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Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Chachere (21) celebrates with free safety Avonte Maddox (29) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Sep. 12, 2021, in Atlanta. The Philadelphia Eagles won 32-6. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

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COVID a long way from becoming ordinary seasonal illness, NJ officials warn

Despite decreases in the COVID-19 death rate because of improvements like vaccines, the new disease is still killing at four to five times the rate of a bad flu season, state officials said at Gov. Phil Murphy’s Monday press briefing.

“We are at 4,000 to 5,000 per year deaths from COVID at the current rate,” said Ed Lifschitz, medical director for communicable disease at the New Jersey Department of Health, who said he objects somewhat to comparing the two.

More than 24,000 people in the state have died of COVID-19 illness since the pandemic began about 18 months ago, so the annual death rate early in the pandemic was much higher than it is now.

“You are comparing it to the worst communicable disease prior to COVID that’s occurred on a regular basis. ... In a typical bad flu season, we’d lose roughly 1,000 individuals,” Lifschitz said.

Even if COVID got down to killing 1,000 a year on average, “would I consider that a success? That we ‘only’ lose 1,000 people a year to a disease that is largely preventable? I certainly wouldn’t be happy with that. I would want to go further,” Lifschitz said.

He could not say when COVID-19 might become a common, endemic illness handled like other infectious diseases.

The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, killed 750 New Jerseyans, Murphy said, calling it a “staggering loss” and saying losing 1,000 people a year in the state to flu or any other preventable disease is also unacceptable.

In response to a journalist’s question, Murphy said employees who are fired by private employers for refusing to get a COVID vaccine may be eligible for unemployment, but determinations are made on a variety of factors and on a case-by-case basis.

The Biden Administration has announced a requirement that requires employers with more than 100 employees to either require the vaccine or mandate regular COVID-19 testing.

But some employers may decide on their own to go further with a mandate, Murphy said.

Ventilator use in the state has increased 20% over the past two weeks, going from 111 to 131 currently, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.

“But it’s still 53% lower than the April 2021 peak, 76% lower than the December 2020 peak and 93% lower than the April 2020 peak,” Persichilli said.

The state is still awaiting guidance from the federal government on how to proceed with a booster shot program.

There are now 5.7 million people fully vaccinated in New Jersey, Murphy said, and another 739,000 are partly vaccinated. More than 67,000 people living with immune deficiency disorders have received a third dose of vaccine.

“Vaccines work and they work well,” Murphy said, after going over data showing that just 3% of those in the hospital for COVID illness were fully vaccinated during the week of Aug. 23 to Aug. 29. None of the COVID deaths were of fully vaccinated people, he said.

There were 1,498 new positive tests reported Monday for a statewide positivity rate of 5.32%. The positivity rate still remains highest in the southern region at 7.04%. The rate of transmission statewide is 1.01, meaning each infected person passes it along to just slightly more than one other person.

On Monday, 1,114 people were reported hospitalized for COVID illness, and of those 248 were in the Intensive Care Unit. Of those in ICU, 131 people were on ventilators, according to the state.

Four new COVID deaths were confirmed Monday. The total of COVID-related deaths in the state is now 24,313.

More than 77% of staff in long-term care facilities are now fully vaccinated, Persichilli said. Sunday was the state-imposed deadline for workers in those settings to either get vaccinated or be subject to regular COVID testing, she said. The federal government also requires vaccination for health care workers in facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid dollars, or face the loss of that income.

Murphy announced late last month that all school and state employees, including those at public colleges, will be required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18, or undergo at least weekly testing.

During the briefing, there was also discussion of emergency assistance for those affected by Hurricane Ida, which passed through the state early this month.

State Police Col. Pat Callahan said 31,000 people have applied for FEMA assistance since the devastating storm damaged parts of the state, and FEMA has 410 employees in New Jersey and 16 disaster survivor assistance teams that have visited 1,800 families.

About $5 million in assistance so far has been approved, Callahan said.

Murphy is expected to hold his next COVID-19 briefing at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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Mays Landing actor gets role in The Sopranos prequel

Growing up in Glen Ridge, Essex County, John Ruggiero knew his fair share of wiseguys.

