The Florida Department of Education has withheld funds from two school districts that made masks mandatory in classrooms this fall, state officials announced on Monday, making good on a threat that local school boards that required students to wear masks would be punished financially.
The announcement is the latest twist in a political fight over masking in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued a ban on masks in school in July, only to be swatted back by a judge last week.
“We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Richard Corcoran, the state education commissioner, said in a statement. “They know what is best for their children.”
The penalty applies to two school districts — Alachua County and Broward County — that went ahead with mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s order.
It was not immediately clear how much money had been withheld, or which funding had been affected.
The department had indicated that it would withhold a monthly amount equivalent to school board members’ salaries. In Alachua County, members make about $40,000 a year, and in Broward County they make about $46,000, according to the state legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
However, because the state does not pay the salaries of local officials, it cannot withhold the salaries directly. Mr. Corcoran had previously said that he may recommend withholding funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”
On Monday, his department said that the counties had been instructed to cut school board compensation — and nothing else.
But the practical effect of that remains unclear. The Biden administration has advised that any school district that is stripped of state funding because of a backlash to pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up the difference.
In a statement, Broward County said it would continue to enforce its mask mandates.
The Florida Department of Education and the Alachua school district did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Florida is experiencing the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the nation. Over the last seven days, an average of more than 16,000 people have been hospitalized each day, more than during any other period in the pandemic.
Last week, a judge ruled against Governor DeSantis, ruling that Florida’s school districts may impose mask mandates on students to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The judge also issued an injunction blocking the state’s Department of Education from punishing local school boards.
The Department of Education planned to appeal, and on Monday announced that funding had been withheld.
The penalties would continue monthly until the school boards comply, the department said.
WASHINGTON — The Education Department has initiated investigations into five states whose prohibitions on universal mask mandates in schools may run afoul of civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities, federal officials announced Monday.
The department’s civil rights head wrote to state education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, notifying them that the department’s Office for Civil Rights would determine whether the prohibitions are restricting access for students who are protected under federal law from discrimination based on their disabilities, and are entitled to a free appropriate public education.
The investigations make good on the Biden administration’s promise to use the federal government’s muscle — including civil rights investigations and legal action — to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have come out against mask mandates in public schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
In letters to state leaders, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights said the department would explore whether the prohibitions “may be preventing schools from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from Covid-19.”
The department said it has not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not being enforced in schools because of litigation or other state action.
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement on Monday that while she appreciated the federal department’s efforts to protect children, she believed “they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur.”
She said that the state’s law left the decision up to local officials, and that several counties had implemented them. She noted that the C.D.C., in March, studied a Utah district as an example of how elementary schools had reopened without significant outbreaks.
Oklahoma and South Carolina education officials signaled that they opposed their states’ prohibitions on mask mandates.
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement that the State Department of Education planned to cooperate with the investigation. Oklahoma’s law against mask mandates “is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in person,” she said.
In a statement, the South Carolina Department of Education said that the state superintendent “has repeatedly implored the legislature to reconsider” a recently passed proviso on mask mandates, which it said was being challenged in court.
The department said it “is particularly sensitive to the law’s effect on South Carolina’s most vulnerable students.”
Brian Symmes, the communications director for Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, wrote in a statement that the federal investigation by the Education Department was “another attempt by the Biden administration to force a radical liberal agenda on states and people who disagree with them.”
He continued, “Under South Carolina law, anybody who wants to wear a mask — in a school setting or elsewhere — is free to do so, but the governor isn’t going to ignore a parent’s fundamental right to make health decisions for their children.”
Officials in the education departments of Iowa and Tennessee acknowledged they received and were reviewing their letters.
Earlier this month, President Biden announced he had directed his education secretary, Miguel A. Cardona, to use the agency’s broad power to intervene in states where governors had blocked mask mandates.
Dr. Cardona has said he is particularly perturbed by prohibitions in places where the Delta variant of the coronavirus has sent cases surging. He said that he has heard from desperate parents who fear sending their immunocompromised and medically vulnerable children into schools that do not have universal masking.
