirt COVID-19 eviction moratoriums by changing locks, removing trash containers so waste piled up and – in one case – attempting to unbolt the front door right off an apartment.

They told state attorneys general that they were kicked out of their homes after landlords accused them of violating tenant rules, like smoking cigarettes inside their units or failing to take the hitches off of their mobile homes.

That type of informal or “extrajudicial” eviction is a work-around to the patchwork of emergency state and federal rules created this year to prevent landlords from ejecting tenants into unstable or crowded living arrangements during the health emergency.

Tricks and intimidation behind the scenes add to more overt efforts by landlords to legally evict tenants. With statewide bans largely expired and federal protection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium nearing its final days, tenant advocates like Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, fear things will only get worse.

— Nick Penzenstadler and Josh Salman

Schools are closing again for millions of kids as teachers get COVID

After weeks or months of operating in person, schools are shifting students back to remote learning as the nation grapples with soaring COVID-19 infections. Starting Monday, millions more students will be connected to their teachers only by whatever internet or phone connection they can secure.

In many cases, schools are closing because too many teachers are quarantined or infected with COVID-19. Others are responding to high rates of virus transmission in their communities.

Adding to the confusion and stress of the moment: The metrics used for closure, and the scope of the shutdowns, diverge wildly, sometimes even within the same county. Schools can be considered safe in one town or state and ordered closed in another, even though that area has less community spread of the virus.

Many of the closure announcements are facing political pushback, including from the White House and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s in addition to parent gripes about rearranging work schedules or again subjecting children to the subpar experience of virtual learning. Underscoring it all are doubts about whether school closures actually work — or cause even more harm.

— Erin Richards and Elinor Aspegren

Fauci says Santa Claus won’t be spreading COVID-19 this Christmas

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said Santa Claus is coming to town. And he’s not bringing COVID-19.

It should come as no surprise. As children already know, Santa is superhuman. He flies around the world in one night, delivers millions of toys and eats his weight in cookies.

But with millions of Americans already sick with COVID-19, children have been worried about Santa, especially this Christmas Eve when he visits millions of homes. And there’s no denying that Santa, because he is older and overweight, would at first glance appear to be at higher risk of developing severe disease from COVID-19.

Fauci is telling kids not to worry, though. “Santa is not going to be spreading any infections to anybody,” he said.

— Adrianna Rodriguez and Grace Hauck

CDC recommends against holiday travel

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending against travel for Thanksgiving. Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager, said the “tragedy that could happen” is that family members could end up severely ill, hospitalized or dying. The CDC’s warning is the latest and most high profile about the risks of traveling as coronavirus cases rise nationwide. Officials in California, Illinois and other states have urged residents to avoid nonessential travel even as airlines tout holiday fare deals.

“These times are tough, it’s been a long outbreak, almost 11 months, and we understand people are tired,” Walke said. “But this year we’re asking them to limit their travel.”

Sara M. Moniuszko

Long testing lines across US ahead of planned Thanksgiving gatherings

With coronavirus cases surging and families hoping to gather safely for Thanksgiving, long lines to get tested have reappeared across the U.S. – a reminder that the nation’s testing system remains unable to keep pace with the virus.

The delays are happening as the country braces for winter weather, flu season and holiday travel, all of which are expected to amplify a U.S. outbreak that has already swelled past 11.6 million cases and 252,000 deaths.

Laboratories warned that continuing shortages of key supplies are likely to create more bottlenecks and delays, especially as cases rise across the nation and people rush to get tested before reuniting with relatives.

“As those cases increase, demand increases and turnaround times may increase,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “So it’s like a dog chasing its tail.”

Lines spanned multiple city blocks at testing sites across New York City this week, leaving people waiting three or more hours before they could even enter health clinics. In Los Angeles, thousands lined up outside Dodger Stadium for drive-thru testing.

Texas county makes plea for workers to move 200-plus bodies

El Paso County, one of the hardest-hit areas in Texas amid the COVID-19 pandemic, put out a call Thursday night for the immediate hiring of morgue attendants to help move bodies.

“Not only is this assignment physically taxing, but it may be emotionally taxing as well,” a county announcement stated.

