Chalk it up: Michigan parking dispute could cover thousands

By ED WHITE for the Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — Lawyers who argued that a Michigan city violated the U.S. Constitution by chalking tires have successfully turned the case into a class action affecting thousands of parking tickets.

A judge twice dismissed the unusual lawsuit against Saginaw, but it was overturned both times by an appeals court.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington will give Saginaw yet another opportunity to claim that tire chalking was a legal way to enforce parking limits, though he said the city’s arguments after two losses don’t seem “immediately compelling.”

In the same order, Ludington last week approved a request to make the case a class action. It means vehicle owners who were ticketed since 2014 could be compensated unless Saginaw turns things around and wins the litigation. A trial was set for Aug. 30.

The lawsuit began in 2017 when Alison Taylor sued to challenge 14 parking tickets.

Her lawyers, Philip Ellison and Matthew Gronda, argued that Saginaw was violating the Fourth Amendment by marking tires with chalk without a search warrant and then returning to write a ticket if the vehicle was parked too long.

Saginaw said marking a tire was a “minimal intrusion” when weighed against the city’s interest in managing parking.

Ludington ruled in the city’s favor and dismissed the case. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice has reversed his decisions.

“Tire chalking is not necessary to meet the ordinary needs of law enforcement, let alone the extraordinary,” Judge Richard Griffin said in a 3-0 opinion last August.

Tire chalking was used in approximately 4,800 parking tickets, which cost $15 or $30, depending on whether they were paid on time, Ellison said in a court filing Monday.

He’s eager to get Ludington’s approval to send postcards to people who could be affected.

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2nd NYPD officer dies, days after Harlem shooting

By MICHAEL R. SISAK and BOBBY CAINA CALVAN for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City police officer gravely wounded last week in a Harlem shooting that killed his partner has also died of his injuries, police said Tuesday.

Officer Wilbert Mora, 27, died at a Manhattan hospital four days after he and Officer Jason Rivera were shot while responding to a domestic disturbance call.

A makeshift memorial is seen outside the New York City Police Department’s 32nd Precinct, near the scene of a shooting days earlier in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Monday Jan. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

“It’s with great sadness I announce the passing of Police Officer Wilbert Mora,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a tweet.

“Wilbert is 3 times a hero. For choosing a life of service. For sacrificing his life to protect others. For giving life even in death through organ donation. Our heads are bowed & our hearts are heavy.”

Mora entered the police academy in October 2018 and was assigned to Harlem’s 32nd precinct since November 2019. He made 33 arrests, police records show.

The two officers were fatally wounded Friday after they were called to a Harlem apartment by a woman who said she needed help with her adult son. The gunman, Lashawn J. McNeil, threw open a bedroom door and shot the officers as they walked down a narrow hall, authorities said.

A third officer shot McNeil. The gunman, 47, died Monday, authorities said.

Irina Zakirova, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, remembered Mora as an earnest and engaged student.

“He was so certain about becoming a police officer — a good police officer — and he was looking forward to taking the next step for a police career,” she said Tuesday.

“He cared about people and the community,” Zakirova said, adding that he was particularly interested in finding different and innovative ways in improving relationships between police and the neighborhoods they patrolled.

The slayings came in Mayor Eric Adams’s first weeks on the job. The Democrat, a former police captain, campaigned partly on a promise to improve public safety. On Monday, he unveiled what he called his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence.”

The multi-pronged strategy includes searching travelers for illegal guns, getting courts moving again after pandemic slowdowns and pushing lawmakers to give judges more leeway to hold potentially violent defendants without bail.

Mora had been in critical condition since the shooting. He was moved Sunday from Harlem Hospital to NYU Langone Medical Center, where he died.

Mora’s funeral arrangements have not been announced.

The exact circumstances of the shooting were still under investigation, but police said McNeil had a handgun with a high-capacity magazine that had been stolen years ago in Baltimore. Police said Monday that while searching the apartment over the weekend they also found a loaded semi-automatic rifle under McNeil’s mattress.

McNeil’s mother said she was trying to convince her son to get help for mental health issues and that she wouldn’t have called 911 had she known he was going to use violence against the officers.

“If I knew, I never would have made the phone call,” Shirley Sourzes told the New York Post in an article published Monday on the Post’s website. “I would never have called!”

A funeral was planned for Rivera on Friday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Rivera was 22 and had joined the force in 2020. He had been assigned to the 32nd precinct in Harlem since graduating last May. He’d made 15 arrests in his short career, according to police records.

Mora and Rivera’s deaths deaths’ echoed the 2014 killings of another pair of officers, Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40, who were fatally shot by a man who ambushed them as they sat in their patrol car.

In an essay at the police academy, Rivera wrote that he became an officer to “better the relationship between the community and the police,” acknowledging unpleasant experiences with police while growing up in the Inwood section of Manhattan.

Tennessee has $1M available for volunteer fire departments

From the Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has $1 million available for firefighting equipment for the state’s more than 500 volunteer fire departments.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance and the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office announced on Tuesday they had begun accepting applications for grants through the Volunteer Firefighter Equipment and Training Grant Program.

The program created in 2019 by the General Assembly sets aside money that can be used to either purchase firefighting equipment or to pay a cost share for federal grants for equipment, according to a news release from Commerce and Insurance.

The program’s initial launch in 2020 provided $500,000 in grants to 41 volunteer fire departments. For 2022, the program’s funding was increased to $1 million.

Eligible fire departments must hold a valid recognition from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and have a staff of less than 51% full-time firefighters. Applications will be accepted until 2 p.m. CST Feb. 28.

Police shoot and kill armed man at San Francisco airport

From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Police shot and killed a man who was allegedly armed and causing a disturbance at a train station near the San Francisco airport Thursday after he ignored their orders and continued advancing toward them, airport and police officials said.

Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said in a statement that the officers responded to reports of an armed person at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station near the airport’s international terminal and confirmed the man had two guns.

First responders enter the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) after an incident involving an armed individual in front of the BART station entrance in San Francisco, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. The suspect, allegedly armed with two guns, was fatally shot after officers were unable to de-escalate and non-lethal measures were ineffective, authorities said. (Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

It is not clear what kind of gun or guns the man had or whether he was threatening others before police arrived.

San Francisco Police spokeswoman Officer Grace Gatpandan later said at a news conference the man “appeared to be armed with a handgun.”

When asked to clarify what kind of weapon the man was carrying, Gatpandan said that was still under investigation and that more information would be released within 10 days as is the department’s policy in officer-involved shootings.

The California Department of Justice will independently review the shooting, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced.

Yakel said in his statement that officers tried to de-escalate the situation but the man continued to demonstrate “threatening behavior,” and even though officers tried to neutralize the man with “non-lethal measures,” he kept advancing toward the officers.

Gatpandan said she couldn’t comment on the officers’ de-escalation tactics or how many officers fired their weapons due to the ongoing investigation.

Another person was treated for a minor injury at a hospital and released, Yakel said.

BART service to SFO was temporarily suspended and passengers were routed around the affected area.

Yakel said no flights were impacted by the fatal shooting.

State police trooper taken to hospital after cruiser struck

From the Associated Press

TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) — A Massachusetts State Police trooper was treated at the hospital for minor injuries after his cruiser was struck by a man authorities say was driving drunk.

The trooper, who is assigned to the Middleborough Barracks, advised the barracks over his radio at about 10 p.m. Thursday that his cruiser had just been hit by another vehicle in Taunton, according to a statement from state police. The other vehicle remained at the scene.

Other officers responded and determined that the driver of the other vehicle was operating under the influence of alcohol and placed him in custody.

The trooper was taken to Morton Hospital in Taunton, treated for minor injuries and released just before midnight, state police said.

His name was not released.

The other driver, a 44-year-old Taunton man, was released on bail pending a court date Friday on a drunken driving charge.

Missouri Highway Patrol mistakenly sends Batman-themed alert

From the Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri State Highway Patrol alert sent cellphones blaring statewide: Authorities in Gotham City, Missouri, were searching for a purple and green 1978 Dodge 3700GT.

But there is no Gotham City, Missouri, and the car referenced was the one used by the Joker in the 1989 “Batman” movie. Soon after the Tuesday evening alert, the patrol sent another saying to disregard it.

In a brief news release, the patrol said a routine test of Missouri’s Blue Alert system was inadvertently transmitted statewide. The system is meant to let the public know when a police officer is killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.

“During the test, an option was incorrectly selected, allowing the message to be disseminated to the public,” the news release stated. A message left with patrol on Wednesday seeking additional information wasn’t immediately returned.

3 cops face complex federal trial in George Floyd’s death

By AMY FORLITI for the Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The federal trial for three former Minneapolis police officers who were with Derek Chauvin when he pinned George Floyd to the street is expected to be complex as prosecutors try to prove each officer willingly violated the Black man’s constitutional rights.

A fence is seen placed around the entire perimeter of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse ahead of a pretrial conference for former Minneapolis police Officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. The former officers are charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights. (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP)

Jury selection begins Thursday in the federal case against J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, who also face a state trial later this year on counts of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

In the federal case, all three are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under “color of law,” or government authority. Legal experts say it will be more complicated than the state trial because prosecutors have the difficult task of proving they willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights — unreasonably seizing him and depriving him of liberty without due process.

“In the state case, they’re charged with what they did. That they aided and abetted Chauvin in some way. In the federal case, they’re charged with what they didn’t do — and that’s an important distinction. It’s a different kind of accountability,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

While the state would try to prove the officers helped Chauvin commit murder or manslaughter, federal prosecutors must show that they failed to intervene. As Phil Turner, another former federal prosecutor, put it, prosecutors must show the officers should have done something to stop Chauvin, rather than show they did something directly to Floyd.

Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes while Floyd was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down his legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.

Chauvin was convicted in April on state charges of murder and manslaughter and is serving a 22½-year sentence. In December, he pleaded guilty to a federal count of violating Floyd’s rights.

Federal prosecutions of officers involved in on-duty killings are rare. Prosecutors face a high legal standard to show that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights, including the right to be free from unreasonable seizures or the use of unreasonable force; an accident, bad judgment or negligence isn’t enough to support federal charges.

Essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.

Kueng, Lane and Thao are all charged with willfully depriving Floyd of the right to be free from an officer’s deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The indictment says the three men saw Floyd clearly needed medical care and failed to aid him.

Thao and Kueng are also charged with a second count alleging they willfully violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not stopping Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. It’s not clear why Lane is not mentioned in that count, but evidence shows he asked twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side.

Both counts allege the officers’ actions resulted in Floyd’s death.

Federal civil rights violations that result in death are punishable by up to life in prison or even death, but those stiff sentences are extremely rare and federal sentencing guidelines rely on complicated formulas that indicate the officers would get much less if convicted.

John Baker, a former defense attorney and professor at St. Cloud State University, said each officer has good defense arguments available. Baker said Chauvin was a senior officer and Lane and Kueng, who were new to the job, can argue they were doing what they were told to do. Baker said Thao can say he was just trying to keep other people from getting involved.

“The question is: Did they do enough and should they have stopped Derek Chauvin from doing what he was doing?” Baker said.

It’s not known whether any of the three officers will testify. Baker said he would advise them not to, because their testimony could be used against them in a state trial. But Osler thinks at least some of them might take the stand, saying police officers make some of the best witnesses because they are trained on how to testify.

It’s not clear whether Chauvin will testify, either. Turner said prosecutors don’t need his testimony because they have video that shows what happened. Osler said Chauvin’s federal plea agreement was crafted carefully to limit his usefulness to the defense.

That agreement says Chauvin knew that officers are trained to intervene if another officer is using inappropriate force, and that Chauvin didn’t threaten or force any of the three officers to disregard that duty.

It also says that Chauvin did not observe Thao or Kueng do or say anything to try to get Chauvin to stop. It says Chauvin heard Lane ask twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side, but that Chauvin “did not hear or observe Officer Lane press the point, and did not hear or observe Officer Lane say or do anything else to try to get Officer Kueng and the defendant off of Mr. Floyd.”

Osler said those details are “quite intentional.”

“There must be some fear that he would fall on his sword and say it was all on me, not these other guys,” Osler said.

As rare as federal prosecutions of officers are, it’s rarer still that such a case would precede a state trial.

The future of the state case is uncertain. Osler said if the officers are convicted in federal court, the state trial could proceed, the officers could plead guilty, or the state could dismiss the charges — avoiding another trial. If the officers are acquitted, a state trial is likely to proceed.

“This trial is going to present an evolutionary step beyond what we saw at the Chauvin trial because we’re not looking at the killer, but the people who enable the killer. And that gets a step closer to the culture of the department,” Osler said.

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Snow, ice blast through South with powerful winter storm

By PAMELA SAMPSON and KIM CHANDLER for the Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A dangerous winter storm combining high winds and ice swept through parts of the U.S. Southeast on Sunday, knocking out power, felling trees and fences and coating roads with a treacherous, frigid glaze.

A motorist leaves wiper blades exposed in anticipation of heavy snowfall in Southwest Roanoke City on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Roanoke, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Highway patrols reported hundreds of vehicle accidents, and a tornado ripped through a trailer park in Florida. More than 1,200 Sunday flights at Charlotte Douglas International were cancelled – more than 90% of the airport’s Sunday schedule, according to the flight tracking service flightaware.com.

Winter Storm Izzy dumped as much as 10 inches of snow in some areas of western North Carolina as the system moved across the southeastern U.S., said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

First Sgt. Christopher Knox, a North Carolina Highway Patrol spokesperson, said that by midafternoon, the agency had responded to 300 car crashes and nearly 800 calls for service. Two people died Sunday when their car drove off the road and into trees in a median east of Raleigh. The driver and passenger, both 41-year-old South Carolina residents, were pronounced dead at the scene of the single-vehicle crash. Knox said investigators believe the car was driving too fast for the conditions, described as mixed winter precipitation.

Durham police tweeted a photo of a tractor-trailer that slid off the N.C. Highway 147 overpass in Durham. The truck’s cab appeared to have landed upright on Highway 15-501 below, while the trailer came down in a vertical position from the bridge to the highway below. Police spokesperson Kammie Michael said the driver was stable with injuries that did not appear life-threatening.

Kristen Baker Morrow’s 6-year-old son made snow angels after their home in Crouse, North Carolina, got four inches of snow Sunday morning, but she said they couldn’t stay outside long because of the uncomfortable wind chill.

“It took 30 to 45 minutes to get everything on for about 10 minutes in the snow, but it was definitely worth it for him, to get our pictures and make some memories,” said Morrow, a 35-year-old registered nurse.

Outages, which had ballooned to a quarter-million customers earlier in the day, stood at around 130,000 customers by late Sunday, according to poweroutage.us. North Carolina was hardest hit, peaking at some 90,000 outages. Parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky also lost power.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado with 118 mph winds (190 kph) struck southwest Florida. The weather service said the tornado was on the ground for almost two miles (3 kilometers) with a maximum path width of 125 yards (115 meters). Thirty mobile homes were destroyed and 51 had major damage. Three minor injuries were reported.

Edward Murray, 81, told the Naples Daily News that he was inside his mobile home Sunday morning when a tornado picked it up and tossed it on top of his neighbor’s home.

“That’s my house that’s turned upside down,” he told the newspaper. “The tornado took me off my feet, blew me toward the east wall and buried me under the sink, refrigerator, kitchen chairs and everything else.”

Murray and his daughter, Cokie, escaped unharmed, crawling from the wreckage.

“I was so happy when I saw the sky,” Murray told the newspaper. “I said to the devil, ‘It’s not going to be today.’”

Virginia State Police said traffic came to a standstill on Interstate 81 in Roanoke County for several hours Sunday afternoon after a tractor-trailer jackknifed and the cab of the truck disconnected from the trailer in the northbound lanes. Two additional accidents occurred in the traffic backup, one with minor injuries. “Please stay off the roads if possible. Begging again! Hazardous conditions,” read a tweet from VDOT’s Salem office.

At Mountain Crossings, a hikers’ outfitting store on the Appalachian Trail near Georgia’s Blood Mountain, a handful of hikers were trekking up the mountain in the snow, employee Julia Leveille said Sunday.

“We’re open, but it’s kind of a mess up here,” she said by phone. A tree fell along the highway about a mile south of the store, and crews were working to clear it, she said.

Despite the heavy snow and ice in the area, several hikers had already started hiking from Georgia to Maine, Leveille said.

“You’ve got to really like the snow for that, because you’re heading north and into higher mountains and you could see some nasty storms,” she said.

Most of the hikers who stopped in Sunday were ascending Blood Mountain on a day hike. At 4,458 feet (1,359 meters), it’s the highest peak on Georgia’s portion of the Appalachian Trail.

In Tennessee, there were multiple reports of abandoned and wrecked cars on snow-covered roads.

The storm system could cause hazardous driving conditions over a large portion of the eastern U.S. through Monday as the wet roadways refreeze in southern states and the storm turns and moves northward through the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

“It’s a very expansive storm,” Hurley said. “A lot of real estate is going to get four to eight inches of snow and a lot more are also going to get to get some of that ice accumulation.”

New York City was expected to be spared most, if not all, of the snowfall, but Long Island and Connecticut coastal areas were expecting gale conditions. Upstate New York was projected to get hit with up to a foot of snow along with high winds.

Six to 13 inches (15 to 33 centimeters) of snow was expected in parts of east-central Ohio and western Pennsylvania from Sunday afternoon.

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Associated Press reporters Dave Porter in New York City; Jeff Martin in Woodstock, Georgia; Rebecca Reynolds in Simpsonville, Kentucky; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Ron Todt in Philadelphia; Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; and Collin Binkley in Killington, Vermont contributed to this report.

Flights sent to assess Tonga damage after volcanic eruption

By NICK PERRY for the Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.

A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane Tuesday.

In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force, an Orion aircraft is prepared at a base in Auckland, New Zealand, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, before flying to assist the Tonga government after the eruption of an undersea volcano. (NZDF via AP)

Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.

The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.

Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and shops on Tonga’s shoreline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.

No casualties have been reported on Tonga, although there were still concerns about people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano.

Scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.

Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.

Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.

A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far away as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.

Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.

A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.

He said Tonga, home to 105,000 people, had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second international fiber-optic cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any long-term solution difficult.

The cable also broke three years ago, possibly due to a ship dragging an anchor. At first Tongans had no access to the internet but then some limited access was restored using satellites until the cable was repaired.

Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.

“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.

One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.

Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano.

“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.

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Associated Press Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Kensington, Maryland.

Texas rabbi: Security training paid off in hostage standoff

By JAKE BLEIBERG and ERIC TUCKER for the Associated Press

COLLEYVILLE, Texas (AP) — U.S. and British authorities Monday continued an investigation into the weekend standoff at a Texas synagogue that ended with an armed British national dead and a rabbi crediting past security training for getting him and three members of his congregation out safely.

Shortly after 5 p.m., local time, authorities escort a hostage out of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. Police said the man was not hurt and would be reunited with his family. (Elias Valverde/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Authorities identified the hostage-taker as a 44-year-old British national, Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed Saturday night after the last hostages ran out of Congregation Beth Israel around 9 p.m. The FBI said there was no early indication that anyone else was involved, but it had not provided a possible motive.

The investigation stretched to England, where late Sunday police in Manchester announced that two teenagers were in custody in connection with the standoff. Greater Manchester Police tweeted that counter-terrorism officers had made the arrests but did not say whether the pair faced any charges.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said security training at his suburban Fort Worth congregation over the years is what allowed him and the other three hostages to make it through the 10-hour ordeal, which he described as traumatic.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said in a statement. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”

Video of the standoff’s end from Dallas TV station WFAA showed people running out a door of the synagogue, and then a man holding a gun opening the same door just seconds later before he turned around and closed it. Moments later, several shots and then an explosion could be heard.

Authorities have declined to say who shot Akram, saying it was still under investigation.

Akram could be heard ranting on a Facebook livestream of the services and demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden called the episode an act of terror. Speaking to reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday, Biden said Akram allegedly purchased a weapon on the streets.

Federal investigators believe Akram purchased the handgun used in the hostage taking in a private sale, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Akram arrived in the U.S. at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York about two weeks ago, a law enforcement official said.

Akram arrived in the U.S. recently on a tourist visa from Great Britain, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not intended to be public. London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement that its counter-terrorism police were liaising with U.S. authorities about the incident.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno had said Saturday night that the hostage-taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community. It wasn’t clear why Akram chose the synagogue, though the prison where Siddiqui is serving her sentence is in nearby Fort Worth.

On Sunday night, the FBI issued a statement calling the ordeal “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” The agency said the Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating.

Michael Finfer, the president of the congregation, said in a statement “there was a one in a million chance that the gunman picked our congregation.”

Akram used his phone during the course of negotiations to communicate with people other than law enforcement, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Multiple people heard the hostage-taker refer to Siddiqui as his “sister” on the livestream. But John Floyd, board chair for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations — the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group — said Siddiqui’s brother, Mohammad Siddiqui, was not involved.

Texas resident Victoria Francis, who said she watched about an hour of the livestream, said she heard the man rant against America and claim he had a bomb. Biden said there were apparently no explosives, despite the threats.

“He was just all over the map. He was pretty irritated and the more irritated he got, he’d make more threats, like ‘I’m the guy with the bomb. If you make a mistake, this is all on you.’ And he’d laugh at that,” Francis said. “He was clearly in extreme distress.”

Colleyville, a community of about 26,000 people, is about 15 miles (23 kilometers) northeast of Fort Worth. Reached outside his home Sunday, Cytron-Walker declined to speak at length about the episode. “It’s a little overwhelming as you can imagine. It was not fun yesterday,” he told the AP.

Andrew Marc Paley, a Dallas rabbi who was called to the scene to help families and hostages upon their release, said Cytron-Walker acted as a calm and comforting presence. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m. That was around the time food was delivered to those inside the synagogue, but Paley said he did not know if it was part of the negotiations.

Cytron-Walker said his congregation had received training from local authorities and the Secure Community Network, which was founded in 2004 by a coalition of Jewish organizations and describes itself as “the official safety and security organization” of the Jewish community in North America. Michael Masters, the CEO of the organization, said the congregation had provided security training in August and had not been previously aware of Akram.

The standoff led authorities to tighten security in other places, including New York City, where police said that they increased their presence “at key Jewish institutions” out of an abundance of caution.

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Tucker reported from Washington, D.C. Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber and Acacia Coronado in Austin; Michael Balsamo in Washington; Colleen Long in Philadelphia; Elliot Spagat in San Diego; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Michael R. Sisak in New York; Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tenn.; and Issac Scharf in Jerusalem.

Pilot pulled free from crashed plane by police in Los Angeles seconds before it is hit by train

From Sky News

A man has been saved from near-death by police officers in Los Angeles after he crash-landed his plane onto railway tracks seconds before it was hit by a train.

The unnamed pilot was saved from the Cessna by quick-thinking officers who pulled him out just before a high-speed train smashed into the aircraft, sending debris flying everywhere.

The incident happened on Sunday, near to the Los Angeles Police Department’s station in Foothill on Osborne Street, near Whiteman Airport.

Dramatic video obtained by Reuters news agency shows several officers freeing the man from the downed plane, which had crashed shortly after take off in the Pacoima neighbourhood, according to local media.

In it, the police officers and pilot are just a few feet away from the tracks when the passing train destroys the plane.Advertisement

“The plane had a failed take off and landed on the train tracks at a popular intersection,” said Luis Jimenez, a 21-year-old music composer who filmed the video.

“Just seconds before impact police officers saved the pilot, and a piece of debris almost hit me.”

Separate video footage posted on Twitter by the LAPD showed bodycam footage of officers pulling the bleeding pilot from the plane.

The pilot was the sole passenger on the plane and first responders were called at around 2pm.

According to the LAPD’s Valley Bureau, the plane had lost power and crashed into the tracks.

The department applauded its officers, saying in the tweet they had “displayed heroism and quick action by saving the life of a pilot who made an emergency landing on the railroad tracks”.

The pilot was treated for cuts and bruises and is in a stable condition, according to local media.

No one on the train was injured.

Croatia police present drug seizures in Adriatic Sea port

From the Associated Press

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatian police on Tuesday displayed hundreds of pounds of drugs they say were seized in two separate operations last year in a southern Adriatic Sea port close to the famous resort of Dubrovnik.

The discovery last October in the port of Ploce of nearly 220 kilograms (482 pounds) of heroin was the biggest ever in Croatia, police said.

’We conducted a search of a container on board a ship that came to port of Ploce from Iraq,” Dubrovnik police criminal investigator Zoran Tikvica said. “Inside the container we found 80 boxes made of lead, weight of about 300 kilograms, and within 40 of these lead boxes we found 296 packages (of heroin.)

The heroin was meant for distribution in Western Europe, police said in a statement.

In November, divers found 61 kilograms (136 pounds) of cocaine in a metal container attached with magnets to the bottom of another ship from South America.

“In both of these operations, when we seized heroin, and when we seized cocaine, it was determined that the drugs were of extremely high quality and pure,” Tikvica said.

Police said the total estimated value of the seized drugs was 17 million euros ($19 million.)

Justice Dept. creating unit focused on domestic terrorism

By ERIC TUCKER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is establishing a specialized unit focused on domestic terrorism, the department’s top national security official told lawmakers Tuesday as he described an “elevated” threat from violent extremists in the United States.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division Matthew Olsen, seen from a video monitor, testifies remotely before a Senate Judiciary Committee during a virtual hearing to examine the domestic terrorism threat one year after January 6, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, testifying just days after the nation observed the one-year anniversary of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, said the number of FBI investigations into suspected domestic violent extremists has more than doubled since the spring of 2020.

“We have seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus, as well as those who ascribe to extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies,” Olsen said.

Olsen’s assessment tracked with a warning last March from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who testified that the threat was “metastasizing.” Jill Sanborn, the executive assistant director in charge of the FBI’s national security branch who testified alongside Olsen, said Tuesday the greatest threat comes from lone extremists who radicalize online and look to carry out violence at so-called “soft targets.”

The department’s National Security Division, which Olsen leads, has a counterterrorism section. But Olsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has decided to create a specialized domestic terrorism unit “to augment our existing approach” and to “ensure that these cases are properly handled and effectively coordinated” across the country.

The formulation of a new unit underscores the extent to which domestic violence extremism, which for years after the Sept. 11 attacks was overshadowed by the threat of international terrorism, has attracted urgent attention inside the federal government.

But the issue remains politically freighted, in part because the absence of a federal domestic terrorism statute has created ambiguities as to precisely what sort of violence meets that definition.

Several Republican senators, for instance, suggested Tuesday that the FBI and the Justice Department had given more attention to the Jan. 6 insurrection than to the 2020 rioting that erupted in American cities and grew out of racial justice protests.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accused the department of “wildly disparate” treatment. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate’s top Republican, played video clips of the 2020 violence as a counter to the video of the Jan. 6 Capitol rioting played by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, the committee’s chairman.

The officials said the department treats domestic extremist violence the same regardless of ideology.

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Romania tightens pandemic measures amid COVID-19 surge

By STEPHEN McGRATH for the Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Tighter pandemic measures came into force in Romania on Saturday as authorities hoped to quell sharply rising coronavirus cases amid concerns that the next virus wave could overstretch the country’s health care system.

FILE – People watch from a passing bus health workers protesting outside the government building in Bucharest, Romania, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Tighter pandemic measures have come into force in Romania as authorities hope to quell sharply rising coronavirus cases amid concerns that the next virus wave could overstretch the country’s health care system. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda. File)

In mid-December, Romania was reporting fewer than a thousand COVID-19 infections a day, but over the past week, daily cases have surged to around 6,000. It is the highest number of infections since early November when cases were on the decline following a vicious fourth virus wave.

Over the winter holiday period, hundreds of thousands of Romanians return home from other countries, many from the West, which fueled concerns over the threat of the fast-spreading omicron variant. Romania has so far confirmed almost 300 cases of the new variant.

Health minister Alexandru Rafila said in a press briefing Friday that Romania is “already in the fifth wave of the pandemic” and that omicron is expected to soon become the dominant virus strain.ADVERTISEMENT

“For the time being, there is a sporadic transmission (of omicron),” he said. “But it is very possible that in the coming days, the coming weeks, we will witness a community transmission supported by this new strain.”

The new measures Saturday include the mandatory wearing of face masks in outdoor and indoor public spaces, and textile masks have been banned. Non-compliance with mask rules could result in hefty fines of up to 500 euros ($567), authorities said.

Bars and restaurants can stay open until 10 p.m. and operate at 50% or 30% capacity depending on the area’s infection rate, and COVID-19 passes are required. The same goes for sporting events, gyms, and cinemas. Meanwhile, quarantine and isolation periods have been reduced.

Octavian Jurma, a physician and health care statistician, said the new pandemic measures are “mostly cosmetic” and compared them to “giving aspirin to a cancer patient.”

“These measures were never meant to limit the pandemic, but to create an illusion they are doing something more than in the delta wave,” Jurma told The Associated Press. “We have a perfect storm lined up in Romania … we will again see record numbers of hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths.”

Through October and November, Romania recorded pandemic highs of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and at one time had the highest mortality rate globally. The situation crippled the country’s aging health care system.

Romania, a European Union country of around 19.5 million, is the bloc’s second-lowest vaccinated nation against COVID-19, with just 40% fully vaccinated. Experts blame widespread disinformation, a strong distrust of government authorities and an ineffective national campaign among reasons for vaccine hesitancy.

“I am not sure the pandemic is manageable in Romania anymore since the negationists have clearly won the ‘hearts and minds’ war,” Jurma said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic: https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

Coast Guard announces safety rules after deadly boat fire

By STEFANIE DAZIO and BRIAN MELLEY for the Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Coast Guard has announced new safety rules following a deadly blaze that killed 34 people on a scuba diving boat off the California coast more than two years ago, including installation of fire detection and suppression equipment.

FILE – In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo, provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a fire aboard the Conception dive boat fire in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California. The Coast Guard has announced several new safety rules following the deadly blaze that sent dozens of people on a scuba diving boat to a watery grave off the California coast more than two years ago. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP, File)

The Labor Day 2019 fire aboard the Conception off Santa Barbara marked the deadliest marine disaster in modern state history and led to criminal charges and calls for tougher regulations for small passenger vessels.

The new interim rules will take effect over the next two years. In addition to the fire systems, owners of boats with overnight passengers will be required, among other things, to provide better escapes from below deck and use devices that make sure a night watchman is alert and making frequent rounds.

An investigation into the disaster blamed the Conception’s owners for a lack of oversight and the boat’s captain for failing to post a roving watchman aboard the vessel, which allowed the fire to quickly spread and trap the 33 passengers and one crew member below deck. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crew members, all of whom were sleeping above deck, escaped.ADVERTISEMENT

Boylan has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. He is free on bond awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The new rules were expected after Congress mandated in December 2020 that the Coast Guard review its regulations for small passenger vessels. The law, included in the National Defense Authorization Act, also added new requirements regarding fire detection and suppression.

The new rules apply to small passenger vessels with sleeping quarters or operating on oceans or coastal routes, but excludes fishing boats and ferries.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in its investigation that the Coast Guard require boat owners to install more comprehensive smoke detector systems, upgrade emergency exits and make mandatory inspection checks on roving watches.

Since 1991, no owner, operator or charterer has been issued a citation or fine for failure to post a roving patrol, prompting the NTSB to fault the Coast Guard for not enforcing that requirement and recommend it develop a program to ensure boats with overnight passengers actually have watchmen.

The rules would also require boats to have at least two exits so if one is unavailable there is another way to escape. The exits must be clear and both cannot be directly above a berth.

The Conception bunkroom had an open stairwell toward the bow and a small escape hatch that was difficult to access and climb through above one of the bunks in the center of the boat. However, both led to the galley, which was in flames.

Family members of those who died have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the boat company, Truth Aquatics Inc., and the family that owned it. They have also sued the Coast Guard for lax enforcement that they say doomed the people below deck.

The families said the fire detection and suppression systems were out of compliance, and the two escapes from the bunkroom violated Coast Guard regulations because they led to the same place.

The boat had passed its two most recent Coast Guard safety inspections.

The Coast Guard has declined to comment on the lawsuit because of a policy not to discuss pending litigation.

The rules published late last month in the Federal Register begin taking effect March 28 and could be changed after a public comment period that ends in June.

Other new requirements include better training of crew, escape drills for passengers and guidance on how to handle flammable items such as rechargeable batteries.

While investigators said they couldn’t determine what caused the fire because the boat burned and sank, they say the blaze started toward the back of the main deck salon — where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with combustible lithium ion batteries.

After the fire, the Coast Guard issued a bulletin recommending a limit on the unsupervised onboard use of lithium ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.

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Associated Press journalist Janet McConnaughey contributed from New Orleans.

Marine officer blames bad information for sinking tragedy

By JULIE WATSON for the Associated Press

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A Marine Corps battalion commander testified Friday that in retrospect he would have halted the exercise that killed nine of his Marines whose amphibious assault vehicle sank off the Southern California coast but at the time he did not have accurate information to make such a decision.

FILE – In this July 31, 2020, file photo, the U.S. flag is seen lowered to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, Calif., after a seafaring assault vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California. A Marine Corps panel convenes Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, to decide if an officer should be discharged over the sinking of the amphibious assault vehicle that killed nine service members. (Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner said his decisions were based in part on what other commanders told him, including that all the Marines had completed their swim certifications and that the aging vehicles they were in had been fixed and were ready for the mission.

He said he was also unaware that the Navy had changed plans that day and did not launch a safety boat.

“Had I known that at the time, I would have said ‘No we’re not going to go into the ocean without a safety boat,’” Regner said.

Regner gave his account to a three-officer panel at a Board of Inquiry. That panel will issue a recommendation to the commanding general of Regner’s unit as to whether the decorated officer, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be considered for discharge just shy of his 20-year mark and be denied retirement benefits.

However, a decision isn’t expected until later this month and will follow Boards of Inquiry pending for other officers, including one scheduled for next Tuesday.

A Marine Corps investigation found that inadequate training, shabby maintenance and poor judgment by leaders led to the July 30, 2020, sinking of the amphibious assault vehicle in one of the deadliest Marine training accidents in decades.

The vehicle — a kind of seafaring tank — had 16 people aboard when it sank rapidly in 385 feet (117 meters) of water off the coast of San Clemente Island. Seven Marines were rescued as the vessel was returning to a Navy ship on a training exercise.

Regner was relieved of command of the landing team of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, shortly after the sinking. A Marine Corps statement at the time said his removal was based on a “substantial amount of information and data” and cited a loss of trust.

The government argued at Friday’s hearing that while Regner is not the only one to blame for the tragedy, his “substandard” leadership set the groundwork for things to go as badly as they did.

Lt. Col. Michael McDonald said in the military’s closing statement that Regner decided to risk sending his Marines who were inexperienced and had not completed their training, including how to escape the vehicles, into the ocean.

“That was just an absolute comedy of errors,” McDonald said. “This didn’t come out of the blue.”