Now he gets to play one in the Sopranos prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” coming to theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 1.

“I’m from North Jersey so the movie is about the environment that I grew up in,” said Ruggiero, who has lived in Mays Landing for the last 15 years. “And I loved ‘The Sopranos’ so I was happy to be a part of it.”

Ruggiero, 59, appears in one scene of the film as Johnny Bookie.

“The scene I’m in is pretty pivotal to the movie,” Ruggiero, said. “It takes place at Satriale’s, the pork store, and if you’ve seen ‘The Sopranos,’ you know exactly the place I’m talking about. My role is a bookie wiseguy who is part of Dickie Moltisanti’s crew.”

The character Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola, is a soldier in the Soprano crew. Although his character was scarcely mentioned in the series, the film will dive deeper into him and his story.

Ruggiero first tried his hand at acting in the early 1980s after he moved from Glen Ridge to Atlantic City to work in the casinos and on the Boardwalk.

His high school friend Tom Mapother, better known today as Tom Cruise, told him about a movie he was shooting at Resorts Hotel and Casino.

“I went over and got a part as an extra in the movie ‘The Color of Money,’” Ruggiero said. “So that was my first taste of acting, and I loved it.”

Cruise and Ruggiero graduated from Glen Ridge High School in 1980.

After his first small role, Ruggiero put his acting career on hold to focus on his family and his career as a mortgage banker. That was until he got a call last year.

“I shelved the acting, but over the years I would update my profiles on IMDB and websites like that,” Ruggiero said. “So when they started working on ‘Many Saints,’ someone saw my profile, reached out and asked if I would be interested in auditioning.”

“The Many Saints of Newark” follows a young Anthony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, whose father James Gandolfini played the iconic role in the series. The film is set in Newark during 1967, a time when riots and racial tensions swept the city.

“Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, who struggles to manage both his professional and personal responsibilities,” according to Warner Bros Pictures. “And whose influence over his nephew will help make the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss we’ll later come to know: Tony Soprano.”

For Ruggiero, the premise of the film resonated deeply to his own experiences. And paired with his thick New Jersey accent, charismatic personality, and strong ties to the state, the part came naturally for him.

“I remember those riots. I was only a little kid at the time, but I remember when it was taking place,” Ruggiero said. “When I was in the movie it was almost like flashbacks to be honest, which made it very comfortable for me.”

Since filming “The Sopranos” prequel, Ruggiero has appeared in several more films.

“I had a role in a film called ‘The Reunion,’ which is out on the film festival circuit as we speak,” Ruggiero said. “I shot a film out in Rhode Island called ‘The Family’s Feud,’ that has a lot of the guys from ‘The Sopranos’ in it. And just two weeks ago, I shot a pilot over at Showboat.”

Despite his experience, Ruggiero doesn’t like to call himself an actor.

“I’m just a mortgage guy,” Ruggiero said.

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Back and forth in Ocean City on where additional pickleball courts belong

OCEAN CITY — Despite $18.5 million for numerous projects being up for a vote, it seemed people mostly wanted to talk about pickleball at a recent Ocean City meeting.

Big crowds turn out daily at the city’s pickleball courts at 18th Street at Haven Avenue. The city plans to add additional courts, but is caught in a back-and-forth between those who want to keep all the courts together and the Haven Avenue neighbors who say they can’t take any more of the “pick, pock” sound of the plastic balls hitting rigid paddles.

The matter is far from resolved.

City Council on Thursday approved a bond ordinance to borrow nearly $18.5 million to fund a series of projects throughout the city, including drainage work and back bay drainage. While massive projects are on the line, most of the discussion was on where additional pickleball courts should be added.

At the beginning of the meeting, city administrator George Savastano said Mayor Jay Gillian promised to hear the neighbors out before there is a final decision on where courts will be added.

“We want to make it clear that that commitment will be honored,” he told council members.

The city is considering adding more courts around the tennis courts at 34th Street and West Avenue, where there is an entire block of recreation uses, including basketball courts and a large playground.

