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‘We missed last year’ | Campers return as a busy summer of recreation is expected

LEAVENWORTH — A combination of returning campers and first-time visitors packed campgrounds along Icicle Road’s many popular sites on Saturday. Traveling to Icicle was the first big outdoor excursion for some visitors since statewide COVID-19 shutdowns in June of 2020.

Soeren Boeckler, who drove down from Kenmore with his family, said this was his first time camping in 20 years.

Getting out and being able to camp is very communal and very nice, he said. People are eager to get out and socialize again.

Boeckler said he thinks he is going to plan similar trips in the future. “Everybody is just happy to be out again,” he said

Signs reading “campground full” could be spotted outside of Eightmile, Bridge Creek and both Johnny Creek campsites Saturday afternoon.

U.S. Forest Service workers have already started to see a lot of use at low-elevation campsites across the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, according to Victoria Wilkins, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Those looking to find camp spots should come “prepared with a plan B and even a plan C in case campgrounds are full or trailheads are overcrowded,” Wilkins said. Recreation sites are expected to be as popular this summer as they were in 2020.

“We missed last year,” said Ali Furtwangler, a returning visitor who traveled from Sammamish to camp at her favorite spot at Eightmile Campground.

Everybody is vaccinated now and it feels like things are almost back to normal, it’s “so close, and yet still so far,” she said.

Spacing around the campfire circle was so much bigger last year, she said. “We barely even felt the fire because we were all keeping our distance,” she said.

Maria Pedersen, who came from Kirkland, said she spent more time at home instead of camping last year.

Going to Eightmile was Pedersen’s only camping trip in 2020. The family made it down here last year for a camping trip, but the group was much smaller, she said.

Both Furtwangler and Pedersen plan to return to the Icicle River area during Labor Day weekend in September.

At Johnny Creek Campground, the sun was out and visitors had mostly set up their tents by 2 p.m.

Alyssa Norris, who was with a group of friends, said this was her first camping trip of the season.

Norris had traveled down from Fairbanks, Alaska, to camp in the Icicle Creek area.

Kelly Smith, who is from Wenatchee, was camping with Norris and said he kept his activities more local last year to be safe due to COVID-19.

“This year definitely feels like we’re trending back to normal,” he said.

Hopefully, the increased use in campgrounds brings in more funding to help maintain recreational areas, he said.

Smith said his one concern with the uptick in outdoor recreation popularity, is that it means more competition for returning visitors like himself.

Major rulings including Obamacare loom for U.S. Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court heads into the last month of its current term with several major cases yet to be decided including a Republican bid to invalidate the Obamacare healthcare law, a dispute involving LGBT and religious rights and another focused on voting restrictions.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has 26 cases in total left to decide. There also is speculation about the potential retirement of its oldest justice, Stephen Breyer. Some liberal activists have urged Breyer, who is 82 and has served on the court since 1994, to step down so President Joe Biden can appoint a younger liberal jurist to a lifetime post on the court.

The court is due to issue at least one ruling on Tuesday. Its nine-month term starts in October and generally concludes by the end of June, though last year it ran into July because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during an online event for students on Friday, Breyer hinted at the court’s complex deliberations that go into deciding high-stakes cases at this time of year.

“It’s complicated by the fact that you are dealing with eight other colleagues. ... You’d better be willing to compromise,” Breyer said.

Republican-governed states have asked the court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a law signed in 2010 by Democratic former President Barack Obama that has helped expand healthcare access in the United States even as Republicans call it a government overreach.

It appears unlikely based on November’s oral arguments that the court would take such a drastic step. But if the Obamacare law were to be struck down, up to 20 million Americans could lose their medical insurance and insurers could once again refuse to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare expanded public healthcare programs and created marketplaces for private insurance.

Another major case yet to be decided is one that pits religious rights against LGBT rights as the justices weigh Philadelphia’s refusal to let a Catholic Church-affiliated group participate in the city’s foster care program because it would not accept same-sex couples as prospective foster parents.

The conservative justices appeared during the November arguments in the case to be sympathetic toward the Catholic group’s claim that its religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment had been violated. The court’s conservative majority has taken an expansive view of religious rights and has spearheaded several rulings backing churches in challenges to COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions.

With various states enacting new Republican-backed voting restrictions in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud, the court is preparing to rule in a case concerning Arizona voting limits.

