Louisiana breaks its all-time COVID case record; CDC says delta as infectious as chickenpox: Latest updates – USA TODAY

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Louisiana broke its all-time COVID-19 case record, reporting 26,650 new infections in past seven days, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.

The statistic, which surpassed the state’s previous record of 26,291 cases in the week ending Jan. 12, comes amid an ongoing explosion in COVID-19 cases across the nation fueled by the emergence of the delta variant, waning vaccination rates and after most states eliminated COVID-19 restrictions. 

The increasingly dangerous threat of the delta threat has caused the states and communities across the country to once again ask residents to wear masks indoors. Some now require proof of vaccination or weekly COVID tests, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusted its recommendations this week amid a flurry of new data showing how dangerous delta is, even for vaccinated individuals. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been critical of COVID-19 restrictions, said he would sign an executive order to issue emergency rules for “protecting the rights of parents,” making face masks optional across the state in schools and leaving it up to parents — a move immediately bashed by Democrats as a political stunt that could worsen the state’s COVID woes. 

Recently revised CDC guidelines say all people in K-12 schools should wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Rejecting calls from local elected officials and the medical community, DeSantis also will not declare a state of emergency despite the state leading the nation with 20% of all new COVID-19 infections — a spike largely driven by the delta variant.

Last week, Florida recorded 73,199 new COVID-19 infections, the biggest single-week surge in the state since Jan. 27. It was more new cases than California, Illinois, New York and Texas combined.

The Republican governor made the announcement Friday in Cape Coral at an Italian restaurant, where he also presented parents who oppose masks. “We want to be able to choose, and we want to be able to teach our children without our faces covered,” he told a crowd to applause and cheers. 

Also in the news:

►Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he will call the state legislature into session likely next week to reverse its ban on face mask mandates in public schools. Arkansas has been one of the hardest hit states in the current wave of COVID-19 cases.

►With the first week of the Olympics set to wrap up Friday, the International Olympic Committee announced 27 new COVID-19 cases, including 3 athletes, bringing the total to at least 220 cases since July 1. 

Biden is asking states and localities to offer unvaccinated residents $100 to get their COVID-19 shots, a plan aimed to boost lagging vaccination rates in many parts of the nation. But already some states have denied the request. Already, some governors are saying they won’t comply, including in Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

►Six passengers sailing on Royal Caribbean International’s Adventure of the Seas, which departed from Nassau on Saturday, have tested positive for COVID-19, Lyan Sierra-Caro, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, confirmed to USA TODAY.

Going on a trip to Florida’s theme parks? Here’s a breakdown of the changing COVID-19 guidelines at parks including, Disney World, Universal Studios and Seaworld, and what you should know before traveling to the state, which has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in large part due to the delta variant. Read more here.

►Hundreds of thousands of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine doses have been saved from the trash after the FDA extended their expiration date to at least six months when properly stored.

►North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday decided to reverse course from guidance he issued last week and will now urge all K-12 public school students and staff to be masked, even if they have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

?Today’s numbers: The U.S. has had more than 34.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 612,100 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 196.5 million cases and 4.19 million deaths. More than 163.8 million Americans — 49.4% of the population — have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

?What we’re reading: Some people in Missouri are dressing in disguise and begging doctors to not publicly reveal they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine, a doctor said. Read more.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

CDC: Delta is as infectious as chickenpox

A presentation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made public late Thursday shows that those who are vaccinated are three times less likely to catch COVID-19 and 10-times less likely to die from it than those who are unvaccinated. 

Once infected, though, vaccinated people are just as contagious as those without that protection — meaning they need to wear a mask and keep their distance to avoid passing on the virus. 

The presentation lays out what is known about the delta variant, which now accounts for the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in the United States, and explains the rationale behind the CDC’s recommendation this week that people in COVID-19 hotspots wear face masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. 

