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Authorities: Fake vaccination cards sold at California bar

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The owner of a Northern California bar where authorities say made-to-order fake COVID-19 vaccination cards were sold to undercover state agents for $20 each was arrested in what officials call the first such foiled operation they are aware of nationwide.

The plainclothes agents from California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said they were told at the Old Corner Saloon in Clements to write their names and birthdates on Post-it notes and then watched as employees cut the cards, filled in identifying information and bogus vaccination dates and laminated the finished products.

“On the back where they put the two dates when you were vaccinated, they used two different color pens to make it look like it was two different times,” supervising agent Luke Blehm said Friday. “So they went to some effort to make it look authentic.”

Vaccination cards are being used in some places as a pass for people to attend large gatherings. The European Union is considering allowing in tourists who can prove they have been vaccinated.

In California, officials have allowed venue operators to offer easier access to people with proof of vaccination. That includes preferential access to large events such as concerts and sporting events and allowing venues to create vaccinated-only sections where social distancing requirements are not as strict.

Acting on an anonymous tip to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, four undercover agents went to the bar several times in April and bought four fake laminated vaccination cards, officials said.

They also reported seeing at least eight others buy fake cards, but haven’t uncovered how many were sold.

They returned to the small-town bar this week and arrested its owner. Agents said they found another two completed cards and 30 additional blank cards along with a laminator and cutting device.

“This is such a new case. We looked for some other guidance from other cases around the country and we haven’t been able to find one like this at all,” Blehm said.

Fake cards have been advertised on social media and online sales platforms, he said, prompting the California attorney general’s office to send cease and desist warnings to those entities.

But it’s the first example he’s found of someone selling cards out of a bar.

With just one such report so far, California law enforcement and regulatory agencies said Friday that they’re not mounting the kind of sustained task force approach they used last summer to make sure business owners were following safety guidelines designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“If we see this, we’ll do an investigation and take action on it,” Blehm said. “This is on the radar, but this is the only one we know of so far.”

Other federal and state authorities in California said they’ve not seen similar counterfeit operations.

But federal, state and local officials on a joint task force that looks for criminal activities are keeping a watchful eye, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

“They actively are looking for stuff like this,” he said. ”They’re looking for folks that are doing things like selling vaccines or fraudulent vaccines on the open market, vaccine cards.”

The FBI and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general in late March warned the public “to be aware of individuals selling fake COVID-19 vaccination record cards and encouraging others to print fake cards at home.” That notice also warned of internet-based sales.

It wasn’t immediately known if the bar owner, Todd Anderson, has an attorney who can speak on his behalf. No one answered the phone at the bar Friday.

Anderson was arrested on suspicion of three felonies, including identity theft, forging government documents and possession of an unregistered firearm. He also is accused of falsifying medical records, a misdemeanor.

“It is disheartening to have members in our community show flagrant disregard for public health in the midst of a pandemic,″ San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said in a statement. “Distributing, falsifying or purchasing fake COVID-19 vaccine cards is against the law and endangers yourself and those around you.”

California officials also are also pursuing disciplinary action against the bar.

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For some pastors, the past year was too much to bear

(RNS) – Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise-cracking, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described “failing pastor” from Wisconsin, was already thinking of leaving the ministry before COVID and the 2020 election.

He was, as he put it, fed up with church life after two decades as a pastor.

Then, what he called “the stupid” – feuds about politics and the pandemic – put him over the edge. People at church seemed more concerned about the latest social media dustup and online conspiracy theories – one church member called him the antichrist for his views on COVID- than in learning about the Bible.

Sunday mornings had become filled with dread over what could go wrong next.

He eventually decided, “I don’t need this anymore.” Weddle stepped down as pastor, walked out the door and hasn’t looked back.

The last eighteen months or so have been difficult for pastors like Weddle. Already stretched with the day-to-day concerns of running a congregation at a time when organized religion is on the decline, they’ve increasingly found that the divides facing the nation have made their way inside the walls of the church.