The El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office had 247 bodies at the morgue and inside nine refrigerated trailers serving as mobile morgues, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said in news release, prompting county commissioners to authorize the hiring of additional workers.

– Daniel Borunda, El Paso Times

Mexico becomes 4th country to top 100K deaths

Mexico passed the 100,000 mark in COVID-19 deaths Thursday, joining the United States, Brazil and India as the only countries to reach the somber milestone.

José Luis Alomía Zegarra, Mexico’s director of epidemiology, said there were 100,104 confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of Thursday. That comes less than a week after Mexico said it had topped 1 million registered coronavirus cases, though officials agree the number is probably much higher because of low levels of testing.

The lack of testing — Mexico tests only people with severe symptoms and has performed only around 2.5 million tests in a country of 130 million — the lack of hospitals in many areas and the fear of the ones that do exist, has created a fertile breeding ground for ignorance, suspicion and fear.

Health care worker Marco Antonio Galicia wears a face mask designed with a Mexican wrestler motif and a protective shield on Thursday at the Ajusco Medio General Hospital in Mexico City.
Health care worker Marco Antonio Galicia wears a face mask designed with a Mexican wrestler motif and a protective shield on Thursday at the Ajusco Medio General Hospital in Mexico City.

Legendary Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz tests positive

Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz has confirmed he has tested positive for COVID-19. Holtz, 83, told ABC Columbia on Thursday that he is recovering from the virus. “I don’t have a lot of energy right now,” said Holtz, who’s best known for his 11-year tenure at Notre Dame that included a Fiesta Bowl win and a national championship in the 1988 season.

Over the summer, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced they were postponing their college football schedules because of the coronavirus pandemic, Holtz strongly objected, comparing players to American soldiers in World War II.

Since his retirement from coaching in 2004, Holtz has worked as an analyst for ESPN and has made numerous public appearances supporting President Donald Trump.

– Steve Gardner

California adopts stricter COVID workplace safety rules

California officials on Thursday approved new regulations requiring employers to implement safety measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, the latest state to adopt stricter rules.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board heard testimony on an emergency temporary standard that requires businesses to educate employees on ways to prevent infection, provide free personal protective equipment and offer free COVID-19 testing to all employees if three or more employees are infected with the coronavirus within a 14-day period, among other measures.

California joins Oregon, Michigan and Virginia in implementing similar standards. Virginia became the first state in the country to approve temporary new workplace safety rules after lawmakers passed the measures in July, citing inaction by federal officials.

Smithsonian’s DC-area sites plan to close again

After reopening seven Washington-area museums and the National Zoo over the summer, the Smithsonian on Thursday announced it would close again, starting Monday, and did not give a date for reopening.

The sites were closed in March during the first wave of the coronavirus. They reopened in July, August and September with limited hours, lower capacity, social distancing and mandatory face masks.

Nearly 30% of U.S. museums remain closed from the original March shutdown, according to a survey by the American Alliance of Museums. (Most of the Smithsonian’s sites in Washington and New York have not reopened.) Those that have reopened are operating at 35% of their regular attendance, which Laura Lott, the group’s president and CEO, called “unsustainable long-term.”

– Curtis Tate

COVID-19 resources from USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Pfizer FDA emergency use authorization for vaccine; travel

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Youth sports have been hit with few coronavirus outbreaks so far. Why is ice hockey so different?

Emily walpole

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“Whole hockey teams are getting quarantined,” said Bellemore, a hockey parent, coach and president of the Manchester Youth Regional Hockey Association. “It’s getting very real.”

State officials and other authorities have been scrambling to mitigate the damage: On Nov. 12, seven governors in the Northeast banded together to ban all interstate youth hockey until at least the end of the year. The following week, health officials in Minnesota, where hockey is associated with the most clusters of any youth sport, put all sports on “pause” for four weeks. Many others have imposed new restrictions and safety measures on the game.

Youth sports — soccer, basketball, cross-country, swimming, whether held indoors or out, a source of American pride, prestige and bonding — were among the first gatherings to be allowed post-lockdown. Organizers worked closely with public health officials to make modifications that balance safety with maintaining the spirit of the games. This has worked to some extent.

While public health officials suspect off-field interactions may be contributing to community spread, there’s little hard data. In most areas, there have been few to no documented outbreaks, much less superspreader events.

