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Navajos say new Arizona restrictions will complicate voting

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona Republicans say the voter restrictions they’re pushing after President Joe Biden’s win in the state last year are designed to strengthen the integrity of future elections.
To some, the changes will make voting more difficult than it already is.
The bills, some signed into law this past week by Gov. Doug Ducey, are worrisome for Native Americans who live in remote areas, other communities of color and voters whose first language isn’t English.
One codifies the existing practice of giving voters who didn’t sign mail-in ballots until 7 p.m. on Election Day to do so, defying a recently settled lawsuit that would have given voters additional days to provide a signature. Another will result in potentially tens of thousands of people being purged from a list of voters who automatically get a ballot by mail.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Ducey’s actions belittle tribes and fail to recognize the unique challenges Native Americans face when casting ballots. That includes driving hours to reach polling places, unreliable mail service and the need for more Native language translators.
“This is an assault to the election process for people of color throughout this country,” he said. “Here in Arizona, it’s pushing back on the voters of tribal communities, and we came out in big numbers to vote our candidate of choice, which is President Biden.”
The bills’ sponsor, Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, said claims of retaliation or voter suppression were “outrageous” and “unfounded.” Elections aren’t a surprise, she said, and voters want them to be run efficiently with timely results.
“Not everything has to do with Biden and Trump,” she said. “These are important cleanups and fixes. It makes sense.”
Arizona is among several states controlled politically by Republicans that are tightening election rules this year, primarily around early and absentee voting. Democrats say the new rules will disproportionately affect minorities and lower-income voters. Florida, Georgia and Iowa already have enacted voting restrictions, and Texas is debating its own set of tighter rules.
In March, Biden issued an executive order creating a Native American Voting Rights Steering Group. It’s tasked with consulting with tribes nationwide to address barriers to voting, among other things.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, voter turnout on swaths of tribal land in Arizona surged in 2020 compared with the 2016 presidential election, helping Biden to victory in a state that hadn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Former President Donald Trump and a legion of his supporters have refused to accept his loss in Arizona and other battleground states, resulting in a partisan review of the ballots cast in the state’s most populous county.
The Navajo Nation sued the secretary of state and county officials in 2018 to force changes in election procedures for the tribe’s voters. The complaint alleged that more than 100 ballots cast by Navajos were rejected because they didn’t have signatures on the envelope or they had mismatched signatures.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs agreed to insert language into the elections manual that would give all mail-in voters up to five days after an election to fix their ballots — the same as voters whose signatures don’t match the one on file.
The attorney general and Ducey didn’t sign off on the changes. The Democratic Party has since sued seeking a five-day curing period for mailed ballots. A U.S. District Court judge initially agreed, but the decision was challenged. Oral arguments are scheduled for July in federal appeals court.
Nez said the ballot signature measure just signed into law undermines the settlement in the tribe’s lawsuit. It is evaluating the language and has not yet decide on its next step.
“We have to deal with the federal government on broken promises. Now we have the state breaking promises on a settlement we thought we all agreed upon,” Nez said.
The secretary of state doesn’t have final say over the elections manual, and Ugenti-Rita said promises shouldn’t have been made that couldn’t be kept. She said the Navajo Nation’s anger is wrongly directed at the Legislature.
Before the pandemic, Native Americans made voting a social event on many reservations. It was one of the few times a year where they’d meet with old friends and chat about the government, community needs and their families. Tribal leaders give voters time off to cast a ballot and help get others to the polls. Campaigns courted voters with traditional food.
Even when they receive mailed ballots, many Native Americans prefer to drop them off on Election Day at their polling site, no matter how distant. Unless poll workers check for a signature on the spot, voters would have no chance to fix it.
Patty Hansen, the recorder in the state’s largest county by size, said she’s disappointed with the new law because it treats voters differently based on the error they’ve made.
“We were headed in the right direction,” she said. “Now it’s being reversed.”
Submitting mailed ballots earlier without a signature could mean an hours-long trip to make the fix, said Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, who is Navajo. The new law says county officials have to make a reasonable effort to contact voters. Blackwater-Nygren said that could be problematic if Navajo translators, for example, aren’t available.
The other change in Arizona affects the list of voters who automatically receive a mailed ballot. Voters who sit out all elections — municipal, primary and general — for two election cycles will be mailed a notice asking if they want to remain on what had been known as the permanent early voting list.
If they respond, nothing will change. If they don’t respond within 90 days, they will be dropped from the list but will remain a registered voter.
They can rejoin what will now be called the active early voting list at any time, request a mailed ballot for a single election or vote in person. But a ballot won’t automatically arrive in their mailboxes.
About 75 percent of registered voters in the state are on the early voting list. That includes some 38,000 Indigenous people, most of whom are concentrated in the competitive but Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District. The district takes in several tribes in the northern and and eastern parts of the state, including the Navajo Nation.
Voter rolls regularly are purged elsewhere, including on the Navajo Nation, but advocates contend the change will result in more people being disenfranchised.
Blackwater-Nygren said she often hears from Republicans that tribal members know what to expect when it comes to voting. That’s true, she said, but the vast distances, spotty phone service and lack of home mail delivery on some reservations also pose challenges not found elsewhere.
“We’re saying we don’t have the same access to polling locations, and that message seems to get lost,” she said.

