CDC: 25 states report omicron strain of COVID-19, but delta remains biggest threat

WASHINGTON — Twenty-five states, including Michigan, have identified cases of the new omicron variant of COVID-19, federal public health officials said Friday as they released new data on the first 43 U.S. cases.

Of those initial, confirmed cases, more than half were among people between the ages of 18 and 39, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About one-third of the infections were among individuals who recently had traveled internationally, Walensky said during a news briefing Friday. And 80%, or 34 individuals, were fully vaccinated, including some who had recently received a booster.

Most of the omicron infections so far have resulted in only mild symptoms, Walensky said, adding that’s in line with what would be expected among individuals who were fully vaccinated.

Walensky and other public health officials said early data suggests that getting a vaccine booster could bolster protection against the new variant, urging anyone who is currently eligible — including the 16- and 17-year-olds who became eligible this week — to get a follow-up shot.

While the unknowns of the new variant still loom, officials emphasized that the highly transmissible delta variant that caused the summer surge in infections still remains the main threat.

“Over 99% of cases in this country right now are caused by the delta variant, which is driving increases in cases and hospitalizations,” Walensky said.

The seven-day average of infections nationally increased by 37% over the last week, while hospitalizations increased by 16% and deaths rose by 28% over that same time period.

Those rising numbers come after families gathered for Thanksgiving last month, and many are preparing for holiday gatherings this month.

Asked for any guidance for those wondering if they should reassess holiday travel plans, Walensky said gathering together this season will require Americans to be “vigilant” about safety precautions. She reiterated the need to ensure those getting together are fully vaccinated and boosted if possible, as well as wearing masks in the weeks leading up to any gatherings and taking a COVID-19 test.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Dem Senator Jon Tester to vote with GOP to undo Biden vaccine rule

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is one of at least two Democrats who are expected to join every Senate Republican in a vote Wednesday night opposing President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate on private employers.

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.

Democrats risk losses in 2022 if they give up on paid leave, advocates say

When paid family leave was briefly dropped from congressional Democrats’ massive social spending and climate bill earlier this fall, the outcry was swift.

Women and caregivers suddenly were calling lawmakers and advocates, and they were sharing their own stories on social media in huge numbers, said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, a national advocacy group, during a virtual event with reporters on Tuesday.

“I think people assumed this was a given, that why would you drop paid leave in a pandemic?” Huckelbridge said. “And when that happened, there was outrage.”

She added: “Women, caregivers, have been dealing with unimaginable circumstances these last few years. And I think it felt tone-deaf to them.”

The Democrats’ “Build Back Better” bill that passed the U.S. House did ultimately restore four weeks of paid leave for workers who need to care for a new baby or ailing loved one or recover from their own serious illness.

But that provision is at risk of deletion in the Senate, due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III, (D-W.Va.).

Payback at the polls?

Huckelbridge and other advocates and Democratic pollsters who spoke to reporters on Tuesday said a failure to take action on a national paid leave program could have significant political consequences for Democrats in 2022.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries in the world — and the only wealthy country — that does not have a national paid family leave program.

Yet creation of such a program is overwhelmingly popular across party lines, particularly with younger voters and among suburban women in key battleground states.

“It may not be bipartisan in the Congress, but it is bipartisan with the public, particularly in America’s suburbs,” said Celinda Lake, of Lake Research Partners, who was the leading pollster for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.

It’s also one of the most popular provisions in the Build Back Better package. Research from Global Strategy Group, a Democratic consulting firm, found the issue has support that’s on par with allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Paid leave also was the only provision tested from that legislative package other than the Medicare provision that gained majority support from voters in both parties — a rare feat in an extremely politically divided era.

In the Global Strategy Group’s survey of battleground voters, Democrats trailed Republicans by 3 percentage points in a generic question of which party’s candidate a voter is more likely to pick.

But in a follow-up question specifically comparing a Democrat who supports paid leave to a Republican who does not, Democrats hold a 13-point edge, said Joey Teitelbaum, lead researcher on the group’s battleground polling.

Teitelbaum said the research found the issue is one that may motivate voters who would otherwise stay home, but only if those voters see Democrats following through on promises of action on paid leave.

One-third of voters in the survey said they would rather stay home on Election Day than vote for a Senate candidate who opposes access to paid leave, with higher shares of women ages 18 to 44 and Black female voters agreeing with that statement.

