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LaVega’s Jar’Quae Walton tosses the ball after scoring against Wilmer-Hutchins in the first half.

Daily COVID-19 deaths in US reach highest level since May

The surging coronavirus is taking an increasingly dire toll across the U.S. just as a vaccine appears close at hand, with the country now averaging over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths per day — the highest level since the calamitous spring in and around New York City.

The overall U.S. death toll has reached about 254,000, by far the most in the world. Confirmed infections have eclipsed more than 11.8 million, after the biggest one-day gain on record Thursday — almost 188,000. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high at more than 80,000.

With health experts deeply afraid Thanksgiving travel and holiday gatherings next week will fuel the spread of the virus, many states and cities are imposing near-lockdowns or other restrictions. California ordered a 10 p.m.-to 5-a.m. curfew starting Saturday, covering 94% of the state’s 40 million residents.

The Texas border county of El Paso, where more than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October, is advertising jobs for morgue workers capable of lifting bodies weighing 175 pounds or more. Officials are offering more than $27 an hour for work described as not only physically arduous but “emotionally taxing as well.”

The county had already begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help move corpses and has ordered at least 10 refrigerated trucks as morgues run out of room.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are at their highest level since late May, when the Northeast was emerging from the first wave of the crisis. They peaked at about 2,200 a day in late April, when New York City was the epicenter and bodies were being loaded onto refrigerated trucks by forklift.

Amid the bleak new statistics, Pfizer said Friday it is asking U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, setting in motion a process that could make the first, limited shots available as early as next month, with health care workers and other high-risk groups likely to get priority.

But it could take months before the vaccine becomes widely available. Pfizer has said the vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing the disease.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out another shutdown and singled out El Paso county leaders for not enforcing restrictions already in place. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, likened the county’s chief administrator to a “tyrant” after Paxton won an appeals court ruling blocking local leaders from shutting down gyms and other nonessential businesses.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, also a Republican, failed to persuade leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature to reject a bill that would limit his administration’s power to deal with the crisis.

At issue is a Senate bill that would ban the state health department from issuing mandatory quarantine orders enforced against people who are not sick or exposed to disease — such as the order announced by the governor Tuesday setting a 10 p.m. curfew.

DeWine said he will veto the bill when it reaches his desk; Republicans in both the House and Senate have enough votes to override the veto if they choose.

“This bill is a disaster,” DeWine said Thursday. “This is not a bill that can become law.”

In California, the curfew will be in place in 41 of 58 counties. Its impact will depend heavily on voluntary compliance. Sheriffs of some counties said they won’t enforce it. Under the rules, people who are not on essential errands must stay home after 10 p.m.

The curfew is less strict than the near-total ban on nonessential business and travel that Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed in March and which he credited with flattening the rate of COVID-19 cases.

In Kansas, new cases have risen to an average of over 2,700 per day, nearly four times higher than a month ago.

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Health care workers are burned out,” Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday.

In rural western Kansas, the number of people seeking testing at a Kearny County clinic doubled over the past week to about 80 per day, said Dr. Lane Olson, a family practice doctor.

He said nurses had to make multiple calls this week before the University of Kansas Hospital, about 360 miles away in Kansas City, Kansas, agreed to take one of his coronavirus patients whose oxygen levels were falling. Then several more calls were needed to find an air transport company that could fly her there.

In Topeka, the emergency department at Stormont Vail Hospital has taken over a back hallway and a waiting room, with some patients waiting hours to be moved to a regular room. The crunch has area officials considering opening a field hospital.

Among other developments:

The mayor of Newark, New Jersey, said residents should stay home for 10 days starting next week because of the rise in cases.

—In Arizona, four Democratic mayors urged Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to impose a statewide requirement for people to wear masks in public. The move came as health officials reported more than 4,000 additional COVID-19 cases for the second consecutive day.

Ducey’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, pushed back on the request, saying the mayors are doing little to enforce their own mask ordinances or ensure that existing safety measures put in place by the governor are being enforced.

