Jewish Americans from a variety of branches of the faith are celebrating Hanukkah with smaller-than-usual gatherings this year, in hopes of keeping the year-end holiday safe but still joyful as coronavirus cases spike across the country.

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A man pauses Thursday on the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue in New York City near what has been described as “the world’s largest Hanukkah menorah.” It was the first night of Hanukkah, the annual eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights. Due to coronavirus restrictions, a limited and socially distanced crowd was allowed to attend. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Many Jewish Americans are already accustomed to more intimate celebrations of a holiday focused more on the home than on the synagogue, including Haredim or ultra-Orthodox communities. So the recent successful Supreme Court challenge to New York restrictions on in-person worship by some Orthodox groups won’t mean much as far as their Hanukkah plans.

But celebrating Hanukkah during a pandemic still poses a challenge to some Jewish Americans, for whom the holiday has risen in prominence in part because its social elements and timing line up with non-Jewish holidays such as Christmas.

That has often provided a reason to host get-togethers, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, a plaintiff in the court case.

But such large gatherings are “not an essential part of the holiday on any level whatsoever,” he added. “So to Haredim, to us ultra-Orthodox, it’s not something that’s going to cramp our style.”

Read the full story here.

Parents sue Minnesota governor to lift ‘pause’ on youth sports

MINNEAPOLIS — A group of parents sued Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials Thursday, seeking to throw out his order that put high school sports on hold to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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A group of parents sued Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials Thursday, seeking to throw out his order that put high school sports on hold to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Associated Press

Lawmakers meanwhile said they have agreed on $216 million in grants for businesses hurt by a governor-imposed four-week “pause” on bars, restaurants and gyms — under the same order that shut down organized youth sports. The grants are one component of an aid package being negotiated for a special legislative session on Monday, when the governor also plans to announce whether he will extend the pause beyond next Friday.

While the lawsuit plays down the risk of the coronavirus to younger people, two Minnesotans in their 20s were among the 89 new deaths from COVID-19 reported by the Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday, an unusual development in a pandemic that has mostly claims the lives of the elderly. The young victims were from Ramsey and Rice counties. Minnesota has recorded only eight fatalities among people in their 20s, and none in their teens, out of a total of 4,198 of all ages since the pandemic began. However, teens and young adults make up a large share of the state’s 367,218 total cases.

Let Them Play MN argues in the federal lawsuit that the governor’s order halting organized youth sports is unconstitutional and asks the court to bar the state from enforcing it. The group says it has more than 23,000 supporters, including parents, coaches and fans. The lawsuit asserts that the order unfairly sidelines young athletes while college and pro sports are allowed, and that there’s little evidence youth sporting events have been major spreaders of the coronavirus.

“Minnesota kids should not be required to accept, nor will the law allow, arbitrary and irrational burdens. Minnesota’s ban on youth sports unfairly singles out young people for harm even though State officials are aware the decision lacks support in sound science or common sense,” the complaint says.

A spokesman said the attorney general’s office was reviewing the lawsuit.

Massachusetts high court upholds governor’s sweeping virus orders

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker did not overstep his authority when he issued sweeping orders to close businesses and limit gatherings to control the spread of the coronavirus, the highest court in Massachusetts said in a ruling released Thursday.

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that Gov. Charlie Baker did not overstep his authority when he issued sweeping orders to close businesses to control the spread of the coronavirus. Nancy Lane/The Boston Herald via Associated Press

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected a challenge brought on behalf of a group including salon owners, pastors and the headmaster of a private school, who accused the Republican governor of exercising “legislative police power” by declaring a state of emergency under the state’s Civil Defense Act.

The court said the pandemic clearly merits action by the governor under the Cold War-era law. It also rejected the lawsuit’s argument that the governor’s actions infringe on people’s constitutional rights to due process and free assembly.

“Given that COVID-19 is a pandemic that has killed over a million people worldwide, it spreads from person to person, effective vaccines have not yet been distributed, there is no known cure, and a rise in cases threatens to overrun the Commonwealth’s hospital system, it is a natural cause for which action is needed,” the court wrote, quoting the state law.

The governor declared a state of emergency March 10, giving him greater power to take actions like shutting down events with large gatherings of people or gaining access to buildings or stockpiling protective gear. He has issued a slew of emergency orders prohibiting gatherings of a certain size, closing certain businesses and mandating masks aimed at slowing the spread of the disease in the hard-hit state.

Facing mounting pressure in recent weeks from public health experts and municipal leaders to do more to control the dramatic increase in coronavirus cases that is stressing the health care system, Baker announced this week that Massachusetts would tighten some restrictions.

Beginning Sunday, indoor theaters and performance venues will again have to close, and stores, houses of worship, gyms, libraries, museums and other indoor spaces will have to reduce their capacity from 50% to 40%.

Yet restaurants, casinos and many other indoor venues will still be allowed to remain open, even as the state again opens field hospitals to help cope with rising numbers of COVID-19 patients.

The lawsuit filed in June by the Washington-based group New Civil Liberties Alliance argued that Baker had no authority to issue public health-related orders under the Civil Defense Act, which it said was designed to protect the state from foreign invasions, insurrections, and catastrophic events like hurricanes and fires.