One key group of swing voters in the 2022 elections, Lake said, will be white, non-college-educated women ages 40 to 65 — a group that has many women in the “sandwich” years of caring for children and aging parents.

Another key group will be women of color and younger women under 40, “who lean very Democratic, but also wonder what the Democrats are doing for them,” she added.

“So whether you’re talking about the strategy of persuasion, or you’re talking about the strategy of turnout, this is one of the few issues that is at the top of both of those agendas,” Lake said.

Manchin opposition

Moving paid leave from a campaign promise to a policy achievement will take a shift by Manchin, who has said he supports the idea of paid leave but does not back creating a new national program in the pending legislation.

Huckelbridge said Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who have been heavily involved in work on a paid leave program, have told her and others that they believe Manchin is “movable” on the issue.

But they acknowledge that the current bill — which would be passed through the reconciliation process, allowing Democrats to approve it without any Republican votes — is the only path forward on the national level.

“We have to do this in Build Back Better. There is no bipartisan path anytime soon that will deliver real results for families,” Huckelbridge said.

If that fails, advocates say the movement has grown stronger during the past year. In some states, the fight may move to the state legislature, describing a rise in state-level interest.

“We will see this be an issue in state legislatures and at the ballot box in states,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at the think tank New America. “And the federal issue is not going away either.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

What's in—and out—of Biden's $1.75 trillion social spending and climate bill

President Joe Biden's sprawling social spending and climate package has been slimmed down into a still-massive $1.75 trillion plan that he and top congressional Democrats are attempting to wrestle through after months of negotiations.

Snipped from that proposal are a number of key priorities for Democrats, including an attempt to create the first paid family leave program for parents and other caregivers.

But the framework announced Thursday includes other sweeping policy changes, such as universal pre-K for U.S. children, help with skyrocketing daycare costs, expanded health care coverage for millions of people, and a major clean-energy investment aimed at combating climate change.

Democrats also tucked in an immigration provision that would update the green card registry from 1972 to 2010, making undocumented people who entered the country before 2010 eligible for the cards that extend permission to reside and work in the U.S.

“No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that's what compromise is," Biden said in a White House speech Thursday morning after meeting with congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill. “That's consensus."

But a firm agreement among Democrats remained elusive. Two Democratic senators who objected to the broader, more expensive plan that Biden initially outlined — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have not yet publicly committed to voting for the measure.

Progressive Democrats also have eyed the proposal skeptically after high-profile policy changes they lobbied for were nixed. They want to ensure that the expansion of social programs isn't left behind if Congress moves first on a pending infrastructure bill to repair the nation's aging roads, bridges and rails.

The House was set to vote Thursday night on an extension on transportation funding to Dec. 3 to give lawmakers more time to hash out Biden's social reform package.

Here's some of what's in, and what's out, of the social spending and climate bill, according to the White House and members of Congress:


  • Money to combat climate change — The largest chunk of the bill, $550 billion, would pay for tax breaks for electric vehicles and improvements to clean-energy transmission and storage, as well as money to help make communities more resilient to extreme weather events.
  • Universal pre-K; subsidies to reduce daycare costs — Another $400 billion would pay for a new, six-year program to guarantee free preschool for 3- and-4-year-olds. The proposal also would limit child care costs to no more than 7% of income for families earning up to 250% of a state's median income.
  • Extension of expanded Child Tax Credit — The major tax change that has given millions of parents monthly checks instead of an annual credit on their tax bills, and extended that relief to more parents, would continue for another year.
  • End the gap in Medicaid coverage — Those living in states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act could get tax credits to receive premium-free health coverage on the Obamacare health exchanges through 2025.
  • Hearing coverage for Medicare recipients.
  • Reduced premiums for health insurance bought on the ACA marketplace.
  • Improved Medicaid coverage for home care services.
  • $150 billion to expand access to affordable housing.
  • Bigger Pell Grants for low-income college students.
  • Expanded free school meals.


  • Paid family and medical leave — The 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and other caregivers was pared back during negotiations to four weeks, and then ultimately removed from the proposal.
  • Dental and vision care for Medicare recipients.
  • Efforts to rein in prescription drug prices — though Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who leads the Energy and Commerce panel, says he is “committed to finalizing an agreement" that would include changes like allowing price negotiations.
  • Funding for two years of tuition-free community college ($109 billion).
  • The Clean Energy Performance Program, which provides financial incentives to utilities to transition away from fossil fuel uses ($150 billion).