This month, parents of children with disabilities sued Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, over his ban on mask mandates in public schools, arguing that his order prevented their medically at-risk children from being able to attend school safely.
“The department has heard from parents from across the country — particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions — about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk,” Dr. Cardona said in a statement announcing the investigations.
Millions of public school children qualify for special education services that often require hands-on instruction and other services and therapies. And the population has been a priority to get back into classrooms after experiencing steep academic and social setbacks as a result of school closures during the pandemic.
The department will specifically look at whether the state bans violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which includes “the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs,” the department said.
It will also look at whether statewide prohibitions violate Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities.
The department said the investigations are not indicative of a violation, which could result in a state losing federal funding. Most investigations result in resolution agreements between the agency and the state.
The daily average for hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the United States is now more than 100,000 over the last week. That average is higher than in any previous surge except last winter’s, before most Americans were eligible to get vaccinated.
The influx of patients is straining hospitals and pushing health care workers to the brink as deaths have risen to an average of more than 1,000 a day for the first time since March. The seven-day average of Covid hospitalizations peaked in mid-January with nearly 140,000 people hospitalized.
Hospitalizations nationwide have increased by nearly 500 percent in the past two months, particularly across Southern states, where I.C.U. beds are filling up, a crisis fueled by some of the country’s lowest vaccination rates and widespread political opposition to public health measures like mask requirements.
In Florida, 16,457 people are hospitalized, the most of any state, followed by Texas, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
With the surge pummeling the nation and overwhelming hospitals, a shortage of bedside nurses has complicated efforts to treat hospitalized coronavirus patients, leading to longer emergency room waiting times and rushed or inadequate care.
This month, one in five American I.C.U.s had reached or exceeded 95 percent of beds full. Alabama was one of the first states to run out, and the crisis is concentrated in the South, with small pockets of high occupancy elsewhere in the country. As cases and hospitalizations surged, the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville on Thursday requested assistance from the National Guard.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Dr. Shannon Byrd, a pulmonologist in Knoxville, who described local hospitals filled to capacity, noting that the vast majority of I.C.U. patients in the region were unvaccinated. “It’s bringing whole families down and tearing families apart. They’re dying in droves and leaving surviving loved ones with a lot of funerals to go to.”
As in previous surges, hospitals have been forced to expand capacity by creating makeshift I.C.U.s in areas typically reserved for other types of care, and even in hallways or spare rooms. Experts say maintaining existing standards of care for the sickest patients may be difficult or impossible at hospitals with more than 95 percent I.C.U. occupancy.
Hard-hit communities in Oregon and elsewhere are asking for mobile morgues to store the dead.
Dr. Ijlal Babar, the director of pulmonary critical care for the Singing River Health System in coastal Mississippi, said the influx of mostly unvaccinated, younger Covid-19 patients was hampering care across the system’s hospitals.
“Because a lot of these patients are lingering on, the ventilators are occupied, the beds are occupied,” he said. “And a lot of other patients who need health care, we can’t do those things, because we don’t have the I.C.U. beds, we don’t have the nurses, we don’t have the ventilators.”
Like many health care workers, Dr. Babar voiced frustration at the refusal of many residents to get inoculated, even after they had lost an unvaccinated family member to the virus.
“The families, you don’t see them going out and talking about the benefits of vaccine,” he said. “Nobody brings it up, nobody expresses any remorse. It’s just something that they absolutely do not believe in.”
New data presented to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee provided more evidence that the Covid-19 vaccines provided robust protection against severe disease through July, after the Delta variant of the coronavirus had spread widely through the United States.
Scientists also confirmed that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots confer a small risk of heart problems in younger men, but that the benefits still outweighed the risks.
At the committee’s meeting on Monday, Dr. Sara Oliver, a C.D.C. scientist, presented unpublished data from Covid-Net, a hospital surveillance system. All three vaccines used in the United States remained highly effective at preventing hospitalizations from April through July, when Delta became dominant, the data suggested.
For adults under the age of 75, the shots were at least 94 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations, a rate that has remained steady for months, Dr. Oliver said. Protection against hospitalization did decline in July for adults 75 or older, but still remained above 80 percent.
“Covid vaccines continue to maintain high protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Dr. Oliver said.