The group argued the coronavirus falls under another state law, which it said puts local health boards instead of the governor primarily in charge of public health emergencies.

“Fear of a deadly virus is not a reason to abandon constitutional governance,” Michael DeGrandis, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said in June.

L.A. health director nearly breaks down in tears at briefing: ‘Deaths are an incalculable loss’

For months, Barbara Ferrer, the public health director in Los Angeles County, has appeared beside a series of charts — infections, hospitalizations, fatalities — and tried to provide straightforward weekly updates on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting her county’s more than 10 million residents.

But on Wednesday, with the number of deaths rapidly surging, she struggled to get the words out.

“While this trend line provides a frightening visual of our reality, the more terrible truth is that over 8,000 people …” Ferrer shuddered, catching her breath as she visibly held back tears.

She continued, her voice breaking, “Sorry. Over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back.” Ferrer called their deaths “an incalculable loss to their friends and their family as well as our community.”

That arresting, emotional response may have conveyed the gravity of the situation better than any graphs on the screen.

Stockholm intensive care units reach 99 percent capacity

Intensive care units in Stockholm have reached 99 percent capacity, the country’s public broadcaster reported Wednesday, amid warnings that some patients may be refused treatment if hospitalizations continue to increase.

“We need help,” said Bjorn Eriksson, the region’s health and medical care director, according to Sveriges Radio.

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State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden gives a press briefing on the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, in Stockholm in June. Anders Wiklund / TT via AP

Eriksson appealed for more nurses and medical personnel to be deployed to the capital.

Sweden recorded fewer per capita coronavirus deaths in spring than Italy, Spain or France, even though the Scandinavian country did not impose a nationwide lockdown. Anti-mask protesters across the continent subsequently hailed Sweden’s relaxed attitude as a role model, urging their governments to follow the same approach.

Voices in support of Sweden’s coronavirus response have been more muted in recent months, as the continent’s second wave of the virus hit the country hard. The nation of around 10 million people recorded more than 7,000 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, bringing the country’s total to more than 300,000. At least 7,296 people have died from the virus so far, with the capital and surrounding areas accounting for more than one-third.

Critics have demanded more decisive action by the government, but Swedish constitutional law makes it difficult for the prime minister to impose restrictions comparable to those implemented in France or Italy, for instance.

In an indication that a U-turn in Sweden’s approach may be imminent, the Swedish government said Wednesday that it will seek parliamentary approval for the closure of malls or gyms.

As Sweden faces unchartered territory in its pandemic response, health professionals on Wednesday reiterated their appeals to the public.

“Don’t go for after-work drinks, Christmas shopping, or see people outside your immediate households,” said Stockholm medical care director Eriksson, according to the country’s public broadcaster.

FDA vaccine approval meeting an ‘important day for America’

WASHINGTON — Commissioner Stephen Hahn says Thursday’s meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel is “an important day for all of America.”

The FDA head hopes it will lead to the beginning of the end of the pandemic and a return “to a more normal and healthy life.”

Hahn says the FDA is working to understand the allergic reactions that turned up when the United Kingdom began vaccinations this week and that FDA would include recommendations in any emergency use authorization as to who should and should not get the vaccine. Hahn, addressing public skepticism of the vaccine, says if one authorized, it’s important for people to get vaccinated to arrive at herd immunity.

He says: “I have 100% confidence, and I think the American public should as well, with respect to our review of the safety and efficacy of vaccine.”

He spoke Thursday morning to ABC, CBS and NBC.

Watch the FDA vaccine approval meeting:

 

FDA approves at-home coronavirus test that can be bought without a prescription

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved an at-home coronavirus test that adults can use without a prescription.

LabCorp’s Pixel COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit allows people to take a nasal swab at home and mail it back to the company to be analyzed for coronavirus. If the test is negative, the results will be emailed to the user. If the result comes back positive, a health-care provider will deliver the news over the phone, the FDA said in a statement Wednesday.

The lab performs a polymerase chain reaction or PCR test on the sample, the gold standard of virus detection methods, and it will take one or two days for results from the time the sample is received.

The public can buy the kit without a prescription, unlike previously approved home tests.

“While many home collection kits can be prescribed with a simple online questionnaire, this newly authorized direct-to-consumer collection kit removes that step from the process, allowing anyone to collect their sample and send it to the lab for processing,” Jeff Shuren, director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement Wednesday.

LabCorp officials said Wednesday that they hope the at-home test will allow more people to get screened for coronavirus and encourage people to make better-informed decisions about whether to quarantine.

“We are empowering people to learn about their health and make confident decisions,” Brian Caveney, chief medical officer and president of LabCorp Diagnostics, said in a statement. He added: “We can help more people get tested, reduce the spread of the virus and improve the health of our communities.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner who protested COVID restrictions tests positive

After protesting coronavirus restrictions in front of the governor’s mansion in October, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (R) said Wednesday that he has tested positive for the virus.

