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Soaring COVID-19 Cases Renew US Debate Over Mask Mandates

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Officials across the U.S. are again weighing how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections soar and the American public grows ever wearier of pandemic-related restrictions.

Much of the debate centers around the nation’s schools, some of which have closed due to infection-related staffing issues. In a variety of places, mask mandates are being lifted or voted down.

The changes come as the federal government assesses the supply of medical-grade respirator face coverings, such as N95 or KN95 masks. During a briefing Wednesday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said officials were “strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans,” noting the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks.

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The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, officials in Wyoming’s capital city voted to end a mask mandate for students and teachers that had been in place since September. The Cheyenne school district also reduced COVID-19 isolation requirements, voting to require that only people with symptoms and positive tests — not just those exposed — need to stay home for five days and mask for five days thereafter.

The University of Missouri’s governing board on Tuesday rejected the university system president’s request to temporarily require masks on the Columbia campus, as well as a mandate specific to classrooms and labs.

A school board meeting was canceled Monday in Wichita, Kansas, after three new members refused to wear masks for a swearing-in ceremony. Meanwhile in the Topeka area, elected officials rejected a plea to mandate masks, urging people to be cautious but saying they were not ready for a requirement.

Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explains when people should get tested for COVID-19.

Some jurisdictions are making the move on their own toward more stalwart masking policies, including requiring higher-grade mask materials.

Last week, the University of Arizona announced it would require a medical-grade mask in indoor spaces where social distancing is not possible. The school said on its website that it no longer considers cloth masks to be adequate, although a cloth mask can be worn over a medical-grade mask to improve fit and increase protection.

A new indoor mask mandate takes effect Wednesday in New Orleans ahead of the Mardi Gras season. Louisiana’s statewide coronavirus daily hospitalization numbers have increased sevenfold in three weeks — a spike that has strained hospitals, where emergency room waits are sometimes as long as 12 hours, according to the city’s health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno.

Health officials in Omaha, Nebraska, announced a temporary mask mandate on Tuesday, but the state has threatened to sue if the rule is imposed as planned. Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said a majority of the council supported the move.

“This is not a decision I made lightly. This was not an easy decision at all, and I know that it’s going to create some waves,” Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said. “But this is a tool that we have in our toolbox. We have research, evidence, out there showing that masks decrease transmission.”

Other places hesitated to bring back requirements that ended months ago. In Michigan, where state officials said record-high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could peak in late January or early February before beginning to drop, health leaders remained reluctant to reinstate restrictions or masking mandates. They continue to implore people to get vaccinated, get booster shots, wear well-fitting masks in public and avoid large gatherings.

With omicron causing record infections in the U.S., many are left wondering which COVID-19 test is most effective.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that people wear an N95 mask or two well-fitting face coverings. A parent group has called for school mask requirements, which are in place in a majority of individual districts but not at the statewide level.

In Utah, as lawmakers prepared to begin meeting for the year, GOP Gov. Spencer Cox exempted the Capitol and other state facilities from a municipal mask mandate. Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake County’s Democratic mayor, said the governor did not have the authority to make exceptions to the policy, which requires N95 and KN95 or similar masks for a month in indoor spaces, including schools.


Associated Press Writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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Thursday is warming up Orlando, but the heat won’t stay for long

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A warming trend is rising in Central Florida, but another cold front is hot on its heels coming into the weekend.

Temperatures are approaching well above the average for January, with the high forecast for 79 degrees Thursday, the temperature low is predicted at 58, said Maureen McCann, Spectrum News 13 meteorologist.

A southwesterly wind is warming things up ahead of an approaching system thought to be bringing rain and cold temperatures to Central Florida, McCann said.

Thursday is not anticipated to have rain, but rain chances emerge Friday at 20% and Saturday at 40%. Following the rain, temperatures should drop, with Saturday’s high forecast for 65 degrees and the low at 48. That cold trend should remain in the five-day forecast through the rest of the weekend and into the start of the next work week.

Jpedersen@orlandosentinel.com

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Driver transported after crashing into fence in Hollywood

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HOLLYWOOD, FLA. (WSVN) – A woman has been transported to the hospital after crashing her vehicle into a fence in Hollywood.

7SkyForce hovered over the scene where rescue crews could be seen carrying the woman away from the side of the road on a stretcher.

The crash happened along the eastbound lanes of Pines Boulevard near 68th Avenue, at around 5:45 a.m., Thursday.

The vehicle the woman was driving crashed into a nearby neighbor’s yard. There was apparently another vehicle involved in the crash.

The victim’s condition remains unknown.

7News spoke with the homeowner whose fence was destroyed. He said his son woke him up after hearing a loud crashing sound.

At around 6 a.m., his neighbor then called to see if he knew about the damage to his fence.

He said he was shocked but thankful his house wasn’t hit.

“I think the car that hit my house, she hit that black car then she ran into my fence and my neighbor’s fence and she damaged both of them,” he said. “Luckily nothing [else] happened because the concrete stopped her from going further.”

Copyright 2021 Sunbeam Television Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Missouri highway patrol blasts out ‘Batman’ cell phone alert by mistake

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(CNN) — The Joker is not on the rampage in Missouri, but it looks like authorities there are ready for the “Batman” villain.

An emergency alert mistakenly sent to mobile devices Tuesday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol asked residents of Gotham City to be on the lookout for a purple/green 1978 Dodge 3700 GT. The sedan, with license plate “UKIDME,” sounds a lot like the cars used by the Joker’s goons in the 1989 Batman movie.

It turns out there is no Gotham City in Missouri, and the message was sent in error during a test — apparently by someone with an impressive knowledge of the vehicles used in the movie that pits characters played by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

“This was meant to be a test message, THERE WAS NO ALERT,” the law enforcement agency soon posted on social media. Similar errors by other public agencies sometimes have sparked real concern — and also gotten corrected quickly.

Missouri State Highway Patrol had been conducting “a routine test of Missouri’s Blue Alert system” when the message was sent to wireless devices around the state, the agency said in a news release.

“The Patrol regularly tests the Blue Alert system to ensure it works properly when needed. During the test, an option was incorrectly selected, allowing the message to be disseminated to the public,” the release said.

The Blue Alert system is designed to quickly spread information about “violent offenders who have killed, seriously injured, or pose an imminent and credible threat to law enforcement,” according to the highway patrol.

Last year, authorities in Chile mistakenly sent a tsunami evacuation warning following an earthquake. And in 2018, residents and tourists in Hawaii were terrified by a text warning of an incoming ballistic missile that turned out to be a false alarm.

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