The Associated Press
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Not waiting for more federal help, states have been approving their own coronavirus aid packages, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help residents and business owners devastated by the the pandemic's economic fallout.
Maryland and California recently moved forward with help for the poor, the jobless, small businesses and those needing child care. New Mexico and Pennsylvania are funneling grants directly to cash-starved businesses. North Carolina's governor wants additional state aid for such things as bonus pay for teachers and boosting rural internet speeds.
The spending also provides fuel for critics who say states don't need another massive infusion of cash from Congress. The Biden administration's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan calls for sending $350 billion to state and local governments. Directing federal money to state governments has been so contentious that the idea was stripped from the previous congressional aid package passed in December.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has frequently criticized proposals to send more money to state governments, calling it a bailout for Democratic-run states he accuses of overspending.
"It's great news that states are doing well, many seeing revenues higher than projected, and are able to help their citizens during this pandemic," he said in a statement to The Associated Press. "House and Senate Democrats should follow the facts and ditch their radical efforts to award wasteful bailouts for failed politicians in states like New York and California."
Many governors say continued uncertainty about the ongoing effects of the pandemic on their economies justifies the need for more federal spending. They say their state aid initiatives are targeted at people who remain desperate for help nearly a year after the pandemic began shuttering businesses.
In Maryland, where direct stimulus checks were being distributed as part of more than $1 billion in relief, Catrina Garrett said the boost from the state was crucial. Garrett, a 35-year-old single mother with a part-time job, said it will help her pay rent and catch up on bills.
"A lot of people will need this, and it will help families that have not been able to provide for their children," said Garrett, who lives in Baltimore with her three kids.
Other states are considering significant spending to provide more relief to residents. Governors and lawmakers have said they are concerned the economy and job prospects will deteriorate even further before Congress acts on the Biden plan. A slow start to the nationwide vaccination program also has tempered expectations that inoculations will be widespread soon enough to rescue businesses that have struggled with shutdown orders.
Under a bill awaiting the governor's signature, New Mexico would provide $200 million in direct grants to businesses, which could use them to pay rent and mortgages. It's part of a proposed state pandemic relief package that also would provide a $600 tax rebate to low-wage workers, a four-month tax holiday for restaurants as they recover from indoor-dining restrictions and a waiver on liquor store license fees.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said aggressive action is needed to ward off business closures and evictions as Congress deliberates.
"The cascading effect, it's actually a problem that most states are grappling with ... waiting for the relief money out of the feds," she said. "We need to be able to hold up, to shore up businesses moving forward, and we want them to have security to hold their current employees and potentially hire more."
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom this week signed a $7.6 billion relief package that includes $600 in one-time payments for about 5.7 million residents, including immigrants who were left out of previous relief initiatives. Another $2 billon is going to struggling businesses.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, signed legislation last week with bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled legislature for one-time stimulus payments of $300 for certain individuals and $500 for families. It also provides up to $9,000 in sales tax relief for small businesses.
"Absent of a federal response, the states are having to step up," said Robin McKinney, co-founder and CEO of the CASH Campaign of Maryland, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income residents file taxes.
The spending also shows that many states have proved unexpectedly resilient during the pandemic, with better-than-projected tax revenue and healthy budgets. In California, revenue for the current fiscal year through January was running more than $10 billion ahead of the governor's initial projections.
Critics say the stronger-than-expected state finances undermine the Biden administration's plan to direct billions more to state and local governments. Some governors are facing pushback from their own legislatures.
Medical oxygen scarce in Africa, Latin America amid virus
DAKAR, Senegal — A crisis over the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients has struck nations in Africa and Latin America, where warnings went unheeded at the start of the pandemic and doctors say the shortage has led to unnecessary deaths.
It takes about 12 weeks to install a hospital oxygen plant and even less time to convert industrial oxygen manufacturing systems into a medical-grade network. But in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as in less-populous nations, decisions to fully address inadequate supplies only started being made last month, after hospitals were overwhelmed and patients started to die.
The gap in medical oxygen availability "is one of the defining health equity issues, I think, of our age," said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said he survived a severe coronavirus infection thanks to the oxygen he received.
Doctors in Nigeria anxiously monitor traffic as oxygen deliveries move through the gridlocked streets of Lagos. There and in other countries, desperate families of patients sometimes turn to the black market. Governments take action only after hospitals are overwhelmed and the infected die by the dozens.
In Brazil's Amazonas state, swindlers were caught reselling fire extinguishers painted to look like medical oxygen tanks. In Peru, people camped out in lines to get cylinders for sick relatives.
Backlogged cases push California COVID-19 deaths past 50,000
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County on Wednesday reported another 806 deaths from coronavirus during the winter surge, pushing California's toll above 50,000, or about one-tenth of the U.S. total from the pandemic.
The county, which has a quarter of the state's 40 million residents, said the deaths mainly occurred between Dec. 3 and Feb. 3. The Department of Public Health identified them after going through death records that were backlogged by the sheer volume of the surge's toll.
"It is heartbreaking to report on this large number of additional deaths associated with COVID-19 and a devastating reminder of the terrible toll the winter surge has taken on so many families across the county," Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County's health director, said in a statement.
Johns Hopkins University put California's overall COVID-19 death toll at 50,890.
The grim figure comes days after the U.S. recorded a half-million deaths.
