The Latest: Oklahoma jobless claims reach $4.4B in pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Unemployment payments since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago in Oklahoma have surpassed the payments made during the past 10 years combined by nearly $1.5 billion, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Thursday.

More than $4.4 billion in jobless claims have been paid since March 2020, the OESC said.

“In the past year, OESC has paid out more in unemployment claims than in the entire previous decade, which was extremely challenging considering the unprecedented number of claims we were processing,” OESC director Shelley Zumwalt said.

The state reached a high of 14.7% jobless in April during a shutdown ordered by Gov. Kevin Stitt in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The shutdown was lifted in May. The most recent unemployment data showed a 5.3% jobless rate in December.



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BRUSSELS — A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been barred from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system.

An EU official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Financial Times. The move came at the behest of Italy, which has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages within the 27-nation bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines. It requires companies respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved. So far, the EU has vaccinated only 8 % per cent of its population.

— By Raf Casert


TORONTO — The leader of Canada’s most populous province says he thought he’d see a change with a new American president but he says it remains “every person for themselves” when it comes to getting vaccines from the United States.

The U.S. isn’t allowing vaccines made in the U.S. to be exported so Canada has been forced to get vaccines from Europe and India. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the U.S. is Canada’s closest ally in the world but said “You really see who your friends and foes are.”

Like other countries, Canada has had a shortage of vaccines. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the U.S. is focused on vaccinating Americans and says once that is done the next step is economic recovery and ensuring America’s neighbours , Canada and Mexico, have similarly managed the pandemic so that the borders can reopen.

China and Russia are sharing their vaccines with certain countries. The shortage is so acute in Canada that provincial governments are now saying they will extend the interval between the two doses of a COVID-19 shot to four months to quickly inoculate more people.

The past protocol is an interval of three to four weeks between doses for the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a one-dose vaccine but has not been approved in Canada yet.


MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Breaking from other Southern GOP governors, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended her state’s mask order for another month.

However, she says the requirement will end in April. Following the recommendations of medical officials, Ivey says she will keep the mask order that was set to expire Friday in place until April 9. The Republican governor says before lifting the order, she wants to get past Easter and get as much vaccine distributed as possible.

“The bottom line is we have kept the mask mandate in place for more than a generous period of time because it has helped,” Ivey said at a news conference.

Medical officials welcomed Ivey’s decision after recommending an extension, arguing that easing restrictions before more people were vaccinated could reverse recent improvements. Alabama’s rolling seven-day average of daily cases has dropped from 3,000 in early January to below 1,000. Hospitalizations are at their lowest point since summer.


MIAMI -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials are under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid -January.

The revelations were the latest example of wealthy Floridians getting earlier access to coronavirus vaccines, even as the state has lagged in efforts to get poorer residents vaccinated.

DeSantis pushed back Thursday, saying a local hospital -- not the state -- was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, and the state “wasn’t involved in it in any shape or form.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in calling for federal officials to probe the DeSantis administration’s vaccine distribution programs.


BOSTON — The state-run coronavirus vaccination site at Fenway Park in Massachusetts will close as the Boston Red Sox prepare for opening day of the new baseball season.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that the mass vaccination operation will move to the nearby Hynes Convention Center later this month.

The Republican said the transition will be gradual, with the Hynes operation going online March 18 and the Fenway site closing on March 27. The Red Sox open their season at Fenway April 1.

The governor announced last month that fans will be allowed to attend professional sports. Starting March 22, ballparks and arenas will be able to operate at up to 12% capacity.

More than 25,000 vaccine doses have been administered at Fenway to date, and the site is expected to deliver more than 55,000 doses before closing.

Fenway is one of seven mass vaccination sites in the state, including a location at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.


JACKSON, Miss.-- People ages 50 and older in Mississippi are now eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, Gov. Tate Reeves said.

The Republican governor announced the news Thursday on Twitter.

“Reach out to our partners like your local healthcare provider, hospital, or pharmacy,” he said. “Or keep watching for drive-through appointments statewide!”

