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Court freezes Biden’s COVID-19 mandate

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Court freezes Biden’s COVID-19 mandate

FILE – In this Tuesday, July 9, 2019 file photo, People wait in line to enter the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to sit in overflow rooms to hear arguments in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted an Emergency Stay on the enforcement of President Biden’s federal vaccine mandate after Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on Friday filed a lawsuit to stop the mandate.

The Biden Administration mandated all employees of businesses that employ 100 or more workers be vaccinated. They believe increasing the amount of the population vaccinated would be the quickest way to end the pandemic. More than 750,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States.

The Petition for Review of Occupational Safety and Health Administration Emergency Temporary Standard went before U.S. Fifth Circuit Judges Jones, Duncan, and Engelhardt, who issued the emergency order “pending expedited judicial review.”

Filed Friday by Louisiana Secretary of State Jeff Landry, the lawsuit claims the mandate exceeds the administration’s legal authority and conflicts with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Because the petitions give cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the Mandate, the Mandate is hereby STAYED pending further action by this court.”

27 states have filed lawsuits in several circuits to challenge the rule. However, the Biden administration asserts that safety rules take precedence over state laws and it will withstand any challenges brought against it in court. Violations include penalties of nearly $14,000.

The Court, however, did not publish today’s opinion, and the order addressed only the emergency order.

The order requires the federal government to respond to the lawsuit by 5 p.m. Monday, and that Landry file any reply by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

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Unsung heroes of COVID vaccination effort: Volunteers

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Unsung heroes of COVID vaccination effort: Volunteers

By March 2021, Andy Taylor needed to do … something.

The 70-year-old had spent the past year “hunkering down,” watching from the confines of his home in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood as the coronavirus sickened and felled so many, shuttered entire sectors of society, and stressed the health care system to the edge.

“I was sort of feeling impotent,” Taylor said. “Why am I taking up space on this planet if I can’t help?”

He could help. He’s a retired physician with experience injecting people, and he found a way to put his expertise to use by joining what became an army of volunteers across the state that have tested, vaccinated and helped coordinate crucial aspects of the state’s response to the pandemic.

Since the early days of the pandemic, thousands of volunteers, from retirees to college undergrads, have performed a range of tasks, from administering vaccines to helping with paperwork.

“The volunteers are indispensable,” Mark Jackson, director of testing and vaccination support for Ramsey County, said. “I don’t think I can come up with enough adjectives.”

Jackson and others involved with the county’s efforts are blunt when asked whether the public health mobilization could have worked without the volunteers. “No I don’t think so,” he said. “With staffing limitations and shortages, especially with nurses and other health care workers, no, we couldn’t have done what we’ve done.”

MEDICAL RESERVE CORPS

It’s impossible to calculate how many people have pitched in during the pandemic, if you include home-sewn mask donations and repeated call-ups for members of the Minnesota National Guard.

In the case of the government-run mass-testing and mass-vaccination sites, much of the volunteer work has come via the Medical Reserve Corps. It’s a concept that arose from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With coordination by the federal and state government, MRC units are organized at the local level. There are 22 units in Minnesota, with most run by a county, although some municipalities have their own, and the University of Minnesota has its own unit.

The Ramsey County unit was formed in 2004 and used during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009. Many reserve corps units have responded to natural disasters. Interest in them exploded with the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. Some 1,400 people have signed up in Ramsey County alone, with 508 volunteers deployed to actual work sites. The state effort, MN Responds, deployed nearly 1,600 volunteers between September 2020 and September 2021, according to an audit completed by the Minnesota Department of Health. The audit estimated the volunteers save more than $1 million in labor.

At the start of the pandemic, volunteers in the metro were used heavily for testing. Once the vaccines arrived, they shifted their focus. These days, they do both.

MEET SOME VOLUNTEERS

Volunteers come from all walks of life and demographic groups, although organizers say they’re trying to recruit more diversity. In the Ramsey County unit, there’s a preponderance of retired health care workers — like Taylor.

On a recent day at the mass vaccination site in the Mexican Consulate on St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, Taylor saddled into his usual chair, overseeing a room full of empty chairs that would soon be populated with people who have just received the vaccine.

He’s an observer, watching recipients for 15 minutes or so after receiving a shot with a keen eye for two possible problems: a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction (extremely rare), and fainting or wooziness (uncommon but occasionally seen, for any number of reasons).

If the task sounds dull, it’s not, Taylor insists. He’s picked up “poquito Espanol” from his frequent colleague, Patricia Perez Baker, a Ramsey County health educator. Volunteers work side-by-side with paid professionals.

Taylor says he enjoys the work. “It’s nice to be with people, to be back in the human flow. And I’m helping. If I get COVID here, that’s fine. At least I wasn’t in a bar.”

LOW STRESS?

Medical Reserve Corp volunteer Judy Kuczenski, a nurse practitioner from New Brighton, makes a sure a young patient is OK after administering a COVID-19 vaccination during a clinic at the Consulate of Mexico in St. Paul on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Medical Reserve Corp volunteer Judy Kuczenski, a nurse practitioner from New Brighton, makes a sure a young patient is OK after administering a COVID-19 vaccination during a clinic at the Consulate of Mexico in St. Paul on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. “I was looking to volunteer after I retired and this came up. It was a great option,” said Kuczenski. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

For all the travails that health care workers have been through during the pandemic, volunteer Judy Kuczenski said she finds her task, vaccinating people, pretty relaxing.

