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Battle against invasive, destructive beetles an ongoing effort in Lower Yakima Valley

YAKIMA — They’re the size of an M&M, but these small bugs are not on anyone’s menu. They’re making a meal out of Grandview-area plants.

Thousands of invasive Japanese beetles have been caught in the Lower Yakima Valley this summer. They pose a danger to the agricultural industry here, said Amber Betts, media relations coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Last year, traps across the state caught three beetles. This year, more than 23,500 have been captured since late June. The vast majority of those were found in the Grandview area but some have made it to Sunnyside, WSDA agricultural aide Nasario Gonzalez said.

“We have no idea where, they just came from overnight,” Gonzalez said.

Betts said the department has tracked the beetle’s activity in the state since the 1980s and occasionally one would be found, mostly near a point of entry like an airport. But there is no official explanation for the exponential growth in the past year.

A Grandview resident gave the department a picture from last year of the beetles swarming and destroying her roses. Betts said department staff members realized the beetles had been in the area in larger numbers for longer than they realized.

It prompted the department to dramatically expand its trapping efforts, Betts said. There are 1,900 traps statewide, with the majority of them in Grandview.

A pricey pest

Adult beetles will eat more than 300 types of plants, including foliage, roses, grapes and hops — “all the things that make money here,” Betts said.

Betts said if the bugs were to gain a foothold in the area, it could be bad news for local growers.

The Agriculture Department is considering a quarantine for Yakima and Benton counties, according to its website. That would mean restrictions or additional checks of local agricultural exports to reduce spread of the pests, Betts said.

The beetles are an invasive species, which means they have no natural predators in the U.S. to control their numbers.

Right now, the problem seems to be mostly contained to Grandview’s more developed areas.

Cody Goeppner, director of retail operations for Bleyhl Co-op in the Yakima Valley, said he has not heard anything from orchard or vineyard owners about the bugs, but has seen traps for them around Grandview.

Gonzalez said most of the traps are in town, but there has been at least one beetle caught near a vineyard.

Trapping efforts

The beetles are active throughout late spring and summer with peak months of May, June and July. The Agriculture Department began its major Grandview trapping efforts June 29, Gonzalez said.

The hanging traps vary in design, but a common one is made up of an hourglass-shaped bag of green plastic with a yellow plastic “X” at the top that keeps it open. A lure baited with beetle pheromones or a floral scent attracts the bugs into the opening. They fall down the plastic and accumulate at the bottom, where they cannot escape.

In Euclid Park, which Gonzalez called “ground zero” for the beetles, a tree showed signs of suspected beetle activity this month. About a third of its branches were bare and many leaves had clusters of holes in them.

He said Department of Agriculture workers would not know for certain if the beetles caused the damage until next year. If the tree grows back fully, then the bald patches were eaten by beetles this year.

He recorded a video on his phone earlier this summer of clusters of beetles in the grass.

“They were just all over the place,” he said.

Bare patches across the park’s lawn are also hints that the beetles were there, he said. Their grubs feed on turf-grass roots.

Gonzalez said trappers have caught hundreds of beetles in that park. It is just one of hundreds of traps around town.

Agricultural aides go out every day to monitor the traps. Each trap is individually checked about once every two weeks, Gonzalez said.

They use software that allows them to map out all of the local traps and log how many times they have checked each one. Some are located near homes on telephone poles or fences.

Once the beetles are trapped, Gonzalez replaces the bag and takes the beetle specimens back to a laboratory where they are frozen, counted and disposed of.

Gonzalez said the traps will continue to be monitored until the end of October.

This year’s trapping efforts are focused on determining where the beetles already are, Betts said. The department can develop a more comprehensive treatment plan once it has that information. Gonzalez said he hoped to start treatment using pesticides and additional traps earlier next year, in May.

Raising awareness

The Agriculture Department asks anyone who spots a Japanese beetle in Washington to report it on its website.

The six-legged beetles are about a half-inch long. They have metallic green shells with copper-colored wing covers. Their bodies also have tufts of white hair along their sides.

Homeowners can put traps up near their own gardens.

Bleyhl Co-op has sold about 100 traps this summer with around 75% of those sales in Grandview, Goeppner said. Homeowners can drop off beetle-filled traps at the co-op’s Grandview location.

Washington State University has compiled a list of appropriate pesticides that concerned growers can use on the beetles.

Ag Department workers have been performing outreach at local fairs to increase awareness of the beetle problem.