Protection against infection or mild disease does appear to have declined somewhat in recent months, however. “These reasons for lower effectiveness likely include both waning over time and the Delta variant,” she said.
The data comes in the midst of an ongoing debate about the necessity and timing of booster doses. On Aug. 18, health officials recommended that adults who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines get a third shot eight months after their second dose. If the F.D.A. clears the booster shots, they will be available beginning Sept. 20, top federal health officials have said.
The recommendation was based on data suggesting that the vaccines may become less effective at protecting against infection and mild disease over time. But the shots still work well against severe disease and death, and many scientists have criticized the plan for booster shots, saying that it’s not yet clear that they’re needed.
The C.D.C. advisory committee will review additional data on the safety, effectiveness and potential need for booster doses at a meeting in September.
However, getting shots to unvaccinated people should continue to be the top priority, Dr. Oliver said: “Planning for delivery of booster doses to vaccinated individuals should not deter outreach for delivery of primary series to unvaccinated individuals.”
The committee unanimously voted to recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last week, for Americans 16 or older.
Scientists also presented to the committee new data on the risks of two heart conditions following vaccination: myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the heart.
The side effects tend to be mild, temporary, and uncommon, the data confirmed. For every million doses of the second shot given to 12- to 39-year-olds, there were 14 to 20 extra cases of the heart problems, according to the new data, which was presented Monday at a meeting of an independent advisory committee to the C.D.C.
“The data suggest an association of myocarditis with mRNA vaccination in adolescents and young adults,” Dr. Grace Lee, a pediatrician at Stanford and chair of the committee, said at the meeting on Monday. “Further data are being compiled to understand potential risk factors, optimal management strategies and long-term outcomes.”
But the benefits of the vaccines are substantial, even for those in the highest risk groups. According to an analysis presented by a C.D.C. scientist on Monday, every million doses of the Pfizer vaccine administered to 16- and 17-year-old boys would be expected to cause 73 cases of the heart problems, while preventing more than 56,000 Covid-19 cases and 500 related hospitalizations.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week reported that the risk of myocarditis was substantially higher after infection with the virus than after vaccination.
WASHINGTON — President Biden is considering using his clemency powers to commute the sentences of certain federal drug offenders released to home confinement during the pandemic rather than forcing them to return to prison after the pandemic emergency ends, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.
The legal and policy discussions about a mass clemency program are focused on nonviolent drug offenders with less than four years remaining in their sentences, the officials said. The contemplated intervention would not apply to those now in home confinement with longer sentences left, or those who committed other types of crimes.
The notion of clemency for some inmates is just one of several ideas being examined in the executive branch and Congress. Others include a broader use of a law that permits the “compassionate release” of sick or elderly inmates, and Congress enacting a law to allow some inmates to stay in home confinement after the pandemic.
Interviews with officials in both the executive branch and Congress, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations, suggest there is broad support for letting nonviolent inmates who have obeyed the rules stay at home — reducing incarceration and its cost to taxpayers. But officials in each branch also foresee major challenges and have hoped the other would solve the problem.
The issue traces back to 2020, when Congress included a provision in a Covid-19 relief law that empowered the Bureau of Prisons to release thousands of nonviolent federal inmates to home confinement. The idea was to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus in crowded settings. Since then, advocates for the inmates have denounced the prospect of eventually sending them back.
But a Trump-era memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said that after the pandemic emergency period ends, the bureau’s legal authority to keep such inmates in home confinement would “evaporate” if they were not by then close enough to the end of their sentences to be eligible for such treatment in normal times.
That will not be soon: With the Delta variant spurring a surge in cases, the public health emergency is not expected to end before next year at the earliest. But under normal circumstances, the law permits the authorities to allow home confinement only for inmates in the final six months or 10 percent of their sentence.
New Jersey will end special unemployment benefits put in place during the pandemic when they expire on Saturday, rather than using federal relief funds to extend them, the state’s governor announced on Monday.
The governor, Phil Murphy, said at a news conference that he had decided to let three federal assistance programs expire because it would cost the state millions of dollars to preserve them. At least 500,000 people will lose benefits. The programs set to expire are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.