The social spending bill would be paid for through a 15% minimum tax on large corporations, as well as a new surtax on the income of multi-millionaires and billionaires, the wealthiest 0.02 percent of Americans, the White House said. Biden has pledged that no one earning less than $400,000 annually will pay more in taxes.

The plan also relies on revenue raised from rolling back some of the Trump administration's 2017 tax cuts, and more IRS efforts to combat tax evaders.

The Biden administration released details of the framework Thursday morning as the president gave an in-person sales pitch to House Democratic legislators before departing on a long-planned trip to Italy and Scotland.

The latter half of that trip involves a global climate conference, and Biden's arrival without congressional action on any meaningful U.S. steps to combat climate change would undercut efforts to ask other countries to also reduce greenhouse emissions.

'Betting on America'

Biden framed debate over the proposal as deciding between “competitiveness vs complacency," urging lawmakers to support investments he depicted as necessary to restore the U.S. as a leader among nations.

“That's what these plans are about: betting on America, about believing in America, about believing in the capacity of the American people," Biden said.

Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress also got some help from former President Barack Obama, who described the deal as “the best chance we've had in years to build on the progress we made during my administration and address some of the most urgent challenges of our time."

Progressives' votes

But progressives were not budging on their stance to not vote for an infrastructure package without the complete legislative text for Biden's social reform package, as well as a guarantee that Manchin and Sinema will back it, the leader of the caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D-Wash.) said in a statement. Progressives also want the social reform package to be scheduled for a floor vote along with the infrastructure bill.

“There is too much at stake for working families and our communities to settle for something that can be later misunderstood, amended, or abandoned altogether," she said. “That is why dozens of our members insist on keeping both bills linked and cannot vote only for one until they can be voted on together."

Rep. Cori Bush, (D-Mo.), said that she would not vote on the infrastructure package based on the framework the president pitched to lawmakers.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, (D-Minn.), added that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not have the votes from the House Progressive Caucus to pass Biden's infrastructure package.

House Democrats were also frustrated by a lack of commitment from Sinema and Manchin, who have not stated that they plan to vote on the framework Biden provided.

“After months of productive, good-faith negotiations with President Biden and the White House, we have made significant progress on the proposed budget reconciliation package," Sinema said in a statement. “I look forward to getting this done, expanding economic opportunities and helping everyday families get ahead."

Pelosi held a press conference late Thursday afternoon, where she defended the president's framework. She said even though it did not include everything that Democrats wanted, it was still an historic social reform bill.

“I'm still fighting for paid leave," she said, adding that the federal government provides paid family leave for Department of Defense federal employees.

In the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the Trump administration included 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal employees, a bill that Manchin voted for.

Pelosi did not answer questions whether she was certain that Manchin and Sinema would vote for the Build Back Better package.

“I trust the president of the United States," she said.

Fine print

Minutes before the press conference, the House Rules Committee released a nearly 2,000-page draft text of Biden's social reform package.

The Rules Committee later held a hearing on the bill, where Republicans criticized Democrats for the meeting's quick timing and objected that they did not have enough time to read the legislative text.

The committee's chair, Rep. James McGovern, (D-Mass.), made it clear that the meeting was not a markup of the bill and that the House had no plans to bring the bill to a floor vote on Thursday.

Pallone, who also chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during the Rules Committee meeting that he would push for an inclusion of prescription drug pricing such as a cap on seniors' out-of-pocket spending and penalties for pharmaceutical companies that unfairly raise drug prices.

“I hope that it would have been in there," he said. “We've got to make these investments to deal with the public health crisis."

Immigration and the Senate

On the immigration provision on green cards, it's still up to the Senate parliamentarian to give an opinion on whether it would be allowed under the reconciliation process Democrats plan to use because it requires a simple majority in the evenly divided Senate.

The parliamentarian has already ruled against Democrats' plans to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.

The Biden administration set aside $100 billion for immigration policy—separate from the social reform package—that would help reduce immigration backlogs, expand legal representation and help with processing at the border.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.), said in a statement that the framework will help improve immigration policy.

“With this framework, Congress is taking a key step forward in our effort to modernize our immigration system, and there is no doubt that our country will benefit from the resulting economic gains for decades to come," he said.

“The immigration provisions in the Build Back Better framework include advancing the registry date, a move last championed by President Ronald Reagan, to allow those who have lived and worked in service to our communities for more than 11 years an opportunity to apply for permanent residence."