Betts said the beetles do not attract as much attention because they neither sound nor look as imposing as other bugs, like the infamous murder hornets. But the threat they pose is no less severe.

”All of the things that we rely on in our community — in our agriculture economy — could be heavily devastated,” she said. “So that’s really important that we get on this and get rid of it as quickly as we can.”

California's Gov. Newsom survives recall election

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom survived a historic recall election Tuesday, winning a major vote of confidence during a COVID-19 pandemic that has shattered families and livelihoods and tested his ability to lead the state through the largest worldwide health crisis in modern times.

The recall offered Republicans their best chance in more than a decade to take the helm of the largest state in the union. But the effort was undercut when Newsom and the nation’s leading Democrats, aided by visits to California by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, portrayed the campaign to oust the governor as a “life and death” battle against “Trumpism” and far-right anti-vaccine activists.

Conservative talk show host Larry Elder led the 46 candidates on the second question on the ballot hoping to become governor, but that became meaningless after a majority of Californians voted to keep Newsom in office.

Moments after national television networks called the election for Newsom, the governor walked into the California Democratic Headquarters in Sacramento to talk with reporters, forgoing a victory celebration as is commonplace in traditional campaigns.

Appearing resolute, Newsom cast the rejection of the recall as a vote in support “of all those things we hold dear as Californians.” His victory, he said, was a victory for science-based COVID vaccines to end the pandemic and abortion rights for women, as well as economic and racial justice.

“I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism, rejecting so much of the negativity that’s defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years,” Newsom said.

Newsom spent part of election day at an anti-recall rally in a San Francisco union hall, and warned supporters about the consequences to California’s economy and the public health of its nearly 40 million residents if he was recalled and replaced with Elder, who has vowed to repeal the state’s mask and vaccination mandates.

“California has outperformed Florida, Texas, Indiana, the United States as a whole in not only health outcomes, but economic outcomes,” Newsom told reporters. “Our economy contracted at a more modest rate than those states.”

Newsom also criticized both Elder and former President Donald Trump for saying Tuesday’s election was rigged, calling those unfounded allegations a threat to democracy and continuation of the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.

“This election fraud stuff is a crock; it’s shameful. And when I say that, I mean that,” he said.

The mood inside Elder’s official election night party at the Costa Mesa Hilton remained defiant, even after nearly every major news outlet had declared the recall effort dead Tuesday night.

“Some TV stations are saying it’s coming to an end. It’s way too early,” former Lt. Gov Abel Maldonado said from the lectern to raucous cheers, as partygoers sipped drinks and waved American flags.

But even as speakers maintained that the race could still turn around, scattered partygoers looked increasingly glum as they stared down at their phones.

“The numbers are pretty clear at this point,” said Will Donahue, the 21-year-old chairman of California College Republicans, adding that his organization plans to “build on the recall’s momentum” and defeat Newsom when he runs for reelection in 2022.

For Newsom, the electoral triumph capped an extraordinary eight-week fight for his political survival that came less than three years after he won the governor’s office by the largest margin in modern history.

Newsom’s campaign to defeat the recall effort began on an upbeat note, with the governor touting that California was “roaring back” thanks to lower COVID-19 infection rates in the state and efforts to ensure residents got vaccinated. The state’s restrictions and shutdowns were lifted. Baseball stadiums overflowed with fans starting in June, people were dining inside restaurants and, Newsom promised, public schools would be open for the new academic year.

Newsom and his political allies had prevented any prominent Democrats from jumping into the field of replacement candidates, eliminating a credible alternative for left-leaning Californians who may have soured on the governor.

But in late July, just after the recall election was officially certified for the ballot, cause for concern surfaced for Newsom: A poll showed that likely voters in California were almost evenly split over whether to toss the governor out of office, a dire sign in a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.

Political scientist Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, said the lingering aftereffects of Newsom’s COVID-19 policies probably made some voters who supported him in the 2018 election indifferent this time around.

She said they held Newsom “at least partially responsible” for the government-mandated restrictions that devastated businesses and forced schoolchildren to stay home in distance-learning programs. Under Newsom’s watch, the state also paid out billions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits while at the same time millions of out-of-work Californians with legitimate claims faced frustrating, lengthy delays in receiving their payments.

Romero said Newsom’s most costly mistake came in November when recall supporters were struggling to gather enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. Newsom attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley after he had pleaded with Californians to stay home and avoid multifamily gatherings.