GOP rallies solidly against Democrats' virus relief package
WASHINGTON — Republicans rallied solidly against Democrats' proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as lawmakers awaited a decision by the Senate's parliamentarian that could bolster or potentially kill a pivotal provision hiking the federal minimum wage.
Despite their paper-thin congressional majorities, Democratic leaders were poised to push the sweeping package through the House on Friday. They were hoping the Senate, where changes seem likely, would follow quickly enough to have legislation on President Joe Biden's desk by mid-March.
By late Wednesday, not one Republican in either chamber had publicly said he or she would back the legislation. GOP leaders were honing attacks on the package as a job killer that does too little to reopen schools or businesses shuttered for the coronavirus pandemic and that was not only wasteful but also even unscrupulous.
"I haven't seen a Republican yet that's found something in there that they agree with," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "I think all Republicans believe in three simple things: They want a bill that puts us back to work, back to school and back to health. This bill is too costly, too corrupt and too liberal."
The hardening opposition suggested that Biden's first major legislative initiative could encounter unanimous GOP opposition. That was a counterpoint to the new president's refrain during his campaign about bringing the country together and a replay of the Republican wall that new President Barack Obama encountered in 2009 and most of his administration.
BLM launches Survival Fund amid federal COVID-19 relief wait
NEW YORK — The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is formally expanding a $3 million financial relief fund that it quietly launched earlier this month, to help people struggling to make ends meet during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The foundation, which grew out of the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement nearly eight years ago, said Thursday that it plans to make up to 3,000 microgrants of $1,000 each to people who it believes need it most. The BLM foundation has already begun asking recipients to apply for the Survival Fund grants as it builds out its philanthropic arm.
If approved, the money is deposited directly into recipients' bank accounts or made available on prepaid debit cards, the foundation said — no strings attached.
"This came from a collective conversation with BLM leadership that Black folks are being hurt the most financially during the pandemic," BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors told The Associated Press.
"I believe that when you have resources, to hoard them is a disservice to the people who deserve them," she said.
Pro-military marchers in Myanmar attack anti-coup protesters
YANGON, Myanmar — Members of a group supporting Myanmar's military junta attacked and injured people protesting Thursday against the army's Feb. 1 seizure of power that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. At least several people were injured in the attacks in Myanmar's largest city.
The chaos complicates an already intractable standoff between the military and a protest movement that has been staging large-scale demonstrations daily to have Suu Kyi's government restored to power.
Fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are urging Myanmar's military to make some concessions to help ease tensions. The 10-country regional grouping views dialogue with the generals as a more effective method of achieving compromises than more confrontational methods, such as the sanctions often advocated by Western nations.
Photos and videos on social media showed the attacks and injured people in downtown Yangon as police stood by without intervening. The attackers fired slingshots and carried iron rods, knives and other sharp implements.
A widely-circulated video showed one man stabbed in front of an office building near a major downtown intersection on the road to Sule Pagoda, a major venue for anti-coup protests. The number of injured people and their condition could not immediately be learned.
El Chapo's wife goes from obscurity to celebrity to arrest
CULIACAN, Mexico — Despite her status as the wife of the world's most notorious drug boss, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, Emma Coronel Aispuro lived mostly in obscurity -- until her husband went to prison for life.
Then, suddenly, she was a presence on social media. There was talk of launching a fashion line. Even an appearance on a reality show dedicated to the families of drug traffickers.
Coronel's actions did not go unnoticed. And in the wake of her arrest Monday on charges that she had conspired to distribute drugs, there were those who wondered: In embracing the limelight, had Coronel put a target on her own back?
Her behavior was notable in part because she had lived a relatively sheltered life until her part in a grueling trial that drew international attention. But her actions violated unwritten rules about family members, especially wives, keeping a low profile.
Until the trial, "Emma had remained anonymous like practically all of partners of Sinaloa cartel capos," said Adrián López, executive editor of Sinaloa's Noroeste newspaper. Then, "she begins to take on more of a celebrity attitude. ... This breaks a tradition of secrecy and a style specifically within the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel."
Southern exposure: Cold wreaks havoc on aging waterworks
JACKSON, Miss. — The sunshine is back and the ice has melted. But more than a week after a deep freeze across the South, many communities are still grappling with getting clean water to their citizens.
For years, experts have warned of the need to upgrade aging and often-neglected waterworks. Now, after icy weather cracked the region's water mains, froze equipment and left millions without service, it's clear just how much work needs to be done.
Families stood for hours in lines to get drinking water. They boiled it to make it safe to drink or brush their teeth. They scooped up snow and melted it in their bathtubs. Hospitals collected buckets of water to flush toilets.
"You don't realize how much you use water until you don't have it," said Brian Crawford, chief administrative officer for the Willis-Knighton Health System in the northwestern Louisiana city of Shreveport, where water pressure at one hospital only started returning to normal Wednesday. Tanker trucks had supplied it with water since last week.
The still-unfolding problems have exposed extensive vulnerabilities. Many water systems have decades-old pipes, now fragile and susceptible to breaking. White flight dropped tax revenue in some cities, and a lack of investment has caused problems to become even costlier to fix. Many systems in the South were not built with such low temperatures in mind. But with climate change projected to bring more extreme weather, problems like those seen last week could return.