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Damage assessment begins on overturned cargo ship after fire

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A salvage team on Saturday began assessing damage caused by a fire inside the remains of an overturned cargo ship that is being dismantled along the Georgia coast.
“The assessment is likely to take several days,” the multiagency command overseeing the demolition of the Golden Ray said in a statement.
The wreckage caught fire Friday as workers used torches to cut into the hull. Crews extinguished the blaze, which burned for several hours and sent up black smoke. No one was injured.
A giant crane being used to dismantle the ship was unhooked Saturday and shifted away from the site to allow for the damage assessments, officials said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a spokesman for the multiagency command, said it was too early to know how much the fire might further delay efforts to remove roughly one-half of the shipwreck that remains partly submerged in St. Simons Sound.
The South Korean-owned Golden Ray measured 656 feet (199 meters) in length when it overturned on Sept. 8, 2019. A towering crane was brought in to straddle the wreck. It has been cutting the ship into giant chunks using 400 feet (122 meters) of anchor chain to tear through the hull like a blunt-edged saw.
An active 2020 hurricane season and the coronavirus pandemic kept demolition from starting until November. Though the job reached the halfway mark in April, progress has been slower than initially expected.
The Golden Ray had roughly 4,200 vehicles in its cargo decks when it rolled onto its side shortly after leaving the nearby Port of Brunswick. Though four crew members had to be rescued from deep inside the ship, all 24 people on board survived.
A Coast Guard expert concluded the Golden Ray tipped over because unstable loading had left its center of gravity too high. Lt. Ian Oviatt testified at a hearing on the wreck last year that the ship lacked enough water in its ballast tanks, used to add weight at the bottom of a vessel, to offset that of the vehicles in cargo decks above.

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NYC Pride parade bans police; Gay officers ‘disheartened’

NEW YORK (AP) — Organizers of New York City’s Pride events said Saturday they are banning police and other law enforcement from marching in their huge annual parade until at least 2025 and will also seek to keep on-duty officers a block away from the celebration of LGBTQ people and history.
In their statement, NYC Pride urged members of law enforcement to “acknowledge their harm and to correct course moving forward.”
“The sense of safety that law enforcement is meant to provide can instead be threatening, and at times dangerous, to those in our community who are most often targeted with excessive force and/or without reason,” the group said.
It will also increase the event’s security budget to boost the presence of community-based security and first responders while reducing the police department’s presence.
Police will provide first response and security “only when absolutely necessary as mandated by city officials,” the group said, adding it hoped to keep police officers at least one city block away from event perimeter areas where possible.
Word of the ban came out Friday when the Gay Officers Action League said in a release it was disheartened by the decision.
The group called the ban an “abrupt about-face” and said the decision “to placate some of the activists in our community is shameful.”
The parade is scheduled for June after the coronavirus prevented many Pride events worldwide last year, including in New York which instead hosted virtual performances in front of masked participants and honored front-line workers in the pandemic crisis.
The disruptions frustrated activists who had hoped to collectively mark the 50th anniversary of the first Gay Pride parades and marches in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in 1970.
Those marches came a year after the 1969 uprising outside Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in response to a police raid. The uprising is largely credited with fueling the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Pride season occurs this year amid activism inspired by the response to racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Pride NYC’s announcement Saturday follows a division among organizers in recent years in planning for celebrations of LGBTQ pride in New York City.
In 2019, there were two marches in Manhattan after some in the community concluded that the annual parade had become too commercialized. The Queer Liberation March aimed for a protest vibe, saying the main Pride march was too heavily policed by the same department that raided Stonewall a half century earlier.
The New York Police Department commissioner apologized for the raid during a briefing in 2019, calling it “wrong, plain and simple.”
Detective Sophia Mason, a spokesperson for the New York Police Department, said on Saturday the department’s “annual work to ensure a safe, enjoyable Pride season has been increasingly embraced by its participants.”
She added: “The idea of officers being excluded is disheartening and runs counter to our shared values of inclusion and tolerance. That said, we’ll still be there to ensure traffic safety and good order during this huge, complex event.”