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Subpoenas recommended in ethics probe of GOP congressman over stock purchase

The Office of Congressional Ethics is recommending that a congressional panel subpoena U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and his wife as it investigates whether a stock purchase she made was the result of confidential information Kelly received in his role as a public official.

The recommendation was part of a report released Thursday, which concluded that there is “substantial reason" to believe that Kelly, a six-term Republican lawmaker from Butler County, and his wife, Victoria, violated House ethics rules.

On April 29, 2020, Victoria Kelly purchased between $15,001 and $50,000 in stock in Cleveland-Cliffs. The company owns a steel plant in the congressman's district that employs 1,400 workers, but was threatened by foreign steel imports.

Kelly had been lobbying the Trump administration to help the struggling steel plant. A day before his wife's stock purchase, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told Cleveland-Cliffs' CEO that the government would soon announce a new investigation into steel imports, which could benefit the company.

According to the report released Thursday, Kelly's office learned of that development the same day from both Cleveland-Cliffs and a senior Commerce Department official.

When that investigation was announced five days later, Kelly lauded it in a press release, thanking the Trump administration for “hearing our community's concerns and taking action to end the unfair trade practices that threaten AK Steel's ability to continue production of electrical steel."

The news meant the share that Kelly's wife purchased rose in value. She held onto the steel plant stock until January 2021, when the shares purchased for approximately $4.70 each sold for $18.11 per share.

Members of the U.S. House and their staffers are prohibited from using their official positions for personal gain.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was the first to report in September 2020 that the stock buy raised ethical questions.

The Office of Congressional Ethics report found the stock purchase to be unusual for the Kellys, noting not only the timing of the transaction but also that it was Victoria Kelly's first individual stock purchase in 11 months.

Kelly, his wife, and Kelly's former chief of staff, Matt Stroia, all refused to cooperate with the Office of Congressional Ethics review, according to the report from OCE.

Asked for comment on the ethics report, Kelly spokesman Matt Knoedler said in a written statement that Kelly “has been open and transparent about his required financial disclosures during his decade in the United States House of Representatives, including the inquiry by the House Committee on Ethics."

“Details published in news reports regarding those disclosures were found because the congressman publicly reported his financial records," Knoedler said. “Both the congressman and Mrs. Kelly have been, and will continue to be, advocates and supporters of the Butler Works/Cleveland Cliffs plant in Butler, where they are lifelong residents."

In a response letter posted on the House Committee on Ethics website, Kelly's attorney wrote that they “respectfully disagree with many of the assertions and characterizations in the report," and argued that there's no proof that Kelly provided his wife with any non-public information prior to the stock purchase.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

How a Mississippi court case could reshape abortion laws across the US

WASHINGTON — A six-week abortion ban in Texas enacted in September forced those seeking abortion services in the Lone Star State to look across state lines for care.

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.

Misinformation abounds as House panel questions Arizona’s presidential election ‘audit’

WASHINGTON — It didn't take long for Thursday's congressional hearing about a controversial ballot review in Arizona to demonstrate the persistent misinformation about the validity of last year's presidential election.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, asked his colleague, Arizona Republican Andy Biggs, if he accepts the findings of the GOP-led review of ballots in Maricopa County. That so-called audit did not dispute the state's certified result that President Joe Biden won Arizona's electoral votes.

“Who won the election in Arizona? Donald Trump or Joe Biden?" Raskin asked Biggs.

“We don't know," Biggs incorrectly claimed, adding: “There are a lot of issues with this election that took place."

Raskin expressed exasperation as he resumed his opening statement to the rest of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“There's the problem that we have," Raskin said. “Donald Trump refused to accept the results. And unfortunately, we have one of the world's great political parties, which has followed him off of the ledge of this electoral lunacy, and it's dangerous for democracy."

The nearly four-hour U.S. House hearing was the first public effort by Congress to question several key Arizona officials and other election experts about the questionable procedures involved in the months-long, GOP-led ballot review and the ramifications for public faith in the election process.

Absent from that interrogation was Doug Logan, CEO of Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based firm that was hired to conduct the ballot review.

Logan told the committee this week that he was refusing to testify, a decision that comes after his company also has repeatedly refused to cooperate with document requests from lawmakers in D.C. and in Arizona.

During Thursday's hearing, the witness table included a name tag and empty seat reserved for Logan, and Democrats berated him for declining to participate. Committee leaders have not yet said whether they will subpoena Logan to compel his testimony, which is within their power.