Regner’s attorney said the panel’s task is to determine if Regner is of value to the Marine Corps and has potential for future service, which he argued his client clearly has demonstrated.

“He’s never shirked his responsibilities,” said Maj. Cory Carver, Regner’s attorney.ADVERTISEMENT

Regner became emotional when he talked about how he has served his country his “entire adulthood,” becoming a Marine as the United States went to war following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

He said he has excelled throughout his career, including in the last 18 months after he was relieved from his command and assigned to another job.

“Hell I grew up in this,” Regner said, wiping a tear. “My dad was a Marine. I was raised by the Marine Corps.”

Regner said he was aware that 12 of the 13 amphibious assault vehicles his Marines would be using in the training had problems but that a fellow battalion commander who overseas the vehicles assured him they would be fixed before the exercise.

He said he tried to get his Marines extra training in the water and warned senior leaders that his troops had never done this type of exercise.

He said he was constrained by a number of factors including the fact that Marines had to squeeze in their preparations after being deployed to the U.S-Mexico border under the Trump administration, and then they faced restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic that interrupted their training.

But he said he was led to believe by a company commander that all had been certified as swimmers, though two of the troops had not.

Other Marines are expected to face possible discharge. Col. Christopher J. Bronzi, who supervised Regner, was relieved of command of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit last year.

The panel was expected to review 6,000 pages of investigative reports and evidence before making its decision.

The Marines use the vehicles to transport troops and their equipment from Navy ships to land. The armored vehicles outfitted with machine guns and grenade launchers look like tanks as they roll ashore for beach attacks, with Marines pouring out of them to take up positions.

Dogs to visit 3 school districts to sniff out COVID-19

From the Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Two dogs trained to detect an odor distinct to people who are sick with COVID-19 will visit three school districts in Bristol County this week.

A black Labrador named Huntah and a golden Lab called Duke can detect the smell of the virus on surfaces and will sit to indicate when they pick up the scent.

The dogs will visit schools in the Freetown, Lakeville and Norton school districts, WBZ-TV reported Tuesday.

“With COVID, whether it’s the omicron, whether it’s the delta, our dogs will hit on it,” said Bristol County Capt. Paul Douglas. “And if there’s a new variant that comes out in six months, hopefully there isn’t, but if there is one, COVID is COVID.”

Fairhaven School Superintendent Tara Kohler welcomed the dogs saying their presence shows students, “we are doing everything we can to mitigate the risk and I want them to feel secure and safe and not anxious about their surroundings.”

The dogs were trained using a detection program developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute. WBZ-TV first reported on the Bristol County’s use of the detection dogs in July.

US urges COVID boosters starting at age 12 to fight omicron

By LAURAN NEERGAARD and MIKE STOBBE for the Associated Press

The U.S. is urging that everyone 12 and older get a COVID-19 booster as soon as they’re eligible, to help fight back the hugely contagious omicron mutant that’s ripping through the country.

FILE – A doctor loads a dose of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at a mobile vaccination clinic in Worcester, Mass. In January 2022, an influential government advisory panel is considering COVID-19 boosters for younger teens, as the U.S. battles the omicron surge and schools struggle with how to restart classes amid the spike. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Boosters already were encouraged for all Americans 16 and older, but Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed an extra Pfizer shot for younger teens — those 12 to 15 — and strengthened its recommendation that 16- and 17-year-olds get it, too.

“It is critical that we protect our children and teens from COVID-19 infection and the complications of severe disease,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said in a statement Wednesday night.

“This booster dose will provide optimized protection against COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. I encourage all parents to keep their children up to date with CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine recommendations,” she said.

Vaccines still offer strong protection against serious illness from any type of COVID-19, including omicron — what experts say is their most important benefit. But the newest mutant can slip past a layer of the vaccines’ protection to cause milder infections. Studies show a booster dose at least temporarily revs up virus-fighting antibodies to levels that offer the best chance at avoiding symptomatic infection, even from omicron.

Earlier Wednesday, the CDC’s independent scientific advisers wrestled with whether a booster should be an option for younger teens, who tend not to get as sick from COVID-19 as adults, or more strongly recommended.

Giving teens a booster for a temporary jump in protection against infections is like playing whack-a-mole, cautioned CDC adviser Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University. But she said the extra shot was worth it to help push back the omicron mutant and shield kids from the missed school and other problems that come with even a very mild case of COVID-19.

More important, if a child with a mild infection spreads it to a more vulnerable parent or grandparent who then dies, the impact “is absolutely crushing,” said panelist Dr. Camille Kotton of Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Let’s whack this one down,” agreed Dr. Jamie Loehr of Cayuga Family Medicine in Ithaca, New York.

The vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech is the only option for American children of any age. The CDC says about 13.5 million children ages 12 to 17 — slightly more than half of that age group — have received two Pfizer shots. Boosters were opened to the 16- and 17-year-olds last month.

Wednesday’s decision means about 5 million of the younger teens who had their last shot in the spring are eligible for a booster right away. New U.S. guidelines say anyone who received two Pfizer vaccinations and is eligible for a booster can get it five months after their last shot, rather than the six months previously recommended.

But one committee member, Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University, worried that such a strong recommendation for teen boosters would distract from getting shots into the arms of kids who have not been vaccinated at all.

The advisers saw U.S. data making clear that symptomatic COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are between seven and 11 times higher in unvaccinated adolescents than vaccinated ones.

While children do tend to suffer less serious illness from COVID-19 than adults, child hospitalizations are rising during the omicron wave — the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

During the public comment part of Wednesday’s meeting, Dr. Julie Boom of Texas Children’s Hospital said a booster recommendation for younger teens “cannot come soon enough.”

The chief safety question for adolescents is a rare side effect called myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation seen mostly in younger men and teen boys who get either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The vast majority of cases are mild — far milder than the heart inflammation COVID-19 can cause — and they seem to peak in older teens, those 16 and 17.

The FDA decided a booster dose was as safe for the younger teens as the older ones based largely on data from 6,300 12- to 15-year-olds in Israel who got a Pfizer booster five months after their second dose. Israeli officials said Wednesday that they’ve seen two cases of mild myocarditis in this age group after giving more boosters, 40,000.

Earlier this week, FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said the side effect occurs in about 1 in 10,000 men and boys ages 16 to 30 after their second shot. But he said a third dose appears less risky, by about a third, probably because more time has passed before the booster than between the first two shots.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Treasure hunters sue for records on FBI’s Civil War gold dig

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM for the Associated Press

Treasure hunters who believe they found a huge cache of fabled Civil War-era gold in Pennsylvania are now on the prowl for something as elusive as the buried booty itself: government records of the FBI’s excavation.

Finders Keepers filed a federal lawsuit against the Justice Department over its failure to produce documents on the FBI’s search for the legendary gold, which took place nearly four years ago at a remote woodland site in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The FBI has since dragged its feet on the treasure hunters’ Freedom of Information Act request for records, their lawyer said Wednesday.

FILE-This Sept. 20, 2018 file photo, Dennis Parada, right, and his son Kem Parada stand at the site of the FBI’s dig for Civil War-era gold in Dents Run, Pa. Government emails released under court order show that FBI agents were looking for gold when they excavated Dent’s Run in 2018, though the FBI says that nothing was found. The treasure hunters have filed suit against the Justice Department over its failure to produce documents related to the FBI’s 2018 search for Civil War-era gold at the remote woodland site. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam, File)

“There’s been a pattern of behavior by the FBI that’s been very troubling,” said Anne Weismann, who represents Finders Keepers. She questioned whether the agency is “acting in good faith.”

A message was sent to the Justice Department seeking comment on the suit, which asks a judge to order the FBI to immediately turn over the records.

Finders Keepers’ owners, the father-son duo of Dennis and Kem Parada, had spent years looking for what, according to legend, was an 1863 shipment of Union gold that was lost or stolen on its way to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The duo focused on a spot where they say their instruments detected a large metallic mass.

After meeting with the treasure hunters in early 2018, the FBI brought in a contractor with more sophisticated instruments. The contractor detected an underground mass that weighed up to nine tons and had the density of gold, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed last year at the request of news organizations, including The Associated Press.

The Paradas accompanied the FBI to the site in Dent’s Run, about 135 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh, but say they were confined to their car while the FBI excavated.

The FBI has long insisted the March 2018 dig came up empty, but the agency has consistently stymied the Paradas’ efforts to obtain information.

The FBI initially claimed it had no files about the investigation. Then, after the Justice Department ordered a more thorough review, the FBI said its records were exempt from public disclosure. Finally, in the wake of the treasure hunters’ appeal, the FBI said it had located 2,400 pages of records and 17 video files that it could potentially turn over — but that it would take years to do so.

Finders Keepers asked the Justice Department for expedited processing, which can be granted in cases where there is widespread media interest involving questions about the government’s integrity. The Justice Department denied the request — and, as of last month, had yet to assign the FOIA request to a staffer for processing, according to the lawsuit.

“From the outset, it seems as if the FBI is doing everything it can to avoid answering the question of whether they actually found gold,” Weismann said.

Insurrection prompts year of change for US Capitol Police

By MICHAEL BALSAMO and FARNOUSH AMIRI for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after thousands of violent pro-Trump rioters overwhelmed police officers at the U.S. Capitol — severely injuring dozens in the process — the force dedicated to protecting the premier symbol of American democracy has transformed.

U.S. Capitol Police officers try to hold back rioters on the West Frontof the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The leaders who were in charge of the U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 6 were ousted following criticism for intelligence and other failures that left the legislative branch vulnerable to the stunning attack. And more broadly, the agency that was once little-known outside of Washington now has an elevated profile, leading to a roughly 15% increase in funding and a greater awareness of its role in the patchwork of groups that protect the region.

With the nation’s political divide running deep and an unprecedented number of threats against lawmakers, there is still concern about the readiness of the Capitol Police to thwart another attack. But experts say the shock of the insurrection has prompted needed changes, including better communication among the Capitol Police, other law enforcement agencies and the public.

“It’s a sea change between this year and last year in terms of how the Capitol Police are thinking, and operating,” said Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that focuses on professionalism in policing. “They’re going to be over-prepared, and willing to be criticized for being over-prepared.”

As the temporary public face of the department, then-acting Police Chief Yogananda Pittman conceded to Congress in February that multiple levels of failures allowed rioters to storm the building. But she disputed the notion that law enforcement had failed to take the threat seriously, noting how Capitol Police several days before the riot had distributed an internal document warning that extremists were poised for violence.

The police department had compiled numerous intelligence documents suggesting the crowd could turn violent and even target Congress. The intelligence documents, obtained by The Associated Press, warned that crowds could number in the tens of thousands and include members of extremist groups like the Proud Boys.

The Capitol Police Board has oversight of the force and is comprised of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol, who oversees the building. It passed over Pittman in its search for a permanent chief and, in July, selected J. Thomas Manger, the former chief of the police departments in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Manger has focused on making major changes to the agency, which includes 1,800 sworn police officers and nearly 400 civilian employees. He’s ordered new equipment for front-line officers and officers assigned to the civil disturbance unit while expanding training sessions with the National Guard and other agencies. He’s also pushed for stronger peer support and mental health services for officers.

“I think that the damage that was done on Jan. 6 was not just the physical damage to the Capitol itself. It was not just the harm, the injuries, the deaths that occurred to the men and women of the Capitol Police Department, to the demonstrators, to the folks that were on the Capitol grounds that day,” Manger said in an interview with the AP in September. “The damage went beyond that. It went to where it damaged, I think, the confidence of the American public that the Capitol could be adequately protected.”

In the last year, Capitol Police say they have also improved the way that investigators gather, analyze and disseminate intelligence and have brought on someone dedicated to planning major events to focus on intelligence and coordination. The agency has also started conducting planning sessions and exercises ahead of major events and is briefing officers in person.

Many officers within the department had criticized their own leaders, saying they had failed to recognize the threat ahead of the insurrection and didn’t do enough to bolster staffing. Some officers were outfitted with equipment for a protest, rather than a riot.

But even with a new chief and major changes to operations, questions still remain about whether the Capitol is adequately protected. While many, both inside and outside the Capitol, were surprised by the attack that took place last January, some were cautioning the intelligence community to take the planned rallies by pro-Trump entities seriously.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said he had been calling the FBI for days leading up to the attack and had been assured officials were prepared. But as he made his way to the Senate floor for the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s electoral votes, he saw the crowd of protesters coming up the hill through the Capitol windows.

“I’ve been here a long time and lived in Washington for years, and never before had I seen protesters appearing to be that close to the building, and there was a lot of them,” Warner told the AP last month. What happened next, he says, could only be described as chaotic, “ad hoc,” and an embarrassment of a response.

The Capitol Police watchdog has said only a small number of the recommendations he made to make the Capitol complex “safe and secure” have been adopted. And he says there were clear systemic issues identified after the insurrection.

“The Department still lacks an overall training infrastructure to meet the needs of the department, the level of intelligence gathering and expertise needed, and an overall cultural change needed to move the department into a protective agency as opposed to a traditional police department,” Inspector General Michael Bolton told lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee last month.

Police say they have been focused on “completing the recommendations that could help prevent another attack” and have detailed plans in place to address the dozens of recommendations from the inspector general.

Still, the most pressing issue the force faces is staffing shortages. Manger plans to hire about 400 new officers and officials plan to bring on about 280 sworn officers this year.

“The United States Capitol Police is stronger than it was before January 6,” the agency said in a statement. “We are incredibly proud of the work our dedicated employees have done during this challenging year.”

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Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

A record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November

By PAUL WISEMAN for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A record 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs in November, a sign of confidence and more evidence that the U.S. job market is bouncing back strongly from last year’s coronavirus recession.

The Labor Department also reported Tuesday that employers posted 10.6 million job openings in November, down from 11.1 million in October but still high by historical standards.

FILE – A hiring sign is shown at a booth for Jameson’s Irish Pub during a job fair on Sept. 22, 2021, in the West Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Hiring in California slowed significantly in November 2021 even as the state’s unemployment rate dipped below 7% for the first time since March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, according to data made public Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Employers hired 6.7 million people in November, up from 6.5 million in October, the Labor Department reported Tuesday in its monthly Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

Nick Bunker, research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab, noted that quits were high in the low-wage hotel and restaurant industries. “Lots of quits means stronger worker bargaining power which will likely feed into strong wage gains,″ he said. “Wage growth was very strong in 2021, and … we might see more of the same in 2022.″

Still, the Labor Department collected the numbers before COVID-19′s omicron variant had spread widely in the United States. “While each successive wave of the pandemic caused less economic damage, there is still a risk to the labor market from the current surge of cases,″ Bunker said.

The job market is rebounding from last year’s brief but intense coronavirus recession. When COVID hit, governments ordered lockdowns, consumers stayed home and many businesses closed or cut hours. Employers slashed more than 22 million jobs in March and April 2020, and the unemployment rate rocketed to 14.8%.

But massive government spending — and eventually the rollout of vaccines — brought the economy back. Employers have added 18.5 million jobs since April 2020, still leaving the U.S. still 3.9 million jobs short of what it had before the pandemic. The December jobs report, out Friday, is expected to show that the economy generated almost 393,000 more jobs this month, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.

The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.2%, close to what economists consider full employment.

Hundreds stranded all night on snowy highway in Virginia

By SARAH RANKIN and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN for the Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after being stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of highway south of the nation’s capital that became impassable when tractor-trailers jackknifed in a winter storm.

Motorists sit stranded on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists were stranded all night in snow and freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 after a crash involving six tractor-trailers in Virginia, where authorities were struggling Tuesday to reach them. (WJLA via AP)

The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction Monday as other vehicles lost control and blocked lanes in both directions of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, police said. As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.

Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra, were driving home from visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stuck Monday evening. They were only 100 feet past an exit but could not move for roughly 16 hours.

“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange,” the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.

By 9 a.m., a single lane of traffic was creeping forward between many stalled trucks and cars in one direction. People could be seen walking down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow.

Crews were working to tow the stopped trucks and to remove snow and ice while guiding stranded motorists to the nearest exits, transportation officials said.

Gov. Ralph Northam said his team responded through the night, sending out emergency messages to connect drivers with help and working with local officials to set up warming shelters as needed.

The governor said he could not provide an estimate for when I-95 would reopen or how many vehicles remained stranded. Transportation Department engineer Marcie Parker said the agency expected to finish clearing the interstate by Tuesday night and that it should be open for the Wednesday morning rush hour.

People who were stranded overnight and their families lashed out at Northam on Twitter, asking why the National Guard was not deployed.

Northam said he opted not to request National Guard help because the issue facing state crews was not a lack of manpower but the difficulty of getting workers and equipment through the snow and ice to where they needed to be. He said that effort was complicated by disabled vehicles, freezing temperatures and ice.

Heavy rain that preceded the storm made it difficult to pretreat roads, and conditions began to deteriorate around midnight, he added.

Rao said they stopped their car engine at least 30 times to conserve gas and ran the heat just enough to get warm. They had some potato chips, nuts and apples to eat, but Rao did not want to drink any bottled water because she had a sprained ankle and did not think she could reach a makeshift restroom.

Finally, around midmorning Tuesday, a tow truck driver appeared and cleared away snow, allowing the Raos and other cars back up and take the exit.

“He was a messenger from God,” Rao said. “I literally was in tears.”

Up to 11 inches of snow fell in the area during Monday’s blizzard, according to the National Weather Service, and state police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, especially as colder nighttime temperatures set in.

Compounding the challenges, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the transportation department said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car 21 hours after starting his two-hour commute to the Capitol at 1 p.m. Monday.

“This has been a miserable experience,” Kaine told WTOP. Traffic was so tightly packed that emergency vehicles struggled to remove disabled cars and trucks, he said.

Kaine described camaraderie among those who were stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from a Florida vacation who walked up and down lines of parked cars sharing a bag of oranges.

Darryl Walter, of Bethesda, Maryland, was stuck for 10 hours as he drove home from a Florida beach vacation with his wife, son and dog Brisket.

They had a few bottles of water, some bags of chips, a blanket for warmth and Trivial Pursuit to pass the time. Walter said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing how long it would last.

Walter felt fortunate that they were able to make it home as soon as they did knowing that many others remained stranded for much longer. They passed a long line of southbound cars that were unable to get past the jackknifed trucks.

“It had to be 15 miles of backup,” he said.

A planned one-hour drive home from her parents’ house turned into a 16-hour nightmare for Susan Phelan when she got stuck in the northbound lanes of I-95 and did not move for roughly 10 hours.

After a frigid night without sleep, food or water, she pulled into the driveway at her Alexandria, Virginia, home just before noon Tuesday.

“Mom was right: Always pack a Snickers bar,” said Phelan, a former federal communications officer. “At some point in the gridlock, I was going to have to start knocking on windows asking for water. At that point, everybody was helping everybody. If you needed something, it was not a problem.”

In Prince William County, emergency crews responded Tuesday to 10 calls from motorists, including complaints about hypothermia and diabetics concerned about a prolonged lack of food, said Matt Smolsky, assistant fire chief. None of the calls were life-threatening, but four patients were transported.

Crews used the express lanes that separate the northbound and southbound lanes to reach patients, he said.

Also stranded was NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday via video feed from his car. He said he had been stuck about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Washington since 8 p.m. Monday.

There were no signs of any emergency vehicles, said Lederman, a former White House reporter for The Associated Press.

“You really start to think if there was a medical emergency, someone that was out of gas and out of heat — you know it’s 26 degrees, and there’s no way that anybody can get to you in this situation.”

___

Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press writers Bryan Gallion in Roseland, New Jersey, and Julie Walker in New York also contributed to this report.

Sheriff’s ‘no shave’ fundraiser brings $4K, moves year-round

For the Associated Press

THIBODAUX, La. (AP) — A wintertime law enforcement fundraiser called “No Shave November” has raised about $4,000 in two months, proving so popular that a Louisiana sheriff is making it year-round.

“After what we’ve been through in the past two years, I figured there’s plenty of great causes to allow this to continue all year. So, I am changing No Shave November into No Shave Forever,” Sheriff Craig Webre said in a news release.

Deputies and other employees of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office have been donating $25 a month to charity to be allowed to grow beards in November and December. Those who don’t grow beards can dress more casually on Fridays if their jobs allow it.

Employees raised $2,595 for the American Cancer Society and $1,260 for Special Olympics Louisiana, the sheriff’s office said. They could also choose other nonprofit groups, and smaller amounts were given to 22, including Wheelchairs for Warriors and the American Red Cross.

More than 125 of the office’s 350 employees have been participating, and about one-third of the participants were women, Capt. Brennan Matherne, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Wednesday in an email.

“The idea of having a casual Friday every Friday with no uniforms is definitely something they are excited about,” he said.

Patrol deputies must wear uniforms, but Webre relaxed policies earlier this year to let them wear short-sleeved shirts — which don’t require neckties — throughout the year rather than only in the spring and summer, Matherne said.

Traditionally, many law enforcement agencies allowed male officers to grow mustaches but no beards.

“Beards have become more commonplace and accepted in our society, even in professional settings,” Webre said. “The public has had a positive reception to our deputies’ beards. I’ve even received positive comments myself, so I will be participating along with many deputies, and it’s all for great causes.”

Pentagon chief Austin says he has tested positive for COVID

For the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday he has tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing mild symptoms while quarantining at home.

FILE – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stands with Lithuania’s Minister of Defense Arvydas Anusauskas during an honor cordon upon his arrival at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. In a statement Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, Austin said he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing mild symptoms while quarantining at home. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

In a statement Sunday night, Austin said he plans to attend key meetings and discussions virtually in the coming week “to the degree possible.” He said Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks would represent him in appropriate matters.

Austin said he last met with President Joe Biden on Dec. 21, more than a week before he began to experience symptoms, and had tested negative the morning of that day.

“I have informed my leadership team of my positive test result, as well as the President,” Austin said. “My staff has begun contact tracing and testing of all those with whom I have come into contact over the last week.”

Austin, 68, said he was fully vaccinated and received a booster in October. He said he requested a test Sunday morning after experiencing symptoms while at home on leave and, given the result, planned to remain in quarantine for five days, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The vaccines work and will remain a military medical requirement for our workforce. I continue to encourage everyone eligible for a booster shot to get one. This remains a readiness issue,” he said.

In October, another member of Biden’s Cabinet, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, tested positive for COVID-19.

School, work, travel can wait as snow blankets U.S. capital

By DARLENE SUPERVILLE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A winter storm packing heavy snow blew into the nation’s capital on Monday, closing government offices and schools and grounding the president’s helicopter. As much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) of snow was forecast for the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland through the afternoon.

Snow falls at the White House early in the morning in Washington, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, as a winter storm blows into the Mid-Atlantic area. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the area until 4 p.m. EST Monday. Wind gusts of up to 35 mph (56 kph) were forecast, and travel was expected to be very difficult because of the hazardous conditions, the weather service said.

“The timing of this isn’t great,” said National Weather Service meteorologist David Roth. “For the D.C. area, it’s morning rush hour. At least for places to the northeast, it’ll be closer to midday.”

More than half the flights were delayed or canceled Monday morning at Ronald Reagan National Airport, Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, according to FlightAware.com’s misery map. A quarter of the flights at New York’s three major airports were delayed or canceled as well.

The snow also grounded President Joe Biden’s helicopter, so he was motorcading to the White House from Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland after a weekend in Delaware. With snow blanketing the streets in and around the nation’s capital, the White House Press briefing was canceled, although Biden’s other public events were still on.

Air Force One landed safely in the snow at Andrews Air Force Base, then spent 27 minutes on the runway as plows worked to clear a safe path. Biden emerged on the stairwell into the whiteout and left in a motorcade for a slow slog back to the White House, as District of Columbia officials warned residents against unnecessary trips in the snow.

The Weather Prediction Center said 2 inches (5 centimeters) of snow per hour could fall in some areas, and thunder snow was possible.

Other parts of the country were also dealing with a snowy start to the new year.

Western Washington state and Oregon were seeing a mix of rain and snow while heavy snow, gusty winds, drifts and crashes shut down mountain passes and some highways.

Even Florida woke up to a dusting of snow, with temperatures plunging in parts of the Panhandle after typical beach weather on Sunday.

“Well how’s this for a temperature change? “From 75 degrees at 3 in the afternoon to snow at 3 am,” read a post from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office early Monday.

More than 500,000 customers were without power Monday morning as the winter storm warning extended from northern Alabama and southern Tennessee through Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.

Snow began falling Sunday night in parts of Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. As much as 6 inches accumulated in north Alabama, where authorities reported multiple roads were blocked because of icy spots and wrecks, and businesses, schools and government offices delayed opening until mid-morning to allow time for temperatures to rise above freezing.

Authorities across Virginia and Maryland were reporting numerous crashes and treacherous roads. The Virginia State Police urged people to travel only if necessary after responding to 82 traffic crashes as of 8 a.m., as people drove too fast in slick conditions.

The largest snowfall total reported in the Baltimore-Washington region on Monday morning was in Virginia’s Augusta County, where a trained spotter in Greenville reported 4 inches, according to the weather service.

Maryland State Police said they responded to nine crashes, three disabled vehicles and 57 calls for service well before the heaviest snow fell. Flooding made some roads dangerous in North Carolina.

In Washington, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced that federal offices in the area would be closed on Monday. Emergency employees and telework employees were expected to keep working, the OPM said on its website.

Many COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites were closed in Virginia and in Maryland due to the weather.

Multiple school districts in the region said they would be closed, delayed or have virtual learning Monday. DC Public Schools said students and staff wouldn’t be returning to school until Thursday.

___

Associated Press contributors include Colleen Long in Washington, Julie Walker in New York and Jay Reeves in Birmingham.

Virus fears trigger more holiday cancellations, restrictions

By PHILIP MARCELO and JILL LAWLESS for the Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — The nation’s second-largest city called off its New Year’s Eve celebration Monday, and its smallest state re-imposed an indoor mask mandate as fears of a potentially devastating winter COVID-19 surge triggered more cancellations and restrictions ahead of the holidays.

People wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in Times Square, New York, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Just a couple of weeks ago, New York City seemed like a relative bright spot in the U.S. coronavirus struggle. Now it’s a hot spot, confronting a dizzying spike in cases, a scramble for testing, a quandary over a major event and an exhausting sense of déjà vu. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Organizers of the New Year’s Eve party planned for downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Park say there will not be an in-person audience. The event will be livestreamed instead, as it was last year. In Rhode Island, a mask mandate took effect Monday for indoor spaces that can hold 250 people or more, such as larger retail stores and churches.

And in Boston, the city’s new Democratic mayor announced to howls of protests and jeers that anyone entering a restaurant, bar or other indoor business will need to show proof of vaccination starting next month.

“There is nothing more American than coming together to ensure that we’re taking care of each other,” Mayor Michelle Wu said at City Hall as protesters loudly blew whistles and shouted “Shame on Wu.”

Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said officials have decided against imposing further restrictions, at least for now.

“We will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public,” Johnson said. “The arguments either way are very, very finely balanced.”

The conservative government re-imposed face masks in shops and ordered people to show proof of vaccination at nightclubs and other crowded venues earlier this month. It is also weighing curfews and stricter social distancing requirements.

Johnson’s warning threw into stark relief the unpalatable choice government leaders face: wreck holiday plans for millions for a second consecutive year, or face a potential tidal wave of cases and disruption.

In the U.S., President Joe Biden is set to address the nation on the latest variant on Tuesday, less than a year after he suggested that the country would essentially be back to normal by Christmas.

His top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, made the rounds on television over the weekend, promising that the Democrat will issue “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.

Cases are surging in parts of the U.S., particularly the Northeast and Midwest, though it’s not always clear which variant is driving the upswing.

In New York City, where the mayor has said the new variant is already in “full force,” a spike is scuttling Broadway shows and spurring long lines at testing centers, but so far new hospitalizations and deaths are averaging well below their spring 2020 peak.

The city is also weighing what to do with its famous New Year’s Eve bash in Times Square. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said a decision will be made this week about whether the event will come back “full strength” — with attendees providing proof of vaccination — as he promised in November. Last year’s bash was limited to small groups of essential workers.

Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early next year. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing an omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.

Even if it is milder, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 60% in a week as omicron overtook delta as the dominant variant.

But many political leaders are reluctant to impose the stiff measures they resorted to earlier in the pandemic — often because they promised their people that vaccines would offer a way out of such restrictions, and it may be politically untenable to impose them again.

France, for example, is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron’s expected re-election campaign.

In Britain, the government hopes vaccine boosters will offer more protection against omicron, as the data suggests, and has set a goal of offering everyone 18 and up an extra shot by the end of December. More than 900,000 booster shots were delivered on Sunday, as soccer stadiums, shopping centers and cathedrals were turned into temporary inoculation clinics.

U.S. vaccine maker Moderna said Monday that lab tests suggested that a booster dose of its vaccine should offer protection against omicron. Similar testing by Pfizer also found that a booster triggered a big jump in omicron-fighting antibodies.

But many scientists say boosters along are not enough and tougher action is needed.

The speed of omicron’s spread in the U.K., where cases of the variant are doubling about every two days, is decimating the economy in the busy pre-Christmas period.

Usually teeming theaters and restaurants are being hit by cancellations. Some eateries and pubs have closed until after the holidays because so many staff are off sick or self-isolating. The Natural History Museum, one of London’s leading attractions, said Monday that it was closing for a week because of staff shortages.

Other countries are warily watching the U.K., which reported 91,743 more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Monday, close to the record high for a single day set last week.

The Dutch government began a tough nationwide lockdown on Sunday to rein in sharply rising infections. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, announced Monday that it is again delaying its annual meeting of world leaders, business executives and other elites in Davos, Switzerland, because of omicron uncertainty.

But many European leaders have opted for something less.

France and Germany have barred most British travelers from entering, and the government in Paris has also banned public concerts and fireworks displays at New Year’s celebrations. Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events, while Greece will have 10,000 police officers on duty over the holidays to carry out COVID pass checks.

In Spain, the national average of new cases is double what it was a year ago. But authorities in the country with one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates are betting primarily on mandatory mask-wearing indoors and the rollout of booster shots, with no further restrictions planned.

Neighboring Portugal is telling most nonessential workers to work from home for a week in January, but the country has no other new measures in the pipeline.

Hendrik Wuest, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, said more restrictions could be on the horizon shortly after Christmas.

“I don’t think big New Year parties can happen this year — unfortunately, again,” he added. “Omicron won’t forgive us any carelessness if we aren’t cautious.”

___

Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this story.

Jury begins deliberating cop’s case in Daunte Wright death

By AMY FORLITI and SCOTT BAUER for the Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The suburban Minneapolis police officer who says she meant to use her Taser instead of her gun when she shot and killed Black motorist Daunte Wright made a “blunder of epic proportions” and did not have “a license to kill,” a prosecutor told jurors on Monday shortly before they began deliberations in her manslaughter trial.

Kim Potter’s attorney Earl Gray, though, countered during closing arguments that the former Brooklyn Center officer made an honest mistake by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser and that shooting Wright wasn’t a crime.

“In the walk of life, nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes,” Gray said. “My gosh, a mistake is not a crime. It just isn’t in our freedom-loving country.”

The jury began deliberating the case shortly before 1 p.m.

In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Earl Gray delivers closing arguments, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in former Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter’s trial for the April 11, 2021, death of Daunte Wright, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Prosecutor Erin Eldridge said during her summation that Wright’s death was “entirely preventable. Totally avoidable.”

“She drew a deadly weapon,” Eldridge said. “She aimed it. She pointed it at Daunte Wright’s chest, and she fired.”

Gray argued that Wright “caused the whole incident” because he tried to flee from police during a traffic stop.

“Daunte Wright caused his own death, unfortunately,” he asserted.

Potter mistakenly grabbed her gun instead of her Taser because the traffic stop “was chaos,” Gray said.

Potter, 49, told jurors on Friday that she “didn’t want to hurt anybody,” saying during her sometimes tearful testimony that she shouted a warning about using her Taser on Wright after she saw fear in a fellow officer’s face. She said she was “sorry it happened” and that she doesn’t remember what she said or everything that happened after the shooting, as much of her memory of those moments “is missing.”

Eldridge said Monday that the case wasn’t about whether Potter was sorry.

“Of course she feels bad about what she did. … But that has no place in your deliberations,” she said.

Playing Potter’s body camera video frame by frame, Eldridge sought to raise doubts about Potter’s testimony that she fired after seeing a look of fear on the face of another officer who was leaning into the car’s passenger-side door and trying to handcuff Wright. The defense argued that he was at risk of being dragged.

“Playing the video not at the right speed where it showed chaos, playing it as slow as possible … that’s the rabbit hole of misdirection,” Gray said.

As prosecutors have done throughout the three-week trial, Eldridge stressed that Potter, who resigned from the police force two days after the shooting, was a “highly trained” and “highly experienced” 26-year veteran and said she acted recklessly when she killed Wright.

“She made a series of bad choices that led to her shooting and killing Daunte Wright,” Eldridge said. “This was no little oopsie. This was not putting the wrong date on a check. … This was a colossal screwup. A blunder of epic proportions.”

Although there is a risk every time an officer makes a traffic stop, that didn’t justify Potter using her gun on Wright after he pulled away from her and other officers during an April 11 traffic stop as they were trying to arrest him on an outstanding weapons possession warrant, Eldridge said.

“Carrying a badge and a gun is not a license to kill,” she said.

Potter is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 killing of Wright, who was pulled over for having expired license plate tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.

Potter, who was training another officer at the time, said she probably wouldn’t have pulled over the 20-year-old Wright’s car if she had been on her own that day.

Potter’s attorneys argued that she made a mistake but also would have been justified in using deadly force if she had meant to because of the potential harm to the other officer, then-Sgt. Mychal Johnson, if he had been dragged by Wright’s car.

While playing Potter’s body camera video frame by frame, Eldridge raised doubt about Potter’s assertion that she saw “fear” in Johnson’s face. She pointed out that Potter was behind Luckey for much of the interaction and that Johnson didn’t come into view of her body camera until after she opened fire.

Wright’s death set off angry demonstrations for several days in Brooklyn Center. It happened as another white officer, Derek Chauvin, was standing trial in nearby Minneapolis for the killing of George Floyd.

Eldridge went into detail on the elements to prove first-degree manslaughter, including the requirement that a slaying be a “voluntary act.” She said various actions taken by Potter — unsnapping her holster, shifting a piece of paper from her right hand to her left, putting her hand on her gun as she approached Wright’s car — were all voluntary acts and not reflexive.

Chu told jurors that intent is not part of the charges against Potter and that the state doesn’t have to prove she tried to kill Wright.

The judge said to prove first-degree manslaughter, prosecutors have to prove that Potter caused Wright’s death while committing the crime of reckless handling of a firearm. This means they must prove that she committed a conscious or intentional act while handling or using a firearm that creates a substantial or unjustifiable risk that she was aware of and disregarded, and that she endangered safety.

For second-degree manslaughter, the state must prove that she acted with culpable negligence, meaning she consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm.