Ice hockey is an anomaly. Scientists are studying hockey-related outbreaks hoping to find clues about the ideal conditions in which the coronavirus thrives — and how to stop it. Experts speculate that ice rinks may trap the virus around head level in a rink that, by design, restricts airflow, temperature and humidity.

The hockey-related cases have been especially striking, epidemiologists have said, because clubs followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits on gathering size and had numerous social distancing measures in place. In retrospect, one mistake by some clubs was that until recently masks had been required on ice for only the two players doing the initial faceoff for the puck — although many players wore clear face shields, which theoretically should have a similar effect.

“We’re watching hockey very carefully because it’s the first major sport that’s been played indoors predominantly and also during the winter months,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Demmer said the cases provide some of the first real-world evidence to support early theories about the importance of how people breathe, ventilation, and the social dimensions of transmission.

One critical way hockey differs from other contact team sports is how players do line changes — substitutions of groups of players — and are expected to sprint for nearly the whole time they are on the ice. Experts say it probably leads to heavier breathing, resulting in more particles being exhaled and inhaled.

Jose-Luis Jimenez, an air engineer at the University of Colorado, speculated that the spaces occupied by rinks keep the virus suspended, perhaps six to nine feet, just above the ice. Similar outbreaks have been documented in other chilly venues — meat processing factories and at a curling match earlier in the pandemic.

“I suspect the air is stratified,” he said. “Much like in a cold winter night, you have these inversions where the cold air with the virus which is heavier stays closer to the ground. That gives players many more chances to breathe it in.”

Timothy McDonald, public health director in Needham, Mass., said we should not rule out the way kids socialize — in locker rooms, carpools and postgame gatherings — as potential contributing factors. By late October, his area had seen at least six coronavirus cases related to sports clusters that span a wide range of ages, from fifth-graders to high school sophomores. He said some of those children played on multiple sports teams, including hockey.

“We’ve seen a lot of people mingling after the game or having discussions and parents talking and letting kids play around after the game,” he said. “There’s no way to tell from our perspective whether it’s on the ice — or waiting for 10 or 15 minutes while everyone talks after the game.”

Many unknowns

When schools shut down in March, there was huge confusion about the extent to which could get the virus and transmit it to others. Today, cases among those younger than 18 are soaring. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that more than 1.3 million children had tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic. Nearly 154,000 children tested positive from Nov. 19 to 26.

Epidemiologists are uncertain where most of these transmissions are occurring, but early reports from the United States, bolstered by more robust data from Europe and Asia, suggest they are unlikely to be related to school. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University who has been tracking coronavirus outbreaks in schools, and others say they believe informal neighborhood get-togethers, youth sports and other activities may be contributing.

Rhode Island, for example, has reported that virtual-only learners are being infected at similar rates as those attending in-person school. Oster said infection rates seem to be going up nationwide, “whether schools are open or not.”

Joseph Allen, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he believes it was a mistake for school sports to shut down, because kids need physical activity, and some for-profit businesses filling the gaps may be operating in a way where “controls may not be as stringent.”

“Not having sports in schools ultimately leads to wider contact networks for many kids,” he explained.

David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the “disease reservoir was lower” related to children in the early fall, suggesting that sports played at that time — namely, soccer — weren’t contributing much to spread. “We saw very little transmission on the field of play,” he said.

“In winter sports, you now add the indoor element. And I think there’s a fair amount of concern that hockey certainly has transmission around the game,” he said.

A PolicyLab blog post last month recommended that if youth sports leagues want to preserve any opportunity to keep playing, they need to enact mandates that strictly curtail all off-field interaction. Even then, “the potential for on-field spread may be too overwhelming to continue safely with team competition during periods of widespread community transmission, and may need to be sacrificed to preserve in-school learning options, at least until early spring or transmission rates decrease substantially.”

When children’s sports started up again this summer, tensions flared among health officials, sports providers and families over which safety measures were necessary and which were over the top. In the pandemic world, soccer was sometimes played seven-on-seven instead of 11-on-11, and with kick-ins instead of throw-ins; basketball with every other spot in free-throw lineups empty; swim practices with some kids starting in the middle of lanes to ensure adequate spacing; cross-country with runners racing in small flights to minimize interactions.

