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Officials encourage vaccinations as latest numbers may push Yakima County back to Phase 2
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Interim Health Officer Dr. Larry Jecha urges residents to get vaccinated as COVID-19 continues to spread across Yakima County.

During Wednesday morning’s Board of Health meeting, Jecha pointed to the 18 deaths countywide over the past 30 days due to the virus as well as its increasing spread among younger people, a trend that has become more noticeable in recent months.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.

The trend could push Yakima County back into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, health officials warned.

Jecha said much of the spread is related to social gatherings and athletics coupled with a reluctance from many in the community to be vaccinated.

“Vaccinations will really make us or break us,” he said. “We need to do better on that. That’s going to get us back to normal as fast as anything else.”

Phase 2 or 3

To remain in Phase 3, Yakima County must meet at least one of two metrics: new COVID-19 cases below 200 per 100,000 residents over two weeks, or a seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations below five per 100,000.

It is not meeting either metric, according to the latest available information from the state Department of Health. The county had 249 cases per 100,000 people from April 7-20. Between April 14-20, the county’s hospitalization rate was 5.8 per 100,000 people, said Lilian Bravo, director of health partnerships for the Yakima Health District.

“The numbers we have right now are not looking good,” Bravo said. “Unfortunately, this is exactly where we were the last time we were evaluated for our metrics. We have to do better — we have to continue to follow public health recommendations.”

The state will evaluate counties on Monday with an announcement on Tuesday, Department of Health officials said Wednesday morning. They are making the announcement Tuesday to give them more time to review information from the weekend. Any change will take effect Friday.

Secretary of Health Umair Shah emphasized that vaccinations are working, and they are the way out of the pandemic.

“Transmission is still increasing. We’re seeing a majority of our counties with rising case counts and that is of concern to us at the state level,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.

Phase 3 allows up to 50% occupancy or 400 people maximum, whichever is lower, for all indoor spaces. Indoor gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Jecha encouraged people not to fear the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccination, saying blood clotting is rare and that its benefits outweigh the risks.

He asked the health district to inform the public that the single-dose vaccination is safe and that its benefits outweigh its risk.

“We will push it,” he said. “It’s a good vaccine, especially in one dose in our community.”

Jecha said the Centers for Disease Control found that only one out of a million doses caused clotting. Women 18-49 were most at risk and even among them the risk was low, seven out of one million doses, he said, citing the CDC.

“It’s safe to use because the benefits far outweigh any risk, and it’s a good vaccine,” he said. “It’s one shot and for many people that’s advantageous so it’s a good, safe vaccine.”

Jecha also urged people to continue to mask up and maintain social distancing. Shah emphasized that too, even with new CDC direction Tuesday that allows people who are fully vaccinated to forgo a mask when outside.

“Everyone should continue to wear masks indoors, and avoid large gatherings indoors,” he said. “We know the risk is higher indoors.”

Younger people

As more older people are vaccinated, officials are seeing case and hospitalization trends skew younger.

As of Tuesday, the total case count in the 0 to 19 age group was 5,086 — accounting for 17% of cases here, according to figures from the Yakima Health District. Those 20-29 made up 20% of the total, or 6,236 cases, the figures showed.

“This has definitely changed over the last year,” Bravo said.

The average age of those who died over the past 30 days from the virus is 66, Bravo said. Before, COVID-19 deaths were more common among those in their 70s and 80s, she said.

She said most in their 70s and 80s have been vaccinated, and that may be partly why deaths are declining in that age range.

Shah said vaccinations save lives. DOH data shows that people who are over 65 and not vaccinated are hospitalized at a rate 9.7 times higher than those who are fully vaccinated, he said.

Joanna Markell contributed to this story.

Organizations plan events centered on May 5 to remember, honor missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls
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May 5 is a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Families, tribes, organizations and advocates will remember them in online and in-person events leading up to May 5, on that day and throughout May.

As advocate Roxanne White noted recently, these are somber events. May 5 is a memorial for all women and girls who have gone missing and have been murdered in Indian Country, she said at a gathering in Toppenish to mark what would have been the 34th birthday of Rosenda Sophia Strong.

The mother of four disappeared on Oct. 2, 2018. Her remains were found in an abandoned freezer outside Toppenish on July 4, 2019, and the FBI investigation into her homicide is ongoing. Strong’s case is among numerous unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people on and outside the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation over decades.

Native women and girls throughout the United States have suffered physical and sexual violence at disproportionate rates for centuries. The murder rate of Native women in some tribal communities is more than 10 times the national average. These disappearances or murders are often connected to domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking, according to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

The first national day of awareness for missing and murdered Native women and girls was May 5, 2017. In 2018 and 2019, the Yakama Nation Victim Resource Program REDgalia campaign and others held a rally and walk in Toppenish. Public events last year were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and no large public gatherings are planned for May 5 on the Yakama reservation.