“Mr. Logan's refusal to answer questions under oath is just one more sign that the dark-money-fueled audit that he led should never have happened in the first place," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the oversight panel.

County supervisors testify

Instead of hearing from Logan, legislators questioned two Republicans on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors who opposed the “audit," Chairman Jack Sellers and Vice Chairman Bill Gates.

Sellers and Gates defended the county's lengthy planning efforts to ensure last year's elections were safe and secure. They described the 2020 general election as the most-scrutinized election in the county's history — followed by a drive by fellow Republicans to discredit those results, the county's auditing process, and the level of cooperation by Maricopa officials.

Gates described how county officials went to court to get direction on whether they could in fact turn the ballots over to a third-party group like Cyber Ninjas — and even after they sought an expedited ruling, the state Senate was one vote away from holding them in contempt.

“That was wrong," Gates said. “It was also wrong once they had the ballots, in my opinion, to conduct an audit with auditors who had no elections experience, and then also auditors who clearly had a preconceived notion."

“I don't have a problem with audits," he added. “I had concerns with this particular audit."

Also testifying was Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state who served as a liaison between the Arizona state Senate and the companies hired for the ballot review.

Bennett asserted that the aim of the “audit" was simply to verify that official election procedures were followed, and noted that the most “significant" finding was that the hand count very closely matched the official results in the presidential race.

Bennett also criticized what he described as a lack of cooperation by county officials in the ballot review.

“Not many people like to have their work checked, but audits are much better with the cooperation of the auditee," he said.

Router questions

Several Republicans on the panel expanded on that line of attack.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., raised questions about county officials blocking access to routers. Gates responded that there were cybersecurity concerns with allowing access to those devices, and costs associated with having to eventually put the county's network back together.

An agreement was eventually reached that will allow the county to keep its routers out of the hands of Cyber Ninjas, as the Arizona Mirror has reported. Instead, it will involve the appointment of a special master to answer any questions related to the routers and their data.

Other Republicans on the panel used their time to repeat misinformation about the 2020 election results.

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said he believes the 2020 election “was indeed compromised," and that a full investigation would “take time."

“Yet as of January 20, 2021, Joe Biden was the inaugurated president," Higgins said. “Listen good: On January 20, 2025, we're gonna fix that. And Democrats will have an opportunity to deal with the re-elected and newly inaugurated President Donald J. Trump again, and I have no doubt that my Democratic colleagues across the aisle will object."

Election experts have expressed alarm that the ongoing unsubstantiated claims of voting impropriety have undermined confidence in elections across the country.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., asked Gates if he believes the audit was about restoring faith in elections, as supporters have claimed.

For some involved, they may have been focused on ensuring any lingering questions about the election were answered, Gates said.

“But unfortunately, I do believe that a lot of people who led this, that was not their major focus," Gates said. “Instead, I think it was more on raising doubts, and I think we're seeing that again today, quite frankly."

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Cyber Ninjas CEO refuses to testify at congressional hearing on Arizona 'audit'

When the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee holds a hearing Thursday to probe the so-called election “audit" in Arizona, the CEO of the company hired to conduct that controversial review will be absent.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.

‘Their tank is empty’: Local public health officials combat staff burnout, low pay and harassment

WASHINGTON — Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local public health departments that were already struggling with too few workers and too little money have been pushed to the brink — and for some, beyond the brink.

“My staff is burnt out, overworked and underpaid," Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner with the Columbus Public Health Department in Ohio, told U.S. House members on Wednesday. “Some are leaving the field entirely, unable to contribute any more to the work they once loved."

“Simply put," Roberts added, “their tank is empty."

She and other public health officials from Kansas and Louisiana painted a bleak picture to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis during a hearing on the challenges facing public health departments.

While some of those problems have intensified during the pandemic, such as harassment and vitriol from those who refuse to believe the science behind vaccines, other issues, like a lack of resources, have been mounting for decades.

Roberts described how an emergency-preparedness unit that once had 20 staffers was down to five by the time the pandemic hit. Staffers from across the public health agency, some whose jobs have little to do with infectious disease response, have been called into the all-hands-on-deck fight.

The result? Staff fatigue and early retirement, while those who remain on the job have faced harassment and challenges to the authority of public health agencies.

Anger over mask mandates

Officials from across the country told similar stories.

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a health officer in the Wilson County Health Department in Kansas, said a local sheriff volunteered to escort her to her car after a public meeting on mask mandates, because he was worried about the angry residents who spoke at the meeting.