Republican proponents of Arizona’s restrictions cite the need to combat voting fraud. A ruling upholding the restrictions could further undermine the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

The court also is getting ready to decide a closely watched case involving the free speech rights of public school students. It involves whether a high school that punished a cheerleader for a foul-mouthed social media post made off campus violated her free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The court has taken up major cases on gun and abortion rights for its next term, which begins in October.

Long-term care facilities
Long-term care facilities: COVID cases and deaths have plummeted, but numbers ticking up

SEATTLE — In early April, the number of Washington long-term care facilities reporting at least one active COVID-19 case reached its lowest point in a year, since the start of the pandemic. It was 115 facilities, down fivefold from a peak of nearly 600 this January.

The sharp decline in outbreaks, attributable largely to widespread vaccination, is welcome news to the state’s nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult family homes. These sites have borne the brunt of the deadly virus, accounting for more than half the state’s COVID-19 deaths since the first cases in the U.S. were confirmed at a Kirkland nursing home. Residents now can move in and out of buildings, and indoor visits have resumed after a year of social isolation.

Over the past few weeks, however, cases have begun ticking up again, according to data from the state Department of Social and Health Services. As of Wednesday, 154 facilities in Washington reported at least one active COVID-19 case in the past two weeks.

Health officials, advocates and site operators cite staff vaccine hesitancy and new, unvaccinated residents moving into buildings and bringing in the virus. The cases, they say, also underscore that even among a largely vaccinated population, when an infection makes its way into a congregate-care setting, it can spread rapidly.

But overall case numbers, as well as updates from facilities on the list, show that many outbreaks are smaller and the cases of illness are less severe than those reported before widespread vaccinations.

In the first week of January, there were 695 new COVID-19 cases, including 87 deaths, connected to long-term care facilities, according to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). For the past month, new cases have hovered around 50, including 10 new deaths, each week.

Across the U.S., cases and deaths in nursing homes — the hardest hit sites — have plummeted. From the weekly peak of 33,648 resident cases and 6,038 deaths in late December, which also coincided with the beginning of nursing home vaccinations, the week-by-week number of cases has decreased by 97%, and the number of deaths has decreased by 96%, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state DSHS list doesn’t indicate how many cases are associated with a long-term site, nor does it include a breakdown of whether the positive case is a resident, staff member or visitor. The majority of new cases reported by facilities are staff members who have tested positive, according to DSHS spokesman Chris Wright.

“Vaccine hesitancy remains an issue among long-term-care workers nationwide,” Wright said. “Now that hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine have been administered, hesitant employees can be assured that it is a safe and effective, and we hope they will choose to get vaccinated.”

To be taken off the state DSHS list, a facility must go 28 days without a positive test.

Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood, which last year had one of the largest outbreaks in the state with more than 100 positive cases, was on the DSHS list again in early May. That outbreak consisted of two staff members, who both refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CEO Terry Robertson.

No Josephine residents have tested positive this year, he said. Nearly all received the vaccine.

In some facilities, new residents who weren’t vaccinated and had trouble accessing a vaccination clinic have brought the overall vaccination rate down to 60%, according to Deb Murphy, president and CEO of LeadingAge Washington.

“This provides opportunity for the virus to enter and infect high-risk seniors,” Murphy said.

Other outbreaks include those with “breakthrough cases,” meaning that someone acquired the virus despite completing a vaccine regimen. At least six of the COVID-19 cases associated with an outbreak at Avamere Bellingham Healthcare & Rehabilitation Services are breakthrough cases, according to the company that owns the skilled nursing facility in Whatcom County.

“It is important to remember that no vaccine is 100% effective,” Dr. Elizabeth Burns, chief medical officer of the Avamere Family of Companies, said in a prepared statement. “The great news is there are systems in place that track these trends to investigate possible variants or any vaccine quality control issues.”

As of Tuesday last week, there have been 21 positive cases among Avamere Bellingham residents and staff, Whatcom County Health Department spokesperson Schuyler Shelloner said. The outbreak was first reported by The Bellingham Herald.

There have been 1,471 breakthrough cases identified in Washington, according to DOH, out of more than 3 million people who have been vaccinated. Of those cases, 23 people have died; 12 were associated with long-term care facilities.

In Spokane, 25 residents and seven staff at Riverview Retirement Community tested positive in May. All the residents and three staff members are considered breakthrough cases, said Spokane Regional Health District spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins.

