BATON ROUGE, La. — Luke Letlow, Louisiana’s newest Republican member of the U.S. House, died Tuesday night from complications related to COVID-19 only days before being sworn into office. He was 41 years old.

Luke Letlow speaks after signing up in July to run for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District seat. Associated Press/Melinda Deslatte

Letlow spokesman Andrew Bautsch confirmed the congressman-elect’s death at Ochsner-LSU Health Shreveport.

“The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time,” Bautsch said in a statement. “A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time.”

The incoming congressman, elected in a December runoff and set to take office in January, was admitted to a Monroe hospital on Dec. 19 after testing positive for the coronavirus disease. He was later transferred to the Shreveport facility and placed in intensive care.

Letlow is survived by his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, and two children.

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‘Like a bathtub filling up’: Alabama, other Deep South states slammed by the virus

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With its dozen intensive care beds already full, Cullman Regional Medical Center began looking desperately for options as more and more COVID-19 patients showed up.

Ten beds normally used for less severe cases were transformed into intensive care rooms, with extra IV machines brought in. Video monitors were set up to enable the staff to keep watch over patients whenever a nurse had to scurry away to care for someone else.

The patch did the job — for the time being, at least.

“We’re kind of like a bathtub that’s filling up with water and the drain is blocked,” the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. William Smith, said last week.


East Alabama Medical Center nurse Abby Smith works on a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit Dec. 10 in Opelika, Ala. AP Photo/Julie Bennett

Alabama, long one of the unhealthiest and most impoverished states in America, has emerged as one of the nation’s most alarming coronavirus hot spots.

Its hospitals are in crisis as the virus rages out of control in a region with high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and other conditions that can make COVID-19 even more dangerous, where access to health care was limited even before the outbreak, and where public resistance to masks and other precautions is stubborn.

The virus has killed more than 335,000 people across the U.S., including over 4,700 in Alabama. Places such as California and Tennessee have also been hit especially hard in recent weeks.

At Cullman Regional, a midsize hospital that serves an agricultural area 55 miles north of Birmingham, the intensive care unit as of last week was at 180% of capacity, the highest in the state. Other hospitals are also struggling to keep up with the crush of people sickened by the virus.

While a typical patient might need ICU treatment for two or three days, Smith said, COVID-19 patients often stay two or three weeks, causing the caseload to build up.

Alabama ranked sixth on the list of states with the most new cases per capita over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University. Alabama’s latest average positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus — is almost 40%, one of the highest figures in the country. And the state is seeing an average of 46 deaths per day, up from 30 on Dec. 14

While ICUs nationwide were at 78% capacity during the week of Dec. 18-24, Alabama’s were 91% full, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. As of last week, 15 Alabama hospitals had intensive care units that were at or above capacity, and the ICUs at six more hospitals were at least 96% full.

On Monday, there were 2,800 people in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19, the highest total since the pandemic began.

Experts worry the strain will only increase after the holidays because of new infections linked to travel and gatherings of family and friends.

“I think we are in dire shape. I really do,” said Dr. Don Williamson, head of the Alabama Hospital Association. “I fear our Christmas surge is going to much worse than the Thanksgiving surge.”

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Some states buck federal recommendations, prioritize vaccinating elderly over essential workers

Some of the most populous states are shelving federal recommendations and making coronavirus vaccines available to the elderly before providing access to grocery store employees, transit staffers and other front-line workers.

Officials are pursuing such strategies in Florida and Texas, where a combined 50 million people live. The divergence reflects differing needs in a highly diverse country where the coronavirus has killed unevenly, but it also highlights an emerging patchwork that could pose obstacles for the nationwide immunization campaign to corral the pandemic.


Patricia Wasseman, holds Hermina Levin’s hands as nurse Eva Diaz administers the Pfizer vaccine at John Knox Village, Wednesday, Dec. 16, in Pompano Beach, Fla. AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

The differences also carry political undertones that recall varying approaches to mask mandates and stay-at-home orders. Republican-controlled states are breaking most openly with the expert recommendations at a time when advisers to President-elect Joe Biden are calling for greater federal coordination.

“We are not going to put young, healthy workers ahead of our elderly, vulnerable population,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, vowed last week in an address at The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community. A top infectious-diseases official in Texas, Imelda Garcia, said focusing on adults 65 and older and people with chronic conditions “will protect the most vulnerable populations.” In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, R, is adopting a similar approach but also including school staffers in the early phase, emphasizing the need to return to in-person learning.