But these modifications sent some families “jurisdiction shopping” to find places that allowed games to proceed as they had before the virus outbreak, and this was a part of what happened with hockey in New England.

Hockey culture

Ice hockey is part of the culture in this area of the country. Some kids get their first skates almost as soon as they can walk, and family weekends revolve around games. In the aftermath of the first wave of the virus, clubs in numerous states, including Massachusetts, introduced safety measures such as no checking at the younger levels, physical distancing in locker rooms, and masks for the two players doing the faceoffs.

Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce said families who didn’t like those new rules took their children to play in neighboring states with fewer restrictions. And sometimes those players played on multiple teams or had siblings who did and went to school, creating very large social networks.

“It was a wake-up call,” Joyce said. He said state officials estimated that those 108 initial hockey cases amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 others potentially exposed.

In an October report, the CDC detailed a large outbreak in Florida among amateur adult hockey players on two teams that played each other but had no other contact. Investigators speculated that the indoor space and close contact increased the infection risk. They also pointed out that ice hockey “involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily.”

Surrounded by plexiglass not only to prevent errant pucks but also to keep the airflow stable so the ice can remain cold, there’s little ventilation and humidity by design in ice rinks. The surface of the ice is kept around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; the ambient air temperature, in the 50s. The Department of Homeland Security has shown in lab experiments that the virus may live at those temperatures up to two times longer in the air. At 86 degrees, for example, 99 percent of the airborne virus is estimated to decay in 52 minutes. But at 50 degrees, it would take 109 minutes.

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, said there is growing evidence that humidity may play an important role. In higher humidity, the virus attaches to bigger droplets that drop faster to the ground, decreasing the chance that someone will inhale them. The drier the air, the faster droplets will evaporate into smaller-size particles that stay in the air, increasing the concentration.

“There are some researchers have come to believe that humidification is the key above all,” he said.

Studies have shown that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the humid air, and that we’re more susceptible to viruses when the air is drier. Separately, epidemiological data from a long-term care facility has shown a correlation between lower humidity and higher infection rates.

Rubin, who is a pediatrician in addition to his public policy research job, said he worries those on the ice may be inhaling larger doses of the virus due to these environmental conditions, making it more likely they will become infected.

“It’s very hard to sort out, but you wonder if increased inoculum of the virus is an extra factor,” he said.

Demming expressed similar thoughts: “It could be infection rates are common across sports, but in a sport like hockey where you are trapping more virus in the breathable air it could result in more severe infections that end up being symptomatic.”

The National Hockey League was able to complete its playoffs after players were put in a bubble where they were tested each day, administered symptom checks and temperature screenings. No cases were reported. But conducting such rigorous screening on the roughly 650,000 amateur players and officials in the United States is an impossible task.

In Vermont, an outbreak at a single ice rink ripped through the center of the state, affecting at least 20 towns in at least four counties, and seeding other outbreaks at several schools. By Oct. 30, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) detailed the outbreak at a press briefing, 473 contacts had been associated with it.

“One case,” Scott emphasized, “can turn one event into many.”

For Tyler Amburgey, a 29-year-old coach in Lavon, Texas, north of Dallas, the coronavirus started out like a cold. But then it soon progressed to a headache, fatigue and shortness of breath. Authorities later determined that the outbreak spanned several teams and 30 people. By the third day of his illness, Aug. 29, several of Amburgey’s players had tested positive, and he was so ill that he canceled hockey practice.

Later that day his wife found him in his bed, unresponsive, and called 911. His heart had stopped, relatives told media outlets, and paramedics were unable to revive him.

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Weekly unemployment claims still trending up

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by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Weekly unemployment claims fell last week after the previous week’s spike, but have been trending up consistently the last two months. After being near their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, claims have increased beyond the usual seasonal slowdown. Claims fell 224 to 1,255 last week (up 131 from the same time last year).

As for the week’s ongoing jobless claims, for the week ending November 11, 2020, the Labor Department processed 11,337 claims, down 1,292 from the previous week and 7,237 more than the same time last year.