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This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religion news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.

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Clergy also felt a sense of isolation, cut off from contact with their congregations and unable to do the kind of in-person ministry that drew them to the pastorate. Instead of preaching and visiting the sick, they had to become video producers and online content creators.

Chuck DeGroat, professor of counseling and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, said pastors have long had to mediate disputes over theology or church practice, like the role of women in the church or the so-called “ worship wars ” of recent decades. They now face added stresses from the pandemic and polarization, with people willing to leave their churches over mask policies or discussions of race.

“I’m hearing from pastors that they just don’t know what to do,” he said.

A recent survey of Protestant pastors by the research firm Barna Group found that 29% said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.”

David Kinnaman, president of Barna, said the past year has been a “crucible” for pastors. Churches have become fragmented by political and social divides. They have also become frayed, as “people’s connectedness to local congregations is waning.

“The pandemic was a great revealer of the challenges churches face,” said Kinnaman.

The Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, whose member organizations include about 2,000 churches and a million Christians, has been concerned about the stresses clergy have been under since 2020.

Last summer, the council surveyed clergy and found about a quarter said they were considering retiring or leaving the pastorate due to the stresses of ministry during COVID.

In a recent follow-up survey, said Parker, about a third of respondents said they were considering their options or thinking about leaving.

Parker said that unlike past crises, like floods, tornadoes or other disasters, pastors won’t be able to escape the fallout from COVID-19 once the pandemic is over. If there’s a flood, she said, a pastor could stay at their church, help them clean up and rebuild and then at some point move to another church that hadn’t been through that disaster.

But COVID affected everyone.

“So where do you go?” she said. “Out of the church.”

For Brandon Cox, serving as a pastor had been a joy until last year.

In 2011, Cox and his wife, Angie, had started a new church in Bentonville, Arkansas, called Grace Hills. Cox described Grace Hills as a “Celebrate Recovery”-style congregation, inspired by the support group ministry founded at Saddleback Church in Southern California, where Cox had once worked.

“Up until 2020, we had a fantastic time,” Cox, 46, told Religion News Service in a phone interview.

The trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election and the racial reckoning in response to the death of George Floyd hit like a “wrecking ball.”

Grace Hills shut down in-person worship at the beginning of the pandemic, which prompted people to leave. More left when the church reopened and required masks. When Cox and a Black pastor preached a Sunday sermon together after Floyd’s death and said that yes, Black lives matter, that caused more turmoil. No matter what Cox did, someone was angry.

“It was sort of relentless,” said Cox, who stepped down as pastor at Grace Hill at the end of April. “My wife and I just found ourselves in the place of exhaustion.”

Cox talked to RNS nine days after his last Sunday as a pastor and said he hasn’t given up on Christianity – he hopes to find a new church to attend in the coming months – but pastoral ministry is no longer for him.

Leaving the ministry has challenges. After 24 years in vocational ministry, Cox felt he didn’t have many career options. For now, he plans to work for a local real estate company.

“I kept telling people, ‘You’d be amazed how many jobs you’re not qualified for,’” said Cox.

Even before COVID, the demands of the job wore on many clergy.

The Rev. Emily Reeves Grammer served as pastor of several United Methodist congregations in the Nashville area for a decade before leaving the pastorate in 2019. Grammer, who has two children, said balancing the demands of ministry and family life proved daunting.

Grammer, who is 36, said she loved being a pastor. But she worried about the long-term sustainability of her calling to be a pastor, given that the United Methodist Church seems headed for a schism.

“I am really concerned about the ability of a lot of United Methodist churches to keep supporting full-time clergy people,” she said.

While thinking about the future, she talked with older pastors who felt it was too late for them to change careers. The advice she got was this: If you are going to leave, do it now. So she resigned from her church and went back to school to become an English teacher.

“What I love most about being a pastor is gathering people together around a text and making meaning together out of that text,” she said. Teaching literature, she said, will allow her to do the same thing.

