The Latest: COVID cases drop but US on brink of 700,000 dead

MINNEAPOLIS — A decline in COVID-19 cases across the United States over the past several weeks has given overwhelmed hospitals some relief, but administrators are bracing for yet another possible surge as cold weather drives people indoors.

Health experts say the fourth wave of the pandemic has peaked overall in the U.S., particularly in the Deep South, where hospitals were stretched to the limit weeks ago. But many Northern states are still struggling with rising cases, and what’s ahead for winter is far less clear.

Unknowns include how flu season may strain already depleted hospital staffs and whether those who have refused to get vaccinated will change their minds.

An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing kindling for the highly contagious delta variant.

“If you’re not vaccinated or have protection from natural infection, this virus will find you,” warned Mike Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to somewhere around 75,000 from over 93,000 in early September. New cases are on the downswing at about 112,000 per day on average, a drop of about one-third over the past 2 1/2 weeks.



— California to require school children get vaccines, once age approved

— Merck says experimental pill cuts effects of COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths

— Justice Kavanaugh tests positive for virus, has no symptoms

— Foundations aim to persuade Americans to get vaccinated


See all of AP’s pandemic coverage at



MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Amid a national debate over the use of pandemic relief funds, Alabama lawmakers swiftly approved a plan Friday to tap $400 million from the American Rescue Plan to help build two super-size prisons, brushing off criticism from congressional Democrats that the money was not intended for such projects.

In a bipartisan vote that brought few dissents, the Alabama Senate voted 29-2 to approve the $1.3 billion prison construction plan, and 30-1 to steer $400 million of the state’s $2.1 billion from the rescue funds to pay for it.

With legislative leaders standing behind her, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bills into law. Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said state officials are confident they can legally use the pandemic funds, and said the construction to replace many existing prisons will “go a long way” to addressing the state’s longstanding problems in prisons.


PHOENIX — Arizona’s reported COVID-19 death toll has passed the grim milestone of 20,000 amid the state’s third virus surge.

The latest surge has started easing but continues to strain hospitals. The state reported 55 additional deaths as well as over 3,600 additional confirmed cases Friday. That increases the pandemic totals to 20,039 deaths and nearly 1.1 million cases.

Arizona currently is 11th highest among states in the number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, and sixth in the number of deaths per 100,000 population.

The current surge has seen the state’s hospital system burdened again with large numbers of patients. More than 1,750 COVID-19 patients occupied hospital beds as of Thursday.


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A highly contentious debate over a proposed mask mandate for Alaska’s largest city that has included Holocaust imagery and a gay slur will continue next week on Monday.

Mayor David Bronson opposes the mask mandate and apologized Thursday for his comments supporting some residents’ use of Holocaust imagery, like wearing yellow Stars of David, to liken the proposed mandate to the oppression of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

The Anchorage Daily News reports Bronson also called for people on both sides of the issue to be more civil. Four people at Wednesday’s meeting were arrested, including a man who called the assembly’s vice chair, Chris Constant, a homophobic slur.

“I didn’t stand up and speak in your defense. And I apologize for doing that. Quite frankly, I was caught off guard. And then he was gone before I gathered my thoughts, and I apologize for not speaking up. What was said was intolerable.” Bronson said.

Constant said he wasn’t surprised with the slur.

“The part that in fact shocked me to silence was when roughly 200 people cheered zealously. That was the part that zinged me and really took my breath away for a minute,” he said.

Constant added: “What we have to do is figure out how together, we can be better. And that is not a that-tribe-versus-that-tribe issue. That is a community issue in Anchorage, and this moment is an opportunity for us to move through this to a better place.”


HONOLULU — Hawaii authorities arrested two people from California for submitting fake COVID-19 test results to avoid a mandatory traveler quarantine meant to curb the virus’ spread in the islands.

A 34-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman uploaded falsified negative test results into the Hawaii Safe Travels portal and arrived in Lihue on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles earlier this week, Kauai police said.

After they were arrested, they were released pending investigation and caught a flight back to Los Angeles.

They couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Travelers entering Hawaii must quarantine for 10 days unless they have been fully vaccinated in the United States or test negative for COVID-19 before departing for the islands.

Hawaii authorities have been arresting people who violate travel rules, including a woman from Illinois investigators said uploaded a fake vaccination card that misspelled Moderna as “Maderna.”


WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials are preparing to consider more COVID-19 vaccine boosters for adults and the first vaccine shots for children younger than 12.

The Food and Drug Administration said its panel of outside vaccine experts will meet Oct. 14 and 15 to consider whether to recommend booster doses for adults who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The FDA is not required to follow the panel’s advice, though it often does.

If the FDA authorizes third doses of the vaccines a separate panel of advisers to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make specific recommendations on who should get them.

