FEB. 24 -- The state's vaccine website will face a test on Thursday as Gov. Charlie Baker faces questions from lawmakers.

Another 50,000 appointments at mass vaccination locations will become available for online booking tomorrow, a week after the website and scheduling system crashed under a huge burst of traffic as nearly a million new people became eligible for the shots. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday, improvements have been made to the site to bolster its ability to withstand large numbers of visits, including the addition of a digital waiting room.

Baker visited the recently opened mass vaccination site at the former Sears store in the Natick Mall, where he announced $4.7 million in funding for vaccine equity initiatives, touted improvements in public health metrics, and said a combination of increased production by Moderna and Pfizer with the FDA's findings on the efficacy of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine could mark "a really big moment" for "all of us who are continuing to struggle with some of the issues around the anxiety that's created by lack of supply."

As the Department of Public Health announced 1,788 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Massachusetts residents, the seven-day average positive test rate remained at 1.89 percent and the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations declined slightly, falling to 875 in Wednesday's report from 879 in Tuesday's.

Sixty recent deaths among confirmed COVID-19 patients bring the pandemic's death toll here to 15,624, or 15,945 when the deaths of those with probable cases of the respiratory disease are also counted.

On Thursday, the Legislature's new COVID-19 and Emergency Management and Preparedness Committee, chaired by Milton Rep. Bill Driscoll and Northampton Sen. Jo Comerford, plans an 11 a.m. hearing on the state's vaccine distribution effort, which will be streamed on the Legislature's website. Baker is set to testify first. - Katie Lannan

Biden Formally Extends National Emergency: The national emergency declared by former President Trump on March 13, 2020, and dating back to March 1, 2020, will extend beyond March 1, 2021, under a notice sent to the Federal Register by President Biden. A section of the National Emergencies Act provides for the automatic termination of a national emergency unless, within 90 days prior to the anniversary date of its declaration, the president publishes notice in the Federal Register and transmits it to Congress. The White House on Wednesday announced that it has sent that notice to Congress. "There remains a need to continue this national emergency," Biden wrote in the notice. "The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause significant risk to the public health and safety of the Nation. More than 500,000 people in this Nation have perished from the disease, and it is essential to continue to combat and respond to COVID-19 with the full capacity and capability of the Federal Government." - Michael P. Norton 4:56 PM Wed

SJC Order Addresses In-Person Jury Trials: Six-person criminal and civil jury trials will be conducted in-person at select locations, with priority given to criminal cases where the defendant is in custody, under an order regarding court operations that takes effect on Monday, March 1. The Supreme Judicial Court announced its order on Wednesday, saying it will replace an order that was issued on Sept. 17, 2020. The high court said court operations will "largely remain the same" under the new order, except for the transition from Phase 1 to a modified Phase 2 of the gradual resumption of jury trials. Phase 2 is expected to last for two months, and the cases that will be tried during the phase, as well as the locations, will be determined by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court and the chief justices of the applicable Trial Court departments, after consulting with regional administrative justices and first justices in each court. "As throughout the pandemic, however, all plans and expectations may be adjusted at any time in the ongoing effort to balance the safety of everyone who enters a courthouse with the fundamental constitutional right to a trial by jury," the SJC said. Generally speaking, courts in the state will continue to conduct most business virtually and courthouses will continue to be physically open to the public for limited purposes. Each trial court will continue to post notices on the court system's webpage identifying whether matters are being handled virtually or in-person. - Michael P. Norton 4:37 PM Wed

More than 1.5M Vaccine Doses Administered: More than 1.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Massachusetts as of Wednesday, the Department of Public Health said. There were 1,084,888 people as of Wednesday who had received at least one dose of a vaccine -- an increase of 23,553 people since Tuesday -- and 433,593 people have gotten both doses of the vaccine, an increase of 18,652 people from Tuesday's report. In all, Massachusetts has administered 1,518,481 doses of the vaccine, which is 76.9 percent of the 1,973,900 doses the federal government has shipped here. -- Colin A. Young 4:04 PM Wed

Billerica Rep Seeks Teacher Vaccines: Amid a new push from state officials to phase out remote learning and get students back in classrooms full-time this spring, a state representative from Billerica is asking Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to provide his town with 1,000 vaccine doses to hold a clinic for teachers and support staff. Early and K-12 educators are part of the next group that will become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts but are not currently able to get the shots unless they also fall into another eligibility group based on their age and medical conditions. Rep. Marc Lombardo said in a Tuesday letter to Sudders that Billerica "believes we can efficiently and swiftly vaccinate" all teachers and staff in a single day. "As both a father, and the Representative for Billerica, I am in support of getting our students back to school," the Republican lawmaker wrote. "At the same time, I believe we need to get our educators and support staff vaccinated immediately to aid in the return to school efforts." - Katie Lannan 10:31 AM Wed

Restaurant Grant Deadline: Restaurants that use Uber Eats or Postmates have until Sunday to apply for lump sum grants of up to $5,000 to help pay rent and bills, meet payroll commitments, repay outstanding debt to vendors or to upgrade technology. The grants are offered through Uber Eats' $4.5 million Restaurant Grant Program. "This partnership will address a critical need in local communities and bring resources to areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also encourage support for small restaurants that are most likely to experience a partial or uneven recovery," Uber Eats said. To be eligible, restaurants must have 50 employees or fewer at each location, cannot be part of a national brand, must have had annual gross revenues of $3 million or less at each location in 2019, and must have been an active user of Uber Eats or Postmates as of Jan. 1. The deadline to apply for the grants is Sunday. -- Colin A. Young 9:56 AM Wed

Medical Marijuana by Telehealth Extended: As the pandemic drags on, the Cannabis Control Commission has decided to extend its waiver of the requirement that new medical marijuana patients become registered through an in-person visit with a certifying physician and will also allow patients to renew their medical marijuana cards through telehealth appointments. When Gov. Charlie Baker ordered non-medical marijuana stores to close last March, the CCC made it easier for people to access medical marijuana by allowing them to seek registration through virtual means with certified physicians but Executive Director Shawn Collins said anyone who went that route would need to see the physician in person before renewing their registration. "The Executive Director, acting on behalf of the Commission, has determined the requirement that Patients seeking Program certification or renewal be physically present for a clinical visit ... would cause undue hardship to Providers and Patients by increasing the risk of their exposure to COVID-19," Collins wrote in a memo to providers Tuesday. "Therefore, so long as Governor Baker's Emergency Order is in place, waiver ... is allowed for Patients who wish to register for the first time with the Program in Massachusetts. Clinical visits, including for renewal, are permitted through telehealth means." -- Colin A. Young 9:41 AM Wed

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