Medical workers and residents and staffers at long-term care facilities constitute the first tier in virtually every instance, in line with guidance released in early December by the panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The question now confronting state leaders: Who comes next?

The expert panel of federal advisers met again before Christmas, seeking to balance protecting workers whose jobs put them in harm’s way with shielding those most likely to suffer complications from the virus or die of COVID-19. The panel recommended putting people 75 and older and essential front-line workers in the next priority group.

Among those workers – who the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said were most critical to the functioning of society – are emergency workers, educators, manufacturing workers, corrections officers and transit staffers. Many could get access to the vaccine early in the new year, though timelines may differ considerably by state.

“It’s not ideal to have differences across the states, but in terms of getting the vaccine out and into arms as quickly as possible, it may not be such a bad thing,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. As long as states are putting vaccine doses into arms, they are on their way to meeting the ultimate goal, she said.

At the same time, the divergent approaches reflect the difficulty of policing access to the shots once immunization moves from health-care systems and nursing homes into the wider community. States and local jurisdictions will decide what sort of screening process to use, Hannan said, as vaccinators verify people’s ages, employment or health histories.

There are costs to adhering to the priority groups too strictly, she warned. “Everybody’s going to get it at some point, so turning people away is not where we want to be,” she said. Doing so, she said, may discourage people from returning at a later date.

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COVID-19 ‘not necessarily the big one,’ WHO warns

The coronavirus pandemic might not be the “big one” that experts have long feared, a World Health Organization official warned Tuesday during the global health agency’s last virtual media briefing of the year.

Since the first reports of the novel coronavirus began circulating nearly a year ago, the WHO has repeatedly warned that the world must prepare for even deadlier pandemics in the future.


Administrative worker Leslie Castillo, right, hands a COVID-19 testing kit to a man at a testing site in Los Angeles, Sunday, Dec. 27. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

“This pandemic has been very severe,” WHO emergencies chief Mark Ryan said. “It has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one.”

The coronavirus, he said, should serve as a “wake-up call.”

“These threats will continue,” he said. “One thing we need to take from this pandemic, with all of the tragedy and loss, is we need to get our act together. We need to honor those we’ve lost by getting better at what we do every day.”

After the novel coronavirus emerged in China late last year, 2020 is coming to an end amid the rollout of new coronavirus vaccines. Case numbers are rising in some places, public health experts are warning about a highly transmissible variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom in September and since documented in more than 20 countries.

While the variant does not appear to be more deadly or vaccine-resistant, it does transmit faster and is probably fueling outbreaks from England to South Africa.

On Tuesday, German health officials said they detected a case of the U.K. variant dating back as early as November. An elderly coronavirus patient who had the variant ultimately died of the virus. The patient’s daughter had returned from Britain in mid-November, and the man’s wife was also infected with covid-19, the illness the novel coronavirus can cause, but she survived, Agence France-Presse reported.

Germany is one of several countries to temporarily bar travelers from the United Kingdom to prevent the variant’s spread. Much of England is under a lockdown.

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State capitols face showdown over COVID powers and spending

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State lawmakers across the country will convene in 2021 with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic rippling through much of their work — even affecting the way they work.


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to reporters at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Dec. 17. State lawmakers across the country will be convening in 2021 with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic rippling through much of their work — and even affecting the way they work. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

After 10 months of emergency orders and restrictions from governors and local executive officials, some lawmakers are eager to reassert their power over decisions that shape the way people shop, work, worship and attend school.

They also will face virus-induced budget pressures, with rising demand for spending on public health and social services colliding with uncertain tax revenue in an economy that is still not fully recovered from the pandemic.

“COVID will frame everything,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The virus even will affect the mechanics of making laws. Some legislatures will allow their members to vote remotely, instead of gathering in tightly packed chambers. Temperature checks, health screenings, plexiglass dividers and socially distanced seating are planned in some capitols.

Lawmakers will be meeting as COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, first to medical workers and high-risk groups such as the elderly. That may spark debates in some states about whether the distribution plans should be subject to legislative approval and whether workplaces and institutions can require people to receive the shots.