Gray said jurors have a constitutional duty to presume Potter is innocent. He also reminded jurors that they need to find that prosecutors proved every element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

The case was heard by a mostly white jury. State sentencing guidelines call for just over seven years in prison upon conviction of first-degree manslaughter and four years for second-degree, though prosecutors have said they plan to push for longer sentences.

___

Associated Press writer Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this story. Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin.

‘Large, pink & elusive:’ S. Carolina police seek ruinous pig

From the Associated Press

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) — Authorities in South Carolina are searching for a pig that they say has been “wreaking havoc” in people’s yards.

On Monday, police in Sumter posted on their Facebook page that the department had received calls over the weekend about a “large, pink and elusive” pig suspected of causing damage in some neighborhoods.

Alongside the post were photos of a large pig, as well as large dirt piles the yard of a home.

Officers warned people not to try to approach the hefty hog, writing that “its size alone is of concern.”

Police say they have asked officials with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for help in finding the porcine renegade.

Colorado dog that was missing for 2 weeks rescued from ledge

From the Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A dog missing for two weeks in Colorado was rescued from a ledge about 50 yards (46 meters) above a creek and is now back home.

An animal control officer with the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region anchored herself to a wooden fence and rappelled down to the dog using a mountaineering harness and rope provided by a man living nearby during the Dec. 1 rescue, the humane society said Monday on Facebook.

In this Dec. 1, 2021, photo provided by the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, rescued dog Jessie Lee is seen in Colorado Springs, Colo. The dog went missing for two weeks and was rescued from a ledge about 50 yards above a creek and is now back home. An animal control officer with the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region anchored herself to a wooden fence and rappelled down to the dog, who immediately wagged her tail and crawled towards the officer during the Dec. 1 rescue, the humane society said Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, on Facebook. (Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region via AP)

The dog later identified through her microchip and tag as Jessie Lee immediately wagged her and crawled towards the officer but the ground started slipping out from underneath the dog, the humane society said.

The officer put a catchpole around the dog’s neck and shoulder to slowly pull Jessie Lee closer safely so she would not fall. Another officer then lowered a second rope which was tied into a makeshift harness for the dog and pulled them both up to safety, the humane society said.

Jessie Lee was reunited with her owners, who had been looking for daily since she went missing two weeks ago, the humane society said.

Sewell to be 1st woman, 3rd Black person to lead NYC police

By MICHELLE L. PRICE for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams named Keechant Sewell, a Long Island police official, as the city’s next police commissioner, making her the first woman to lead the nation’s largest police force.

Adams, himself a former New York police captain, introduced Sewell on Wednesday as his barrier-breaking choice for one of the most high-profile and powerful jobs in his upcoming administration.

Keechant Sewell speaks to the media at the Queensbridge houses in Long Island City, in the Queens borough of New York on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams named Sewell, a Long Island police official, as the city’s next police commissioner, making her the first woman to lead the nation’s largest police force. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman)

“She’s the woman for the job,” Adams declared as he appeared with Sewell at a news conference in her native Queens.

“She carried with her throughout her career a sledgehammer and she crushed every glass ceiling that was put in her way,” Adams said. “Today, she has crashed and destroyed the final one we need in New York City.”

Sewell, who serves as the Nassau County Police Chief of Detectives, will be the third Black person to serve as New York Police Department commissioner. The 49-year-old will replace Dermot Shea, who is retiring from the NYPD after 30 years, having spent the last two as commissioner. She’ll begin when Adams takes office Jan. 1.

Adams had promised on the campaign trail that he would hire a woman as commissioner. Other potential candidates included former Seattle chief Carmen Best, Philadelphia Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, former Newark chief Ivonne Roman and NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes.

Adams praised Sewell for her “emotional intelligence,” describing her as “calm, collected, confident” and someone who had risen through the ranks.

It has been decades since a Black person ran the NYPD, with Benjamin Ward and Lee Brown, who served in the 1980s and 1990s, preceding Sewell. She will inherit a police department in flux. The NYPD has struggled to keep crime down a few years after achieving record lows.

The rise, particularly in shootings and killings, is part of a national trend in the wake of the pandemic, but police officials have also blamed state reforms that eliminated pretrial detention for many charges. There is little evidence that the reforms have resulted in more crime.

Sewell said she will be “laser-focused on violent crime,” with a particular emphasis on gun crimes.

“We are in a pivotal moment in New York as our city faces the twin challenge of public safety and police accountability. They are not mutually exclusive,” Sewell said after Adams introduced her.

Adams, the cofounder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an advocacy group that sought criminal justice reform and spoke out against police brutality, has pledged new strategies to fight crime, including the return of foot patrols.

He has pushed back against progressive calls to defund the police and has defended the controversial stop-and-frisk police strategy as a useful tool that has been abused. He has also pledged to diversify the NYPD’s ranks.

Among about 35,000 uniformed members of the department, about 45% are white, 30% are Hispanic, 15% are Black and 10% are Asian.

Sewell on Wednesday reiterated that promise to diversify the force.

“I am mindful of the historic nature of this announcement as the first woman and only the third Black person to lead the NYPD in its 176-year history. I bring a different perspective, committed to make sure the department looks like the city it serves, and making the decision, just as Mayor-elect Adams did, to elevate women and people of color to leadership positions,” she said.

Sewell was named Nassau’s Chief of Detectives in September 2020 overseeing a staff of about 350 people. The NYPD has about 35,000 officers.

Adams acknowledged Sewell has been leading a much smaller force in her current role, but said Wednesday she helped make Nassau County one of the safest communities in the country.

Sewell has overseen Nassau County’s detectives, including its homicide squad and special victims squad, for about a year. Before that, she oversaw the department’s professional standards bureau and internal affairs, according to a report last year in Newsday.

She started with the department as a patrol officer in 1997 and worked her way up the ranks to become a precinct commander, to head the department’s bureau of major cases and to serve as the chief hostage negotiator.

The New York Post first reported the selection of Sewell on Tuesday night.

US faces a double coronavirus surge as omicron advances

By LAURA UNGAR and CARLA K. JOHNSON for the Associated Press

The new omicron coronavirus mutant speeding around the world may bring another wave of chaos, threatening to further stretch hospital workers already struggling with a surge of delta cases and upend holiday plans for the second year in a row.

The White House on Wednesday insisted there is no need for a lockdown because vaccines are widely available and appear to offer protection against the worst consequences of the virus. But even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the life-saving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk as it begins a rapid assault on the United States.

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square, New York, Dec. 13, 2021. The new omicron coronavirus mutant speeding around the world may bring another wave of chaos, threatening to further stretch hospital workers already struggling with a surge of delta cases and upend holiday plans for the second year in a row. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

“Our delta surge is ongoing and, in fact, accelerating. And on top of that, we’re going to add an omicron surge,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.

“That’s alarming, because our hospitals are already filling up. Staff are fatigued,” leaving limited capacity for a potential crush of COVID-19 cases “from an omicron wave superimposed on a delta surge.”

Most likely, he and other experts said at a press briefing Tuesday, an omicron surge is already under way in the United States, with the latest mutant coronavirus outpacing the nation’s ability to track it.

Based on specimens collected last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said omicron accounted for about 3% of genetically-sequenced coronaviruses nationally. Percentages vary by region, with the highest – 13% – in the New York/New Jersey area.

But Harvard experts said these are likely underestimates because omicron is moving so fast that surveillance attempts can’t keep up.

Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of omicron. In the United States, 36 states have detected the variant. Meanwhile, delta is surging in many places, with hot spots in New England and the upper Midwest. The five states with the highest two-week rolling average of cases per 100,000 people are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.

Universities are abruptly closing classrooms during finals week with infections multiplying at a fast rate. The NBA is postponing games and the NFL had its worst two-day outbreak since the start of the pandemic, with dozens of players infected.

Outside the U.S., the president of the European Union said omicron will become the dominant variant in a month and declared that “once again, this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic.”

Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how well it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that early data suggests omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days.

In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country.

“The data out of the UK are quite alarming at this point,” and foreshadow what’s to come in the United States, said Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. For example, she said, by Tuesday afternoon, omicron was already the most common variant in London.

In many ways, omicron remains a mystery. Hints are emerging from South Africa, where it was first reported, indicating it may cause less severe disease than delta but be better at evading vaccines.

But, MacInnis warned: “There’s much more that we don’t know about this variant than we do, including the severity.”

At the same time, Lemieux said, there seem to be fewer tools to fight it. Some monoclonal antibody treatments don’t work as well against omicron in lab tests, Lemieux said. Vaccines appear to offer less protection, although CDC officials said booster shots strengthen that protection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday there is no need, for now, for an omicron-specific booster shot. The two-dose mRNA vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna shots, still appear to offer considerable protection against hospitalization from omicron, Fauci said.

“If we didn’t have these tools, I would be telling you to be really, really worried,” Fauci said.

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the U.S. has the tools to fight the virus, including omicron, and “there is no need to lock down.” With vaccines available now for 95% of Americans, “we know how to keep our kids in schools and our businesses open. And we’re not going to shut down.”

Health officials called on Americans to get vaccinated, get their booster shots, wear masks indoors and get tested before traveling and before holiday gatherings.

“Hospital capacity is already at a breaking point in many states because of severe cases of COVID-19,” Michael Fraser, CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said in a statement.

Given the high level of transmission, MacInnis said there will undoubtedly be severe cases.

“No matter how severely it affects healthy, fully-vaccinated and boosted populations, it will hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest still,” she said. “So the elderly, the immunocompromised, other vulnerable populations will still be at greatest risk and still bear the brunt of this.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Major storm brings rain, snow to parched California

By FELICIA FONSECA for the Associated Press

A major storm hitting Northern California with rain and snow was expected to intensify Monday and bring travel headaches and the threat of localized flooding after an especially warm and dry fall in the U.S. West.

Light rain and snow that began falling on Sunday got heavier overnight. The multiday storm could dump more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) of snow on the highest peaks in California and Nevada and drench other parts of the states as it pushes south and east before moving out midweek.

“This is a pretty widespread event,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Anna Wanless in Sacramento. “Most of California, if not all, will see some sort of rain and snow.”

A cold weather front brings clouds skies and rainstorms to downtown San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. Meteorologists say the storms are just the beginning of an “atmospheric river” that will bring more intense rainfall and heavy snow in the Sierras. A significant storm ramped up Sunday with snow in Northern California that forced drivers to wrap their tires in chains and light rain in the lower elevations. The storm promises to drop up to 8 feet of snow on the highest peaks and drench other parts of the state. (Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

The storm will bring much needed moisture to the broader region that’s been gripped by drought caused by climate change. The latest U.S. drought monitor shows parts of Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada and Utah are classified as being in exceptional drought, which is the worst category.

Most western U.S. reservoirs that deliver water to states, cities, tribes, farmers and utilities rely on melted snow in the springtime.

The storm this week is typical for this time of the year but notable because it’s the first big snow that is expected to significantly affect travel with ice and snow on the roads, strong wind and limited visibility, Wanless said.

Drivers on some mountainous passes on Sunday had to put chains on their tires and were warned of possible road closures in coming days.

Officials urged people to delay travel and stay indoors. The rain could cause minor flooding and rockslides, especially in areas that have been scarred by wildfires, forecasters said.

South of the San Francisco Bay Area, a 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch of Highway 1 in California’s Big Sur area was closed as a precaution until Tuesday. The scenic coastal route frequently experiences damage during wet weather.

Nearby Monterey County residents who live close to burn scars from last year’s Dolan Fire were warned to be prepared to evacuate if rains loosen hillsides and cause debris flows.

In Southern California, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s department issued evacuation warnings for several areas, citing the potential for flooding, and Los Angeles County fire officials urged residents to be aware of the potential for mud flows.

Forecasters said strong winds accompanying the storm could lead to power outages. Karly Hernandez, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric, said crews and equipment are staged across the state to respond quickly if the power goes out.

Rain fell intermittently across California on Sunday. Andy Naja-Riese, chief executive of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, said farmers markets carried on as usual in San Rafael and San Francisco amid light wind.

The markets are especially busy this time of year with farmers making jellies, jams and sauces for the holidays, he said. And, he said, rain always is needed in a parched state.

“In many ways, it really is a blessing,” Naja-Riese said.

A second storm predicted to hit California midweek could deliver almost continuous snow, said Edan Weishahn of the weather service in Reno, which monitors an area straddling the Nevada state line. Donner Summit, one of the highest points on Interstate 80 and a major commerce commuter route, could have major travel disruptions or road closures, Weishahn said.

The weather follows a November that was unseasonably warm for California.

Vail Resorts’ three Tahoe-area ski resorts opened with limited offerings over the weekend after crews produced artificial snow. Spokeswoman Sara Roston said the resorts are looking forward to more of the real thing.

The Sierra Avalanche Center warned heavy snow and strong winds on top of a weak snowpack could cause large and destructive avalanches.

One man died Saturday in a backcountry area of the Crystal Mountain ski resort in Washington state when he was caught in an avalanche that temporarily buried five others.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Amy Taxin in Orange County, California, contributed to this story.

Photo from tornado-damaged home lands almost 130 miles away

By MIKE SCHNEIDER for the Associated Press

When Katie Posten walked outside Saturday morning to her car parked in her driveway, she saw something that looked like a note or receipt stuck to the windshield.

She grabbed it and saw it was a black and white photo of a woman in a striped sundress and headscarf holding a little boy in her lap. On the back, written in cursive, it said, “Gertie Swatzell & J.D. Swatzell 1942.” A few hours later, Posten would discover that the photo had made quite a journey – almost 130 miles (209 kilometers) on the back of monstrous winds.

This photo combo shows Katie Posten holding the front and back of a photograph she found stuck to her car’s windshield on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021 in New Albany, Ind. The photo is from a tornado-damaged home in Kentucky that landed almost 130 miles away in Indiana. (Katie Posten via AP).

Posten had been tracking the tornadoes that hit the middle of the U.S. Friday night, killing dozens of people. They came close to where she lives in New Albany, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. So she figured it must be debris from someone’s damaged home.

“Seeing the date, I realized that was likely from a home hit by a tornado. How else is it going to be there?” Posten said in a phone interview Sunday morning. “It’s not a receipt. It’s well-kept photo.”

So, doing what any 21st century person would do, she posted an image of the photo on Facebook and Twitter and asked for help in finding its owners. She said she was hoping someone on social media would have a connection to the photo or share it with someone who had a connection.

Sure enough, that’s what happened.

“A lot of people shared it on Facebook. Someone came across it who is friends with a man with the same last name, and they tagged him,” said Posten, 30, who works for a tech company.

That man was Cole Swatzell, who commented that the photo belonged to family members in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, almost 130 miles (209 kilometers) away from New Albany, as the crow flies, and 167 miles (269 kilometers) away by car. Swatzell on Sunday didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment.

In Dawson Springs — a town of about 2,700 people 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Paducah — homes were leveled, trees were splintered and search and rescue teams continued to scour the community for any survivors. Dozens of people across five states were killed.

The fact that the photo traveled almost 130 miles is “unusual but not that unusual,” said John Snow, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma.

In one documented case from the 1920s, paper debris traveled 230 miles from the Missouri Bootheel into southern Illinois. The paper debris rides winds, sometimes reaching heights of 30,000 to 40,000 feet above the ground, he said.

“It gets swirled up,” Snow said. “The storm dissipates and then everything flutters down to the ground.”

Posten wasn’t alone in finding family photos and school pictures that had traveled dozens of miles in the tornadoes’ paths. A Facebook group was set up after the storms so people could post photos and other items like an ultrasound image they had found deposited in their yards.

Posten plans to return the photo to the Swatzell family sometime this week.

“It’s really remarkable, definitely one of those things, given all that has happened, that makes you consider how valuable things are — memories, family heirlooms, and those kinds of things,” Posten said. “It shows you the power of social media for good. It was encouraging that immediately there were tons of replies from people, looking up ancestry records, and saying ‘I know someone who knows someone and I’d like to help.’”

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Booster blitz: UK races to get ahead of surging omicron

By JILL LAWLESS and DANICA KIRKA for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Long lines formed Monday at vaccination centers across England as people heeded the government’s call for all adults to get booster shots to protect themselves against the omicron variant, and as the U.K. recorded its first death of a patient infected with omicron.

In a televised announcement late Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said everyone 18 and up would be offered a third vaccine dose by Dec. 31 — less than three weeks away, and a month earlier than the previous target. Johnson said boosters would “reinforce our wall of vaccine protection” against an anticipated “tidal wave of omicron.”

People queue to go for coronavirus booster jabs at St Thomas’ Hospital, backdropped by the scaffolded Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament, in London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Long lines formed at vaccination centers in Britain as people heeded the government’s call for all adults to get booster shots to protect against the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which the prime minister said Monday has caused at least one death. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

U.K. health authorities say omicron cases are doubling every two to three days in Britain, and that the variant will replace delta as the dominant coronavirus strain within days. Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers Monday that omicron will be dominant in London “within 48 hours.”

While omicron is acknowledged to be much more transmissible than previous coronavirus variants, it’s unclear both how virulent it is and whether the expected wave of infections will inundate the country’s state-funded health care systemADVERTISEMENThttps://97f57ebe770f33ec885f3b16bdd22f45.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Barely two weeks after it was identified in South Africa, 10 people are in British hospitals with omicron-related COVID-19. The British government raised the country’s coronavirus threat level on Sunday, warning that the rapid spread of omicron “adds an additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services.”

Scientists in South Africa say the variant may cause less severe disease than the delta variant but caution that it’s too soon to be certain. Health authorities around the world are watching Britain closely to see what an omicron surge looks like in a country with an older, more highly vaccinated population than South Africa’s.

“The idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population,” Johnson said as he visited a vaccination center in London. “So the best thing we can do is all get our boosters.”

The U.K. Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to omicron, though that effectiveness appears to rise to between 70% and 75% after a third dose.

More than 80% of people age 12 and up in Britain have received two vaccine doses, and 40% of adults have had three. But the acceleration of the booster program will be a huge challenge, requiring almost 1 million doses given out each day — more than the previous high of around 850,000 a day. Some 750 soldiers and thousands of volunteer vaccinators will be drafted to give the shots at doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies and pop-up vaccination centers.

Many routine procedures will be postponed as Britain’s National Health Service swings into high gear for the boosters.

While the online booster appointment system will not be open to under-30s until Wednesday, adults could — and did — show up at a walk-in centers to get a booster starting Monday.

At St. Thomas’ Hospital, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, the lines of people waiting for booster shots stretched across Westminster Bridge toward Parliament. At the Gordon Hospital walk-in clinic in central London, most of those lining up were in their 20s and 30s.ADVERTISEMENThttps://97f57ebe770f33ec885f3b16bdd22f45.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Sam Collins, 30, said he was “not especially” worried about omicron, “but I’d just prefer to be triple vaxxed.″

“Also my partner has just had a baby and she’s not vaccinated, so if I can be extra vaccinated, then that will help,” he said.

The government’s appointment-booking website struggled to keep up with demand, and also ran out of rapid at-home virus test kits, which have been distributed free to households during the pandemic.

The British government’s Dec. 31 booster target applies to England. The other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.

While omicron is spreading around the world, Britain may be especially affected because it ordinarily has high levels of travel to South Africa. The omicron outbreak is also more visible in Britain because U.K. is also a world leader in genomic sequencing, which identifies and tracks new variants.

Researchers in the U.K. have sequenced about 13.3% of all positive cases, compared with 3.8% in the U.S., according to GISAID, which promotes rapid sharing of data on COVID-19 and the flu. While Iceland and Denmark have sequenced a greater percentage of their positive cases, the size of the U.K.’s population and the scope of its outbreak mean that Britain has sequenced many more cases.

This surveillance provided key evidence that Johnson and his chief medical officers used in deciding to tighten pandemic restrictions and ramp up the U.K.’s vaccination program.

Johnson’s Conservative government is requiring vaccine certificates to enter nightclubs and reintroducing restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn again in most indoor settings and as of Monday, people were urged to work from home if possible.

Many scientists say those measures are unlikely to be enough and are calling for tougher ones. But cafes, pubs and shops in city centers fear that plummeting numbers of commuters will hammer their businesses in the usually busy pre-Christmas period.

Johnson is facing a major rebellion from unhappy Conservative lawmakers when Parliament votes on the new virus restrictions. The measures are still highly likely to pass with support from the opposition Labour Party.

Robert Read, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, said it was still unclear how severe cases of COVID-19 from omicron are but “omicron probably requires much larger amounts of antibody in the blood in order to thwart the virus as much as possible.”

“We need to get those third doses into as many adults as we possibly can, just in case this virus turns out to be a raging bull rather than a pussy cat,” Read told radio station LBC.

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Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.

Accidental shooting leads police to home with over 70 cats

From the Associated Press

KENSINGTON, N.H. (AP) — An accidental shooting led police in New Hampshire to a house that was overrun with more than 70 cats and was declared uninhabitable because it was covered with feline feces and urine.

Police in Kensington got a call from a hospital on Wednesday that a man was admitted to the emergency room with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Police went to the hospital and spoke to the man, who said he was cleaning a rifle and put it on a workbench when it fell to the floor and discharged a round, injuring him. Police concluded it was an accidental shooting.

Police also went to the home, where they initially found at least 30 cats.

“There was an overwhelming odor coming from inside the residence,” Kensington Police Chief Scott Cain said in a news release Friday. “It was discovered (the) inside was completely covered in feline feces and urine.”

Police called the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which removed 67 black and white cats on Wednesday. Five more were found on Friday.

Cain said that ammonia levels tested in the house were much higher than what is considered safe. A health officer was contacted, and “it was determined the residence was uninhabitable and was condemned immediately,” Cain said.

He said the cats’ health will be determined before any criminal charges would be brought forward. He said the man would face a charge related to the rifle discharge.

Based on preliminary exams of the cats, “they are in pretty good shape,” Lisa Dennison, executive director of the SPCA in Stratham, said on Friday. “Some were thinner, some were chunkier … you can imagine with 72 cats fighting over food, there’ll be winners and losers, just in terms of individuality and competing.”

She said the cats, who range in age from kittens to adults, are scared but friendly.

Dennison said the organization just cut the ribbon on a campus expansion last Saturday, and a week later, “we are using every single inch of that new space to quarantine and isolate this very large volume of cats.”

She directed adoption inquiries to the organization’s website.

South African doctors see signs omicron is milder than delta

By ANDREW MELDRUM for the Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — As the omicron variant sweeps through South Africa, Dr. Unben Pillay is seeing dozens of sick patients a day. Yet he hasn’t had to send anyone to the hospital.

FILE — Melva Mlambo, right, and Puseletso Lesofi, both medical scientists prepare to sequence COVID-19 omicron samples at the Ndlovu Research Center in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, Dec. 8, 2021. Health experts still don’t know if omicron is causing milder COVID-19 but some more hints are emerging with doctors in South Africa saying their patients aren’t getting as sick with omicron, compared to the delta variant. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

That’s one of the reasons why he, along with other doctors and medical experts, suspect that the omicron version really is causing milder COVID-19 than delta, even if it seems to be spreading faster.

“They are able to manage the disease at home,” Pillay said of his patients. “Most have recovered within the 10 to 14-day isolation period.” said Pillay.

And that includes older patients and those with health problems that can make them more vulnerable to becoming severely ill from a coronavirus infection, he said.

In the two weeks since omicron first was reported in Southern Africa, other doctors have shared similar stories. All caution that it will take many more weeks to collect enough data to be sure, their observations and the early evidence offer some clues.

According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases:

— Only about 30% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been seriously ill, less than half the rate as during the first weeks of previous pandemic waves.

— Average hospital stays for COVID-19 have been shorter this time – about 2.8 days compared to eight days.

— Just 3% of patients hospitalized recently with COVID-19 have died, versus about 20% in the country’s earlier outbreaks.

“At the moment, virtually everything points toward it being milder disease,” Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, said, citing the national institute’s figures and other reports. “It’s early days, and we need to get the final data. Often hospitalizations and deaths happen later, and we are only two weeks into this wave.”

In the meantime, scientists around the world are watching case counts and hospitalization rates, while testing to see how well current vaccines and treatments hold up. While delta is still the dominant coronavirus strain worldwide, omicron cases are popping up in dozens of countries, with South Africa the epicenter.

Pillay practices in the country’s Gauteng province, where the omicron version has taken hold. With 16 million residents, It’s South Africa’s most populous province and includes the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria. Gauteng saw a 400% rise in new cases in the first week of December, and testing shows omicron is responsible for more than 90% of them, according to health officials.

Pillay says his COVID-19 patients during the last delta wave “had trouble breathing and lower oxygen levels. Many needed hospitalization within days,” he said. The patients he’s treating now have milder, flu-like symptoms, such as body aches and a cough, he said.ADVERTISEMENT

Pillay is a director of an association representing some 5,000 general practitioners across South Africa, and his colleagues have documented similar observations about omicron. Netcare, the largest private healthcare provider, is also reporting less severe cases of COVID-19.

But the number of cases is climbing. South Africa confirmed 22,400 new cases on Thursday and 19,000 on Friday, up from about 200 per day a few weeks ago. The new surge has infected 90,000 people in the past month, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said Friday.

“Omicron has driven the resurgence,” Phaahla said, citing studies that say 70% of the new cases nationwide are from omicron.

The coronavirus reproduction rate in the current wave – indicating the number of people likely to be infected by one person — is 2.5, the highest that South Africa has recorded during the pandemic, he said.

“Because this is such a transmissible variant, we’re seeing increases like we never saw before,” said Waasila Jassat, who tracks hospital data for the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Of the patients hospitalized in the current wave, 86% weren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus, Jassat said. The COVID-patients in South Africa’s hospitals now also are younger than at other periods of the pandemic: about two-thirds are under 40.

Jassat said that even though the early signs are that omicron cases are less severe, the volume of new COVID-19 cases may still overwhelm South Africa’s hospitals and result in a higher number of severe symptoms and deaths.

“That is the danger always with the waves,” she said.

Dozens feared dead as tornadoes, storms strike US states

By BRUCE SCHREINER and JIM SALTER for the Associated Press

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Dozens were feared dead Saturday after tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across multiple states, tearing through a candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon facility in Illinois and a nursing home in Arkansas.

A feed store damaged by a tornado is seen in Mayfield, Ky.,on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across multiple states late Friday, killing several people overnight. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said about 110 people were in the factory in Mayfield when the tornado hit.

“We believe our death toll from this event will exceed 50 Kentuckians and probably end up 70 to 100,” he said at a news conference Saturday. “It’s very hard, really tough, and we’re praying for each and every one of those families.”

Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said search and rescue teams are still going through the rubble but don’t yet have a number for how many have died.

“We just can’t confirm a number right now because we are still out there working, and we have so many agencies involved in helping us,” Burgess said.

She said rescue crews are using heavy equipment to move rubble at the candle factory in western Kentucky. Coroners have been called to the scene and bodies have been recovered, but she didn’t know how many. She said it could take a day and potentially longer to remove all the rubble.

President Joe Biden tweeted Saturday that he was briefed on the situation and pledged the affected states would “have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.”

Kyana Parsons-Perez, an employee at the factory, was trapped under 5 feet (about 1.5 meters) of debris for at least two hours until rescuers managed to free her.

In an interview with “TODAY,” she said it was the “absolutely the most terrifying” event she had ever experienced. “I did not think I was going to make it at all.”

Just before the tornado struck, the building’s lights flickered. She felt a gust of wind, her ears started “popping” and then, “Boom. Everything came down on us.” People started screaming, and she heard Hispanic workers praying in Spanish.

Among those who helped rescue the trapped workers were inmates from the nearby Graves County Jail, she said.

“They could have used that moment to try to run away or anything, but they did not. They were there, helping us,” she said. Elsewhere in Graves County, the landscape was a scene of devastation with uprooted trees, downed utility poles, a store destroyed and homes severely damaged.

At least one person died at an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, Police Chief Mike Fillback told reporters Saturday morning. The roof of the building was ripped off and a wall about the length of a football field collapsed.

Two people at the facility were taken by helicopter to hospitals in St. Louis, Fillback said. The chief said he did not know their medical conditions. Edwardsville is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of St. Louis.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the damage was caused by straight-line storms or a tornado, but the National Weather Service office near St. Louis reported “radar-confirmed tornadoes” in the Edwardsville area around the time of the collapse.

About 30 people who were in the building were taken by bus to the police station in nearby Pontoon Beach for evaluation.

Early Saturday, rescue crews were still sorting through the rubble. Fillback said the process could take several more hours. Cranes and backhoes were brought in to help move debris.

“The safety and well-being of our employees and partners is our top priority right now,” Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said in a written statement Friday night. “We’re assessing the situation and will share additional information when it’s available.”

Workers at a National Weather Service office had to take shelter as a tornado passed near their office in Weldon Spring, Missouri, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of St. Louis. One person died and two others were injured in building collapses near the towns of Defiance and New Melle, both just a few miles from the weather service office.

A tornado struck the Monette Manor nursing home in Arkansas on Friday night, killing one person and trapping 20 people inside as the building collapsed, Craighead County Judge Marvin Day told The Associated Press.

Five people had serious injuries, and a few others had minor ones, he said. The nursing home has 86 beds.

Three storm-related deaths were confirmed in Tennessee, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Two of the deaths occurred in Lake County, and the third was in Obion County — both in the northwestern corner of the state.

The storms swept through Bowling Green, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, tearing off roofs of homes and flinging debris into roadways. The GM Corvette Assembly Plant and the nearby Corvette Museum sustained light damage. A semitrailer was overturned and pushed against a building just across the street.

Western Kentucky University’s president said on Twitter that one of its student who lived off-campus was killed. Timothy C. Caboni, the school’s president, offered condolences and asked all students to check in with loved ones. He said the school’s main structures were mostly spared of major damage and that workers were trying to restore power, campus networks and phone lines.

The school called off commencement ceremonies that were planned for Saturday because the campus was without power.

Ronnie Ward, a Bowling Green police spokesman, said in a telephone interview that rescue efforts in Bowling Green and elsewhere were hampered by debris strewn across roads. Ward said numerous apartment complexes in Bowling Green had major structural damage, and some factories had collapsed during the storms.

“Right now we’re focusing on the citizens, trying to get to everybody that needs us,” Ward said.

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6 years and counting: Ex-treasure hunter still stuck in jail

From the Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A former deep-sea treasure hunter is preparing to mark his sixth year in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in an historic shipwreck.

Research scientist Tommy Thompson has been held in contempt of court since Dec. 15, 2015, for that refusal. He is also incurring a daily fine of $1,000.

FILE – In this Aug. 29, 1991, file photo, Tommy Thompson stands at the helm of the Arctic Explorer as Bob Evans, center, and Barry Schatz look on in Norfolk, Va. Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, is about to mark his fifth year in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing gold coins found in the historic shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, known as the Ship of Gold. (Doral Chenoweth III/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

Thompson’s case dates to his discovery of the S.S. Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The gold rush-era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold aboard, contributing to an economic panic.

Despite an investors lawsuit and a federal court order, Thompson, 69, still won’t cooperate with authorities trying to find those coins, according to court records, federal prosecutors and the judge who found Thompson in contempt.

Thompson says he’s already said everything he knows about the coins. Thompson pleaded guilty in April 2015 for his failure to appear for a 2012 hearing and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But Thompson’s criminal sentence has been delayed until the issue of the gold coins is resolved.

Federal law generally limits jail time for contempt of court to 18 months. But a federal appeals court in 2019 rejected Thompson’s argument that that law applies to him, saying his refusal violates conditions of a plea agreement.

After technology problems cancelled Thompson’s latest virtual hearing last week, federal Judge Algenon Marbley scheduled a new hearing for Jan. 7.

Coast Guard swimmer pulls body from car above Niagara Falls

By CAROLYN THOMPSON for the Associated Press

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew braved poor visibility and frigid rapids to reach a car partly submerged in water near the brink of Niagara Falls, then lowered a rescue swimmer on a hoist who pulled out the woman trapped inside.

She did not survive.

A U.S. Coast Guard diver is lowered from a hovering helicopter to pull a body from a submerged vehicle stuck in rushing rapids just yards from the brink of Niagara Falls, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. (AP Photo/ Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Video from the harrowing rescue attempt showed Petty Officer 2nd Class Derrian Duryea, in an orange suit and with an axe in his left hand, buffeted by winds and spraying water as he was lowered 80 feet (24 meters) to the car through falling snow. After slowly spinning and swinging past the car, he was able to grab hold on the passenger side and open the door.

“As I was coming down I was just really focused on how am I going to get in this car when there’s, you know, pretty much rapids coming over the car right next to Niagara Falls,” Duryea said by phone later after returning to Selfridge Air National Guard Base, northeast of Detroit, where the crew is stationed. ”My sole focus was which window or door am I going in.”

“Luckily, the car was unlocked and I didn’t have to break out any windows and I was able to open up the passenger side door and push it up against the current,” he said.

Throughout the operation, the helicopter’s pilot, Lt. Chris Monacelli, and flight mechanic Jon Finnerty kept a wary eye on the waterfall’s icy mist as it coated the hovering aircraft, including the windows, further limiting what they could see.

“A lot of bigger planes have deicing capabilities, but we don’t,” Monacelli said. “We have a lot of discussions and training for what we’d do if we got into that situation because if you do accumulate enough ice on the helicopter, it will fall out of the sky.”

About two minutes after entering the car, with water surging around the vehicle and over the brink of the falls about 50 yards (45 meters) downstream, Duryea emerged and signaled for Finnerty to hoist him and the motionless driver, a woman in her 60s, from the water.

“The current was ripping pretty good through there and the car was close to the edge of the falls. If it moved, we didn’t want him getting dragged out with it,” Finnerty said.

It was unclear how the car got into the Niagara River. Witnesses reported seeing it floating near a pedestrian bridge, where it was believed to have gone in. Roads in the area were slippery.

Conditions in the air were no easier, with snow limiting visibility to a half mile for the Coast Guard crew that had assembled for a training flight at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, when they were dispatched to Niagara Falls, New York.

“At one point we were literally just flying down a street because we saw the road and we were trying to avoid the windmill farm that’s just west of Niagara,” Monacelli said. ”So we’re flying the road as these gigantic windmills are popping up like a half mile away from us.”

After the rescue, the car remained almost completely submerged, with only part of the roof and open trunk hatch visible, in the rapids upstream from the American Falls, one of three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls. Onlookers watched as emergency crews prepared to try to pull the vehicle from the water.

Authorities said the driver lived in the area. Her name was not released pending notification of her relatives.

New York Park Police Capt. Christopher Rola said his department’s swift-water rescue teams were unable to get to the car because of its location. Police had used a drone to determine it was occupied.

“It was an incredible job by the Coast Guard,” Rola said at a news conference. He said rescuers have never been called to a vehicle so close to the edge.

He said investigators would try to determine whether the vehicle wound up in the water by accident or intentionally.

Niagara Falls has a history of attracting both daredevils who try to cheat death by plunging over the falls in homemade contraptions, and those driven by suicide.