—In New Mexico, where hospitals are facing a crunch, the state reopened a vacated former hospital in Albuquerque for use by COVID-19 patients.

‘Bundle of joy’ — Adoption Day shines light on Waco children's needs

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Friday’s celebration of McLennan County Adoption Day online, and Louis and Anna Sims had to settle for a Zoom call with a judge to make official their adoption of their 15-month-old granddaughter, Sa'Moriana.

And, par for the course for 2020, a technical glitch delayed the hearing and threatened to derail the moment. But in the end, Anna Sims said, none of those obstacles detracted from a banner day for her growing family.

“It means she’s officially mine, and I don’t have to worry about anyone coming to take her away,” she said after the brief online ceremony Friday that the Sims attended from their sofa. “It feels amazing. Now I can really make sure she’s taken care of. She can be who she was born to be.”

Sa'Moriana was among 29 children whose adoption was finalized Friday with 21 families as part of the event organized by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Baylor Law School.

For the adoptive families, it was the end of a long journey to adopt children who were removed from their families and placed into foster care.

Dressed up with ribbons in her pigtails, Sa'Moriana was too busy playing to notice the proceedings, which had an “Aladdin” movie theme. The event featured an appearance from a Baylor Law School student dressed as Jasmine, and child protective services Judge Nikki Mundkowsky chose a cartoon background in her Zoom video.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald  

Anna and Louis Sims officially adopted Sa'Moriana, age 15 months, Friday.

For the exuberant toddler, nothing seemed to have changed. She had been placed with her grandparents as a newborn straight out of the hospital last year after testing found drugs in her bloodstream.

She has never known a family other than this: Louis and Anna, along with her brothers, ages 2 and 4, whom the Sims had previously adopted.

Further testing has found no lingering medical issues with Sa'Moriana, according to the Sims and their caseworker.

“She’s a bundle of joy,” Anna Sims said this week as Sa'Moriana capered and giggled on a small plastic playset in the Sims’ front yard near Brook Avenue Elementary School.

“She’s like a mini-me,” Sims said, laughing. “I needed a little version of me. The boys were taking over.”

Anna Sims, 55, is a home service specialist with the Methodist Children’s Home, while Louis, 47, is an assistant manager at a dollar store and is a mixed martial arts fighter.

Kathryne Ford, Sa'Moriana’s caseworker with Family and Protective Services, played the same role last year when the Sims adopted Dakota, her 2-year-old brother.

“Because of my dealings with them and knowing their desire to provide a permanent home for Dakota at that time, I didn’t have to think twice when it came to Sa'Moriana,” Ford said. “They were serious that they wanted to be long-term (parents), and whenever there was anything asked of them, I never had to follow up. There was never any doubt they’ll provide a sound, loving home.”

Not all children in the charge of the state of Texas are so lucky. As of the end of September, the state had 2,909 children waiting to find permanent adoptive homes, including 31 in McLennan County.

As of the same date, McLennan County had 344 children in foster care. Most children in foster care are ultimately returned to their birth families or relatives, but agency officials say there is always a shortage of adoptive families for the others.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald  

Anna and Louis Sims officially adopted Sa'Moriana, age 15 months, Friday.

Statewide, the agency has seen a 17% decrease in adoptions in the recently concluded fiscal year, compared to the prior year, spokesperson Mark Wilson said. He said that drop may be part of normal fluctuations as much as the pandemic, but in any case, quality of adoptive parents is as important as quantity.

“It’s not just a numbers game,” Wilson said. “Even if we did have more adoptive families, we want to make sure we’re placing these kids in the right environment.”

He said many families think adoption is an expensive process, but the state’s foster-to-adopt system has a low financial barrier. Depending on the circumstances, the children may be eligible for tuition to state schools as well state-funded health care until they are young adults.

Ford said what she looks for in a family is the commitment to making adoption work.