Charlie Cotherman, pastor of Oil City Vineyard Church in rural Pennsylvania, said that, in his part of the world, pastors who had strong denominational ties and relationships to draw on may have weathered the pandemic better than pastors who were on their own.

Cotherman, who directs the Rural Ministry Project at Grove City College, said most of the pastors he works with have done pretty well during the pandemic. Some had the advantage of being in small communities with low COVID infection rates, so they were able to return to in-person services quickly.

Still, he said, COVID has taken a toll. In some churches, members, especially families, left when services went online and just haven’t come back.

“Some of these small churches in rural areas have a couple of young families,” he said. “For them to lose even one of them has been a really tough thing.”

Before he left the ministry, Weddle began a blog at FailingPastor.com, detailing some of his concerns about the ministry. Weddle said he gave the ministry his best for 21 years. But being a pastor proved an almost impossible task.

“Ultimately, you want people to grow in Christ – to be caring, making sense of the Bible and applying it to their life,” he said. “And, you know, for thousands of years it’s been very difficult to get people to do that. So, the job is inherently frustrating.”

Leaving the ministry has been a relief.

“I’ve been going to church,” he wrote recently. “I don’t have to do anything at a church for the first time in 21 years. I don’t have to worry about who isn’t there, or why, or who will be mad next. I don’t have to have regrets all afternoon and evening about how I messed up my sermon.”

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Kansas seeks 9% of allowed vaccine doses, ponders COVID laws

TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas has requested less than 9% of its federal allocation of COVID-19 vaccine doses for this week, as Republican state lawmakers try to revive proposals to ban government vaccine passports and restore limits on tracing the close contacts of people exposed to the virus.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s office said Thursday that the state asked for fewer than 14,000 vaccine doses for the week, out of a federal allotment of almost 162,000. While the state sought its full allotment of 6,400 doses of a one-shot vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson, it requested only 7,510 doses of its allocation of 155,540 doses of two-shot vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna.

Kansas has seen its vaccination rate slow in recent weeks. It peaked at an average of 29,380 shots a day for the seven days ending April 6 and averaged only 11,872 for the seven days ending Wednesday, according to state Department of Health and Environment data.

Kelly spokeswoman Reeves Oyster said the state ordered less than its allotment “to ensure that no vaccine goes to waste.”

“Last week, providers cited low demand and sufficient inventory to handle a weekly increase in demand,” she said in an email. “Like the rest of the country, demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is slowing.”

Counties have been turning down vaccine doses as demand has waned, and while the department reported that more than 1.95 million shots had been administered as of Wednesday, there still were almost 647,000 more doses available. The health department in Sedgwick County, home to the state’s largest city of Wichita, has reduced the operations of its vaccine clinic by 10 hours a week because of falling demand, The Wichita Eagle reported.

Meanwhile, some Republican senators in the GOP-controlled Legislature were working on a proposal to prohibit state and local government agencies from requiring people to have COVID-19 vaccine passports to enter places accessible to the general public.

Kelly said last month that she has no interest in vaccine passports and that none would be issued under her authority.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said lawmakers are hearing from people who want to see a ban imposed.

“This would be protecting-your-privacy concerns,” she said.

With the Legislature hoping to wrap up the year’s business this week, lawmakers would have to slip a proposed ban into an existing piece of legislation when senators and House members write the final version.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said he’s working on a proposal but said senators showed him language that was “pretty broad.”

“I think it would impact even getting information from your own doctor, and certainly we don’t want that to be the case,” Patton said.

Warren also is working to resurrect limits on tracing contacts in cases where people have been exposed to COVID-19. The Legislature enacted the limits last year at the urging of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor, who saw them as a way to protect people’s privacy.

However, the limits on tracing expired Saturday, and while the Senate approved a bill in March to keep them in place permanently, the House did not take up the measure. The rules prevented people exposed to COVID-19 from being forced to disclose their close contacts and said people couldn’t face criminal charges or civil lawsuits for refusing.