President Biden had suggested earlier this month that states like New Jersey, which has an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, could use federal Covid-19 relief funds to extend benefits beyond Sept. 4.
New Jersey received $6.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan, but Mr. Murphy said it would cost the state’s taxpayers $314 million a week to maintain the benefits. “In other words, we’re talking about well more than $1 billion per month to maintain this benefit at its current level,” he said during the news conference.
Mr. Murphy said that since the start of the pandemic last year, the state has spent $33.7 billion in various kinds of assistance funds to about 1.6 million people. As the federal benefits come to an end, Mr. Murphy said the state will use Covid relief funds to fund other programs, including those that provide people help with rent, food and child care.
“We must ensure that we are appropriating these funds judiciously for the greatest possible long term recovery,” he said.
In neighboring New York State, a host of pandemic-related unemployment benefits were also scheduled to expire in the coming days, even though its economic driver, New York City, has one of the highest unemployment rates among large cities in the country.
The benefits about to stop in New York include a $300 per week federal supplement, which has been paid on top of state unemployment benefits. Also expiring soon are unemployment payments for self-employed workers and contractors, who would not normally qualify for assistance.
More than 4.7 million New Yorkers have received unemployment benefits totaling more than $97 billion in the pandemic, the state said.
Most parts of New York State have an unemployment rate near the national average, around 5.4 percent. But the lagging economy in New York City has driven the overall state rate up to 7.6 percent, the second highest in the country. In the city, the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent.
Matthew Haag contributed reporting.
Prescriptions for ivermectin, a drug typically used to treat parasitic worms that has repeatedly failed in clinical trials to help people infected with the coronavirus, have risen sharply in recent weeks, jumping to more than 88,000 per week in mid-August from a prepandemic average of 3,600 per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ivermectin was introduced as a veterinary drug in the late 1970s, and the discovery of its effectiveness in combating certain parasitic diseases in humans won the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine.
Though it has not been shown to be effective in treating Covid-19, people are now clamoring to get the drug, trading tips in Facebook groups and on Reddit. Some physicians have compared the phenomenon to last year’s surge of interest in hydroxychloroquine, though there are more clinical trials evaluating ivermectin.
While sometimes given to humans in small doses for head lice, scabies and other parasites, ivermectin is more commonly used in animals. Physicians are raising alarms about a growing number of people getting the drug from livestock supply centers, where it can come in highly concentrated paste or liquid forms.
Calls to poison control centers about ivermectin exposures have risen significantly, jumping fivefold over their baseline in July, according to C.D.C. researchers, who cited data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Mississippi’s health department said this month that 70 percent of recent calls to the state poison control center had come from people who ingested ivermectin from livestock supply stores.
The Delta variant of the coronavirus has disrupted back-to-office plans for some companies, while others are still expecting employees to be at their desks in September or sooner. And at some, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, employees are already back at their desks.
The Times has compiled the latest information on when companies plan to return to the office, and whether they’ll require vaccines when they do.
When the United States Tennis Association announced on Friday that proof of coronavirus vaccination would be required for all spectators 12 and older to enter the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, it widened a gulf between the spectators and the players they’ll be watching at the U.S. Open.
Adults in the stands will now be roughly twice as likely to be vaccinated as the players on court: The WTA said “nearly 50 percent” of its players were vaccinated, while the ATP said its vaccination rates were “just above 50 percent.”
Despite the possible consequences of not being vaccinated — illness, of course, but also the inability to play and make money — tennis players have been stubbornly slow on the uptake, even as many have lost opportunities to play in major tournaments because of positive tests. While some players are openly skeptical of the need for a vaccine as a healthy young person, some simply haven’t prioritized it.
The French veteran Gilles Simon, who was disqualified from the U.S. Open on Friday for “medical reasons,” confirmed in an interview with L’Equipe that he was removed because he hadn’t been vaccinated. Simon’s coach, Etienne Laforgue, tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in New York, and Simon was disqualified because he was deemed a “close contact.”
“I was not against it to the point of never being vaccinated, I’m just saying I didn’t feel the need or the urge,” Simon told L’Equipe.
