Feds: Florida, Missouri, Texas account for 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases this week

WASHINGTON — Amid a rise in infections and hospitalizations from the surging delta variant of COVID-19, the Biden administration is boosting money and other assistance to the hardest-hit areas of the country.

This week, just three states with lower vaccination rates — Florida, Texas and Missouri — accounted for 40 percent of all cases nationwide. One in five cases occurred in Florida alone.

Federal public health officials on Thursday announced $1.6 billion in money from the pandemic relief package approved earlier this year will be used to increase testing and mitigation in high-risk group settings, like homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment centers and prisons.

Another $100 million will be sent to rural health clinics, to pay for more vaccine education and outreach in communities that generally have seen the slowest vaccine uptake.

As they send more resources, federal health officials emphasized that those spikes in infections and hospitalizations typically are occurring in regions that have the lowest rates of vaccination.

“If you are not vaccinated, please take the delta variant seriously,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press briefing. “This virus has no incentive to let up, and it remains in search of the next vulnerable person to infect.”

Federal “surge response” teams have been working with governors and local public health officials. They’ve provided technical expertise on genetic sequencing, data analysis, and outbreak response to Missouri, Illinois and Colorado, said Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator.

In North Carolina, FEMA will be deploying mobile vaccination clinics, Zients said.

FEMA and Department of Health and Human Services staffers have been on the ground in Nevada to assist in the COVID-19 response, and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited on Thursday to check in on the mitigation efforts.

The national vaccination campaign did dramatically curb the virus’ spread by late spring, but vaccinations have stalled across the country, with 68% of U.S. adults having received at least one shot.

There are wide variations regionally, and the number of infections and hospitalizations has begun to rise again as the more contagious delta variant surges. The seven-day average of U.S. cases has gone up 53% compared to the previous seven-day average, according to data from the CDC.

Hospitalizations are up 32%, and deaths have risen 19%. Ninety-seven percent of those cases are occurring among the unvaccinated, according to federal health officials.

But there may be shifting views toward the vaccine in areas of the country that have been most reluctant. In the past week, five states with the highest case rates — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada — had higher rates of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average, Zients said.

While some parts of the country have begun to reconsider or reinstate mandates on wearing face masks amid the surging cases, CDC officials so far are not calling for any changes. The agency’s recommendations say unvaccinated individuals should wear masks, and that those who are vaccinated can do so at their own discretion.

Madison Cawthorn officially flips his lid, promises to “prosecute” Fauci

For those who may have only experienced the frequently outrageous and sometimes downright deranged rants of North Carolina freshman Congressman Madison Cawthorn in print, you’ll undoubtedly want to take a moment to see and hear this deeply troubled and delusional young man in action by checking out the following excerpts from his recent appearance on a right-wing show called “Just the Truth.”

Cawthorn, as you can see, offers the truly bizarre, absurd and frightening assurance that “when” Republicans retake control of Congress in 2022, he [Cawthorn] will “make sure consequences are doled out” to Dr. Anthony Fauci and that Fauci is pursuing his nefarious plot to “lie to the American people” for the purpose of “seeing his name in the news” and to “get fame and fortune.”

As usual, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the fact that such a confused and malevolent figure is representing our state in the United States Congress, but it must be conceded that when it comes to the congressman’s latter unhinged accusations about Fauci’s supposed motives in working to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Cawthorn is at least holding forth on a subject about which he knows a great deal.

States still lag in getting assistance to struggling renters according to federal data

As COVID cases rise, NC adjusts mask guidance for schools

Governor Roy Cooper

It feels like déjà vu all over again when it comes to the coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19 are ticking upward with 1,434 new infections reported on Wednesday.

Governor Roy Cooper is again appealing to all North Carolinians to protect themselves and get vaccinated.

The problem is that most people who were anxious to get the vaccine have already done so.

As of Wednesday, 60% of North Carolina’s eligible adults had received one-dose of the COVID vaccine.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all of our children back in the classroom safely for in-person learning,” Gov. Cooper said. “We want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after the year of disruption they just had.”

Because children under 12 are not eligible yet to be vaccinated, North Carolinians must come together to keep students safe from the virus, said the governor.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The toolkit emphasizes schools with students in 9th through 12th grades ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, also wear a mask indoors.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of the virus among those who are unvaccinated. That has not changed,” Cooper said.

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen said the best COVID protective measure remains the vaccines.

HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

“With only 24% of North Carolinians ages 12-17 fully vaccinated, and because anyone under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, we still have a long way to go,” Cohen told reporters.

In addition to the guidance on mask-wearing the toolkit offers recommendations on physical distancing, PPE and contact tracing in the K-12 setting.

Sec. Cohen said this layered prevention strategy outlined in the toolkit is intended to make the return to school as safe as possible.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt called the new guidance ‘critically important’ while praising local-level decision making.

“As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students,” said Truitt in a released statement.

Dr. Cohen said 94% of  North Carolina’s new positive COVID cases are in people who are unvaccinated. About six percent are breakthrough cases with individuals who have been vaccinated.

“We have seen counties with lower vaccination rates have higher outbreaks, especially with this Delta variant,” said Cooper. “We’re in a race really against COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”

The challenge for health officials is that vaccine-acceptance varies widely across North Carolina.

Robeson County, where 26% of residents are fully vaccinated, has among the lowest rates in the state.

The Robeson County Health Department has hosted vaccination clinics at local libraries and schools to better distribute shots to rural areas. At some locations, people who get vaccinated and adults who drive them to clinics get $15 gift cards.

The Robeson County Church and Community Center is using a state Healthier Together grant to host two vaccination clinics. At the first, free food and school supplies will be available.

The center is also reaching out to churches, to get their leaders who are vaccinated and talk about it, executive director Brianna Goodwin said in a meeting Wednesday morning of NC Rural Coalition Fighting COVID-19.

Personal connections and word of mouth are what sway reluctant people toward getting vaccinated, she said.

If Jesus were on Earth today, he would take the vaccine, she said.

“It is to protect the people around us. Love God, love others. How can we love others if we expose them to something that can be so deadly?”

To date, North Carolina has administered more than 9.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Learn more about the state’s vaccine distribution at myspot.nc.gov. 

Reporter Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Report: One in seven North Carolinians behind on their rent with eviction moratorium set to expire

Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts — Source: National Equity Atlas, PolicyLink, USC Equity Research Institute

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.

In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.

While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.

Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.

Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.

While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:

  1. Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
  2. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent  from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.

Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.