The delta variant is known to be substantially more contagious than other variants – as contagious though deadlier than chicken pox, according to the CDC presentation. Among common infectious diseases, only measles is more contagious.

People may also be infectious for longer with the delta variant, 18 days instead of 13, the presentation says. 

Last summer, before there was a vaccine, there were about 80,000 new COVID-19 cases reported every day and nearly 500 deaths — almost exactly the same count as today although half the population is vaccinated and many others have immunity because they’ve already been infected.  

Meanwhile, a report released Friday by the CDC showed that roughly three-quarters of infections from a COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts earlier this month occurred in fully vaccinated individuals, including mostly delta variant cases.

While nearly 80% of vaccinated individuals who had breakthrough cases reported symptoms, only 1.2% were hospitalized and no deaths were reported, the report says.

— Karen Weintraub and Christal Hayes 

Disney World, Disneyland mandate vaccinations for employees

Headed to Walt Disney World or Disneyland soon? Pack a mask — you’ll need to wear one at all Disney parks starting Friday.

The company announced that guests ages 2 and older will have to don face coverings for all indoor attractions and on Disney transportation at both parks. Face masks will remain optional outdoors.

The Walt Disney Company – parent company to Disney World and Disneyland – also said Friday that it would require all salaried and non-union hourly U.S. employees to be fully vaccinated. Employees working on-site will have 60 days to get vaccinated, and new hires will need to be fully vaccinated before beginning work.

The company is in talks with unions about requiring employees under collective bargaining agreements to be vaccinated as well. 

“At The Walt Disney Company, the safety and well-being of our employees during the pandemic has been and continues to be a top priority,” the statement reads. “Vaccines are the best tool we all have to help control this global pandemic and protect our employees.”

– Britt Kennerly, Florida Today

Walmart, Sam’s Club, Publix update mask policies

Walmart and Sam’s Club will again require employees to wear masks regardless of vaccination status in COVID hot spots.

The nation’s largest retailer announced Friday that stores and clubs will require masks for employees effective immediately.

“Customers are strongly encouraged to wear masks, but not required,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. Walmart notes the mask requirement for employees is “not applicable in all stores. Managers will refer to the CDC site for updates relevant to their county each Monday.”

Walmart said managers will “post signage at our stores and clubs to remind customers and members about the CDC’s revised guidance and strongly encourage them to wear masks.” 

The store is also doubling its vaccine incentive to $150 for employees who get the vaccine, up from $75. Employees who already received the $75 incentive will receive another $75 in their Aug. 19 paycheck.

Publix also announced Friday that it will require all store employees, regardless of vaccination status, “to wear face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside any Publix location” starting Aug. 2.

“We encourage all to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Publix said in a statement. “Customers and associates should remain physically distanced from others while inside any Publix store.” Read more. 

– Kelly Tyko

Broadway announces updated COVID-19 safety protocols amid re-opening

Broadway is coming back. On Thursday, the Broadway League and Equity, the actors’ union released an agreement outlining the top safety protocols for returning Broadway shows and tours that have extended stays at one theater, known as sit-down engagements.

Requirements include vaccinations for all employees, with the exception of a qualifying disability or “sincerely held religious belief” and children too young to be vaccinated. Unvaccinated people will be required to wear a mask at all times, except when it would interfere with their job and on-stage performance, and they will be subject to COVID-19 testing no less than twice a week.

A COVID-19 safety manager will be on site for each production, and autograph signing, meet-and-greets and backstage tours will be prohibited.

– Ilana Keller and Peter D. Kramer, Asbury Park Press

St. Louis health director said he faced racism, threats over mask mandate

A suburban St. Louis health director said he was called racial slurs and physically assaulted after defending a new mask mandate to combat COVID-19.

St. Louis County Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan said in response, he raised his middle finger at a crowd gathered at a St. Louis County Council meeting, according to a Wednesday letter obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“After being physically assaulted, called racial slurs and surrounded by an angry mob, I expressed my displeasure by using my middle finger toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs,” Khan wrote to the councilwoman who led the meeting.

