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New York City Schools to Close Again as Virus Rate Rises

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In this Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 photo provided by the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Gov. Cuomo holds a press briefing on the coronavirus in the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y. During the news conference, Cuomo predicted a "tremendous spike" in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving as he pleaded with people not to be lulled into a false sense of safety over the holiday. (Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City is shuttering schools to try to stop the renewed spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday in a painful about-face for one of the first big U.S. school systems to bring students back to classrooms this fall.

The nation’s largest public school system will halt in-person learning Thursday, sending more than 1 million children into all-online classes at least through Thanksgiving, the Democratic mayor said at a news conference.

The city hasn’t yet settled on criteria for reopening classrooms, but de Blasio said they would involve increasing virus testing of children at schools and allowing students to return only if their parents consented to that testing.

“We’re going to fight this back,” de Blasio said. “This is a setback, but it’s a setback we will overcome.”

He’d said last week a shutdown could come within days. Still, it came as a blow to parents such as Darneice Foster. She has four children, ranging in age from 4 to 13, now set to be learning from home.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, except pull my hair out,” she said.

The city’s springtime stretch of all-online learning was “really awful” for the family, which shares a one-bedroom apartment in Upper Manhattan, said Foster, a former pharmaceutical advertising worker who left her job some years ago when one of her children had health problems.

“Now, I really want my kids to catch up, and I’m one person,” she said. She said she would “look on the sunny side and just bear it for a few weeks,” hoping schools would reopen soon and looking for ways she might be able to improve her children’s remote-learning experience.

The city had said since summer that school buildings would close if 3% of all the coronavirus tests performed citywide over a seven-day period came back positive, setting a far stricter standard than did many other school systems that have opened classrooms.

The mayor said the rate equaled that mark as of Tuesday. In fact, a revision of earlier city data, as slower-returning test results came in, showed it had likely been above that threshold since Nov. 11.

Most of the city’s public school students are already being taught online. As of the end of October, only about 25% had attended class in person this fall. Even those students learn from home part of the week, a measure taken to keep children spread out in school.

Many of them and their parents prize their in-school days, and some families have protested the idea of shutting schools.

“They’re still keeping indoor dining and gyms open, and nail salons and hair salons. … Schools should be the last thing to close,” said Carly Maready, who has three children in kindergarten through fifth grades. She helped organize a parents’ group that held a rally Saturday and planned to deliver a petition Thursday at City Hall.

With random testing of students and staffers showing little indication that the virus is spreading within schools, closing them is “tone-deaf to everything that parents in New York City are going through,” said Maready, who lives in Upper Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood and works in philanthropy.

New York City’s school system, like others across the nation, initially halted in-person learning in mid-March as the virus spiked. In-person school resumed Sept. 21 for pre-kindergarteners and some special education students. Elementary schools opened Sept. 29 and high schools Oct. 1.

At the time, the seven-day positive test average rate was under 2%.

Even as the school system stayed open, nearly 1,500 classrooms went through temporary closures after students or staffers tested positive, and officials began instituting local shutdowns in neighborhoods where coronavirus cases were rising rapidly.

As of midweek, more than 2,300 public school students or staffers had tested positive since the start of the school year.

While many big U.S. school districts had decided to start the fall term with online learning, de Blasio pushed for opening schoolhouse doors. He argued that students needed services they got in school and that many parents were counting on it in order to get back to work.

The reopening date, originally set for Sept. 10, was postponed twice as teachers, principals and some parents said safety precautions and staffing were inadequate, with the teachers’ union at one point threatening to strike.

The city agreed to changes, including hiring thousands more teachers and testing 10% to 20% of all students and staffers per month for the virus.

When high schools finally opened their doors, de Blasio hailed it as “an absolutely amazing moment” in the city’s recovery.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has frequently overruled the mayor on major decisions related to the pandemic, said Wednesday the city had the authority to shut things down.

Cuomo predicted a “tremendous spike” in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving and pleaded with people to be careful.

“Your dining room table at Thanksgiving sounds safe,” the Democrat said at a news briefing in Albany. “No, you won’t be safe. It’s an illusion.”

With hot spots flaring around the state, Buffalo and surrounding towns in western New York will enter what are known as “orange zone” restrictions, in which schools go remote and “high-risk” businesses such as gyms are closed, Cuomo said. The areas had been in less restrictive “yellow” zones.

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‘Diamond’ of pro-Trump commentary duo dies of heart disease

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lynette Hardaway, a zealous supporter of former President Donald Trump whose death had prompted widespread speculation over its cause, died earlier this month of a heart condition, according to a death certificate obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Known by the moniker “Diamond” of the conservative political commentary duo Diamond and Silk, Hardaway, 51, died Jan. 8 of heart disease due to chronic high blood pressure.

Hardaway and her sister, Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, found internet stardom as Black women who ardently backed Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. After making several campaign appearances with the former president, the two leveraged their notoriety to land regular commentator roles at Fox News. Their promotion of coronavirus falsities eventually got them dropped, but they landed at the far-right cable and digital media platform Newsmax.