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Heart study: Low- and regular-dose aspirin safe, effective

An unusual study that had thousands of heart disease patients enroll themselves and track their health online as they took low- or regular-strength aspirin concludes that both doses seem equally safe and effective for preventing additional heart problems and strokes.
But there’s a big caveat: People had such a strong preference for the lower dose that it’s unclear if the results can establish that the treatments are truly equivalent, some independent experts said. Half who were told to take the higher dose took the lower one instead or quit using aspirin altogether.
“Patients basically decided for themselves” what they wanted to take because they bought the aspirin on their own, said Dr. Salim Virani, a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who had no role in the study.
Still, the results show there’s little reason to take the higher dose, 325 milligrams, which many doctors assumed would work better than 81-milligram “baby aspirin,” he said.
Results were published Saturday by the New England Journal of Medicine and discussed at an American College of Cardiology conference.
Aspirin helps prevent blood clots, but it’s not recommended for healthy people who have not yet developed heart disease because it carries a risk of bleeding. Its benefits are clear, though, for folks who already have had a heart attack, bypass surgery or clogged arteries requiring a stent.
But the best dose isn’t known, and the study aimed to compare them in a real-world setting. It was the first experiment funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, created under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to help patients make informed decisions about health care.
About 15,000 people received invitations to join through the mail, email or a phone call and enrolled on a website where they returned every three to six months for follow-up. A network of participating health centers supplied medical information on participants from their electronic records and insurance claims.
The participants were randomly assigned to take low- or regular-dose aspirin, which they bought over the counter. Nearly all were taking aspirin before the study began and 85% were already on a low dose, so “it was an uphill task right from the get-go” to get people to use the dose they were told, Virani said.
After roughly two years, about 7% of each group had died or been hospitalized for a heart attack or a stroke. Safety results also were similar — less than 1% had major bleeding requiring hospitalization and a transfusion.
Nearly 41% of those assigned to take the higher dose switched at some point to the lower one, and that high rate “could have obscured a true difference” in safety or effectiveness, Colin Baigent, a medical scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, wrote in a commentary in the medical journal.
One study leader, Dr. Schuyler Jones of Duke University, said the study still provides valuable guidance. If patients are taking low-dose aspirin now, “staying on that dose instead of switching is the right choice,” he said. People doing well on 325 milligrams now may want to continue on that and should talk with their doctors if they have any concerns.
For new patients, “in general, we’re going to recommend starting the low dose,” Jones said.
Virani said people must remember that aspirin is a medicine and that even though it’s sold over the counter, patients shouldn’t make decisions on its use by themselves.
“Don’t change the dose or stop without talking to someone,” he warned. “This is important, especially for a therapy like aspirin.”