As for further comparison, initial Vermont claims for the week of March 21, 2020, were 3,784, up 3,125 from the week of March 14.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said at Governor Scott’s media briefing Friday that he has a lot of concern for the end of CARES Act funding and therefore the pandemic unemployment benefits and extended benefits for UI filers that came with it.

The extra benefits will cease the week after Christmas for nearly all those filers. Like the governor, he is hopeful that Congress will come up with what Scott called “bridge” funding for these programs until the Biden Administration and the new Congress can come up with a new CARES Act type funding plan. There does appear that some level of federal help will be forthcoming.

The governor is also hoping that funding includes budget relief for states, but he is less certain of that.

Harrington added that there are still some appeals and adjudications continuing regarding those pandemic benefits and that otherwise nearly all of the last of the emergency unemployment Lost Wages Assistance money has been distributed. The LWA was the last and smallest of the unemployment benefit programs.

The federal government portion of extra benefits, which is nearly all of the pandemic funding, must meet strict guidelines and there is very little the state can do to mitigate an issue.

The total number of unemployed is about 20,000, including the extra PUA claimants, which is down from the peak last spring of over 80,000 Vermonters getting some type of unemployment insurance.

There is recent discussion in Congress that a plan could be enacted during the “lame duck” session, but more likely after President-elect Biden is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, the state unemployment rate, which was the lowest in the nation before the pandemic, then spiked during the pandemic, has retreated and is now second lowest in the nation.

However, the VDOL points out that the US Census modeling has not caught up with the reality of the pandemic and Vermont’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate likely portrays a rosier economic picture than what actually exists.

Labor Commissioner Harrington said in late November that the real unemployment rate is more in the 5 percent range, and if it included the PUA, the rate is likely more in the 6-8 percent range.

He and Scott said that while the data the US Census collects is not erroneous, they disagree with the methodology the federal government is using given the altered behavior of people during the pandemic.

They said people have left the workforce for reasons related to the pandemic, like for personal safety or childcare, which then lowers the total Labor force, which works as the denominator in the calculations, thus lowering the unemployment rate.

Per federal rule, this ultimately decreases the ability of the state to offer extended UI benefits, as they were able earlier in the year.

Governor Scott said the state has been in contact with Vermont’s congressional delegation on trying to change the formula the US Census Bureau uses to determine the state’s unemployment rate.

There are also over 8,000 Vermonters on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (sole proprietors/self employed etc).

The PUA claims are not included in the unemployment rate calculation.

Harrington also addressed issues faced by the self-employed in collecting benefits.

If SPs did not file their tax returns by a certain time they missed out on some benefits. Harrington said this is a federal government rule. The state was allowed a 21-day grace period, but cases are still being adjudicated.

Also, another issue has been when a self-employed person received even one dollar of regular UI benefits, they are disallowed, again by federal rule Harrington said, from receiving any PUA.

For instance, some people who work for themselves also carry a part-time job. If they got laid off from that job and received any UI payments, then they’re stuck on the UI side and cannot get PUA.

The PUA benefits in some cases are more advantageous; for instance they will last through the end of this year. PUA claimants also can get partial payments even if they have some income.

What a new PUA looks like is unclear until and if one is signed into law. But it appears as of now that it might not include new filers after a certain time.

Scott has also extended his Emergency Order until December 15. He has said that he will continue to extend the Order as long as necessary and that we are “only half-way through” the impact of the novel coronavirus.

Also, the $1.25 billion CARES Act federal funds have all been allocated, though some budgetary shifting could still occur. The money must be spent by the end of December.

Also, the additional $600 in weekly benefits from the federal government for all unemployment programs ended July 25.

The PUA program, which is full funded by the federal government and is intended for non-regular UI workers, will last until the end of the year. They will receive regular benefits (but, again, not the extra $600).

“That $600 is concerning. I know a lot of families are counting on that to cover a lot of their expenses,” Scott said over the summer.

After a spike of claims at the beginning of the pandemic, followed by a steep decline as the economy began to reopen in April, initial unemployment claims fell consistently since the beginning of July before flattening over the last couple months.

Claims hit their peak in early April. At that point, Governor Scott’s “Stay Home” order resulted in the closing of schools, restaurants, construction and more, while many other industries cut back operations.

Over $500 million of federal money has been added to Vermont unemployment checks so far.