The cause of Hardaway’s death, which was not released by the family, had become a topic of widespread speculation. A torrent of social media users suggested COVID-19 was to blame.

Many of the posts were based on an unsourced, and since-deleted, online report from November that claimed Hardaway had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Both Diamond and Silk vehemently denied that the virus had put Hardaway in the hospital.

COVID-19 was not listed as a cause or contributing factor on her death certificate, which was provided to the AP by the Hoke County Register of Deeds and was signed by a local doctor. No autopsy was performed.

A memorial ceremony held in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and streamed online Saturday renewed speculation when Richardson suggested her sister’s death was somehow linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. She insinuated Hardaway may have been “poisoned” by another person who had been vaccinated, amplifying the false notion that recipients can affect those around them.

At the memorial, Richardson mentioned people “dying suddenly,” a reference that has become shorthand among some anti-vaccine activists for deaths they say were caused by COVID-19 shots, despite studies showing the vaccines are safe and effective.

Joined on stage at the memorial by Trump, Richardson said her sister died after returning to her North Carolina home from a relative’s birthday celebration. Richardson noticed her sister looking strange and Hardaway suddenly said: “I can’t breathe,” Richardson recalled. She and her husband performed CPR on the kitchen floor as they waited for emergency services.

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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US proposes once-a-year COVID shots for most Americans

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. health officials want to make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the annual flu shot.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday proposed a simplified approach for future vaccination efforts, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus.

This means Americans would no longer have to keep track of how many shots they’ve received or how many months it’s been since their last booster.

The proposal comes as boosters have become a hard sell. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August.

The FDA will ask its panel of outside vaccine experts to weigh in at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to take their advice into consideration while deciding future vaccine requirements for manufacturers.

In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency.

For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

FDA will also ask its panel to vote on whether all vaccines should target the same strains. That step would be needed to make the shots interchangeable, doing away with the current complicated system of primary vaccinations and boosters.

The initial shots from Pfizer and Moderna — called the primary series — target the strain of the virus that first emerged in 2020 and quickly swept across the world. The updated boosters launched last fall were also tweaked to target omicron relatives that had been dominant.

Under FDA’s proposal, the agency, independent experts and manufacturers would decide annually on which strains to target by the early summer, allowing several months to produce and launch updated shots before the fall. That’s roughly the same approach long used to select the strains for the annual flu shot.

Ultimately, FDA officials say moving to an annual schedule would make it easier to promote future vaccination campaigns, which could ultimately boost vaccination rates nationwide.

The original two-dose COVID shots have offered strong protection against severe disease and death no matter the variant, but protection against mild infection wanes. Experts continue to debate whether the latest round of boosters significantly enhanced protection, particularly for younger, healthy Americans.

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White House reveals winter COVID-19 plans, more free tests

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White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is once more making some free COVID-19 tests available to all U.S. households as it releases its contingency plans with coronavirus cases ticking upward this winter.

After a three-month hiatus, the administration is making four rapid virus tests available per household through covidtests.gov starting Thursday. COVID-19 cases have shown a marked increase after the Thanksgiving holiday, and further increases are projected from indoor gathering and travel around Christmas and New Year’s.

Cases are up across 90% of the country, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Thursday during a briefing. Deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise, with nearly 3,000 deaths reported last week. Most of those have been concentrated in people age 65 and older, Jha said.

“We don’t want this winter to look like last winter or the winter before,” Jha said.

As cases begin to rise again, much of the United States is also dealing with other respiratory viruses heading into this winter with an influx of flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Jha told reporters he is confident that the worst of RSV — which hit young children particularly hard — is over, but that flu cases are only just spiking.

The administration is putting personnel and equipment on standby should they be needed to help overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, as was necessary in earlier waves of the coronavirus. So far, there have been no requests for assistance, but surge teams, ventilators and personal protective equipment are ready, the White House said.

The administration is also urging states and local governments to do more to encourage people to get the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, which scientists say are more effective at protecting against serious illness and death from the currently circulating variants. The administration is reiterating best practices to nursing homes and long-term care facilities for virus prevention and treatment and is urging administrators as well as governments to encourage vulnerable populations to get the new shots. Less than half of all nursing home residents have received the latest booster shot, Jha said.

The planning comes as the administration has struggled to persuade most Americans to get the updated boosters as cases and deaths have declined from pandemic highs and most people have embraced a return to most of their pre-pandemic activities. Less than 14% of people in the U.S. older than have gotten the most recent booster.

The White House said the new tests would come from the national stockpile, which still has reserves even after the administration shut off the at-home testing program in September, citing a lack of money from Congress. The administration is still asking Congress for billions more dollars for the virus response.

The pause on free at-home testing program this summer allowed the administration to save some free at-home tests for the surge in cases this winter, Jha said.

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