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Let’s face it: Washington adjusts to new mask guidance

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden says finally going mask-free feels like “we’re moving forward.” A Republican senator says going unmasked “certainly helps the flow of conversation.”
But the conversation on the House floor on Friday approached sniping as lawmakers objected to being required to keep masking up until all 435 of them get their COVID-19 shots.
Across Washington, the government is adjusting to new federal guidance easing up on when masks should be worn.
“So much for following the science,” Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., a urologist, said after complaining that he’d have to put his mask back on after his House floor speech despite being fully vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — can stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people should keep wearing masks, the guidance says.
But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have to keep wearing masks on the House floor, according to a memo from the Office of the Attending Physician, Dr. Brian Monahan.
“The present mask requirement and other guidelines remain unchanged until all Members and Floor staff are fully vaccinated,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a memo to her Democratic colleagues. “Returning the Capitol to the welcoming and safe venue that it has been requires us to not only secure it physically but to make it safe from the virus.”
Recent surveys suggest that about 1 in 4 House lawmakers are not fully vaccinated.
Lawmakers can remove their masks while on the House floor to make speeches, but must mask up after they finish. They are, however, free to resume “pre-pandemic activities” elsewhere in the House complex of office buildings and public spaces.
In the Senate, Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa were among senators who didn’t hesitate to remove their masks as soon as they heard the news. They were seen entering the Senate chamber Thursday marveling at being mask-free and calling out, “Freedom!”
Senate leadership has not commented on the updated mask guidance, which came down as Biden and a group of Republican senators discussed infrastructure in the Oval Office.
“So we all looked at each other … we took all of our masks off,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told Fox News on Friday. “It felt very freeing, and we had a great discussion after that. We all felt good about it, and it certainly helps the flow of conversation.”
It was a much different scene Friday at the White House.
Reporters caught up with President Joe Biden as he made an unannounced appearance on the White House driveway to pose for photos with a departing staff member. Asked if he was enjoying his first workday without a mask, Biden replied “yes” as he reentered the West Wing.
For the first time in about a year, reporters went barefaced as they questioned White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the daily briefing.
After the CDC guidance went out, Psaki said, staff were immediately notified by email that they could stop wearing masks, including in meetings with Biden. Similar guidance was issued to the White House Correspondents’ Association, which dropped its mask requirement for journalists on the premises.
Psaki said it may take a few days to put the new guidelines in place across government and figure out whether it means additional staff — many of whom have been working remotely — will be allowed onto the White House campus.
“We’re eager to get back to a version of normal, but we need a little bit of time to implement it and also to review additional steps,” Psaki said.
Some government departments didn’t need any time figuring it out.
The Pentagon announced Friday that fully vaccinated Defense Department personnel no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors at DOD facilities.
Updated guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services said “fully vaccinated federal employees, fully vaccinated onsite contractors and fully vaccinated visitors to federal buildings are no longer required to wear masks.”
Mask-wearing remained in force at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as it reopened Friday. Jill Biden stopped in to greet the staff and said the relaxed mask guidance feels as though “inch by inch we’re moving forward” against the pandemic.
The Smithsonian said it would keep mask requirements in place for anyone over age 2 while it reviews the new guidance.
During a House Republican caucus leadership vote, most members didn’t wear masks, and several reporters removed them as well following guidance from the Capitol physician that said vaccinated people don’t have to wear them in the hallways.
Some Republicans addressed the issue from the House floor.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, criticized Democrats for having argued that Republicans weren’t following the science. He said it’s Democrats who now are guilty of that.
“The House of Representatives has leadership who are claiming that we need to follow the science, refuses to do so,” Gohmert said, seeming to refer to Pelosi. “But we’re hoping we’ll eventually get people here, at least the majority, to follow the science.”

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House GOP set to put Trump defender Stefanik into No. 3 post

