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National
AP
US tops 500,000 virus deaths, matching the toll of 3 wars

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. "We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

Monday’s grim milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months ... I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People "are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across a large swath of the nation, including in the Deep South.

As a result, the seven-day rolling average of adminstered first doses fell by 20 percent between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House said that about a third of the roughly 6 million vaccine doses delayed by bad weather were delivered over the weekend, with the rest expected to be delivered by mid-week, several days earlier than originally expected. White House coronavirus response coordinator Andy Slavitt on Monday attributed the improved timeline to an “all-out, round-the-clock” effort over the weekend that included employees at one vaccine distributor working night shifts to pack vaccines.

In Louisiana, state health officials said some doses from last week’s shipments were delivered over the weekend and were expected to continue arriving through Wednesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week’s supply arrived Monday. And in Nashville, Tennessee, health officials were able to vaccinate more than 2,300 senior citizens and teachers over the weekend after days of treacherous weather.

“We’ll be asking the vaccine providers to do a lot,” said Louisiana’s top public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, who expects it to take a week or two to catch up on vaccinations after a storm coated roads with ice and left many areas without running water.

Mary Pettersch, an 80-year-old Overland Park, Kansas, retiree who is spending the winter with her 83-year-old husband in Palmhurst, Texas, anticipated that the second dose they were supposed to get on Tuesday will be delayed because of last week’s harsh weather.

She made multiple calls to health officials Monday, but they weren’t returned. Still, she wasn’t too worried.

“Oh, I would like to get it, but if I can’t get it here, I will get it back home,” she said, noting that she is returning to Kansas in April. “At 80 you don’t get frustrated anymore,” she said.

Some hospitals, clinics, community sites and pharmacies that are in Louisiana’s vaccination network will get double allocations of doses this week — just as Gov. John Bel Edwards starts offering shots to teachers, daycare workers, pregnant women and people age 55 to 64 with certain preexisting conditions.

New York City officials expected to catch up on vaccinations after being forced to delay scheduling tens of thousands of appointments last week, the mayor said Monday.

“That means we’ve basically lost a full week in our vaccination efforts,” DeBlasio said.

More than 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and about 1.6 million per day received either first or second dose over the past seven days, according to the CDC.

The nation's supply could expand significantly if health regulators approve a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The company said it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses by the end of March if it gets the green light, and would have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June.

That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale, the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

J&J disclosed the figures in written testimony ahead of a congressional hearing on Tuesday looking at the country’s vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J’s vaccine would be limited.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot, and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week.

J&J’s vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot. The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses spaced several weeks apart.

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Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Kansas. Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan. Associated Press writers Brian Hannon in Salt Lake City, Utah; John Antczak in Long Beach, California; Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Sophia Tareen in Chicago; Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Matthew Perrone and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.


State
AP
Germany: Nazi guard deported from US agrees to be questioned

BERLIN (AP) — A 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard deported from Tennessee has agreed to be questioned by German prosecutors as they re-examine whether there is enough evidence against him to bring charges, authorities said Monday.

Friedrich Karl Berger arrived Saturday in Frankfurt on a special flight from the U.S. after being ordered deported to his native Germany by a court in Memphis last year.

He was met by Hesse state police detectives at the airport and told them he would be willing to be questioned by investigators with a lawyer present, said Bernd Kolkmeier, spokesman for the Celle prosecutor's office, which is handling the case.

Organizing counsel and ensuring they are up to speed on the facts will take time, however, so the earliest such an interview would take place would be next month, Kolkmeier said.

A U.S. immigration judge ordered Berger deported a year ago after finding that his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution.

The court found that Berger, who had been living in the U.S. since 1959, had served at a camp in Meppen, Germany, near the border with the Netherlands, which was a subcamp of the larger Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.

It said during the winter of 1945, prisoners in Meppen were held in “atrocious” conditions and were exploited for outdoor forced labor, working “to the point of exhaustion and death.”

Berger admitted to American investigators that he served in Meppen as a guard for a few weeks near the end of the war but said he did not observe any abuse or killings. The Memphis court found, however, that Berger had helped guard prisoners during a forced evacuation that took nearly two weeks and claimed the lives of 70 people.

Celle prosecutors shelved their initial investigation of him in December, however, saying they had been unable to refute his account. They're now having another look, with him back on German soil, Kolkmeier said.

“Nothing has changed except that he is now in Germany and we can talk with him,” Kolkmeier said. “We can personally question him, which is naturally different than reading a transcript.”

Kolkmeier would not say whether Berger still had family in Germany nor where he was residing.

Berger, who was born in 1925 in the tiny northern town of Bargen, was serving in the German Navy when he was assigned to guard prisoners in Meppen in 1945, according to the Neuengamme Memorial's website.

He served between Jan. 28, 1945 and April 4, 1945, as an auxiliary attached to the SS command of the camp, according to Celle prosecutors.

Berger is being investigated under a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk, who denied the allegations, died before his appeal could be heard.

German courts previously required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard’s participation in a specific killing, often a near-impossible task.

However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk’s trial in Munich that helping a camp function by serving as a guard was enough to convict someone of accessory to murders committed there.

A federal court subsequently upheld the 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening on the same reasoning.

Since the Demjanjuk conviction there have been a steady stream of new prosecutions and trials in Germany.

Earlier this month prosecutors charged a 100-year-old man on 3,518 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he served as a guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, and a 95-year-old woman on 10,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations she served as the secretary to the former SS commandant of the Stutthof camp.


News
Blount Memorial to start COVID-19 shots for school staff on Friday, Feb. 26

Blount Memorial plans to start giving COVID-19 vaccines to K-12 school employees on Friday, Feb. 26.

Maryville City Schools employees will be among the first up, and by noon Monday, Feb. 22, 459 had selected an appointment, MCS Assistant Director Amy Vagnier said.

Local public schools previously had been planning on campus vaccines for staff. Now Blount Memorial has coordinated with the Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County districts as well as Greenback School, Clayton-Bradley Academy and Maryville Christian School.

Maryville employees will have a reserved lot for parking at Blount Memorial Hospital and receive the shots in the auditorium from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.

They will complete the vaccine signature form and return it to their schools in advance.

Greenback School employees have the option of receiving the shot Friday, Feb. 26, at Blount Memorial or Saturday, Feb. 27, through the Loudon County Health Department, according to Principal Mike Casteel.

While Blount Memorial has given other schools tentative dates and times, those won’t be confirmed until the vaccine doses arrive, spokesman Josh West explained.

The COVID-19 vaccine clinic for Blount County Schools employees tentatively is scheduled for 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 6, at East Tennessee Medical Group in Alcoa.

When Blount Memorial confirms the number of vaccines available, the district plans to have employees register through an email link on Monday, March 1.

In an earlier survey, about 1,130 of an estimated 1,700 BCS employees had expressed interest in receiving the vaccine.

At ETMG on a Saturday, when the physician side of the office typically is closed, Blount Memorial can vaccinate 175-200 an hour, West said.

Alcoa City Schools tentatively is scheduled for Friday, March 5, with Blount Memorial, but Director Becky Stone noted K-12 personnel also can schedule appointments with the Blount County Health Department.

Appointments with county health departments can be scheduled through the state online at covid19.tn.gov.

Corie Gouge, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health’s Eastern Division said Monday, Feb. 22, that they had been able to deliver vaccines sooner than expected to people who had signed up.


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