AP News in Brief at 12:04 a.m. EST News Staff

Tensions over vaccine equity pit rural against urban America

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Rita Fentress was worried she might get lost as she travelled down the unfamiliar forested, one-lane road in rural Tennessee in search of a coronavirus vaccine. Then the trees cleared and the Hickman County Agricultural Pavilion appeared.

The 74-year-old woman wasn’t eligible to be vaccinated in Nashville, where she lives, because there were so many health care workers to vaccinate there. But a neighbour told her the state’s rural counties had already moved to younger age groups and she found an appointment 60 miles away.

“I felt kind of guilty about it,” she said. “I thought maybe I was taking it from someone else.” But late that February day, she said there were still five openings for the next morning.

The U.S. vaccine campaign has heightened tensions between rural and urban America, where from Oregon to Tennessee to upstate New York complaints are surfacing of a real — or perceived — inequity in vaccine allocation.

In some cases, recriminations over how scarce vaccines are distributed have taken on partisan tones, with rural Republican lawmakers in Democrat-led states complaining of “picking winners and losers,” and urbanites travelling hours to rural GOP-leaning communities to score COVID-19 shots when there are none in their city.

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States easing virus restrictions despite experts’ warnings

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — With the U.S. vaccination drive picking up speed and a third formula on the way, states eager to reopen for business are easing coronavirus restrictions despite warnings from health experts that the outbreak is far from over and that moving too quickly could prolong the misery.

Massachusetts on Monday made it much easier to grab dinner and a show. In Missouri, where individual communities get to make the rules, the two biggest metropolitan areas — St. Louis and Kansas City — are relaxing some measures. Iowa’s governor recently lifted mask requirements and limits on the number of people allowed in bars and restaurants, while the town of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, now lets establishments stay open until midnight.

Mike Lee, who owns Trezo Mare Restaurant & Lounge in Kansas City, said he hopes increased vaccine access, combined with warmer weather, will improve business.

“I think that people are excited to put this past them and be able to start to get back to their ways of doing things,” Lee said.

The push to reopen comes as COVID-19 vaccine shipments to the states are ramping up. Nearly 20% of the nation’s adults — or over 50 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 10% have been fully inoculated 2 1/2 months into the campaign to snuff out the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Minimum wage hike all but dead in big COVID relief bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats’ hopes of including a minimum wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill seemed all but dead Monday as the Senate prepared to debate its own version of the House-passed aid package.

Four days after the chamber’s parliamentarian said Senate rules forbid inclusion of a straight-out minimum wage increase in the relief measure, Democrats seemed to have exhausted their most realistic options for quickly salvaging the pay hike. In one decision, they abandoned a potential amendment threatening tax increases on big companies that don’t boost workers’ pay to certain levels.

“At this moment, we may not have a path but I hope we can find one” for pushing the federal pay floor to $15 an hour, said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Senate Democrats hope to unveil their version of the broad relief package and begin debate as early as Wednesday. Congressional leaders want to send President Joe Biden the legislation combating the pandemic and bolstering the economy by March 14, the date emergency jobless benefits that lawmakers approved in December expire.

The overall relief bill is Biden’s biggest early legislative priority. It looms as an initial test of his ability to unite Democrats in the Senate — where the party has no votes to spare — and risks lasting damage to his influence should he fail. Republicans are strongly against the legislation and could well oppose it unanimously, as House GOP lawmakers did when that chamber approved the bill early Saturday.

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Calls for Cuomo’s resignation mount as 3rd accuser emerges

NEW YORK (AP) — Calls for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation intensified late Monday after a third woman accused him of offensive behaviour, saying he’d touched her face and back and asked to kiss her moments after they met at a wedding reception.

Anna Ruch told The New York Times late Monday that she removed the Democratic governor’s hand from her back, but he said she seemed “aggressive,” promptly put his hands on her face and asked if he could kiss her.

“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” Ruch, now 33, told the Times, which published a photo of the encounter showing the governor’s hands on her face. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.”

An email seeking comment was sent to Ruch’s photography business. Her social media accounts were private. An email was also sent to Cuomo’s administration for comment.

The account from Ruch, who worked as a photographer at the White House during President Barack Obama’s second term, made her the second woman to accuse Cuomo of touching her without permission, and fueled broader calls for Cuomo to step down, including from some in his own party.

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Senate confirms Cardona as Biden’s education secretary

The Senate voted Monday to confirm Miguel Cardona as education secretary, clearing his way to lead President Joe Biden’s effort to reopen the nation’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cardona, 45, a former public school teacher who went on to become Connecticut’s education chief, was approved on a 64-33 vote.

He takes charge of the Education Department amid mounting tension between Americans who believe students can safely return to the classroom now, and others who say the risks are still too great.