But a big part of the attraction of pickleball is the social aspect. Players want all the courts kept together.

Resident Greg Balin told council that there is a consensus in the pickleball community to have all courts in one place. He said he has lived in town for 25 years and has never before addressed a council meeting.

“I never had an issue that I thought was as important as this,” he said. “We are 100% united that we want pickleball only at 18th Street and not at 34th Street.”

He told council there are public safety concerns and little parking available at 34th Street, and suggested the proposal would hurt businesses in that commercial zone.

But Andrea Ward, a neighbor of the courts, said anyone who sat on her porch for a day would understand why she wants the additional courts placed elsewhere.

“The noise level is unbelievable,” she said.

The sound barriers help, she said, but not enough.

“It is annoying. I’m not against more pickleball courts. I just don’t want them on Haven Avenue,” she said. “There have to be other places on this island where you can put them.”

Another neighbor, her husband Charlie Ward, said the city has already promoted Haven Avenue as a bike lane and the neighborhood has seen an increase in the number of low-speed vehicles — he called them golf carts — because they are restricted from operating on West Avenue and Bay Avenue because of the speed limits.

“I’m here to say that all those issues are at 18th Street, they don’t go away. And it’s a real problem. If you don’t believe me, just sit out there one morning and you’ll see,” he said.

Other pickleball players said the city could establish a section for beginning players and those with physical limitations so they would not have to compete for court space with a large crowd. Don Hepner told council members there is a consensus that additional courts are needed.

Hepner has advocated for pickleball for more than a decade, asking for an investment in courts in 2010 and advocating for better facilities in 2015.

Councilman Keith Hartzell said he supports putting the additional courts at 18th Street, while Council President Bob Barr said the city and the pickleball players would work to improve the noise levels.

“I think there’s significant enough technology out there to reduce the noise to a level that will be satisfactory to the neighbors,” Barr said. “I think we need to move forward with 18th Street.”

Rather than borrow money from a bank, most cities issue bonds, which will later be paid back with interest. Selling those bonds requires City Council to approve an ordinance, which includes a public hearing.

The bond ordinance approved Thursday includes money to purchase vehicles and gear, and $1.5 million to build, reconstruct and repair recreation facilities, including the pickleball plans. As approved, the ordinance also includes $5.5 million for paving work, another $5.5 million for storm water drainage systems and $2 million each for lagoon and bay dredging and for work on public buildings, including new restrooms for the Boardwalk.

In previous meetings, council members have described the new restrooms as a priority. Savastano pledged the new restrooms would be in place by next summer. Earlier in the meeting, Savastano said the city would go out to bid on a new pumping station to improve drainage in the area from Ninth Street to 18th Street as soon as design work is completed.

Next month, he said, the city would bring a resolution to City Council to approve a design contract for the next phase of drainage improvements in the Marian Park section of the city.

Those projects were not part of the bond ordinance, Savastano said.

“The bond ordinance on the agenda tonight funds imminent projects,” he said.

This image released by MGM shows Daniel Craig in a scene from "No Time To Die," in theaters on Oct. 8. (Nicola Dove/MGM via AP)

School vaccine campaigns targeting students face blowback
Across the U.S., vaccine-hesitant parents are struggling with vaccine-seeking teenagers set on getting their shots

Fearing his parents wouldn’t approve of his decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine but needing their signature, Andrew signed up for the appointment in secret, and then sprang it on them at the last minute.

They said no. Andrew cursed at his mother and father and called them idiots. Andrew’s dad grabbed him by the shirt collar.

“He said, ‘You’re not getting this damn vaccine; you need to lower your voice. Watch your tone when you talk to me.’ It was, it was the first time my dad had ever done something like that — he grabbed my shirt and yelled in my face,” said Andrew, a 17-year-old student in Hoover, Alabama.

In most states, minors need the consent of their parents to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Navigating family politics in cases of differing views has been a challenge for students and organizers of outreach campaigns, who have faced blowback for directly targeting young people.