Every year since 2017, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center has arranged events for awareness and action in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This year, activities begin Thursday and continue through May 5.

Patsy Whitefoot of White Swan serves on the resource center’s Family Advisory Committee. Her sister, Daisy Mae Heath, disappeared in late summer 1987.

“It truly is a humbling experience to sit with other family members from throughout Indian County where we can share our personal spaces and thoughts with one another, via technology,” she said.

“Just our simple sharing of our feelings and thoughts with one another is powerful in knowing that we are not alone.”

Whitefoot has long advocated for missing and murdered Indigenous women and has been working with her sisters, the resource center and its National Partners Work Group on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls for the national week of action.

“We encourage all individuals and organizations to take action by participating in these virtual events and organizing additional actions in your communities on and around May 5th. Join us in saying ‘enough is enough’ —not one more stolen sister,” the resource center said in a statement.

Get more information and register at www.niwrc.org/mmiwgnatlweek21.

Biden's declaration: America's democracy "is rising anew'

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden declared Wednesday night that “America is rising anew” as he called for an expansion of federal programs to drive the economy past the pandemic and broadly extend the social safety net on a scale not seen in decades.

In his first address to Congress, he pointed optimistically to the nation’s emergence from the coronavirus scourge as a moment for America to prove that its democracy can still work and maintain primacy in the world.

Speaking in highly personal terms while demanding massive structural changes, the president marked his first 100 days in office by proposing a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education to help rebuild an economy devastated by the virus and compete with rising global competitors.

His speech represented both an audacious vision and a considerable gamble. He is governing with the most slender of majorities in Congress, and even some in his own party have blanched at the price tag of his proposals.

At the same time, the speech highlighted Biden’s fundamental belief in the power of government as a force for good, even at a time when it is so often the object of scorn.

“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” he said. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”

While the ceremonial setting of the Capitol was the same as usual, the visual images were unlike any previous presidential address. Members of Congress wore masks and were seated apart because of pandemic restrictions. Outside the grounds were still surrounded by fencing after insurrectionists in January protesting Biden’s election stormed to the doors of the House chamber where he gave his address.

The nationally televised ritual raised the stakes for his ability to sell his plans to voters of both parties, even if Republican lawmakers prove resistant. The president is following the speech by hitting the road to push his plans, beginning in Georgia on Thursday and then on to Pennsylvania and Virginia in the days ahead.

“America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America,” Biden said.

This year’s scene at the front of the House chamber also had a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The first ovation came as Biden greeted “Madam Vice President.” He added, “No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”

The chamber was so sparsely populated that individual claps could be heard echoing off the walls.

Yet Biden said, “I have never been more confident or more optimistic about America. We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.”

At times, the president plainly made his case for democracy itself.

Biden demanded that the government take care of its own as a powerful symbol to the world of an America willing to forcefully follow its ideals and people. He confronted an issue rarely faced by an American president, namely that in order to compete with autocracies like China, the nation needs “to prove that democracy still works” after his predecessor’s baseless claims of election fraud and the ensuing attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?” he asked. “America’s adversaries — the autocrats of the world — are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.”

Biden repeatedly hammered home that his plans would put Americans back to work, restoring the millions of jobs lost to the virus. He laid out an extensive proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas target frailties that were uncovered by the pandemic, and he argues that economic growth will best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.

Biden’s speech also provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He also championed his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.

His appeals were often emotive and personal, talking about Americans needing food and rental assistance. He also spoke to members of Congress as a peer as much as a president, singling out Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader, to praise him and speaking as one at a professional homecoming.

The GOP members in the chamber largely stayed silent, even refusing to clap for seemingly universal goals like reducing childhood poverty. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said, in the Republicans’ designated response, that Biden was more rhetoric than action.

“Our president seems like a good man,” Scott said. “But our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes.”

The president spoke against a backdrop of the weakening but still lethal pandemic, staggering unemployment and a roiling debate about police violence against Blacks. He also used his address to touch on the broader national reckoning over race in America, urging legislation be passed by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next month, and to call on Congress to act on the thorny issues of prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the nation’s immigration system.

In his first three months in office, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — passed without a single GOP vote — and has shepherded direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid will soon arrive for state and local governments, enough money that overall U.S. growth this year could eclipse 6% — a level not seen since 1984. Administration officials are betting that it will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost to the pandemic by next year.

A significant amount proposed just Wednesday would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be more than $400 billion for subsidized child care and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Another combined $425 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as well a national paid family and medical leave program. Further spending would be directed toward Pell Grants, historically Black and tribal institutions and to allow people to attend community college tuition-free for two years.