“Someone who really has their heart in adopting and providing for that child,” she said. “Normally before a child is placed with a family we have many conversations to make sure this is what they want to do.”

She encouraged anyone interested in the process to take the first step by visiting or calling 1-800-233-3405.

Louis Sims said the joy of having three young children outweighs the struggles of discipline and diaper changes. He motioned to the oldest boy, Christopher, 4, who was sitting on the playset observing the interview.

“This is the little professor here,” he said. “He knows everything. Trash trucks, fire trucks. He’ll study stuff, just sit there and observe.”

Anna Sims said Dakota, who was trying to climb atop the playhouse, was the “risk-taker.”

“Everything (Chris) says or does, (Dakota) will do,” she said. “And then she wants to do what they do.”

She said she plans to send all three children to Brook Avenue Elementary, just a block away.

“I want them to grow up and strive to be the best they can be,” she said. “Whatever field they decide to go into, I’ll support them every step of the way.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations at peak as Thanksgiving approaches

Local health officials Friday urged the public to take precautions as 209 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths were reported and local hospitals continued to see record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Less than a week before Thanksgiving, Waco hospitals were treating 87 COVID-19 patients Friday, one less than the record set Thursday and nearly double the 44 hospitalizations they saw Oct. 29.

Even with the promise of a new antibody treatment and vaccine candidates on the horizon, it remains important to stick to the basic safety measures known to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, officials said.

In addition to avoiding unnecessary contact with others, social distancing, the use of masks and hand washing, next week the basics include avoiding Thanksgiving gatherings outside the household, Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine said.

“Think about this in terms of protecting your family,” Craine said.

The 18-25 age group continues to see the most cases in McLennan County, but the working-age population also is seeing high case counts, and numbers among the youngest and oldest have not subsided.

“Be aware this is affecting all ages, and with Thanksgiving coming up, it is really important to keep yourself safe and to keep your family safe,” Craine said.

The health district on Friday reported the deaths of an 84-year-old woman and a 77-year-old woman attributed to COVID-19, bringing the toll to 176.

Officials have said multiple Halloween gatherings were linked to several cases in the November resurgence of the disease. Increases in cases generally are followed by an increase in hospitalizations and then an increase in deaths, with a period of weeks between each.

The 209 new cases reported Friday bring the year-to-date total to 13,156. An estimated 1,369 cases remain active, up from 512 as of Oct. 31.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald  

A mobile unit distributes COVID-19 tests Friday at McLennan Community College. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allocated 40,000 tests, provided free of charge, for an ongoing testing surge in McLennan County.

China Spring High School and China Spring Middle School sent students home early Friday because of an increase in active COVID-19 cases, closing their campuses until after Thanksgiving break. They join several other schools that also have closed their campuses until after the holiday.

China Spring’s extracurricular activities will continue, according to the district’s social media posts announcing the closures. Before a football game Friday night in Magnolia, head coach Brian Bell dismissed rumors of a football player testing positive as “fake news” and said the team was ready to play.

Also Friday, Baylor University announced a moratorium on scheduling new events until Feb. 7.

“The (Baylor COVID-19) Health Management Team will not approve any event proposals before that date,” according to the announcement. “However, events that have already been approved by the team may continue as planned.”

The university is discouraging any gathering but will continue to allow groups of up to 10 to gather, as long as they maintain physical distancing and wear masks, regardless of whether they are indoors or outdoors, the announcement states.

Students generally will not return to campus for class activities this semester after they leave for Thanksgiving, and the university is offering free rapid testing to all students and employees before they leave for the holiday. The daily count of new cases among Baylor students, employees and contractors has increased slightly in recent days, though it has not matched the acceleration of new cases in the broader community or matched the university’s spike in cases immediately after classes resumed for the fall semester.

Amid the spike in cases and new prevention measures, Ascension Providence announced Friday it is establishing a process in Waco to provide bamlanivimab, an antibody treatment that recently received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The treatment is intended for recently diagnosed COVID-19 patients who are not hospitalized but are at elevated risk of a severe illness, according to the Ascension Providence press release.