Recall proponents seized on that, criticizing Newsom as an out-of-touch elitist and hypocrite who thought he was above the rules he imposed on other Californians. Romero said that message was “simple and intuitive for people to understand.” It appealed to voters across the political spectrum and lingers still, she said.

“This never should have gotten close,” Romero said. “This whole process has damaged the governor.”

Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists leading the effort to oust the governor, said Newsom was in serious trouble up until August. That changed once Elder emerged as the leading contender to replace Newsom as governor.

“He was in bad shape,” Gilliard said. “Once the focus moved away from Newsom and to his opponent, Elder in this case, his numbers improved greatly. He was able to get Democrats interested again in the election.”

Elder was a perfect foil, Gilliard said. The Republican opposed abortion rights and supported offshore oil drilling, anathema to the state’s Democratic majority. Elder has also been a die-hard supporter of Trump, an immensely unpopular figure in California. In fact, Gilliard said, recall proponents pleaded with Trump’s advisers to “convince him to stay out of it,” which was successful until recent days when he started making baseless claims that California’s recall election was “rigged.”

Most consequential, Gilliard said, was Elder’s vow to repeal the Newsom administration’s mandates requiring students to wear masks in public schools and teachers, state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated. This at a time when the delta variant was raging and most Californians supported Newsom’s actions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“Elder allowed Newsom to bring Trump back into it, at least Trumpism, when it came to masks and vaccines,” Gilliard said. “When you combine that with the delta variant, and that people were all of the sudden extremely concerned again about COVID, the timing for Newsom could have not been better.”

At stake was the most powerful elected office in a state of nearly 40 million people, one beset by homelessness, a dire shortage of affordable housing, increases in violent crime and with thousands of businesses that closed or still struggle after statewide shutdowns during the height of the pandemic.

Newsom is the second California governor to have faced a recall election, which was projected to cost $276 million dollars, a price tag blasted by Democrats. In 2003, California voters upset over rolling power outages, budget cuts and a steep increase in vehicle license fees recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office and elected actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who remains the last Republican to have served as the state’s chief executive.

The spectacle of the 2003 recall election entranced the nation with its only-in-California cast of political candidates, which, along with Schwarzenegger, included Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington and “Diff’rent Strokes” star Gary Coleman.

By comparison, the 2021 sequel fell flat.

Reality television star and former Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner tried to capture some of the Schwarzenegger magic but did not win over California voters despite her visibility in cable television news coverage.

A small crowd of Jenner’s supporters and campaign advisers assembled Tuesday night at the Stonehaus, an upscale restaurant and wine bar in Westlake Village, ahead of her arrival. Jenner, the most prominent transgender candidate in American political history, had yet to arrive when the polls closed.

Among them was Rev. Grace Wilgefortis Ferris, who had invited Jenner to guest speak on her podcast, “Just as I am.” A Catholic Apostolic Church deacon and founder of the Saint Wilgefortis TransMISSION church, Ferris said her bishop warned her that Jenner was very conservative. But Ferris said “I’m just interested in people as people.”

“She’s such an inspiration for the community,” Ferris said.

Trying to, as he put it, make his campaign more “beastly,” Republican John Cox at one point enlisted help from a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear named Tag to drum up interest in his campaign. Neither the bear nor the $7.6 million he poured into the race helped replicate the success he had in 2018, when he won enough voter support in the gubernatorial primary to face Newsom in the general election — only to be trounced.

On Tuesday morning, Cox acknowledged that Elder had “shaken up the race quite a bit.” With a double-digit lead over any other candidate, Elder far outpaced Cox, who was backed by 4% of likely voters leading up to the election, according to the latest University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Cox said he hoped the polls were wrong, and repeated his stance that undecided voters would decide the election.

“The important thing is that we vote yes on the recall ... doesn’t matter if people select Larry or myself,” Cox said.

Kevin Paffrath, who boasts 1.7 million followers on his YouTube channel, had the highest profile of the little-known Democrats on the ballot, even managing to make it to the stage during one of the candidate debates. Paffrath, who proposed building a pipeline to the Mississippi River to alleviate California’s devastating drought, was expected to have a relatively strong showing in the election, perhaps even challenging the success of Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego.

As a fiscal conservative with moderate to liberal positions on social issues, including abortion, immigration and the environment, Faulconer was long seen as the Republican Party’s greatest hope to recapture the governor’s office. But his campaign foundered, in part, because the pro-Trump core of the California Republican Party was solidly behind Elder.