Since March 1, over 80,000 new claims have been filed in Vermont when including PUA.

The official Vermont March unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, but the April rate was 15.6 percent, which is the highest on record. The Vermont unemployment rate in May fell to 12.7 percent.

The US rate fell to 7.9 percent in September from 8.4 percent in August from 10.2 percent in July from 11.1 percent in June and in May from 13.3 percent. The US April rate was 14.7 percent, the highest rate since its was first calculated in 1948 and the highest unofficially since the Great Depression of about 25 percent.

Nationwide, according to the US Labor Department for the week ending November 28, initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled 712,000 last week, which was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and down from 787,000 the week before and 742,000 the week before that.

Claims generally have been falling since the early weeks of the pandemic in March. Early on in the pandemic, US claims reached 5.2 million and 6.6 million claims. Just prior to the steep job loss, there were 282,000 claims on March 14.

US GDP had its worst quarter on record as it fell 32.9 percent in the second quarter; the next worst was in 1921.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has added to the ranks of those receiving benefits, but is not counted in the official unemployment rate. The PUA serves the self-employed who previously did not qualify to receive UI benefits and might still be working to some extent.

This surge during the Great Recession for the entire year in 2009 spiked at 38,081 claims.

The claims back in 2009 pushed the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund into deficit and required the state to borrow money from the federal government to cover claims.

Right now (see data below), Vermont has $252.2 million in its Trust Fund and saw the fund decrease by a net of $3.3 million last week. Payments lag claims typically by a week. Balance as of March 1 was $506,157,247.

Vermont at the beginning of the pandemic had more than double the UI Trust Fund it did when the economy started to slide in 2007. It went into deficit and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay claims. Some states like California are already in UI deficit because of the COVID crisis.

Scott said the UI fund is not expected to run out under current projections.

“We are in a much healthier position than many other states,” Labor Commissioner Harrington has said.

Given the Trust Fund’s strong performance and the burden of unemployment taxes on employers, Governor Scott reduced the UI tax on businesses. He also announced that starting the first week of July, the maximum unemployment benefit to workers will increase about $20 a week.

While the UI Trust Fund will not fall into deficit under current trends, the governor has acknowledged that they simply cannot predict it given how economic conditions could swing if there is a second surge of COVID-19.

Still, he’s moving forward with the UI changes now because the burden on employers and employees is now.

Stories:

Vermont’s unemployment rate falls to 3.2 percent in October

Over $100 million in recovery grants awarded, still more available

Businesses to see double-digit rate decrease in workers’ comp insurance in 2020

Tax revenues finish year nearly $60 million above targets

UI tax rates for employers fell again on July 1, 2018, as claims continue to be lower than previous projections. Individual employers’ reduced taxable wage rates will vary according to their experience rating; however, the rate reduction will lower the highest UI tax rate from 7.7 percent to 6.5 percent. The lowest UI tax rate will see a reduction from 1.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

Also effective July 1, 2018, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit will be indexed upwards to 57% of the average weekly wage. The current maximum weekly benefit amount is $466, which will increase to $498. Both changes are directly tied to the change in the Tax Rate Schedule.

The Vermont Department of Labor announced Thursday, October 1, 2020 an increase to the State’s minimum wage. Beginning January 1, 2021, the State’s minimum wage will increase $0.79, from $10.96 to $11.75 per hour. The calculation for this increase is in accordance with Act 86 of the 2019 Vermont General Assembly.

This adjustment also impacts the minimum wage of “tipped employees.” The Basic Tipped Wage Rate for service or tipped employees equals 50% of the full minimum wage or $5.88 per hour starting January 1, 2021.

The Vermont Department of Labor has announced that the state is set to trigger off of the High Extended Benefits program, as of October 10, 2020. This determination by the US Department of Labor follows the recent announcement of Vermont’s unemployment rate decreasing from 8.3% in July to 4.8% in August.

Vermont’s minimum wage rose to $10.78 on January 1, 2019.

