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As New York salutes health workers, Missouri fights a surge

New York held a ticker-tape parade Wednesday for the health care workers and others who helped the city pull through the darkest days of COVID-19, while authorities in Missouri struggled to beat back a surge blamed on the fast-spreading delta variant and deep resistance to getting vaccinated.

The split-screen images could be a glimpse of what public health experts say may lie ahead for the U.S. even as life gets back to something close to normal: outbreaks in corners of the country with low vaccination rates.

“We’ve got a lot to appreciate, because we’re well underway in our recovery,” declared New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rode on a parade float with hospital employees down the Canyon of Heroes, the skyscraper-lined stretch of Broadway where astronauts, returning soldiers and championship teams are feted.

In Missouri, meanwhile, the Springfield area has been hit so hard that one hospital had to borrow ventilators over the Fourth of July weekend and begged on social media for help from respiratory therapists, several of whom volunteered from other states. Members of a new federal “surge response team” also began arriving to help suppress the outbreak.

Missouri not only leads the nation in new cases relative to the population, it is also averaging 1,000 cases per day — about the same number as the entire Northeast, including the big cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

California, with 40 million people, is posting only slightly higher case numbers than Missouri, which has a population of 6 million.

Northeastern states have seen cases, deaths and hospitalizations plummet to almost nothing amid widespread acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Vermont has gone 26 days with new case numbers in single digits. In Maryland, the governor’s office said every death recorded in June was in an unvaccinated person. New York City, which was the lethal epicenter of the U.S. outbreak in the spring of 2020, when the number of dead peaked at over 800 a day, regularly goes entire days with no reported deaths.

The problem in Missouri, as health experts see it: Just 45% of the state’s residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 55% of the U.S. population. Some rural counties near Springfield have vaccination rates in the teens and 20s.

At the same time, the delta variant is fast becoming the predominant version of the virus in Missouri.

Epidemiologists say the country should expect more COVID-19 outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates over the next several months.

“I’m afraid that that is very predictable,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University. “If politician seize on this and say, ‘Who could have predicted this?,’ the answer is every licensed epidemiologist in the country.”

Republican Gov. Mike Parson said Wednesday that his administration has done “everything possible” to fend off outbreaks.

“Right now, the vaccine’s out there,” he said. “I mean, people walk past it every day, whether they’re in a pharmacy, whether they’re in a Walmart, whether they’re in a health center.”

Mercy Hospital Springfield reported Tuesday that it had more than 120 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 — the highest total since the pandemic began. Seventeen people died in the latest two-week reporting period in the county that surrounds Springfield, the most since January. None were vaccinated, authorities said.

Erik Frederick, Mercy’s chief administrative officer, said staff members are frustrated knowing that “this is preventable this time” because of the vaccine.

“We try to convince people, but it is almost like you are talking a different language,” he lamented. “There is no way they are going to get a vaccine. Their personal freedom is more important.”

The Mercy system announced Wednesday it is requiring vaccinations among staff at the hospital in Springfield, as well as at its hundreds of other hospitals and clinics in Missouri and neighboring states. It said about 75% of its more than 40,000 employees are vaccinated.

Missouri also never had a statewide mask mandate. The sentiment against government intervention is so strong that Brian Steele, mayor of the Springfield suburb of Nixa, is facing a recall vote after imposing a mask rule, even though it has long since expired.

At Springfield’s other hospital, Cox South, several patients are in their 20s and 30s, said Ashley Kimberling Casad, vice president of clinical services. She said she had been hopeful when she eyed the COVID-19 numbers in May as she prepared to return from maternity leave.

“I really thought when I came back from maternity leave that, not that COVID would be gone, but that it would just be so manageable. Then all of a sudden it started spiking,” she said, adding that nearly all the virus samples that the hospital is sending for testing are proving to be the delta variant.

Citing the rise in cases, the Springfield school district reinstated its mask requirement for its summer program starting Wednesday.

The contrasting scenes in the U.S. came as the worldwide death toll from COVID-19 closed in on 4 million, by Johns Hopkins University’s count. COVID-19 deaths nationwide are down to around 200 per day from a peak of over 3,400 per day in January.

In New York, those honored at the parade included nurses and doctors, emergency crews, bus drivers and train operators, teachers and utility workers. The crowds along the route were thin, in part because many businesses are still operating remotely.

“What a difference a year makes,” said parade grand marshal Sandra Lindsay, a nurse who was the first person in the country to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot.

“Fifteen months ago, we were in a much different place, but thanks to the heroic efforts of so many — health care workers, first responders, front-line workers, the people who fed us, the people who put their lives on the line, we can’t thank them enough.”

——

Tom Murphy contributed to this report from Indianapolis.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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