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The Latest: Houston health care system near “breaking point”

HOUSTON — Houston area officials say the latest wave of COVID-19 cases is pushing the local health care system to nearly “a breaking point,” resulting in some patients having to be transferred out of the city to get medical care, including one who had to be taken to North Dakota.

Dr. David Persse, who is health authority for the Houston Health Department and EMS medical director, said some ambulances were waiting hours to offload patients at Houston area hospitals because no beds were available. Persse said he feared this would lead to prolonged respond times to 911 medical calls.

“The health care system right now is nearly at a breaking point … For the next three weeks or so, I see no relief on what’s happening in emergency departments,” Persse said Thursday.

Last weekend, a patient in Houston had to be transferred to North Dakota to get medical care. An 11-month-old girl with COVID-19 and who was having seizures had to be transported on Thursday from Houston to a hospital 170 miles away in Temple.

The rising hospitalization and positivity rate in the Houston area prompted Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday to announce that he plans to ask the school board during its meeting next week to approve a mandate requiring all students, teachers and staff to wear masks. Classes in the Houston school district, the state’s largest, begin Aug. 23.

“We know that we’re going to get pushback for this,” House said. “If we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing.”

If approved, the mask mandate would go against an executive order Gov. Greg Abbott repeated last month banning such mandates by any state, county or local government entity.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— Study: Vaccines give COVID-19 survivors big immune boost

— Vaccination form for federal workers adds penalties for lies

— Some US schools reopen with mix of masks in classrooms

— United Airlines will require US employees to be vaccinated

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— Find more AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned residents that their state’s place at the epicenter of the latest coronavirus surge isn’t lessening.

He noted that Louisiana’s COVID-19 case growth and hospitalizations continue to worsen, and he said the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive continues to go up, reaching more than 15% Friday.

“We have no reason to believe in our data that we’ve reached the peak or that we’re coming down,” the Democratic governor said.

He urged people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus illness and to follow the state’s mask mandate, saying that’s the only way to lessen the surge.

“I know we’re going to get through this,” Edwards said. But he added: “How many people die between now and then is largely going to be up to us.”

Still, the governor offered some signs of hopefulness in the continued increases in people newly seeking the vaccine. Edwards’ chief public health officer, Dr. Joe Kanter, said vaccinations have increased more than 500% over the last month.

But Kanter also offered a list of grim statistics as well, saying 15% of emergency room visits in the state are now related to COVID-19. He said 50 hospitals have asked the state for staffing assistance, warning they can no longer adequately provide care to the community. And he noted that over the past two weeks about 1% of the state’s entire population has become infected with COVID-19.

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TOPEKA, Kan. — A small but growing number of places in Kansas are requiring people to wear masks indoors.

The spread of the more contagious delta variant across the state prompted the University of Kansas on Friday to reverse course and impose a mask mandate on its main campus in Lawrence and a satellite campus in Johnson County in the Kansas City area. The mandate takes effect Monday and applies whether someone is vaccinated or not.

Washburn University in Topeka also announced an indoor mask mandate, and Wyandotte County has one in place for most residents.

Meanwhile, Gov. Laura Kelly released a new public-service announcement urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

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WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki said Friday that there are “early discussions about a range of options” for new vaccine mandates or penalties for certain situations, such as domestic travelers and nursing home workers. She added that the administration has “concern” about anti-mask, anti-vaccine mandate restrictions in some states.

“If you don’t want to abide by public health guidelines, don’t want to use your role as leaders,” Psaki said, “then you should get out of the way.”

She also applauded United Airlines’ announcement that it would require workers to get vaccinated, saying “support these vaccination requirements to protect workers, communities and our country and we hope to see even more action from the public and private sector over the coming weeks.”

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids has tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated against it and is in isolation.

Davids said Friday in a statement that she has had only mild symptoms from her breakthrough case. She said she was tested after undergoing outpatient surgery involving the parathyroid glands in the neck that regulate calcium levels in the blood.

The two-term Democratic congresswoman for the state’s portion of the Kansas City metropolitan area said she’s been following precautions recommended by health officials, including wearing masks indoors.

She said she’s grateful for COVID-19 vaccines and urged people to get inoculated. Her statement did not say how she contracted COVID-19.

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LAS VEGAS — More than 6,000 people in Nevada have died of COVID-19, a grim milestone the state surpassed Friday as officials struggle to respond to another surge of the coronavirus.

Gov. Steve Sisolak called it “another significant and heartbreaking milestone” for the state and issued another plea for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Nevada reported 26 new deaths Friday and 1,299 new cases of COVID-19.

Since the pandemic began, the state has reported 363,574 COVID-19 cases and 6,005 deaths.

Sisolak and state health officials have been struggling to mitigate another resurgence of the virus in Nevada driven by the highly contagious delta variant and a still-lagging rate of vaccinations.

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PHOENIX — Arizona is seeing another significant leap in new COVID-19 infections, with more than 2,800 reported Friday.

The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations also continued to climb, with 1,309 patients. The state Department of Health Services dashboard showed 2,826 new confirmed cases and 42 deaths. The latest figures bring Arizona’s pandemic totals to 940,762 cases and 18,342 deaths.

Since most Arizona schools returned this week, eight districts have now made indoor masking mandatory in defiance of the law. All except for Tucson Unified are in the Phoenix area. It has prompted a lawsuit from a Phoenix biology teacher.

Brophy College Preparatory, a private, all-boys high school in Phoenix, will require everyone regardless of vaccine status to wear masks indoors when classes start Monday. Masks will then be optional starting Sept. 13. But that’s when students and staff must be vaccinated or face weekly testing, according to a letter from the principal.