The Unemployment Weekly Report can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/. Previously released Unemployment Weekly Reports and other UI reports can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/lmipub.htm#uc

NOTE: Employment (nonfarm payroll) – A count of all persons who worked full- or part-time or received pay from a nonagricultural employer for any part of the pay period which included the 12th of the month. Because this count comes from a survey of employers, persons who work for two different companies would be counted twice. Therefore, nonfarm payroll employment is really a count of the number of jobs, rather than the number of persons employed. Persons may receive pay from a job if they are temporarily absent due to illness, bad weather, vacation, or labor-management dispute. This count is based on where the jobs are located, regardless of where the workers reside, and is therefore sometimes referred to as employment “by place of work.” Nonfarm payroll employment data are collected and compiled based on the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor. This count was formerly referred to as nonagricultural wage and salary employment.

UI claims by industry last week in Vermont are similar in percentage to those from a year ago, though of course much higher in number in each industrial category.

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Live updates: Walz urges Minnesotans to apply for COVID-19 housing assistance before Monday deadline

Emily walpole

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Here are the latest updates on COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Thursday, Dec. 3

  • MDH reported 92 COVID deaths on Thursday, the second highest in a single day
  • Minnesotans have until Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m. to request housing assistance
  • MSHSL sets tentative schedule for winter sports, depending on Gov. Tim Walz order
  • Hospital bed use down across Minnesota
  • Officials say we are at the endgame of the pandemic with upcoming vaccines
  • Experts concerned about possible surge after Thanksgiving travel, gatherings

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are urging Minnesotans to draw upon state aid for their end-of-year housing bills.

In a media call at 1 p.m. Gov. Walz highlighted efforts to “ensure Minnesotans can afford to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Minnesotans can apply for housing assistance through the United Way by calling 211. The deadline is Monday. Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Walz pointed out that Minnesota is still in the heart of the pandemic, with the second-highest daily death toll of 92 announced on Thursday.

“Throughout this entire epidemic we’ve asked Minnesotans to sacrifice,” Walz said. “We’ve asked them to do things that put their own financial security somewhat at risk, to help protect others.”

The governor said he understands that some people don’t have a safe place to go, or they’re in danger of losing that safe place, when they’re asked to stay home.

“A lot of folks are in a situation where housing security is a real concern through no fault of their own,” Walz said.

Lt. Gov. Flanagan said she is a renter and paid her rent on Tuesday. But she knows that some Minnesotans are deciding between paying their rent or mortgage, and buying groceries.

“I want folks to know that there are still resources available to help you and your family,” she said.

Flanagan said home owners should ask their lenders if they can defer payment for up to a year. And anyone can apply for housing assistance via 211unitedway.org, or by calling 211, before the deadline of Monday, Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Those who don’t need assistance should consider giving to the nonprofits that are helping others, Flanagan said, and telling their friends and family about the assistance that’s available.

“We cannot stop until all Minnesotans have a safe and affordable place to live,” Flanagan said.

Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness at Minnesota nonprofit Avivo, spoke about efforts to support the people living in homeless encampments in the Twin Cities.

“There is no one path from homelessness to permanent housing,” she said.

Bastian emphasized the importance of state and local governments partnering with the nonprofit sector to make that support possible.

Gov. Walz said it’s important to recognize the humanity in those experiencing homelessness, “not seeing it as a problem that we wish would just go away.”

The governor also said that the last week has given him hope that there will be a federal COVID-19 relief package.

There’s $100 million available in Minnesota’s Housing Assistance Program, which was announced in July. Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said there are currently requests for $67 million in assistance as of the end of November. That means there’s a little over $30 million left to dole out, and she hopes many people will still request assistance with December rent.

“We’ve got room for one more big push here to pay December bills,” she said.

Ho said that the reason the program is closing on Dec. 7 is so that state officials have time to go through all the applications, allocate funds, and then potentially reallocate any leftover money.