Those limits set COVID-19 apart from other infectious diseases, such as syphilis or hepatitis. Public health groups said the limits hinder contact tracing and decried the different rules for the novel coronavirus. Some Republicans said the special treatment was justified because COVID-19 was so widespread and the danger to privacy much greater.

Patton said House members don’t have many concerns about reinstating the special contact tracing rules for COVID-19.

Warren said: “We’ve been hearing from constituents across the state that these are issues they want the Legislature to take up.”

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GOP-led Missouri House votes to create ‘Rush Limbaugh Day’

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri House has voted in favor of creating “Rush Limbaugh Day.” The GOP-led House on Thursday tacked the provision on another bill, which then passed the chamber. Several Missouri state lawmakers have proposed honoring the late Limbaugh every Jan. 12, his birthday. The Cape Girardeau native gained national fame before he died in February at age 70 after a battle with cancer. Supporters say Limbaugh was a conservative icon worthy of the honor and opponents slammed his rhetoric as divisive.

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Bill for limited Missouri school voucher program passes

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers have approved a tax credit program to pay for kids to go to private schools. The Republican-led Senate voted 20-13 Thursday to send the bill to Gov. Mike Parson. Under the program, private donors would give money to nonprofits that in turn would dole out scholarships. Donors would get state tax credits equal to the amount they donate. Only K-12 students in the state’s largest cities will be able to get the scholarships, which could pay for private school or other education expenses. And only students with disabilities or children from low-income families could access scholarships.

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Chamber of Commerce seeks end to enhanced US jobless aid

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling for Washington to immediately stop paying out-of-work Americans an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits, saying the boost in government aid is giving some recipients less incentive to look for work.

The business group said Friday that the supplemental unemployment benefit, part of the Biden administration’s efforts to support the pandemic-ravaged economy, results in about one in four recipients taking home more in unemployment pay than they earned when they were working.

The statement follows the release of surprisingly weak jobs data for April. On Friday, the Labor Department said U.S. employers added just 266,000 jobs last month, a big drop from March and well below the nearly 1 million jobs economists were expecting, according to FactSet.

“The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market,” said Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer. “We need a comprehensive approach to dealing with our workforce issues and the very real threat unfilled positions poses to our economic recovery from the pandemic.”

U.S. companies have added jobs for four straight months, but some employers complain that they can’t find workers, despite an elevated unemployment rate.

As more people have begun looking for work, more are being counted among the jobless: The unemployment rate ticked up in April to 6.1% from 6% in March.

While some low-income workers may be reluctant to look for work because they are receiving a federal boost in aid, on top of state benefits, other factors may be keeping some Americans from returning to work, including fear of contracting the coronavirus or because they need to care for children who haven’t returned to school.

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1 person found dead in Independence house fire

INDEPENDENCE, Kan. – Firefighters find one person dead inside a home in Independence, Kansas.

On May 6, 2021, around 9:00 a.m., Independence Fire and EMS responded to a house fire with someone possibly trapped. They got to the home in the 500 block of North 24th Street and found heavy fire showing.

Tower 1 crews performed a search and rescue, but the victim was found deceased.

The Independence Police Department and Kansas Fire Marshall Office are investigating the fire.

There were no other injuries due to the fire.

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Mike Galbraith

Mike Galbraith, 81 of Seneca, MO stepped over into glory on May 5, 2021. His family would like to say he has left us with many fine examples and fun memories of his Christian character and cowboy ethic. He passed on to his 3 children, Cindy, David & Matt, his 5 grandchildren, Kody, Logan, Nathan, Jacob & Emily and his big sister Patty his love for fishing in the Colorado mountains, hand-crafted stained glass and the delight of a well-worn and oft-told good joke. The 60 year love of his life, Hope, invites family and friends to a celebration in his honor on May 16th at the Hornet Community Center from 3-5 p.m. Come with a good story and help us celebrate his life.

Cremation arrangements are under the direction of Parker Mortuary.