President Joe Biden has encouraged every school district to promote vaccines, including with on-site clinics, to protect students as they return to school amid a resurgence of the coronavirus. But several governments and school districts have taken more neutral stances in areas where skepticism of the vaccine remains prevalent.

In Tennessee, the health department ended vaccination events and outreach aimed at minors following criticism of advertisements that featured children and included slogans like “Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot.” Republican lawmakers accused the health department of “peer pressuring“ children to get the vaccine and criticized a top official who sent a memo to vaccine providers explaining that they could legally waive parental consent under Tennessee law.

Nationwide, half of people ages 12-17 have been vaccinated. That age group has been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine since May on an emergency-use authorization. Trials are underway for younger children.

Full approval for the drug was granted by federal safety regulators recently for people 16 and older. Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board voted to mandate vaccines for students 12 and older.

In Molalla, Oregon, the mayor pressured a high school to cancel a vaccine drive on campus this semester, citing a $50 gift card incentive he equated with bribery. Many who called for an end to the vaccine drive expressed opposition to the vaccines, although Mayor Scott Keyser said he’s not against them.

Misinformation surrounding in-school vaccination efforts has also eroded trust between parents and school districts across the country.

School officials in Kettering, Ohio, received death threats in August after TikTok videos baselessly claimed the suburban Dayton district was vaccinating children without parental consent.

There was no truth to the claims — they came out before the school year began, and spring vaccine clinics required parents to be present — but they caused “huge hysteria” in the community nonetheless, according to Kettering City Schools superintendent Scott Inskeep.

“Our families really are struggling with both information and disinformation,” Inskeep said. “It’s like a match being put to a gasoline fire. When it starts it’s hard to put out.”

In a total of eight states, all in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest, providers can waive parental consent requirements — Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, according to a May review by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In some areas, there have been efforts to make it easier for kids to get vaccinated.

State legislators in New York and New Jersey introduced laws that would allow teens to consent to vaccines without parental consent, but they were never passed. D.C. passed its law and is being sued by an anti-vaccine group. In New Mexico, health officials remade consent forms so that parents could sign them and send them with their kids, instead of having to show up in person.

Elsewhere, some officials have tried to give parents more say over vaccinations for teenagers.

In May, officials in two Oregon counties barred health officials from giving vaccines to kids without parental consent. Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer and the mother of three teenagers defended the move saying, “Our children are not the property of the State of Oregon.”

But the counties backed down after state health officials issued a legal opinion affirming consent rights for children 15 and older. Berschauer continues to advocate against vaccine incentives for teens, calling the programs “peer pressure.”

On paper, Alabama’s law is one of the more liberal, allowing minors like Andrew to get the vaccine on their own. In practice, that’s nearly impossible. The Alabama Department of Public Health requires parental consent as a matter of policy, and so do major pharmacies.

The day after the argument with his parents, Andrew’s father took him to the pharmacy and signed, without saying a word. Andrew’s father confirmed his son’s account but declined to be interviewed. Andrew asked that his last name not be used out of fear of further upsetting his parents.

Pediatricians in some cases try to facilitate conversations between children and parents and promote the COVID-19 vaccine. But it doesn’t always work, even with parents who have accepted their pediatrician’s recommendation on other vaccines, including for HPV and the flu.

“They look at me like I’m suggesting that they feed their childhood poison when I’m recommending a COVID vaccine,” said doctor Katrina Skinner, President of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Andrew’s Hoover High School does not promote COVID-19 vaccinations on its website or social media channels, and there’s no indication the school will host a vaccine clinic. School officials did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

Alabama state health officials have been encouraging the vaccines among young people with a contest on the social media app TikTok that awarded $250 for the best video promoting COVID-19 vaccinations.

One of Andrew’s schoolmates, Rotimi Kukoyi, 17, was one of four contest winners. He shared the video with his 18,000 followers, built over two years by making jokes.

“I showed the CDC explaining how the vaccine is safe, and how it’s effective, and then I linked resources for people to sign up to get the vaccine,” Rotimi said.


Attanasio reported from Santa Fe, N.M. Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.