COVID-19 is continuing to take a significant number of lives in Minnesota, with 92 new fatalities reported by state health officials on Thursday

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic began, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,784. Thursday’s near-record comes just one day after the third-highest daily death toll of 77.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 6,166 new coronavirus cases were reported Thursday, based on results from 50,718 tests (45,885 PCR, 4,833 antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 333,626 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in Minnesota are continuing a downward trend. COVID-19 patients are currently using 1,394 non-ICU beds across the state – 29 fewer than the day prior, and 376 ICU beds – nine fewer than the previous day. Metro bed availability has improved from 1.9% to 2.3%, and ICU bed availability in the metro has grown from 4.5% to 5.7%.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,623, with 3,911 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

COVID-19 case rates now put 86 of 87 Minnesota counties under full distance learning recommendations from MDH, although community spread is only one factor of many schools are instructed to use to determine their learning model.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (62,312 cases) followed by a known contact (55,953 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (26,100 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases with 35,289 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 30,360 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 712 in 4,244 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 70,069 cases and 1,145 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 29,459 cases and 521 deaths, Dakota County with 23,564 cases and 198 deaths and Anoka County with 23,541 cases and 236 fatalities.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 80 cases and no deaths.

On Wednesday, Governor Tim Walz, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and several first responders spoke to Minnesotans to address the way the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted public safety and emergency response.

Walz said that he hopes to highlight aspects of everyday life that are impacted by the pandemic that many Minnesotans may not typically  consider. According to Walz, the workforce of firefighters, police officers and paramedics in Minnesota has been affected by COVID-19, which can impact their ability to respond to emergencies.

Harrington emphasized that this is a statewide issue, and that he is hearing every day from fire departments and police departments that are having staffing issues due to COVID-19.

He added that fire departments have been hit particularly hard.

“Ninety-nine out of the 500 fire departments in the state of Minnesota have had major COVID outbreaks,” he said. “That’s 20%.”

He stressed that the state has worked to rearrange resources and take precautions to keep departments staffed, but it won’t take much to take those departments out of service if communities do not wear masks, avoid gatherings and social distance.

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said that his department has followed CDC guidelines since the pandemic began, but he has still seen 20% of his staff take time off due to COVID-19 quarantines at some point since March, including one staff member who was hospitalized and took two months to fully recover.

Jay Wood, a firefighter in Plato, said that the Plato Fire Department has also carefully followed guidelines, but an outbreak that affected over three quarters of the department forced them to take the department out of service for a time.

“We are not alone as a small department of dealing with the virus and the staffing issues it has presented to us,” he said. “Minnesota fire services are always here to help the public, and people always ask how they can help us. The biggest thing you can do is follow the guidelines the governor and the Department of Health have set for us.”

Paramedic Ross Chavez echoed this, urging Minnesotans to follow advice from health experts to help keep first responders in the community healthy so they can continue providing fast and effective emergency services.

“Please, help my colleagues and me be there for those who need us, especially this holiday season during these trying times,” Chavez said.

Walz said that for Minnesotans frustrated by other community members not following these guidelines, he does not want to shame anyone, but it is a “moral hazard” to not wear a mask and go to large gatherings.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest everybody, that was certainly never our intention,” he said. “You don’t have to follow these rules because I said so, you don’t have to follow them because you don’t like government. You should follow them because they’re the right thing to do, they protect lives.”

Walz added that by next Tuesday, he hopes he and state health officials will have a clear timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she expects the FDA will issue an emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, and that the first wave of vaccinations could begin as soon as a week or so later.

Walz said he understands concerns around safety of the vaccine, but his assessment has been that the federal government has done a “fantastic job” of the vaccine development.

However, he stressed that though the excitement around the vaccine may indicate that the pandemic is over, we are still “in the teeth of it.”

“Let’s make sure we get all of our neighbors there, and protect those folks that make a difference,” he said.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Minnesota is proving deadly, as underscored by 77 new fatalities reported by state health officials Wednesday.

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic came to Minnesota, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,692.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 5,192 new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday, based on results from 42,737 tests (39,912 PCR, 2,825 Antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive Antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 327,477 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

In a bit of positive news, hospital bed use is down after a surge in recent days. Coronavirus patients are currently using 1,350 non-ICU beds, down 104 from Tuesday, and 354 ICU beds across the state are being used for COVID patients, down 40 from a day ago.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,378, with 3,873 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (60,808 cases) followed by a known contact (54,554 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (25,695 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases by a significant margin with 34,806 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 29,876 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 691 in 4,156 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 68,898 cases and 1,130 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 28,948 cases and 512 deaths, Anoka County with 23,196 cases and 232 fatalities, and Dakota County with 23,102 cases and 194 deaths.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 79 cases and no deaths.

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