The FDA and CDC signed off on booster shots of Pfizer’s vaccine last month for key Americans who face higher risks from COVID-19.

Additionally, the panel will hear presentations on the safety and effectiveness of mixing different vaccine brands when giving booster shots.

The FDA also set an Oct. 26 panel meeting to consider Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines for children 5 to 11 years old. Currently the vaccine is authorized for children 12 and older.


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office says more than $443 million in emergency rental assistance has been paid on behalf of 49,100 state households through the Illinois Rental Payment Program.

It provides up to $25,000 in emergency rental assistance to cover up to 12 months of past due rent and up to three months of future rent payments for tenants suffering a financial hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Payments are made directly to the landlord on behalf of the tenant, but only if the landlord doesn’t pursue eviction.

“Having a roof over your head is the foundation of a thriving life,” Pritzker said Friday in a release, “and Illinois is fiercely combatting the pandemic’s destabilizing effects on that foundation by keeping our residents on their feet.”


SAN FRANCISCO — California has announced the nation’s first coronavirus vaccine mandate for school children.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says the mandate won’t take effect until the COVID-19 vaccine has received final approval from the U.S. government for various grade levels.

The government has given final approval for the vaccine for anyone 16 and older. Once final approval comes for anyone 12 and older, the state will mandate vaccines for students in seventh through 12th grades.

The state will mandate the vaccine in kindergarten through sixth grades once the federal government gives final approval for anyone 5 and older.

The state’s vaccine mandate would take effect the semester after the federal government grants final approval. If it comes in January, then the mandate would take effect in July.

Students would be granted religious and medical exemptions, but the rules for how the state would apply those exemptions have not been written yet.

In August, California became the first state in the U.S. to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Newsom also issued a school mask mandate this summer for indoor classes that applies to all teachers and students.


NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s largest health system is ratcheting up pressure to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reports Ochsner Health told employees it will charge a monthly premium of $200 if a spouse or domestic partner covered under an Ochsner health plan is not vaccinated. Ochsner has previously set an Oct. 29 deadline for all employees to be vaccinated.

President and CEO Warner Thomas says the surcharge is part of an effort to keep health premiums low for employees. As a self-insured organization, Ochsner bears the cost of COVID-19 treatment for patients who are on its insurance plan.

“We spent more than $9 million on COVID care for those who are covered on our health plans over the last year,” Thomas told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate in an emailed statement, which included intensive patient care.

Thomas says the surcharge doesn’t amount to a mandate because employees’ spouses and partners can choose other insurance coverage. The spouses and partners can also apply for an exemption on medical or religious grounds.

More than 2.1 million people in Louisiana are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, about 45% of the state’s population, according to health department data.

The state reported 872 coronavirus cases and 49 confirmed deaths on Thursday. Louisiana has registered a total of 740,533 cases and 13,949 deaths.

(This item has been corrected to show Louisiana has fully vaccinated 45% of population, not 56%.)


ROME — Some 1,100 doctors and dentists in Italy are currently suspended because they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The National Federation of Doctors President Filippo Anelli stressed Friday that those who aren’t vaccinated are a minority of the federation’s 460,000 members (less than 1%) and indicated “many are currently correcting their status” through vaccination.

The federation says some 290 others had their suspension lifted because they got vaccinated. Anelli said in a statement about 500 doctors who appealed their suspensions are still allowed to practice until a final decision is reached.

The federation’s web site lists the names of 363 doctors or dentists who have died of COVID-19.


WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials say a new pill that could provide an easier, effective way to treat COVID 19 is good news, while adding vaccination remains the key to controlling the pandemic.

Officials at drugmaker Merck say they’ll soon seek regulatory approval for the experimental pill, which reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci calls it “very good news” and Merck’s data on its medicine “impressive.”

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients says vaccination will remain the government’s main strategy for controlling the pandemic.

“We want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them when they happen,” says Zients at the briefing on Friday.

If it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the government has contracted to buy 1.7 million doses of Merck’s medication.


NEW DELHI — India says arrivals from Britain will be subjected to COVID-19 tests and a 10-day quarantine, in response to the same measures imposed on Indians visiting the U.K.

India has been demanding that Britain revoke what it calls a discriminatory advisory that includes Indians, even if they are fully vaccinated with the Indian-made AstraZeneca shots.

India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar discussed the issue with the British foreign secretary Liz Truss in New York this week. India was irked that while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been recognized by Britain, its version produced by Serum Institute of India has been excluded.

Starting Monday, all British arrivals, irrespective of their vaccination status, will have to undertake PRC tests within 72 hours before travel and again after travel.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, said this week it will resume exports and donations of surplus coronavirus vaccines in October after a long freeze because of the massive surge in domestic infections last spring.

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