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are ready to vault Rep. Elise Stefanik into the ranks of House leadership, with the party hoping to turn the page from its searing civil war over the deposed Rep. Liz Cheney and refocus on winning control of the chamber in next year’s elections.
Stefanik, R-N.Y., a moderate turned avid defender of former President Donald Trump and his unfounded claims of 2020 election fraud, was widely expected to be elected Friday as the No. 3 House GOP leader.
She’d replace Cheney, R-Wyo., who was ousted this week for repeatedly rebuking Trump for encouraging supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 and for his lie that his 2020 reelection was stolen from him by fraudulent voting.
Stefanik, 36, gives Republicans a chance to try changing the subject from the acrimonious fight over the defiant Cheney by installing a Trump loyalist — and one of the party’s relative handful of women in Congress — in a visible role.
But GOP schisms are unlikely to vanish quickly. Many hard-right conservatives have misgivings about Stefanik’s centrist voting record, and tensions remain raw over Trump’s taut hold on the party and Cheney’s rancorous ouster.
“We are unified at making sure that we win the majority, and that we focus on the damage that the Biden-Pelosi agenda is doing across America,” Stefanik told reporters Thursday, amplifying her argument that she’d be an aggressive messenger for her party. She called Trump “the most important leader in our party for voters” and said she was strongly positioned to win.
Stefanik got an early start lining up votes to succeed Cheney, a decisive factor in leadership races. Crucially, she’s also backed by Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., plus two of the House’s most influential conservatives: No. 2 House GOP leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
One of the House’s most conservative members, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, told reporters he would run against Stefanik. He’s a prohibitive long shot, but his candidacy signals to leaders that hard-right Republicans expect a robust voice moving forward.
“Always healthy to have debate,” McCarthy said when asked about a potential Stefanik challenger. He spoke a day after he successfully helped dump Cheney from party leadership for refusing to stifle her differences with Trump.
Cheney, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and an ambitious GOP force in her own right, was among 10 House Republicans who voted this year to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol riot. Since then, she’s battled Trump often and many Republicans ultimately turned against her, arguing that the dispute was a damaging distraction.
Even so, Cheney is not going away. She’s said she’ll remain in Congress, run for reelection and actively work to derail Trump if he seeks a White House return in 2024.
Stefanik has told colleagues she’d serve in the leadership job only through next year, according to a GOP lawmaker and an aide who spoke on condition of anonymity last week to discuss internal conversations. After that, she’d take the top GOP spot on the House Education and Labor Committee, which some consider a more powerful position because it can produce legislation on important issues.
Stefanik is a four-term lawmaker from an upstate New York district that in the past four presidential elections backed both Trump and Barack Obama twice. She was a Trump critic during his 2016 campaign, calling his videotaped comments on sexually assaulting women “just wrong” and at times avoiding stating his name, local news reports said.
Her voting record is among the most moderate of all House Republicans’, according to conservative groups’ ratings. She opposed Trump’s marquee 2017 tax cuts and his efforts to divert budget funds to build a wall along the Mexican border.
She hurtled to GOP prominence — and Trump’s attention — by defending him in 2019 during his first impeachment over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to produce political dirt on Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential contender at the time.
She has remained a Trump booster and joined him in casting doubt on the validity of the 2020 election, despite findings by judges and local officials that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. Hours after the Capitol attack, she voted against formally approving Pennsylvania’s state-certified electoral votes.
Roy said Thursday on “The Mark Davis Show,” a Dallas-based conservative talk show, that Stefanik was too moderate and should be challenged from the right. He also conceded there was a “big likelihood” Stefanik would win.
Trump reiterated his support for Stefanik on Thursday and said in a statement that Roy “has not done a great job” and would likely lose the GOP primary for his seat next year.
Roy ran afoul of Trump in January when he voted to formally certify Trump’s Electoral College defeat, saying the Constitution left “no authority for Congress” to overrule states’ handling of the election.

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Fully vaccinated can drop the masks, skip social distancing