School district faces two $100M suits after Oxford shootings

By COREY WILLIAMS for the Associated Press

Two lawsuits seeking $100 million each have been filed against a Michigan school district, its superintendent and others after four students were fatally shot and others wounded at Oxford High School, a lawyer announced Thursday.

The lawsuits were filed in federal court in Detroit by Jeffrey and Brandi Franz on behalf of their daughters, Riley, a 17-year-old senior who was shot in the neck Nov. 30, and her sister Bella, a 14-year-old ninth grader who was next to her at the time, attorney Geoffrey Fieger said.

Handwritten messages are left at the memorial site at the memorial site on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., after a 15-year-old allegedly killed these four classmates, and injured seven others in a shooting inside the northern Oakland County school one week earlier. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

They’re the first known civil suits filed in connection with the shooting. Named in the suits are the Oxford Community School District, Superintendent Tim Throne, Oxford High School principal Steven Wolf, the dean of students, two counselors, two teachers and a staff member.

The Associated Press sent an email Thursday seeking comment from the district.

Ten students and a teacher were shot at the school in Oxford Township, roughly 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Detroit.ADVERTISEMENT

Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old sophomore at the school, was arrested at the school and has been charged as an adult with murder, terrorism and other crimes. His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, later were charged with involuntary manslaughter and arrested.

Personal-injury lawyers have expressed doubt that the school district could be successfully sued for letting Crumbley stay in school. That’s because Michigan law sets a high bar to wring liability out of public schools and other arms of government.

“You have to show that the administration or faculty members were grossly negligent, meaning they had a reckless disregard for whether an injury was likely to take place,” said attorney A. Vince Colella.

The gun used in the shooting was bought days before by James Crumbley and their son had full access to it, prosecutors said.

The morning before the shooting school officials met with Ethan Crumbley and his parents after the school after a teacher found a drawing of a gun, a bullet and a person who appeared to have been shot, along with messages stating “My life is useless” and “The world is dead.”

The Crumbleys “flatly refused” to take their son home, Throne has said.

The Franz family lives in Leonard, just northwest of Oxford. One of the lawsuits criticized school officials for not expelling, disciplining or searching Crumbley prior to the shooting which allowed Crumbley to return to his classroom “and carry out his murderous rampage.”

The lawsuit also said the school district “knew or should have known that the policies, procedures, training supervision and discipline” staff members named in the suit “were inadequate for the tasks that each defendant was required to perform.”

On Wednesday, a statement posted on the district’s website by Throne said that after all the facts have been obtained and released through the course of the prosecution, he will recommend to the Oxford Board of Education that the district initiate a review of its entire system “as other communities have done when facing similar experiences.”

“Our goal with all of this is to bring together all of the facts of what happened before, during and after this horrific incident,” he wrote. “We are committed to doing this in a way that allows our community to move forward and does not re-traumatize our community members, who are reeling and suffering from this horrible event.”

The criminal cases against Ethan Crumbley and his parents are being overseen by the Oakland County prosecutor’s office, and Michigan’s attorney general said Tuesday her office will review events that occurred before the mass shooting, despite the district’s rejection of her offer to be its third-party investigator.

The district’s lawyer told the attorney general’s office Monday it was fully cooperating with local law enforcement.

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Associated Press reporter David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this story.

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Homeowner tries to smoke out snakes, burns down house

From the Associated Press

POOLESVILLE, Md. (AP) — A Maryland home was accidentally burned to the ground by an owner trying to get rid of a snake infestation, officials said.

The homeowner in Poolesville, a town about 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) outside of Washington D.C., was attempting to use smoke to purge the snakes from the house, according to Montgomery County Fire Department officials.

In the process, the homeowner caught the house on fire, causing about $1 million in damage, The Washington Post reported.

The fire broke out around 10 p.m. on Nov. 23, officials said. Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the county fire department, said on Twitter that 75 firefighters were called to put out the blaze that started in the basement.

Piringer said the fire, caused by placing coals too close to combustible material, was accidental and that no people were hurt. But he said the well-being of the snakes is “undetermined.”

Murder charge for Ohio deputy in Casey Goodson Jr. shooting

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS for the Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio sheriff’s deputy who shot Casey Goodson Jr. in the back five times was charged with murder Thursday, as Goodson’s family also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and the now-retired deputy publicly shared details of what happened from his perspective for the first time.

FILE -Tamala Payne, center, with attorney Sean Walton, participate during a protest march for the shooting of her son, Casey Goodson Jr., by a Franklin County deputy sheriff in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Jason Meade, the former Ohio deputy who fatally shot Casey Goodson Jr. in the back five times was charged Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, with murder in Goodson’s death in an encounter that is still largely unexplained and involved no body camera or dashcam footage. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

The December 2020 shooting of Goodson, who was Black, by longtime deputy Jason Meade, who is white, led to protests in Columbus and many lingering questions, in part because the killing wasn’t recorded on body or dash camera footage.

Meade’s lawyer says the deputy fired when Goodson pointed a gun at him. Goodson’s family has said he was holding a sandwich, not a gun, but noted he also had a license to carry a firearm.

The case remains under criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office with help from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Goodson’s mother, Tamala Payne, said she was “overwhelmed with joy” at word of the indictment Thursday.

“It’s been a year of sadness, it’s been a year of grief, it’s been a year of pain,” Payne said at a late morning news conference, surrounded by several relatives. “But I know that every day of this year, that my family and I wake up and just fight for what’s right.”

The Dec. 4, 2020 shooting happened as Meade, a 17-year member of the sheriff’s office, was finishing an unsuccessful search for a fugitive as part of his work for a U.S. Marshals Service task force. Goodson was not the subject of the fugitive search and the Marshals have said Meade wasn’t performing a mission for them at the time of the shooting.

The deputy began a pursuit of Goodson after he said he saw him pointing a gun at another driver and then at Meade, according to a lengthy account from Meade’s perspective released by attorney Mark Collins Thursday. Meade himself has not spoken publicly about the shooting.

Meade in his car followed Goodson, whom the deputy said was “waving the firearm erratically,” and then parked and put on a tactical vest identifying himself as a member of the Marshals’ task force, according to the statement.

Meade followed Goodson on foot as Goodson walked toward a house, with Goodson carrying a gun in his right hand and a plastic bag in his left, the statement said. Meade identified himself as an officer and ordered Goodson to show his hands, according to Meade’s account. He thought Goodson was about to comply when Goodson turned and lifted his right arm back, pointing the gun at the deputy, the statement said.

Meade “commanded Mr. Goodson to once again ‘drop the gun,’ and when that command was ignored, and while the gun was pointing at Mr. Meade, he, in fear for his life as well as those inside the house, fired his weapon at Mr. Goodson,” the statement said.

Relatives say Goodson was opening the door to his grandmother’s house at the time he was shot. Investigators said that a gun was recovered from the scene but have not provided further details.

The family has said Goodson had a sandwich, not a gun, in his hand. But even if Goodson had been carrying a gun, the family has reiterated, he had a license to do so.

The Franklin County coroner said in March that Goodson had been shot five times in the back.

A judge scheduled an initial hearing Friday for Meade, who will plead not guilty, Collins said.

“We intend to litigate this case in a manner to ensure that all stones are turned over and Jason gets the process he’s due,” Collins said.

Also Thursday, attorney Sean Walton announced the family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against Meade and the sheriff’s office.

The lawsuit claims Meade received hundreds of hours on firearms and SWAT training but little on violence deescalation techniques, despite subpar performances as a deputy, including being placed on “no inmate contact status” for nearly four years. The lawsuit did not provide details of the reasons for that placement.

The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, representing the sheriff’s office, doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits, said spokesperson Kayla Merchant.

Although the shooting did not involve Columbus police, it came at a time of heightened tension over previous shootings of Black people by officers in Ohio’s capital, a situation made worse less than three weeks later when a white Columbus police officer shot and killed 47-year-old Andre Hill as he emerged from a garage holding a cellphone.

That officer, Adam Coy, who was subsequently fired, has pleaded not guilty to murder and is scheduled for trial next year.

Large protests followed Goodson’s shooting, with people shouting “Justice for Casey” as they blocked downtown streets.

Meade retired July 2 on disability. The deputy had been on administrative leave from the sheriff’s office since the shooting.

Sheriff Dallas Baldwin had previously said that the autopsy did not “provide all of the facts needed,” and that he will wait until the criminal investigation is complete before pursuing any disciplinary action against Meade.

Baldwin said Thursday that he has asked his staff to review the investigation when possible, to see what the agency can learn.

“This office has a professional obligation to do everything in its power to ensure the community and our deputies are kept safe,” he said in a statement. “As I’ve said from the very beginning, I pray for everyone involved in this tragedy.”

In June, Franklin County Prosecutor Gary Tyack appointed two outside prosecutors to investigate, since the county prosecutor’s office serves as legal counsel to the sheriff’s office and anticipates having to defend the county and the law enforcement agency in this case.

In Denmark, a snow storm means people overnight in an IKEA

From the Associated Press

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — In northern Denmark, an IKEA showroom turned into a vast bedroom. Six customers and about two dozen employees were stranded by a snowstorm and spent the night in the store, sleeping in the beds that are usually on show.

Up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) of snow fell, trapping the customers and employees when the department store in Aalborg closed on Wednesday evening.

A snowstorm causes chaos on the roads around Aalborg, Denmark, Wednesday Dec. 1, 2021. (Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

“We slept in the furniture exhibitions and our showroom on the first floor, where we have beds, mattresses and sofa beds,” store manager Peter Elmose told the Ekstra Bladet tabloid. People could “pick the exact bed they always have wanted to try.”

Elmose said they spent the evening watching television and eating, adding it went “super well. It’s been a good night. All fun.”

Denmark’s public broadcaster DR said people working in a toy shop that is next door to IKEA also spent the night in the department store.

“It’s much better than sleeping in one’s car. It has been nice and warm and we are just happy that they would let us in,” Michelle Barrett, one of the toy shop staff, told DR.

“We just laughed at the situation, because we will probably not experience it again,” Barrett added.

Oregon officials ask public help to find killers of 8 wolves

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS for the Associated Press

Officials in Oregon are asking for public assistance to locate the person or persons responsible for poisoning eight wolves in the eastern part of the state earlier this year.

FILE – This Feb., 2017, file photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a gray wolf in Oregon’s northern Wallowa County. Officials in Oregon are asking for help locating the person or persons responsible for poisoning an entire wolf pack in the eastern part of the state earlier this year. The Oregon State Police said Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, it has been investigating the killing of all five members of the Catherine Pack in Union County, plus three other wolves from other packs. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)

The Oregon State Police has been investigating the killing of all five members of the Catherine Pack in Union County, plus three other wolves from other packs, the agency said in a news release Thursday.

“To my knowledge this is the first wolf pack to be killed by poison in Oregon,” said Capt. Stephanie Bigman of the OSP in Salem. “To my knowledge there are no suspects. All investigative leads have been exhausted and that is why we are reaching out to the public for assistance.”

Wolf advocates were stunned by the news.

“This is horrific,” said Sristi Kamal of Defenders of Wildlife in Portland. “This is quite clearly an intentional and repeat offense.”

Oregon has only about 170 wolves within its borders, and the loss of eight “is so egregious,” Kamal said.

“The poisoning of the Catherine wolf pack is tragic and disgusting” said Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No wolf should have to suffer such a fate. Awful events like this show how much more work is needed for us to coexist with these vitally important animals.”

A group of conservation and animal protection groups late Thursday said they were offering a combined $26,000 in rewards for information leading to a conviction in the poisonings. The rewards were offered by the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Northeast Oregon Ecosystems, Oregon Wild, Predator Defense and WildEarth Guardians.

Wolves once ranged most of the U.S. but were wiped out in most places by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns.

More than 2,000 wolves occupy six states in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest after animals from Canada were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park starting in 1995.

However, wolves remain absent across most of their historical range. Wildlife advocates argue that continued protections are needed so they can continue to expand in California, Colorado, Oregon and other states.

The Fish and Wildlife Division of the Oregon State Police was alerted on Feb. 9 that a collared wolf from the Catherine Pack was possibly deceased.

Troopers responded and located five deceased wolves, three males, and two females. The wolves were located southeast of Mount Harris, within Union County. Investigators also found a dead magpie in the vicinity of the dead wolves, the agency said.

The animals were sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics lab in Ashland to determine the cause of death.

On March 11, State Police were told a mortality signal from an additional wolf collar had been received in the same general location. Searchers found a deceased female wolf, a skunk, and a magpie all very close to the scene. The female wolf was determined to be a member of the Keating Pack.

In April, the federal lab released findings consistent with poisoning as the cause of death for all six wolves, the skunk, and two magpies.

In addition, two more collared wolves were found deceased in Union County after the initial incidents. In April, a deceased adult male wolf from the Five Points Pack was located west of Elgin, and in July a young female wolf from the Clark Creek Pack was located northeast of La Grande, the county seat.

Toxicology reports confirmed the presence of differing types of poison in both those wolves, the OSP said.

Hawaii: Petroleum detected in tap water near Pearl Harbor

By AUDREY McAVOY for the Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii State Department of Health said Wednesday a laboratory has detected petroleum product in a water sample from an elementary school near Pearl Harbor amid heightened concerns that fuel from a massive Navy storage facility could contaminate Oahu’s water supply.

This photo shows a tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Jan. 26, 2018. The state of Hawaii says a laboratory has detected petroleum product in a water sample from an elementary school near Pearl Harbor. The news comes amid heightened concerns that fuel from the massive Navy storage facility may contaminate Oahu’s water supply. (U.S. Navy via AP)

The department said the test result from a University of Hawaii lab is preliminary, and it’s not yet clear what type of petroleum was in the water. The sample was taken Tuesday at Red Hill Elementary School. The department is still awaiting test results of samples sent to a lab in California.

For three days, hundreds of residents in Navy housing have complained of a fuel-like odor coming from their tap water. Some have said they suffered from stomach pain and headaches.

The department said all complaints have come from people using the Navy’s water system, and not from anyone who gets their water from Honolulu’s municipal water utility. Both the Navy and the utility have wells that draw on the Moanalua-Waimalu aquifer which is located 100 feet (30 meters) underneath the Navy’s fuel storage tanks at Red Hill.

The Navy on Sunday shut down a Red Hill well that draws water from the aquifer out of an “abundance of caution,” a spokesperson said.

The department has advised all those using the Navy’s water not to drink their tap water. It’s recommending that those who can smell fuel in their water not to use it for bathing, washing dishes or laundry. The system provides water to about 93,000 people living in and near Pearl Harbor.

The Navy and the state Department of Health are both investigating where the contamination is coming from, though the Navy said it has not detected any fuel in the water. The elementary school gets its water from the Navy’s water system.

Dr. Diana Felton, Hawaii’s state toxicologist, said people who ingest petroleum may experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as well as dizziness and headaches. Skin exposure may lead to itching and rashes. People who stop drinking effected water should start to feel better in a few hours, she said.

Felton said she won’t know whether anyone would be expected to suffer any long-term effects of drinking the water until she learns what type of petroleum was involved, but at this point she believes it’s unlikely.

Last week, the Navy said a water and fuel mixture leaked from a fire suppression system drain line into a lower tunnel in the Red Hill fuel tank farm. The Navy said no fuel leaked into the environment in that episode.

Honolulu Civil Beat reported last month that officials waited months to report a January fuel leak at Pearl Harbor to the state Department of Health because they were worried doing so would hurt their ability to get a permit for the Red Hill tanks. Hawaii’s congressional delegation has asked the Department of Defense to investigate.

The tank farm contains 20 large underground fuel tanks that date back to World War II. The Navy built the tanks in two rows of 10 inside a mountain ridge 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) inland from Pearl Harbor. Each tank is as tall as a 25-story building.

Total storage capacity of the facility is 250 million gallons, giving the U.S. military what it calls a vital fuel reserve in the Pacific. The tanks provide the last fully U.S.-owned fuel stop for forces going from from the West Coast and Hawaii to Asia and the Middle East.

Hundreds of NYC jailers face suspension over vaccine mandate

By MICHELLE L. PRICE and MICHAEL R. SISAK for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s troubled jail system is facing more turmoil: the suspension of hundreds of corrections officers for failing to meet a Tuesday night deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

FILE – A corrections officer watches monitors at a security post in an enhanced supervision jail unit on Rikers Island in New York, on March 12, 2015. New York City’s troubled jail system is facing more turmoil: the suspension of hundreds of corrections officers for failing to meet a Tuesday night, Nov. 30, 2021, deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The city’s Department of Correction reported 77% of its uniformed staff had gotten at least one vaccine dose as of 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 29 (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

The city’s Department of Correction reported 77% of its uniformed staff had gotten at least one vaccine dose as of 5 p.m. Monday.

Corrections Department Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said Wednesday morning that about 700 jail workers who’ve applied for religious or medical exemptions can continue to work while their cases are reviewed.

City Hall officials said Wednesday afternoon that 570 workers could be put on leave without pay for failing to comply with the mandate, but they would not know the precise number until those corrections officers show up for scheduled shifts and do not show proof of vaccination.

The deadline for jail workers to be vaccinated was delayed a month because of existing staffing shortages.

Workers who haven’t applied for an exemption and who failed to show proof of vaccination by 5 p.m. Tuesday were to be placed on unpaid leave and surrender any city-issued firearms and protective gear, officials said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who already imposed similar mandates for other city workers, said he expects the vaccination rate to rise as workers begin missing paychecks or their requests for an exemption are denied.

“I expect those numbers to up in a very substantial way in the days ahead,” de Blasio told reporters at a virtual news conference Wednesday.

In anticipation of the impending mandate, de Blasio on Monday issued an emergency executive order designed to beef up jail staffing by authorizing a switch to 12-hour shifts from the normal 8-hour tours.

The president of the union for jail guards balked at that move saying it was “reckless and misguided.” The union said it would sue to block the mandate — the same tactic a police union tried in late October as the vaccine requirement for its officers neared. The police union lost and the mandate went into effect as scheduled.

Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said staffing in the city’s jails is as bad or worse than it was in October, when de Blasio announced jail workers would have extra time to meet the vaccine mandate.

Fewer than 100 of a promised 600 guards have been hired, Boscio said, and none of them have started working in the jails. Resignations and retirements have piled up, and guards are continuing to work round-the-clock shifts, with no time for meals or rest, Boscio said.

Suspending jail workers over the vaccine mandate could be deadly, the union chief warned.

“To move forward with placing what little staff we do have on leave tomorrow would be like pouring gasoline on a fire, which will have a catastrophic impact on the safety of our officers and the thousands of inmates in our custody,” Boscio said Tuesday.

The promised suspensions threaten to add to the problems at the city’s jails, which includes the notorious Rikers Island complex. The jails, rotted by years of neglect, have spiraled out of control during the pandemic with staggering violence, self-harm and the deaths this year of at least 14 inmates — the most since 2013.

The troubles have led to growing calls to overhaul or immediately close Rikers Island, which the city has said will be shuttered by 2027. The city on Tuesday announced it had awarded contracts for work on new jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Last week, members of the House Oversight Committee, including New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent letters to New York City district attorneys expressing “grave concerns” that excessive bail amounts were putting too many people in jail.

At the same time, staffing levels have dropped sharply during the pandemic. Uniformed personnel fell from a staff of 10,862 in 2017 to 8,388 in 2021. At one point in the summer, one-third of guards were out sick or medically unfit to work with inmates and an untold number of guards went AWOL, the city said.

The vaccine mandate for jail workers is taking effect as scientists are racing to learn more about the omicron variant, which was identified last week by researchers in South Africa. No cases have been detected in the United States, though de Blasio said he believes it’s “very likely” there will eventually be cases reported in New York City.

De Blasio announced an additional vaccine mandate Monday for child care workers, reiterating his commitment to the mandates he’s unveiled for almost the city’s entire municipal workforce in recent months.

The Department of Correction said it held town halls, called employees and gave them literature to encourage them to get vaccinated. It also offered a $500 bonus, parked a truck displaying a pro-vaccine message on a digital billboard at Rikers Island and recruited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, author Piper Kerman and former New York Mets player Mookie Wilson to tape messages for the department encouraging workers to get the shots.

The campaign has moved the needle, with Monday’s 77% vaccination total among jail workers up from 72% a week earlier and 46% in late October when the mandate was announced. Still, at all other city agencies, at least at least 86% of workers have received at least one vaccine dose — and most agencies were reporting vaccination rates above 90% as of Monday.

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US defense chief slams China’s drive for hypersonic weapons

By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG from the Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that China’s pursuit of hypersonic weapons “increases tensions in the region” and vowed the U.S. would maintain its capability to deter potential threats posed by China.

Austin made the remarks in Seoul following annual security talks with his South Korean counterpart that focused on challenges from China and North Korea and other issues facing the allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook salute during a welcoming ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, Pool)

“We have concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue. Again, the pursuit of those capabilities increases tensions in the region,” Austin said referring to China’s latest hypersonic weapons test in July and using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official name.

“It just underscores why we consider the PRC to be our pacing challenge,” Austin said. “We’ll continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter against a range of potential threats from the PRC to ourselves and to our allies.”

China’s growing military muscle and its drive to end American predominance in Asia has triggered unease in Washington. China’s efforts to accelerate its military capabilities were highlighted by its July test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting the Earth before reentering the atmosphere and gliding on a maneuverable path to its target.

Experts say the weapons system is clearly designed with a purpose of evading U.S. missile defenses, although China insisted it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile.

On North Korea, Austin said he and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook discussed a wide range of topics including bilateral unity in the face of the threat from the North. The two agreed that North Korea’s advancement of its missile and other weapons programs “is increasingly destabilizing for regional security,” Austin said.

The U.S. and South Korea remain committed to a diplomatic approach to North Korea, he added.

Suh said the allies share an understanding that “diplomacy and dialogue based on previous commitments between South and North Korea and between North Korea and the United States is essential for achieving permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Despite severe pandemic-related economic hardships, North Korea has continuously rebuffed U.S. offers to resume talks, saying Washington must first abandon its hostility toward the North. The Biden administration maintains that international sanctions on North Korea will stay in place unless the country takes concrete steps toward denuclearization.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon released the results of a global posture review that directs additional cooperation with allies and partners to deter “potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea.” The review also informed Austin’s approval of the permanent stationing of a previously rotational attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in South Korea.

New info shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought

By RAF CASERT for the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — New findings about the coronavirus’s omicron variant made it clear Tuesday that the emerging threat slipped into countries well before their defenses were up, as two distant nations announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before South African officials sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. health agency on Nov. 24. Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the new variant that has forced the world once again to pinball between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.

People wear face mask to protect against the coronavirus at the public transport station Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. According to local authorities wearing face masks mandatory in public transport and passengers need to be vaccinated, recovered or tested negative of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged or how contagious it might be — but that hasn’t stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa. Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.

The latest news though made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant. German authorities said they had an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.

The WHO warned Monday that the global risk from omicron is “very high” and that early evidence suggests it may be more contagious. Others sent more reassuring messages, like European Medicines Agency chief Emer Cooke, who insisted that the 27-nation European Union was well prepared for the variant. While it is not known how effective current vaccines are against omicron, Cooke said the shots could be adapted within three or four months if need be.

But nearly two years after the virus first held the world in its grip, the current response echoed in many ways the chaos of the early days, including haphazard travel bans and a poor understanding of who was at risk and where.

Many officials tried to calm fears, insisting vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

The latest variant makes those efforts even more important, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, noting as many have before that “as long as the virus is replicating somewhere, it could be mutating.”

In the face of the new variant, some introduced new measures aimed at mitigating the spread.

England made face coverings mandatory again on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of the U.K,’s Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

And after COVID-19 already led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers were beginning to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

Japan had announced that it would ban all foreign visitors beginning Tuesday — but that turned out to be too late. It confirmed its first case that day, a Namibian diplomat who recently arrived from his country.

World markets continued to seesaw on every piece of medical news, either worrisome or reassuring.

Global shares mostly slipped Tuesday as investors cautiously weighed how much damage omicron may unleash on the global economy.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn, like what happened last year, likely will be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.

In a world that is already unnerved by the more contagious delta variant that filled hospitals again in many places, even in some highly vaccinated nations, the latest developments underscored the need for the whole globe to get their hands on vaccines.

“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70 %, depending on exactly who you’re counting. And in Africa, it’s more like 14, 15 % or less,” Blinken said.

“We know, we know, we know that none of us will be fully safe until everyone is.”

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AP journalists from around the world contributed.

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Survivor found in coal mine accident in Russia’s Siberia

By DASHA LITVINOVA for the Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Rescue crews have found a survivor in a Siberian coal mine where dozens of miners are presumed dead after a devastating methane explosion, a senior regional official said on Friday.

A Russian Emergency Ministry truck is parked at the Listvyazhnaya mine, right, near Belovo, in the Kemerovo region of southwestern Siberia, Russia, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. A devastating explosion in the Siberian coal mine Thursday left dozens of miners and rescuers dead about 250 meters (820 feet) underground, Russian officials said.(AP Photo/Sergei Gavrilenko)

Kemerovo region Governor Sergei Tsivilyov said on the messaging app Telegram that the survivor was found in the Listvyazhnaya mine in southwestern Siberia, and “he is being taken to the hospital.”

Acting Emergency Minister Alexander Chupriyan identified the survivor as rescuer Alexander Zakovryashin who had been presumed dead. “I can consider it a miracle,” Chupriyan said.

Zakovryashin was conscious when rescuers reached him and has been hospitalized with moderate carbon monoxide poisoning, according to emergency officials.

Authorities on Thursday confirmed 14 fatalities — 11 miners and three rescuers who perished while searching for others trapped in a remote section of the mine. Six more bodies were recovered on Friday morning, while 31 people remain missing. Authorities now put the presumed death toll to 51.

Gov. Tsivilyov said finding other survivors at this point was highly unlikely.

Rescuers were for forced to halt their search for survivors following Thursday’s methane gas explosion and fire because of a buildup of methane and carbon monoxide gas. A total 239 people were rescued from the mine; 63 of them so far have sought medical treatment, according to Kemerovo officials.

It appears to be the deadliest mine accident in Russia since 2010, when two methane explosions and a fire killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same Kemerovo region.

In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions in a coal mine in Russia’s far north. In the wake of the incident, authorities analyzed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them potentially unsafe. Media reports say the Listvyazhnaya mine wasn’t among them, however in 2004 a methane explosion in the mine killed 13 people.

Russia’s top independent news site, Meduza, reported that this year authorities suspended the work of certain sections of the mine nine times and fined the mine more than 4 million rubles (roughly $53,000) for safety violations.

Law enforcement officials also said Friday that miners had complained about the high level of methane in the mine.

Regional officials have declared three days of mourning while Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a criminal probe into potential safety violations. The director of the mine and two senior managers were detained.

A separate criminal probe was launched Friday into allegations that state officials who inspected the mine earlier this month were negligent.

World takes action as new variant emerges in southern Africa

By RAF CASERT for the Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, amid a massive spike in cases in the 27-nation European Union, which is recommending a ban on flights from southern African nations.

People wait to get vaccinated at a shopping mall, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, though its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already impacted on a jittery world that is sensitive to bad COVID-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at well over 5 million.

Medical experts, including the World Health Organization, warned against any overreaction before all elements were clear but nations who acted said their concerns were justified.

“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissable than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. “We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” he said.

Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.

“We have one case of this variant that is confirmed. It’s someone who came from abroad,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has also detected the country’s first case of the new variant, in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

The new variant immediately infected stock markets around the world. Major indexes fell in Europe and Asia and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.

“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

Oil prices plunged, with US. crude off 6.7% at $73.22 per barrel and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6% at $77.64, both unusually large moves for a single day. The pandemic caused oil prices to plunge during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.

Airlines shares were hammered, with Lufthansa off 12.4%, IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4%, Air France-KLM down 8.9% and easyJet falling 10.9%

The WHO cautioned not to jump to conclusions too fast.

Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO said that “it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses.”

“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and it “strongly discourages the imposition of travel ban for people originating from countries that have reported this variant,” it said in a statement. It added that “over the duration of this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.”

Those urgings quickly fell on deaf ears.

The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic are planning similar measures.

The Japanese government announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and do a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.

The actions had a quick effect in the world of sports. A batch of British and Irish golfers withdrew from the Joburg Open before Friday’s second round after the U.K. government announced it was banning flights from South Africa.

The South African government said in a statement that the “U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.”

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The WHO’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet. It says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Pan Pylas in London, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Mike Corder in The Hague, Dave McHugh in Frankfurt, Carley Petesch in Dakar, Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed

Australia sending troops, police to Solomons amid unrest

From the Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia says it is sending police, troops and diplomats to the Solomon Islands to help after anti-government demonstrators defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day in violent protests.

In this image made from aerial video, smoke rises from burning buildings during a protest in the capital of Honiara, Solomon Islands, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people took to the streets in the capital for a second day, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues, according to local media reports. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday the deployment would include a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 more to provide security at critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 defense force personnel, a patrol boat and at least five diplomats.

He says the aid comes at the request of his Solomon Islands’ counterpart, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Sogavare declared a lockdown Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in the capital Honiara demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues. The protesters breached the National Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said.

US to require vaccines for all border crossers in January

By ZEKE MILLER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will require essential, nonresident travelers crossing U.S. land borders, such as truck drivers, government and emergency response officials, to be fully vaccinated beginning on Jan. 22, the administration planned to announce.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economy in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A senior administration official said the requirement, which the White House previewed in October, brings the rules for essential travelers in line with those that took effect earlier this month for leisure travelers, when the U.S. reopened its borders to fully vaccinated individuals.

Essential travelers entering by ferry will also be required to be fully vaccinated by the same date, the official said. The official spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement.

The rules pertain to non-U.S. nationals. American citizens and permanent residents may still enter the U.S. regardless of their vaccination status, but face additional testing hurdles because officials believe they more easily contract and spread COVID-19 and in order to encourage them to get a shot.

The Biden administration pushed back the requirement for essential travelers by more than two months from when it went into effect on Nov. 8 for non-essential visitors to prevent disruptions, particularly among truck drivers who are vital to North American trade. While most cross-border traffic was shut down in the earliest days of the pandemic, essential travelers have been able to transit unimpeded.

Even with the delay, though, Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the trucking group Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, criticized the vaccination requirement, calling it an example of “how unnecessary government mandates can force experienced owner-operators and independent truckers out of business.”

“These requirements are another example of how impractical regulations will send safe drivers off the road,” she said.

The latest deadline is beyond the point by which the Biden administration hopes to have large businesses require their employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly under an emergency regulation issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. That rule is now delayed by litigation, but the White House has encouraged businesses to implement their own mandates regardless of the federal requirement with the aim of boosting vaccination.

About 47 million adults in the U.S. remain unvaccinated, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Associated Press writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

Drivers scramble as cash falls from armored truck on freeway

For the Associated Press

CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) — Drivers scrambled to grab cash Friday morning after bags of money fell out of an armored truck on a Southern California freeway, authorities said.

The incident occurred shortly before 9:15 a.m. on Interstate 5 in Carlsbad.

“One of the doors popped open and bags of cash fell out,” California Highway Patrol Sgt. Curtis Martin said.

Several bags broke open, spreading money — mainly $1 and $20 bills — all over the lanes and bringing the freeway to a chaotic halt, Martin said.

Video posted online showed some people laughing and leaping as they held wads of cash.

Two people were arrested at the scene, and Martin warned that any others who are found to have taken the money could face criminal charges. He noted there was plenty of video taken by bystanders at the scene and that the CHP and FBI were investigating.

Anyone who took money was urged to bring it to the CHP office in Vista.

Authorities didn’t immediately say how much money was lost. However, at least a dozen people had returned money they collected to the CHP by Friday afternoon, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“People are bringing in a lot,” Martin said. “People got a lot of money.”

The freeway was reopened shortly before 11 a.m.

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This story was corrected to delete a reference to a truck heading to an office of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The FDIC says it doesn’t accept cash and the truck wasn’t heading to any of its offices.

Bidens open holidays with Christmas tree and ‘friendsgiving’

By DARLENE SUPERVILLE and ALEXANDRA JAFFE for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden opened the holiday season at the White House by breaking off a sprig from the official Blue Room tree and giving it — and a big smooch — to her toddler grandson.

President Joe Biden serves dinner during a visit to soldiers at Fort Bragg to mark the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Bragg, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Look how beautiful this is,” the first lady said of the 18 1/2-foot (5.6 meter) Fraser fir that was delivered by wagon to her Pennsylvania Avenue doorstep by Clydesdale horses named Ben and Winston.

“It is beautiful. It’s magnificent, really,” she said Monday.

The first lady later joined President Joe Biden for a visit to the Army’s Fort Bragg in North Carolina to celebrate “friendsgiving” with service members and military families.

The two events set off a White House holiday season that is expected to be much more festive this year, as public health officials encourage those vaccinated against COVID-19 to get together in person, instead of begging Americans to stay home, as they’ve done for holidays past.

The holiday tree was presented by the father-and-son team of Rusty and Beau Estes of Peak Farms in Jefferson, North Carolina — a three-time winner of the National Christmas Tree Association’s annual contest. The winner gets to present its official tree to the White House.

Son Hunter Biden, his wife, Melissa, and their toddler, Beau, were among a sizable group of White House aides, guests and others who braved crisp winds to watch the brief ceremony marking the start of the administration’s first Christmas in the White House.

The Fraser fir will be decorated in the coming days and displayed in the Blue Room, a tradition that dates back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after a chandelier is removed so it can be tethered to the ceiling for safety. White House grounds superintendent Dale Haney went to the farm in October to pick out a tree. Peak Farms also supplied the official White House tree in 2008 and 2012.

The White House Christmas decorations will be revealed on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first lady said.

Jill Biden was joined by a D.C. Army National Guard family to honor the National Guard’s role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, her office said. She has been using her new role to help highlight and rally support for military families from across the country through an initiative named Joining Forces.

At Fort Bragg, the meal was held in a large hanger replete with pumpkin and pine cone centerpieces for about 250 servicemembers and families. Jill Biden spoke first, stepping out from behind a table to walk the room, talking to families about their late son, Beau, who served in the Delaware National Guard, and how she understood how hard it was to be away during holidays. She talked about how proud she was of the troops before introducing the president, who echoed her praise.

“You do so much, your families do so much,” President Biden said. “You’re the finest military the world has ever seen … and I’m so damn proud to be associated with you.”

After a quick prayer from the chaplain, the Bidens walked behind the serving tables, donned gloves and aprons and started dishing out the meal to waiting troops. Jill Biden scooped mashed potatoes, the president the stuffing. The troops were handed chocolate chip cookies with the presidential seal, and the long table was full of food including chocolate cakes.

On Tuesday, the Bidens plan to participate in a to-be-announced local service project before resuming their family tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Biden put tradition on hold last fall over COVID-19 concerns and hunkered down over Thanksgiving dinner in Delaware with just his wife, their daughter and their son-in-law.