McKenney, who is still employed by the rural health department, said she was later told that her job would be opened up for applications because she focused “too much on health and science, and not enough on business."

“Many of my colleagues have experienced worse harassment than me, by the general public and elected officials, but some have not been able to speak up for fear of retaliation," McKenney told the committee.

Since the pandemic began, more than 300 state and local public health leaders have left their jobs, according to Dr. Beth Resnick, assistant dean at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. That represents 1 in 5 Americans losing a public health official in their community.

McKinney attributed the decisions of many of those workers to the strain caused by the hostilities that her colleagues and others across the country have endured since the pandemic began.

“It's because every day, they have to endure things like people lying to them about their close contacts or when their symptoms started," she said. “It's truly the personal effect of the way they're putting their whole heart into everything that they're doing to help people, only to get other people to, again, lie or yell or attack or shaming them in public for just trying to do their job."

Resnick said she and her colleagues have identified at least 1,500 incidents in which public health workers have been attacked or harassed since the pandemic began. Half of local health departments they surveyed reported at least one incident of an attack or harassment, from protests to death threats to shots fired at their homes.

She urged members of Congress to establish a national reporting system for incidents of violence and harassment against public health workers, and for the federal Department of Justice to support state and local prosecutors in enforcing existing laws.

Consistent funding

Local health officials also called for more consistent, long-term funding for their agencies.

They expressed frustration with grants that may last only a year or two, and that are narrowly tailored to specific diseases or health challenges at that moment.

That system of funding makes it too difficult to retain talent within agencies that should be well-prepared to respond to a broad range of threats, they said.

“You can never build for the future if your funding is limited to the priorities of yesterday's appropriations," said Dr. Joseph Kanter, state health officer and medical director for Louisiana's Department of Health.

Illustrating the scale of what health agencies are still grappling to contain, Kanter noted that Hurricane Ida resulted in 30 deaths in Louisiana. Since that storm made landfall, his state has tallied 1,541 deaths related to COVID-19.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

15 Republicans join with Democrats as Senate passes bill to prevent government shutdown

Congress made a last-minute dash to avert a government shutdown on Thursday, with the U.S. Senate approving a short-term spending bill just hours ahead of a midnight deadline.

Every Democratic and independent senator and 15 Republicans supported the bill in the 65-35 vote. The GOP senators in the “aye" tally included Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy of Louisiana; Susan Collins of Maine; Roy Blunt of Missouri; and Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

After the Senate vote, the federal spending bill — which will keep government agencies funded at current levels through Dec. 3, and provide $28.6 billion in aid for regions struck by extreme weather — heads to the U.S. House. That chamber is expected to pass the spending patch later on Thursday and send it to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it.

“This vote says we are keeping the government open," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday, calling it a “glimmer of hope" as Congress faces a slew of other legislative challenges.

Chief among those is increasing the federal borrowing limit, which must be done to prevent a default on the nation's debt obligations. That default could occur as soon as mid-October, according to Treasury officials.

Democrats, who barely control the split 50-50 Senate, initially sought to advance legislation that would have increased the national debt limit, in addition to the provisions to avert a government shutdown and to approve disaster aid.

But GOP senators opposed raising the debt limit at a time when Democrats also are seeking to push through a massive social spending plan with no Republican support. They blocked an attempt Monday to begin debate on that broader bill.

Democrats expressed frustration that Republicans would risk a default. But ultimately they were forced to push off the extension of the debt limit, which will need to be done with only Democratic votes to avoid economic chaos.

Several GOP-drafted amendments to the spending bill failed during Thursday's Senate floor votes, including one from Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.

Marshall's amendment sought to prohibit the use of federal funds in enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He argued that receiving a vaccine should be a “personal choice" and not one that is mandated by the federal government.

The amendment failed on a 50-50 vote. Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), argued against Marshall's amendment, saying it would “weaken one of our strongest tools to get people through this crisis."

Meanwhile, other major pieces of the Democratic agenda remain stalled in Congress.

It remains unclear if Democratic leaders in the House will bring up President Joe Biden's infrastructure legislation on Thursday.

Key surface transportation programs are set to expire after Thursday, but progressives have opposed voting for the road-and-bridge funding while the fate of a separate but linked proposal to expand a raft of social safety-net programs remains in flux.

Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have opposed the $3.5 trillion price tag of the proposal drafted based on Biden's “Build Back Better" policy plan. Democratic leaders have sought to pass that measure through the reconciliation process, which would allow it to be approved with 50 votes and without any support from Republicans.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Who will get a booster shot? A Q-and-A about what the feds are saying

WASHINGTON — Booster shots soon will begin rolling out to some Americans who received the two-shot vaccine made by Pfizer — after a contentious and confusing federal approval process that isn't over yet.
Determining who exactly should be rolling up their sleeves for an additional dose was tricky. The Biden administration had leapfrogged federal regulatory panels in announcing plans for a more sweeping booster campaign that it hoped would have begun last Monday.

Instead, only those who received the Pfizer shots will be eligible for boosters, and boosters will be limited to those 65 and older or individuals with underlying medical conditions, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel recommended Thursday.

The initial eligible groups will also include health care workers, teachers and others at higher risk of exposure to the virus at their workplace — a category that the CDC panel declined to recommend, but the top CDC official added them back in the agency's official guidance late Thursday night.

The federal booster effort ran into challenges in the month since President Joe Biden made his announcement, including the time it takes to gather data on booster shots.

Pfizer was the first to submit its data to federal regulators, and is the only one of the three vaccines so far to be formally considered for booster use.

Given a lack of data on the safety of mixing vaccines from different manufacturers, Americans who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots must wait to have their own boosters approved.

As federal health officials have scrambled to assess data on booster shots, the U.S. has been facing a fourth wave of cases, with an average of 130,000 infections and more than 2,000 deaths per day.

The overwhelming majority of current COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among people who have not received a vaccine against the disease. Some members of the CDC advisory panel expressed uncertainty over the potential for boosters to tamp down the spike in infections.

“We may move the needle a little bit" by recommending booster doses, “but that's not really the answer to this pandemic," said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, emphasizing the need to vaccinate those who still haven't received their initial shots.

Here are some questions and answers about boosters:

Who can get a vaccine booster?

Pfizer booster shots will initially be recommended to those 65 and older, or in long-term care facilities, as well as those between 50 and 64 who have underlying medical conditions.

The CDC panel also voted to allow those between 18 and 49 years old with underlying medical conditions to obtain booster shots, based on an individual assessment of their risk from COVID-19.

The panel rejected a broader recommendation of a booster for anyone 18-64 who is in an occupational or institutional setting where risk of COVID-19 transmission is high, such as health care workers. Several experts on the panel expressed concerns about the category being too broad and including some who may not receive much benefit from a booster shot.

But Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, included it in her guidance, as did the Food and Drug Administration when that agency granted its signoff on Wednesday.

Roughly 26 million Americans are at least six months past their second Pfizer dose, and about half of those individuals are 65 or older, according to the CDC.

What if I'm not in one of the approved categories?

You should wait to seek out a booster shot.

Data presented during the FDA and CDC hearings shows that while the vaccines' effectiveness has waned when it comes to being vulnerable to infections, breakthrough infections still tend to be mild and the shots' protection against severe illness and hospitalization remains strong.

“If you're not in a group for whom boosters are universally recommended, it's really because we think you're well-protected," said Dr. Matthew Daley, a senior investigator with Kaiser Permanente Colorado's Institute for Health Research.

If you're not in a group for whom boosters are universally recommended, it's really because we think you're well-protected.

– Dr. Matthew Daley, senior investigator with Kaiser Permanente Colorado's Institute for Health Research

What if I received a shot made by Moderna or Johnson & Johnson?

For now, you'll have to wait.

Moderna has submitted its federal application for a booster shot, and Johnson & Johnson said this week that it has provided data to the FDA on its booster study.

A number of health experts at Thursday's CDC advisory panel meeting expressed frustration about the lack of safety data on whether the shots can be mixed across manufacturers. FDA officials said they are working with those drug companies and the National Institutes of Health to gather the information needed for a science-backed ruling.

What if I want to get one anyway?

The recommendations do not include any requirements that health care providers confirm that those seeking a booster vaccine are in the eligible categories (which also include people who are immunocompromised, who were approved last month for boosters).

But the federal regulations on using those boosters under emergency approval mean that providers are supposed to strictly follow requirements on how the vaccines can be used.

When and where can I get a booster dose?

For the eligible groups, booster shots are recommended at least six months after receiving the second dose of Pfizer's vaccine.

Most individuals can head to their local pharmacy: More than 70% of COVID-19 vaccines currently are being administered through pharmacies, according to the CDC.

