United States

California becomes first state to order teachers to get COVID vaccine or test

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Aug 11 (Reuters) - California on Wednesday became the first U.S. state to require that its teachers and other school staff be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19, a move Governor Gavin Newsom called "a responsible step" to ensure the safety of children.

The move comes as Texas Governor Greg Abbott's statewide ban on mask mandates hit its second legal setback after a judge in Dallas County temporarily blocked it from being enforced amid a nationwide rise in coronavirus cases.

Abbott and fellow Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida have faced defiance over their statewide orders that prevent local officials from deciding whether to require that masks be worn.

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Masks have become a divisive issue, often splitting the country along political lines, despite near universal agreement among health experts that they can limit the spread of the virus.

In Tennessee, over a hundred anti-mask protesters heckled masked people, including doctors and nurses, on Tuesday in Williamson County where the school board voted earlier to require masks for elementary students.

A video with nearly 2 million views on Twitter shows the crowd surrounding a masked man as he walked to his car. Protesters yelled: "We will find you" and "We know who you are. No more masks."

The vaccination requirement in California schools follows similar orders that applied to state employees and healthcare workers.

"We think this is a sustainable way to keeping our schools open, and to address the No. 1 anxiety that parents like myself have for young children," Newsom said at a briefing where he was flanked by state teachers' union officials who support the move.

Spurred by the Delta variant, the country's coronavirus cases have spiked to their highest levels in more than six months, according to a Reuters tally. New U.S. cases have increased more than five-fold over the past month with the seven-day average hitting 118,000 on Tuesday.

In response, the U.S. government and several states, along with some hospitals, universities and a growing number of private employers, have said they require employees to get inoculated. The White House said last week that almost 90% of U.S. educators and school staff are vaccinated.

New York City last week become the first major U.S. city to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination at restaurants, gyms and other businesses, starting next month.

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A healthcare worker prepares a Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In Texas, the temporary order in Dallas issued late on Tuesday by Judge Tonya Parker allows officials in the state's second-most populous county to require masks indoors, despite Abbott's July order against such mandates. A hearing on Aug. 24 will determine whether to extend the temporary order.

The top elected official in Dallas County, Judge Clay Jenkins, who sought the court order issued late Tuesday, said preventative steps such as mask-wearing are needed to combat a spike in new cases of COVID-19.

"Models predict ongoing dramatic increases in cases and hospitalizations over the coming weeks that will exceed the peak earlier this year unless behavior change takes place," he said Tuesday on Twitter.

In a written statement, Abbott said that he had asked an appeals court to strike down Jenkins' action on masks, saying it clearly violated his executive order. The Texas Disaster Act, he continued, gives the governor the power to decided on such actions in an emergency.

"The path forward relies on personal responsibility - not government mandates," Abbott said.

Earlier on Tuesday, another Texas court granted an order at least until Monday that enables officials in San Antonio and Bexar Counties to require that masks be worn in public schools.

SOUTHERN EPICENTER

Oregon and Washington state are also grappling with surges in cases and hospitalizations as the outbreak spreads beyond the epicenter in the U.S. South.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown on Wednesday announced all state executive branch employees must be vaccinated, and she also reimposed a statewide indoor mask mandate.

The latest coronavirus wave is still the worst in Southern states, based on new cases and hospitalizations per capita in recent weeks.

Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana are all reporting record COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent days.

Florida's Broward County school board on Tuesday flouted an order by DeSantis that outlaws mask requirements in the state, prompting the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to say it was considering supporting the school districts financially if DeSantis retaliates against them by withholding funds from officials' salaries.

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Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O'Brien

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