“Last Thanksgiving, for the first time, it was just the four of us,” Biden said earlier this month as he commented on the nation’s progress against the coronavirus.

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Jaffe reported from Fort Bragg, N.C. Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

In Kenosha and beyond, guns become more common on US streets

By MORGAN LEE for the Associated Press

As Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in two killings that he said were self-defense, armed civilians patrolled the streets near the Wisconsin courthouse with guns in plain view.

A protester carrying a rifle leaves the the Kenosha County Courthouse after speaking with Kenosha County Sheriffs Department officers, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Kenosha, Wis., during the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding a third during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

In Georgia, testimony in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers showed that armed patrols were commonplace in the neighborhood where Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased down by three white men and shot.

The two proceedings sent startling new signals about the boundaries of self-defense as more guns emerge from homes amid political and racial tensions and the advance of laws that ease permitting requirements and expand the allowable use of force.

Across much of the nation, it has become increasingly acceptable for Americans to walk the streets with firearms, either carried openly or legally concealed. In places that still forbid such behavior, prohibitions on possessing guns in public could soon change if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a New York law.

The new status quo for firearms outside the home was on prominent display last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Local resident Erick Jordan carried a rifle and holstered handgun near the courthouse where Rittenhouse was tried for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle during a protest last year.

“I got a job to do — protect these people. That’s it,” said Jordan, referring to speakers at a news conference that was held in the hours after the verdict.

Speakers included an uncle of Jacob Blake, the Black man who was paralyzed in a shooting by a white police officer that touched off tumultuous protests across the city in the summer of 2020.

“This is my town, my people,” Jordan said. “We don’t agree on a lot of things, but we fight, we argue, we agree to disagree and go home safe, alive.”

“That’s real self-defense.”

The comments were a counter punch to political figures on the right who welcomed the Rittenhouse verdict and condemned his prosecution.

Mark McCloskey, who pleaded guilty in June to misdemeanor charges stemming from when he and his wife waved a rifle and a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their St. Louis home in 2020, said the verdict shows that people have a right to defend themselves from a “mob.” He currently is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.

The verdict arrived as many states are expanding self-defense laws and loosening the rules for carrying guns in public. Both gun sales and gun violence have been on the rise.

At the same time, six more states this year removed requirements to get a permit to carry guns in public, the largest number in any single year, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In all, 30 states have enacted “stand your ground” laws, which remove a requirement to retreat from confrontations before using deadly force.

Wisconsin has a tougher standard for claiming self-defense, and Rittenhouse was able to show the jury that he reasonably believed his life was in danger and that the amount of force he used was appropriate.

Ryan Busse, a former firearms-industry executive who now supports moderate gun control as an author and consultant, said the case reinforced the normalization of military-style weapons on city and suburban streets.

“Reasonable gun owners are freaked out by this,” he said. “How is it that we see this and people are just like, ‘There’s a guy with an AR-15.’ That happens in third-world countries.”

He highlighted that a lesser charge against Rittenhouse as a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon was dropped before the verdict.

“There’s a facet of Wisconsin law that allows kids to take their hunting rifle out with their dad or uncle,” Busse said. “Well he’s not hunting. … The old gun culture is being used to cover up for this new, dangerous firearms culture.”

Gun-rights advocates seeking greater access to weapons and robust self-defense provisions argue that armed confrontations will remain rare.

Republicans including former President Donald Trump have been quick to applaud the verdict. They stand by Rittenhouse as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness and exercised his Second Amendment rights.

Discord over the right to carry guns in public places spilled over into state legislatures in the aftermath of a 2020 plot to storm the Michigan Capitol, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and other threats. States including Michigan and New Mexico this year banned guns at their capitols, while Montana and Utah shored up concealed-carry rights.

At the Supreme Court, justices are weighing the biggest guns case in more than a decade, a dispute over whether New York’s gun permitting law violates the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

Defenders of the law say that striking it down would lead to more guns on the streets of cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

During oral arguments this month, justices also appeared to worry that a broad ruling might threaten gun restrictions on subways and at bars, stadiums and other gathering places.

New York’s law has been in place since 1913. It says that to carry a concealed handgun in public for self-defense, an applicant has to demonstrate an actual need for the weapon.

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This story has been edited to correct that Jacob Blake was paralyzed, not killed, in a shooting by a police officer.

Scientists mystified, wary, as Africa avoids COVID disaster

By MARIA CHENG and FARAI MUTSAKA for the Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — At a busy market in a poor township outside Harare this week, Nyasha Ndou kept his mask in his pocket, as hundreds of other people, mostly unmasked, jostled to buy and sell fruit and vegetables displayed on wooden tables and plastic sheets. As in much of Zimbabwe, here the coronavirus is quickly being relegated to the past, as political rallies, concerts and home gatherings have returned.

People are seen at a busy market in a poor township on the outskirts of the capital Harare, Monday, Nov, 15, 2021. When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions and destroying the continent’s fragile health systems. Although it’s still unclear what COVID-19’s ultimate toll will be, that catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of Africa. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

“COVID-19 is gone, when did you last hear of anyone who has died of COVID-19?” Ndou said. “The mask is to protect my pocket,” he said. “The police demand bribes so I lose money if I don’t move around with a mask.” Earlier this week, Zimbabwe recorded just 33 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths, in line with a recent fall in the disease across the continent, where World Health Organization data show that infections have been dropping since July.

When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions. Although it’s still unclear what COVID-19’s ultimate toll will be, that catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.

Scientists emphasize that obtaining accurate COVID-19 data, particularly in African countries with patchy surveillance, is extremely difficult, and warn that declining coronavirus trends could easily be reversed.

But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, chair of global health at Columbia University. “Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the U.S., but somehow they seem to be doing better,” she said.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa are vaccinated. For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.

Some researchers say the continent’s younger population — the average age is 20 versus about 43 in Western Europe — in addition to their lower rates of urbanization and tendency to spend time outdoors, may have spared it the more lethal effects of the virus so far. Several studies are probing whether there might be other explanations, including genetic reasons or exposure to other diseases.

Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said authorities are used to curbing outbreaks even without vaccines and credited the extensive networks of community health workers.

“It’s not always about how much money you have or how sophisticated your hospitals are,” he said.

Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said African leaders haven’t gotten the credit they deserve for acting quickly, citing Mali’s decision to close its borders before COVID-19 even arrived.

“I think there’s a different cultural approach in Africa, where these countries have approached COVID with a sense of humility because they’ve experienced things like Ebola, polio and malaria,” Sridhar said.

In past months, the coronavirus has pummeled South Africa and is estimated to have killed more than 89,000 people there, by far the most deaths on the continent. But for now, African authorities, while acknowledging that there could be gaps, are not reporting huge numbers of unexpected fatalities that might be COVID-related. WHO data show that deaths in Africa make up just 3% of the global total. In comparison, deaths in the Americas and Europe account for 46% and 29%.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the government has recorded nearly 3,000 deaths so far among its 200 million population. The U.S. records that many deaths every two or three days.

The low numbers have Nigerians like Opemipo Are, a 23-year-old in Abuja, feeling relieved. “They said there will be dead bodies on the streets and all that, but nothing like that happened,” she said.

Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups, suggested Africa might not even need as many vaccines as the West. It’s an idea that, while controversial, he says is being seriously discussed among African scientists — and is reminiscent of the proposal British officials made last March to let COVID-19 freely infect the population to build up immunity.

That doesn’t mean, however, that vaccines aren’t needed in Africa.

“We need to be vaccinating all out to prepare for the next wave,” said Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, who previously advised the South African government on COVID-19. “Looking at what’s happening in Europe, the likelihood of more cases spilling over here is very high.”

The impact of the coronavirus has also been relatively muted in poor countries like Afghanistan, where experts predicted outbreaks amid ongoing conflict would prove disastrous.

Hashmat Arifi, a 23-year-old student in Kabul, said he hadn’t seen anyone wearing a mask in months, including at a recent wedding he attended alongside hundreds of guests. In his university classes, more than 20 students routinely sit unmasked in close quarters.

“I haven’t seen any cases of corona lately,” Arifi said. So far, Afghanistan has recorded about 7,200 deaths among its 39 million people, although little testing was done amid the conflict and the actual numbers of cases and deaths are unknown.

Back in Zimbabwe, doctors were grateful for the respite from COVID-19 — but feared it was only temporary.

“People should remain very vigilant,” warned Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association. He fears that another coronavirus wave would hit Zimbabwe next month. “Complacency is what is going to destroy us because we may be caught unaware.”

___

Cheng reported from London. Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Chinedu Asadu in Lagos contributed to this report.

Police: Shooting at northern Virginia mall leaves 1 wounded

From the Associated Press

WOODBRIDGE, Va. (AP) — One person was shot during a fight in a clothing store at a northern Virginia mall Thursday afternoon, and police said afterward that there was no active threat to the public.

Prince William County police said in a news release that the shooting occurred at Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, an outer Virginia suburb of the nation’s capital. Officers called to the mall quickly determined the incident was isolated to the Fashion Mechanics store, police said.

They said a man entered the store and got into a fight with a patron, who then shot the man. Both men fled the store and the injured man drove to a hospital with injuries that weren’t considered life-threatening, according to police.

The shooter fled before officers arrived and hasn’t been found, police said. No additional injuries were reported.

The mall has more than 200 stores, according to its website. It is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south-southwest of downtown Washington, D.C.

Residents evacuate safely while fire destroys senior center

From the Associated Press

ALGONAC, Mich. (AP) — First responders broke windows to help some residents escape a fire Thursday in a building at their housing complex in southeastern Michigan, authorities said.

The fire at Rolling Brook Senior Living was reported shortly before noon.

St. Clair County Sheriff Mat King said all of the approximately 24 residents were able to evacuate safely.

First responders needed to break windows to free some of the residents, King said.

The blaze started outside the main entrance in or around a garbage can, and the cause is under investigation, Algonac Fire Chief Joe Doan said. The building was destroyed, he said.

Resident Joe Perry said when he heard the fire alarm he grabbed his coat and found smoke coming down the hallway before running out a back door.

“I feel disgusted, we lost everything,” Perry told the Times Herald of Port Huron.

One firefighter suffered a minor injury, Doan said. No residents were hurt.

A bus took residents to the Algonac Lions Club, said Mark White, deputy director of the St. Clair County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Thanksgiving air travel to rebound to 2019 levels, TSA says

From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of airline passengers traveling for Thanksgiving this year is expected to rebound to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, but the Transportation Security Administration says it is ready to handle the surge.

Administrator David Pekoske said Wednesday he expects agency staffing to be sufficient for what’s traditionally TSA’s busiest travel period.

FILE – Two airplane pilots pass by a line of passengers while waiting at a security check-in line at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, ahead of Fourth of July weekend, July 1, 2021. The number of people traveling for Thanksgiving this year is expected to rebound to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, but the Transportation Security Administration say it is ready to handle the surge. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File)

“We are prepared,” Pekoske told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said travelers should expect long lines at airports and plan to spend a little more time getting through security.

In 2019, a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through U.S. airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving. But that plummeted in 2020 as the pandemic kept people at home.

Pekoske said he didn’t think a vaccine mandate going into effect for TSA agents Monday would have any effect on staffing for Thanksgiving next week.

“In fact, implementation of the mandate will make travel safer and healthier for everyone,” he said. “So, we see quite a significant increase in the number of our officers that are vaccinated, and I’m very confident that there will be no impact for Thanksgiving.”

Pekoske told NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday he remains “very concerned” about the issue of unruly passengers as incidents on airplanes have continued.

“The level of unruly behavior is much higher than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it has referred 37 cases involving unruly airline passengers to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution since the number of disruptions on flights began to spike in January.

Canada sending military personnel to help with BC floods

From the Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The Canadian government said Wednesday it is sending the air force to the Pacific coast Canadian province of British Columbia to assist with evacuations and to support supply lines following floods and mudslides caused by extremely heavy rainfall.

Floodwaters cover Highway 1 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair said they will also protect residents against further flooding or landslides. Military helicopters already helped evacuate about 300 people from one highway where people were trapped in their cars overnight Monday following a mudslide,

“Torrential rains have led to terrible flooding that has disrupted the lives and taken lives of people across B.C. I want people to know that the federal government has been engaging with the local authorities,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Washington. “We’re sending resources like the Canadian Armed Forces to support people but also we’ll be there for the cleanup and the rebuilding after impacts of these extreme weather events.”

Every major route between the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and the Interior has been cut by washouts, flooding or landslides following record-breaking rainfall across southern British Columbia between Saturday and Monday.

The body of a woman was recovered from one of the mudslides caused by extremely heavy rainfall and the mudslides have destroyed parts of several major highways.

The total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for had not yet been confirmed. Investigators had received reports of two other people who were missing but added that other motorists might have been buried in a slide on Highway 99 near the town of Lillooet.

Elsewhere in the province, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said residents of the low-lying Sumas Prairie area south of the city face a significant risk to life and must get out immediately.

An evacuation order was issued for about 1,000 properties Tuesday as flooding linked to a severe weekend rainstorm pushed up water levels in the area which is home to many large dairy farms and other agricultural and livestock operations.

Braun said in a news briefing Wednesday that conditions were dire overnight because a key pumping station was in danger of being overwhelmed. The station was the only thing keeping water from the nearby Fraser River from engulfing most of the Sumas Prairie flats, he said.

“Right now, things are holding steady,” Braun said of the situation at the Barrowtown Pump Station. Crews spent Tuesday night sandbagging around the station.

“I’m feeling much better today than last night,” he said, although he cautioned the danger has not passed and river levels, which have dropped two meters since the storm ended, must drop further before flood gates can be opened to allow even more water to escape.

Abbotsford Fire Chief Darren Lee said about 180 rescues were completed Tuesday and early Wednesday as trapped residents asked for help to leave their flooded properties.

“Overnight we actually brought in additional helicopters when we realized the flooding was worsening in the east Prairie area,” he said. Three helicopters carried people to safety overnight, said Lee, while 11 teams in boats also brought out trapped residents.

No one was unaccounted for, said Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr.

About 80 callers were still awaiting help by daylight and responders planned to “work through the queue” through the morning, he said.

Belarus brings some migrants at Polish border in from cold

By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA for the Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Hundreds of migrants who were camped in the cold on the Poland-Belarus border have been moved to a nearby warehouse in Belarusian territory, reports said Wednesday, with some reported to still harbor hopes of entering the European Union.

The move came a day after a melee broke out in the border crisis, with migrants throwing stones at Polish forces massed on their side of the razor-wire fence, injuring 12, and they responded with water cannons and tear gas. Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of instigating the conflict, while the government in Minsk denounced Poland’s “violent actions.”

Migrants children stand in front of a barbed wire fence and Polish servicemen at the checkpoint “Kuznitsa” at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. A Polish government official says migrants camped on the Belarusian side of Poland’s eastern border are being taken away by bus, in a sign a tense standoff could be easing. Poland’s Border Guard posted on Twitter a video showing migrants with bags and backpacks being directed by Belarus forces away from the border. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA via AP)

The migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have been stuck at the border since Nov. 8. Most are fleeing conflict or despair at home and want to reach Germany or other western European countries.

The West has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis, which has seen migrants entering the country since summer and then trying to cross the borders into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

On Wednesday, Poland’s Border Guard tweeted a video showing migrants with bags and backpacks being directed by Belarus forces away from the camp near the Kuznica border crossing, and Polish Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik said he had received information that they were leaving on buses.

The Belarus state news agency Belta reported that migrants were moved to a heated, warehouse-like building about 500 meters (yards) from the border near Bruzgi, giving them the chance to rest indoors after many days in tents.

One of them, an Iraqi Kurd named Miran Ali, took video inside the warehouse and said Belarusian authorities said they wouldn’t be forced to return home, causing the migrants to chant in gratitude, “Belarus! Belarus! Belarus!”

“This is the joy and happiness of Kurdish people after they were told that they will not be sent back to Kurdistan by force, and that they can wait here until Germany or one of the cities in Germany take them there,” Ali said as he shot video of the chants. “These people are expressing happiness and optimism in this cold and ugly camp.”

They sat on blankets, most still wrapped in heavy jackets and raincoats.

Belta reported about 1,000 migrants agreed Tuesday to move into the building, located near Bruzgi, to “wait for the situation to resolve,” and it quoted some of them as saying that they are not planning to return to their home countries. Most of the building’s space has been allocated for the migrants, who are offered food, water, medical aid, mattresses and pillows, the news agency said.

Some migrants opted to stay outside near the border. Poland’s Defense Ministry posted video showing people and tents there, with some smoke rising from bonfires.

The next steps in the crisis are unclear. Although arrangements have been made for flights from Minsk to Iraq to repatriate those who want to return, it is not certain how many will want to go.

Iraq has been appealing for its citizens to fly home, telling them the way into the EU is closed. The first flight from Minsk for voluntary repatriation to Iraq is expected to take place Thursday.

Belarus also released video from its State Border Committee, alleging it showed Lithuanian border guards with dogs pushing migrants away from the Belarus-Lithuania frontier Tuesday night.

Lithuania denied the claim, releasing its own video of the same incident. It blamed Belarusian officials for pushing the group of 13 migrants toward the Lithuanian side and preventing them from returning to Belarus after being stopped by the Lithuanian guards.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko for the second time this week, stressing that migrants should be given the possibility to return to their home countries with the help of the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.

Steve Alter, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, denied Berlin was planning to bring the migrants to Germany. The “road to Belarus is a dead end for most people who want to go to Germany. There are no plans to approve taking people in,” he said.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said U.N. aid was beginning to reach the migrants and it was important to ensure humanitarian agencies gain permanent access, even if it meant talking to Lukashenko, whose legitimacy is questioned by the West following a disputed 2020 reelection.

“It makes sense to also talk to those who have the opportunity to change this situation in Minsk, even when it comes to a ruler whose legitimacy, like all other European member states, Germany does not recognize,” Seibert said, adding that Merkel coordinated with other EU partners and is committed to the bloc’s stance of tightening sanctions on Minsk.

Meanwhile, Polish President Andrzej Duda said there is “no military threat” at the border from the primarily civilian police and border guards that are there to protect the EU from the pressure of “illegal migration.” The presence of the Polish military there is chiefly as a backup, Duda said on a visit to Montenegro.

Duda stressed that Poland will not accept any international decisions on the border standoff that are made without Poland’s participation. Duda was referring to the talks involving Merkel and Lukashenko.

Information on both sides of the border is hard to verify due to government restrictions. A state of emergency in Poland is keeping journalists, human rights workers and others away from the border along a zone that is 3 kilometers (2 miles) deep, and Belarus limits the presence of independent journalists.

Estonia, which also is affected by migrant movements but to a lesser degree, said it would build a temporary razor wire barrier of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) on its eastern border with Russia as a temporary solution to ensure border security.

This northernmost of the three Baltic nations with a population of 1.3 million, Estonia shares a 294-kilometer (183-mile) land border with Russia and a 340-kilometer border with Latvia but does not neighbor Belarus.

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told public broadcaster ERR on Tuesday that the crisis stems from Lukashenko’s bid to be recognized by the West as president and have the EU sanctions lifted, stressing it was important for them to remain in place.

“In our view, it is important that the European Union remains united and exerts its influence on Belarus through action,” Liimets said, adding new sanctions should be imposed as soon as possible.

___

Salar Salim in Baghdad, Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.

Washington seeks over $38 billion from opioid distributors

By GENE JOHNSON for the Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — After rejecting a half-billion-dollar settlement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday took the state’s case against the nation’s three biggest drug distributors to trial, saying they must be held accountable for their role in the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The Democrat delivered part of the opening statement in King County Superior Court himself, calling the case possibly the most significant public health lawsuit his agency had ever filed.

FILE – Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson looks on during a news conference in Seattle on Dec. 17, 2019. Ferguson rejected a half-billion-dollar settlement offer, and now he’s taking the state’s case against the nation’s three biggest drug distributors to trial Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. He says they must be held accountable for their role in the opioid crisis. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

“These companies knew what would happen if they failed to meet their duties,” Ferguson told Judge Michael Ramsey Scott. “We know they were aware of the harms flowing from their conduct because in private correspondence, company executives mocked individuals suffering the painful effects of opioid dependence. … They displayed a callous disregard for the communities and people who bear the impact of their greed.”

But Ferguson’s legal strategy isn’t without risk, as a loss by three California counties in a similar case this month — and an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision overturning a $465 million judgment against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson — demonstrates.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued a tentative ruling Nov. 1 that the counties, plus the city of Oakland, had not proven the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance. The Oklahoma ruling said a lower court wrongly interpreted the state’s public nuisance law.

In an email, Ferguson stressed that the relevant Washington laws differ and called the cases “apples and oranges.”

Public nuisance claims are at the heart of some 3,000 lawsuits brought by state and local governments against drug makers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Washington’s is the first by a state against drug distribution companies to go to trial. Ferguson is claiming public nuisance and violations of state consumer protection law.

“There is always uncertainty when you take a case to trial,” he said. “However, we feel confident in the strength of our case.”

The attorney general’s office sued McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. in 2019, alleging they made billions off the opioid epidemic by shipping huge amounts of prescription painkillers into the state even when they knew or should have known those drugs were likely to find their way to drug dealers and people suffering from addiction.

Ferguson is seeking a “transformative” payout of tens of billions of dollars from the companies to help undo the epidemic’s damage in Washington state, which includes more than 8,000 deaths from 2006 to 2017 and untold devastation to families. The state wants $38 billion to pay for treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions more in additional damages.

The trial is expected to last about three months.

In July, Ferguson rejected a settlement offer of $527.5 million over 18 years as “woefully insufficient.” That deal would have provided about $30 million a year for Washington and its 320 cities and counties to split. Considering inflation over the 18-year payment period, the true value of the settlement was just $303 million, Ferguson said.

The drug companies say that they cannot be blamed for epidemic; they merely supplied opioids that had been prescribed by doctors. It wasn’t their role to second-guess the prescriptions or interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, they argued in a trial brief filed this month.

Further, they argued, Washington state itself played a large role in the epidemic. In the 1990s, concerned that people in chronic pain were being undertreated, lawmakers passed the Intractable Pain Act, which made it easier to prescribe opioids.

“Increased opioid prescribing by well-meaning doctors, supported by the State’s good-faith efforts to spare its residents from pain, in turn resulted in increased opioid distributions,” the companies wrote. “Defendants played no role in changing the standard of care, nor do wholesale distributors have the expertise, the obligation, or the ability to second-guess good-faith medical decisions made by doctors to prescribe opioids.”

Nevertheless, the state argues, the companies had a duty to maintain controls against drug diversion. Instead, they shipped so much to Washington that it was obvious that it was fueling addiction: Opioid sales in Washington rose more than 500% between 1997 and 2011.

In 2011, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed in the state — enough for a 16-day supply for every resident, the attorney general says. In 2015, eight of Washington’s 39 counties had more prescriptions than residents.

The prescription-drug epidemic has ebbed with further attention and controls, and prescription opioid deaths have fallen by half since 2010. But since then, heroin and fentanyl deaths have soared: Heroin-related mortality more than quintupled in Washington from 2010 to 2018, and fentanyl-related mortality more than doubled from 2016 to 2018.

“This occurred as a foreseeable result of users’ addiction, particularly for those who could no longer obtain or afford prescription opioids,” the state wrote in its trial brief. “These deaths and other heroin and fentanyl-related harms thus are an integral and tragic part of the opioid epidemic and public nuisance.”

The federal government says nearly a half-million Americans have died from opioid abuse since 2001.

Other opioid trials rooted in public nuisance law are happening before juries in a federal court in Cleveland and a state court in New York. A ruling is expected soon in a trial before a judge in West Virginia.

Johnson & Johnson also faces a separate lawsuit from Washington state that is scheduled to go to trial next year.

Johnson & Johnson and the three distribution companies have been in the final stages of negotiating a $26 billion in settlements covering thousands of government lawsuits, though it could take months to get final approval.

Key reason for supply shortages: Americans keep spending

By TOM KRISHER and PAUL WISEMAN for the Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — Take a step back from the picked-over store shelves, the stalled container ships and the empty auto showrooms, and you’ll find a root cause of the shortages of just about everything.

Even as the pandemic has dragged on, U.S. households flush with cash from stimulus checks, booming stock markets and enlarged home equity have felt like spending freely again — a lot. And since consumer demand drives much of the U.S. and global economies, high demand has brought goods shortages to the U.S. and much of the world.

Trucks line up to enter a Port of Oakland shipping terminal on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. Intense demand for products has led to a backlog of container ships outside the nation’s two largest ports along the Southern California coast. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Add the fact that companies are ordering — and hoarding — more goods and parts than they need so they don’t run out, and you end up with an almost unquenchable demand that is magnifying the supply shortages.

That’s where a big problem comes in: Suppliers were caught so flat-footed by how fast pent-up spending surged out of the recession that they won’t likely be able to catch up as long as demand remains so robust. That’s especially so because Americans, still hunkered down at home more than they did before the pandemic, continue to spend more on goods — electronics, furniture, appliances, sporting goods — than on services like hotels, meals out and movie tickets. All that demand for goods, in turn, is helping to accelerate U.S. inflation.

Unless spending snaps sharply back to services — or something else leads people to stop buying so much — it could take deep into 2022 or even 2023 before global supply chains regain some semblance of normalcy.

“Demand is completely skewed,” said Bindiya Vakil, CEO of Resilinc, a consulting firm that helps companies manage supply chains. “This has now become more and more painful by the day.”

One reason people may eventually stop spending so much is that everything simply costs more now. Consumer prices in the U.S. skyrocketed 6.2% over the past year as food, gasoline, autos and housing catapulted inflation to its highest pace since 1990. The laws of gravity suggest that the cumulative effect of so much inflation will eventually exert a brake on spending.

For now, though, manufacturers foresee no end to heavy demand — and no end to beleaguered supply chains or spiking inflation pressures. A chronic lack of computer chips has forced Ford Motor Co., for instance, to revamp its system of ordering parts that require long periods from order to delivery to try to address shortages.

“It’s highlighted that the “just-in-time” operating model that’s been prevalent in autos may not be the right operating model,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief operations and product officer, told analysts.

Smaller companies, too, have felt compelled to build up as many supplies as they can so they can still make products. Moriarty’s Gem Art near Chicago, a family business for 40 years, has been stocking up on gold, silver and platinum to make necklaces and rings, desperate not to run out of supplies as holiday orders pick up.

“We’re ordering a lot more than what we actually have orders for — just in case,” said Jeff Moriarty, the marketing manager.

Even a normal post-holiday shopping lull, though it might help, isn’t expected to be enough to unclog ports, speed shipping traffic or allow factories to replenish inventories.

“The baseline expectation for improvement is around the middle of 2022,” said Oren Klachkin, lead U.S. economist for Oxford Economics. “But I think the risks of that happening later are fairly high.”

Though Americans have increasingly ventured out in recent months, the balance between spending on goods and services remains skewed. The pent-up demand that followed the economic recovery is still tilted toward goods like furniture and cars and less toward haircuts, concerts and restaurant meals. Though services spending has grown in recent months, it isn’t nearly enough to close the gap.

Since April 2020, consumer spending on goods has jumped 32%. It’s now 15% above where it was in February 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the economy. Goods account for roughly 40% of consumer spending now, up from 36% before the pandemic.

U.S. factories have tried mightily to keep up with demand. Production rose nearly 5% over the past year, according to the Federal Reserve, despite periodic ups and downs, including disruptions to auto production caused by chip shortages.

Imports have narrowed the gap between what America’s consumers want and what its factories can produce. From January through September this year, the U.S. imported 23% more than in the same period in 2020. In September, thanks to surging imports, the U.S. posted a record deficit in goods trade: Imports topped exports by $98.2 billion.

Voracious demand for goods has accelerated as more people have become vaccinated in wealthier countries. Yet in poorer countries, especially in Southeast Asia, the spread of the delta variant forced new factory shutdowns in recent months and crimped supply chains again. Only recently did it start to recover.

At the same time, many U.S. workers have decided to quit jobs that had required frequent public contact. This created shortages of workers to unload ships, transport goods or staff retail shops.

Ports clogged up. Last month, 65 ships waited off the California coast to be unloaded at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — two weeks’ worth of work. The average wait: 12 days. That has since worsened to 78 ships, with an average wait of nearly 17 days, despite around-the-clock port operations beginning in October.

Before the pandemic, ships had set arrival times and went straight to a berth for unloading, said Gene Seroka, the L.A. port’s executive director. Now, with Asian factory output at record highs, the port is moving record levels of goods. Yet it’s not enough to meet the demand.

Seroka doesn’t foresee the shipments easing even next year. Retailers have told him they plan to use the slower months of January and February — if they actually are slower — to replenish inventory.

As with ports, rail lines are moving more goods. Through early November, freight shipped by America’s railroads was up 7.5% from a year ago. Truck shipments were up 1.7% in September. Yet there aren’t enough drivers or trucks to move all the freight.

In China, too, manufacturers are struggling with shipping delays, container shortages and cost increases. Shantou Limei International Ltd., which makes children’s toys in the city of Shantou, expects sales to fall 30% this year because of delays and costlier shipping.

“The most serious problem for us is being unable to deliver goods on time because of the difficulties in securing freight containers,” said Frank Xie, the company’s general manager. “A lot of things have gone beyond our controls and expectation.”

Philip Richardson, an American who manufactures loudspeakers in Panyu, near Hong Kong, said orders have increased 400%. A key reason is increased demand from Americans and Europeans, who have gone on a home electronics buying spree. The price to ship goods to U.S. customers on a 40-foot cargo container, meantime, more than tripled in July.

“The customer has to bear it or cut back on orders,” Richardson said.

Song Wenjie, owner of Hand-in-Hand Electric Appliance Technology Co., a manufacturer of home appliances in Jiaxing, south of Shanghai, said that soaring cargo prices make it unprofitable to ship some goods.

“The combination of power outages and shipping delays might lead to a 20% fall in production this year, Song said.

Among European companies grappling with snarled supply lines is Shoe Zone, a British retailer that sources most of its footwear from China. Shipping container prices have jumped at least five-fold in 12 months, said Anthony Smith, the chief executive.

“This will continue to impact us for at least a further six months until the issues being experienced in the whole supply chain return to more sensible levels,” he said.

____

Wiseman reported from Washington. Joe McDonald and Yu Bing in Beijing, Kelvin Chan in London and Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.

Austria locks down the unvaccinated amid a surge of COVID-19

By GEIR MOULSON for the Association Press

BERLIN (AP) — Austria took what its leader called the “dramatic” step Monday of implementing a nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated people who haven’t recently had COVID-19, perhaps the most drastic of a string of measures being taken by European governments to get a massive regional resurgence of the virus under control.

Children wait with their parents to receive the Pfizer vaccine against the COVID-19 disease. The official vaccination for children between the age of 5 and 12 years start today in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

The move, which took effect at midnight, prohibits people 12 and older who haven’t been vaccinated or recently recovered from leaving their homes except for basic activities such as working, grocery shopping, going to school or university or for a walk — or getting vaccinated.

The lockdown is initially being imposed until Nov. 24 in the Alpine country of 8.9 million. It doesn’t apply to children under 12 because they cannot yet officially get vaccinated — though the capital, Vienna, on Monday opened up vaccinations for under-12s as part of a pilot project and reported high demand.

Officials say police patrols and checks will be stepped up and unvaccinated people can be fined up to 1,450 euros ($1,660) if they violate the lockdown.

“We really didn’t take this step lightly and I don’t think it should be talked down,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told Oe1 radio. “This a dramatic step — about 2 million people in this country are affected. … What we are trying is precisely to reduce contact between the unvaccinated and vaccinated to a minimum, and also contact between the unvaccinated.”

“My aim is very clearly to get the unvaccinated to get themselves vaccinated and not to lock down the vaccinated,” Schallenberg added. “In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in — and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown and that can’t carry on ad infinitum — is only vaccination.”

About 65% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated, a rate Schallenberg described as “shamefully low.” All students at schools, whether vaccinated or not, are now required to take three COVID-19 tests per week, at least one of them a PCR test.

The leader of the far-right opposition Freedom Party vowed to combat the new restrictions by “all parliamentary and legal means we have available.” Herbert Kickl said that “two million people are being practically imprisoned without having done anything wrong.”

On Monday, Kickl announced on Facebook that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and must self-isolate for 14 days, so he won’t be able to attend a protest in Vienna planned for Saturday.

Authorities are concerned about rising infections and increasing pressure on hospitals. Austria on Monday recorded 894.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days. That is far worse than neighboring Germany, which has set its own pandemic records of late, and has 303 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days.

Berlin on Monday became the latest of several German states to limit access to restaurants, cinemas, museums and concerts to people who have been vaccinated or recently recovered — shutting out other unvaccinated people, even those who have tested negative. Under-18s are exempt.

On Thursday, the German parliament is due to vote on a new legal framework for coronavirus restrictions drawn up by the parties that are expected to form the country’s next coalition government. Those plans are reportedly being beefed up to allow tougher contact restrictions than originally planned.

Separately, one of the three German parties hoping to take office next month said they will consider introducing a vaccine mandate in some areas, a step that officials so far have balked at.

“We will need compulsory vaccination … in nursing homes, in day care centers and so on,” said the Greens’ parliamentary group leader, Katrin Goering-Eckardt.

Germany has struggled to bring new momentum to its vaccination campaign, with just over two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated, and is trying to ramp up booster shots.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a new appeal Saturday for holdouts to get vaccinated. “Think about it again,” she said. The country’s disease control center called last week for people to cancel or avoid large events.

To Germany’s west, the Netherlands on Saturday night implemented a partial lockdown that is to run for at least three weeks, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. In the northern Dutch city of Leeuwarden, hundreds of young people gathered in a central square to protest the restrictions, setting off fireworks and holding flares, before riot police moved in to push the protesters out.

The Austrian government’s next move may well be to tighten the screws.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told ORF television that he wants to discuss further coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday, and said one proposal is limits on going out at night that would also apply to the vaccinated.

But Schallenberg sounded more cautious.

“Of course I don’t rule out sharpening” the measures, he said, but he indicated that he doesn’t expect restrictions on bars and nighclubs at present.

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Congress mandates new car technology to stop drunken driving

By HOPE YEN and TOM KRISHER for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: Find a high-tech way to keep drunken people from driving cars.

FILE – In this March 31, 2021,photo, traffic flows along Interstate 90 highway as a Metra suburban commuter train moves along an elevated track in Chicago. Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: find a high-tech way to keep drunken people from driving cars. It’s one of the mandates along with a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety amid escalating road fatalities in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign soon. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File)

It’s one of the mandates along with a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety amid escalating road fatalities in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign soon.

Under the legislation, monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers would roll out in all new vehicles as early as 2026, after the Transportation Department assesses the best form of technology to install in millions of vehicles and automakers are given time to comply.

In all, about $17 billion is allotted to road safety programs, the biggest increase in such funding in decades, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that could mean more protected bike paths and greener spaces built into busy roadways.