Researchers studying possible link between COVID-19 and dementia

Researchers are concerned about the possibility that lingering brain symptoms might lead to dementia years or decades later.

In several trials made public Thursday, scientists have found changes in brain biology after hospitalization with COVID-19, problems lingering months after infection, and a link between smell loss and mental sharpness in older adults.

Although long-haul COVID-19 is often described as primarily affecting younger people, the new studies suggest that many over 60 also have brain issues long after their initial infections.

“Is this part of that puzzle of things that may contribute to your (dementia) risk? We don’t know yet, but we need to understand that,” said Heather Snyder, vice president for medical & scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy group.

The three new studies, presented at the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, being held in Denver, each looked at different aspects of the link between COVID-19 and brain issues. None of the studies has yet been peer reviewed, the standard for scientific research, so their findings are preliminary. Read more here.

— Karen Weintraub 

IRS announces tax credit to employers who offer employees PTO to get vaccinated

The IRS announced Thursday they would expand tax credits to employers who give their employees paid time off to get vaccinated against COVID-19, encouraging them to make time for people to get inoculated.

Eligible employers, including businesses and tax-exempt organizations with less than 500 employees, can receive a tax credit equal to the wages paid for providing the time off, but only up to certain limits, according to a release from the agency.

“This new information is a shot in the arm for struggling small employers who are working hard to keep their businesses going while also watching out for the health of their employees,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig in the release. “Our work on this issue is part of a larger effort by the IRS to assist the nation recover from the pandemic.”

The decision extends from Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which offers tax credit to small and mid-sized employers that provide paid sick and family leave to employees due to COVID-19. Self-employed individuals also have a similar tax credit as part of the plan.

— Steven Vargas

LA schools announces weekly COVID-19 testing regardless of vaccination status 

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the U.S., announced on Thursday that it will require “baseline and ongoing” weekly COVID testing for all students and employees returning for in-person instruction, regardless of their vaccination status. The move, which comes amid rising COVID-19 infection rates in the county and across the country, is a reversal from earlier directives that only unvaccinated individuals would have to undergo regular testing.

The required testing, which begins August 2, is in accordance with recent guidance issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, according to a memo sent out to parents by interim superintendent Megan K. Reilly. Other prevention measures include universal masking, upgraded air filtration systems and vaccination outreach. 

“We believe Los Angeles Unified has the highest COVID safety standards of any public school district in the nation,” Reilly said in her memo. Los Angeles Unified is the country’s second largest school district. 

Other districts nationwide have been bolstering their safety plans for the fall as the delta variant continues to spread and drive the surge in case numbers. Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance recommending universal masking at schools, a u-turn from its earlier suggestion that vaccinated students and employees need not wear masks. 

— Alia Wong

Judge won’t reinstate $300 per week federal COVID unemployment benefits in Ohio

An Ohio judge won’t reinstate $300 in additional federal pandemic unemployment payments that Gov. Mike DeWine ended early.

On Thursday, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Holbrook rejected an attempt to restore the extra unemployment benefits in Ohio, saying DeWine had the power to cut them off before Labor Day.

“The court is aware of, and sympathetic to, the thousands of Ohioans without work and in desperate need of any assistance available,” Holbrook wrote. “The court simply cannot legislate from the bench and overlook the clear terms of (Ohio law.)”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress approved an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits to help struggling Americans. The benefits are set to expire after Labor Day, but several governors cut them off early.

DeWine, a Republican, stopped the additional payments for Ohioans on June 26, citing Ohioans’ need to get back to work. Ohio’s unemployment rate had dropped from 16.4% in April 2020 to 5.2% in June.

Ultimately, Holbrook found that DeWine had the authority to stop the benefits. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, in a statement, said they were pleased with the decision.

— Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; Ana Goñi-Lessan and Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat; The Associated Press