Will this change what it means to be fully vaccinated?

Not yet. Regulators said Thursday that the definition of being “fully vaccinated" — which is used by workplaces, entertainment venues and a range of other public and private settings — will still be the two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine (and one of the single-dose J&J shot).

Will the booster recommendation be expanded to more Americans?

These won't be the last COVID-19 vaccination recommendations from federal health officials.

Throughout Thursday's meeting, CDC doctors emphasized that the recommendations are on an interim basis, and will be re-evaluated and updated.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

House oversight panel seeks testimony from company conducting Arizona election ‘audit’

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Friday requested that the company behind a months-long review of Arizona's election results appear at a hearing next month, after officials from Cyber Ninjas refused to cooperate with document requests from the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Top Democrats on that panel, Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, sent a letter Friday to Doug Logan, CEO of the Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas, seeking his testimony at an Oct. 7 hearing on the firm's role in the review of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona.

“This request follows your repeated refusal to produce documents requested by the committee regarding this largely privately funded audit," Maloney and Raskin wrote.

“As a result of your obstruction, your participation in a committee hearing is necessary for the committee to advance the investigation of the questionable audit your company performed and to examine whether this audit is interfering with Americans' right to vote free from partisan interference."

Arizona's Republican-controlled state Senate hired Cyber Ninjas in April to conduct the so-called audit of the 2020 presidential election results in Maricopa County. Findings of that election review were scheduled to be released Friday, and draft reports circulating ahead of the formal announcement showed President Joe Biden actually won Arizona by more votes than the official tally.

The involvement of Cyber Ninjas in the election review has raised concerns, in part because the company had no prior federal election audit experience.

Democrats on the House Oversight panel wrote to the company in July and August, requesting documents related to audit procedures, funding sources, and communications with outside parties that may have improper influence on its investigation.

But top officials on the committee say the company “continuously obstructed" the congressional review, sending responses that objected to the requests or only relayed information that was already publicly available.

Maloney and Raskin described the panel's investigation as “of exceeding importance to the American people."

“Consistent with Congress's constitutional authorities, the committee is investigating the extent to which your company's actions have undermined the integrity of federal elections and interfered with Americans' constitutional right to cast their ballot freely and to have their votes counted without partisan interference," they wrote.

Arizona is not the only state where Republicans have engaged in efforts to review last year's election results, months after states have concluded their statutorily required certification processes.

GOP officials in Wisconsin have launched several inquiries over the election results there, and in Pennsylvania, Senate Republicans have sought to subpoena identifying information on state voters.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

Biden to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for federal employees and contractors, reports say

Federal employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with no opt-out for testing under an executive order that President Joe Biden is expected to sign Thursday, according to several news outlets.

The new requirement will be rolled out as Biden gives a major address Thursday afternoon on new national strategies for combating the coronavirus pandemic and surging cases from the delta variant of that virus.

Those tactics are expected to include expanded testing and steps to aid schools in keeping their doors open.

Early reports from the New York Times, CNN, and other news sources differed on whether the vaccine mandate would cover all or nearly all of the roughly 2 million federal employees. It's also expected to include the millions of employees of private contractors that do business with the federal government.

The new vaccine requirement will affect thousands of employees in Washington, D.C., and neighboring states. At least 127,000 federal employees live in Virginia and another 115,000 reside in Maryland, according to data from the Office of Personnel and Management.

Those states also are home to many major government contractors, including some of the nation's largest defense contractors.

But the vaccine mandate also will affect states farther from the nation's capital. The city with the third-largest population of federal employees, according to OPM, is Atlanta — home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other federal offices.

Biden has limited authority to require COVID-19 vaccines. But his administration already has enacted requirements on the military and workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He previously pushed federal workers to get vaccinated by announcing that those who refused would have to undergo regular coronavirus testing.

The president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal employees, said in a statement ahead of Biden's announcement that the union has strongly encouraged members to get vaccinated, but that any changes like what Biden was set to announce should be negotiated with bargaining units where appropriate.

“We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so," AFGE president Everett Kelley said in the statement.

The president also has directed nursing homes to ensure their staffers are vaccinated against COVID-19, or risk losing federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars,

Across the country, states have taken a range of approaches to vaccine mandates. Twenty-one states have some sort of mandate in place, covering state employees, nursing home workers, staffers in schools, or some combination of those employment settings, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

At least 11 states have passed laws prohibiting vaccine requirements by state or local governments.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.