“It’s monumental,” said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Otte called the package the “single most important legislation” in the group’s history that marks “the beginning of the end of drunk driving.”

“It will virtually eliminate the No. 1 killer on America’s roads,” she said.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported an estimated 20,160 people died in traffic collisions in the first half of 2021, the highest first-half total since 2006. The agency has pointed to speeding, impaired driving and not wearing seatbelts during the coronavirus pandemic as factors behind the spike.

Each year, around 10,000 people are killed due to alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., making up nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities, according to NHTSA.

Currently, some convicted drunken drivers must use breathalyzer devices attached to an ignition interlock, blowing into a tube and disabling the vehicle if their blood alcohol level is too high. The legislation doesn’t specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights, said the most likely system to prevent drunken driving is infrared cameras that monitor driver behavior. That technology is already being installed by automakers such as General Motors, BMW and Nissan to track driver attentiveness while using partially automated driver-assist systems.

The cameras make sure a driver is watching the road, and they look for signs of drowsiness, loss of consciousness or impairment.

If signs are spotted, the cars will warn the driver, and if the behavior persists, the car would turn on its hazard lights, slow down and pull to the side of the road.

Abuelsamid said breathalyzers aren’t a practical solution because many people would object to being forced to blow into a tube every time they get into the car. “I don’t think it’s going to go over very well with a lot of people,” he said.

The voluminous bill also requires automakers to install rear-seat reminders to alert parents if a child is left inadvertently in the back seat, a mandate that could begin by 2025 after NHTSA completes its rulemaking on the issue. Since 1990, about 1,000 children have died from vehicular heatstroke after the highest total in a single year was 54 in 2018, according to Kidsandcars.org.

Congress, meanwhile, directed the agency to update decades-old safety standards to avert deaths from collapsing front seatbacks and issue a rule requiring automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings in all passenger vehicles, though no date was set for compliance.

Most automakers had already agreed to make automatic emergency braking standard equipment in most of their models by September of next year, as part of a voluntary plan announced in the final weeks of the Obama administration.

Buttigieg, promoting the legislation’s benefits at a White House briefing, said he had traveled the country in recent months and seen too many roadside memorials for people who had died in preventable traffic deaths.

He pointed to a new $5 billion “Safe Streets & Roads for All” program under his department that will in part promote healthier streets for cyclists and pedestrians. The federal program, which he acknowledged may take several months to set up, would support cities’ campaigns to end traffic fatalities with a “Vision Zero” effort that could build traffic roundabouts to slow cars, carve out new bike paths and widen sidewalks and even reduce some roads to shift commuters toward public transit or other modes of transportation.

The legislation requires at least 15% of a state’s highway safety improvement program funds to address pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonmotorized road users if those groups make up 15% or more of the state’s crash fatalities.

“The best way to allow people to move in ways that are better for congestion and better for climate is to give them alternatives,” Buttigieg said. Describing much of it as a longer-term effort, he said, “this is how we do right by the next generation.”

Still, safety advocates worry that the bipartisan bill missed opportunities to address more forcefully an emerging U.S. crisis of road fatalities and urged the Transportation Department to deliver on immediate solutions.

They have called on a sometimes slow-moving NHTSA to address a backlog of traffic safety regulations ordered by Congress nearly a decade ago, such as mandatory rear seat belt reminders. The department recently said it will release a “safe system approach” to road safety in January that identifies safety action for drivers, roads, vehicles, speeds and post-crash medical care.

“Prompt action must be taken on comprehensive, commonsense and confirmed solutions to steer our nation toward zero crash fatalities,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Proven solutions are at hand; it’s time to take action.”

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Krisher reported from Detroit.

Air-scrubbing machines gain momentum, but long way to go

CATHY BUSSEWITZ for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — On a field ringed by rolling green hills in Iceland, fans attached to metal structures that look like an industrial-sized Lego project are spinning. Their mission is to scrub the atmosphere by sucking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it safely underground.

In this undated image provided by Climeworks AG shows a geothermal power plant near Reykjavik, Iceland. The Iceland plant, called Orca, is the largest such facility in the world, capturing about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (Arni Saeberg/Climeworks AG via AP)

Just a few years ago, this technology, known as “direct air capture,” was seen by many as an unrealistic fantasy. But the technology has evolved to where people consider it a serious tool in fighting climate change.

The Iceland plant, called Orca, is the largest such facility in the world, capturing about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. But compared to what the planet needs, the amount is tiny. Experts say 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide must be removed annually by mid-century.

“Effectively, in 30 years’ time, we need a worldwide enterprise that is twice as big as the oil and gas industry, and that works in reverse,” said Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Leading scientific agencies including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that even if the world manages to stop producing harmful emissions, that still won’t be enough to avert a climate catastrophe. They say we need to suck massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and put it back underground — yielding what some call “negative emissions.”

“We have already failed on climate to the extent to which direct air capture is one of the many things we must do,” Friedmann said. “We have already emitted so many greenhouse gases at such an incredible volume and rate that CO2 removal at enormous scales is required, as well as reduction of emissions.”

As dire warnings have accelerated, technology to vacuum carbon dioxide from the air has advanced. Currently, a handful of companies operate such plants on a commercial scale, including Climeworks, which built the Orca plant in Iceland, and Carbon Engineering, which built a different type of direct air capture plant in British Columbia. And now that the technology has been proven, both companies have ambitions for major expansion.

DIRECT AIR CAPTURE AT WORK

At Climeworks’ Orca plant near Reykjavik, fans suck air into big, black collection boxes where the carbon dioxide accumulates on a filter. Then it’s heated with geothermal energy and is combined with water and pumped deep underground into basalt rock formations. Within a few years, Climeworks says, the carbon dioxide turns into stone.

It takes energy to build and run Climeworks’ plants. Throughout the life cycle of the Orca plant, including construction, 10 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted for every 100 tons of carbon dioxide removed from the air. Carbon Engineering’s plants can run on renewable energy or natural gas, and when natural gas is used, the carbon dioxide generated during combustion is captured.

Carbon dioxide can also be injected into geological reservoirs such as depleted oil and gas fields. Carbon Engineering is taking that approach in partnership with Occidental Petroleum to build what’s expected to be the world’s largest direct air capture facility in the Southwest’s Permian Basin — the most productive U.S. oil field.

Direct air capture plants globally are removing about 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually, according to the International Energy Agency.

Climeworks built its first direct air capture plant in 2017 in Hinwil, Switzerland, which captured 900 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that was sold to companies for use in fizzy beverages and fertilizer. The company built another plant, called Artic Fox, in Iceland that same year; it captured up to 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that was injected underground.

“Today we are on a level that we can say it’s on an industrial scale, but it’s not on a level where we need to be to make a difference in stopping climate change,” said Daniel Egger, chief commercial officer at Climeworks.

BIG PLANS, CHALLENGES

Their plans call for scaling up to remove several million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. And Eggers said that would mean increasing capacity by a factor of 10 almost every three years.

It’s a lofty, and expensive, goal.

Estimates vary, but it currently costs about $500 to $600 per ton to remove carbon dioxide using direct air capture, said Colin McCormick, chief innovation officer at Carbon Direct, which invests in carbon removal projects and advises businesses on buying such services.

As with any new technology, costs can decrease over time. Within the next decade, experts say, the cost of direct air capture could fall to about $200 per ton or lower.

For years, companies bought carbon offsets by doing things like investing in reforestation projects. But recent studies have shown many offsets don’t deliver the promised environmental benefits. So McCormick said companies are looking for more verifiable carbon removal services and are investing in direct air capture, considered the “gold standard.”

“This is really exploding. We really didn’t see hardly any of this until a couple of years ago,” he said, referring to companies investing in the technology. “Two years ago Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify were really the leaders on this who first went out and said, ‘We want to procure carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.’”

Companies are setting targets of net zero carbon emissions for their operations but can only reduce emissions so far. That’s where purchasing carbon removal services such as direct air capture comes in.

Individuals can buy atmosphere-scrubbing services too: Climeworks offers subscriptions starting at $8 a month to people who want to offset emissions.

In the U.S., direct air capture facilities can get a tax credit of $50 a ton, but there are efforts in Congress to increase that to up to $180 a ton, which if passed, could stimulate development.

The Department of Energy announced Friday a goal to reduce the cost of carbon removal and storage to $100 per metric ton, saying it would collaborate with communities, industry and academia to spur technological innovation.

Oil companies such as Occidental and Exxon have been practicing a different form of carbon capture for decades. For the most part, they are taking carbon dioxide emissions from production facilities and injecting it underground to shake loose more oil and gas from between rocks.

Some question the environmental benefits of using captured CO2 to produce more fossil fuels that are eventually burned, producing greenhouse gases. But Occidental says part of the goal is to make products such as aviation fuel with a smaller carbon footprint — since while producing the fuel, they’re also removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground.

Capturing carbon dioxide from oil and gas operations or industrial facilities such as steel plants or coal-burning power plants is technically easier and less costly than drawing it from the air, because plant emissions have much more highly concentrated CO2.

Still, most companies are not capturing carbon dioxide that leaves their facilities.

Worldwide, industrial facilities capturing carbon dioxide from their operations had a combined capacity to capture 40 million tons annually, triple the amount in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency.

But that’s less than 1% of the total emissions that could be captured from industrial facilities globally, said Sean McCoy, assistant professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary.

If governments created policies to penalize carbon dioxide emissions, that would drive more carbon removal projects and push companies to switch to lower-carbon fuels, McCoy said.

“Direct air capture is something you get people to pay for because they want it,” he said. “Nobody who operates a power plant wants (carbon capture and storage). You’re going to have to hit them with sticks.”

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Associated Press reporter Jamey Keaten contributed from Geneva.

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Satellite images show China built mock-ups of US warships

For the Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — Satellite images show China has built mock-ups of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and destroyer in its northwestern desert, possibly for practice for a future naval clash as tensions rise between the nations.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a building on rail tracks in Ruoqiang county, China, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Satellite images appear to show China has built mock-ups of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and destroyers in its northwestern desert, such as one at center in this image, possibly as practice for a future naval clash as tensions rise between the nations. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

China has massively upgraded its military in recent years, and its capability and intentions are increasingly concerning to the United States as tensions rise over the South China Sea, Taiwan and military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.

The images captured by Colorado-based satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies dated Sunday show the outlines of a U.S. aircraft carrier and at least one destroyer sitting on a railway track.

Maxar identified the location as Ruoqiang, a Taklamakan Desert county in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

The independent U.S. Naval Institute said on its website that the mock-ups of U.S. ships were part of a new target range developed by the People’s Liberation Army.

It wasn’t clear from the images how many details had been included in the apparent targets, although USNI said it had identified features on the destroyer including its funnels and weapons systems.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing Monday that he had no information about the images, saying, “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”

China’s massive military upgrade has emphasized countering the U.S. and other countries’ naval forces.

That includes the development of land, sea and air-launched missiles to repel and possibly sink opposing vessels, expressed most emphatically by the land-based DF-21D ballistic missile known as the “carrier killer.”

Recent months have also seen a substantial increase in Chinese military flights just southwest of Taiwan, the self-governing island republic claimed by Beijing and which it threatens to annex by force. Washington provides Taiwan with much of its weaponry and U.S. law requires that it ensures the island can defend itself and treats threats to it as matters of “grave concern.”

The images released by Maxar come amid growing concerns over the possibility of military conflict between the world’s two biggest economies, who are at odds over a litany of political and economic issues.

The Pentagon this month issued a report saying China is expanding its nuclear force much faster than U.S. officials predicted just a year ago. That appears designed to enable Beijing to match or surpass U.S. global power by midcentury, the report said.

U.S. defense officials have said they are increasingly wary of China’s intentions, largely with regard to the status of Taiwan.

“The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen (China’s) ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy’ — a likely euphemism for the United States,” the report said.

China’s navy and coast guard are also adding new vessels at a record pace, concentrating them in the South China Sea, the strategic waterway that China claims virtually in its entirety.

While the U.S. Navy remains predominant, its resources are divided between the Indo-Pacific, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and other regions where American interests lie.

China’s test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting Earth before reentering the atmosphere and gliding on a maneuverable path to its target also surprised top U.S. military leaders. Beijing insisted it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile, but the weapon system’s design is meant to evade U.S. missile defenses.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test was “very close” to being a “Sputnik moment,” akin to the 1957 launching by the Soviet Union of the world’s first space satellite, which fed fears the United States had fallen behind technologically.

Barriers, crowd control in focus in Houston concert deaths

By JUAN A. LOZANO and JAMIE STENGLE for the Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — Investigators are expected to examine the design of safety barriers and the use of crowd control in determining what led to a crush of spectators at a Houston music festival that left eight people dead and hundreds more injured.

Authorities planned to use videos, witness interviews and a review of concert procedures to figure out what went wrong Friday night during a performance by rapper Travis Scott. The tragedy unfolded when the crowd rushed the stage, squeezing people so tightly they couldn’t breathe.

A man cries at a memorial for the victims of the Astroworld music festival in Houston on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

Billy Nasser, 24, who had traveled from Indianapolis to attend the concert, said about 15 minutes into Scott’s set, things got “really crazy” and people began crushing one another. He said he “was picking people up and trying to drag them out.”

Nasser said he found a concertgoer on the ground.

“I picked him up. People were stepping on him. People were like stomping, and I picked his head up and I looked at his eyes, and his eyes were just white, rolled back to the back of his head,” he said.

Over the weekend, a makeshift memorial of flowers, votive candles, condolence notes and T-shirts took shape outside at NRG Park.

Michael Suarez, 26, visited the growing memorial after the concert.

”It’s very devastating. No one wants to see or hear people dying at a festival,” Suarez said. “We were here to have a good time — a great time — and it’s devastating to hear someone lost their lives.”

The dead, according to friends and family members, included a 14-year-old high school student; a 16-year-old girl who loved dancing; and a 21-year-old engineering student at the University of Dayton. The youngest was 14, the oldest 27.

Houston officials did not immediately release the victims’ names or the cause of death, but family and friends began to name their loved ones and tell their stories Sunday.

Thirteen people remained hospitalized Sunday. Their conditions were not disclosed. Over 300 people were treated at a field hospital at the concert.

City officials said they were in the early stages of investigating what caused the pandemonium at the sold-out Astroworld festival, an event founded by Scott. About 50,000 people were there.

Authorities said that among other things, they will look at how the area around the stage was designed.

Julio Patino, of Naperville, Illinois, who was in London on business when he got a middle-of-the-night call informing him his 21-year-old son Franco was dead, said he had a lot of questions about what happened.ADVERTISEMENT

“These concerts should be controlled,” Patino said. “If they don’t know how to do that, they should have canceled the concert right then, when they noticed there was an overcrowd.” He added: “They should not wait until they see people laying down on the floor, lifeless.”

Steven Adelman, vice president of the industry group Event Safety Alliance, which was formed after the collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 killed seven people, helped write industry guidelines widely used today.

Besides looking at safety barriers and whether they correctly directed crowds or contributed to the crush of spectators, Adelman said, authorities will look at whether something incited the crowd besides Scott taking the stage.

Adelman said another question is whether there was enough security there, noting there is a nationwide shortage of people willing to take low-wage, part-time security gigs.

“Security obviously was unable to stop people. Optically, that’s really bad-looking,” he said. “But as for what it tells us, it’s too early to say.”

Contemporary Services Corp., headquartered in Los Angeles, was responsible for security staff at the festival, according to county records in Texas. Representatives for the company — which advertises online as being “recognized worldwide as the pioneer, expert and only employee owned company in the crowd management field” — did not immediately respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Houston police and fire department officials said their investigation will include reviewing video taken by concert promoter Live Nation, as well as dozens of clips from people at the show.

Officials also planned to review the event’s security plan and various permits issued to organizers to see whether they were properly followed. In addition, investigators planned to speak with Live Nation representatives, Scott and concertgoers.

Izabella Ramirez of Texas City was celebrating her 21st birthday and said that once Scott came on stage, no one could move.

“Everybody was squishing in, and people were trying to move themselves to the front. You couldn’t even lift up your arms,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said a security guard pulled her over the barricade, while her date, Jason Rodriguez, lifted her up.

“Everyone was yelling for different things. They were either yelling for Travis or they were yelling for help,” Rodriguez said.

On video posted to social media, Scott could be seen stopping the concert at one point and asking for aid for someone in the audience: “Security, somebody help real quick.”

There is a long history of similar catastrophes at concerts, sporting events and even religious events. In 1979, 11 people were killed as thousands of fans tried to get into Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum to see a concert by The Who. Other past crowd catastrophes include the deaths of 97 people at a soccer match in Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 in Sheffield, England, and numerous disasters connected with the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Experts who have studied deaths caused by crowd surges say they are often a result of too many people packed into too small a space.

Also Sunday, one of the first of many expected lawsuits was filed on behalf of a man injured in the crush of people in state court in Houston. Attorneys for Manuel Souza sued Scott, Live Nation and others, saying they were responsible.

In a tweet posted Saturday, Scott said he was “absolutely devastated by what took place.” He pledged to work “together with the Houston community to heal and support the families in need.”

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Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware; Kristin M. Hall in Nashville and Bob Christie in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report

Grandparents await hugs, spouses reunite as US borders open

By ELLIOT SPAGAT and JOHN LEICESTER for the Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The U.S. fully reopened its borders with Mexico and Canada on Monday and lifted restrictions on travel that covered most of Europe, setting the stage for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making and providing a boost for the travel industry decimated by the pandemic.

The restrictions, among the most severe in U.S. history, kept families apart, including spouses who have not been able to hug in months, grandparents whose grandchildren doubled in age since they last saw them, and uncles and aunts who have not met nieces and nephews who are now toddlers.

Lines moved quickly Monday morning at San Diego’s border with Mexico, the busiest crossing in the United States, despite the added checks for vaccinations required to enter the country.

Jolly Dave, right, makes a phone call after arriving from India and being reunited with her boyfriend, Nirmit Shelat, at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. The couple has not been able to see one another for nine months due to pandemic travel restrictions. The U.S. lifted restrictions Monday on travel from a long list of countries including Mexico, Canada and most of Europe, setting the stage for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making and providing a boost for the airline and tourism industries decimated by the pandemic. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The new rules also allow air travel from a series of countries from which it has been restricted since the early days of the pandemic — as long as the traveler has proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often separated families.

Gaye Camara was already imagining her reunion with her husband, who she has not seen since before COVID-19 brought the fly-here-there-and-everywhere world to a halt.

“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, as she wheeled her luggage through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, which could almost be mistaken for its pre-pandemic self, busy with humming crowds, albeit in face masks.

When Camara last saw him in January 2020, they had no way of knowing that they’d have to wait 21 months before holding each other again. She lives in France’s Alsace region, where she works as a secretary. He is based in New York.

“It was very hard at the beginning. I cried nearly every night,” she said.

Video calls, text messages, phone conversations kept them connected — but couldn’t fill the void of separation.

“I cannot wait,” she said. “Being with him, his presence, his face, his smile.”

Airlines are preparing for a surge in activity — especially from Europe — after the pandemic and resulting restrictions caused international travel to plunge.

The 28 European countries that were barred under the U.S. policy that just ended made up 37% of overseas visitors in 2019, the U.S. Travel Association says. As the reopening takes effect, carriers are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the U.S. by 21% this month over last month, according to data from travel and analytics firm Cirium.

In a sign of the huge importance of trans-Atlantic travel for airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the reopening by synchronizing the departures of their early-morning flights to New York on parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport. BA CEO Sean Doyle was aboard his company’s plane.

“Together, even as competitors, we have fought for the safe return of trans-Atlantic travel — and now we celebrate that achievement as a team. Some things are more important than one-upmanship, and this is one of those things,” Doyle wrote in a message to customers, noting that the flight carried the number that used to belong to the supersonic Concorde.

For Martine Kerherve, being separated from loved ones in the United States was filled with worries that they might not survive the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.

“We told ourselves that we could die without seeing each other,” said Kerherve, who was heading for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Paris. “We all went through periods of depression, anxiety.”

Before the pandemic, it was a trip Kerherve and her partner, Francis Pasquier, would make once or twice a year. When they lost that, “we lost our bearings,” Pasquier said.

Maria Giribet, meanwhile, has not seen her twin grandchildren Gabriel and David for about half of their lives. Now 3 1/2, the boys are in San Francisco, which during the height of the pandemic might as well have been another planet for 74-year-old Giribet, who lives on the Mediterranean isle of Majorca.

“I’m going to hug them, suffocate them, that’s what I dream of,” Giribet said after checking in for her flight. A widow, she lost her husband to a lengthy illness before the pandemic and her three grown children all live abroad.

“I found myself all alone,” said Giribet, who was flying for the first time in her life by herself.

On the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, where traveling back and forth was a way of life before the pandemic, the change meant another step toward normalcy.

Malls, restaurants and Main Street shops in U.S. border towns have been devastated by the lack of visitors from Mexico. On the boundary with Canada, cross-border hockey rivalries that were community traditions were upended. Churches that had members on both sides of the border are hoping to welcome parishioners they haven’t seen in nearly two years.

River Robinson’s American partner wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. She was thrilled to hear about the U.S. reopening.

“I’m planning to take my baby down for the American Thanksgiving,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario. “If all goes smoothly at the border, I’ll plan on taking him down as much as I can.”

It’s “crazy to think he has a whole other side of the family he hasn’t even met yet,” she added.

The U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the shots approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That’s a relief for many in Canada, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used.

But millions of people around the world who were vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSino or others not OK’d by the WHO won’t be able to travel to the U.S.

The moves come as the U.S. has seen its COVID-19 outlook improve dramatically in recent weeks since the summer delta surge that pushed hospitals to the brink in many locations.

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Leicester reported from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

US puts new controls on Israeli spyware company NSO Group

By ALAN SUDERMAN for the Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Biden administration announced Wednesday it is putting new export limits on Israel’s NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, saying its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”

The company, whose spyware researchers say has been used around the world to break into the phones of human rights activists, journalists, and even members of the Catholic clergy, said it would advocate for a reversal.

FILE – A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir on Aug. 24, 2021. The Biden administration announced Wednesday, Nov. 3, that it is putting new export limits on two Israeli hacker-for-hire companies — including the well-known spyware company NSO Group — saying their tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.” (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

The U.S. Commerce Department said NSO Group and three other firms are being added to the “entity list,” which limits their access to U.S. components and technology by requiring government permission for exports. The department said putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organizations here and abroad,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The announcement was another blow to NSO Group, which was the focus of reports by a media consortium earlier this year that found the company’s spyware tool Pegasus was used in several instances of successful or attempted phone hacks of business executives, human rights activists and others around the world.

Pegasus infiltrates phones to vacuum up personal and location data and surreptitiously controls the smartphone’s microphones and cameras. Researchers have found several examples of NSO Group tools using so-called “zero click” exploits that infect targeted mobile phones without any user interaction.

Tech giant Facebook is currently suing NSO Group in U.S. federal court for allegedly targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with its spyware.

The company has broadly denied wrongdoing and issued a statement Wednesday saying its tools “support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime.”

“We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based (on) the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products,” the company said.

The full impact of being put on the entity list is unclear. Kevin Wolf, a lawyer at the firm Akin Gump and former top Commerce official, said being placed on the entity list can have a broad impact on a company.

“Many companies choose to avoid doing business with listed entities completely in order to eliminate the risk of an inadvertent violation and the costs of conducting complex legal analyses,” he said.

In 2019 the Commerce Department placed Chinese tech giant Huawei, which U.S. defense and intelligence communities have long accused of being an untrustworthy agent of Beijing’s repressive rulers, on the entity list.

Stewart Baker, a cybersecurity lawyer and former general counsel at the National Security Agency, said it remains to be seen how big an impact Wednesday’s announcement will have on the NSO Group’s long-term health. He said the Commerce Department will have significant discretion in how it handles licensing requests related to the NSO Group, and could face pressure from U.S. exporters and the Israeli government.

“We could see a situation in which the sanction has been granted and it has a great symbolic significance and some practical significance for NSO, but certainly isn’t a death penalty and may over time just be really aggravating,” he said.

Another Israeli spyware company, Candiru, was also added to the entity list. In July, Microsoft said it had blocked tools developed by Candiru that were used to spy on more than 100 people around the world, including politicians, human rights activists, journalists, academics and political dissidents.

A prominent Russian firm, Positive Technologies, and the Singapore-based Computer Security Initiative Consultancy were also placed on the list for trafficking in “cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access” to IT systems, the department said. The Treasury Department put sanctions on Positive Technology, which has a broad international footprint and partnerships with such IT heavyweights as Microsoft and IBM, earlier this year.

Roll up your sleeves: Kids’ turn arrives for COVID-19 shots

By LINDSEY TANNER for the Associated Press

Hugs with friends. Birthday parties indoors. Pillow fights. Schoolchildren who got their first COVID-19 shots Wednesday said these are the pleasures they look forward to as the U.S. enters a major new phase in fighting the pandemic.

Health officials hailed shots for kids ages 5 to 11 as a major breakthrough after more than 18 months of illness, hospitalizations, deaths and disrupted education.

Carter Giglio, 8, joined by service dog Barney of Hero Dogs, shows off the bandaid over his injection site after being vaccinated, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. The U.S. enters a new phase Wednesday in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with shots now available to millions of elementary-age children in what health officials hailed as a major breakthrough after more than 18 months of illness, hospitalizations, deaths and disrupted education. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Kid-sized doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cleared two final hurdles Tuesday — a recommendation from CDC advisers, followed by a green light from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At a Decatur, Georgia, pediatrician’s office, 10-year-old Mackenzie Olson took off her black leather jacket and rolled up her sleeve as her mother looked on.

“I see my friends but not the way I want to. I want to hug them, play games with them that we don’t normally get to,” and have a pillow fight with her best friend, Mackenzie said after getting her shot at the Children’s Medical Group site.https://interactives.ap.org/embeds/zzk6a/25/

With the federal government promising enough vaccine to protect the nation’s 28 million kids in this age group, pediatricians’ offices and hospitals began inoculating children. Schools, pharmacies and other locations plan to follow suit in the days ahead.

The atmosphere surrounding the launch of shots for elementary-age students was festive in many locations. California vaccine sites welcomed children with inflatable animals and handed out coloring books and prizes. Vehicles lined up before dawn at an Atlanta site.

Many pediatricians’ offices expected strong interest in the shots at least initially, but health officials are worried about demand tapering off. Almost two-thirds of parents recently polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they would wait or not seek out vaccines for their kids.

Brian Giglio, 40, of Alexandria, Virginia, brought his 8-year-old son, Carter, in for vaccination at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, where kids with underlying conditions got first dibs. Carter has Type 1 diabetes that puts him at risk for complications if he were to become infected.

Giglio said the vaccine was “like a hallway pass for us to begin living life again.” And Carter said he can’t wait to leave masks behind once he’s fully vaccinated, so he can smell the things he used to be able to smell without it.

“I’m ready to trash it,” he said, though the CDC still recommends masks in schools and indoor public spaces where virus activity is high, even for the fully vaccinated.

Cate Zeigler-Amon, 10, was first in line Wednesday for a drive-through vaccination at Viral Solutions in Atlanta. The girl enthusiastically bounced around the car before the shot, which she broadcast live on her computer during morning announcements at her elementary school.

Afterward, Cate said she was looking forward to hugging her friends and celebrating her birthday indoors next month “instead of having a freezing cold outside birthday party.”

Hartford Hospital in Connecticut vaccinated seven youngsters Tuesday night, minutes after the CDC’s director gave the OK, and three more early Wednesday. As they got their shots, one girl squeezed her eyes shut and a boy barely flinched, and other waiting kids applauded.

The vaccine — one-third the dose given to older children and adults and administered with kid-sized needles — requires two doses three weeks apart, plus two more weeks for full protection. That means children who get vaccinated before Thanksgiving will be covered by Christmas.

“The timing before winter holidays is very fortunate,” said Dr. Jennifer Shu, whose Children’s Medical Group office in Decatur, Georgia, began vaccinating first thing Wednesday. “This age group will be able to spend holidays with friends and family more safely than they have been able to since the start of the pandemic.”

Thousands of pediatricians pre-ordered doses, and Pfizer began shipments soon after the Food and Drug Administration’s decision Friday to authorize emergency use. Pfizer said it expects to make 19,000 shipments totaling about 11 million doses in the coming days, and millions more will be available to order on a weekly basis.

Authorities said they expect a smooth rollout, unlike the chaos that plagued the national one for adults nearly a year ago.

Asked about parents having trouble finding vaccine appointments, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the vaccines.gov website will be updated by Friday for parents to search for locations near them. He said the kid vaccination campaign will be at full speed next week as Pfizer continues to ship millions more doses to locations around the country.

More than 6,000 vaccination clinics are being planned at schools around the country before the winter holiday break, he said.

Walgreens planned to start kids’ vaccinations Saturday and said parents could sign up online or by calling 1-800-Walgreens. CVS was also accepting appointments online and by phone at select pharmacies starting Sunday.

Despite the initial enthusiasm, not everyone is rushing out to get shots.

Hannah Hause, a Colorado mother of four children ages 2, 5, 7 and 8, is herself vaccinated, but wants to see how the child vaccines play out and are studied in the larger childhood population.

“It’s not studied long-term. It just makes me nervous,” she said. “As long as I can wait, I will wait.”

At a White House briefing Wednesday, Walensky said authorities thoroughly reviewed all available data on the vaccine’s safety, efficacy and the immune response it generates before recommending shots for kids.

Dr. Ada Stewart, a Black family physician in Columbia, South Carolina, and past president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said she’s seen the toll the virus has taken on younger children — not just in family illness and death but with school disruptions, slipping grades and mental strain.

School closures throughout the pandemic have disproportionately burdened children of color, widening academic gaps and worsening mental health, according to data presented Tuesday to CDC advisers. It showed more than 2,000 COVID-related school closures in just the first two months of the current school year.

A Pfizer study of 2,268 children found the vaccine was almost 91% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infections. The FDA examined 3,100 vaccinated kids in concluding the shots are safe.

Some skeptics have questioned the need for kids to get vaccinated since they are less likely than adults to develop severe COVID-19. But with the delta variant, they get infected and transmit “just as readily as adults do,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a recent White House briefing.

Infected kids have also contributed to the U.S. toll — almost 46 million infections and more than 740,000 deaths.

Since the pandemic began, at least 94 children ages 5 to 11 have died from COVID-19, more than 8,300 have been hospitalized and over 5,000 have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus. Black and Latino youngsters and those with chronic conditions are among the hardest hit.

Kye’vontay Jordan, 7, who is Black, has diabetes and got his shot at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. The vaccine gave his dad peace of mind.

“Now I can sleep not worrying about him going to school,” said Brian Jordan. “Being exposed to the coronavirus could really affect him and mess him up.”

___

Associated Press writers Patty Nieberg in Denver, Angie Wang in Washington, Lauran Neergaard in Alexandria, Virginia, and Kate Brumback and Ron Harris in Atlanta contributed to this report.

___

“Rust” film armorer says someone may have put bullet in gun

From the Associated Press

The woman in charge of weapons on the movie set where actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins said Wednesday night that she had inspected the gun Baldwin shot but doesn’t know how a live bullet ended up inside.

“Who put those in there and why is the central question,” Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the armorer for the movie “Rust” said in a statement issued by one of her lawyers, Jason Bowles of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Hannah kept guns locked up, including throughout lunch on the day in question (Oct. 21), and she instructed her department to watch the cart containing the guns when she was pulled away for her other duties or on a lunch break.”

FILE – This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. The person in charge of weapons on the movie set at the ranch where actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins said Wednesday night, Nov. 3 that she suspects someone put in a live bullet in the prop gun that Baldwin shot. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The statement goes on to say that “Hannah did everything in her power to ensure a safe set. She inspected the rounds that she loaded into the firearms that day. She always inspected the rounds.”

The statement adds that she inspected the rounds before handing the firearm to assistant director David Halls “by spinning the cylinder and showing him all of the rounds and then handing him the firearm.”

“No one could have anticipated or thought that someone would introduce live rounds into this set,” Gutierrez Reed’s statement said.

The statement also noted that “she did firearms training for the actors as well as Mr. Baldwin, she fought for more training days and she regularly emphasized to never point a firearm at a person.”

On Oct. 29, attorneys for Hannah Gutierrez Reed said she doesn’t know where the live rounds found there came from and blamed producers for unsafe working conditions.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza has said there was “some complacency” in how weapons were handled on the set of “Rust.”

Investigators initially found 500 rounds of ammunition — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and what appeared to be live rounds. Industry experts have said live rounds should never be on set.

Additional ammunition, a dozen revolvers and a rifle also were seized in the search of a white truck used for storing props including firearms, according to an inventory list filed Friday in court.

Police warn woman not to wear Halloween costume as protest

From the Associated Press

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — A South Florida woman says she was warned by a local police officer not to wear a Halloween costume that is designed like a condo building project that she and others oppose since it would be considered a protest for which she needs a permit.

Cat Uden told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the officer told her that if she wore the costume to the city of Hollywood’s Hollyweird Halloween block party Saturday night it would be considered a planned protest march.

Uden said she still plans to wear the costume but that she won’t bring along her 12-year-old son.

“I don’t want him to see me getting harassed by the police,” Uden said.

Uden has been a leading critic of a developer’s plan to build a 30-story condo on taxpayer-owned beachfront land. The land is currently home to a park with a community center. A vote on the matter by city commissioners is expected later this year.

On Facebook, Uden urged other opponents of the development to wear a costume like hers, designed like a condo building, or to bring signs that said, “No Condo,” to the Halloween block party. A few days after she posted the message, Uden said she got the call from the local police lieutenant.

“I told him it’s a costume party,” she said. “I don’t consider it a demonstration and that’s why I didn’t apply for a permit.”

Police spokeswoman Deanna Bettineschi said that Uden needs a permit to hold a “planned protest march.” If she attends the event and leads an organized demonstration, Uden will be given a warning and asked to leave. After a warning, the penalty could include arrest with a fine up to $500 or 60 days in jail, Bettineschi said.

Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University, told the Sun Sentinel that Uden had a right to wear the costume since doing so was protected by the First Amendment.

“The police are on very shaky ground,” Jarvis said. “There is no reason to think she is inciting anyone or that she will be starting a riot.”

Prosecutor says Rittenhouse instigated Kenosha bloodshed

By SCOTT BAUER, MICHAEL TARM and AMY FORLITI for the Associated Press

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — Kyle Rittenhouse instigated the confrontation that led him to shoot three people on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest against racial injustice, and he killed one of the victims with a shot to the back, a prosecutor told the jury during opening statements Tuesday at Rittenhouse’s murder trial.

Prosecutor Thomas Binger described what he said were “two of the roughest nights that our community has ever seen,” when Kenosha was rocked by rioting, arson and looting over the police wounding of a Black man.

Kyle Rittenhouse sits inside the courtroom before his trial begins at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding a third during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, last year. (Mark Hertzberg /Pool Photo via AP)

“Like moths to a flame, tourists from outside our community were drawn to the chaos here in Kenosha,” he said.

