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Texas ends mask mandate; House stimulus; Alaska

Elinor Aspegren

John Bacon
 
| USA TODAY

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The nation’s second largest public school system is headed back into the classroom.

The Los Angeles Unified School District and the union representing more than 33,000 educators announced a tentative agreement on how to reopen schools for in-person instruction “as soon as possible and in the safest way possible.” The plan prioritizes preschools, elementary schools, and services for students with learning differences to reopen by mid-April.

“Conditions finally allow us to resume in-person instruction,” school board President Kelly Gonez said. “With the declines in COVID-19 in our communities, the preparation of all our school sites, and the vaccinations of our school staff, we are excited to start safely welcoming students in a hybrid model in the coming weeks.”

Texas formally dropped its mask mandate as Gov. Greg Abbott follows through on his plan to “open Texas 100%” today.

Abbott noted that the test positivity rate has dropped for 15 straight days and is down to 6.64%: “Keep up the great work to crush COVID in Texas.”

Some health officials aren’t sold. Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of Baylor College of Medicine said the highly infectious U.K. variant is sweeping athe state while vaccinations lag.

“None of that is good news,” he told CBS News. “I worry we are in for the perfect storm.”

Also Wednesday, the House of Representatives is set to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan with $1,400 checks, billions for vaccines, and money to reopen schools. Biden said Monday that he would sign the legislation “as soon as I get it.” 

Also in the news: 

►Maryland will ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses starting Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday, citing improving COVID-19 health metrics and increasing vaccinations.

►In California, Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith said that his county won’t participate in a state vaccine delivery program administered by insurer Blue Shield. Smith says it would not improve speed or efficiency. Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped the insurance company to create uniform rules and increase the rate of vaccinations, especially in hard-hit communities, through a centralized online portal.

►With Alabama trailing most of the nation in COVID-19 vaccinations, National Guard troops will begin work later this month administering doses in at least 24 rural counties, the state said Tuesday.

►Artifacts from the first known COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S. have made their way to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as part of the institution’s effort to document the coronavirus pandemic.

►The White House said it increased the number of vaccine doses supplied to states and territories from 15.2 million last week to 15.8 million this week, and it also boosted to 2.7 million the allotment distributed through the federal pharmacy plan.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has over 29 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 527,600  deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 117.5 million cases and 2.6 million deaths. More than 123.23 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 93.6 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: In just two months, the United States could be swimming in COVID-19 vaccine. That could bring its own problems. Read more here.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Three of the five largest counties in California could reopen as early as this weekend for indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms at limited capacity under a new metric aimed at getting more shots to those most vulnerable. For Los Angeles County, this would be its first time out of the state’s most restrictive closure orders since Newsom adopted a color-coded system in August. The other counties likely to see more reopenings are Orange and San Bernardino, also in Southern California. 

A new equity initiative announced by Newsom last week allows counties to move out of the most restrictive shutdowns once 2 million shots are administered to people living in ZIP codes that the state deems most vulnerable based on household income, access to health care and education levels. Once that threshold is met, state officials will reassess and restrictions could be loosened within two days, said Ali Bay, deputy director of communications for the California public health department.

– Janie Har and Christopher Weber, Palm Springs Desert-Sun

Alaska announced it was lifting all restrictions on who can get the COVID-19 vaccine in the state. Officials said that the state was expanding eligibility for the vaccine to include anyone 16 years and older who lives or works in the state. Just last week, they had expanded the list to include those age 55 and older, essential workers, and those with preexisting conditions. Alaska is the first state to remove eligibility requirements for the vaccine, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a news release.

“A healthy community means a healthy economy. With widespread vaccinations available to all Alaskans who live or work here, we will no doubt see our economy grow and our businesses thrive,” said Dunleavy.

People with intellectual disabilities have a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it, and therefore should be prioritized for vaccination, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine’s digital publication Catalyst. The report, based on a large national sample, calls intellectual disabilities “the strongest independent risk factor” for getting the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the second strongest for dying from it, after age.

While underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity and chronic kidney disease are regarded as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, Down syndrome is the only intellectual disability included on the CDC’s list of higher-risk conditions. 

“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on individuals with intellectual disabilities,” the study says. “Patients with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers should be prioritized for vaccination and health care services.’

Contributing: The Associated Press

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