Tuesday night Faulconer blamed the apparent failure of the recall on a mid-campaign shift of focus and the public’s attention away from what critics called Newsom’s shortcomings as governor.

“Here’s the reality: The recall stopped being about Newsom and it turned into a fight over personalities and national politics,” Falconer said at a campaign event in Point Loma’s Liberty Station neighborhood. “Newsom didn’t change, the recall did.”

Candidate and state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Rocklin Republican, said the recall was about creating a movement as much as it was about replacing Newsom. Joining Kiley’s watch party in Lincoln was former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose, who dropped out of the recall race last month after suffering a heart attack.

“We built something more powerful than one political objective,” Kiley said after hearing that some outlets had called the race for Newsom. “I would have liked to have seen the recall be a success. I would have liked to have a new governor. I would have liked to have been that new governor. But, this moment is just getting started.”

ANALYSIS: U.S. hopes COVID vaccine boosters will decrease not just deaths, but virus spread

CHICAGO — U.S. officials preparing to roll out COVID-19 booster shots in the face of waning vaccine protection and surging hospitalizations and deaths caused by the highly contagious Delta variant are hoping boosters might prevent mild cases as well.

In theory, that could reduce virus transmission — a goal officials have been less explicit about — and hasten America’s recovery.

“It is not the primary reason (for boosters), but it could actually be a very positive offshoot,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 advisers and the nation’s top infectious disease doctor told Reuters.

The main reason for boosters, Fauci said in a telephone interview, is to reverse the trend of rising “breakthrough” infections among people who are fully vaccinated, a point that many experts dispute.

Available data has shown that most severe breakthrough cases have occurred in people over 65 or among those who are immunocompromised. That latter group is already recommended for a third dose.

Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who is overseeing the U.S.-government backed COVID-19 vaccine trials, is a proponent of using booster doses to bolster antibody levels enough to prevent infection.

“If you don’t get infected, you’re not going to transmit it to others, and we will more effectively abort the epidemic, and that has economic benefits,” Corey said.

The problem there, many experts point out, is that there is scant scientific evidence showing that boosters will in fact prevent infections and transmission.

Some government studies have shown that when infected with the Delta variant, fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus, mostly to unvaccinated people.

“If you take a look at the evidence from the United States, it is very clear that protection against infection and mildly to moderately symptomatic disease is diminishing,” Fauci said.

It is happening among many of the U.S. study populations — including a recent study of 600,000 COVID-19 cases in 13 states and large cities. “Not dramatically, but enough,” he said.

While some 63% of eligible people in the United States are fully vaccinated, the Delta variant has caused a surge in the deadly disease among the unvaccinated.

The two most widely used vaccines in the United States – those based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology made by Pfizer with BioNTech SE and Moderna — are highly effective but less so against Delta. Cases are rising among the vaccinated — including some that result in hospitalization and death.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will release data on a possible booster shot today ahead of a Friday meeting of its vaccine advisory panel. It will include a briefing on the impact of boosters in Israel, where the government has closely tracked recipients of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.

During weekly White House COVID-19 briefings, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients and Fauci have expressed concern that waning immunity against mild, symptomatic COVID-19 could lead to reduced protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death, pointing to data from Israel.

Other countries that have started or are planning booster programs, including Israel — and in the U.K. for people over 50 — have been more frank about the goal to reduce transmission.

Debate over booster doses in the United States has become a sore point for virologists, who largely remain unconvinced that the vaccines are losing their ability to prevent severe disease and hospitalization.

This week, an article in the journal Lancet by two departing FDA vaccine experts and senior scientists at the World Health Organization, challenged the rationale for booster doses, saying more evidence is needed to justify their widespread use and that most cases of COVID-19 are spread by the unvaccinated.

Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the FDA’ vaccine advisory panel, is unconvinced by arguments that boosters are needed just yet.

“The question is, what’s the goal? If the goal of the third dose is to enhance protection against serious illness, there’s no evidence that that’s a problem,” Offit said. If the goal is to increase levels of neutralizing antibodies with the aim of decreasing asymptomatic or mild cases, “then we should see those data.”

Corey said the bar for proving a vaccine prevents disease transmission is high.

“Is there proof today? No, but there is every reason to believe that this is possible, and may be beneficial,” he said.

Fauci, however, said Israeli data shows that since the booster campaign started, the country has started seeing a decline in the virus’ reproduction number, which represents how many other people a person will COVID-19 is likely to infect. The more immunity in a population, the lower the reproduction number.

Fauci said he is confounded by arguments from vaccine experts that boosters are only needed when vaccines stop preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.