The New Brighton resident, a retired nurse practitioner, feels in her element with patients, including children — a skill in especially high demand at vaccination clinics currently.

She has volunteered between one and four days a week since March 2021, and returning to clinical work has reminded her of the camaraderie health care workers can feel with each other, Kuczenski said. Unlike her prior professional career, she said her task isn’t complicated by a patients’ other ailments, or much bureaucracy.

“Every day is Saturday for me,” she joked about her retired status as she awaited patients in the Consulate, which converts its public spaces into a vaccination clinic weekly. “What else can I do? I can ‘work’ when I want.”

But on the serious side, she said she’s inspired by fundamental idea of mass vaccination clinics. “This is access for all. Anyone who comes in here can get a shot. No one needs insurance or any money. There’s not a lot of health care in the world like that.”

‘WHERE I NEED TO BE’

At a nearby vaccination station, Ann Tranvik is volunteering to do the same work she was doing before she retired in November: giving COVID-19 vaccinations.

For 38 years, the Robbinsdale resident worked for Ramsey County as a public health nurse, a job she said she’s always been passionate about. When her father was a boy, he contracted polio and was almost killed by the disease — which has been eliminated in the United States, thanks entirely to vaccination.

“I value prevention, and I want to do anything we can to help make sure people are immunized,” she said.

“There’s not any question in my mind that this is where I need to be.”

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Patrick Mahomes leads Chiefs to 42-21 wild-card romp over Steelers

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Patrick Mahomes leads Chiefs to 42-21 wild-card romp over Steelers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns, Travis Kelce caught a TD pass and threw another one, and the Kansas City Chiefs sent Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into his anticipated retirement with a 42-21 blowout of the Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs Sunday night.

Byron Pringle caught touchdown passes from both Mahomes and Kelce, and Jerick McKinnon and Tyreek Hill also reeled in scoring catches as the Chiefs (13-5) began their pursuit of a third straight AFC championship in fine style.

They scored on six straight possessions during the middle part of the game, shut down Roethlisberger and the rest of the Pittsburgh offense, and turned next Sunday night’s divisional-round game against Buffalo into appointment viewing.

The Bills had a similarly easy time with their 47-17 victory over New England on Saturday. Buffalo and Kansas City met for the AFC title last season.

Roethlisberger, who admitted the Steelers (9-8-1) were “not a very good football team” this week, wasn’t very good in his own right. The 39-year-old quarterback was 29 of 44 for 215 yards with two meaningless TD passes late in the game, providing the coda to a career that includes six Pro Bowl trips and two Super Bowl wins.

Judging by the final score, you’d never guess the first quarter was all about defense: The Steelers ran 14 plays and went 12 yards, while the Chiefs had more punt return yards (70) than they had from scrimmage (62).

Made sense that the first points would be scored on defense, too.

After the Steelers punted for a fifth straight time, the Chiefs inexplicably had wide receiver Mecole Hardman take a snap rather than their four-time Pro Bowl quarterback. Darrel Williams bobbled the exchange, the ball bounced to T.J. Watt, and the Steelers’ All-Pro pass rusher returned the fumble 24 yards for a touchdown.

The play must have awakened Mahomes, who earlier had thrown his first pick in six career home playoff games.

Or maybe it just made Mahomes angry.

He responded by completing his next six passes, capping a 76-yard drive with a nifty underhand flick to McKinnon that tied the game. Then the brilliant young quarterback found Pringle in the corner of the end zone for a score, and he put an exclamation mark on the half by hitting Kelce with a 48-yard touchdown strike.

In the span of less than six minutes, Mahomes and the Chiefs had turned a seven-point deficit into a 21-7 lead.

It wasn’t quite the 23-0 halftime advantage the Chiefs had in their December blowout of the Steelers, but it sure felt that way. Roethlisberger was 5 of 14 for 24 yards in the first half and Pittsburgh had 55 yards total offense.

Not much of a retirement party if Roethlisberger indeed calls it quits.

As for the Chiefs, their celebration started in earnest after Mahomes led them on a fourth straight TD drive to start the second half. The game was such a laugher by that point that when Tyreek Hill was ruled down just shy of the goal line, Mahomes simply threw his next pass on third-and-goal to offensive tackle Nick Allegretti for the score.

Hill got his TD catch eventually; it came after Steelers rookie Najee Harris lost a fumble for the first time all season.

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Flights sent to assess Tonga damage after volcanic eruption

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Pacific tsunami threat recedes, volcano ash hinders response

By NICK PERRY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.

A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane Tuesday.

Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.

The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.

Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and shops on Tonga’s shoreline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.

No casualties have been reported on Tonga, although there were still concerns about people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano.

Scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.

Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.

Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.

A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far away as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.

Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.

A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.

He said Tonga, home to 105,000 people, had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second international fiber-optic cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any long-term solution difficult.

The cable also broke three years ago, possibly due to a ship dragging an anchor. At first Tongans had no access to the internet but then some limited access was restored using satellites until the cable was repaired.

Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.

“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.

One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.

Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano.

“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.

___

Associated Press Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Kensington, Maryland.

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