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COVID-19 still rages, but some U.S. states reject federal funds to help

By Andy Sullivan

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COVID-19 still rages, but some U.S. states reject federal funds to help
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective face mask is seen walking in the reflection of a thrift store window, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in historic downtown Nampa, Idaho, U.S., October 26, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Phot

By Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – As the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic burns through the rural U.S. state of Idaho, health officials say they don’t have enough tests to track the disease’s spread or sufficient medical workers to help the sick.

It’s not for want of funding.

The state’s Republican-led legislature this year voted down $40 million in federal aid available for COVID-19 testing in schools. Another $1.8 billion in pandemic-related federal assistance is sitting idle in the state treasury, waiting for lawmakers to deploy it.

Some Idaho legislators have accused Washington of overreach and reckless spending. Others see testing as disruptive and unnecessary, particularly in schools, since relatively few children have died from the disease.

“If you want your kids in school, you can’t be testing,” said state Representative Ben Adams, a Republican who represents Nampa, a city of about 100,000 people in southwestern Idaho.

Meanwhile, the state is reporting the fifth-highest infection rate in the United States, at 369 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools in at least 14 of Idaho’s 115 districts, including Nampa, have had to close temporarily due to COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the year, according to Burbio, a digital platform that tracks U.S. school activity.

Idaho’s experience illustrates how political ideology and polarization around the COVID-19 epidemic have played a role in the decision of mostly conservative states to reject some federal funding meant to help locals officials battle the virus and its economic fallout.

For example, Idaho was one of 26 Republican-led states that ended enhanced federally funded unemployment benefits before they were due to expire in September. Gov. Brad Little claimed that money was discouraging the jobless from returning to work. At least six studies have found that the extra benefits have had little to no impact on the U.S. labor market.

Idaho has also rebuffed $6 million for early-childhood education, as some Republicans in the state said mothers should be the primary caretakers of their children.

The state also did not apply for $6 million that would have bolstered two safety-net programs that aid mothers of young children and working families. Little’s administration said it had enough money already for those programs.

Idaho has accepted some federal COVID-19 help. In fact, the rejected funds are just a small portion of the nearly $2 billion in federal relief Idaho has spent since March 2020 to fight the virus and shore up businesses and families, state figures show.

But hundreds of millions more remain untouched. Idaho has deployed just $780 million, or 30%, of the $2.6 billion it received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March.

Neighboring Washington state, by contrast, has parceled out nearly three-quarters of the $7.8 billion it received under that legislation. Washington has recorded roughly 60% as many cases per capita as Idaho since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some in Idaho are exasperated that a state of just 1.8 million people would turn down a dime of assistance when it’s struggling to tame the pandemic.

With no testing in place, nurses in Nampa schools rely mainly on parents to let them know when a child is infected, the district’s top nurse, Rebekah Burley, told the school board in September. She said she needed three or four more staffers to track existing cases and attempt to keep people quarantined.

“We’re tired, we are stressed, and something needs to change,” she said.

REJECTING FEDERAL MONEY

The refusal by red states to accept some types of federal aid that would benefit their constituents isn’t new.

For example, a dozen Republican-controlled states have rejected billions of dollars available through the landmark 2010 Affordable Health Care Act to cover more people under the Medicaid health program for the poor, which is jointly funded by the federal government and the states. Lawmakers from these places contended their states couldn’t afford to pay their share of an expansion. (Idaho initially was among them, but its voters opted in to the Medicaid expansion through a 2018 ballot referendum, bypassing state leaders.)

That same dynamic has played out during the coronavirus crisis. Since March 2020, Congress has approved six aid packages totaling $4.7 trillion under Republican and Democratic administrations, including the bipartisan CARES Act in March 2020 and the Democratic-backed American Rescue Plan Act this year.

Florida and Mississippi didn’t apply for benefits that would give more money to low-income mothers of young children. Four states, including Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma, opted not to extend a program that provided grocery money to low-income families with school-age kids in summer months.

Iowa, like Idaho, turned down federal money for COVID-19 testing in schools. New Hampshire rejected money for vaccinations.

Republican lawmakers in Idaho, like those elsewhere, cite concerns about local control, restrictive terms attached to some of the aid, and the skyrocketing national debt.

“We are chaining future generations to a lifetime of financial slavery,” said Adams, the Idaho legislator.

Yet even before the pandemic, Idaho long relied on Washington for much of its budget. Federal funds account for 36% of state spending in Idaho, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, above the national average of 32%.

State officials say they have enough money to handle the COVID-19 crisis for now.

Critics say Idaho’s reluctance to use more federal aid is a symptom of its hands-off approach to COVID-19 safety. Few public schools require masks, and local leaders have refused to impose mask mandates, limits on indoor gatherings and other steps to contain the virus.

“There’s a lot of people in our legislature and some local officials who really have not taken this seriously,” said David Pate, the former head of St. Luke’s Health System, the state’s largest hospital network.

Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with only 55% of adults and teens fully immunized, compared to 67% nationally.

HOSPITALS FULL

COVID-19 is pummeling Idaho even as cases have plunged in much of the nation. Intensive-care units statewide are full, forcing hospitals to turn away non-COVID patients. At least 627 residents died of the disease in October, well above the previous monthly death toll of last winter, records show. 

Idaho received $18 million through the American Rescue Plan to hire more public-health workers, but lawmakers did nothing with that money this year.

Some local public health departments say they do not have enough staff to track the virus. “We have a lot of people doing two or three jobs right now,” said Brianna Bodily, a spokesperson for the public-health agency serving Twin Falls, a southern Idaho city of 50,000. The department is working with a 12% smaller budget than last year.

Such staff shortages have contributed to a backlog of test results statewide, which the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says is hurting its ability to provide an up-to-date picture of the disease’s prevalence.

With funding bottled up in the state capitol, Little, the governor, announced in August that he would steer $30 million from a previous round of COVID-19 aid to school testing.

The Nampa school district has requested some of that money but has yet to set up a testing program, spokeswoman Kathleen Tucker said. Roughly 80% of the district’s students were not attending class regularly in the first weeks of the school year due to outbreaks, according to superintendent Paula Kellerer.

Nampa resident Jaci Johnson, a mother of two children, ages 10 and 13, said she and other parents have been torn over whether to send their children to class, due to the potential risk.

“Do we feed our kids to the lions, or do we keep them home and make them miserable?” Johnson said.

Coronavirus

China slashes COVID quarantine time for international travellers

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

2/2

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China on Tuesday slashed the quarantine time for inbound travellers by half in a major easing of one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 curbs, which have deterred travel in and out of the country since 2020.

Quarantine at centralised facilities has been cut to seven days from 14, and subsequent at-home health monitoring has been reduced to three days from seven, the National Health Commission said.

The latest guidelines from the health authority also eased quarantine requirements for close contacts of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

China has cautiously eased its COVID curbs on cross-border travellers in recent months, with health officials saying the shorter incubation period of the Omicron variant allows for an adjustment of quarantine periods.

The Chinese capital Beijing in recent months has already reduced the quarantine period at centralised facilities to 10 days from 14.

China, last month, also removed some COVID-19 test requirements for people flying in from countries such as the United States.

“We believe that today’s announcement will be welcomed by the American business community,” the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said on its official WeChat account.

The quarantine adjustment will make it easier for companies to bring staff to China, and for Chinese companies and their executives to visit the United States, AmCham said.

Stock markets rose in Hong Kong and the mainland, with the Hang Seng Index reversing losses and ticking up roughly 0.4% and the CSI300 Index gaining 0.7%.

Shares in mainland tourism companies jumped more than 5%.

China’s aviation regulator said this month it had been in touch with some countries to steadily increase the number of flights in the second half of 2022.

IN THE CLEAR

Beijing and Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear simultaneously since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19.

The Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co’s Shanghai Disney Resort said on Tuesday that it would reopen the Disneyland theme park on June 30; it had been shut for more than three months.

Authorities, however, were adamant the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

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Coronavirus

Beijing, Shanghai both free of new local COVID cases for first time in months

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s capital, Beijing, and the financial hub of Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear at the same time since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19, following a crushing two-month citywide lockdown that was finally lifted in early June.

Authorities, however, remained wary and were adamant that the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

The city would build “a solid virus barrier”, Cai was quoted as saying on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

Despite easing COVID restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai, their combined 47 million residents have been told to go through COVID testing every few days, to maintain access to public spaces and transport.

Elsewhere in mainland China, a total of 22 domestically transmitted infections were reported for June 27, including five in the southern technology hub Shenzhen.

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Coronavirus

U.S. appeals court vacates federal vaccine mandate pending additional hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A resident over 50 years old and immunocompromised receives a second booster shot of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Waterford, Michigan, U.S., April 8, 2022. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court panel said on Monday it would convene a full panel to reconsider President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring civilian federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and set aside the order pending that hearing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, had reinstated the vaccine order in April by a 2-1 vote after it was blocked by a district court judge in January. [L2N2W530Z]

The court said on Monday that it would reconsider the case en banc, which means it will be heard by a larger panel of judges. No date was given for the hearing. Pending that hearing, the court said it would vacate the April ruling, which means that Biden’s order cannot be enforced.

Biden said in September he would require about 3.5 million government workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, barring a religious or medical accommodation, or face discipline or firing. Despite the legal fight, more than 90% of federal workers were vaccinated by December, the White House said last year.

The president’s vaccine and mask mandates have faced stiff opposition, led by Republicans, which have turned public safety measures endorsed by disease experts into a political and legal battle in the United States.

The United States passed the milestone of 1 million dead from the coronavirus in May. More than 250 people still die of the disease daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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