Yet Binger repeatedly stressed that amid the hundreds of people in Kenosha and the anger and chaos in the streets, “the only person who killed anyone is the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.”

The shootings left two people dead and one person wounded.

Rittenhouse was a 17-year-old aspiring police officer when he traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, in August 2020 after protests broke out over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer.

Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property after two previous nights in which rioters set fires and ransacked businesses.

The jury — selected with remarkable speed in just one day Monday, considering how politically polarizing the case has become — must decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, as his lawyers claim, or was engaged in vigilantism when he opened fire with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.

Rittenhouse, now 18, faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of the most serious count against him, first-degree intentional homicide, which is Wisconsin’s top murder charge.

Binger told the jury that self-defense can be a valid claim only if Rittenhouse reasonably believed that he was using deadly force to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.

The prosecutor said there was nothing wrong with Rittenhouse offering to protect Car Source, a used car dealership where the first shooting occurred. But he repeated that amid all the chaos, only one person killed anyone.

“When we consider the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, I ask you to keep this in mind,” he said.

Binger said infrared camera from the FBI shows Rittenhouse chasing Joseph Rosenbaum, the first person who was shot. He said that it’s not known exactly what words were said, but it is clear that Rittenhouse started a confrontation that caused Rosenbaum to begin chasing Rittenhouse and throwing a plastic bag.

Binger emphasized, too, that Rosenbaum was killed by a shot to the back. The prosecutor noted that the first two bullets hit Rosenbaum in the lower extremities, causing him to fall forward. Then came the shot to the back.

Binger also said that after shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse fled the scene instead of rendering aid, despite portraying himself as a medic earlier in the night. The others who were shot afterward “clearly believed” Rittenhouse was an active shooter when they tried to stop him, the prosecutor said.

Rittenhouse looked on in apparent calm in a dark pinstriped suit and tie. He occasionally fidgeted with a water bottle or glanced toward the jury box. His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, sat behind him on a spectators’ bench.

About a dozen prospective jurors were dismissed Monday after they expressed strong opinions about the case or worried that they couldn’t be fair. Others worried about their personal safety. “No one wants to be sitting in this chair,” one woman said.

“I figure either way this goes you’re going to have half the country upset with you and they react poorly,” said another woman, a special education teacher who expressed anxiety about serving. She was chosen.

Twenty people in all were selected: 12 jurors and eight alternates. Eleven are women and nine are men. The court did not immediately provide a racial breakdown of the group, but it appeared to be overwhelmingly white.

Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right — including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement — as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe.

He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.

As jury selection got underway, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder stressed repeatedly that jurors must decide the case solely on what they hear in the courtroom, and cautioned: “This is not a political trial.”

“It was mentioned by both political campaigns and the presidential campaign last year, in some instances very, very imprudently,” he said.

The judge said Rittenhouse’s constitutional right to a fair trial, not the Second Amendment right to bear arms, will come into play, and “I don’t want it to get sidetracked into other issues.”

One of the jurors is a gun-owning woman with a high school education who said she was so afraid during the protests that she pulled her cars to the back of her house and made sure her doors were locked. She said she went downtown in the aftermath and cried.

Another juror, a man, said he owns a gun and has it for “home defense.” Another is a pharmacist who said that she was robbed at gunpoint in 2012 but that it would have no effect on her ability to weigh the evidence in this case.

Rittenhouse fatally shot Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and threw a plastic bag at him shortly before midnight on Aug. 25. Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a protester from West Allis, Wisconsin.

Bystander video captured Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse but not the actual shooting. Video showed Huber swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse before he was shot. Grosskreutz had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.

Rittenhouse faces two homicide counts and one of attempted homicide, along with charges of reckless endangering and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

___ Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin, Forliti from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.

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Leaders vow to protect forests, plug methane leaks at COP26

By FRANK JORDANS and JILL LAWLESS for the Associated Press

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — World leaders promised to protect Earth’s forests, cut methane emissions and help South Africa wean itself off coal at the U.N. climate summit Tuesday — part of a flurry of deals intended to avert catastrophic global warming.

Colorful trees stand near a road through the Taunus region near Frankfurt, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2021. More than 100 countries are pledging to end deforestation, which scientists say is a major driver of climate change. Britain hailed the commitment as the first big achievement of the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Britain hailed the commitment by over 100 countries to end deforestation in the coming decade as the first big achievement of the conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow, known as COP26 — but experts noted such promises have been made and broken before.

The U.K. government said it has received commitments from leaders representing more than 85% of the world’s forests to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Among them are several countries with massive forests, including Brazil, China, Colombia, Congo, Indonesia, Russia and the United States.

More than $19 billion in public and private funds have been pledged toward the plan.

“With today’s unprecedented pledges, we will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “Let’s end this great chainsaw massacre by making conservation do what we know it can do, and that is deliver long-term sustainable jobs and growth as well.”

Experts and observers said fulfilling the pledge will be critical to limiting climate change, but many noted that such grand promises have been made in the past — to little effect.

“Signing the declaration is the easy part,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Twitter. “It is essential that it is implemented now for people and planet.”

Alison Hoare, a senior research fellow at political think tank Chatham House, said world leaders promised in 2014 to end deforestation by 2030, “but since then deforestation has accelerated across many countries.”

Forests are important ecosystems and provide a critical way of absorbing carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere. But the value of wood as a commodity and the growing demand for agricultural and pastoral land are leading to widespread and often illegal felling of forests, particularly in developing countries.

“We are delighted to see Indigenous Peoples mentioned in the forest deal announced today,” said Joseph Itongwa Mukumo, an Indigenous Walikale and activist from Congo.

He called for governments and businesses to recognize the effective role Indigenous communities play in preventing deforestation.

Luciana Tellez Chavez, an environmental researcher at Human Right Watch, said the agreement contains “quite a lot of really positive elements.”

The EU, Britain and the U.S. are making progress on restricting imports of goods linked to deforestation and human rights abuses, “and it’s really interesting to see China and Brazil signing up to a statement that suggests that’s a goal,” she said.

But she noted that Brazil’s public statements don’t yet line up with its domestic policies and warned that the deal could be used by some countries to “greenwash” their image.

The Brazilian government has been eager to project itself as a responsible environmental steward in the wake of surging deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands that sparked global outrage and threats of divestment in recent years. But critics caution that its promises should be viewed with skepticism, and the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an outspoken proponent of developing the Amazon.

Brian Rohan, head of forests at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said that to succeed, the pledge “needs teeth.” He said that “declaring ‘legal’ deforestation to be exempt is a false solution.”

The founder of Amazon — the company, not the rainforest — announced separately that his philanthropic fund is devoting $2 billion to fight climate change through landscape restoration and the transformation of agricultural systems.

“We must conserve what we have, restore what we’ve lost, and grow what we need in harmony with nature,” Jeff Bezos said.

About 130 world leaders are in Glasgow for what host Britain says is the last realistic chance to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — the goal the world set in Paris six years ago.

Increased warming over coming decades would melt much of the planet’s ice, raise global sea levels and greatly increase the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather, scientists say.

On Monday, the leaders heard stark warnings from officials and activists alike about those dangers. A day later, the British government said commitments made by governments so far were “very encouraging.”

But Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, cautioned: “We are not complacent. This is not a done deal by any means.”

On Tuesday, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden launched a plan to reduce methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. The announcement was part of a broader effort with the European Union and other nations to reduce overall methane emissions worldwide by 30% by 2030.

Clamping down on methane flaring and leaks from oil wells and gas pipelines — the focus of the Biden plan — is considered one of the easiest ways to cut emissions. Reducing methane produced from agriculture, in particular by belching cows, is a trickier matter.

Helen Mountford, a climate expert at the World Resources Institute, said the agreement “sets a strong  floor in terms of the ambition we need globally.”

Separately, the United States, Britain, France and Germany announce a plan to provide funds and expertise to help South Africa phase out coal, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

South Africa, which gets about 90% of its electricity from coal-fired plants, will receive about $8.5 billion in loans and grants over five years to roll out more renewable energy.

The announcements were not part of the formal negotiations taking place in Glasgow, but rather a reflection of the efforts by many countries to meet previously agreed targets.

But campaigners say the world’s biggest carbon emitters need to do much more. Earth has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). Current projections based on planned emissions cuts over the next decade are for it to hit 2.7C (4.9F) by the year 2100.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg told a rally outside the high-security climate venue that the talk inside was just “ blah blah blah” and would achieve little.

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Follow AP’s climate coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate

Judge suspends deadline for Chicago cops to get vaccinated

For the Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Monday suspended a Dec. 31 deadline for Chicago police officers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but didn’t interfere with a requirement that they be regularly tested.

Disputes over vaccinations should be handled as a labor grievance with an arbitrator, Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell said.

“The effect of this order is to send these parties back to the bargaining table and to promote labor peace by allowing them to pursue” remedies under Illinois law, Mitchell said.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside City Hall before a Chicago City Council meeting, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

The grievance process could last months, the city said last week.

Officers who haven’t been vaccinated still must be tested twice a week under city policy. Officers also can lose work and pay if they don’t disclose their vaccine status.

“The principal risk to those who are unvaccinated is to themselves and to others who choose to be unvaccinated,” the judge said.

Police have lagged behind other city departments in meeting the vaccine requirements, but the numbers have been slowly increasing. City data released Monday showed about 73% of Chicago Police Department employees had reported their vaccination status, and about 80% of those employees reported being fully vaccinated.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration announced the vaccine policy weeks ago, drawing sharp objections from police union leaders.

The judge noted that COVID-19 has killed many officers nationwide.

“In light of that terrible sacrifice, the police unions’ request just to have their grievances heard seems a pretty modest task,” Mitchell said.

Council member Alderman Anthony Napolitano, a union ally, said taking the dispute to arbitration is “a lot more American.”

“Instead of forcing people to do something, you bring it to a conversation and arbitration. … This has become too much of a control situation,” Napolitano said of City Hall.

Biden cites “overwhelming obligations” of US on climate

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER, ZEKE MILLER and JOSH BOAK for the Associated Press

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — In a markedly more humble tone for a U.S. leader, President Joe Biden acknowledged at a U.N. summit Monday that the United States and other energy-gulping developed nations bear much of the responsibility for climate change, and said actions taken this decade to contain global warming will be decisive in preventing future generations from suffering.

“None of us can escape the worst that is yet to come if we fail to seize this moment,” Biden declared.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday Nov. 1, 2021. The U.N. climate summit in Glasgow gathers leaders from around the world, in Scotland’s biggest city, to lay out their vision for addressing the common challenge of global warming. (Yves Herman/Pool via AP)

The president treated the already visible crisis for the planet — flooding, volatile weather, droughts and wildfires — as a unique opportunity to reinvent the global economy. Standing before world leaders gathered in Scotland, he sought to portray the enormous costs of limiting emissions from coal, oil and natural gas as a chance to create jobs by transitioning to renewable energy and electric automobiles.

Yet he also apologized for former President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement and the role the U.S. and other wealthy countries played in contributing to climate change.

“Those of us who are responsible for much of the deforestation and all of the problems we have so far,” Biden said, have “overwhelming obligations” to the poorer nations that account for few of the emissions yet are paying a price as the planet has grown hotter.

As for Trump’s action, Biden said: “I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact the United States, the last administration, pulled out of the Paris Accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit.”

His words, in seemingly impromptu comments, appeared a break from past comments of many U.S. leaders, who either made little mention of U.S. responsibility for the warming earth or — as Biden himself did on the eve of the climate summit — blamed China as the world’s current biggest emitter of climate-wrecking coal and petroleum fumes.

Over history, scientists say, it’s the United States that has pumped out the most climate-damaging pollution of any nation, as coal, diesel and gasoline powered the United States and other developed nations to wealth.

Biden, who briefly closed his eyes at one point during the speeches, used the summit to announce he planned to work with the U.S. Congress to provide $3 billion annually to help poorer countries and communities cope with climate damage, as developing nations increasingly are demanding of established, wealthier economies.

At Glasgow, the magnitude of the moment is crashing head-first into complicated global and domestic politics. The Biden administration is exhorting other nations to make big, fast emissions cuts to stave off the worst scenarios of global warming. But the president is simultaneously fighting to nail down his own climate investments with Congress that would keep the U.S. on track with Biden’s own pledges.

“We’ll demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table, but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” Biden said. “I know it hasn’t been the case, and that’s why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words.”

The summit is often billed as essential to putting into action the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, which Biden rejoined after becoming president this year. The Trump administration largely withdrew from hands-on diplomacy. Part of Biden’s efforts at the climate summit and the gathering of the Group of 20 nations in Rome last weekend was to reestablish the U.S. as a partner.

But Biden and his administration face obstacles in prodding the U.S. and other nations to act fast enough on climate, abroad as at home. In the runup to the climate summit, the administration has tried hard to temper expectations that two weeks of talks involving more than 100 world leaders will produce major breakthroughs.

Rather than a quick fix, “Glasgow is the beginning of this decade race, if you will,” Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, told reporters Sunday.

As the summit opened, the U.S. was still struggling to get some of the world’s biggest climate polluters — China, Russia and India — to make stronger pledges to burn far less coal, gas and oil and to move to cleaner energy. China under President Xi Jinping has made firmer commitments to cut back on coal power and make other cuts, but not at the pace that the United States and its allies are asking.

Scientists say massive, fast cuts in fossil fuel pollution over the next several years are essential to having any hope of keeping global warming at or below the limits set in the Paris climate accord.

Trump before his presidency famously accused China of manufacturing climate change, and Trump’s administration invariably pointed to China as the top climate offender in justifying its rollbacks of U.S. climate measures.

Biden, too, said he was disappointed that the Group of 20 summit in Rome before the Glasgow gathering failed to nail down stronger promises on climate.

Russia and China “basically didn’t show up” at the Rome meeting with new climate commitments, Biden told reporters Sunday night. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor China’s Xi attended the G-20 and climate summits. Xi sent a senior official, his climate envoy, to the Glasgow summit.

The Biden administration on Monday also released its strategy for transforming the U.S. into an entirely clean energy nation by 2050.

The long-term plan, filed in compliance with the Paris agreement, would increasingly run the world’s largest economy on wind, solar and other clean energy. More Americans would zip around in electric vehicles and on mass transit. And state-of-the-art technology and wide open spaces carefully preserved could soak up carbon dioxide from the air.

As with much of Biden’s climate promises, fulfillment of the long-term strategy depends in part on lawmakers and American voters, both blocs that are now sharply divided.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters traveling with the president that climate change should not viewed as a rivalry between the U.S. and China, as China, the world’s second largest economy, could act on its own.

“Nothing about the nature of the relationship between the U.S. and China, structurally or otherwise, impedes or stands in the way of them doing their part,” Sullivan said.

COVID-19′s global death toll tops 5 million in under 2 years

By CARLA K. JOHNSON for the Associated Press

The global death toll from COVID-19 topped 5 million on Monday, less than two years into a crisis that has not only devastated poor countries but also humbled wealthy ones with first-rate health care systems.

Together, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Brazil — all upper-middle- or high-income countries — account for one-eighth of the world’s population but nearly half of all reported deaths. The U.S. alone has recorded over 745,000 lives lost, more than any other nation.

Relatives of Luis Enrique Rodriguez, who died of COVID-19, visit where he was buried on a hill at the El Pajonal de Cogua Natural Reserve, in Cogua, north of Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Rodriguez died May 14, 2021. Relatives bury the ashes of their loved ones who died of coronavirus and plant a tree in their memory. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

“This is a defining moment in our lifetime,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. “What do we have to do to protect ourselves so we don’t get to another 5 million?”

The death toll, as tallied by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the populations of Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. It rivals the number of people killed in battles among nations since 1950, according to estimates from the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Globally, COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and stroke.

The staggering figure is almost certainly an undercount because of limited testing and people dying at home without medical attention, especially in poor parts of the world, such as India.

Hot spots have shifted over the 22 months since the outbreak began, turning different places on the world map red. Now, the virus is pummeling RussiaUkraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, especially where rumors, misinformation and distrust in government have hobbled vaccination efforts. In Ukraine, only 17% of the adult population is fully vaccinated; in Armenia, only 7%.

“What’s uniquely different about this pandemic is it hit hardest the high-resource countries,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP, a global health center at Columbia University. “That’s the irony of COVID-19.”

Wealthier nations with longer life expectancies have larger proportions of older people, cancer survivors and nursing home residents, all of whom are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, El-Sadr noted. Poorer countries tend to have larger shares of children, teens and young adults, who are less likely to fall seriously ill from the coronavirus.

India, despite its terrifying delta surge that peaked in early May, now has a much lower reported daily death rate than wealthier Russia, the U.S. or Britain, though there is uncertainty around its figures.

The seeming disconnect between wealth and health is a paradox that disease experts will be pondering for years. But the pattern that is seen on the grand scale, when nations are compared, is different when examined at closer range. Within each wealthy country, when deaths and infections are mapped, poorer neighborhoods are hit hardest.

In the U.S., for example, COVID-19 has taken an outsize toll on Black and Hispanic people, who are more likely than white people to live in poverty and have less access to health care.

“When we get out our microscopes, we see that within countries, the most vulnerable have suffered most,” Ko said.

Wealth has also played a role in the global vaccination drive, with rich countries accused of locking up supplies. The U.S. and others are already dispensing booster shots at a time when millions across Africa haven’t received a single dose, though the rich countries are also shipping hundreds of millions of shots to the rest of the world.

Africa remains the world’s least vaccinated region, with just 5% of the population of 1.3 billion people fully covered.

“This devastating milestone reminds us that we are failing much of the world,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a written statement. “This is a global shame.”

In Kampala, Uganda, Cissy Kagaba lost her 62-year-old mother on Christmas Day and her 76-year-old father days later.

“Christmas will never be the same for me,” said Kagaba, an anti-corruption activist in the East African country that has been through multiple lockdowns against the virus and where a curfew remains in place.

The pandemic has united the globe in grief and pushed survivors to the breaking point.

“Who else is there now? The responsibility is on me. COVID has changed my life,” said 32-year-old Reena Kesarwani, a mother of two boys, who was left to manage her late husband’s modest hardware store in a village in India.

Her husband, Anand Babu Kesarwani, died at 38 during India’s crushing coronavirus surge earlier this year. It overwhelmed one of the most chronically underfunded public health systems in the world and killed tens of thousands as hospitals ran out of oxygen and medicine.

In Bergamo, Italy, once the site of the West’s first deadly wave, 51-year-old Fabrizio Fidanza was deprived of a final farewell as his 86-year-old father lay dying in the hospital. He is still trying to come to terms with the loss more than a year later.

“For the last month, I never saw him,” Fidanza said during a visit to his father’s grave. “It was the worst moment. But coming here every week, helps me.”

Today, 92% of Bergamo’s eligible population have had at least one shot, the highest vaccination rate in Italy. The chief of medicine at Pope John XXIII Hospital, Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli, said he believes that’s a clear result of the city’s collective trauma, when the wail of ambulances was constant.

In Lake City, Florida, LaTasha Graham, 38, still gets mail almost daily for her 17-year-old daughter, Jo’Keria, who died of COVID-19 in August, days before starting her senior year of high school. The teen, who was buried in her cap and gown, wanted to be a trauma surgeon.

“I know that she would have made it. I know that she would have been where she wanted to go,” her mother said.

In Rio de Janeiro, Erika Machado scanned the list of names engraved on a long, undulating sculpture of oxidized steel that stands in Penitencia cemetery as an homage to some of Brazil’s COVID-19 victims. Then she found him: Wagner Machado, her father.

“My dad was the love of my life, my best friend,” said Machado, 40, a saleswoman who traveled from Sao Paulo to see her father’s name. “He was everything to me.”

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AP journalists Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chhitpalgarh, India; Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya; Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Colleen Barry in Bergamo, Italy; and Diane Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro contributed.

‘Heroic’ mom saves 4 kids in house fire in SE Michigan

From the Associated Press

CHELSEA, Mich. (AP) — The mother of four children was severely burned while rescuing her kids from a fire at their home, authorities said.

Mikala Vish repeatedly went back into her Chelsea home to save the children Tuesday, firefighters said.

“The most heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” Lt. Derek Klink told WDIV-TV. ”Mikala deserves all of the credit.”

Vish is in a hospital with burns on more than 60% of her body and has a “very long road ahead of her,” the fire department said on Facebook.

A 6-year-old son also was badly burned.

“The family has lost everything in the fire and is desperate need of help,” the fire department said.

GoFundMe page has raised more than $35,000 to help the family. Chelsea is in Washtenaw County, 15 miles west of Ann Arbor.

Prayer for kidnappers deeply rooted in mission group’s faith

By PETER SMITH for the Associated Press

When Amish gather for worship each week, they regularly sing the solemn, German-dialect hymns that their spiritual forebears composed nearly five centuries ago in a condition akin to that of 17 missionaries recently kidnapped in Haiti — captivity.

FILE- In this Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, a man and woman hold children as they walk on the grounds of the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Titanyen, Haiti. Seventeen members of the CAM have been kidnapped. A joint statement by the hostages’ families said “God has given our loved ones the unique opportunity to live out our Lord’s command to, ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.’” (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Those hymns emerged from miserable prison conditions experienced by early Anabaptists — founders of the movement carried on today by Amish, Mennonites, Brethren and others — and their words extolled the virtues of loving one’s tormentors and persevering at risk of persecution, even martyrdom.

So when kidnappers in Haiti abducted 12 adult missionaries and five of their children, including an infant, it wasn’t surprising that those sharing that Christian tradition would draw on these values as they joined around-the-clock prayer vigils.

The words of the captors’ families and supporters, while holding out hope for the safety of the hostages, put a heavy emphasis on different themes: “Love your enemies.” “Forgive them.” “Pray for the kidnappers.”

One joint statement by the hostages’ families even spoke of the situation in welcoming terms. “God has given our loved ones the unique opportunity to live out our Lord’s command to, ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,’” said the statement, issued by Christian Aid Ministries. It is based in Ohio’s Amish heartland of Holmes County, and has operated in Haiti and other lands for nearly four decades.

Such statements may seem surprising, even callous, to those who might expect the prayers to focus on the well-being of loved ones.

But these statements are deeply rooted in the unique religious tradition of conservative Anabaptists — a group that shares some beliefs with mainstream evangelical Christians, such as salvation through Jesus, but also has stark differences.

Conservative Anabaptists largely seek to live separate from mainstream society and are distinctive for their plain dress, with women wearing head coverings. They emphasize a “non-resistance” to evil and violence, a stance that goes far beyond their refusal to serve in the military. They also have a deep tradition of martyrdom – well-earned, since their forebears suffered fierce persecutions from their 16th century Reformation origins, when they were deemed too radical to Catholics and fellow Protestants alike.

Anabaptists in particular draw on the biblical Sermon on the Mount, which contains some of Jesus’ most radical and counter-cultural sayings — to love enemies, live simply, bless persecutors, turn the other cheek, endure sufferings joyfully.

“Living out the Sermon on the Mount principles is one of the key tenets of our faith,” said Wayne Wengerd, a member of a steering committee that represents the Amish in church-state relations. “That is something that we take literally.”

Those principles mandate “we do good to those who hurt or persecute us, and we pray for not only those that are likeminded but those that are not yet within the faith,” he said.

Wengerd, who lives in Wayne County, adjacent to Holmes, said it would be a misunderstanding to view such a mindset as callous to the real suffering involved with the kidnappings.

“People are still concerned, they are aware, they talk about it, they pray and of course hope for a good outcome,” he said. At the same time, “We realize as Christians, as followers of Christ, there will be persecution.”

The missionary group was kidnapped Oct. 16 while returning from a visit to an orphanage supported by CAM. The 400 Mawozo gang has threatened to kill the 16 Americans and one Canadian if ransom demands aren’t met.

CAM says those kidnapped are from Amish, Mennonite and other conservative Anabaptist communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario. Conservative Anabaptists make up the core of CAM’s missionary staff, donors and volunteers.

Wengerd said Anabaptists draw on resources such as the “Ausbund,” a hymnal that includes the 16th century prison hymns, and the book, “Martyrs Mirror,” for “reminding us of the cost of discipleship in Christ’s kingdom.”

“Martyrs Mirror” tells of hundreds of Anabaptists and other Christians who died for their faith. One entry tells of Dirk Willems, a 16th century Dutch Anabaptist who was fleeing authorities in winter — but turned around to saved the life of a pursuer who had fallen through the ice. Willems was arrested and executed anyway. His example of sacrificial love for an enemy is still widely taught.

An often-cited modern example of Anabaptist values is the response of the Amish community around Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, after a gunman killed five Amish schoolgirls and wounded five more in 2006 before taking his own life. Local Amish immediately expressed forgiveness for the killer and supported his widow. “If we do not forgive, how can we expect to be forgiven?” the Amish leaders said in a statement.

Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in Holmes County, said he often tells the story of Dirk Willems to groups touring the museum. One tour included a survivor of the Nickel Mines shooting.

“She cried and cried and cried,” Yoder recalled. “Her father had used the story to talk to his own family about forgiveness. These pieces of our history really do reside a long time in our worldview and theology.”

Yoder, a Mennonite minister, said these examples shouldn’t obscure the ordeal of those whose loved ones were kidnapped. “I cannot imagine the anguish that the families are going through,” he said.

Steven Nolt, professor of History and Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, recalled attending one of the Nickel Mines funerals in which the preacher said within a span of a few minutes, “We don’t understand but we just accept what happened as God’s will” and “It’s not God’s will that people shoot other people.”

That seems contradictory, said Nolt. But it reflects a profound belief in “divine providence” — that believers can’t always understand why things happen, but they “can know what God wants and how humans are to live.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Is it OK to go trick-or-treating during the pandemic?

By EMMA H. TOBIN for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Is it OK to go trick-or-treating during the pandemic?

It depends on the situation and your comfort level, but there are ways to minimize the risk of infection this Halloween.

Is it safe to go trick-or-treating during the pandemic? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Whether you feel comfortable with your children trick-or-treating could depend on factors including how high the COVID-19 transmission rate is in your area and if the people your kids will be exposed to are vaccinated.

But trick-or-treating is an outdoor activity that makes it easy to maintain a physical distance, notes Emily Sickbert-Bennett, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina. To prevent kids crowding in front of doors, she suggests neighbors coordinating to spread out trick-or-treating.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says outdoor activities are safer for the holidays, and to avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. If you attend a party inside, the agency says people who aren’t vaccinated — including children who aren’t yet eligible for the shots — should wear a well-fitting mask, not just a Halloween costume mask. In areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates, even the fully vaccinated should wear masks inside.

It’s generally safe for children to ring doorbells and collect candy, since the coronavirus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets and the risk of infection from surfaces is considered low. But it’s still a good idea to bring along hand sanitizer that kids can use before eating treats.

For adults, having a mask on hand when you open the door to pass out candy is important.

“You probably won’t necessarily know until you open the door how many people will be out there, whether they’ll be wearing masks, what age they’ll be, and how great they’ll be at keeping distance from you,” Sickbert-Bennett says.

Another option if you want want to be extra cautious: Set up candy bowls away from front doors.

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Police: Burglar gets new keys before she’s locked up

From the Associated Press

CORONADO, Calif. (AP) — A woman pretended she owned a Southern California home so a locksmith would make her new keys. Then police locked her up.

Officers arrested a 43-year-old woman on suspicion of burglary Thursday night in Coronado, a resort city across the bay from San Diego.

The brazen burglary was foiled when the real homeowner called Coronado police and said her neighbor noticed suspicious activity at the home. The homeowner was out of town, yet the neighbor saw the home’s lights being turned on and off.

Officers arrived and the neighbor — a relative of the homeowner’s — gave them a spare key. But it didn’t fit the front door’s lock, and metal shavings and pieces of an old lock were on the ground nearby.

As police walked around the home, they saw back doors open and a fireplace turned on as music played inside. After calling for a helicopter and a K-9 unit, officers saw someone moving around on the second floor in what was supposed to be an empty house with only one spare key.

Alligator crawls out of drain at Alabama apartment complex

From the Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama apartment complex was paid a visit by an unusual guest as children were coming home from school Monday afternoon: an alligator that crawled out of a storm drain.

Kenisha Miller and her boyfriend, Anthony Patterson, told WKRG-TV that they were driving home when they stopped to do a double-take in a downtown Mobile neighborhood.

“We saw a gator coming out of the drainage hole, and I was like, ‘Is that really a gator?’” Miller said.

The couple tried to get police and wildlife officials to the scene quickly as the reptile inched toward the complex.

A school bus was dropping off kids not even 50 feet (15.2 meters) down the street. Miller and Patterson said other people were initially oblivious to the gator.

But a crowd soon formed, with some neighborhood residents trying to record the surprising scene.

“They were just as shocked as we were,” Patterson said. “Never (seen) nothing like this, in the hood anyway.”

Wildlife officials safely captured the alligator and took it away.

Majority in US concerned about climate: AP-NORC/EPIC poll

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER, EMILY SWANSON and NATHAN ELLGREN for the Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden heads to a vital U.N. climate summit at a time when a majority of Americans regard the deteriorating climate as a problem of high importance to them, an increase from just a few years ago.

About 6 out of 10 Americans also believe that the pace of global warming is speeding up, according to a new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

As Biden struggles to pass significant climate legislation at home ahead of next week’s U.N. climate summit, the new AP-NORC/EPIC poll also shows that 55% of Americans want Congress to pass a bill to ensure that more of the nation’s electricity comes from clean energy and less from climate-damaging coal and natural gas.

The shoreline is receding at Emerald Bay on the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe on Oct. 20, 2021 east of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Drought fueled by climate change has dropped Lake Tahoe below its natural rim and halted flows into the Truckee River. President Joe Biden heads to a vital U.N. climate change summit at a time when a majority of Americans regard the deteriorating climate as a problem of high importance to them. That’s the finding of a new poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

Only 16% of Americans oppose such a measure for electricity from cleaner energy. A similar measure initially was one of the most important parts of climate legislation that Biden has before Congress. But Biden’s proposal to reward utilities with clean energy sources and penalize those without ran into objections from a coal-state senator, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, leaving fellow Democrats scrambling to come up with other ways to slash pollution from burning fossil fuels.l

For some of the Americans watching, it’s an exasperating delay in dealing with an urgent problem.

“If you follow science, the signs are here,” said Nancy Reilly, a Democrat in Missouri who’s retired after 40 years as a retail manager, and worries for her children as the climate deteriorates. “It’s already here. And what was the first thing they start watering down to get this bill through? Climate change.”

“It’s just maddening,” Reilly said. “I understand why, I do — I get the politics of it. I’m sick of the politics of it.”

After President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, the Biden administration hoped to help negotiate major emissions cuts globally to slow the rise of temperatures. But it’s unclear whether Biden will be able to get any significant climate legislation through Congress before the U.N. summit starts Sunday.

In all, 59% of Americans said the Earth’s warming is very or extremely important to them as an issue, up from 49% in 2018. Fifty-four percent of Americans cited scientists’ voices as having a large amount of influence on their views about climate change, and nearly as many, 51%, said their views were influenced by recent extreme weather events like hurricanesdeadly heat spellswildfires and other natural disasters around the world.

Over the last 60 years, the pollution pumped out by gasoline and diesel engines, power plants and other sources has changed the climate and warmed the Earth by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit, making the extremes of weather more extreme.

In east Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, leaf-peeper websites this year are advising fall foliage tourists that leaves are taking days longer than normal to turn from green to fiery orange and red. It’s not evidence of climate change as a one-off instance, but typical of the changes Americans are seeing as the Earth heats up.

“Normally you get the four seasons, fall, spring, and winter, and it goes in that way. But lately, it’s not been that,” said Jeremy Wilson, a 42-year-old who votes independent and works the grounds at a scenic chairlift park that runs people up to the top of the Smoky Mountains. “It’s been either way hotter, or way colder.”

Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, while 10% believe that it is not, the poll found. Another 15% are unsure.

Among those who say it is happening, 54% say that it’s caused mostly or entirely by human activities compared to just 14% who think — incorrectly, scientists say — that it’s caused mainly by natural changes in the environment. Another 32% of Americans believe it’s a mix of human and natural factors.

And while Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say climate change is happening, majorities of both parties agree that it is. That breaks down to 89% of Democrats and and 57% of Republicans.

The poll also gauged Americans’ willingness to pay for the cost of cutting climate-wrecking pollution as well as mitigating its consequences.

Fifty-two percent said they would support a $1 a month carbon fee on their energy bill to fight climate change, but support dwindles as the fee increases.

“I would say, like 5, 10 dollars, as long as it’s really being used for what it should be,” said Krystal Chivington, a 46-year-old Republican in Delaware who credits her 17-year-old daughter for reviving her own passion for fighting climate change and pollution.

It’s not ordinary consumers who should bear the brunt of paying to stave off the worst scenarios of climate change, said Mark Sembach, a 59-year-old Montana Democrat who works in environmental remediation.

“I think it needs to fall a great deal on responsible corporations that’s — and unfortunately … most corporations aren’t responsible,” Sembach said. “And I think there needs to be a lot of pushback as to who ultimately pays for that.”

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The AP-NORC poll of 5,468 adults was conducted Sept. 8-24 using a combined sample of interviews from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population, and interviews from opt-in online panels. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points. The AmeriSpeak panel is recruited randomly using address-based sampling methods, and respondents later were interviewed online or by phone.

Africa tries to end vaccine inequity by replicating its own

By LORI HINNANT, MARIA CHENG and ANDREW MELDRUM for the Associated Press

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — In a pair of Cape Town warehouses converted into a maze of airlocked sterile rooms, young scientists are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world’s poorest people.

Scientists re-enact the calibration procedure of equipment at an Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines facility in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday Oct. 19, 2021. In a pair of warehouses converted into a maze of airlocked sterile rooms, young scientists are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world’s poor. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The energy in the gleaming labs matches the urgency of their mission to narrow vaccine disparities. By working to replicate Moderna’s COVID-19 shot, the scientists are effectively making an end run around an industry that has vastly prioritized rich countries over poor in both sales and manufacturing.

And they are doing it with unusual backing from the World Health Organization, which is coordinating a vaccine research, training and production hub in South Africa along with a related supply chain for critical raw materials. It’s a last-resort effort to make doses for people going without, and the intellectual property implications are still murky.

“We are doing this for Africa at this moment, and that drives us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce the Moderna shot. “We can no longer rely on these big superpowers to come in and save us.”

Some experts see reverse engineering — recreating vaccines from fragments of publicly available information — as one of the few remaining ways to redress the power imbalances of the pandemic. Only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to wealthy countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

That WHO, which relies upon the goodwill of wealthy countries and the pharmaceutical industry for its continued existence, is leading the attempt to reproduce a proprietary vaccine demonstrates the depths of the supply disparities.

The U.N.-backed effort to even out global vaccine distribution, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate dire shortages in poor countries. Donated doses are coming in at a fraction of what is needed to fill the gap. Meanwhile, pressure for drug companies to share, including Biden administration demands on Moderna, has led nowhere.