“Ascension Providence received an allotment of the antibody therapy and is working to set up an outpatient infusion clinic site with plans to begin providing this therapy as early as next week,” the press release states. “The therapy is administered through an IV and can be given at physician-order only.”

Also Friday, Pfizer submitted the first COVID-19 vaccine candidate for approval by federal regulators, creating the potential for vaccine distributions to start as early as next month for critical populations. Three other vaccines are close behind in the development, testing and approval pipeline.

Who will be the first to get COVID-19 vaccines? And answers to more of your virus questions

Who will be the first to get COVID-19 vaccines? And answers to more of your virus questions

Waco jobless rate continues to fall, though rising COVID-19 cases threaten progress

People are finding jobs in Waco, enough that the unemployment rate dropped almost a percentage point, to 5.4% last month, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

But economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas warn that the state’s continuing recovery may screech to a halt through the end of the year, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations mount and residents, wary of being infected, become more cautious about venturing out.

Figures released Friday show an estimated 600 people were added to local employment rolls between September and October. The Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Falls and McLennan counties, had the seventh-lowest jobless rate among the 25 largest MSAs in Texas last month.

Its rate also was below those of Texas, 6.7%, and the United States, 6.6%, according to the workforce commission’s non-seasonally-adjusted tally.

“Hiring is taking place,” said David Davis, who oversees operations at Workforce Solutions for the Heart of Texas.

The Workforce Solutions office on New Road normally welcomes job seekers to use its resources. COVID-19 has altered that approach, with employment searches now taking place remotely, Davis said.

But Davis said he senses that progress is being made, that lookers and employers are linking up more frequently than when COVID-19 exploded earlier in the year, causing jobless rates to skyrocket.

The Waco MSA jobless rate peaked at 11.1% in April, steadily dropped until suffering an uptick in September to 6.3%, and now has dropped again.

The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes lodging, remains a sore spot locally and statewide. About 2,000 local positions have been lost in that sector year-over-year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around Texas, employment levels are about 207,000 less than those one year ago.

Other areas of employment are bouncing back, even thriving.

Construction employment last month was up an estimated 800 from the same month last year. Manufacturing enjoyed a 200-person increase, while employment in education and health services is up an estimated 1,400 people. Professional and business services has seen a 800-person jump.

Trade/Transportation/Utilities saw a 300-person decrease, while “other services” and government suffered declines of 200 and 100, respectively.

“While the unemployment rate captures only a snapshot of our economy at a specific moment in time, the job growth we have seen over the past six months shows an enduring strength in the state’s economy,” Texas Workforce Commission Chair Bryan Daniel said in a press release.

Texas’ private sector added 136,300 jobs between September and October. Its jobless rate slipped from 8.2% in September to 6.7% in October, according to non-seasonally-adjusted calculations.

In October, the professional and business services sector in Texas added 45,200 jobs, “the largest monthly increase recorded for this industry since the series began in 1990,” according the workforce commission press release.

“While the economy may look a bit different, one thing holds true: skilled workers are in-demand,” workforce commission labor representative Julian Alvarez said in the press release.

The Dallas Federal Reserve Bank issued a more sobering analysis, saying it expects jobs recovery in Texas to “decelerate in the last two months of the year,” due in part to COVID-19 infection rates and oil futures prices.

Texas has lost 704,400 jobs year-to-date and will have lost 721,700 jobs by the time 2020 draws to a close, according to the Dallas Fed’s “Texas Employment Forecast“ published Friday.

“Although October saw a pickup in job growth, the Texas economy has begun to slow with the surging infection and hospitalization rates from COVID-19,” Dallas Fed senior economist Keith Phillips said in the forecast. “As a result, we expect some pullback in the recovery through the end of the year as people are more cautious about face-to-face interactions, disproportionately affecting the service sector.”


Employment during COVID-19 by the numbers