Funding all of this would be a series of tax increases on the wealthy that would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade. Republican lawmakers in Congress so far have balked at the price tags of Biden’s plans, complicating the chances of passage in a deeply divided Washington.


Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed.

Child care and early learning advocates in Washington state celebrate legislative wins

It was a big year in state politics for programs that serve students and children. Especially the youngest ones.

The child care sector, which has struggled to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, won a long-term financial boost through a new capital gains tax passed this legislative session, which concluded Sunday. Funded at more than $400 million over the next two years, a new law, the Fair Start Act, will require the state to expand access to early learning and child-care programs. The act will almost double the current number of state-funded preschool slots by 2026, advocates say.

After years of pointing to a lack of affordable early learning and child care options for families in Washington state, this session brought “transformative” change, said Ryan Pricco, director of Policy and Advocacy for Child Care Aware WA.

“The pandemic happened, and child care centers closed, and that had big implications for economic growth,” said Pricco.

Almost all revenue from the capital gains tax, about $415 million in 2021-2023, will be spent on early learning and child care. And around $300 million in federal funding will be provided in the form of emergency relief aid to child care centers, many of which have been forced to close down or serve fewer kids because of health guidelines.

“I haven’t had too many sessions where you walk away feeling like it’s pretty great,” said Joel Ryan, the executive director of the Washington state association of Head Start & ECEAP.

There was money for school-age children, too. Four billion more dollars for public schools, 75% of which is from federal relief funds, will help districts battling falling enrollment, technology costs and learning loss. While emergency assistance targeted at schools and families played a central role in this session, other big changes also emerged: higher education and K-12 institutions will start taking steps toward developing new faculty and staff training, specifically geared toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

Here’s a roundup of some of the key policy and budget items:

Senate Bill 5227: Diversity, equity and inclusion

This new policy requires all higher education institutions to provide their entire faculty and staff with professional development training focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism. A similar bill, Senate Bill 5044, also requires professional development training for K-12 teachers, staff, administrators and elected school leaders, including school board directors.

Under SB 5227, each program, which will be developed within the college or university, must be “rooted in eliminating structural racism” while improving academic, social and health outcomes for students, especially those from historically marginalized communities.

At least 80% of each school’s faculty and staff must complete the training every two years. The schools must also conduct a “campus climate assessment” at least every five years, which school leaders can use to inform the trainings.

Trainings for faculty and staff will begin in the 2022-23 academic year, and beginning in the 2024-25 academic year, all students must also participate in the trainings.

Senate Bill 5228: Health equity

The University of Washington and Washington State University, which house the state’s two public medical schools, will be required to address cultural and racial differences in health care in their teachings. The legislation aims to prepare students to “understand and counteract racism and implicit bias in health care,” the legislation says. According to the state Department of Health, many communities in Washington face health inequities because of their race, culture, identity or where they live.

UW and WSU must develop a health equity curriculum by the start of 2023. Once the curriculum is in place, students must complete a course before they graduate.

According to the bill, topics in the curriculum could include strategies for recognizing patterns of health care disparities, intercultural communication skills training, historical examples of medical and public health racism and implicit bias training.

House Bill 1028: Teaching assessments

This bill eliminates a standardized assessment for student teachers called the edTPA — the educative Teacher Performance Assessment — which all students must pass before they can receive their teaching certification. Critics of the test, which is administered by private education corporation Pearson, have said it’s expensive, too lengthy and unnecessary, given other state and national standards.

The bill instead focuses on adopting a different set of knowledge, skill and performance standards, which will be “evidence-based, measureable, meaningful and documented.”

Senate Bill 5030: Counseling programs

Each K-12 school district must develop and implement a plan for a comprehensive school counseling program by the start of the 2022-23 academic year. The program must be based on state and national counselor frameworks, and will provide a process for identifying student needs through data analysis.

Because sometimes school counselors are assigned to other duties, like playground watch or data entry, the bill also mandates programs allocate at least 80% of counselors’ time to specific counseling work, including guiding students in academic opportunities, career planning or social-emotional learning. Another bill adds half a counselor position to every high-poverty school.

Other key legislation hits issues from health and wellness to additional learning assistance in schools, such as one that directs all public and private schools to provide free menstrual hygiene products in bathrooms, one that expands access to affordable child care for postsecondary students and one that mandates schools fix or replace fixtures that leach lead into water sources. Another new policy pushes youth detention and treatment facilities to improve their education programs, in hopes of boosting the facilities’ graduation numbers and curbing recidivism rates.

A few bills didn’t make it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, including one that would have expanded eligibility for those applying to the Washington College Grant and another that would have allowed juniors and seniors to spend another year in high school, addressing learning losses and missed extracurricular opportunities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.