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
“Today is a great day for America,” President Joe Biden said Thursday during a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance, an event where he and his staff went without masks. Hours earlier in the Oval Office, where Biden was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers, he led the group in removing their masks when the guidance was announced.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do.”
The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at an earlier White House briefing.
In light of the CDC guidance, the Pentagon announced on Friday that fully vaccinated Defense Department personnel no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors at Defense facilities.
The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shots. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
Walensky said the long-awaited change is thanks to the millions of people who have gotten vaccinated and is based on the latest science about how well those shots are working.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”
Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask wearing guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.
“We’re not going to go out and arrest people,” added Biden, who said he believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not changing the rules requiring masks on the House floor.
“No,” Pelosi told CNN. “Are they all vaccinated?”
Recent estimates have put the percentage of unvaccinated lawmakers in the House at 25%.
That ambiguity over who is and isn’t vaccinated led Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, to declare the CDC guidance “confusing and contradictory.”
“The public will not feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space if they are unsure if the maskless person standing next to them is or is not vaccinated,” he said.
The announcement came as many states and communities have already been lifting mask mandates amid improving virus numbers and as more Americans have been shedding face coverings after getting shots.
Dan Witte, a 67-year-old musician from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, stopped wearing a mask after receiving the vaccine two months ago and recently rejoined his band playing gigs at crowded bars and weddings. He was encouraged by the CDC’s new guidance but said it just confirmed his trust that the vaccines offered protection from spreading infections.
“I went right from being hypervigilant for almost a year to being right in the crowd without a mask,” Witte said.
To date more than 154 million Americans, nearly 47% of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 119 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
“All of us, let’s be patient, be patient with one another,” Biden said, acknowledging some Americans might be hesitant about removing their masks after more than a year of living in a pandemic that has killed more than 584,000 people in the U.S. and more than 3.3 million people worldwide.
The CDC’s announcement that Americans could begin to shed one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic stood in stark contrast to other nations, with much of the world still struggling to contain the virus amid global disparities in vaccinations.
Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.
Walensky said that evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real world use as they were in earlier studies and that they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, she stressed, urging everyone 12 and older who is not yet vaccinated to sign up.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky said, that’s rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.
There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.
The new guidance had an immediate effect at the White House, which has taken a cautious approach to easing virus restrictions. Staffers were informed that masks are no longer required for people who are fully vaccinated.
First lady Jill Biden, who was traveling in West Virginia, told reporters that “we feel naked” as she and her party removed their face coverings. Then she paused. “I didn’t mean it that way!”

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Mobile soup kitchens take food, vaccine to Detroit’s poorest

DETROIT (AP) — Keenon Carreker walked up to the Salvation Army mobile soup kitchen parked in one of the poorest areas of Detroit for the big hot dogs that came inside bags of food passed out to the city’s needy.
He left with a meal and his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. “It helped being right here in my neighborhood,” said Carreker, 52, who otherwise was in no hurry to get vaccinated.
Five people received vaccine doses Wednesday, bringing the total to 45 doses given over the past four weeks through the program designed to reach those who have little to no access to churches, community centers or other places where vaccines are being given.
Mobile care teams consisting of nurses and a peer support specialist accompany the Bed & Bread trucks as they cruise Detroit, which lags far behind the state and nearby communities in the percentage of people vaccinated.
Only about 33% of Detroit residents ages 16 and older have been vaccinated compared to more than half statewide. To reduce that gap, Detroit’s health department also is going door-to-door to encourage residents to get vaccinated at sites near their homes. In some other U.S. cities, in-home vaccinations are being offered.
“The timing and the need could not be greater,” said Jamie Winkler, The Salvation Army’s Eastern Michigan Harbor Light System executive director.
More than 49,300 virus cases have been confirmed in Detroit and 2,100 people have died since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Across Michigan, more than 869,500 COVID-19 infections have been confirmed and more than 18,300 people have died from the disease.
The Salvation Army Detroit Harbor Light center is working with Central City Integrated Health and Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services to take vaccines to those most in need. Second doses will be available when the trucks return to the neighborhoods. People who can’t make it to the trucks can receive the vaccine at a Central City Integrated Health facility.
Like Carreker, Kenneth West waited for the Bed & Bread truck to get food. He got it, in addition to his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
“I wasn’t going to get it at all. I don’t like needles,” said West, 57.
But at the truck’s next stop, Apolonio Mata was waiting specifically for the vaccine. Mata’s doctor already had urged him to get vaccinated and a friend told him the shot would be available Wednesday afternoon outside the building where he lives.
Mata, 52, said it helps to take the vaccine to some people.
“They’re not scared (of getting vaccinated),” he said. “A majority of people who live in this building don’t have transportation.”
lillye Neal, a registered nurse with Central City Integrated Health, said the mobile care teams that follow The Salvation Army trucks have met with some hesitancy when approaching people, especially the homeless, about vaccinations.
“Generally, when you find groups of homeless people, when the main person says ‘no, we don’t take the vaccine,’ everyone seems to follow suit,” Neal said. “But then we’re running across those people who are appreciative that we’re out here because they don’t have transportation. They don’t have a way to get to the vaccine.”

