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The International Olympic Committee eased its mask and social distance restrictions for Olympic medalists Sunday, announcing that athletes on the podium can briefly remove their masks to smile for the cameras and each other.

“It has been decided today … to allow athletes to have a physically distanced image on the podium without their masks on for 30 seconds, and a group photo with masks on the gold-medal step,” the IOC said in a statement.

The decision follows “scientific advice,” the statement said.

“The victory ceremony protocol has been adapted to allow athletes to have an image for the media that captures their faces and their emotions during a unique moment in their sporting career, as well as to celebrate the achievements of all the medalists together,” the statement said.

Health protocols agreed to ahead of the Tokyo Olympics to control COVID-19 infections had required all medalists to keep masks on for the whole ceremony. The new maskless moments require athletes to stay on their own podium steps. Masks must be back on for group photos on the top step.

Also in the news:

► Phil Valentine, a conservative Tennessee-based radio host, has changed his mind about his previous vaccine-hesitant messaging after being hospitalized in critical care because of COVID-19, his family said.

► A Louisiana junior college is using federal COVID-19 relief money to eliminate student debt for anyone who has attended over the past year. Southern University at Shreveport is also offering $1,000 in financial aid to any students who enroll by Aug. 6.

► A projection by a COVID-19 research consortium forecast that the current surge of cases could last through the fall and peak in mid-October, accelerated in part by the rapid spread of the delta variant.

► “Entourage” star Kevin Connolly’s newborn daughter was hospitalized with COVID-19, he revealed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “babies under 1 year old and children with certain underlying conditions may be more likely to have severe illness from COVID-19.”

► Vermont State Colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to on-campus life, the executive committee of the Vermont State College System Board of Trustees voted.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has had more than 34.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 610,800 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 193.8 million cases and 4.1 million deaths. More than 162.7 million Americans – 49% of the population – have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we’re reading: Florida leads the nation in new cases, recording more this week than California, Texas, New York and Illinois combined. And like elsewhere, the unvaccinated make up nearly all of the hospitalized and the dead. But residents, including many health care workers, are still wary of the shot. Read more.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Arkansas surge worse than last summer; other states also worsening

People in Arkansas are already testing positive at a pace faster than the worst state in the summer 2020 outbreaks, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the week ending Saturday, Arkansas reported 11,748 cases, giving it a rate of about 389 cases per 100,000 population per week. The fastest-reporting state in the summer 2020 surge was Florida, which reported a rate of about 387 cases per 100,000 per week at its worst.

A number of states, including Florida, could soon surge past the summer 2020 mark. Louisiana’s reporting a rate of 363, while Florida is reporting 341. Those counts have all been climbing precipitously.

Arkansas’ surging cases have been turning into surging deaths. In mid-June Arkansas reported 13 deaths per week. In the week ending Saturday, it reported 56 deaths. On Saturday, Arkansas reported admitting 1,571 likely COVID-19 patients to hospitals, double the number from four weeks earlier.

– Mike Stucka

States scale back reporting as cases surge

Several states, including Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, scaled back their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month just as cases across the country started to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities. The trend of reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.

Epidemiologist Janet Hamilton said part of the problem is that public health officials generally don’t have sophisticated data systems, so it is more labor intensive to produce daily dashboards.

Thousands protest COVID lockdowns in Australia

Police in Sydney, Australia made arrests on Saturday as thousands took to the streets to protest COVID lockdowns, and some knocked down barriers and threw plastic bottles and plants. The protesters in Sydney and other cities, who were largely unmasked, carried signs that read “freedom” and “the truth.” The demonstrations came as cases of the coronavirus are on the rise.

“We live in a democracy and normally I am certainly one who supports people’s rights to protest … but at the present time we’ve got cases going through the roof and we have people thinking that’s OK to get out there and possibly be close to each other at a demonstration,” state Health Minister Brad Hazzard said.

Iowa state health board hasn’t met since May

As Iowa continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, a state board helping oversee the response is too shorthanded to meet. The Iowa State Board of Health advises the Iowa Department of Public Health. Under Iowa law, the board is supposed to have 11 members, including a mix of medical and public health professionals, substance-abuse treatment experts and members of the general public. The law requires the governor to appoint replacements when members resign or when their three-year terms expire. But seven of the 11 seats on the health board are vacant, according to a state website listing openings on boards and commissions. The board’s last meeting was held May 12.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ spokesman, Pat Garrett, did not respond to requests for comment.

–Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register

Contributing: The Associated Press

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