Any student who wants to participate in overnight retreats or school-related travel will have to show proof of vaccination. The Catholic, Jesuit high school, which counts Ducey’s two sons as alumni, is not obligated to follow the state law.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Target said Friday that it will not require its downtown Minneapolis headquarters employees to return to the office for the rest of the year, due to a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant.

Target has about 8,500 workers at its headquarters offices, making it the largest employer in downtown Minneapolis.

In an email sent to employees Friday, Target said it is still planning a gradual transition back to the office starting Sept. 20, but only common areas such as cafeterias or conference rooms will initially be open.

Plans to reopen other floors and personal workspaces in September have been put on hold, the Star Tribune reported.

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NEW YORK — Even people who have recovered from COVID-19 are urged to get vaccinated, and a new study shows survivors who ignored that advice had twice the risk of getting reinfected.

The report Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as scientists urge people to get vaccinated because of the highly contagious delta variant. That includes people who had a prior infection.

The report out of Kentucky adds to growing laboratory evidence that vaccines offer an important boost to natural immunity, including broader protection against new variants.

“If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads around the country.”

There’s little information yet on reinfections with the newer delta variant. But U.S. health officials point to early data from Britain that the reinfection risk appears greater with delta than with the common alpha variant, once people are six months past their prior infection.

“There’s no doubt” that vaccinating a COVID-19 survivor enhances both the amount and breadth of immunity “so that you cover not only the original (virus) but the variants,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert, said at a recent White House briefing.

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WASHINGTON — Federal employees who need to certify their vaccination status under a new policy instituted by President Joe Biden intended to encourage COVID-19 shots will face disciplinary action and potentially criminal prosecution if they lie on the form.

The Biden administration on Friday unveiled the attestation form that employees will need to fill out about whether they have been fully vaccinated against the virus, adding legal teeth to the president’s mandate.

Federal employees won’t be following the “honor system” but will instead be required to acknowledge that making a “knowing and willful false statement on this form can be punished by fine or imprisonment or both.”

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the form, which was distributed Friday to agency leadership.

— By Zeke Miller

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LONDON — In Britain, the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus is falling across most regions of the country.

In its weekly survey of the levels of infection across the U.K., the Office for National Statistics says case rates appeared to be falling in England, Scotland and Wales, though not in Northern Ireland.

In England, the agency found 1 in 75 people in private households had COVID-19 in the week prior to July 31, down from 1 in 65 in the previous week.

There’s been a 13% decline in the number of people requiring hospital treatment for COVID-19 in the past week.

The declines are most noticeable among younger age groups. Many reasons have been cited for the seeming fall in infections, including the closure of schools for the summer and the end of soccer’s European Championship, which led many younger adults to mingle indoors.

Nearly 74% of the adult population, ages 18 and above, have been fully vaccinated. This week, the government accepted the advice of scientists to offer the Pfizer vaccine to youths ages 16-17.

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BATON ROUGE, La. — The number of patients hospitalized in Louisiana with COVID-19 climbed to new heights as the state grapples with its worst coronavirus surge.

For the fourth day, the state set coronavirus hospitalization records. The state Department of Health reported 2,421 people hospitalized around the state with COVID-19, up 71 more people from the day before and more than eight times the number hospitalized at the start of July.

Louisiana is confirming thousands of coronavirus cases each day, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and the large number of people who remain unvaccinated. The CDC says Louisiana has the highest number of new cases per capita nationally in the last week at 653 per 100,000 people. The state is among the bottom five with 37% of the total population fully vaccinated, according to state health department data.

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An Arkansas judge has temporarily blocked the state from enforcing a law that prevents schools and other governmental agencies from requiring masks.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Friday issued a preliminary injunction against the law Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed in April. Fox’s decision came shortly after Arkansas lawmakers left the ban in place, ending a session Hutchinson called to consider rolling it back for some schools.

Hutchinson said the change was needed to protect children under 12 who can’t get vaccinated as virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket.

There had been growing calls to lift the ban before school starts statewide later this month. An east Arkansas school district has more than 800 students and staff quarantined because of a recent coronavirus outbreak.

Pediatricians and health officials have said masks in schools are needed to protect children as the delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate fuel cases.

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MCDONOUGH, Ga. — Schools have begun reopening in the U.S., with most states leaving it up to local schools to decide whether to require masks.

At one school in Atlanta’s suburbs where face coverings are optional, more than 60% of students were wearing them inside classrooms. Parents had mixed emotions. Some kept their children home in disagreement with the policy. California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state intend to require masks for all students and teachers regardless of vaccination status.

At the other end of the spectrum, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have banned mask requirements in all public schools.

Outbreaks have hit some schools already, adding to calls for more mask requirements. In Marion, Arkansas, more than 800 students and staff members have been quarantined because of exposure since classes began last week in the 4,000-student district. Superintendent Glen Fenter urged lawmakers to overturn the state law banning masks.

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LISBON, Portugal — Authorities in Portugal say they have reached the milestone of 70% of people on the mainland receiving at least one COVID-19 shot.

The Health Ministry says in recent weeks, 80,000 people a day have been vaccinated. The number is expected to climb during August when some 3 million vaccines are due to arrive.

Portugal, like other European Union countries, got off to a slow start in its inoculation drive because of a shortfall in expected deliveries. It now aims to have 70% of people fully vaccinated by the end of the summer.

The country of 10.3 million, including the Azores and Madeira archipelagoes, has inoculated almost 60% of its population. At the end of June, it had vaccinated just 32%.


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