Simon would have remained eligible to compete in the tournament, with increased testing, if he had been vaccinated.
“I’m not very scared of Covid, actually,” Simon said. “My basic philosophy is: ‘If you’re afraid of it, you get vaccinated; if not, no.’ It’s still a choice.”
Simon must now isolate in his hotel room for 10 days, according to federal and New York City guidelines. Simon, 36 and ranked 103rd, rued that his hotel room, where he will stay during what he admitted might have been his last U.S. Open, lacks a nice view.
“If your last memory of a U.S. Open is 10 days in a room, it is not one you want to keep,” he said.
In tennis, where each player is an independent contractor, there is no player union to encourage unified behavior and no general manager or team owner to encourage vaccination for the team’s competitive benefit. Other individual sports are still ahead of tennis, however: The PGA said early this month that its player vaccination rate was “above 70 percent.”
Delays, product shortages and rising costs tied to the pandemic continue to bedevil businesses large and small. And consumers are confronted with an experience once rare in modern times: no stock available, and no idea when it will come in.
In the face of an enduring shortage of computer chips, Toyota this month announced that it would slash its global production of cars by 40 percent. Factories around the world are limiting operations — despite powerful demand for their wares — because they cannot buy metal parts, plastics and other raw materials.
Construction companies are paying more for paint, lumber and hardware, while waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive what they need.
In Britain, the National Health Service recently advised that it must delay some blood tests because of a shortage of needed gear. A recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry found the worst shortages of parts in the history of the index, which started in 1977.
The Great Supply Chain Disruption is a central element of the extraordinary uncertainty that continues to frame economic prospects worldwide. If the shortages persist well into next year, that could advance rising prices on a range of commodities.
As central banks from the United States to Australia debate the appropriate level of concern about inflation, they must consider a question none can answer with full confidence: Are the shortages and delays merely temporary mishaps accompanying the resumption of business, or something more insidious that could last well into next year?
After Hurricane Ida lashed Louisiana on Sunday, hospitals in the storm’s path were assessing building damage, bracing for storm-related injuries and determining how to continue Covid-19 care this week, all while being forced to run on generators for at least several days.
“Our hospital is at capacity,” said Ryan Cross, a spokesman for Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, which was busy treating its estimated 150 coronavirus patients Monday night, as well as people with storm-related injuries. “But we were very blessed that the storm did not deliver the impacts that we feared.”
The good fortune did not extend to several hospitals across the state, where a surge of Covid cases fueled by the Delta variant and low vaccination rates led to more than 2,400 people being hospitalized with coronavirus on Sunday, when Ida spurred evacuations in some health centers.
After a partial generator failure at Thibodaux Regional Health System in Lafourche Parish, staff had to manually push air in and out of patients’ lungs to keep them breathing while they were transferred to another floor in the hospital, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Oxygen supplies were also running critically low in several hospitals, with some having only one or two days of supply left as of Monday.
Ochsner Health, which operates Louisiana’s most extensive hospital network, evacuated 165 patients on Monday from three hospitals where roofs were damaged and water came down the walls, said Warner Thomas, the hospitals’ president and C.E.O.
“We have 10 days of fuel on site,” Mr. Thomas said, referring to the hospital generators. “More fuel is on its way. Water is on its way.”
Dr. Joseph Kanter, the chief health officer in Louisiana, said on Monday that major hospitals appeared to have suffered minor damage and a few smaller hospitals “suffered significant damage” and were evacuating on Monday.
“Hospitals will be busy next few days,” Dr. Kanter said on Twitter. “Avoid them if possible.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Sunday that a significant number of residents who had not evacuated included hospitalized coronavirus patients.
“Evacuating these large hospitals is just not an option because there’s not any other hospitals with the capacity to take them,” he said.
And though the cleanup and repairs will stretch for weeks and months, as the state scrambles to restore power and water, the situation could have been much worse. At Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Lafourche Parish, the staff worked “tirelessly under extreme conditions” to care for patients said Karen Collins, the chief executive of the hospital. “Because of their efforts, all of our patients came through this event safely.”
Amanda Morris and Giulia Heyward contributed reporting.