All 50 states are scheduled to hold regular legislative sessions in 2021. In many, it will mark their first meeting since the November elections in which Republicans again secured statehouse supremacy. The GOP will control both legislative chambers in 30 states compared with 18 for Democrats. Minnesota is the only state where Republicans will control one chamber and Democrats the other. Nebraska’s legislature is officially nonpartisan.

Though many of the bills seeking to limit gubernatorial powers are coming from Republicans, Storey said there are bipartisan frustrations among lawmakers. He expects well over half the legislatures to flex their authority by holding oversight hearings, reviewing administrative rules and passing bills aimed at limiting the emergency powers of governors during the pandemic.

The pushback is occurring even in states where the legislature and governor’s office are controlled by the same party.

One of the hottest topics in the GOP-led Arkansas Legislature will be whether to support the state’s disaster declaration, which has been used by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to impose a mask mandate, capacity limits and other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

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Russian stats show more than 100,000 virus deaths

MOSCOW — Russia’s updated statistics on coronavirus-linked deaths show more than 100,000 people had died by December, a number much higher than previously reported by government officials.


A medical worker rolls a body past ambulances at a hospital for coronavirus patients in Siberian city of Omsk, Russia, on Nov. 6. Russia’s updated statistics on coronavirus-linked deaths showed that over 100,000 people with COVID-19 had died in the pandemic by December, a number much higher than previously reported by government officials. AP Photo/Evgeniy Sofiychuk, File

A total of 116,030 people with the coronavirus died in Russia between April and November, according to data released Monday by Russia’s state statistics agency Rosstat. The count included cases where the virus was not the main cause of death and where the virus was suspected but not confirmed.

Also, Belarus and Argentina announced the start of mass coronavirus vaccinations with the Russian-developed Sputnik V shot. They are the first countries outside of Russia to roll out the vaccine that is still undergoing late-stage studies to ensure its safety and effectiveness. The first batch of Sputnik V arrived in Belarus. Argentina plans to start using the Russian vaccine on Tuesday.

Russia has been widely criticized for giving Sputnik V regulatory approval in August after the vaccine only had been tested on a few dozen people. This month, Russian authorities started mass vaccinations with Sputnik V, even though it is still undergoing late-stage trials.

Iran begins study on locally developed vaccine

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s state TV says the first study has begun on the safety and effectiveness of a locally developed coronavirus vaccine in Iran.

Details about the vaccine’s production remained slim. Dozens are due to receive the shot in the hardest-hit country in the Middle East. The vaccine is produced by Shifa Pharmed, part of a state-owned pharmaceutical conglomerate. It’s the first in the country to reach human trials.

The study, a Phase 1 clinical trial, will enroll a total of 56 volunteers to receive two shots of Iran’s vaccine within two weeks. Iran has struggled to stem the worst virus outbreak in the region, which has more than 1.2 million confirmed infections and nearly 55,000 confirmed deaths.

500 doses of Moderna vaccine discarded after ‘human error’

MILWAUKEE — Clinicians had to discard about 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine after vials were kept unrefrigerated for too long at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.

Advocate Aurora Health officials say someone removed 50 vials from a refrigerator to access other items and failed to put them back overnight Friday. Each vial contained 10 doses of vaccine.

The Journal Sentinel reports an internal investigation found the failure was an “unintended human error.”

Clinicians were still able to administer some of the vaccine from the vials within the allowable 12-hour, post-refrigeration window but had to discard most of it. Once the vaccine is thawed, it cannot be refrozen.

Advocate Aurora Health says it has vaccinated about 17,000 of its employees in the last 12 days.

Mutated virus found in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan — Health officials in southern Pakistan say they have detected the country’s first three cases of the virus variant that prompted strict new lockdown measures in Britain and global travel restrictions.

Health and population Welfare department in the Sindh province says it took samples of 12 people upon their return from Britain and three of them showed a 95% match to the coronavirus variant from U.K.

It says efforts were under way to trace people in contact with the infected persons, who were kept in isolation and will undergo more thorough tests.

The announcement comes a day after Pakistan extended its ban on passenger flights from the U.K for a week to avoid the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus.

It is the first time that such infections have been found in Pakistan, which Tuesday reported 1,776 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 63 deaths in the past 24 hours. There have been 9,992 confirmed deaths and 475,085 cases since February.

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