Vaccinations in Mississippi are also currently available for staff at K-12 schools, first responders, health care workers and those who are at least 16 and have health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to the virus.

As of Thursday, 443,535 people in Mississippi had received one or more doses of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. The entire state has a population of around 3 million.


SEATTLE— Seattle’s public teachers’ union has voted to not return to the classrooms, saying it has no confidence in the district to keep educators safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move by the Seattle Education Association comes the same week that Gov. Jay Inslee – who has implored schools to reopen to students for in-person learning – said all teachers in the state could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. The Seattle School District is Washington’s largest, with about 50,000 students, and now the teachers and administration are at loggerheads.

The district says it still plans to open up classrooms to about 1,100 students on March 8. Members of the Seattle Education Association voted Wednesday night to stay in the on-line learning model and also cast a vote of “no confidence” in outgoing Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau.


WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden was expressing his “frustration and exasperation” when he said Republican governors lifting mask mandates and other virus measures were acting like “Neanderthals.”

Press secretary Jen Psaki says with more than 500,000 U.S. lives lost and after a year in which all Americans have sacrificed, “it’s imperative that people listen across the country, whether they live in a red state or a blue state, to the guidance of public health experts.”

Psaki says Biden would continue to make outreach to Republican governors who disagree with him, “But he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines.”

Psaki noted Biden has asked Americans to diligently wear masks for his first 100 days in office while vaccinations ramp up. She says: “Sixty more days. That’s what he’s asking and he’s certainly hopeful that businesses and people across the country will continue to do that.”


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas’ highest court and the governor are at odds over whether judges, prosecutors and other court employees should be immediately eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday issued an order saying the workers are essential government employees who should be able to receive the vaccine now. Arkansas has already made the vaccine available to people at least 65 years old and several other groups including teachers and health care workers.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the workers cited in the order are in a phase of vaccine distribution the state hasn’t opened fully and will have to wait if they’re not otherwise eligible.


HELENA, Mont. -- Three cases of a variant of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom were detected in Gallatin County.

Montana health officials said the cases confirmed Wednesday are the first of the more contagious variant in the state. The U.K. variant was identified in the fall and first detected in the U.S. in December.

Moret han 2,500 cases of the variant have been confirmed in the U.S. Gallatin County health officer Matt Kelley said in a statement that the county is working with the state to investigate when and how the variant first arrived in Montana. Over 40 states have reported cases of the variant.


MINNEAPOLIS — Crowds at most high school sports tournaments and events this month and next will be limited to 250 people, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

League Executive Director Erich Martens says it’s hoped that one, maybe two, family members of each athlete can attend. Each team will receive a limited number of tickets. The general public won’t have access to tickets.

No fans will be allowed at the boys’ swimming and diving meet at the University of Minnesota on March 18-20 because of the space needed to accommodate swimmers.

Martens says about 45 schools will be required to hold state tournament quarterfinals in basketball and wrestling, rounds that have previously been held at Target Center, Xcel Energy and University of Minnesota venues, the Star Tribune reported.

Plans include providing pay-for-view livestreams of state tournaments and televising the hockey and basketball tournaments.


MADISON, Wis. — Dozens of people ignoring coronavirus protocols filled a Wisconsin state capitol room for a hearing on legislation to limit the government’s response to public health emergencies.

The Assembly Committee on Constitution and Ethics hearing didn’t require masks, and those who filled the room didn’t wear masks or socially distance themselves Wednesday, ignoring the advice of public health officials.

Photos posted on Twitter by Democratic Sen. Melissa Agard show participants gathered in a state capitol overflow room to watch televised proceedings of the committee’s hearing.

“We are nearly a year into this pandemic, and this is what we are seeing in the state capitol today: no masks, no social distancing, and no safety precautions for the staff who have no choice but to be in the building,” Agard wrote on Twitter. “This is reckless and dangerous.”

Lawmakers have been at odds about mask-wearing in committee hearings, with many Republican lawmakers choosing not to do so, the State Journal reported.


The Associated Press