Until now, WHO has never directly taken part in replicating a novel vaccine for current global use over the objections of the original developers. The Cape Town hub is intended to expand access to the novel messenger RNA technology that Moderna, as well as Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, used in their vaccines.

“This is the first time we’re doing it to this level, because of the urgency and also because of the novelty of this technology,” said Martin Friede, a WHO vaccine research coordinator who is helping direct the hub.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID-19. The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines.

Arguing that American taxpayers largely funded Moderna’s vaccine development, the Biden administration has insisted the company must expand production to help supply developing nations. The global shortfall through 2022 is estimated at 500 million and 4 billion doses, depending on how many other vaccines come on the market.

“The United States government has played a very substantial role in making Moderna the company it is,” said David Kessler, the head of Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development.

Kessler would not say how far the administration would go in pressing the company. “They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.

Moderna has pledged to build a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after pleading with drugmakers to share their recipes, raw materials and technological know-how, some poorer countries are done waiting.

Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for testing in people within a year and scaled up for commercial production not long after.

“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed,” Terblanche said. “They are already starting to say that we don’t have the capability to do this. We are going to show them.”

If the team in South Africa succeeds in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be publicly released for use by others, Terblanche said. Such sharing is closer to an approach U.S. President Joe Biden championed in the spring and the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.

Commercial production is the point at which intellectual property could become an issue. Moderna has said it would not pursue legal action against a company for infringing on its vaccine rights, but neither has it offered to help companies that have volunteered to make its mRNA shot.

Chairman Noubar Afeyan said Moderna determined it would be better to expand production itself than to share technology and plans to deliver billions of additional doses next year.

“Within the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to make high-quality vaccines and in an efficient way is going to be if we make them,” Afeyan said.

Zoltan Kis, an expert in messenger RNA vaccines at Britain’s University of Sheffield, said reproducing Moderna’s vaccine is “doable” but the task would be far easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated the process involves fewer than a dozen major steps. But certain procedures are tricky, such as sealing the fragile messenger RNA in lipid nanoparticles, he said.

“It’s like a very complicated cooking recipe,” he said. “Having the recipe would be very, very helpful, and it would also help if someone could show you how to do it.”

A U.N.-backed public health organization still hopes to persuade Moderna that its approach to providing vaccines for poorer countries misses the mark. Formed in 2010, the Medicines Patent Pool initially focused on convincing pharmaceutical companies to share patents for AIDS drugs.

“It’s not about outsiders helping Africa,” Executive Director Charles Gore said of the South Africa vaccine hub. “Africa wants to be empowered, and that’s what this is about.”

It will eventually fall to Gore to try to resolve the intellectual property question. Work to recreate Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is protected as research, so a potential dispute would surround steps to sell a replicated version commercially, he said.

“It’s about persuading Moderna to work with us rather than using other methods,” Gore said.

He said the Medicines Patent Pool repeatedly tried but failed to convince Pfizer and BioNTech to even discuss sharing their formulas.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is among the members of Congress backing a bill that calls on the United States to invest more in making and distributing COVID-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, said reverse engineering isn’t going to happen fast enough to keep the virus from mutating and spreading further.

“We need to show some hustle. We have to show a sense of urgency, and I’m not seeing that urgency,” he said. “Either we end this pandemic or we muddle our way through.”

Campaigners argue the meager amount of vaccines available to poorer countries through donations, COVAX and purchases suggests the Western-dominated pharmaceutical industry is broken.

“The enemy to these corporations is losing their potential profit down the line,” Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of the global health nonprofit Partners in Health, said. “The enemy isn’t the virus, the enemy isn’t suffering.”

Back in Cape Town, the promise of using mRNA technology against other diseases motivates the young scientists.

“The excitement is around learning how we harness mRNA technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine,” Caryn Fenner, Afrigen’s technical director, said. But more important, Fenner said, “is not only using the mRNA platform for COVID, but for beyond COVID.”

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Cheng reported from London; Hinnant reported from Paris.

Stripping military bases of Confederate names stirs passions

By ROBERT BURNS for the Associated Press

BLACKSTONE, Va. (AP) — Civil War history casts a long shadow in Virginia, the birthplace of Confederate generals, scene of their surrender and now a crossroad of controversy over renaming military bases that honor rebel leaders.

In and around Blackstone, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Richmond, that shadow can stir passions when talk turns to nearby Fort Pickett. Some are troubled by Congress requiring the Pickett name be dropped as part of a wider scrubbing of military base names that commemorate the Confederacy or honor officers who fought for it. In all, the names of at least nine Army bases in six states will be changed.

This Oct. 19, 2021, photo shows a Confederate monument in front a county courthouse in Nottoway County, Va. Voters will cast ballots in a November referendum on whether to relocate this monument to Confederate soldiers that has stood in front of the county courthouse since 1893. It is a few miles from Fort Pickett. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

Others here say it’s high time to drop the names.

“Change them!” says Nathaniel Miller, a Black member of the town council who was stationed at Pickett after he returned from Vietnam in 1973. “It should have happened a long time ago,” he says, because the names are a reminder of slavery and a period in American history when Black people had no voice.

Fort Pickett’s namesake is Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, best remembered for a failed Confederate assault at Gettysburg that became known as Pickett’s Charge. He was a Virginia native and a West Point graduate who resigned his U.S. Army officer commission shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

The push to rename Fort Pickett and other bases is part of a national reckoning with centuries of racial injustice, triggered most recently by the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For years, the military defended the naming of bases after Confederate officers; as recently as 2015 the Army argued that the names did not honor the rebel cause but were a gesture of reconciliation with the South.

Congress easily agreed last year to compel the name changes to remove what are seen by many as emblems of human bondage and Black oppression.

Reflecting a shift in the military’s thinking, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken forcefully about a legacy of Black pain reflected in Confederate names at Army bases where today at least 20% of soldiers are Black. He said those names can be reminders to Black soldiers that the rebel officers fought for an institution that may have enslaved their ancestors.

Milley told a House committee in June 2020 the Confederacy doesn’t deserve to be commemorated in this way.

“It was an act of rebellion, it was an act of treason at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “And those officers turned their back on their oath. Now, some have a different view of that. Some think it’s heritage. Others think it’s hate.”

No one around Blackstone seems to know why the government picked the Pickett name in the first place. The 1942 dedication ceremony for what originally was called Camp Pickett, attended by the general’s descendants, was held on July 3 to coincide with the 79th anniversary of his Gettysburg charge. An Associated Press account of the ceremony quoted Virginia Gov. Colgate Darden saying the story of Pickett’s Charge “will live forever as an epic of superb courage” that made him a Virginia “immortal.”

Some folks, like Greg Eanes, an Air Force veteran who grew up in the nearby town of Crewe, see removing the Pickett name as disrespecting the rebels and their descendants.

“In my opinion, it is nothing less than cultural genocide, albeit with a velvet glove,” Eanes says, standing beside a still-visible Confederate trench on a battlefield in an adjacent county. “The South has a unique history. Many of its people have ancestors and family members who were in the Confederate armies. It would be wrong, in my opinion, to dismiss — just arbitrarily dismiss — their concerns.”

Still, stripping Fort Pickett of its Confederate connection is hardly a hot topic around here.

“There was probably a time in my life when this would have gotten me riled up,” says Billy Coleburn, 52, a Blackstone native who publishes the local newspaper and is mayor of the town of about 3,500 residents.

“The times change,” he adds.

Local innkeepers Jim and Christine Hasbrouck applaud the removal of Confederate generals’ names.

“We need to stop putting them on a pedestal,” says Jim.

Fort Pickett is used mainly by the Virginia National Guard. Situated in what is known as Southside Virginia, it is roughly halfway between Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, and Appomattox, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces in 1865.

This is a heavily Republican area that voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 57% to 42% last November and also favored Trump over Hillary Clinton four years earlier by a 55% to 42% margin. Reminders of the Civil War are not hard to find here; up the road among groves of pine, elm, maple and oak is Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park, scene of a series of battles on April 6, 1865, in which Confederate forces — including a unit commanded by Pickett — were defeated. Three days later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Congress last year created a federal commission to recommend new names for at least nine Army bases named for Confederate officers, including three in Virginia. The others are in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. The law was passed over the objection of Trump, who argued that renaming disrespects those who trained at the bases.

Two active Navy ships also will be renamed. The USNS Maury, an oceanographic survey ship, was named for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a naval officer and scientist who resigned to join the Confederates. The cruiser USS Chancellorsville was named for the 1863 Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Tom Wilkinson, a Blackstone resident and retired Army colonel who commanded Fort Pickett from 2008 to 2012, says he accepts the renaming decision but considers it a mistake.

“If we could look back in hindsight, I would say leave it alone,” Wilkinson says. “Because what’s next? Are you going to change the names of streets throughout the United States?”

In fact the post-George Floyd debate over racial injustice does extend beyond military base names. Pickett, for example, is a name that stirs controversy as far away as Washington state. In 2019 the Bellingham city council voted to remove the Pickett name from a bridge that troops under his command built during his establishment of a frontier post called Fort Bellingham in the 1850s.

A hotter topic here in Nottoway County is a November referendum on whether to relocate a Confederate war monument that has stood in front of the county courthouse since 1893.

Fort Pickett is among the last bases to be visited by members of the federal Naming Commission created by Congress. In their other visits, the commissioners were generally well received by communities, although some people “took the opportunity to vent a little,” according to Michelle Howard, a retired Navy admiral who heads the commission, which will visit Pickett soon.

Aside from his decision to take up arms against the federal government, Pickett’s military record is the subject of conflicting interpretation by historians. But it’s generally agreed that his performance was spotty at best.

After the decimation of his division at Gettysburg in 1863, Pickett commanded Confederate forces in North Carolina and Virginia. His defeat at Five Forks, about 20 miles east of Blackstone, in 1865 was especially humiliating because he had slipped away earlier to a fish bake, not expecting a Union attack. Days later he fled the battlefield at Sailor’s Creek after his men were overwhelmed and forced to surrender.

Whatever the details of his legacy, people who grew up near Fort Pickett say the name change won’t really matter.

“It will always be Pickett to me,” says Leigh Hart, who was born and raised in Blackstone. “It will be Pickett forever.”

China to start vaccinating children to age 3 as cases spread

By HUIZHONG WU for the Associated Press

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Children as young as 3 will start receiving COVID-19 vaccines in China, where 76% of the population has been fully vaccinated and authorities are maintaining a zero-tolerance policy toward outbreaks.

Women wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus ride scooters passing by masked residents line up to receive booster shots against COVID-19 at a vaccination site in Beijing, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. A northwestern Chinese province heavily dependent on tourism closed all tourist sites Monday after finding new COVID-19 cases. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

China becomes one of the very few countries in the world to start vaccinating children that young against the virus. Cuba, for one, has begun a vaccine drive for children as young as 2. The U.S. and many European countries allow COVID-19 shots down to age 12, though the U.S. is moving quickly toward opening vaccinations to 5- to 11-year-olds.

Local city and provincial level governments in at least five Chinese provinces issued notices in recent days announcing that children ages 3 to 11 will be required to get their vaccinations.

The expansion of the vaccination campaign comes as parts of China take new clampdown measures to try to stamp out small outbreaks. Gansu, a northwestern province heavily dependent on tourism, closed all tourist sites Monday after finding new COVID-19 cases. Residents in parts of Inner Mongolia have been ordered to stay indoors because of an outbreak there.

The National Health Commission reported that 35 new cases of local transmission had been detected over the past 24 hours, four of them in Gansu. An additional 19 cases were found in the Inner Mongolia region, with others scattered around the country.

China has employed lockdowns, quarantines and compulsory testing for the virus throughout the pandemic and has largely stamped out cases of local infection while fully vaccinating 1.07 billion people out of a population of 1.4 billion.

In particular, the government is concerned about the spread of the more contagious delta variant by travelers and about having a largely vaccinated public ahead of the Beijing Olympics in February. Overseas spectators already have been banned from the Winter Games, and participants will have to stay in a bubble separating them from people outside.

China’s most widely used vaccines, from Sinopharm and Sinovac, have shown efficacy in preventing severe disease and transmission of the virus, based on public data. But the protection they offer against the delta variant has not been answered definitively, although officials say they remain protective.

Hubei, Fujian and Hainan provinces all issued provincial level notices alerting new vaccination requirements, while individual cities in Zhejiang province and Hunan province have also issued similar announcements.

China in June had approved two vaccines — Sinopharm’s from the Beijing Institute of Biological Products and Sinovac — for children ages 3 to 17, but it has only been vaccinating those 12 and older. In August, regulators approved another, Sinopharm’s from the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

After the vaccines received domestic approval for children in China, foreign governments began giving the shots to children in their own countries. Cambodia uses both Sinovac and Sinopharm’s shots in children 6 to 11. Regulators in Chile approved Sinovac for children as young as 6. In Argentina, regulators approved the Sinopharm vaccine for children as young as age 3.

Many developing countries left out of the race to get shots from Western pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna bought Chinese vaccines. China has shipped more than 1.2 billion doses as of September, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Even with widespread domestic and global use, not every parent is reassured about the vaccine, citing less publicly available data on the shots.

Wang Lu, who lives in the southern city of Fuzhou in Fujian province, said she isn’t particularly rushing to get her 3-year-old son vaccinated. “I’m just not very clear on the vaccine’s safety profile, so I don’t really want to get him vaccinated, at the very least, I don’t want to be the first,” Wang said.

Sinovac started an efficacy trial with 14,000 child participants across multiple countries in September. Its approval in China was based on smaller phase 1 and phase 2 trials. Sinopharm’s Beijing shot was also approved based on smaller phase 1 and phase 2 trials. These were published later in peer-reviewed journals.

Other parents said they weren’t concerned, given that many other people had already gotten the shot.

Wu Cong, a mom of a 7-year old, said her daughter’s school in Shanghai hadn’t yet notified them of any vaccinations.

“I think this isn’t too different from the flu vaccine, there’s already been so many people vaccinated, so I don’t have too many worries,” said Wu.

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Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

575 inmates escape in latest Nigeria jailbreak

By CHINEDU ASADU for the Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen have attacked a prison in southwest Nigeria, freeing around 575 inmates, officials said Saturday.

The third jailbreak in Africa’s most populous country this year raises more concerns about how safe detention facilities are in the West African nation where authorities have struggled to stem rising violence. A handful of security facilities, especially police stations, have been attacked in a similar manner in the past year.

Olanrewaju Anjorin, a spokesman of the Oyo correctional center in Oyo state, told The Associated Press that the gunmen attacked the facility late Friday and an investigation into the incident which will reveal the extent of damage has begun.

Francis Enobore of the Nigerian Prisons Service also confirmed the incident and said he was on his way to the attacked facility.

Friday’s attack is the third this year in Nigeria, where jailbreaks are becoming more frequent and police only capture a fraction of those who escape. Lagos-based online newspaper TheCable reported in July this year that at least 4,307 inmates had escaped from prisons since 2017, based on compiled media reports.

In 2021 alone, more than 2,000 inmates were freed in two earlier jailbreaks: on Sept. 13 when 240 inmates were freed after gunmen attacked a detention facility in north-central Kogi state with explosives and on April 5 when at least 1,800 were freed in the southeast Imo state when another facility was also blown up.

Most of the recent jailbreaks in Nigeria seem not to be connected although the attacks are carried out in a similar manner with the use of explosives. Authorities have managed to rearrest some escaped inmates, sometimes in neighboring states, while others return willingly.

A good number of those who have escaped in such attacks are yet to be convicted and still awaiting trial. Nigerian prisons hold 70,000 inmates but only about 20,000, or 27%, have been convicted, according to government data.

Fire-scarred California braces for more storms, flash floods

From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Northern California residents relieved that this week’s rain helped contain stubborn wildfires and soaked dry gardens were cleaning up Friday and preparing for a massive storm this weekend that could bring flash flooding to vast areas scorched by fire.

The National Weather Service for the San Francisco Bay Area issued a high surf advisory through Friday for a portion of the coast and a flash flood watch Sunday for parts of the region, especially in areas burned by last year’s wildfires. Strong winds are also expected Sunday, with gusts of up to 60 mph (97 kph) at the windiest spots.

The weather service said elevations above 9,000 feet (2,745 meters) in the Sierra Nevada could get 18 inches of snow or more from Sunday until Monday morning and warned of possible power outages and road closures.

Mike Pierre, owner of Mission Ace Hardware and Lumber in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, said they sold out of tarps this week and expect to do so again in advance of Sunday’s big storm.

But there is a feeling of relief that the area could escape wildfire this year, unlike last year when the Glass Fire broke out in late September and destroyed nearly 1,600 homes and other buildings. Customers had been stocking up on generators and power cords to prepare, Pierre said.

“People were bracing for that, and it never happened,” he said, “and hopefully, this rain will keep it from happening.”

But burn areas remain a concern, as land devoid of vegetation can’t soak up heavy rainfall as quickly, increasing the likelihood of mud or debris slides and flash flooding that could trap people.

Paul Lowenthal, an assistant fire marshal with the Santa Rosa Fire Department in Sonoma County, said the city is providing free sand and bags for residents who need to control rain runoff. They are also asking residents to clear gutters and on-site storm drains as the city prepares for up to 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain.

“Given the volume of water we’re expecting, we want it to go where it needs to go,” he said.

About 375 miles (603.50 kilometers) south of Santa Rosa, parts of western Santa Barbara County were under an evacuation warning Friday night in the area that had been burned by the Alisal Fire. The blaze charred 26.5 square miles (68.6 square kilometers) and is 97% contained. The fire erupted in the Santa Ynez Mountains during high winds on Oct. 11.

Californians rejoiced when rain started falling this week for the first time in any measurable way since spring. NWS Bay Area tweeted that San Francisco International Airport set a record rainfall for Thursday, with 0.44 inches (1.1 centimeters) of rain tallied. The old record was 0.13 inches (0.3 centimeter) on the same day in 1970.

Rain and snow will continue soaking central and Northern California before spreading into Southern California on Monday.

The storms have helped contain some of the nation’s largest wildfires this year, including one that threatened the popular Lake Tahoe resort region this summer. That wildfire is now 100% contained after snow blanketed the western side of the blaze and rain dropped on the eastern side.

But this week’s storms won’t end drought that’s plaguing California and the western United States. California’s climate is hotter and drier now and that means the rain and snow that does fall is likely to evaporate or absorb into the soil.

California’s 2021 water year, which ended Sept. 30, was the second driest on record and last year’s was the fifth driest on record. Some of the state’s most important reservoirs are at record low levels. Things are so bad in Lake Mendocino that state officials say it could be dry by next summer.

Bend police officer charged with on-duty assault

For the Associated Press

BEND, Ore. (AP) — A Bend police officer is facing criminal charges after being accused of slamming a man’s head into the ground during an attempted arrest.

Bend Police Officer Kevin Uballez was charged Friday with fourth-degree assault and harassment, The Bulletin reported.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said in a news conference Friday that two other officers reported Uballez’s alleged conduct to supervisors.

“These officers put service to their community ahead of protection of a colleague,” Hummel said.

Uballez is a police dog handler hired by the department in 2014. It wasn’t immediately known if he has a lawyer to speak on his behalf.

The alleged incident happened around 1 a.m. June 6 after someone called 911 to report an intoxicated man running down NW Skyliners Road. Uballez reported that the man, Caleb Hamlin initially refused to comply with orders.

Hamlin, a Colville resident staying in Bend as a construction worker, eventually knelt as instructed, Hummel said.

According to Hummel, Uballez approached Hamlin to take him into custody and “grabbed him from the back and slammed his upper body forward, resulting in Hamlin’s face violently striking the pavement. The force of this blow significantly injured Hamlin’s nose.”

Hamlin was treated by paramedics.

The case was investigated by Oregon State Police. Uballez’s first court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 9.

Panel tackles issue of missing, slain Native Hawaiian women

By AUDREY McAVOY for the Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) — At first, he was just a boyfriend. He gave Ashley Maha’a gifts and attention. But then he gave her drugs and became controlling and abusive. He would punish her for breaking ambiguous, undefined “rules,” only to later say he was sorry and shower her with flowers and lavish presents.

After a while, he led the Honolulu high school senior — a 17-year-old minor — into Hawaii’s commercial sex trade.

“I shouldn’t be here with everything that was going on. I should be dead. And the majority of the people who are in my situation are missing or dead,” said Maha’a, who is Native Hawaiian.

Maha’a got out of that world years ago and is now a married mother of four. But it’s on her mind as she joins a new task force studying the issue of missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women and girls. She reminds herself of her plight every day so she can fight for others similarly trapped and vulnerable.

Ashley Maha’a sits in a park in Honolulu on June 22, 2021. “I’ve met so many people on the mainland, and so, so, so many of them have told me that when they were being trafficked nationally, they would be flown here for a period of time and work here when things were slow, because the demand is so high,” Maha’a says. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

The panel, created by the state House earlier this year, aims to gather data and identify the reasons behind the problem. As of now, few figures exist, but those that do suggest Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented among the state’s sex trafficking victims.

Its work comes amid renewed calls for people to pay more attention to missing and killed Indigenous women and girls and other people of color after the recent disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white woman, triggered widespread national media coverage and extensive searches by law enforcement. Petito’s body was later found in Wyoming.

Several states formed similar panels after a groundbreaking report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that of more than 5,700 cases of missing and slain Indigenous girls in dozens of U.S. cities in 2016, only 116 were logged in a Justice Department database.

Wyoming’s task force determined 710 Indigenous people disappeared there between 2011 and September 2020 and that Indigenous people made up 21% of homicide victims even though they are only 3% of the population. In Minnesota, a task force led to the creation of a dedicated office to provide ongoing attention and leadership on the issue.

The Urban Indian Health Institute’s report didn’t include data on Native Hawaiians because the organization is funded by the Indian Health Service, a U.S. agency that serves Native Americans and Alaska Natives but not Native Hawaiians. The Seattle institute didn’t have the resources to extend the study to Hawaii, Director Abigail Echo-Hawk said.

It’s not the first time Native Hawaiians have been sidelined in the broader national conversation. The federal government’s efforts to tackle the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women often focus on Native Americans and Alaska Natives — in part because it has authority over major crimes on most tribal lands, and Native Hawaiians don’t have such lands in the same sense as many other U.S. Indigenous communities. An Interior Department spokesman said it instead works to support and collaborate with state programs in the islands.

Yet Hawaii faces many of the same challenges as other states, including a lack of data on missing and murdered Indigenous women. The precise number of nationwide cases is unknown because many have gone unreported or have not been well-documented or tracked.

Public and private agencies don’t always collect statistics on race. And some data groups Native Hawaiians with other Pacific Islanders, making it impossible to identify the degree to which Hawaii’s Indigenous people are affected. About 20% of the state’s population is Native Hawaiian.

Its task force is being led by representatives from the Hawaii State Commission on the State of Women and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous state agency directed by Native Hawaiians. The panel also includes members from state agencies, county police departments and private organizations.

Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the commission and co-chairperson of the task force, suspects its work will show Hawaii’s large tourism industry and military presence fuel sex trafficking. Money to be made from these sectors gives people an incentive to take girls and women from their families, she said.

“It’s not like someone is kidnapped off the street. It’s that person is enticed and convinced to cut off their family if they’re a child, or a teenager,” Jabola-Carolus said.

Advocates for Native American and Alaska Native women and girls say sex trafficking affects them as well, particularly in areas with high populations of transitory male workers.

Maha’a said the extent of the commercial sex industry in Hawaii also is illustrated by the number of girls and women brought to the islands from other states.

“I’ve met so many people on the mainland, and so, so, so many of them have told me that when they were being trafficked nationally, they would be flown here for a period of time and work here when things were slow, because the demand is so high,” Maha’a said.

Advocates say a number of systemic issues contribute to the problem. Native Hawaiians have the highest poverty rate — 15.5% — of any of the five largest racial groups in Hawaii, which is also one of country’s the most expensive places to rent or own property.

The history of colonization has torn Native Hawaiians from their land, language and culture, similar to Indigenous communities in other states.

Rosemond Pettigrew, board president of Pouhana ’O Na Wahine, a grassroots collective of Native Hawaiian women advocating against domestic and sexual violence, said land is family, and not being connected to it severs Native Hawaiians from their past.

“When you separate yourself from what you know or what you believe, and you’re no longer on land, then you’re left where you don’t know where you come from and who you are, and your identity becomes lost,” she said.

Echo-Hawk, of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said Hawaii’s task force is “monumental” and necessary to understanding the full scope of the problem.

She suspects some of its biggest obstacles will be in getting cooperation from law enforcement agencies and not having dedicated funding. Lawmakers didn’t allocate the panel any money, so its members are relying on existing resources to do their research. The most successful state task forces had funding, Echo-Hawk said.

It will be important for the task force to recognize the problems are rooted in government policies, said Paula Julian, senior policy specialist with the Montana-based National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. The solutions for Native Hawaiians, meanwhile, must come from Native Hawaiians, she said.

Pettigrew said she’d like to see resources put into prevention. For example, Hawaii’s public schools could teach students about healthy relationships, starting as early as elementary grades. Lessons could address dating once students get to middle and high schools.

State Rep. Stacelynn Eli, a Native Hawaiian and a Democrat who sponsored the resolution creating the task force, said she has friends and classmates who were trafficked. She doesn’t want her nieces to face the same thing because no one knew enough to take action.

“We are surviving, and I would like to see our people get to a point where we are thriving. And I think we won’t get to that point until we know for sure that we are protecting our Native women and children and holding those who try to harm them accountable,” she said.

The panel is expected to produce reports for the Legislature by the end of 2022 and 2023.

Ship anchored near oil pipeline made unusual movements

By MICHAEL BIESECKER, STEFANIE DAZIO and MICHAEL BALSAMO for the Associated Press

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — A massive cargo ship made a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to a Southern California oil pipeline that ruptured and sent crude washing up on beaches, according to data collected by a marine navigation service.

The Rotterdam Express is seen at the Port of Oakland, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 in Oakland, Calif. The Rotterdam Express, a massive cargo ship made a series of unusual movements while anchored in the closest spot to a Southern California oil pipeline that ruptured and sent crude washing up on beaches, according to data collected by a marine navigation service. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

The Coast Guard is investigating whether a ship anchor might have snagged and bent the pipeline owned by Amplify Energy, a Houston-based company that operates three offshore oil platforms south of Los Angeles.

The Associated Press reviewed more than two weeks of data from MarineTraffic, a navigation service that tracks radio signals from transponders that broadcast the locations of ships and large boats every few minutes.

That data shows the Rotterdam Express, a German-flagged ship nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) long, was assigned to anchorage SF-3, the closest to where the pipeline ruptured off Huntington Beach. The ship made three unusual movements over two days that appear to put it over the pipeline.

In a statement to AP, Hapag-Lloyd, the shipping company that operates the Rotterdam Express, denied any role in the spill.

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A U.S. official told the AP on Wednesday that the Rotterdam Express has become a focus of the spill investigation. The official cautioned the ship is only one lead being pursued in the investigation, which is in the early stages.

The investigators are seeking to collect tracking and navigational information from the vessel that could help them identify its exact movements, the official said. They are also seeking preliminary interviews with at least some crew members.

The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesperson, declined to comment on the Rotterdam Express but said the agency is analyzing electric charting systems from its vessel traffic service to see what ships were anchored or moving over the spill area.

The MarineTraffic data shows the Rotterdam Express arrived outside the Port of Long Beach early on Sept. 22 and dropped anchor about 2,000 feet (610 meters) from the pipeline.

The following day, at about 5 p.m., the data for the ship’s locator beacon indicated that while anchored it suddenly moved thousands of feet to the southeast, a track that would have taken it over the pipeline lying on the seafloor about 100 feet (30 meters) below. The ship appears to have then engaged its engines to return to its anchorage about 10 minutes later.

The ship then moved again around midnight and a third time shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 23, each time moving back to its assigned anchorage, according to its online location data. The Rotterdam Express remained at spot SF-3 until Sunday, when it moved into the port to unload.

The first report of oil in the water near the pipeline were made Friday evening. Amplify said the pipeline was shut down early Saturday morning but has not said how long it believes oil flowed from it.

Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher said Tuesday divers determined a 4,000-feet (1,219-meter) section of the pipeline was dislodged 105 feet (32 meters), bent back like the string on a bow. Oil escaped through a slender crack.

The amount is unclear. Amplify has said publicly that no more than 126,000 gallons (476,962 liters) leaked but told federal investigators it may be only 29,400 gallons (111,291 liters).

AP first contacted Hapag-Lloyd on Tuesday evening, seeking an explanation for the ship’s movements on Sept. 22 and 23.

Nils Haupt, a spokesman at its headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, denied in an email Wednesday that the ship ever moved off anchor from spot SF-3 during that period. He said the transponder data displayed by MarineTraffic is erroneous.

“We have proof by the logbook, which is updated hourly, that the vessel did not move,” Haupt said. “MarineTraffic in this case is wrong and the position is indeed incorrect.”

Haupt said Hapag-Lloyd would cooperate with any investigation.

On Wednesday morning, AP sent an email that included a screenshot of the Rotterdam Express movements as indicated on MarineTraffic to the Unified Command Joint Information Center for state and federal agencies responding to the oil spill. Senior Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said the command was unable to discuss matters involving an ongoing investigation.

Nikolas Xiros, a professor of marine engineering at the University of New Orleans, said it would be highly unlikely that the transponder data for a ship, which works through a global network called the Automatic Identification System, would be off by several thousand feet.

“AIS transporters are very accurate and the whole system is also very accurate,” Xiros said after reviewing the location track for Rotterdam Express. “I think probably the ship moved, that’s what I think. And with the anchor down, which was a big problem.”

Xiros, who has spent more than two decades teaching marine navigation and electronics to future ship captains and crew, said the only alternative explanation he could think of was that either someone had hacked the AIS system to make the Rotterdam Express appear to move or that the ship’s transmitter somehow became unfastened from its mast, fell in the water and drifted away before being retrieved by the crew, only to have it come unfastened two more times.

Xiros said he could provide no reasonable explanation for why the ship might have moved so far off its assigned station. Records show relatively calm weather and seas during the days in question.

“There is a series of peculiar things and all that need to be explained,” Xiros said. “It may very well be some kind of an accident, but not necessarily a human error. We will have to see. But … I think he most probable explanation is the ship with anchor down moved both back and forth and possibly caused damage to the pipeline.”

If a ship’s anchor were to become entangled with an underwater obstacle such as a communications cable or petroleum pipeline, the operator is required by federal law to notify the Coast Guard. The locations and movements of ships are also regularly monitored by both the AIS system and radar, according to the Coast Guard.

Xiros said if he were investigating the cause of the oil spill, he would seek to review the digital logs for both location and engine operations aboard the Rotterdam Express.

According to MarineTraffic data, the ship left Long Beach on Monday for the Port of Oakland, where it was moored at a dock Wednesday night.

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Associated Press writer Michael Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Strong earthquake in southwest Pakistan kills at least 20

By KATHY GANNON and ABDUL SATTAR for the Associated Press

QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A powerful earthquake collapsed at least one coal mine and dozens of mud houses in southwest Pakistan early Thursday, killing at least 20 people and injuring more than 200, an official said.

The death toll was expected to rise even further as crews searched in the remote mountainous area, said Suhail Anwar Shaheen, the local deputy commissioner.

At least four of the dead were killed when the coal mine in which they were working collapsed, said Shaheen, citing coal miners in the area. As many as 100 homes also collapsed, burying sleeping residents inside.

A local resident looks his damaged house following a severe earthquake hit the area, in Harnai, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Quetta, Pakistan, Thursday, Pakistan. A powerful earthquake shook parts of southwestern Pakistan early Thursday. (AP Photo)

The epicenter of the 5.9 magnitude quake was about 15 kilometers (9 miles) north-northeast of Harnai in Baluchistan province, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The initial measurement of the quake’s strength was 5.7 magnitude. It struck about 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) below the Earth’s surface; shallower quakes tend to cause more damage.

The area, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Quetta, the provincial capital, is dotted with coal mines, which has Shaheen worried the death toll could rise. It struck in the early morning while scores of miners were already at work, he said.

Pakistan’s military was deployed to the earthquake area to airlift dozens of injured from mountain peaks. At least nine critically injured people were taken to the provincial hospital in Quetta. Search and rescue teams have arrived in the mountains, an army statement said.

Concern has grown about scores of coal miners who might be trapped. Homes lay in heaps of mud and straw. Residents of small mountain villages were seen wandering stunned among the rubble.

“Women, children, everyone, was running here and there,” said resident Ghulam Khan. “We were scared and we didn’t know what to do.”

Ambulances soon arrived to transport the injured to the hospital in Harnai.

Doctors treated patients outside the hospital as 4.6 magnitude aftershocks continued into the morning hours. Children with bloodied bandages were in stretchers outside the hospital as ambulances brought more wounded.

“So far we have treated more than 200 casualties,” said Manzoor Ahmed, medical superintendent of the Harnai district hospital. The small rural facility has been taxed to the limit, he said. As many as 15 bodies were brought there.

Most of the population in the area live in sunbaked mud houses, many of which collapsed. Rescue efforts were underway, but Shaheen said it would take hours just to reach many of the hardest-hit areas.

Witnesses in the area said residents were wrapped in blankets against the cold, sitting on the side of the road waiting for the aftershocks to subside and for help to arrive.

The area is remote and already the autumn nighttime temperatures are chilly.

Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan lies on a seismically active region, according to the provincial disaster management authority. The worst earthquake, in 1935, destroyed the provincial capital of Baluchistan and killed more than 35,000 people. Since then, scores of earthquakes have rattled the province, Pakistan’s least populated, with just 12 million people.

Pakistan is a nation of 220 million people, 60 percent of whom live in the country’s eastern Punjab province.

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Gannon reported from Islamabad.

Explosive souvenir in rucksack prompts German airport alert

From the Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — A 28-year-old man in Germany faces a hefty bill after trying to catch a flight at Munich airport Thursday with a live mortar shell in his rucksack.

German news agency dpa reported Friday that the explosive device was discovered during a security check, prompting an immediate lockdown of parts of the airport.

The man told police that he had found the shell during a hiking trip in Switzerland and forgotten it was in his bag. Specialists were able to safely remove the live ammunition and destroy it.

The man is likely to face criminal charges for breaching aviation safety and explosives laws, and will have to pay for the cost of the police operation. It was unclear whether the operators of Munich airport, Germany’s second biggest, will also sue the man for damages, dpa reported.

COVID vaccine mandate takes effect for NYC teachers, staff

By KAREN MATTHEWS for the Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A COVID-19 vaccination requirement for teachers and other staff members took effect in New York City’s sprawling public school system Monday in a key test of the employee vaccination mandates now being rolled out across the country.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said 95% of the city’s roughly 148,000 public school staffers had received at least one vaccine dose as of Monday morning, including 96% of teachers and 99% of principals.