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New Washington state law makes drug possession a misdemeanor

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The jeans were from American Eagle, via Goodwill, and they were too short for their new owner, 6-foot Shannon Bowman.
So Bowman stitched a couple inches of denim onto the bottom of the legs and put them on for the first time two days after her friend had given them to her. She didn’t notice the tiny, nearly empty baggie of methamphetamine in the coin pocket.
That fact more than four years later would lead to a Washington state Supreme Court decision striking down Washington’s drug possession law; the expected vacation of tens of thousands of criminal convictions dating back decades; and the overhaul of the state’s approach to drug possession signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday.
“It’s cool there’s a lot of people who are going to have a second chance to make things right,” Bowman said in a recent interview. “Hopefully they go down a good road.”
The bill signed by Inslee makes drug possession a misdemeanor, rather than the felony it was under the old law. Inslee said the measure will “help reduce the disparate impact of the previous drug possession statute on people of color.”
“It moves the system from responding to possession as a felony to focusing on the behavioral health response, which is a much more appropriate and successful way to address the needs that underlie drug abuse,” the governor said.
Oregon this year became the only other state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all types of drugs and increase access to treatment. Washington’s measure likewise aims to greatly expand treatment services and outreach, including to homeless people with severe behavioral health issues.
The Washington measure requires police to divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment before the case even made it to a prosecutor, and if a defendant’s case ever reached a prosecutor, the prosecutor would be able to divert as well. Regional “recovery navigator” teams will be set up to help provide “continual, rapid, and widespread access to a comprehensive continuum of care” to “all persons with substance abuse disorder.”
In two years, the provision classifying drug possession as a misdemeanor expires, reverting to current law with no prohibition. That’s designed to give lawmakers time to re-evaluate how the state’s new policies are working and potentially figure out a long-term strategy for drug policy.
The 5-4 ruling in Bowman’s case – known as the Blake decision, because she was charged under a surname she hasn’t used in more than 20 years – held that Washington’s drug law was unconstitutional because it didn’t require prosecutors to prove that a defendant knowingly had the drugs. That left the possession of small amounts of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and meth, legal under state law, even for children.
The justices issued the ruling in February, well into the legislative session in Olympia. Lawmakers scrambled to write a new law.
Bowman, 43, now lives in a motor home on her parents’ property near Kettle Falls, north of Spokane. She has been working as a logger but the felony on her record long kept her from renting her own place, she said.
At the time of her arrest in 2016, she and her boyfriend, who was addicted to heroin, were renting a room in a Spokane house for $200 a month. They had recently been homeless.
Police took her to jail, where her blood pressure was so high that they sent her to a hospital. When she returned to the jail, guards searched her and found the baggie in her coin pocket.
Bowman told the AP she had kicked an addiction to pain pills and never used meth because of her blood pressure. Had she known the baggie was in her jeans, she would have ditched it while she was at the hospital, she said.
She didn’t think the outcome of her case made for good public policy.
“For there to be no punishment at all, I didn’t feel like that was going to help anything. But felonies for people like me? That was a little extreme,” she said.

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Democrats search for a strategy to combat GOP voting laws