Riverview President and CEO Mike Drew said they were proud to have gone 15 months without a single positive COVID-19 case, until May 11, when the first person tested positive. It’s unclear how the virus made its way inside. “Quite a few” visitors had come to the site, and some residents had left and come back, he added.

“It’s been kind of a mystery,” Drew said.

At the Spokane facility, 98% of residents received a vaccine, and 52% of staff members were vaccinated at the facility’s clinics, but the staff vaccination rate could be higher because some received shots from other providers. Drew said he continues to encourage staff members, and everyone, to get the COVID-19 shot.

“We feel it’s been a tremendous deterrent, and very, very helpful in preventing more cases,” Drew said. “We are still very strong about saying: Get vaccinated.”

Heat advisory issued with triple digits expected Wednesday

WENATCHEE — The temperature and rivers are all rising this week, prompting words of warning from the weather service and emergency management officials.

The mercury is expected to be in the upper 90s to low 100s, with Wednesday forecast as the hottest day, according to the National Weather Service.

The weather service issued a heat advisory from 11 a.m. Tuesday through 8 p.m. Thursday covering the Wenatchee area, Okanogan Valley, Moses Lake and Columbia Basin.

The forecast for the Wenatchee area calls for 97 degrees Tuesday, 100 degrees Wednesday, dropping to 94 Thursday, then 84 Friday. The weekend will be cooler — 60s and 70s — but will also come with some winds and a 20% chance of rain Sunday.

The heat advisory comes with a list of ways to prepare that starts with drinking plenty of water as well as:

  • Dress for the heat – lightweight and loose-fitting clothing.
  • Stay out of the sun, if possible, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Help the elderly, children and pets stay cool and air conditioned if possible.
  • Reduce time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Close the curtains during the day and open the windows at night

The unseasonably warm temperatures also mean mountain snowpack will be melting, leading to “significant rises” on rivers and creeks in Chelan County, according to the weather service report.

Minor flooding is anticipated on the Stehekin River, which flows into Lake Chelan, by Wednesday. Other rivers also will be rising. The weather service will update the reports as needed.

To monitor current river levels, go to: wwrld.us/riverreport. For the weather reports, go to weather.gov.

Pope revises Church law, updates rules on sexual abuse

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Tuesday issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults, commit fraud or attempt to ordain women.

The revision, which has been in the works since 2009, involves all of section six of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, a seven-book code of about 1,750 articles. It replaced the code approved by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and will take effect on Dec. 8.

The revised section, involving about 90 articles concerning crime and punishment, incorporates many existing changes made to Church law by Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI.

It introduces new categories and clearer, more specific language in an attempt to give bishops less wiggle room.

In a separate accompanying document, the pope reminded bishops that they were responsible for following the letter of the law.

One aim of the revisions, Francis said, was to “reduce the number of cases in which the imposition of a penalty was left to the discretion of authorities.”

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Vatican department that oversaw the project, said there had been “a climate of excessive slack in the interpretation of penal law,” where some bishops sometimes put mercy before justice.

Sexual abuse of minors was put under a new section titled “Offences Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty,” compared to the previously vague “Crimes Against Special Obligations.”

The new section was expanded to include crimes such as “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults for sexual abuse and possessing child pornography.

It includes the possible defrocking of clerics who use “threats or abuse of his authority,” to force someone to have sexual relations.

Last year, an internal report found that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused his authority to force seminarians to sleep with him. He was defrocked in 2019 on charges of the sexual abuse of minors and adults.

According to the new code, lay persons in positions of responsibility in the Church and found guilty of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults can be punished by the Church as well as by civil authorities.

While the Church has historically prohibited the ordination of women and the ban has been re-affirmed by popes, the 1983 code says only in another section that priestly ordination was reserved for “a baptised male.”

The revised code specifically warns that both the person who attempts to confer ordination on a woman and the woman herself incur automatic excommunication and that the cleric risks being defrocked.

Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said in a statement that while the position was not surprising, spelling it out in the new code was “a painful reminder of the Vatican’s patriarchal machinery and its far-reaching attempts to subordinate women.”

Reflecting the series of financial scandals that have hit the Church in recent decades, other new entries in the code include several on economic crimes, such as embezzlement of Church funds or property or grave negligence in their administration.