Although his position carries limited authority to force schools to reopen, Cardona will be asked to play a central role in achieving Biden’s goal to have a majority of elementary schools open five days a week within his first 100 days. He will be tasked with guiding schools through the reopening process, and sharing best practices on how to teach during a pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released a road map for getting students back into classrooms safely. The agency said masks, social distancing and other strategies should be used, but vaccination of teachers was not a prerequisite for reopening.

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Georgia House passes GOP bill rolling back voting access

ATLANTA (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Georgia muscled legislation through the state House on Monday that would roll back voting access, over the objection of Democrats and civil rights groups gathered at the Capitol to protest.

The bill comes after record turnout led to Democratic wins in Georgia’s presidential election and two U.S. Senate runoffs.

House Bill 531 passed the lower legislative chamber by a vote of 97-72. It now goes to the state Senate for more debate.

The far-reaching bill would require a photo ID for absentee voting, limit the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot, restrict where ballot drop boxes could be located and when they could be accessed, and limit early voting hours on weekends, among many other changes.

It is one of a flood of election bills being pushed by GOP lawmakers across the country this year that would add new barriers to voting.

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United Methodist conservatives detail plans for a breakaway

Conservative leaders within the United Methodist Church unveiled plans Monday to form a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, with a doctrine that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

The move could hasten the long-expected breakup of the UMC over differing approaches to LGBTQ inclusion. For now, the UMC is the largest mainline Protestant church in the U.S. and second only to the Southern Baptist Convention, an evangelical denomination, among all U.S. Protestant churches.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC’s General Conference — at which the schism would be debated — has been postponed for two consecutive years, and is now scheduled to take place in Minneapolis starting in late August of 2022.

The Rev. Keith Boyette, a Methodist elder from Virginia who chairs the Global Methodist initiative, said he and his allies do not want to wait that long to formally leave the UMC. They have asked that the topic of schism be added to the tightly limited agenda of a special one-day General Conference to be conducted online May 8.

“The church is basically stalemated right now,” Boyette said. “We don’t believe an additional year is going to be helpful for anybody.”

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Heavy rains lead to rescues, road closures in Appalachia

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky firefighter Eddie Stacy was turning his firetruck around in the dark while responding to storm damage when he noticed a tiny light coming from the flooded Red River.

It was a cellphone a woman was waving from a car inundated with water that was rising by the minute.

Stacy and other members of the Hazel Green Fire Department sprang into action Sunday night, pulling five people from the car where water was up to the dashboard. Among those rescued were a 17-month-old boy and a woman who appeared to be having a seizure, Stacy said in a telephone interview Monday.

“We don’t do too much training on this water rescue,” Stacy said. “Instinct, it just kicks in.”

Heavy thunderstorms pounded parts of Appalachia on Sunday and Monday, sending rivers out of their banks and leading to multiple water rescues, mudslides, road closures and power outages, officials said.

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Asian stocks mixed after Wall St. rises

BEIJING (AP) — Asian stock markets were mixed Tuesday after Wall Street rose as a wave of investor concern about possible higher interest rates receded.

Market benchmarks in Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong declined. Seoul and Sydney advanced.

Overnight, Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 2.4%, recovering most of its losses from the past week.

That came after a selloff in U.S. Treasury bonds eased. That helped to ease investor concerns the cost of borrowing might rise, putting downward pressure on the U.S. economic recovery.

“Bond markets rowed back into calmer waters,” said Stephen Innes of Axi in a report. “Stocks should continue to move higher to the beat of the U.S. consumer’s capacity to spend their way out of this recession.”

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Lady Gaga’s dog walker speaks out after Hollywood shooting

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lady Gaga’s dog walker, who was shot last week during a robbery in Hollywood when two of the singer’s French bulldogs were stolen, described the violence and his recovery “from a very close call with death” in social media posts Monday.

Ryan Fischer’s posts included pictures taken from his hospital bed, where he says “(a) lot of healing still needs to happen” but he looks forward to reuniting with the dogs.

Fischer was shot once as he walked three of Lady Gaga’s dogs on Wednesday night on a street just off the famed Sunset Boulevard. Video captured by the doorbell camera of a nearby home captured Fischer’s screams of “Oh my God! I’ve been shot!” and “Help me!” and “I’m bleeding out from my chest!”

Police are seeking two men in the attack and said Monday they are still investigating.

The two dogs, named Koji and Gustav, were returned unharmed Friday evening when a woman showed up at a Los Angeles police station with them. Detectives do not believe she was involved in the robbery or shooting and did not know if she would receive the $500,000 reward Lady Gaga had offered for the dogs’ return. The singer is currently in Rome to film a movie.

The Associated Press

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