WASHINGTON (AP) — A small group of civil rights leaders gathered at Vice President Kamala Harris’ ceremonial office last week to discuss Republican-backed laws restricting voting in several states. Among the ideas floated were continuing political organizing against the proposals, recruiting more corporations to the fight and suing to block the laws.
But the conversation kept circling back to the most effective strategy, and possibly the most difficult: passing Democrats’ sweeping federal overhaul of elections, the For the People Act, commonly known as HR1.
“We strongly believe that HR1 is viable and essential if we’re going to move to address some of these concerning laws,” said Janet Murguia, executive director of the Latino group UNIDOS, who attended the meeting.
The session highlighted the search for a strong defense against laws that Democrats say are designed to make it harder to vote. Democrats lack the numbers in many statehouses to block Republicans from passing the tighter rules. Corporate statements and street protests have made Republicans uncomfortable and softened some of the legislation, but not stopped it. Lawsuits may not be resolved before next year’s midterm elections.
That leaves much riding on a federal rewrite of election and voting laws that could gut many of the Republican-backed state rules. But a Senate hearing on the legislation this week was a display of united Republican opposition, leaving Democrats with no easy path.
“We’re gonna push hard to pass this bill. I do think that there are a number of other things we should be doing at the same time,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Tuesday.
State lawmakers have proposed more than 250 bills that make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which promotes wider ballot access. Several Republican-controlled states, including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Montana, have recently enacted laws that add restrictions, such as limiting access to drop boxes for mail ballots or cutting early voting hours. On Tuesday, Arizona enacted a law that requires regular purges of its mail voting list.
Some states, largely Democratic-controlled ones, have also expanded voting; so has Oklahoma, which added a day of in-person early voting in legislation signed Tuesday.
The Republican push is spurred by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. It’s a claim now widely embraced, despite all evidence to contrary, by many in his party. State election officials across the country and judges of both parties found no evidence to support Trump’s assertions, but Republican lawmakers argue that the new, tighter rules are needed to restore confidence in the election system.
The laws have triggered more than a dozen suits from Democrats and civil rights groups. The challenges generally allege the laws violate the First, 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by limiting people’s ability to engage in politics and vote.
Marc Elias, the leading Democratic lawyer in the voting fight, said the litigation was “not the optimal way to go.”
Suits can take months or years to resolve, and it’s far from clear the courts will be friendly to Democrats’ arguments. Some of the federal appeals courts likely to end up hearing the cases shifted to the right in recent years as Trump named conservative judges.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court removed the requirement that certain states get advance approval from the federal Justice Department before changing voting laws, civil rights lawyers have been stripped of a once powerful tool to block voting restrictions. Lawyers are watching the Supreme Court again because the justices are expected to rule soon on a 2016 Arizona voting case that could further restrict ways lawyers can challenge voting limits.
“The optimal way to go is for Congress to pass HR1,” Elias said. “We turn to the courts not as our first choice but as our last.”
President Joe Biden, who has said the laws are a sign the nation is “backsliding into the days of Jim Crow,” has said the Justice Department is looking at the new Georgia law.
“The Justice Department needs to step up here, too, and just use whatever powers are at their disposal,” Van Hollen said.
The Democrats’ election overhaul would effectively neuter voter ID laws, put in place national automatic voter registration and prohibit partisan gerrymandering.
While Republicans oppose the legislation, moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose rewriting Senate rules to pass the proposal with simple 51-vote majority. Right now, it need 60 votes to clear a Republican filibuster.
Manchin on Wednesday expressed support for a narrower voting bill — one that would restore the requirement that the Justice Department “pre-clear” voting restrictions. His endorsement could be a sign of growing support for that measure, although it, too, would need Republican votes or a change in Senate rules.
Still, Democrats seemed to have no clear path forward Thursday after they spent part of their weekly Senate lunch to discussing HR1 and voting. Manchin wasn’t even there; he was in West Virginia hosting a visit from first lady Jill Biden.
Democratic pledged to plow ahead, hoping the dynamics of HR1 would somehow change. “We got to take it to the floor and spend some real time there to have this ripen,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “Hearts and minds can change when there’s real effort that’s made.”
At the meeting on May 6 with Harris, civil rights leaders noted they were surprised by how corporations have spoken out against voting laws in some states. They suggested enlisting them to speak more enthusiastically about the right to vote or even back HR1. They talked about additional litigation but did not press Harris on the Justice Department’s plans, according to Wade Henderson, interim president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended.
The White House said the meeting was an opportunity for Harris to hear directly from leaders of diverse constituencies “about the work they are doing on the ground to mobilize their networks and combat voter suppression.”
The group talked about building political opposition, both on the ground and on the airwaves. Republican groups have launched ads promoting the new Georgia law as a commonsense way to secure elections. The left-leaning Just Democracy this week began a campaign in Arizona and Georgia featuring a speech by the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime civil rights leader.
The group also worried about the divisive partisanship.
“One point that a number of advocates brought up is that this is not a partisan issue — this is about making sure all people can vote,” said attendee John C. Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC.
Henderson recounted that Harris “did make clear that she and the president will use their bully pulpit to encourage Congress to make some impact.”