“What is the magic, mystical issue about hospitalization? I don’t understand that,” he said. “What we’re really saying is we don’t care about anything except keeping people out of the hospital. Really? You’re kidding.”

Thousands of state workers seek exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandate

OLYMPIA — At least 8% of Washington state government workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have so far requested medical or religious exemptions, highlighting the breadth of resistance to the order.

As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 4,799 exemptions have been filed by workers at 24 state agencies in the governor’s executive Cabinet, according to spokespeople. The Cabinet includes most of the large agencies under Inslee’s purview, but doesn’t include smaller state agencies also subject to the mandate.

That amounts to roughly 8% of the approximately 60,000 state government employees who must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or lose their jobs.

The numbers outline what’s at stake as Inslee pushes forward with one of the nation’s strictest vaccine mandates. In August, the governor ordered state workers, school workers and some health care employees to be vaccinated without a regular testing alternative as offered by some other states.

But resistance to the order has sparked demonstrations in Olympia and a lawsuit by dozens of Washington State Patrol troopers and others who contend that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and exceeds Inslee’s legal authority.

At the same time, there are concerns that an exodus of state workers could hinder core functions of government, from the ferry system and WSP, to the state’s prisons and social service programs.

Asked about the exemption request figures, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email, “The governor is committed to saving lives, as he has since the start of the pandemic. That is his focus and his responsibility to all Washingtonians.

“We cannot weigh in on whether any particular employee would be fired — as there is an individualized accommodation process that each employer must go through with each employee that is seeking an exemption,” added Lee. “This process necessarily takes into account the employee’s actual job and the needs of the employer.”

Even if workers are granted an exemption, they can still be fired if accommodations can’t be found for them in less public-facing positions.

Exemption requests are reviewed by each state agency, based on guidance established by Inslee’s administration. A medical exemption requires documentation from a worker’s medical provider.

A religious exemption starts with a series of questions, and might later include specific follow-up questions by human resources to determine whether the request is sincere.

So far, there are been few accommodations for exemptions that have been approved, according to state document released Tuesday that were compiled from older data.

As of Sept. 6, the state had 3,891 requests for religious exemptions, according to data compiled by the Office of Financial Management. Of those, 737 requests were granted — but accommodations were made for only seven workers.

Many employees whose exemptions are denied will be given extra time to get vaccinated before they ultimately lose their jobs. That grace period came courtesy of a labor deal between the Inslee administration and the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union representing state workers.

Exemption requests also don’t necessarily include state workers who may retire early rather than get the vaccine, or who might quit and take a job somewhere else.

The tension simmers as Washington in recent months has battled a fifth wave of COVID-19 that has strained the hospital system. More than 9 out of 10 patients hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated, health officials have said.

The three vaccines authorized in the United States — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — have been tested and found to be safe and effective in keeping people from being hospitalized by COVID-19.

The numbers so far:

  • At least 1,400 workers at the state Department of Social and Health Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Adolfo Capestany. One of the largest state agencies, DSHS oversees parts of the state’s mental health system, as well as economic assistance, aging and long-term care services, among others.
  • The Washington Department of Corrections has received 582 exemption requests, according to spokesperson Jacque Coe.
  • At the Washington state Department of Transportation, 542 exemption requests have been submitted, according to spokesperson Kris Rietmann Abrudan. Of those, 48 were for medical reasons and 494 were for religious reasons, she added.
  • The Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the state’s foster-care system, among other services — has received 426 exemption requests, according to spokesperson Nancy Gutierrez.
  • As of Monday, nearly 400 exemptions have been filed at the Washington State Patrol.
  • And 258 workers at the Department of Labor and Industries — the agency that has been tasked during the pandemic with enforcing many of the governor’s emergency orders in workplaces — requested exemptions.
  • About 10% of the 724 employees at the Department of Enterprise Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Linda Kent. That agency manages the Capitol campus in Olympia, and performs services for government such as risk management, printing and contracting.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs has received 111 requests statewide, according to spokesperson Heidi Audette, totaling more than 12% of that agency’s workforce.
  • The Employment Security Department has received 271 requests, and the Department of Revenue has gotten 93 requests, according to spokespeople. The Department of Licensing, meanwhile, has fielded 87 requests.
  • The Department of Health has 171 requests for exemptions, according to a public-records officer for the agency.

The bulk of the exemptions have been filed for religious reasons, according to spokespeople at the agencies that provided breakdowns.