As the U.S. honors its veterans Monday on Memorial Day, restrictions have been lifted for vaccinated individuals at the nation’s cemeteries dedicated to vets, another step on the path back to normalcy after more than a year under pandemic limitations.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced last week that it is relaxing rules at the nation’s 155 veteran cemeteries.
The move comes as the VA reported last Monday that there were no new COVID deaths at its medical centers throughout the country, a first since March 18, 2020. VA data shows more than 12,000 have died and more than 2.5 million have been inoculated against COVID-19 out of the roughly 9 million veterans enrolled in the agency’s programs.
The isolation of the pandemic has also been particularly hard on veterans, many of whom depend on kinship with fellow service members to cope with wartime trauma, Jeremy Butler told the Associated Press. Butler, a 47-year-old Navy Reserve officer in New York, heads the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We’re reuniting now, but it’s been an extremely challenging year,” he said.
For others, especially the families of veterans who survived the horrors of war only to die from COVID, Memorial Day can reopen barely healed wounds. In Massachusetts, Susan Kenney told AP the death of her 78-year-old father from the virus in April 2020 still remains raw.
Charles Lowell, an Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War, was among 76 residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home who died in one of America’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks last year in a long-term care facility.
“I’ve been reliving this for a whole year,” she said. “At every milestone. Veterans Day. His birthday. His death anniversary. Everything is a constant reminder of what happened. It’s so painful to think about.”
Also in the news:
►A Tennessee hat seller removed an Instagram post after fueling social media controversy by selling a patch that looks like the Jewish Star of David. HatWRKS, run by hatmaker Gigi Gaskins, posted a photo of a woman wearing a bright yellow star sticker with the words: “Not Vaccinated.”
►In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers studied antibody levels of solid organ transplant recipients who had gotten two shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and hadn’t previously had COVID-19. Of the 658 participants in the study, 46% had no detectable antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 after both shots. Read more here.
► About half of U.S. adults are completely vaccinated against COVID-19 and cases are going down across the nation. However, The Washington Post found that the rate of hospitalizations for those who are unvaccinated is the same as it was three months ago, and the rate of infections for those who are unvaccinated is the same as it was in December.
►New York’s seven-day coronavirus positivity rate has dropped to a record low of 0.71%, following 55 straight days of decline, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Sunday.
►Businesses can require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and offer incentives to do so without violating federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws, the agency said. The updated EEOC guidance also indicates that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for employees who don’t get vaccinated because of a disability, religious beliefs or pregnancy.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 33.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 594,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: Over 170.4 million cases and 3.54 million deaths. More than 135 million Americans have been fully vaccinated – 40.7% of the population, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: The pandemic – and the political battles and economic devastation that have accompanied it – have inflicted unique forms of torment on mourners, making it harder to move ahead with their lives than with a typical loss.
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Memorial Day weekend brings signs of normalcy: More travel, fewer masks
Much like the Memorial Day weekend is known as the unofficial start of summer, this year the holiday marks a return to a semblance of normalcy, a release from the grip of the year-plus-long pandemic for Americans.
The Transportation Security Administration reports the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports Friday through Sunday topped 1.6 million each day; Friday had a high of 1.96 million. That’s the biggest figure since March 8, 2020, just before the pandemic was starting to take hold in this country. Last Memorial Day weekend, the total for the first three days was 861,000.
The travel surge is directly related to the success of the U.S. vaccination program – more than half of the nation’s population has had at least one dose – and the ensuing drastic drop in infections. On Saturday, the U.S. reported just under 12,000 new coronavirus cases, the lowest number since March 23, 2020.
This was also the first holiday weekend since the CDC announced on May 13 that those who are vaccinated don’t need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors or keep social distance, adding to the sense that life as we knew it is coming back. Some masking requirements remain in place depending on the jurisdiction or business, but more states are dropping them, including New Jersey on Friday and Massachusetts on Saturday.
In New York City and Chicago, officials reopened public beaches. “Welcome back, Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a video announcement. “The lakefront is open.”
So is most of the country now.
Variants get new names: It’s all Greek
In an effort to simplify terms and avoid stigmas, the World Health Organization has unveiled a naming system for coronavirus variants based on the Greek alphabet.
Henceforth, the variant first identified in the U.K. will be commonly known as Alpha, instead of B.1.1.7 or the “British variant.” Likewise, the variant that first emerged in South Africa (B.1.351) will be called Beta, the P.1 detected in Brazil will be Gamma and the variant that helped fuel the spike in India, B.1.671.2, will go by Delta.
“No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, said in a tweet.
Another wave of cases in UK?
Scientists in England are raising the alarm that a new wave of COVID-19 cases may be hitting the United Kingdom after it reported more than 3,000 new infections for the sixth consecutive day Monday. The UK had not reached that number since April 12.
University of Cambridge professor Ravi Gupta, a government adviser, has called on the U.K. to delay its planned June 21 reopening, warning that the highly transmissible variant first identified in India was propelling “exponential growth” in coronavirus cases.
In addition, Environment Secretary George Eustice said a postponement of the plan to drop restrictions may have to be considered.
The U.K. ranks ahead of all European countries in vaccinations per 100 people but has also recorded more COVID deaths than any nation in the continent.
Base built to launch U-boats now a vaccination site
A decommissioned World War II submarine base in Lorient, France, has become the latest vaccination site for the country, according to the New York Times.
The structure, built in 1941, was initially used to launch German U-boats. Now revamped with chairs, tents and an art exhibit, the base-turned-vaccination-center has administered more than 6,000 doses over the past week, the Times reported.
The first person to get a vaccine at the site was a Frenchman involved in the war who worked on the reassembly of submarines, vaccination center chief Jean-Michel Pasquet told the paper.
“He told us it was a beautiful symbol of resilience,” Pasquet said. “This bunker that used to build warships to kill people now embodies a comeback to life.”
Colleges hope students get COVID vaccines for fall semester — but can they require it?
As colleges plan for a potential re-opening in fall 2021, some question whether vaccination will be required to take classes in person.
Although half of American adults are fully vaccinated, only about 30% of college-age adults make up the group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considering college towns and counties home to universities experienced some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, vaccination has become a priority to resuming in-person classes.
Over 400 colleges across the United States are requiring at least some students and employees to be vaccinated before returning to campus, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Controversy on the colleges’ decision to make it a requirement stems from the vaccine being cleared by the FDA under an emergency authorization order. The University of California and the California State University systems, for example, said they will require vaccinations once it is fully approved.
Unvaccinated staffers at Houston hospital file lawsuit
One hundred and seventeen unvaccinated staffers at Houston Methodist Hospital filed a lawsuit against the hospital on Friday saying it is unlawful to require them to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The claim says the mandate violates the Nuremberg Code, which prevents experimentation on human subjects without consent.
The code was developed after World War II as a response to atrocious medical practices conducted in concentration camps. The lead plaintiff, Houston Methodist nurse Jennifer Bridges, said there needs to be further study on the COVID-19 vaccines.
Contributing: The Associated Press.