“Friends, I just got news that I have tested positive for COVID-19, and as a result, will be quarantining at my ranch,” Miller said in a statement. “Not feeling my best, but I’ve survived rodeo injuries, broken bones, hip, double knee and shoulder surgery, west nile virus and cancer, and I’m going to beat this too.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller waves as he arrives at Mar-a-Lago to meet with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team in 2016. Associated Press/Evan Vucci

The cowboy-hat-wearing 65-year-old had joined an anti-restriction “Free Texas” rally with about 200 other people after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) implemented a statewide mask mandate and shut down some businesses amid a coronavirus spike in the state.

“Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” he said at the October protest, where few people wore masks, the Texas Tribune reported.

Miller, who is an ally to President Trump, has made headlines in the past for attacking his political enemies with obscene language, threatening to slap people who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and fighting to protect every Texan’s right to shoot wild hogs from helicopters.

On Wednesday, after announcing that he had tested positive for coronavirus, Miller thanked the public for their support and urged Texans to support local health-care workers.

“Please continue to pray for our first responders, doctors, nurses and health care workers, especially in our rural areas,” he said. “Together, we’ll make it through this.”

UN secretary-general criticizes ‘vaccine nationalism’

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says “vaccine nationalism” is moving “at full speed.” He says that is leaving people in developing nations around the world watching preparations for the rollout of inoculations against the coronavirus in some rich countries and wondering if and when they will be vaccinated.

The U.N. chief has repeatedly called for vaccines to be treated as “a global public good” available to everyone on the planet, and he appealed Wednesday for $4.2 billion in the next two months for a World Health Organization program to buy and deliver virus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

The United Kingdom and Russia are already vaccinating people. In the United States, the Pfizer vaccine could get a green light for emergency use in the coming days. The vaccine was approved by Canada on Wednesday.

Guterres says that “what we’re seeing today is an enormous effort by several countries in order to ensure vaccines for their own populations.”

Hawaii furloughs non-essential workers 2 days each month

HONOLULU — Hawaii will furlough more than 10,000 state workers two days a month to balance the state’s budget as tax revenues decline due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. David Ige said Wednesday the furloughs will take effect Jan. 1 and cut payroll spending 9.2%. The governor says he and members of his Cabinet will get the same percentage salary cut.

Nurses, firefighters, prison guards and others whose jobs involve around-the-clock operations won’t be required to furlough. Employees at airports and harbors whose pay is covered by federal funds will also not be furloughed. About 4,600 employees fall into this exempt category.

Germany reports highest one-day virus increase

BERLIN — Germany has reported its highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases, while the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 has climbed above 20,000.

The national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Thursday that 23,679 new cases were confirmed over the previous 24 hours. That’s just above the previous record of 23,648 from Nov. 20.

A partial shutdown that started Nov. 2 has succeeded in keeping the surge from picking up speed, but the number of daily new cases have remained around the same high level in recent weeks rather than falling. Momentum is building for a harder lockdown over Christmas and New Year, and some regions already are introducing new restrictions.

That’s partly because deaths, which have been relatively low in Germany compared with several other European countries, have increased markedly. Another 440 deaths were reported on Thursday, following a single-day record of 590 on Wednesday.

That brought the total so far to 20,372. Germany has reported some 1.24 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

Equal access to vaccines in U.S. questioned

WASHINGTON — The founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium says she has concerns about the availability of potential coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Ala Stanford said Wednesday that “everyone who needs a test cannot get a test. So, I do have concerns about the vaccine availability.”

She says it is important that vaccines are received by people “going to work every day in contact with the public, bringing it home to their communities and transmitting it.” She recommends hospitals “be required to have a culturally competent education program in place” about potential vaccines.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will decide whether to approve a Pfizer vaccine within days. If approved, the first recipients are likely health care workers and nursing home residents.

Mississippi governor warns people to stay home, invites many to multiple holiday parties

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is defending his decision to hold Christmas parties at the Governor’s Mansion after repeatedly warning people to avoid social gatherings as coronavirus cases surge in the state.

Reeves said Wednesday that he has invited family, friends and state officials to the multiple parties, but he expects many will choose not to attend.

The governor has often told people not to host gatherings as the virus spreads. He issued a new executive order Wednesday that restricts social gatherings statewide to 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors when social distancing is not possible and has issued a mask mandate for all Mississippi schools and for 61 out of 82 counties with the highest number of new coronavirus cases.

Study finds COVID-19 spread to Italy before reported outbreak in Wuhan

NEW YORK — A study out of Italy is seen as added evidence that COVID-19 virus may have been spreading in late fall of 2019, before an outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China.

Researchers identified the new coronavirus infection in a specimen taken in early December from a 4-year-old boy who lived near Milan. The boy first developed a cough and other symptoms in November, months before COVID cases were identified in Italy.

In the study, the researchers went back and looked at back-of-the-throat swab specimens that had been collected from 39 patients between September and February. One from the boy tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The researchers noted that the Italian child developed cold and flu-like symptoms in November and then a measles-like rash in early December. But they don’t detail where the child had been or who had been around.

Scientists at the University of Milan led the study and the medical journal Emerging Infectious Diseases this week posted it online. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes the journal, but it is editorially independent of the agency.


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